The two types of friendship in anime

We all know that friendship is a common theme in all kinds of anime, from its more preachy examples in kids anime to its more subtle ones in otaku-aimed anime. But although “friend” is the term in English for these cases, in Japanese there’s actually more than one word to describe friends…

In anime, there are two common words in Japanese for “friend.” “Nakama” (仲間) is one and “tomodachi” (友達) is the other (there are others such as “mikata” (味方) and “yuujin” (友人), but they’re less common). In most situations, both words are translated as “friend” in English. But they wouldn’t be two different words if they didn’t have different nuances.

To start off with the simpler of the two, your tomodachi is the friend you like to hang out with and join in fun activities with. In most anime, they’re your buddies at school, childhood friends, coworkers, or neighbors. You’re more likely to hear “tomodachi” in everyday life in Japan, which is why it’s most common in slice-of-life anime rather than fantasy/adventure series. It’s made up of the kanji for “friend” and “pluralization,” which gives the connotation of groups of friends.

The girls from K-ON and similar anime like Lucky Star and Azumanga Daioh, are prime examples of tomodachi. They enjoy each other’s company, help each other out in times of need, and share fun times together. Sakura and her friends from Cardcaptor Sakura and the main characters of Toradora! are other good examples.

Although “nakama” is also translated as “friend,” it holds quite a different meaning than “tomodachi.” It’s made up of the kanji for “relations” and “space,” which gives the impression of something more intense and complex than simply a group of buddies. Luffy and his Straw Hat pirates from One Piece can arguably be credited with chiseling this term into the fandom.

Unlike tomodachi, nakama don’t necessarily like each other or want to hang out with each other. For nakama, the friendship that binds them comes from having common goals and values rather than enjoying each other’s company. Zoro clearly dislikes Sanji’s personality, is distrustful of Robin, and often fed up with the silly antics of Luffy and Usopp. But if anyone threatens their well being, you can bet he’ll be right there to defend them with his life. Similarly, if any of the Straw Hats find someone whose values they share and situation they sympathize with, especially Luffy, they’ll selfless defend that person without having to fully know them or like them. The Straw Hat crew is bound by the common goal of achieving their dreams and a mutual sense of duty to defend their ideals, in the true nakama spirit, which doesn’t require affection and friendly words.

They even have a song that emphasizes this bond. The chorus goes…

知り合いじゃなくて 友達じゃなくて
We’re not acquaintances, we’re not friends,

オレたちはFamily!
We’re family!

親戚じゃなくて 兄弟じゃない
We’re not relatives, we’re not siblings,

オレたちはFamily!
We’re family!

They use the term “family” to describe their bond of nakama-hood, which has no doubt inspired similar relationships in Naruto, Bleach, and other shonen themed anime.

“Nakama” instills friendship and senses of duty in family anime like One Piece, but it definitely exists in all manner of other anime as well.

The Cowboy Bebop crew comes to mind as a more subtle group of nakama. Again, one can argue that they don’t enjoy each other’s company, distrust each other, and have habits that get on each other’s nerves. The affection and concern they show for each other is virtually nil. And yet, they’ve always got each other’s backs in times of trouble. What binds them isn’t liking each other, but their common situation of having no other place to belong but the Bebop and their mutual understanding that they all have pasts they’re trying to overcome.

The distinction between tomodachi and nakama can even be found in less action/adventure-laden anime. Haruhi’s SOS Brigade is not made up of tomodachi (even if Haruhi thinks they are). There’s clearly distrust and conflicting goals between Yuki, Mikuru, and Itsuki. And Kyon himself is more often than not distrustful and confused about all three of them (despite being smitten by Mikuru’s cuteness). So what is it that makes them stand together under the flag of nakama-hood? Their mutual dedication to Haruhi, whatever their reasons for it are.

The two distinct types of friendship is a fascinating theme in anime since it comes from Japanese culture and thus is rare in Western entertainment. Friendship plays a huge role in a wide variety of anime, and being able to identify the different kinds of friendship makes it all the more interesting =)

36 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Erdinger says:

    Do you think that it is often better to translate ‘nakama’ as crewmate, colleague or comrade?

