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Anime, Manga and Cosplay – Western youth looking to Japanese popular culture for entertainment and learning.

Mirai Suenaga in Twin Angel by Danny Choo ( (Flickr image, CC BY-NC 2.0 (

Mirai Suenaga in Twin Angel by Danny Choo (Flickr image, CC BY-NC 2.0

I have a confession to make. I am a “words”person. I have always learned best by reading traditional texts, taking notes and thinking about the implications then writing my thoughts. For recreation, losing myself in a large well written tome for a few days is bliss.

Some years ago I first became aware of anime programs which I mentally dismissed as comprising big eyes, brightly coloured spiky hair and stilted dialogue, but essentially harmless cartoons for children. I later encountered graphic novels and manga which I similarly dismissed as comic books – not necessarily harmful but certainly not something to be taken seriously as literature. How wrong I was!

I have since discovered that far from being entertaining to some but of no great artistic or literary significance, these products of Japanese popular culture have established a place of prime importance in the cultural lives of many young people around the world. In the process many of these afficianados develop language skills, understandings of alternative cultures, the meaning of images and the collaborative power of the world wide web. Some develop skills in drawing and others hone the art of story telling and they  also have fun (Fukunaga, 2006). On a technical level, it appears the relationship of text to images in manga is quite different to English and the images themselves and layout are structured in a complex way (Huang & Archer, 2012), indicating some sophisticated analysis is required of readers.

My interest in these art forms is very much one of being on the outside looking in – I do not “get” it in the sense of enjoying anime and manga myself. Nor it would appear do all young people share this interest. A straw poll of teenagers of my immediate acquaintance indicates two not interested and one totally absorbed.

It is the totality of the cultural experience that I find most interesting. It is not enough to simply watch anime and read manga. Fans play online games with a similar look and feel. They look for authenticity as evidenced by a preference for immediate fan based translations from the Japanese online rather than waiting for an official English translation (Huang & Archer,2012). Many fans of anime and manga take their enthusiasm further by attending conventions dressed as popular characters from their favourite series and engage in cosplay competitions. Fans take a lot of trouble over these costumes and fellow conference goers seem to appreciate it. A few years ago my then 14 year old daughter spent much of her school holidays in creating a costume for a local pop culture expo and was stopped several times by other attendees for photos with her “character”. This accepting environment can be very confidence building for the naturally shy and introverted. The “play” part of cosplay came in the form of participating as a chess piece on a giant board.

Fukunaga (2006) suggests teachers can use anime type sources to help students explore authentic aspects of Japanese culture and consider differences with our own culture. Teachers can use this material to start discussions promoting critical thinking. I suggest the same can be said for many other types of popular culture, but it seems for a segment of our young community, this genre certainly has appeal. Huang and Archer (2012) suggest that “texts” suitable for study should be interpreted widely given the complex and rapidly changing world in which we live. One point made by Fukunaga (2006) which I find interesting is his observation that students come to the study of Japanese as a language as a result of this cultural interest. Is this not what we are hoping for in encouraging students to engage with our own culture – that they will explore language as a way of enhancing their appreciation of a culture they already enjoy?

The internationalisation of this popular culture genre seems to me to be fuelled by access to online media. This has allowed a community of like minded young people to build around the world. While it is not for everyone, I have to say I think it is a refreshing alternative to mainstream entertainment offerings. Diversity is a wonderful thing.


Fukunaga, N., (2006). “Those anime students”: Foreign language literacy development through Japanese popular culture. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 50(3), 206-222.

Huang, C. & Archer, A., (2012).Uncovering the multimodal literacy practices in reading manga and the implications for pedagogy. In B.T. Williams and A.A. Zenger (Eds.), New media literacies and participatory popular culture across borders, 44-60. Routledge: New York.


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September 22, 2013 · 9:27 am