BY ALICE GUILE
“You’ll never get anywhere in life if you spend all your time watching television. Switch that telly off and find a book to read. You might actually learn something.” That’s what Mum used to say when she thought I had watched too much T.V. Conventional parenting logic is that children learn from books, and waste time, or are digitally babysat, when watching T.V programmes or playing computer games. However, what young people can learn from watching cartoons should not be underestimated. I learned my numbers and Alphabet from Sesame Street, but it isn’t just pre-schoolers that can benefit educationally from time spend in front of the television. I recently worked at a Japanese cultural event in London, promoting a company which provides language tours alongside cultural activities. I had previously taught English to Spanish children in Madrid, and had to devise ways to interest and motivate my pupils. So, I took a particular interest in children who approached my stall. I’m fascinated by how children acquire language and the ease with which children can learn a second language, so I asked many of them why they were interested in learning Japanese. The answer was usually that they loved anime and wanted to understand it in the original, that it had made them curious about Japan and its language. When I mentioned this to a friend, they said “They must have incredibly pushy parents, forcing them to learn Japanese.” I explained that it was not true that the interest was just from pushy middle-class parents. The interest was from the children themselves, who came from a wide variety of social backgrounds. There were many children wearing cosplay, even when their parents were not, and they talked about how much they loved Japanese culture. The language tours for 14-17 year olds, run by the company I worked for, only started this year with 15 spaces. Yet, I might have spoken to over 50 interested children and their parents. It was clear there was huge demand. I would not be surprised if the tour next year was sold out just from the promotion at that one event. The tours for adults were separate, but I think a family package could be popular; there was clearly a market surrounding young anime lovers and their parents.
When I told my Mum about the enthusiasm young people have for Japanese culture, she was very surprised. She explained that it was completely different when she was growing up in the 1960’s;
“When I was born, WW2 had finished only 16 years ago, and all the adults around me had lived through it. Our parents would refer to the Japanese in a very hostile way; Japan made them think of prisoner of war camps and cruelty.” It has been calculated that over 42,000 European servicemen were taken prisoner by the Japanese, and at least one in five lost their lives. European prisoners of war were treated extremely badly because the Japanese believed it was honourable to commit suicide rather than be captured. They considered captured soldiers to be below contempt. Japan had not signed the Geneva convention and did not adhere to European standards governing the treatment of prisoners of war. Access to the Red Cross was denied, torture and starvation were common. During the second half of the 20th century, the Japanese government decided to create a better national image by distributing their pop culture throughout the world. Their idea of increasing soft power to overturn the negative effect of the war has resulted in Japan becoming a cultural superpower. The cute, kawaii image is calculated to be non-threatening to neutralise hostility. The popularity of Japanese culture among my generation shows how successful this has been. In the 2000’s the ‘Cool Japan’ campaign was successfully promoted by the Japanese government. Various animes series have been transformed into big budget Hollywood films, or series such as ‘A Ghost in the Shell’ or ‘Death Note’. As a child, and also at art school, I met many people who loved to draw manga illustrations, and attended comicon or watched Studio Ghibli films. Cultural icons such as Pokémon or Hello Kitty are recognised in every part of the world.
I often hear it said that English speaking people don’t try hard enough to learn other languages, that the fact that everyone else wants to learn English demotivates us. However, my experience indicates that if people are exposed to entertainment from other cultures, or in foreign languages, particularly at a young age, it can make a difference. As the older generation passes, the atrocities of the prisoner of war camps will be largely forgotten and a new, positive image of Japan will prevail.