Shounen Jump and Societal Expectations

Yes, I am aware that society usually doesn’t expect us to be ninjas who fight evil or teenagers who save the world through card game tournaments.

Shounen Jump is a fairly famous publication within both Japan and the anime fan circles abroad. Basically, if you ask an anime fan to name three Shounen Jump titles, they can easily rattle them off. Its a highly visible publication.

Likewise, if you ask an anime fan to tell you some typical characteristics of a Shounen Jump title, you’ll easily get at least a short list of SJ archetypes; young male protagonist, fighting evil, saving the world, massive power-ups, you know the drill. Certainly a few deviate from this formula, but the Video Girl Ai’s and To-LoveRU’s are vastly outpaced by the Saint Seiya’s and D.Grayman’s of the bunch. For the most part, these are teenaged males, be they pirates or shinigami, gaining awesome powers and kicking bad-guy ass – over and over and over again.

So, how exactly does this say anything about societal expectations?

While no one could claim that Japanese society wants to have a generation of samurai-pirate-ninja guys running around defeating evil via psychic powers, a closer look at character’s and their behavior, along with the reactions of others to their behavior, reveals a lot about societal roles and expectations. One of the clearest examples of this pertains to friendship – in the flagship titles of Shounen Jump, friendship and it’s importance is repeatedly stressed. In Bleach, Ichigo has friends and they all band together to save the day, while Aizen only has cronies he can destroy on a whim and who feel loyalty to him from the end of a sword. And although the Bleach manga is far from complete, I believe it goes without saying who will win the day in the end. All of which reinforces the idea that to be independent within and of Japanese society is a negative – thus, subtly teaching the young male audience about what their culture demands of them.

The friendship aspect is also, perhaps, the most interesting aspect, in that while it translates well into American culture in the sense of ‘friendship is important’, the secondary aspect, that being independent is bad, does not translate into American culture at all.

Another concept that Shounen Jump reinforces for its young Japanese readers is the idea of a strong sense of duty to one’s family. In some of the Shounen Jump series this is quite obvious – Cat’s Eye, for instance, features three sisters who work together, and Dragon Ball Z features members of the younger generation as fighting alongside their elders. But we can even see the notion of duty to one’s family in a series like One Piece, although there is no blood-family here – the Straw Hat Pirates operate as a family in many ways, and one could never argue that they don’t display a significant sense of duty towards one another through loyalty. Even weaker characters here have their day to stand up for the sake of their comrades, which actually brings us to another point – that of the notion of “gambare”, probably best conveyed as “never give up!” in English with the idea of unspeakable odds.

It is very clear that Japanese society does not tolerate failure. Although it isn’t nearly as common as it used to be, it isn’t unheard of for entire families to commit suicide in Japan because of the father’s failure in the business world, and surely everyone has heard of train conductors leaping on the rails because their train was a minute late. So it is extremely important to instill into young citizens a sense of being unwiling to yield to grave odds, for the consequences of being unmotivated are, while perhaps not as dramatic as death, certainly dire. That the consequences in Shounen Jump series of the hero giving up are often world-scale cataclysmic is no coincidence – to walk away is to doom others, and to walk away from societal roles is to do the same, even if it is to a lesser degree; the hyperbole once again serves as a reinforcement in the minds of the young, albeit not consciously.

Because that’s it exactly – none of this is consciously absorbed by the reader or viewer. Instead, it is much like the learning process for babies when they’re beginning to talk. A baby does not sit in it’s highchair and think, “Well, I just saw that when that lady wants that man’s attention, she says ‘Paul, could you come here for a moment?’, so that’s what I have to say to get attention.” No, it giggles and repeats, slowly absorbing the grammar of the language, but beginning with short fragments of language that would be unacceptable in an older child. Likewise, a Shounen Jump reader isn’t thinking, “Hmm, everyone likes Yugi here because he’s willing to help others, even if those people were bullying him, but no one likes Kaiba because he’s cruel and cold to everyone but his brother, so I should be like Yugi and not Kaiba.” It is just a process of subconscious osmosis of what others react positively to, and what actions bring pain.

But don’t get me wrong here, I’m not making the claim that Shounen Jump’s manga-ka and editors do this intentionally; rather, it is inevitable. A person within a particular culture is going to write from that viewpoint, is going to write what they know. That author isn’t going to make it’s protagonist completely counter to what that culture finds to be acceptable (in general, of course – but even if you come up with examples of characters who do appear to run completely counter to the home culture, you can probably pick out culturally acceptable traits within the character, even if they are few) – this is simply because it is hard for a reader to sympathize at all with a character who is fully beyond the pale, and therefore difficult to keep the reader engaged as such; would you read a book or watch a TV show if the main character is someone you can’t stand? Hardly.

So, the manga-ka makes a likable protagonist, especially because the intended Shounen Jump audience is not one which looks for multi-layered protagonist (or, at the least, not multi-layered beyond ‘tough guy who’s actually caring on the inside’). So the protagonist is a good guy overall, and although he’ll face some setbacks (because in 99% of these titles the protagonist is male), in the end he’ll overcome it all, because the intended audience isn’t looking for their hero to suffer endlessly and only come to grief when the story closes – do you know any nine-year old boys who like it when the story ends and the hero is crying over the dead bodies of his family and friends?

So, we come back to the original point, that is that Shounen Jump displays and reinforces societal roles and expectations (the same argument could be made for Shoujo Beat, but obviously with different examples). It’s also important to realize that it does it in ways that manga intended for older audiences simply does not – by the time someone is reading a title like Terra e…, they already know how to behave within their society, and they’re reading to see something a little deeper than a monster-of-the-week storyline – they won’t see the behavior of the antagonists, which is rewarded far more often than not, as being an acceptable alternative to how they already behave, because they’ve already learned that it isn’t.

A good example of this is of a child hitting another child. Within American society, this is deemed to not be right, but it is something that we must tell the child is not right. When we tell the child, they do not immediately absorb the lesson, but as they grow and come to know their culture, they see that it is the incorrect thing to do. So then, at an older age, when they see a child hitting a child, their immediate reaction is negative – that kid is being mean, he is being a bully, it is wrong to hurt others. However, another kid seeing this scene doesn’t see it that way – if they see it as particularly wrong, it is because mommy or daddy has told them it is, it is because they’ll get in trouble for doing it. It has yet to become a question of morals for them. And if the hitter benefits by their action, the observing kid will see it as advantageous to hit another child. But if it is continually made clear to the child that using violence as a means of gain is wrong, then the child will not suddenly view it as morally acceptable years down the road when they are an adolescent or adult.

Anyway, I’ve always been bad at conclusions, but I think you get my overarching point. Shounen Jump – it serves a purpose beyond entertainment! Shocking, huh?

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One Response to Shounen Jump and Societal Expectations

  1. issa-sa says:

    So what my childhood has been lacking all this time is a good dose of Japanese comics???
    You’re right about how societal morals and such are laced into works to be picked up subconcsiously by the reader, something which the creators themselves probably did subconsciously as well. Does it get old though? Is it about time for new themes to be (consciously or not) inserted into fiction to be absorbed by the masses???
    Or maybe it’s already happening, just that I’m too blur to notice…

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