2D Characters: Origins and Evolution

  • 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 29, 2017

2D Characters: Origins and Evolution

*You will leave the NHK website.

With cute characters representing everything from electronics stores to local municipalities to police departments, anthropomorphism is everywhere you look in Japan. A recent edition of Japanology Plus took a look at some of the country's most eye-catching 2D characters, but the question remained—what are the origins of Japan's love affair with anthropomorphism? Once again, host Peter Barakan is joined by Sadashige Aoki, an expert on all things anthropomorphic, for a wide-ranging discussion on where this trend comes from and where it goes from here.

According to Aoki, Japan's anthropomorphic tendencies can be traced back over a millennium, to the country's oldest extant book, Kojiki. Dating back 1,300 years, Kojiki and Nihon Shoki (completed a little later) lay out many of Japan's origin myths. Aoki argues that these chronicles, which feature references to many deities and spirits, are an essential piece of the anthropomorphic puzzle: in short, a culture grounded in the worship of multiple supernatural entities is primed to embrace a multitude of modern-day characters.

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Some of the many kami introduced in Kojiki, including the sun deity Amaterasu.

Within the Shinto outlook that evolved in Japan, a "kami," or spirit, came to be regarded as dwelling within virtually everything. In modern times, that would include the character items owned by millions of Japanese—children and adults alike. Walk around any Japanese city and you'll see grown men and women whose bags and cell phones are unabashedly adorned with toys and trinkets representing their favorite characters. As we see in the program, these spirit-imbued goods can help their owners deal with the stress of a hard day and even, in some cases, serve as a kind of surrogate child.

Is this appropriate behavior in a grown person? In a Western context, quite possibly not. But Aoki points out that Japan has traditionally put less emphasis on distinctions between adults and children. In addition, one wonders whether Japan is truly unique in this adult-child blend. In the West, after all, the highest-grossing films of the day are based on comic books, the average video gamer is well over 30 and, like Japan, young people are getting married and having children later in life—if at all. One reason that's been cited in the United States for this delay in "growing up" is the financial crisis of the late '00s, which left many millennials without the financial stability to consider marriage or home ownership. Here, too, the parallels to Japan, with its economic "lost decade," are not hard to find. In the face of all this economic turmoil, who wouldn't want a cuddly character to squeeze?

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Apart from surrogate children, characters sometimes seem to function as surrogate girlfriends.

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In Plus One, Matt Alt encounters yokai, some of Japan's least squeezable characters.

But while these 2D characters can be a source of comfort, they can also serve to inspire. In the program, we meet several people—from yokai model builders to "sexy" character illustrators to composers using "idol" music software to create new tunes—who use their love of characters to do interesting creative work. The character industry in Japan is reportedly worth over 2 trillion yen a year, but it would be unfair to say this embrace of characters is simply about consumption—there's clearly a creative back-and-forth between creators and fans, many of whom become creators in their own right. This push and pull between producers and consumers may be another arena in which Japan is in the vanguard.

From the country's mythical origins to its latest high-tech virtual idols, if this edition of Japanology Plus proves anything, it's that Japan's anthropomorphic character culture isn't going anywhere—except, perhaps, beyond its borders.

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Diverse illustrators are constantly adding to a kaleidoscopic assortment of original characters.

*You will leave the NHK website.