August has been a month for discussing context here at Beneath the Tangles, and I highly recommend looking at both articles recently written on this subject: Annalyn’s article about historical/cultural context, and Kaze’s article about man’s context VS God’s context. Here, I’ll be adding my humble contribution and completing the proverbial “Context Trinity.”
Growing up in the 90s, while attending a private/Christian school, I received my first taste of franchise demonizing. The school faculty sent out word that anything Pokémon—be that lunchboxes, trading cards, action figures, or even roleplaying during recess—would henceforth be banned at the school on account of the series’ demonic influence and focus on evolution.
Fifteen years later, I’m witnessing the advent of Yo-Kai Watch, a game-turned-anime-and-manga franchise about a boy with the ability to see and tame yokai with the help of a magical Yokai Watch. The new series has already overtaken Japanese audiences (and surpassed Pokémon—its spiritual predecessor—in popularity), with an official Western release scheduled for the games and anime next year.
Recently, I saw a post on my Facebook feed that I couldn’t scroll past. A fellow Christian acquaintance had posted about Yo-Kai Watch, warning other Christians that it was demonic and that children should stay away from it. They referenced an article written by Gamesradar+, which stated, “There’s a real playfulness to each of the [yokai’s] designs, most of which are based on Japanese folklore demons, otherwise known as yokai.”
That terrible word “demon” is like a red flag to Christians. I can understand why reading this single article about the series might raise serious concerns in someone’s mind, but this particular Christian was mistaken in that they assumed the word “demon” was cross-cultural—that Eastern and Western demons were compatible entities.
The truth is, though, that the word “yokai” does not precisely equate to “demon” (though “demon” is often the translation of choice when Japanese franchises are brought to English-speaking audiences). In fact, many agree that the closest possible translation is “mysterious phenomena,” but given the wordiness of that, “demon” is much more practical and invokes a sort of “fierceness” that alternative choices like “fairy” or “spirit” might not.
Having spent some time researching this particular aspect of Japanese lore, I’ve concluded that yokai are much closer kin to the baleful Fair Folk of European tales or the dryads and other mythological creatures of Greek mythology than they are to Satan’s henchmen. (If you want my full analysis on the subject, please check out my article over at Geeks Under Grace.) What’s ultimately important, though, is that assuming yokai to be the same as the demons found within Scripture is to overlook their original context.
I think, as anime fans, we’re exposed to this concept of context more than many other sub-cultures around us. Consuming anime introduces us to a manner of viewing the world that is different than our culture’s own. For example, most of us understand the significance of a “nosebleed” in anime, while first-time viewers might think the character is suffering from a brain hemorrhage rather than a romantic infatuation.
On a more serious level, though, we’re also exposed to words like “yokai,” which are literally demonized in our native tongue, much to the fear-mongering of uninformed Christian consumers. The reason? Context. To Christians, the word “demon” carries with it a context of evil or Satanism, and when a nigh un-translatable word like “yokai” is converted to “demon,” we immediately raise our red flags, not realizing that much of our speculation comes from a contextual error; namely, that yokai and demons, at least on a rudimentary level, are by no means the same thing.
It’s said that people fear what they don’t understand. I often see this in practice within Christian circles, where anything resembling magic is condemned, sometimes without any real research and only the most biased of sources used as “proof.”
That’s not to say that some concern isn’t warranted. Ultimately, I can’t determine what’s right for anyone besides myself, and I fully respect those who have done their research and decided to abstain from something because of their findings. Those who research yokai, for example, and find them spiritually troubling are better stewards of context than those who merely see the word “demon” and do nothing to seek out the truth behind its conceptual use. Ignorance is not a shield that we can afford to hide behind, especially as Christians. Doing so undermines our credibility and makes us appear closed off, rather than open-armed, to the world at large (see John 17:16).
So why is it so important to keep a strong focus on context? Because beyond offering accurate comprehension of a subject matter, context is key in relating to others. Jesus understood this principle and frequently used it when connecting with those around Him in order to spread His teachings. In the book of Matthew, for example, Christ explains how riches and worldly goods can distract us from heavenly things:
And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24)
Notice that Jesus uses metaphors that His audience understands. Despite having all knowledge, Christ doesn’t say “It is easier for the Milky Way to go through the rings of Saturn, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Instead, he references objects that everyone in his audience can connect with: camels and needles. This way, His application can be grasped by those He’s speaking to.
If we want to connect with others, we must first pinpoint where they’re coming from: what parental, cultural, religious, and societal contexts are they living within? How successfully we befriend and comprehend others depends upon how intimately we’re able to relate to them (and how genuine our efforts are in the process).
On a spiritual level, understanding another person’s context is also the key to sharing our Faith with them. We’re often able to bridge our differing contexts with something we have in common—something we can both reference. For those who regularly read Beneath the Tangles, that “something” is likely anime. Perhaps a concept like grace or unconditional love is a difficult matter to explain to someone unfamiliar with the Christian Faith, but compare those concepts with anime characters like Naruto Uzumaki or Kaori Miyazono or Vash the Stampede, and suddenly the lights come on. Gearing our messages and discussions toward another person’s context is a method that Christians have been using since the time of Christ—a method, in fact, that the four Gospels use quite proficiently.
Several books in the Bible are written entirely from a contextual standpoint. Once this context is grasped, the books can be even more accurately understood. For example, Mark is written to a primarily non-Jewish audience, which is why his book takes the time to explain certain Jewish customs and uses more common language than the other four Gospels; compared to the other Gospels, Mark’s book is also much more fast-paced, filled with miracles and action that would hold the interest of those who did not relate with the teachings of Christ on a religious level. Oppositely, the Gospel of Matthew is written to Jews, and thus takes a much more Jewish perspective, detailing important lineage and pointing out references to the Torah within Christ’s teachings.
All too often, we Christians try to force spiritual truths upon people who have no contextual grounds for grasping them. When we do that, though, we force people away. (People fear what they do not understand, remember?) Then, rather than try to meet people where they are and understand their contexts, we condemn them as “lost” without daring to bridge the gap between us.
The Bible warns that some truths can be harmful to those who are not spiritually mature enough for them, and compares those who are young in their Faith to babies that must consume milk for nourishment (1 Peter 2:2). We don’t put steak on a baby’s plate and expect him/her to eat it (in fact, this could be very dangerous for one so young). In much the same way, we should not expect non-Christians (or even newborn Christians) to be able to grasp heavier spiritual truths right away, and we would do well to realize that trying to force such weighty, spiritual truths on others could do more harm than good.
Likewise, when we immediately throw up our red flags and shut away anything and anyone—people and entertainment alike—that rubs us the wrong way without attempting to understand them, we only do ourselves, and our Savior, a disservice. Christ was not above ministering to people of all spiritual backgrounds, comprehensions, and contexts, trying to relate to them on their level. Certainly, we cannot do better that.
Looking back at Pokémon, I see that some of the assumptions made by Christians led to the franchise being demonized on a boarder level. I hope that, with the advent of Yo-Kai Watch, Christians will do a double-take and question whether or not their concerns with the franchise are truly valid by biblical standards.
But regardless of whether the new franchise is accepted or shunned by individual Christians, I don’t believe that anyone on either side has the right to claim ignorance or “assumption,” just as we do not have the right to remain ignorant or “assume” when it comes to reaching out to those around us and trying to connect with them on a contextual level.