Anthropomorphism, or “the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object” (Oxford Dictionary), is a cultural phenomenon that can be observed throughout history all around the world. The Old Egyptians depicted their gods as animals, Aesop set the trend of moralizing animal fables and several Native North American tribes’ share the tradition of totemism. Japan as well, has a rich history of anthropomorphism, gijinka (擬人化) or gijinhō (擬人法) in Japanese.
It is remarkable, however, to what extent anthropomorphic objects and animals are integrated into Japanese society. Due to their enormous popularity, everyday life in Japan cannot be imagined without these “mascots” and other forms of anthropomorphism. Take for example the cute mascots every company and institution creates to sell products or promote services. Because a mascot should represent the best qualities of the product its company has to offer, it has to be unique, eye-catching and above all, kawaii (cute 可愛い). For example, the mascot of Sato Pharmaceutical is an elephant, because in Japanese culture this animal symbolizes a long life. Another example is the mascot of my university here in Japan, Kobe University. The main campus is situated on Mount Rokko, where you can often spot wild boars (I met one once! And fled.) and the University is therefore represented by a wild boar piglet (uribō 瓜坊).
Without doubt, these kind of mascots would be considered childish and highly unprofessional in the West. In Japan, on the contrary, not having a mascot would be like a huge missed sales or advertising opportunity. Mascots are a way of familiarizing the public with a certain product, company or service. Because of their cuteness, human characteristics and approachability, people will feel an emotional connection with these mascots. Not only animals, but also lifeless objects and even concepts are strategically transformed into huggable human-like creatures and given cute names, referring to what they stand for. The local public transport in Japan is often represented by an anthropomorphic vehicle, for example. Even prefectures have their own mascot, resembling a specific historic or cultural aspect of the prefecture in question. Also, institutions who should be taken very serious, like the police or the government, rely on mascots to appeal to Japanese people of every age. For example, the introduction of the new jury system to the public in Japan, is smoothed by the appearance of Saiban’inko the parakeet (saiban’in 裁判員 means lay judge; inko インコis Japanese for parakeet). Japanese Minister of Justice once made an appearance on TV wearing a Saiban’inko costume to promote the new system of trial by jury.
This kind of customed mascot character is called a yuru-kyara ゆるキャラ. Because of their huge popularity in Japan, there is a countless number of yuru-kyara, all with their own way of walking, talking and dancing. There is even a specialized school where you can master the mascot art: the Choko group mascot school in Tokyo provides specific training for aspiring mascots. In short, it is not at all unlikely in Japan to run into mascots at matsuri (festivals 祭り), tourist attractions, on shopping streets and in extreme cases, at events like the one in the following video (World Character Summit):
From Animism to Anime
Anthropomorphism is a crucial concept in Shintoism 神道, Japan’s ethnic religion. Shintoists believe that everything – the universe itself included – has a soul or spirit. Based on this belief, called animism, the Japanese regard animals and nature as the messengers of the gods. The Kojiki 古事記 (“Records of Ancient Matters”, 712) contains a few stories in which animals speak, think and act like humans. Next to that, the transformation of foxes and raccoon dogs into human beings is a returning topic in Japanese folklore. Not only animals and elements in nature, but also artificial objects can obtain a soul. These animated objects are named tsukumogami 付喪神, after the work tsukumogami emaki 付喪 神絵巻 from the Muromachi period (1333-1573). This work contains drawings of old household items that gain a soul after 99 years and change into ghosts.
With the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, animals were also associated with reincarnation. Despite the fact that this kind of reincarnation was considered a punishment, animals were able to attain nirvana which was still in line with the animistic Shinto theories. The Buddhist work Nihon Ryōiki from the Heian Period (794-1185), for example, mentions various animals with anthropomorphic characteristics. During the Japanese Middle Ages (1185-1603), animal stories became more popular than ever, and with the development of Noh theater 能 and Kyōgen 狂言 (Noh comedy) in particular, animals who behaved like people were put on stage regularly. Sometimes even plants played a lead role. Just like animals, plants were attributed certain qualities or characteristics. The iris, for example, represents a young women while an old woman is impersonated by the willow.
The Scrolls of Frolicking Animals and Humans (鳥獣人物戯画 Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga) are four scrolls in monochrome drawing style depicting various scenes of daily life. The scrolls date back to the 12th of 13th century. This work is nowadays known as the first manga, but was already popular back then. The scrolls are an excellent example of anthropomorphism in Medieval Japan. There are animals preparing for a matsuri, horseback riding, holding a Buddhist funeral, making jokes, bathing in the river, playing a game and so on. The animals depicted include animals well-known to the Japanese public as well as exotic animals and even mythological creatures. Although the caricatures are a slightly ironic representation of typical human activities, they are not meant to moralize the reader.
During the Edo Period (1603-1868) and after that, stories and pictures like ukiyōe 浮世絵(woodblock prints) featuring anthropomorphism became increasingly popular. Cats, mice and insects were the animals most often depicted as human beings. From the moment Japan opened up his borders in the nineteenth century, the introduction of foreign anthropomorphic figures soon followed. In the ’50s and ’60s American comics and Disney’s animation movies heavily influenced the Japanese manga scene. Animals and objects were given large eyes and a head that was proportionally too big for their small body, features contributing to their cuteness.
Today, this trend is called “moe anthropomorphism”. Moe 萌え refers to one’s strong affection towards a certain character (kyara キャラ). One of the more advanced forms of moe anthropomorphism is kemonomimi 獣耳(“beast ears”): the depiction of a cute, human-shaped character with animal ears and a tail. Apart from the many official moe characters, these kind of characters are usually created by amateurs and fans and circulate freely on the internet. The result is always cute and innocent, but the animated concept itself often is not. There exists, for example, a moe character to depict terrorist organisation ISIS.
Why is anthropomorphism so prevalent in Japanese culture? The reason remains unclear but scholars have already formulated some plausible explanations. 1) Anthropomorphism in Japan is heavily influenced by animistic Shintoism. The Japanese ancestors shaped objects and animals like human beings in order to understand the world around them. In the same way that monotheistic cultures attribute incomprehensible phenomena to their god, Shintoism describes these phenomena as having a soul. 2) Another explanation is based on the Japanese psychology. Japanese people tend to internalize their own feelings because they want to express sympathy towards the other, rather than stating their own opinion. Doing so, the relationship can continue in harmony, and the personal feelings of the other are not expressed but only assumed. In the same way, the emotions animals and even inanimate objects cannot express are being assumed and interpreted in a human way. 3) Thirdly, there is a social explanation. When communication as a basic need is not being fulfilled, the tendency to interact with a human-shaped object becomes stronger. This could probably explain the enormous popularity of characters among socially withdrawn internet users like hikikomori 引き篭もり. 4) And last but not least, anthropomorphism would appear to have a positive effect on our efficiency. We consider predictable operations as human and expect the same from anthropomorphic objects. When these objects do so, it leads to peace of mind and improves our efficiency. This is for example the reason why Japanese people prefer android robots.
- Ranking of yuru-kyara last year: Site Yuru Kyara Grand Prix 2014
- 平野重雄, 関口相三, 奥坂一也, and 喜瀬晋. “モノ創りにおける 擬人化と縮み志向の文化について.” In 日本設計工学会. 山形大学, 2014.
- 榊原、悟．江戸絵画万華鏡―戯画の系譜．初版．大江戸カルチャーブックス． 京都：青幻舎、2007．
- Imuhata, Hachiri, and Tachibana Calamansie. “KEMONO: The History of Japanese Anthropomorphic Culture.” 2013. Prezi