Akemi's Anime World

Defining "Anime" Editorial

What is it that makes anime anime, and does it have anything to do with being Japanese?

Here's a rather fundamental question: What does "anime" mean? The answer used to be "Japanese animation," but I'm about to spend a whole lot of words arguing that that definition is inadequate, and explaining the one I prefer: "anime is anime."

In fact, both the American Heritage dictionary and Webster's beat me to it (Oxford is still a throwback). Both define anime similarly, if as a rather narrow stereotype. The former offers the rather prejudiced "A style of animation developed in Japan, characterized by stylized colorful art, futuristic settings, violence, and sex." The latter gives the slightly better "A style of animation originating in Japan that is characterized by stark colorful graphics depicting vibrant characters in action-filled plots often with fantastic or futuristic themes." Getting closer, even if it overlooks the entire shoujo genre and a few others. Notably, however, both agree that the style is Japanese-inspired but not necessarily Japanese.

Basically, both of those "official" definitions boil down to the reasonable "Anime is animation in the style developed by the Japanese." I'd say the majority of anime fans at this point consider that definition good enough. I'm going to offer a slightly more developed definition in a bit, but if that sounds good enough for you, then you need not read any further.

If, however, you're in the group that still insists "No, it's gotta be Japanese," or you're just curious, then read on. Though I probably sound like a wacko or grammar nut, I'm going to go all-out in an attempt to define in a more useful way a term that is rather fundamental to an anime fan. Yes, it's really just semantics, and I'm going to be including a nice long "Does it have to be Japanese to be anime?" rant, but mainly I'm offering one way of solidifying its meaning in a way that's most useful to the people to whom it means the most.

So let's get started.

The Linguistic Argument

Before I even get going, I'd like to get one pet peeve out of the way: Some people seem to think that anime means "Japanese animation" in the Japanese language. Absolutely untrue. The word "anime" in Japanese is slang for "animeeshon", meaning (obviously) "animation."

As far as the Japanese are concerned, Beauty and the Beast or The Flintstones are technically just as much "anime" as Chibi Maruko-san, Tenchi Muyo, or Jin Roh. We've readopted the word into English to refer to animation that comes from the Tezuka lineage, but the people who brought the word over from English in the first place don't necessarily use it that way.

Now, there are a few people who're going to insist that because the Japanese use the word anime to refer to all animation, English speakers should as well. That's not even worth arguing, since it's utterly useless--we already have a word for that, after all: "animation."

In truth, there's some middle-ground even in Japan. If you say "I'm an anime fan." to most Japanese, they're probably going to assume you mean exactly the same thing as an English speaker familiar with the genre would--that you like anime, not that you love anything and everything animated. It's not a strict definition in Japanese, but without any other context, even most Japanese assume the word "anime" refers to Japanese-style animation.

So, the question then comes back to exactly what it should mean in English. That's where I'm going to start.

Why not "Japanese animation"

A lot of people are probably going to ask "What's wrong with defining it as 'Japanese animation'?" Nothing inherently, but I believe that definition is now simultaneously too broad and too narrow to be useful. It's also unfair to a lot of creators who aren't.

In the early days of "anime," as far as the US public was concerned things were pretty simple. The animation that came out of Japan all had a distinctive look to it, and there was nothing else like it in the world. Things are no longer that simple, though.

Animation in any style can be and is made in Japan, including many that don't fit the stylistic framework pioneered by Tezuka Osamu that I and most anime fans have grown to love. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is one obvious example, but there are many others--the work of less stylistically constrained (and less well known) artists, mostly. Ones that have made it to the US include the "Cloud" section of Robot Carnival and the "Labyrinth" segment of Neo-Tokyo, but there are many more artists and works in existence.

Similarly, people from other nations can produce "anime style" art that is indistinguishable--both in style and entertainment value--from "true" Japanese productions. And then there's a growing middle ground of things that don't fit a black and white definition at all. I'll dig into those in detail later.

A Better Idea: "Anime is Anime"

It may sound circular and vague, but the most succinct definition is simply "Anime is Anime". That is to say, "Anime is animation created in the style (mainly visual, but also in the sometimes fanciful settings, emotional characterizations, and type of storytelling) that was pioneered by Tezuka Osamu and refined by the Japanese during the 2nd half of the 20th century." By this definition, as with those in a dictionary, anime is still "Japanese" in a way, but is a stylistic movement and an art form, not simply a category based on country of origin.

An analogy would be "Jazz." Jazz is music that was pioneered by Black American entertainers in the early part of the 20th century from a variety of sources, but you don't have to be black or American to write or play Jazz. Yoko Kanno among many others has certainly demonstrated that.

I prefer this "you know it when you see it" definition because it covers exactly the sort of animation I review here. It also covers exactly what just about everybody who calls themselves an anime fan enjoys--nothing more, nothing less. Since most English-speaking people familiar with the word already use it to describe a certain style of animation that originally came from Japan (and still mostly does), it seems fitting to "officially" accept that as its definition in fandom as well as the dictionary.

