Anthropomorphism in Japanese Culture

japan anthropomorphism nippakuAnthropomorphism, 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.


Cute flyer from my university

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).

Minister Hatoyama as Saiban'inko.

Minister Kunio Hatoyama as Saiban’inko.

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.


Tsukimogami in Hyakki Yakko Emaki 百鬼夜行絵巻

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.


Scrolls of Frolicking Animals and Humans (鳥獣人物戯画), first scroll. A stealing monkey is being chased by rabbits and frogs with sticks.

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.

Anthropomorphism explained 

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.

Fun Facts 


  • 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.
  • 高畑、勲.十二世紀のアニメーション―国宝絵巻物に見る映画的・アニメ的なるもの―.初版.東京:徳間書店、スタジオジブリ・カンパニー、1999.
  • 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

Becoming Japanese: Stories of Immigration and Naturalization

testbanner3These days, Japan’s population (126,981,371 on June 19, 2014) is declining severely, caused by low birth rate and next to nothing immigration. As a result, Japan experiences a huge aging problem, what will lead to a population of which people aged over 65 account for at least 40% of it. (source) At present in Japan, the rate of this population group is 30%, making up for the oldest population worldwide. (source) Low birth rate is a development that can be observed in various countries, although the country with the lowest birth rate is without doubt Japan (7.64 births per thousand).


The blue line is the birth rate, the grey line indicates the mortality rate. In 1966 the birth rate dropped suddenly. According to Japanese superstition, women born in “the year of the Fire Horse” (hinoeuma) will bring misfortune to their husband. –

Remarkable as well is the extreme low rate of immigration. Currently in Japan, 98.5% is ethnic Japanese, 0.5% Korean, 0.4% Chinese and all other nationalities do not exceed 0.6%. To compare with Belgium, where 11% of the population is not ethnic Belgian, this is ridiculously low. (source)


Recently, the government reported to consider boosting the number of immigrants for the benefit of a long-term economic growth. Japan would accept 200,000 immigrants a year. (source) Doctors, nurses and care-givers are mostly welcome, as in 2050 worker-to-retiree ratio will be 1,55:1. (source) The immigration and naturalization procedure is not easy, however. Especially language requirements are tough. In 2011, only 15 of 285 Indonesian nurses passed the test in Japanese, full of complex medical terminology. (source) The others, although qualified nurses but not able to read kanji that well, were sent home. Maximum 2000 non-Japanese with a “high degree of capability” (high salary, Ph.D or specialized knowledge) on the contrary are surprisingly not expected to achieve a certain Japanese fluency (source).  It looks like Japan is rather hesitant to accept foreigners.


Jon Heese, foreign-born politician in Japan, mentions three reasons for this aversion. Firstly, people fear change. Secondly, until recently Japanese people grew up with the idea of “fearing foreigners”. They believe foreigners are more likely to commit crimes. Thirdly, there is excessive nationalism in Japan. (source)

But there are success stories about foreigners becoming Japanese as well. In this post, I will focus on naturalized Westerners, as I believe it is more difficult for non Asian people to assimilate.

william adams .How could we not start with William Adams a.k.a. Miura Anjin 三浦按針 (1564 – 1620), the first Westerner to be “naturalized”? In 1600 sailor Adams and 8 other members of the remaining crew of the Dutch vessel “De Liefde” stranded in Japan and were captured. But instead of the crucifix that awaited most “foreign pirates”, Adams was lucky. Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa appointed him as his diplomatic and trade advisor. For his contributions to Western style shipbuilding in Japan, Adams was rewarded with a high salary, a big house, the title of samurai and many precious gifts. Adams himself thought highly of Japan, its people and the shogun:

The people of this Land of Japan are good of nature, curteous above measure, and valiant in war: their justice is severely executed without any partiality upon transgressors of the law. They are governed in great civility. I mean, not a land better governed in the world by civil policy. The people be very superstitious in their religion, and are of diverse opinions. (William Adams’s letter to Bantam, 1612)

From now on called Miura Anjin (for William Adams was declared dead by the shogun), he married a Japanese woman and had two children. In 1613 he helped to set up a trading factory for the British East India Company and set more than once sail to Siam and Cochinchina for business. Miura never returned home. He died as one of the most influential Westerners in Japan. Today, his memory is still kept alive by several monuments and a Miura Anjin festival.

Schermafbeelding 2014-06-19 om 21.01.28Next up is Lafcadio Hearn a.k.a. Koizumi Yakumo 小泉八雲 (1850 – 1904), born in Greece with a British father, raised in Ireland and sent to the United States at the age of 19.  After finishing his studies he became a journalist there. But Hearn, with his international background, was not meant to stay in one place for too long. In 1890 he travelled to Japan and became a teacher at a local school in Matsue. Hearn did not only fell in love with Japan, he actually married a Japanese girl of the Koizumi family and became a naturalized Japanese. He spent the rest of his life on teaching at a secondary school and at Tokyo and Waseda university. Hearn wrote down his impressions of Japan in various books and short stories. As an enthusiastic Japanophile, Hearn was later often accused of exoticizing Japan. Indeed he is fascinated by the Japanese nature and can frequently be found glorifying Japanese culture and traditions.

The most beautiful sight in Japan, and certainly one of the most beautiful in the world, is the distant apparition of Fuji on cloudless days, – more especially days of spring and autumn, when the greater part of the peak is covered with late or with early snows. (in “Fuji-no-Yama”)

His works however have great historical value, and moreover, they presented an image of Japan to the West. Hearn describes with precision the transformation of a traditional Japan in a modern one. Among his writings, many focus on Japanese folklore, legends and ghost stories.

Schermafbeelding 2014-06-19 om 21.25.20

Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

A third and more recent case was the naturalization of Donald Keene a.k.a. Kīn Donarudo 鬼怒鳴門(°1922), American born scholar of Japanese literature. Keene taught for over 50 years at the Columbia University. He published many works of importance in the field of Japanese studies, covering the topics of Japanese literature, history and culture. Furthermore, he provided several translations of Japanese classic and modern literature and befriended famous writers Mishima Yukio, Kenzaburō Ōe and Junichirō Tanizaki. Keene attributed a great deal to the study of Japan and as a would-be scholar of the Japanese myself, i can only admire him. Keene’s interest in Japan was triggered by a translation of the Tale of Genji.

After the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, Keene was deeply moved by the tragedy Japanese people went through, and decided at the age of 89, to spend the rest of his life there. Keene chose his Japanese name with a sense of humor: the characters mean devil – angry – sound – gate and are a phonetic version of his English name.

“When I first did it, I thought I’d get a flood of angry letters that ‘you are not of the Yamato race!’ but instead, they welcomed me,” said Dr. Keene, using an old name for Japan. “I think the Japanese can detect, without too much trouble, my love of Japan.” (in The New York Times)

But after all, Keene concludes “I have become a Japanese in many ways. Not pretentiously, but naturally.” Not the legal way makes you a Japanese, the cases of these three people point out that becoming Japanese is a matter of deep love for and a strong connection with Japan.