Anime and the Misnomer of Christianity

Today’s post comes courtesy of Aelysium, a Red Cross volunteer in Japan and a new voice to the anime blogosphere who’ll add intelligence, depth, and warmth to the community.  I hope you’ll read his terrific piece below and then visit his brand new blog, Anime Elyisum.

There is an old legend (which TWWK beat me to) that back in the winter of 1945, during the start of the American occupation in Japan following their fall in WWII, a Japanese Department store eager to bustle business and interest from both Americans and Japanese, set up a life sized Santa Claus hanging from a cross. Now, as ridiculous as the image is, it highlights well what I’m going to be talking about. A ubiquitous fellow, Christianity has spread throughout the world – it’s central tenants and dogma are generally known throughout the west and even to the rest of the world, such a mix up would seldom be made, if only satirically. It’s quite a different story in Japan though and nowhere else in modern Japanese culture is this more obvious than in anime and manga.

The Japanese celebrate very few Christian holidays but even when they do, they don’t have any Christian meaning nor sincerity. Not to say the Japanese are insincere, but the spirit from which the Christian holidays originate, is not reflected in the Japanese holidays. The most obvious, as the example at the start showed, is Christmas. As opposed to being a holiday about the birth of Christ, it is a rather irreligious holiday; more a kin to a couple’s season. Whilst arguable that Christmas has lost a lot of spiritual value in the West, it’s original meaning is generally understood. Whereas in Japan, the 25th of December being Jesus’ birthday, is more a kin to a piece of uncommon trivia. Similarly, Valentine’s Day (though, arguably has no Christian meaning in the modern west either) is celebrated without any common knowledge about its origins and more and more Japanese couples of the last few generations have been opting for ceremonious Church weddings – none of it having anything to do with Yahweh, Jesus or Christianity. Hence the common phrase: “Born Shinto, marry Christian and die Buddhist”. However, not only is Christianity hardly understood but also greatly misunderstood.

What does this mean for anime then? It means we get shows rife with queer portrayals of Christianity. The crudest way to put would be as Alucard, of the controversial Helling Ultimate, did “Neither of us can back down in front of an enemy, come on then Judas Priest”. Christianity is primarily portrayed as a religion of clashes, of oppositions, power struggles, purification and of unwavering moral imperatives. What is right is right, and what is not Christian, is not right. Christianity is described best in anime probably by the following passage:

Be wise now therefore, O ye Kings: Be admonished, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling.

– Psalms 2:11

Christianity is portrayed in anime thus as the religion of benevolence but also cold morality. Cold morality simply being the ability to do anything, regardless of how heinous, if for the absolute “good” of the ‘Church’ i.e. the means justifies the ends. This often leads to very questionable morals – and churches. Now, irrespective of how man has treated Christianity throughout history, much of what anime depicts as allowable by Christianity is facetious. The fundamental problem isn’t just that anime doesn’t show Christianity in any informed manner; rather that it seems to play on a few words and run with them to the n-th degree. From the angels of Evangelion to the more recent portrayal of the Church in Fate/Zero, if someone had never experienced Christianity in any form and their only frame of reference was anime; what would they think of the belief? Probably: puritanical and unwavering, Christianity is the champion for love, moral indulgence and divine punishment.

Even more than anime’s less than coherent morality for Christianity, is its characterization. Complete with gun toting nuns, vampric demons fighting for the Church, demonic angels bringing Armageddon in the name of God, lesbian Catholic schools and gay angels – it’s suffice to say that anime, or at least the way in which anime has gone about portraying Christians, is not very accurate. But what’s the cause? I would immediately point to a fundamental difference in epistemology, that is, what we know. Buddhist-Shintoism gives us an explanation of general Japanese ontology i.e. the nature of our reality. The Japanese would be pluralist in the sense that they believe that everything we know is temporal, flawed and incomplete (Wabi Sabi). So much so, that we cannot ascertain Truth. The pluralist would maintain that we can only observe our immediate reality and cannot know the Ultimate Reality. [Interestingly, this is another major cog in the machine of Shinto deities, but that is another story for another time] In this sense, we can make moral and truth claims but we cannot actually know objective morality or truth. Due to this, the pluralist is generally skeptical of those who claim to have ascertained Truth.

Here is where traditional Japanese ontology and epistemology clash with Christianity. Christianity asserts the opposite – not only can we make propositional (absolute truth) claims, but that we have access to truth in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Typically, two types of Christianity exist: exclusive and inclusive. The exclusive Christian would claim we know truth because of Jesus, and it is by his sacrifice but also knowledge and acceptance of it that sacrifice, that we are saved. In this sense, Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills the ontological criteria for salvation and we have to fulfill the epistemological. If we do not know and accept the message, we cannot be saved. The inclusivist however, whist accepting of the ontological criteria for salvation, denies the veracity of the epistemological requirement i.e. one can still be saved even if they have never heard of Christ. Either way, the two agree on propositional truths which are in contrast to pluralistic, Japanese tradition.

