Differing Attitudes in Youth of Japanese and American Cartoon Characters


Many anime films and series follow the trials and tribulations of student life. Such series include Maison Ikkoku and Battle Athletes . A good education is important in both American and Japanese cultures, but American TV shows and anime document different aspects of school life. American shows (Head of the Class, Welcome Back Kotter, early episodes of Beverly Hills 90210, or Saved By the Bell) seem to focus more on "popular" kids trying to pulling various scams and pranks to accomplish something. I've never had much of a taste for such shows, but they all seem to have basic theme elements in common. Some anime may do the same things as the American shows, but some document the struggle of the mediocre (Maison Ikkoku), and yet others feature a character's lust for greatness (Battle Athletes). Where might these differences in theme be coming from? Understanding the impetus for such motifs, requires a basic comprehension of the idealized Japanese national attitude.

The School System

American children typically go through four stages of school starting around the age of five:

1. Elementary (or grammar) school (6 Years)
2. Middle school (3 years)
3. High school (4 years)
4. And roughly four years of college.

Japanese children usually go through the following regimen:

1. Elementary school (6 years)
2. Middle school (3 years)
3. High School (3 years)
4. College (4 years)

In order to get into college, Japanese students have to take intense comprehensive entrance exams, nyuugakushiken. These exams are somewhat similar to the SAT, but cover a wider range of subjects, are much harder, and more of a determining factor in one's admittance to a school. High school students often attend "cram schools" in preparation for entrance exams. If a student fails his/her exams, they don't go to college. It's that simple. Consequently, entrance exams are a stressful part of student life. The first episodes of Maison Ikkoku follow Godai-san, a "ronin" that has failed his entrance exams the year preceding the story, and his battle to study for college entrance exams.

Differences in Japanese and American Attitudes

In Battle Athletes the principal character, a young girl named Akari, spends much of the each episode admiring her peers, and yearning to be the #1 student in her school. Of course, this is not (at least, should not be) an uncommon ambition but why is it that an ambitious dreamer such as Akari is the main character in Battle Athletes, whereas the Powerpuff Girls are an arguably cocky trio of young superheroes? For the previously discussed Godai-san, what is the driving force behind such constant self-imposed agony, and how is the pressure succeed in Japan any different from America?

Lower Self Concept/Self Esteem

Survey results of students taken in 1983 indicated, that Japanese students were generally less satisfied with themselves than American students. This attitude of lower self concept seems to be a common trait amongst characters. Individuals like Godai and Akari acknowledge that they are not the greatest, and the shows chronicle their quests (in Godai's case) to deal with their shortcomings or (for Akari) to overcome them. In contrast, attitudes of characters like the Powerpuff Girls, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Superman, Batman, and the X-Men is one of supremacy. Rarely do these heroes ever question themselves or show weakness. The different development of characters reflects aspects of the beliefs and values held by the two cultures. American characters portray a lot of the confidence and audacious attitude that has come to be a part of the American experience; in contrast, characters in anime often appear less self-assured.

Beliefs and Values

As with many cultures, parents are a major motivational factor for their children. In American shows, parents usually serve as authority figures that appear once in a while to dole out advice and discipline. The protagonists usually spend some time trying to avoid confronting parents about whatever issues they are dealing with. In anime, characters seem to treat their elders more respectfully and are more likely to look to their parents for guidance, rather than acting and receiving "what have we learned from this experience" lectures from their parents at the resolution of a conflict. Confucianism may be a factor in these attitudes portrayed in anime. Many Confucian values - belief in the family, importance of diligence, loyalty, filial piety, and harmony -- are widespread throughout most Asian societies. These beliefs influence the story-telling and inherent message within each show; this is similar to how American television and movies promote individuality.


A part of Confucian teachings, humility deserves a more in-depth exploration. In the case of Jubei-chan, the heroine, Jiyu, inherits the powers of the Japan's greatest samurai. Given these powers, viewers of shows like Superman, Powerpuff Girls, or any other (super)heroes might expect that Jiyu would relish and use her powers liberally. In fact, Jiyu denies having special abilities and resists using her power as much as possible. She avoids acknowledging her hidden capabilities, preferring the life of a typical 13-year old girl. Coming to terms with the responsibilities inherent with having such vast power is a major self-conflict explored during the course of the series. Jiyu's reluctance to understand her uniqueness is in large part her desire to simply be average. Her desire to be normal is a function of her humility, she doesn't want to show off or be exiled by her peers. Jiyu's desire is quite the opposite of an episode of Powerpuff Girls in which Blossom finds out she has the ability to create ice with her breath. Blossom flaunts her newfound talent for a time and in time learns that she must restrain herself from using her power too much.


There are many differences between youth-oriented American and Japanese entertainment. Attitudes and portrayal of the characters varies widely. A quality common in many anime characters that isn't typically found amongst American counterparts is they are insecure. The characters spend a lot of time trying to better themselves as opposed to characters like Powerpuff Girls, Superman, and casts other youth-oriented shows. I think the difference is due to the way the people of each culture behave, and shows that TV and movies sure signs of art imitating life.

-Jeff Lee Click to learn more about Jeff


Richard Maidment, Colin Mackerras Culture and Society in the Asia-Pacific New York: The Open University 1998.

Battle Athletes
Maison Ikkoku


Maison Ikkoku - an anime about school life in Japan


Until recently in Japan, the success of college graduates in landing a job depended almost completely on what university they attended. Grades and field of study were not as emphasized as much as the prestige of the student's alma mater.



Studying for entrance exams can be very stressful!



In Jubei-chan, Shirow is one of the top students in his school. Even so, he is soft spoken and rarely brags. He even blushes when he thinks about a girl.



A reluctant Jiyu dons the Lovely Eyepatch, which grants her the powers of the greatest samurai


In Jubei-chan, the Lovely Eyepatch grants its wearer the powers of Yagyu Jubei, a historical samurai who has spawned many legends and semi-fictitious stories. Because of these fantastic stories, Yagyu Jubei is often compared to Don Quixote.

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