    Also could be translated as ‘colleague’, ‘kin’ or ‘fellow’.

    • Yumeka says:

      Those are all viable ways of translating “nakama.” I usually find “comrade” to be the most suitable one (or “crewmate” in the case of One Piece), but again it depends on the situation.

      • GamerGeek68 says:

        The way I describe nakama is the same way I would describe my best childhood friend. I’m 45 now, we rarely talk to each other. But in times of need, we’re there for each other. It wouldn’t matter if we hadn’t talked in 5 years, we could just get together and it would be like nothing was different. To me it’s more like a friendship that transcends time.

  2. Tara says:

    Finally I can understand the difference between these two words >w<
    I've been wondering for years what the exact difference was, I always knew there was one but couldn't find proper definitions (not that I searched too hard, more like just something I wondered about without looking into it too much besides asking some friends). So thank you for clearing that up, now I can find something else to be bothered by and wonder about ^^

  3. hearthesea says:

    I’ve recently been rewatching Bebop, so it was useful to see it mentioned here in relation to this concept. What I like about the interaction of the characters is that (even though they do indeed irritate one another at points) they often genuinely like one another too — it’s just that they very rarely express this on the surface level, mainly due to their own insecurities and lack of social skill. Even when there are arguments or ‘fights’, it’s sometimes because they’re secretly concerned for another character but won’t admit it. (Eg, Jet’s behaviour when Spike leaves in ‘Ballad of Fallen Angels’ or ‘Jupiter Jazz’.)

    I agree that they definitely seem to fall under this ‘Nakama’ type arrangement. It’s like differing loners/outcasts who come together for a short time, grumbling about it on the surface but secretly enjoying it much more than they let on. One of the saddest parts of the show is that just when they begin to grow closer it sort of all falls apart, with Spike going to settle things with his past and Ed running off.

    • Yumeka says:

      Good insight about the Bebop crew =D I agree that nakama, especially in their case, are like a group of “outcasts” or “misfits” who come together because of some common duty, value, or objective without necessarily having to be openly friendly with each other. Most of them complain about it on the surface, but like you said, this often comes from personal insecurities and lack of expressive skills when they otherwise genuinely feel for each other.

  4. IKnight says:

    I’ve seen nakama translated as ‘comrade(s)’, which probably doesn’t suit every use but does get across the idea of being bound by shared goals rather than affection (though I suppose comrades can have affection for each other — it’s just that they’re comrades whether or not they like one another). I think I’ve heard the word the most in mecha war stories, though then again that may just be because that’s mostly what I watch. Though I’ve also noticed it in Precure: Cures tend to be friends in everyday life, but comrades when they’re transformed and fighting.

    I’m sure Western entertainment has some similarly knotty (though not necessarily similar per se) kinds of association. What about the ‘fellowship’ of Malory’s knights: part of the same entity, and tied together by an honour system, yet pursuing different goals and sometimes outright fighting each other? (It occurs to me that the fellows of an Oxbridge college also fit this description.)

    • Yumeka says:

      Yes, “comrade” is sometimes a better translation for “nakama” than “friend” in some situations.

      Your example with Precure is interesting in that they’re tomodachi in everyday life and nakama when fulfilling their duty as magical girls. This shows the distinction between the two words very well – tomodachi for daily friends that have fun together and nakama for supporting friends who share a common goal.

      I’m not familiar with your Western example, but from what you’ve said, it sounds like a good “nakama” example =)

    • VigorousJammer says:

      I like the idea of translating “nakama” as “fellows”, although the word “fellows” isn’t quite as common in English as “nakama” is in Japanese.
      I think in most cases “comrade” is probably the best translation.

      Google gives this definition for comrade: “a companion who shares one’s activities or is a fellow member of an organization.”
      So it’s not limited to people who are in a group, but simply people who have some kind of bond.

