I have long loved certain kinds of Japanese anime, especially the Studio Ghibli films. Watch the movie Spirited Away sometime. Visually these movies are unlike anything in Western culture. Often after viewing one of these movies several questions come to mind. Are the Japanese taking a lot of acid? How do the Japanese know exactly what my dreams are like after I eat a Cadbury egg right before bed? I often wonder if things like Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse are as strange to the Japanese as their films are to us. Is there something in their culture that makes these movies so popular in Japan?
I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have read part of two books about Japanese culture. One is A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony by Hector Garcia. The other one is called The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture by Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno. I admit that I am only about 30% through the first one and I haven’t actually even gotten to the part about anime yet. However, what follows is some guesswork on my part that I believe will turn out to be somewhat accurate.
The Japanese highly value social harmony. Because of this their culture is infused with a great deal of ambiguity. People will often say things that are vague so that the other party is not offended. A good deal of the time you can infer what people mean by the way they say something and not by what is actually being said. The closest example in our culture that I can come up with is from an episode of Married with Children. On the show there is a situation that goes something like the following: Al Bundy gets asked by his wife Peggy how she looks. He can either tell her she looks good and then be forced to sleep with her, or he can tell her that she looks bad and get slapped. Neither outcome is desirable. Because of this he tells her that she looks nice. Nice is a lukewarm meaningless compliment that can only be understood by how someone says it. The Japanese use a great deal of this kind of language so that they can maintain social harmony.
There are also other reasons that the Japanese are comfortable with ambiguity. Another reason is related to the roll of Zen Buddhism’s influence on Japanese culture. There are a series of brief stories that resemble riddles called koans. The most famous one is: “What is the sound of one hand clapping.” Another one is as follows:
Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, “The flag is moving.” The other said, “The wind is moving.” The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them, “Not the wind, not the flag. Mind is moving.”
These koans are supposed to be slightly confusing and ambiguous. However, when you are confused you begin to think. By thinking you can start moving towards enlightenment.
Another factor that might play into all of this is the way that the Japanese write. Two of the Japanese alphabets, their culture uses three, are based on symbols. Anyone that has seen the beautiful Japanese characters knows what I am talking about. The Japanese do use our alphabet, but often when things are written in this alphabet this can be slightly confusing to the Japanese. That is because their minds are trained to again read through symbols. Reading is often a much more visual act for the Japanese. Because of this the Japanese are a highly visual people.
So you combine a highly visual culture with people that are primed for ambiguity and that is my guess on how you arrive at strange cartoons that resemble acid trips. Except for certain filmmakers like David Lynch, our cinema does not dive so regularly into that kind of abstract dream logic. Unless of course we do drugs, which we sure have a lot of!