This is the primary culprit I would say in the misunderstanding of Christianity. Given the skeptical attitude the Japanese would have in regards to the imperative Christian dogma, it shouldn’t be surprising that they opt to portray Christianity in a pluralistic light. Coupled with the anti-realist metaphysicalism of Dao-Buddo-Shintoism influences which label gender, sexuality etc as just unstable constructs which are neither ultimate or defining, should it surprise us to see bishounen popes and gay angels? It doesn’t matter if it is proscribed that certain actions are immoral, in the eyes of pluralistic belief, it is simply a prescription; as valid as any other. The Bible is a confusing thing in this sense. Littered with commands yet seemingly devoid of the ability to know ultimate reality, surely its okay to be a bit… liberal, with the belief? Or so I imagine one might think. One of the best portrayals of this is in Trinity Blood, where Armageddon has fallen on the earth, but instead of the new promised world; a new race of vampires and humans emerge. Of course the vampires don’t follow God and fight with the religious humans. However, I suspect depicting traditionally fallen creatures as not all bad (some are “good”) and humans, who are the will of God, as not good (some are very “bad”) is a typically pluralistic way of seeing morality – good and evil are just categories which can be overcome by seeing past them, after all. Clearly Buddhist-Shinto pluralism and Christianity fail to engage at a fundamental level. Is it really any surprise then that anime and “proper” Christianity fail to engage at even a base level? I would say, no. And whilst this abstraction of the faith is entertaining, I cannot help but wonder whether it’s entirely appropriate.

Just as Christianity has become a commodity to the Japanese class system, have it’s central principals become a triviality to the general mass? A shame, I would say, for an anime based on a sound understanding of Christianity could be very interesting. But what do you guys think? Is Japan out of touch with the faith? Do you think anime creators generally understand Christianity? Is Christianity slowly ebbing away from the importance it once held in Japan?

28 thoughts on “Anime and the Misnomer of Christianity

  1. Very interesting. I’d add another powerful cause for Japanese views of Christianity: current depictions of Christianity in Western media. Holier than thou, Machiavellian churches? Hollywood has them in droves. It’s no wonder the Japanese adopt these views when they’re so exposed to them.

    As for the crucified Claus story, here’s another version. What I was told was that back in the 80s the department store Mitsukoshi lay out a big ad for Christmas featuring Santa on a cross. And the story keeps mutating, as this card witnesses (warning, this might upset some):

    1. This is very true. The west hasn’t done Christianity any favours in terms of real portrayal, it is arguably becoming rapidly just as lost on the dogma as perhaps its less aware Japanese counterparts. And Japan being Japan, loves to view, collect and absorb western culture. That said, I’m not so sure this is an ignorant factor on the part of the west as much as a movement towards more secular media.

      Yea, the santa story is just a legend. Regardless of the minor variations, I think it highlighted the point I wanted though.

      Thanks for the comment, great point 🙂

  2. I don’t see the problem. There are anime scenes with “advanced hacking” that manifests as basic computer code on a screen. In American TV shows, Scrubs and House are poor depictions of medical environments. No point in quibbling over such lack of research or understanding in these things.

    Plus, the recent episode of Uchuu Kyoudai had the Asian dude speedsolving a Rubik’s Cube with beginner’s method! How insulting…

    1. It’s not meant to be a criticism or my complaining about a lack of generally accurate Christian anime, just an attempt at explaining what seems to be a complete disregard for any kind of actual Christian content. Even in shows where religion is prominent and seek to create a realistic kind of aesthetic, Christianity is never given any kind of real show. Helling often quoted the Bible but it all seemed for show if nothing else as they were just meant to be “cool” as opposed to relevant.

      I guess this is my point, Christianity just seems to have become another tool in the class of “cool” stuff to put in anime. With little understanding about it and even less time invested in actually knowing even the basics, I was just saying that the reason was just that it seemed at first hand confusing to a culture as different as the Shinto-Japanese.

      1. I don’t mean to sound callous, but growing up in Southern USA, I knew more about Christianity than most Christians. If they can’t bother to understand their own religion, why should Japan?

        1. It’s not callous, a fair point. But I’m neither debating the veracity of knowledge of the general Christian neither am I saying Japan should introduce bibles into every classroom. I was just trying to make the distinction in general Christian and Japanese spirituality (though, its more of a lifestyle for the Japanese) that render the two groups unable to communicate. Each seems alien to the other, hence why it isn’t surprising that Christianity and anime seldom agree. Japan doesn’t need to understand Christianity to make anime, but it’s just interesting that it introduced pluralistic aspects to Christianity and has such a rich amount of Christian anime yet none actually involving Christianity as it actually is.

