Anthropomorphism

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Sadashige Aoki

    Main guest

    Sadashige Aoki is a professor of advertising theory at Hosei University. Aoki’s time with a marketing firm inspired him to delve into the impact that anthropomorphic and other fictional characters have on society, and he has published many writings on the subject.

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August 22, 2017

Anthropomorphism

*You will leave the NHK website.

Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in Japan will be familiar with the theme of this edition of Japanology Plus: anthropomorphism. Inanimate objects and creatures behaving like people are everywhere you look in this country—including NHK, home of Domo-kun, a (somewhat) anthropomorphized television set.

Expert guest Professor Sadashige Aoki considers various attributes of Japanese culture that may have contributed to the widespread adoption of anthropomorphism in everyday life, including a Japanese tendency to process impressions in a “right-brain” way, which he believes may be linked to a polytheistic outlook. He also cites aspects of growing up that may be specific to Japan.

Host Peter Barakan, who admits that he doesn’t really “get” Japan’s attachment to anthropomorphism, struggles to accept the appropriateness of Pipo-kun, a cute character who represents the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. But whether he likes them or not, Japanese characters are clearly here to stay. 

On billboards, on flyers, in TV commercials, in fact in just about every form of visual communication in Japan you will find inanimate objects and an entire menagerie of animals and animal-like creatures behaving as if they were human beings.

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NHK too makes use of anthropomorphism. These characters are being used to promote textbooks.

Of course, you don’t have to look far in Western cartoons and animation to see human attributes assigned to mice, ducks, fish, dogs, trains, clocks, teapots, etc. Anthropomorphism has been around in many cultures for a very long time. One reason why an old example such as Aesop’s fables are so memorable is that they showcase human-like behavior in things that are not human. Ants probably don’t regard themselves as working hard, while grasshoppers probably don’t imagine that they’re taking things easy when they “sing.” In real life, the sun and the north wind don’t actually compete with each other, and neither do hares and tortoises.

One point of these stories is to draw a child’s attention to characteristics that are regarded as desirable among “good” members of society. This can be seen in Japanese characters, too: some may be admirable, such as a bun filled with bean paste who is one of Japan’s best-loved fictional heroes, while others may embody naughtiness, including a bacterium who is the nemesis of the bean paste bun.

In Japan, something that countless instances of anthropomorphism seem to have in common is a desire to draw your attention. They’re all about making you look. Once your attention is engaged, communication can begin. Depending on the objective, these anthropomorphic communications may be thoughtful, helpful, serious or entertaining, while also appealing to your inner child.

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Akiba-tan is the anthropomorphized face of a shop. She even interacts with customers via social media.

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Few things are more serious in a democracy than elections, and this character is used to encourage voters in Yokohama to go the polls.

For example, imagine you’re working for a Japanese airline and have been asked to find a way to communicate the value of using the airline’s self-service check-in counter at the airport. The airline’s goal is to reduce pressure on check-in staff. For the air traveler, the key advantage of using self-service is completing check-in more quickly.

You could use a written description to convey that speed advantage, but writing is not always an efficient or effective way to engage attention, even when big, bold letters and clever words are used. How about a photograph? But should it be a photograph of a man or a woman? So let’s choose an animal. What animal do people associate with speed? A cheetah, maybe, but that could be a bit difficult to use as a character.

The image of “a traveler approaching check-in at an airport” that was actually adopted in the Japanese airline materials that this writer recently saw was neutral with regard to gender, ethnicity and age, and provided a neat twist on an old tale familiar to young and old throughout the world. It was a very long-eared hare, at last getting revenge on the tortoise by beating it through the check-in procedure.

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Once a character is established, sales of related merchandise can prove to be very valuable.

*You will leave the NHK website.