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…
We’re not acquaintances, we’re not friends,
We’re not relatives, we’re not siblings,
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 =)