Lost in Translation: Charlotte’s Cultural Differences

With the recent episode of Charlotte, a point was brought to my attention that reminded me just how much Westerners miss out on things related to Japanese culture. While I have a different post I wanted to write, it in fact connects to this. When I previously described things lost in translation, I also mentioned cultural differences. My guess is that these cultural differences usually do not play a significant role in the plot or story. A lot of them often go over our heads as we don’t even realize we missed something. But sometimes we notice them; we notice them and interpret them according to our culture rather than Japan’s.

Episode 7 of Charlotte focuses on Yuu’s descent into madness as he is overcome with grief at the death of Ayumi. He starts off simply holed up in his apartment, eating nothing but delicious cup ramen. He escapes the school, takes an unhealthy amount of joy in a videogame, and then begins abusing his powers to win street fights. Finally, just as he is about to turn to drugs, Nao kicks some sense into him, literally. There are a lot of ways to interpret this scene but most likely there are no Westerners who reacted the way it was written to be. How bad are drugs, really? Conservatives might view the scene in agreement: drugs are very dangerous and cross a line which should not be crossed. Others don’t see it as that bad: drugs are not inherently such an evil depending on the circumstances and what kind of drug, so maybe this was a circumstantial implication. Still others don’t see how it’s so much worse than his previous state: Yuu was already stabbing people, causing serious bodily harm and enjoying it; didn’t he already cross a big line? But it’s hard to remember when thinking about this scene that you are painting the scene with your idea on drugs. And it’s harder to realize that a culture exists with a completely different view because even if your ideas are based on facts, they aren’t based on relevant facts – the relevancy here being Japanese culture.


I won’t pretend to be an expert on how drugs work in Japan, but I feel I am knowledgeable enough to shed some light and make people rethink this scene from a different viewpoint. Basically, drugs are a huge taboo in Japan. No one wants anything to do with drugs, the yakuza wouldn’t touch drugs with a ten kilometer pole, and if anyone found out you used drugs, they would probably turn you in and never want to speak to you again. You can very realistically lose your job and place in society once people find out you use drugs; they are simply viewed as that horrible. It is probably nothing like how it is in your country and culture. When Yuu is about to take drugs, it is a very clear depiction that he is about to cross a line that should never be crossed. This is understood and felt by the Japanese audience because it’s a real reflection of their culture and upbringing. Even if you agree with or accept this depiction, it will fail to invoke the same level of feelings or reactions as it would from a Japanese viewer.

This is something that cannot be conveyed with the best subtitles in the world. No translation of this scene into a different culture would work without changing the scene itself to maybe match the individual values of a person. However, unlike Japan, many cultures, but particularly America’s, are heterogeneous and people do not share values as uniformly as the homogeneity of the Japanese. As a result, there is no way to translate the impact of this scene properly because there are so few things that everyone in a given culture has a similar viewpoint on. You can strive to understand it and relate to it, but the difference in cultures is too great to achieve complete understanding.

If such a difference between cultures of humanity can exist, how much more so do you think the difference between humans and a god is? Notice I am not even referring to the Christian God, but only to the concept of a god in general. When people talk of and argue the semantics of religions and gods, they seem to always do so on their terms, on their perceptions, and on their definitions. Morality, justice, love, hate, sin, good, evil, and so on. We get caught up in trying to argue what these things mean and how a theoretical god will act that we ignore the most basic thing: if a god (not even the Christian God) exists, why would you think that your ideas are an accurate representation of anything about this god? We can’t even understand people of different cultures without extensive research and concrete evidence, yet we claim to understand how a god might think and act.

