Thanks to globalization most of any given anime is perfectly understandable to a Western audience without any need for localization. However, anime is still the product of a non-Western culture, created for local consumption. This means that many of the references are foreign to newcomers and will leave many viewers confused or even put off completely.

Fansubbers, who are unofficial translators, have always made an effort to include cultural notes where needed. Official subtitlers have copied this approach to one degree or another as well. So, often there will be a short explanation in line with the story. If you like to watch dubbed anime instead of reading subtitles you might also find that some cultural references are swapped out for ones US audiences will understand. Good localization won’t hurt a story much, but it does take away that unique cultural flavor sometimes.

Either way, in this article I’m going to pull together some of the most common Japan-specific cultural elements that crop up in anime time and time again. It’s impossible to convert everything and even after almost two decades of watching this stuff, I still discover new things myself! So think of this as a basic crash course in the Japanese weirdness which makes anime so refreshing.

business etiquette


Right from the start you’re going to run into the issue of Japanese honorifics. These are often so integral to understand the story that they are included in English subtitles. An honorific is (usually) a suffix added to the name of another person which indicates their relative social status to the speaker. If you understand what the various honorifics mean then you can instantly understand the relationship between two people and even how their relationship changes over the course of the story.

No Honorific

You rarely hear one person refer to another using only their name without any honorific in Japanese. This sort of familiarity is reserved for very close childhood friends, lovers, close family, and spouses. A mother might address her own child by name, although the reverse would be very rude. A lack of honorifics is therefore a relatively rare exception to the rule. When one character tells another that they can drop the honorifics it is a significant statement.


The “san” honorific is hands down the most common and represents a level of politeness appropriate for people of equal status or whose status you don’t know immediately. In English the closest equivalent is “mister” or “miss”. This honorific says nothing about the gender or marital status of the person it is applied to though, so there really isn’t a perfect translation of it.

To Western audiences it can seem strange that friends will use the honorific with each other, but it’s just a natural part of the language.


This honorific has the same function as -san, but indicates the highest level of respect for the other person. Traditionally reserved for royalty and god, today it is also used for someone who has high status because of fame or other valued qualities.

In anime this is the honorific you’ll hear people use when referring to their superiors, masters, lords and so on. It’s also used sarcastically in some context, when the implication is that the person doesn’t deserve any respect at all.

-chan and -kun

You’ll hear these honorifics quite a lot when watching anime. Unlike the above honorifics, chan and kun are the gendered version of the same honorific. It’s an endearment reserved for children or others we’re close to. Both of these honorifics are mainly used when speaking to children. However, they can be used for people of all ages we are fond of.

“Chan” is the female variant and “kun” the male variant. Elderly characters might use these honorifics to refer to young adults. It may even be used between characters of the same age. It’s pretty common for female high school characters to refer to their male peers with the -kun honorific, for example.

Japan tea ceremony

The O-Prefix

This is the only honorific to go at the start of someone’s title. Okasan, for example, is a very polite way to address your mother. In more informal situations one would simply say “ka-san”. Think of okasan as being like “mother” and ka-san as something closer to “mom”.

The same pattern follows for “one-san” which means “older sister” or “Ojii-san” which means “grandfather”. Interestingly, you’ll hear people use these familial titles for people who are not blood relatives. A younger child might refer to any older female not yet married or elderly as “nee-san”. Any elderly man may be “jii-san” or “gramps”. Familial honorifics can be a little confusing at first, but thanks to their central place in most story dialogue it’s important to understand them.


The -dono honorific is basically the same as san/sama, but is an archaic form. In other words, basically no one actually talks this way, but you’ll hear it a lot in shows like Rurouni Kenshin. Basically anywhere you have a samurai character they tend to talk this way. It makes you sound like an old-timey knight, if you need a cultural comparison.