        2. We are trying to have a open-minded and reasonable discussion here. If you can’t deal with your own personal issues regarding Christianity, go somewhere else.

          1. That was exactly what they were doing, lalala. Plus, the comments are several days old. Let’s just let it rest.

            1. From what I read, I thought he was rambling to his own liking while disregarding the main point of the post and the author’s replies. I’ve also seen him bringing up Christianity and bashing it on several other blogs for no good reason. Granted, you have the freedom to do so but doing so when everyone else is being open-minded and reasonable just rubs me the wrong way.

              Oh, and I know it’s more than a week old. I just replied on a whim. Sorry if that bugged you. ^.^

  3. The relationship between Christianity and Japan has been problematic since its introduction by the Jesuits (Catholic) back in the 16th century. Not to mention that the Christian faith was officially outlawed “on pain of death” after the Shimabara uprising until Japan re-opened its borders to the West centuries later.

    Whatever the Japanese learned about Christianity has come piece meal. This includes a variety of sources be they secular or the myriad Christian sects that have since tried to establish themselves.

    A crucified Santa doesn’t seem that unusual when you look at it.

    The syncretism of local and foreign faith(s) are inevitable. Shinto and the various off-shoots of Buddhism exist in parallel and are now a necessary part of Japanese life.

    The Japanese cherry pick whatever appeals to them, change or syncretize what’s left, and you get what the TV Tropes site calls Anime Christianity.
    Even Christianity had to incorporate pagan beliefs in order to propagate itself into what would one day become Western Europe.

    There is a interesting book I think you should read called Pagan Christianity. A lot of the tenets of faith that are considered Christian were taken from pagan (non-Christian) sources.

    1. You’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head with Anime Christianity. It’s interesting to see how this kind of portrayal has actually grown in recent years.

      I’m not so sure about the Pagan Christianity – influences from past cultures are a given but just how much they were influenced is debated upon. I’ll check it out though. Thanks for the comment and the recommendation.

    2. I might have to take a look at that book. But as far as I know, Christianity only adopted ideas from pagan philosophers (Plato in the case of St. Augustine and Aristotle in the case of St. Thomas Aquinas), which, especially when Aristotle speaking of a Prime Mover as the origin of the Universe, are often not especially pagan. And there were certain holidays which Christians took over, usually by having an Christian holiday celebrated on the same day in order to ensure that Christian youth would not be tempted into joining a pagan party–Christmas being established on a day dedicated to Apollo perhaps being the best example. Then, there are temples which were converted into Christian churches, like the Pantheon in Rome; but, how pagan can that be when one’s destroyed all the idols and reconsecrated it to God?

      But the one thing which makes me doubt that Christianity really ever paganized are all the persecutions ordered by the Roman government. If Christians really wanted to compromise their beliefs to fit in, wouldn’t they have done so enough to avoid persecution? If this was the general trend of Christianity, we’d at least all be Arians at the moment!

      1. The book addresses everything you said and then some. I felt the book went too far in the other direction (Christianity sycnretizing too many influences from other religions and cultures and losing its first century beginnings) but it did make some valid comparisons.

      2. It gets really complicated to sort out what might be a “borrowing” from what might be an independent development. Human beings being what they are, all religions share certain features. I recall some scholars taking fertility cults in the Middle East (where a man is sacrificed each year and then comes back to life, e.g. Attis) and then claiming that the Gospel was a mutation of that. Tough to prove, as the idea of resurrection is part of a universal human longing. Still, it’s an interesting topic.

  4. I am intrigued by this wonderful post. Not only does your rational line up with my knowledge of Japanese culture, it also fits my experiences. I do not hide the fact that I am in Japan as a Christian missionary, and many of the missionaries I have talked to here have said very similar things in relation the Japanese understanding of Christianity. Most Nihonjin that I have talked to have little to no background of Christianity. Also, the western methods of telling people about salvation doesn’t work as well as in the west. In Tokyo, we are trying to work with Japanese churches in doing outreach. Most of the people we have met, want to know the are loved and that they can be part of God’s family. The family aspect is so important.

    Another thing I have noticed here is that faith in Japanese culture is much more of an intellectual belief than a trust based view.