      I think it’s stupid that Kaizoku Fansubs didn’t translate it that way. Their justification also makes no sense, since the difference between “suki”, “daisuki”, and “aishiteru” is also very similar, but they translated those just fine.
      Their whole point is that “nakama” can carry different connotations in Japanese and that they couldn’t think of one word that fits all the meanings. However, that’s a shitty justification. They should simply use the context of a scene to determine what the appropriate meaning of a word is. Leaving it untranslated is just idiotic, and creates a undesirable final product. It’s the same thing with how they left “yoshh” untranslated, and “mikan”. At the end of the day, it’s just a shitty looking script, you know?
      Kaizoku-Fansub’s releases are so terrible that they’re the main reason I bought One Piece on DVD and am watching it with Funimation’s subtitles instead.

  5. krizzlybear says:

    The line between friendship and ‘family’ in anime is very blurred, and can easily get lost in translation. I certainly love reading into the tvtropes entry for this concept, though I hardly see it as a trope, but rather a culture-based construct within the medium. Great use of examples here, comparing K-ON to One Piece to the iconic Cowboy Bebop. I myself am drawn to Samurai Champloo as another example of nakama. Jin and Mugen are bent on killing each other, while Fuu thinks both of them as useless bodyguards. Yet at the end of the day, they’re the only group they’ve got, and they’re all running away from their pasts in the same vein as the Bebop crew. The one minor difference is Jin and Mugen’s comradery developing from rivalry: “Only I’m allowed to kill him,” etc.

    Excellent post!

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it ^^

      Now that you mention family, I now realize that I’ve seen more anime focused on the bonds of nakama-hood than family bonds. Perhaps the real world concept of the loving, supportive nuclear family phasing out over the years is simply being reflected in anime. As I always say, friends are the family you can choose for yourself =)

      I haven’t seen Samurai Champloo, but from what I’ve heard of it, it does sound similar to Cowboy Bebop in the nakama sense. Good example!

  6. Hogart says:

    Nice analysis, I’ve personally always wondered about mikata and yuujin, though :)

    I like to think of nakama as “comrades” and tomodachi as “friends”. Nakama may or may not have a bond strong enough to be considered “familial”, while tomodachi may or may not have tested their bonds at all.

    But are the characters in Toradora really tomodachi? They always felt somewhere in-between to me.. maybe even closer to nakama by the end of the anime.

    • Yumeka says:

      “Mikata” is more like an ally or someone on your side, less friendly than tomodachi and nakama. I hardly hear “yuujin” used but I think it’s just a more formal term for “tomodachi.”

      Good point about the Toradora! cast. I would say that some of them are “tomodachi” and some are more like “nakama.” For example, Taiga and Minori are tomodachi as are Ryuji and Kitamura. Ami is more like a nakama to all of them since she helps them out so much but never gets that friendly with them.

  7. H says:

    That’s pretty interesting and that happens in life too you know though, they don’t have two words for it. But it makes sense why they (‘they’ being the Japanese of course) would make a distinction between the two that way.
    bye.
    –End–

  8. Myna says:

    I assumed that nakama was ‘stronger’ than tomodachi, so thanks for the confirmation and the kanji lesson! :)
    And I love what you wrote about the Bebop crew. <3

    • Yumeka says:

      “Nakama” is usually stronger on the level of duty and self-sacrifice, while “tomodachi” is usually stronger on the level of thoughtfulness and affection. I would say that overall nakama have deeper bonds, but it could be because, as Hogart said above, tomodachi aren’t usually in situations to test the strength of their bonds XD

  9. Edward says:

    Great post! I was wondering what the difference between the two was until now. especially in Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s, where I kept hearing “nakama” between the main characters (Yusei, Jack, etc.) all the time, which makes total sense now. :)

    Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but is “mikata” (味方) used for weaker relationships, such as “allies” or simply “partners”? I might have heard that word from somewhere, but I don’t remember. And what about “yuujin” (友人)?

    • Salion says:

      I second this question. :)

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks, glad you found the post informative ^_^

      As for your question, yes, “mikata” are first and foremost allies or people on the same side as you. They could be friends too, but they’re supporters firstly.

      And for “yuujin’ I think it’s just a more formal word for “tomodachi” that’s not used much in everyday conversation.

  10. My “daughter” in our little Durarara!! family (something that happened due to Ohayocon 2011) recently declared to all of us that we are her nakama. It gave me a warm glowy feeling when she did. I think the word is fitting, though you could also definitely use tomodachi–I think in our case though, I would use tomodachi for the more individual friendships (me and my daughter) and nakama for the family group.