In an ironic side note, that means that the old standby "Japanese anime" isn't really redundant--by this definition, it has legitimate meaning to differentiate anime produced in Japan from anime produced in another country. I don't have a problem with that, personally.

That's pretty much the gist of my argument, but I know that there are a lot of people who still want to include "Japanese" somewhere in their definition of "true" anime to weed out all those imitations. I do have a problem with this.

Must it be Japanese?

Ok, what about those holdouts who still insist that anime must be Japanese because everything that isn't is just copycatting, or those other styles of Japanese animation are still anime, they just aren't to your taste.

They're wrong, and I'll tell you why. First and foremost, the "Japanese" definition of anime fails on a purely technical level--on closer examination it breaks down in far too many ways to be of much practical use.

Where do you draw the line?

If one is still going to insist that anime must be Japanese, then we're going to need some more specific information: Exactly what part of the production must be Japanese for it to count?

Is it the writing? If so, how do you categorize Robotech II: The Sentinels, or SiN? Both were financed and written in the US, but animated in "anime style" in Japan, and at least in the case of The Sentinels, you'd never know it "wasn't anime" if you didn't read the credits. Are they anime because they were animated in Japan, or not because they were conceived by a non-Japanese?

Is it the country where the animation was produced? There's nothing but grey area with that definition. Lots of US cartoon studios, for example, have hired Japanese companies to produce animation. The style isn't traditional anime, the writing isn't Japanese, and the funding and target market aren't Japanese either. But, the animation itself is produced in Japan. Few people would call this anime (least of all anime fans), but the hands that put paint to acetate were Japanese.

How about the flip side of the same issue. Most major Japanese animation studios have, for the past decade, farmed work out to animators in Korea, where labor is cheaper. That means that in a Japanese production, you may have a writer who is Japanese, a director who is Japanese, and head artists who are Japanese, but much of the actual artwork is done by Koreans. Where does that fit in?

Perhaps you'd prefer to limit your definition to productions featuring Japanese actors. In that case, where does Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust go? The entire production crew was Japanese, but it was intended from the beginning to be filmed with English-language dialogue. There is a Japanese dub, but it is indeed a dub, produced well after the English version (which was shown, subtitled, in Japanese theaters).

Then there are the really confusing cases: where do you put someone like Adam Warren--starting with Japanese-created characters (the Dirty Pair), and working in anime-style art, but producing a finished product that is completely non-Japanese in origin.

Going Too Far

Those are all real examples, but let's take this straw man one step farther into somewhat more hypothetical territory so I can beat this argument to death.

A Japanese guy moves to Canada, then creates an "anime" production. Is it not anime because he's now a Canadian citizen, or does it qualify because he was raised Japanese?

If that sounds confusing, here's one that actually happened (the son of an artist I know): A boy is born in the US to one parent who is a Japanese immigrant and one who is American born and raised. Although he is raised as American as anyone else and never taught Japanese, he wants to work as an animator so much he moves to Japan and gets a job working for an animation company. Is something he produces anime, because he's living in Japan now, not anime because he's not from Japan originally... or is it half anime because he's half Japanese by blood?

Pretty silly, to be sure, but that's the sort of absurd logic you have to go through if you think country of origin is the defining factor.

Anime is Still Japanese

Now that I've pushed the national origin thing to absurdity, let me make it clear that I'll be the first to agree that anime is Japanese in origin and is subtly influenced by Japanese culture. Japan is where it came from, after all.

I'll even concede that there is one semi-valid point in the Japanese argument: You could make a case that it's the cultural influence that makes it anime or not--that is, if the creator grew up in Japan he had the "anime" influence.

But even that supports my argument--somebody from a country other than Japan can be absorbed in the anime style deeply enough to produce something with the same basic artistic and cultural influences as "true" anime.

More importantly, I don't think it's fair to the many non-Japanese artists who have chosen to work in the anime style to categorize their work as somehow derivative or impure simply because of the country they were born in. They might not be first generation anime artists, but neither is anybody making anime in Japan today. Their exposure to anime has caused them to want to produce art in that stylistic vein themselves, just as is the case with any Japanese anime creator alive today who grew up watching anime.

After all, Japanese people aren't born with the ability to draw huge eyes, it develops from watching the same shows that influence non-Japanese anime artists.

Basically, when you put all the possible permutations together, although it is very difficult to draw any clear line (as is the case with any artistic movement), I find it absurd to say "This didn't come from Japan, so it's not real anime." You could say it's not Japanese anime, but "anime" is a particular style and its soul, regardless of where it comes from.

The Dramatic Closing

The bottom line to all this is, anime as a word has developed into a term to describe the style of art and storytelling that anime fans like. There is a huge amount of breadth within this artistic movement, but there is a consistent theme throughout it, so we might as well use the word "anime" to describe it. Where the creators come from isn't important, nor is any specific detail about its look, story, or style--just that it has whatever that special something is that makes us call it anime.

Anime is anime, plain and simple.


  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
  • Merriam-Webster OnLine, Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 2003.