    This was a wonderful post. I am excited to read more from you. Also, I am not sure where you are based out of, but I am going to be in Tohoku a few times in these next two weeks. I am so excited to see more posts from you

    1. Its not just Haibane in the banner, the blog is covered in it ^ ^

      Well I’d agree with you. I’m not here on any religious mission but certainly when prompted, people can hardly tell me anything about Christianity – it normally comes up in conversation, as in they ask me, and when I ask them about it, I don’t get a huge amount. That said, when I’ve asked about Shinto as well, I’ve hardly received much info back. Religion like in the west is a baffling idea – spirituality in Japan is a personal thing in the sense that you pick it when you need it. God’s don’t function the same and rules aren’t the same. As you said, Faith is less of a thing you actively put into – the concept baffles most Japanese people. It is interesting to consider why.

      Well thank you ^ ^ Unfortunately I will be nowhere near Tohoku, I’m in Aichi. but good luck on your venture. I look forward to writing more 🙂

  5. No, the japanese have no clue at all. They just want the form, not the substance of Christianity. For example, they decorate with Christmas trees, sometimes exchange gifts, etc. In fact, Dec. 24, Christmas Eve is more important to them than Dec. 25 itself. Students go to school on Dec. 25… maybe that’s the reason. But Dec. 24 is like valentine’s day to them, Couples NEED to be together on this day.

  6. Christianity has a few major proponents that act in an opposition of sorts against the Japanese idea of “gods”. I think a comment Yoko Kanno made summed it up perfectly what you are trying to get at:

    “But Japanese don’t believe in one God, but in gods everywhere in plants and animals. That’s right. In Japan, Christianity has a wonderful image. People enjoy the image of Christ and Christianity in picture books, but not as a religion”

    With that said, the yield of “gods” in Japan yield to a bigger concept of time or naru that acts as a natural law of sort that dictates how things change or will become, hence the term. In addition to this, naru itself lends itself into other aesthetics such as music (I.E like how Wabi Sabi is linked into the idea of Zen Buddism yet also art), so the idea of Christianity in a sense is not misunderstood (to a degree) it just works wholly different from the Japanese idea that is integrated into secular life and layered within its society.

    1. Great quote by one of my favourite composers and great point!

      I wold agree. When I said misunderstood, I didn’t mean they get it wrong simply, rather the basics of Christianity are just so perplexing and radically different to their own Dao-Shinto-Buddhism that to try to write a coherent narrative involving Christianity must be a chore for any mangaka. It may sound like it, but I don’t think the Japanese are to blame. No one is to blame, it’s just a conflict of culture that seems quite insurmountable without extended discussion.

  7. Have you played any Shin Megami Tensei games? They illustrate your point perfectly: in a world full of demons and many gods, they include the Christian god along with angels as his servants. If you follow the Christian God in the games, you end up eliminating free will to destroy sin. If you fight against the Christian god and kill him, then bad things happen as well. So he’s not exactly good or evil in the games.

    1. As a die-hard Persona and Megami Tensei fan, I know all too well what you mean!

      One of the most intriguing things about Plurality in Japan actually is the weird disconnection between how well the laymen understands it and how poorly they can explain it to another laymen. When I first arrived in Japan, one of the questions I was asked was about religion but when I asked about Shinto, the reply I got was less than detailed. The idea of pluralism is so interwoven with cultural Buddho-Shinto everyday practice, that they seem to know it without realizing. The idea that the Christian God not being all good is no problem to them as the concept of absolutism is lost. The idea of contradictions in the logic of the characters is also not an issue as logicality is constructed.

      Thanks for the comment draggle ^ ^

  8. Accurately reflecting the way things are is usually a low priority in fiction, if the expected audience isn’t likely to be familiar with the details themselves. So I would expect, unless presented with evidence to the contrary, Western depictions of Eastern religion and Eastern depictions of Western religion to generally be equally accurate. Which is to say, not accurate at all, we use Eastern religious stuff to provide nothing more than cool images in the same way, say, Evangelion uses Christianity. Which shouldn’t be a surprise (either way), fiction is ultimately about how people should live their lives, and what the philosophy behind some foreign religion actually is is unlikely to have much of a bearing on that.

    One thing in particular, you really can’t blame them for inventing their own notion of Christmas. The Western notion of Christmas is a complete mess really, a Pagan celebration of the solstice, co-opted by Christianity as a convenient time to pretend is Jesus’s birthday, with a healthy amount of family togetherness, and then co-opted again by consumerism as a way of making people spend lots of money. What’s an outsider supposed to make of that? Indeed I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone who celebrates what a modern Christmas really is, with the Pagan and Christian sides in particular being difficult to reconcile. Every subculture in the West invents its own version of Christmas too.

  9. […] Orthodox Christians, why bother reading things that may not comport with our worldview? Anime is notorious for not understanding Christianity (and thinks that Christianity is just Roman Catholicism),1 and is generally suspicious, if not […]

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