Why are characters in Japanese and American children’s cartoons so different?

In addition to watching niche anime marketed towards fans, I also enjoy a number of children/family series that are marketed for the general Japanese public, from the massive, long-running hits like One Piece, Pokemon, and Naruto, to shorter and newer shows like Tegami Bachi and Kobato. Since I started watching kids anime over a decade ago, it never ceases to amaze me how vastly different the characters are compared to American cartoons…

I’ll start off with a general look at the protagonists and antagonists of each (I say “general” because there are exceptions on both sides):

Protagonists

Protagonists in kids anime like Naruto and Luffy are fun-loving, but also self-sacrificing, honorable, courageous, and have a strong sense of justice. Protagonists in shojo series like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura could be naive and air-headed, but they too have a wide range of feelings and are also courageous, selfless, and loving. I can’t think of a single American cartoon series protagonist with as many positive traits as most of the ones in kids anime. American cartoon protagonists are usually static characters and their development, if any, is inconsistent and not made to be significant to the story. All I can conclude is that American cartoon protagonists may teach some things about friendship and responsibility, but with so much potty humor, slapstick gags, and fast-paced antics, I can’t help but think that it doesn’t amount to much. Japanese kids anime may not be free of silly comedy, but it’s secondary in favor of conveying protagonists who sacrifice themselves in the face of extreme danger, stand up and fight against insurmountable odds, and demonstrate genuine emotions of sadness, love, and empathy.

So what do kids learn from their respective protagonists? American kids learn that, while you have to be good and take responsibility sometimes, crude and violent humor is fun, as is acting as silly as the stereotypical cartoon characters they see. Emotions like sadness, pain, regret, and anger are rarely conveyed to them seriously. Japanese kids however learn that the world is not always a fun place and, like their protagonists, they’ll face many hardships where they may decide to self-sacrifice, and it’s okay for emotions to come out in certain situations. American kids are exposed to protagonist who are either silly, static, and slapstick (comedies) or flawless wish-fulfillment (superheros) while Japanese kids’ protagonists display a range of more positive emotions including selflessness and bravery (shonen) or empathy and love (shojo).

Antagonists

Antagonists in American kids cartoons are typically portrayed as evil, power-hungry villains who want to rule something (the world perhaps?) for obscure reasons, or for simpler scenarios, just plain bullies or jerks. In kids anime, the antagonists are either seriously bad dudes or misguided, emotionally-unstable individuals who may eventually become protagonists. We rarely see the evil villains in American kids shows engage in extremely bad things like murder, torture, or enslavement, while in anime we do, often quite explicitly. There are few cases in American cartoons where a villain eventually becomes a long-lasting protagonist, nor do we usually find out exactly why the villain become the way they did. In kids anime however, both are quite common.

All I can conclude is that American kids are taught the “black and white” idea about heroes and villains – you’re either a good guy or a bad guy and finding out exactly why you’re a villain isn’t a big deal. Japanese kids however learn that it is a big deal to find out what drives people to become bad because they may be able to be redeemed.

Conclusion

So what can we conclude about how different the cartoon characters are in American and Japanese kid shows? It seems plain to me that American cartoons present a simple, sugar-coated world to their children in which everyone is either good or bad, characters have one niche to fulfill, and nothing serious needs to be dealt with. The protagonists are either static superheroes or cartoonish pranksters whose only purpose is to make humor. Japanese kids on the other hand are presented with a “mature” world in which complex characters are struggling against immense emotional or physical pain amidst a continuing, detailed setting. The protagonists face failures and hardships and must develop and learn throughout their respective series. I don’t want to seem too biased, but the kinds of role models that Japanese children’s anime portrays when compared to American kids cartoons is arguably better.

John stated the difference well when he said…

“The difference…is cultural. Japanese society simply believes in exposing their children to all of the varying eventualities of reality, while American culture tries to hide or protect its children from some of the more difficult events in life.”

American culture believes children are not mature enough to handle seriously upsetting or emotional situations, therefore their cartoons are fraught with only funny, simple antics or idealized superhero adventures to daydream about. Japanese culture however stresses that its children become mature at an early age, therefore cartoons are presented more seriously and confront children with numerous disturbing, sad, and complex issues.

Which way is better? Personally I think children should watch cartoons that challenge their intelligence and better prepare them for the upcoming disturbing facts of life. Japanese kids seem to mature faster and are more responsible than American kids, i.e., even elementary kids often go to school by themselves and clean their classrooms. But then again, maybe childhood should be free from upsetting things and should just be fun and fictionally blissful like in American cartoons. Like many things in life, this is another debatable topic.

