For most people who get hooked on anime, the country of Japan has been an abstract concept. It’s the place where your car was made. Perhaps also your TV and laptop. For a long time near the end of the 20th century, to paraphrase Marty McFly, all the best stuff was made in Japan.

Today Japan is still one of the largest economies in the world, although it isn’t quite as dominating as it once was. South Korea and China are both comparable in the impact they have on the world in terms of technology and business. Yet the cultural influence of Japan on the rest of Asia and now on the Western world is undeniable. Modern Japan is compelling to large swathes of people all over the world. Anime exposes many people to Japanese culture in a way that gets them hooked. But what is it about this tiny island nation that gives it such an oversized cultural impact? No one is ever going to have an exact answer, but there are some things about Japan that might make it a little more obvious.

japan garden park

Japan Was Isolationist

For almost three centuries Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world. This is known as the “sakoku” or “closed country” policy; something enforced by the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Edo period. Japan still had contact with some foreign nations, but the terms and rules were very strict. The powers that be did not want foreign ideas and values (such as Christianity) “polluting” Japan. The Dutch were one of the few European nations who maintained ties with Japan during this time. Interestingly enough, there are still many signs of Dutch influence on the Japanese today, not least of which are replicas of Dutch windmills and clothing in Japan.

It’s during this time that many of the most unique cultural elements of Japan were either solidified or came to be. Shielded from most external influences, Japan really became it’s own thing. After Japan was eventually opened to the rest of the world by Commodore Matthew Perry (no, obviously not THAT Matthew Perry) the Dutch kept their good relations with Japan, even helping them modernize their navy.

Japan was Hungry for External Cultural Influences

After their isolation ended and the Tokugawa Shogunate came to an end, it was Emperor Meiji who pushed for Japan to rapidly become a modern nation. This is the age where the samurai had to give up their swords. Swords were banned, in fact. The age of the gun, the steam train, electricity, and other trappings of modern Western life were grabbed with both hands.

Emperor Meiji also sent out envoys to learn about things like schooling, military doctrine, and administration. The modern school system and the traditional public school clothing are left over from copying elements of Western school systems. The Iwakura diplomatic mission sent by the emperor visited countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Prussia, Denmark, and many more.

As you can plainly see today, Japan didn’t really copy so much as adapt and absorb foreign influences. That’s a big part of the nation’s uniqueness.

They are The Only Nation to Suffer a Nuclear Attack

If you somehow don’t know, two nuclear bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. This lead directly to the surrender of Japan to the Allied forces and finally ended the conflict that had raged for years.

The actual bombs, which were both essentially prototypes, might not have done as much actual damage as more conventional weapons such as fire bombs dropped on paper cities. Their psychological impact was arguably much greater. Not only did Japan surrender to the Allies, they basically outlawed war. The modern constitution of Japan only allows for a self-defense force; hence, the modern JSDF. There is no provision for attack – only defense.

You can still see the aftershocks of being attacked with nuclear weapons in the Japanese arts, including anime. There are often stories with strong anti-war sentiments, and the Japanese approach to conflict in stories can be much more nuanced than you’ll see on U.S. TV. This is yet another factor that makes the Japanese an enigmatic and unique human culture.

tokyo japan

They are an Economic Miracle

While the efforts of the government under Emperor Meiji went a long way to modernizing and industrializing Japan, they were hardly an economic superpower at the time. All of this changed after the end of WWII. With aid from the U.S. and their energies entirely focused on rebuilding Japan, this nation quickly became the second-largest economy in the world. This started flattening out in the 1990s, but Japan remains one of the world’s leaders in technology.

The Japanese have a strongly collectivist culture, unlike Westerners who mostly belong to cultures that emphasize the individual. I really believe this is one of the reasons that Japan was able to pull off such an amazing revolution. Everyone pulled together. Companies and government worked together for the greater good. People during this time had to put up with a lot of hardship and sacrifice, knowing full-well that it was their own children who would benefit most. Few if any other countries are comparable, although South Korea is probably the closest example today.

Japan has No Personal Space

The country of Japan consists of a chain of islands, with four major ones hosting almost all of the population. Over 70% of the country is mountain, which means that people can only really live in the valleys between them. To put things in perspective, Japan is about as big as California but has 127 million inhabitants. California only has 39 million people, and they don’t have access to only 30% of their surface area!

Basically, there is no personal space in Japan. People have simply formed a culture where you deal with being squeezed in with a bunch of other people all the time. Urban Japanese living spaces are miniscule. People live in one-room apartments. That means one space has to be a bedroom, kitchen, living room, and bathroom.

Believe me, they have found many ingenious ways to maximize their spaces. No doubt the invention of the flat-screen television was celebrated widely in Japan. And they make some of the best vehicles in the world.

machine japan

Japan is Incredibly Advanced

I’ve always said that if you want to know what the world will look like ten years from now then just look at Japan today. It’s not quite that true anymore in this globalized world, but its level of technology is still pretty amazing.

This is a country that’s at the forefront of robotics. They were one of the first countries to put maglev trains into commercial service. The CRISPR gene-editing technology is a Japanese invention. Statins? Japanese. Blue LEDs? CD Players? Lithium Batteries? The list is LONG.

Yet They Can Be Anachronistic

Japan is one of the only countries in the world where dumb-phones are still popular. Flip-phones? Yeah, they love those too. Fax machines are museum pieces in the rest of the world, but in Japan they are still essential to have. A lot of this is down to how slow the change and decision making is in Japanese companies. It is a fascinating dichotomy.

They Have Unique Social Problems

Japan is one example of what happens when your country gets to the pinnacle of first-world development. Japanese birth-rates are negative. The population is aging. This is a country that has to seriously consider using robots as nurses and shopkeepers because there simply aren’t enough people to go around.

Japan is also pretty xenophobic in general. If you are not of the Japanese ethnicity you are almost certainly not going to become a Japanese citizen. Even people born in Japan aren’t considered Japanese citizens unless they have the “right” ancestry. They have to carry around “gaijin” or “foreigner” cards despite Japan being the only country they have ever known. This attitude towards immigration means that they can’t get fresh blood to help with the aforementioned problems. On the bright side, there should be more room once enough people have passed on without ever having children.

Add to this a work and school culture that emphasizes excellence but at the cost of extreme stress, and you also get some weird glitches in the system. For example, the hikikomori – people who completely withdraw from society. So far, this is almost exclusively a Japanese mental disorder.

But Wait, There’s More

Honestly, this article could go on for just as many pages as there have been written about this country in books. For the new anime fan I just want to make it clear that your entertainment comes from a country that’s unlike almost any other in the modern world. The freshness and appeal of a lot of anime is significantly the result of this. You don’t have to be a Japanophile to appreciate anime or manga. It does help a lot to know something about the people who make the art we love.

Sharing is caring!