    • Yumeka says:

      Nice story =) I think “tomodachi” or “nakama” would be appropriate in this case, but it’s ultimately up to your personal preference ^^,,,

  11. f0calizer says:

    What a coincidence – I was just commenting on Myna a.k.a aimless anime’s post about Natsume’s Book of Friends and the upcoming 3rd season of the anime. “Yuujinchou” is translated as Book of Friends, and “yuujin” seems to be a term that’s a bit more archaic and classical that’s uncommon now. That sort of fits the tone of the Natsume anime, since Natsume is returning the names of spirits his *grandmother* accumulated in her notebook, and thus reaching back in time to understand more about her as well.

    • Yumeka says:

      Yes, I believe “yuujin” is just a more formal, classic term for “friend.” I still hear it used sometimes but more so in literature than conversation.

  12. kluxorious says:

    Nakama is the sort of friends I am after in real life. If you can have that kind of bond with someone not blood related, you know you have done something right in life.

    • Yumeka says:

      Yes, good point, I think it’s better to have a few good nakama than lots of tomodachi (which is what I believe I have in real life XD)

  13. plasma991 says:

    Nice Japanese lesson! I always like your posts on Japanese culture and language. Now I can say I learned something today. ^^

  14. Cytrus says:

    This seems like original research to me… some points are the author’s own interpretation. Oh well.

    仲間 - nakama, under normal circumstances, you would expect the people “do” like each other, though it’s true that a strong sense of unity would be enough to use this word

    友達 < 友人 <  親友 / tomodachi < yuujin < shinyuu Probably the standard order of intimacy. You often only get one shinyuu in your life. Tomodachi is the most standard word, doesn't necessarily mean the bonds are weak, just that there's no need to emphasise how strong they are. Yuujin is, for example, the word Sasaki uses to describe her relationship with Kyon in Suzumiya, making the god-empress very, very worried.

    味方 Mikata is the opposite of  敵 teki (enemy) and so it merely means "ally". This can be used to talk about people who you intend to kill five minutes after they've outlived their usefulness… Homura from Madoka calls herself the "ally of reasonable people" using this word… no particular warm feelings in that declaration. Not that you can't have actual good relations with your allies, of course.

    The Japanese also have a whole array of other words meaning "friend" that are more specific and limited in range, like "school friend", "war friend", "childhood friend" etc.

    You could probably write a paper on this subject. The Japanese are too damn nakayoshi.

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks for expanding on all the terms for “friend”! Very good info.

      I didn’t mention “shinyuu” since I know it’s more of a “best friend” and not a term you’d use for a lot of people. And yeah, the Japanese are very “nakayoshi” XD You can tell what’s important in a culture based on how many words they have for a single concept.

  15. Kal says:

    Thanks for the class Yumeka-Sensei!

    This is very interesting. I knew the Japanese had many words to differentiate relations (like the many honorifics), but this is very interesting. No wonder Japanese is so hard to learn, they have so many words for the same things but with subtle variations. Very good insight though, thanks!

  16. MacGuy says:

    Just would like to make a brief (albeit late) comment on this. I love the philosophical implications of these two types of friendships. Aristotle distinguished between three types of friendship himself – utility, pleasure, and virtue. Utility is a friendship where both parties are benefited in the sense that you scratch their back and they’ll scratch yours. Pleasure is exactly like Todomachi, where you connect with someone because of how happy they make you feel. Virtue, on the other hand, is more like Nakama in the sense that it is not necessarily just about pleasure/utility but primarily about striving toward having a virtuous character. This kind of friendship transcends all as you strive toward the good of the other person and yourself, such that you would even be willing to give your life for that friend. Thank you for bringing this up, I think it’s interesting to think about!

  17. Alpha says:

    very good explanation!
    I always read your blog and it always so refreshing..
    Keep blogging Yumeka-san ^_^

  18. Oh this is great piece of info! Never thought about it before!

  19. Giorno Giovanna says:

    Hey really well put together article! Really enjoyed reading it

Leave a Comment

*