Japanese Schools

A lot of good anime is set in schools. The Japanese school system was more or less poached from the Prussian school system. This is why students appear to wear naval uniforms, since that was also the inspiration behind Prussian uniforms. Well, there’s some dispute there; the official Japanese account is that they are based on Japanese naval uniforms during the Meiji Restoration. Either way, European dress had a major effect on the entire Japanese school system thanks to Imperial reforms aimed at modernizing Japan at that time.

Western viewers might also be surprised as to how much time students put in at their schools. Students typically report for homeroom at 8:30 with classes ending at 15:00 for high schoolers. Then there are club activities to follow with students taking part in a diverse range of activities that include sports and arts. So it’s not weird for students to head home in the evenings with homework still to follow! On top of this, school maintenance such as cleaning and taking out the trash is the duty of students. Before 2002 Japanese students had school from Monday to Saturday! It’s no wonder as a nation the Japanese are known for a brutal work ethic. This also explains why so much anime that deals with characters who are adolescent in a contemporary setting mostly happen in schools. After all, that’s where you’d expect such people to be at that point in their lives.

japanese school


As you can tell from their schooling habits, the Japanese tend to have a rather insane work ethic – at least by Western standards. That doesn’t mean they are a people who don’t know how to let loose. In plenty of contemporary and historical anime you’ll run into the concept of the “matsuri” or “festival”. There are many national matsuri in Japan. Obvious ones are the New Year matsuri, but there are plenty more esoteric ones. For example, the doll festival is dedicated to prayer for the nation’s girls; to ward off evil spirits and ensure happiness for the girls of Japan. Tanabata is a festival stemming from a Chinese legend about star-crossed lovers. Japanese people write their romantic wishes on special pieces of paper during this festival, with the hope they’ll come true. Tanabata is a little like St. Valentine’s day in the West, although many Japanese now also celebrate Valentine’s day in their own unique way as well. Japanese Valentine’s Day puts the obligation on women to present men with chocolate. There’s non-romantic “giri”, chocolate which is given to male friends, bosses, and co-workers. Then there’s the (often homemade) “honmei” chocolate which is specifically meant for romantic use.

You’ll encounter many matsuri as you watch anime in various genres, each one with a specific meaning and celebrated in various ways.


Many anime plots gleefully mine Western mythology for reuse in creative and surprising ways. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of mythical stories to draw upon from Japanese folklore.

An important source of fantastical creatures are Japanese “Yokai”. This is the collective name for the many supernatural monsters, ghosts, and other creatures that come from various Eastern religious and spiritual influences. Japan has a strongly-animist view of the world. Or at least this has historically been the case. In other words, they attribute souls to inanimate objects such as machines as well as plants and non-human animals. Many Yokai are inanimate objects that have been mistreated or neglected. They manifest as, for example, umbrella monsters or other twisted apparitions.

Some Yokai are animals that can transform into humans. Fox Yokai are often beautiful men or women who are actually foxes, but appear as humans for various forms of mischief. Sometimes Yokai will help too. Demonic or divine creatures such as the bird-like Tengu are also a type of Yokai. Just about any supernatural creature would count. Yokai feature heavily in many fantasy anime. In Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko we see how a community of Tanuki or “raccoon dogs” use their yokai magic to transform into humans. In the Fox Spirit Matchmaker female fox spirits work to reunite reincarnated humans with their immortal Yokai lovers. There are hundreds of examples where Yokai are key plot points in anime and manga.

boy walking home

Independent Kids

Japan is a society of conformity and collective responsibility. One of the side effects of this is that children are encouraged to be very independent at a young age. Children as young as 3-5 might be sent down to the local shop to run an errand. It’s normal for children only 10 years old to use public transport by themselves. How is this even possible? Because the Japanese are taught from birth that they can lean on any other Japanese for assistance. If they get lost or need help with something it just takes a polite request to whomever is in sight.

It also helps that modern Japan has very low crime rates by international standards, although that might also have something to do with dodgy police reporting practices. Still, in anime this can manifest as children of a very young age who seem to do things beyond their years, such as walk to school alone when a Westerner would never dream of letting their own kids do anything of the sort at that age.