Arguing against Christianity, there are claims such as “if God loves us then why…” or “if God is just then why…” but while these are excellent, important questions that should be asked and whose answers must be critiqued from every angle, they are often asked with the underlying implication of “therefore your God is not real.” That, however, is under the assumption that God’s definition of love and justice and punishment are logical and similar to ours. That somehow God’s morality is a reflection of our morality. You cannot disprove God’s existence through a human lens; to do so would be similar to critiquing Japanese anime with the mindset of American culture. Now as an aside, I respect and greatly appreciate the people who instead respond with something like “I cannot accept a God who…” because such people have not arrogantly pretended to have disproved anything but are merely stating their personal beliefs and issues. That response is reasonable, fair, and completely understandable.

Let’s be clear and realistic though: Christians are just as guilty of this as everyone else. It is too often that Christians arrogantly pretend to understand how God works or use the infamous phrase “God works in mysterious ways,” as if that somehow means anything to anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.  It is when such people are confronted with hard questions that they fail to have adequate answers and there is once again some implication that God’s existence has been disproved because “mysterious ways” is really code for “I don’t know.” If we were not so proud, we should be okay with admitting we don’t know how God works or how He thinks. By pretending we understand God, we are lowering his existence to that of our own. And in my view, the admittance of a lack of understanding is part of the acknowledgement that He is God because the all the gods that we can understand are mere human constructs. Perhaps there is a fear that failing to understand God means we have failed as Christians but the reality is the opposite; to arrogantly and proudly think we understand God is the true failure. The real God, whether you believe one exists or not, should be incomprehensible to humans. How can one be a god, if the god is so easily understood by humans? We can strive to understand Him and to relate to Him, but like Westerners can never have that instantly understood reaction to Yuu’s use of drugs, we can never truly understand God, nor should we pretend to.


12 thoughts on “Lost in Translation: Charlotte’s Cultural Differences

  1. I didn’t realize the Japanese viewed drugs so harshly–I didn’t really think too much into why Nao chose to engage with Yuu when she did, but that really explains her thinking process. Thanks for sharing such a intriguing insight on the episode and culture!

  2. I agree with a lot of things you’re saying about arguments regarding gods. While my view was more hostile on the subject in high school, I think I’ve since shifted to a stance that a person is welcome to believe whatever he/she wishes within the privacy of his/her own home or life.

    The problem arises when people try to push their spiritual perception on the world and try to force radical behavioral changes based on their personal beliefs. That’s what I hope that the end goal of religious debates are…not to disprove a god or dissuade someone from believing in his/her personal god, but rather to evaluate whether that person’s moral or philosophical views have any place in society. And that’s also why I believe we shouldn’t ignore religion and let it be…because some of these views are unnecessarily protected and can cause real harm to society.

    1. On the same token, what of the view that we should evaluate whether a “person’s moral or philosophical views have any place in society”? Isn’t that also pushing an agenda on someone?

      To me, perhaps a more universal line about any thought/religion/morality is “truth.” Is it true? Can it be true? It is false? Or does it fall somewhere in that vast spectrum in-between, at which point we need to bring in further ways to analyze it.

      1. Not entirely sure what is being asked. Mostly, I was saying that it’s more beneficial to analyze the implications of a certain set of moral principles in society over arguing whether a person’s belief system is “true”. Also, can morality really possess the trait of “truth”?

        1. Ah, but how you determine morality? And why is something considered beneficial?

          Truth becomes a really strong arbiter to determine morality – it slices through people who determine the morals for a society and, if we’re willing, will slice through what we consider moral or upright in our own lives.

          1. I was under the impression that morality is a measure of “proper/good behavior”, which by its very definition is relative, and therefore outside of the realm of truth. Good for one person is not necessarily good for another.

            1. If morality is relative, how can we then determine if one’s moral views “have any place in society,” as you mention should be the end result of religious debate?

              I mean, I’m with you – I think that a lot of religion can be harmful (I would hazard to guess I might think more strongly about this than you!). I just wonder how we can make judgement calls when the structure by which we judge doesn’t allow us to do so!

              1. but more to my point, I’m sure much of the controversy between the two of us is more pedantically on the matter of this word “truth”, which I just find awkward in the context of something that is not factual in nature.

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