(If she was a cartoon character in an American show, Nami couldn’t get away with being as sexy as she is.)

8 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Dragonliger says:

    great post. *claps* totally true. Maybe what should be looked for is a balance beetwen the both worlds. More like not just deep anime kids shows (this sounds funny though XP) but to experience the “pink world” too.

    Btw is a shame the images look so low quality. They can’t depict Nami’s sexyness at it’s fullest XD

  2. RP says:

    I don’t know how American cartoons are these days, but I grew up on the Paul Dini/Bruce Timm DC Universe (Batman The Animated Series, The New Adventures of Batman/Superman, Batman Beyond) where there was an incredible amount of depth to the characters. Although the episodes were often standalone one-shot/two-shots, they often featured a very well-rounded world where villains didn’t revert to cartoony villainy and the heroes weren’t just brainless do-gooders.

    Also, while there’s probably some cultural reasons at play, I think anime also targets an older age-range than most American cartoons. Anime often premieres either slightly before prime-time or really late at night. Not exactly the most little-kid friendly time slots, whereas American cartoons, besides shows like the Simpsons and South Park, almost all air early on Saturday morning… prime sleeping time for the teens+.

  3. Prooof says:

    I have to agree, children’s anime characters/plot are so much deeper.
    don’t know if you read/watch katekyo hitman reborn but that series is on par (IMO) with stuff like bleach/one piece. (actually better than bleach’s current state…)

  4. Yumeka says:

    @ RP

    I used to watch the old Batman cartoon too and it was pretty serious and mature (there was some slight character development though not on par with anime). I guess I’m mostly talking about American kid cartoons nowadays. They really have deteriorated (I’ve griped about this topic in a few other posts XP)

    Do even the really popular kid shows like One Piece and Naruto come on late at night? But even so, they seem to be popular with pre-teen and older kids. But maybe Doraemon and the like are more for the younger ones. I’ve seen a little Doraemon and even though it’s light and fun, it’s more intelligent and less filled with potty humor and slapsticks than American cartoons.

  5. Passingass says:

    My pre-teen kids like the “light” anime such as Pokemon, Bakugan, Detective Conan…no surprise they also like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.

    OTOH, my teenage daughter LOVES shoujo and supernatural anime, as well as Disney.

    An age appropriate pattern of preference? Thanks to the internet, at least they have access to both worlds.

  6. Blather says:

    Your failure to provide even a single example of an American cartoon that actually fits the qualifications you set forth does little for your argument. The fact that there are more counterexamples in the comments (the DCAU alone, as RP points out, consists of six mature, well-rounded series) than actual examples to back your claims pretty much sinks it.

    I do happen to agree that anime generally takes a more ‘mature’ tone than most American animation, and I also agree that this is definitely to its benefit, but I take issue with your black-and-white characterization of the situation and your attempts to moralize this difference. There are good American cartoons and there are bad American cartoons. There are good anime series and there are bad anime series.

  7. Ray says:

    @Blather, sorry couldn’t leave a dead post dead. To answer your question, Sponge Bob Square Pants, where Plankton is evil for no reason and the only reason the protagonist exists is to teach kids being stupid is funny and cool. This counts for 99% of Nick (excluding Rug Rats, which has a mild amount of character development) cartoons. I haven’t watched any Disney cartoons since about 1995 so I can’t speak on that. As for Cartoon Network, we have Powerpuff Girls (dead), Batman Beyond (a more mature show), toonami (dubbed anime), and then the rest are as described. Even when we approach the more mature Adult Swim, it’s nothing but mindless humor. For example, Family Guy, there is very slow character growth (trends that work, the characters change for that, for example stewie and the dog, however Peter has never changed). Or that show with the floating lunch (Meatball, Fries, Shake …).

    On the other hand to the original author, your post does come off very bias. However, it’s (in the general sense, as you said there is an exception to every rule) essentially dead on.

  8. German says:

    You got it all wrong when you said “kid’s anime”. The content of those is not something you should show a kid. I know in U.S. people tend to think that because it’s animation and not actual people acting roles, is only for kids, and therefore completely ruin series when translating them, applying censorship to the point it actually feels like it’s ment for kids. But most anime series are actually focused on teens and young adults. Unless of course you want a kid to see either half the show, or tons of killing, blood, raping, slavery, torture, nudity and so on… Personally, I’m not up to showing such things to a kid nor ruining series because I’m so closed minded to accept it’s not meant for them. There are lot’s of true kid’s anime, but those you’ve mention are not.

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