It’s perhaps one of the defining features of anime and manga, but the concept of “kawaii” or cuteness is one that touches Japanese society as a whole. You’ll see cute decorations and characters on company materials, government signage, and everywhere else. The love of kawaii has been around at least since the late 1800s and some kawaii products, such as Hello Kitty, have become international sensations.

Even more serious anime might have elements of kawaii in it. “Chibi” or “super-deformed” segments are common, where cute cartoon versions of characters have more comedic moments. There may also be “omake” or “bonus” scenes after an episode where characters do skits in chibi form. Kawaii is also around in less obvious form. Cute girls or boys who wear costumes are an expression of kawaii. “Idols”, maid costumes, gothic Lolita, and many other very Japanese subcultural leanings are in some way linked to kawaii.

Kawaii elements in Japanese media can be annoying to people who are getting into the medium, but there are plenty of titles devoid of kawaii elements; even for those who do have it, most fans either do end up liking and appreciating it, or just become blind to it. One way or another there’s little chance that the culture of kawaii will go anywhere soon. In fact, with the spread and influence of Japanese culture becoming more explicit, we’re seeing kawaii-ness popping up in other Asian countries and even in the West.

Fan Service

Fan-service is another part of anime that’s a uniquely-Japanese phenomenon. Anything that’s added to the material that’s not there to serve the story but specifically to give the viewer pleasure, is fan service.

What counts as “fan service” is pretty complex. The most obvious form of fan service is the tendency to depict characters in an overly sexualzied way. For example, in shows that are aimed mainly at a male audience you might get “panty-shots”. That is, glimpses of a female character’s underwear. Likewise normal movements of characters might come with gratuitous jiggling. Shots may linger on the chest, crotch, or behind. Many mainstream anime will have what’s become known as the “swimsuit episode”. The various forms of sexual fan service in anime has come under severe criticism, mainly from Westerners. Regardless of how you feel about the sexual forms of fan service, it goes far beyond that.

Let’s looks at mecha anime such as the Gundam franchise. Gundam fans don’t just want a good story, they want epic mecha battles. They want to linger on the beauty and coolness of a given mecha’s design. When you see a special segment in an episode that shows a mech transforming or doing a special attack, that’s fan service.

Obviously ALL popular media in the world has fan service to one extent or another. The first “The Fast and the Furious” film was pure car pornography. The difference is that the Japanese have essentially made fan service a part of the anime medium.

anime nerd

Being an “Otaku”

You might already have heard the word “otaku” thrown around in the anime and manga world, but even within anime it’s a concept you’ll run into often. The closest translation in English is “nerd” or “geek”, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. The word describes a person who has an obsessive interest in a particular topic. So you could be an idol-otaku, a military-otaku, and so on. The market impact of otaku in Japan is in the billions of dollars as it’s become a more mainstream lifestyle.

In the West it’s become a descriptor of people who are really into anime, manga, and Japanese video games. The term has been adopted by Western fans and doesn’t carry the same stigma and derogatory meaning as it does in Japan. Even in Japan otaku life has become much more mainstream. Just as nerdy media now dominates the mainstream in the West, otaku life is now cross-gender and out in the open in Japan.

Only the Beginning

There’s a mountain of stuff that I simply could not include here. Although anime only gives us a view of Japanese culture through a particular lens, it’s almost impossible to really understand some of the plotlines or themes without some external knowledge of the Japanese people.

The cultural issues I mention are important for anime viewers because they crop up so much, but of course it’s just a shallow scoop of a rich and long national cultural history. It’s far too easy for Western anime fans to build up a distorted version of Japan based on their consumption of its popular media. In the same way that non-American audiences might build up a very simplistic idea of what life in America is like, so it is for anime and manga.

If you think about it, anime is meant to be an escape for Japanese people from the reality of their daily lives. So it’s actually strange to expect it to be representative. Still, there’s always a kernel of truth in fiction. Hopefully this little crash course helps smooth out the initial culture shock of consuming media meant for another culture entirely.

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