Why are the main characters in anime and manga almost always young? This is a question that is commonly brought up among many overseas fans of anime and manga.
This is actually a trick question–If you look at the wide breadth of material from Japan, it won’t take for you to notice that there is actually a huge amount of material that revolves around characters that are adults. But the perception that anime and manga revolves around youth is something that needs to be examined carefully, as this is an enduring stereotype.
It is my belief that many in the West have a hard time appreciating and understanding the Japanese preoccupation with school day youth in fiction. While it may not dominate the media landscape as some would believe, the fixation is there and it is widespread.
I was born and raised in Japan. I only went to Japanese public school for three years but I lived in Japan through-out the 1970s to the 1980s. I have many Japanese friends and I spent a lot of time with them. I would like to think that I have a relatively good understanding of the cultural attitudes that are shared by many in Japan.
As such, I would argue that, for many Japanese people, life during the youth school days hold a uniqueness spot—One unrivaled as one full of potential and agency.
This isn’t to say there are other aspects involved here, but for many of us in Japan, people romanticize life between grades 7~12 as days when you have more agency over yourself than any other stage in your life, or the potential to have agency seems more pronounced.
Japan is a society where social pressures are very powerful. Conformity and peer pressure can be very oppressive. It is a lot hard to imagine how an adult person my cast aside their family and society obligations to pursue something extraordinary. This is the case in school as well, but youthful transgression allows many to fantasize about how they might do thing differently if they were given the opportunity. Many feel their lives are severely constrained but people romanticize about the school days as when you “could” break from the system due to your youth.
The (Western) ideal of an independent, self-sufficient individual is not unknown in Japan. But for many Japanese, we are constantly reminded of our affiliation with various different organizations (employment) or roles (gender, parental, etc.)
Let us assume there was a Japanese anime revolving around a giant robot show with Japanese characters set in contemporary Japan. If the main character is a professional pilot, then we tend to ascribe the worth of the individual based on their affiliation with the professional career, not on their personal merits. The personal merits are important, as those are the things that allowed the person to hold the position he or she holds, but trust worthiness and social reputation is usually closely associate with the successes that come about from teamwork and working within the system.
Let’s now make the main character be a young male or female, and then their ability to pilot the giant robot seems more special, more unique to their own personal attributes. It also makes it easier to have a story where the main character is in a moral dilemma. A mature, professional pilot facing a difficult moral situation is certainly worthy to be a good story, to be sure, but some in Japan would find it too realistic and the sense of wonder would be diminished. It’s harder for many Japanese to entertain the idea of a mature, righteous person fighting the system.
This is not to say there are no stories like that–I can think of many many anime and manga titles that revolve around mature characters fighting the system. But many of these anime and manga titles rarely see the time of day outside of Japan.
Therefore, I would have to counter the argument that “anime and manga only features young, cute characters” needs to be qualified much better. Yes, anime and manga does feature a lot of adolescents, but that’s more about which titles are being translated and released overseas.
Finally, I would also like to note that the Japanese perception regarding youth and agency is culturally rooted, but does not preclude enjoyment from mature, independent minded characters–A lot of Hollywood movies with more mature character are popular in Japan.
Many Western narratives hold a unique position within the hearts and minds of the Japanese audience, in my humble opinion. Because the stories and characters are grounded in localities outside of Japan, audiences do not project as strong Japanese social expectations upon them.
It may seem strange for some Westerners that the Japanese have different sets of expectations regarding agency, self-determination and moral guidelines. But this is not something uniquely Japanese. People’s expectations and perceptions are dependent on the setting/actors involved.
Talking about expectations, value systems, morality, and “individuality” is very interesting but needs to be reserved for a different occasion. It would nice if I can find the chance to take up that subject in a later blog entry.
(This blog is based on a thread of observations and analysis I conducted on Twitter in Janurary of 2022.)