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The Myth of the Lack of Japanese Creativity

There’s this meme that’s been going on since at least the 80s that the Japanese are not very creative. I’ll be honest, I used to believe this myself. For example as an outsider, it seemed like all the anime characters have big eyes and blue hair and there are so many characters that look like clones of characters from other anime. The 3 to 5 “sailor girl” super hero troupes, Sailormoon being the most famous but there are plenty of clones. The multiple Mecha characters from Gundam to Mazinger-Z or Patlabor. I’m sure there are other examples of things that seem copied from other cultures as well.

The truth is the Japanese are massively creative. Whether they are more or less creative than other cultures I have no data but there is no valid reason I know of for the myth that the Japanese are not that creative.

Here’s one example: Video games. In the west it’s common to make (a) yet another FPS. It will either be space marines or military. (Doom, Quake, Half Life, Halo, Gears of War, Call of Duty, Metal of Honor, Unreal, Rainbow Six, Resistance, etc..etc..etc..) (b) yet another football, baseball, basketball game, (c) yet another sandbox game ala GTA, Saints Row, True Crimes, etc..

And what of Japan? While of course we get yet another fighting game or another RPG with more blue haired characters. But, what about, hmmm, a game about rolling up a ball of stuff, a game about little plant creatures in a garden (Pikman), a game about using a caligraphy brush (Moji Ribbon), a game about living in a town decorating your apartment (Animal Crossing), a game about being a lawyer (Phoenix Wright), a game about slaying enormous statues (Shadow of the Colossus), A game about being a caveman building a temple to the sun (Tail of the Sun), A game about the trials of a stereotypical Japanese salaryman father (Tondemo Crisis). I could go on and on. There are hundreds of lesser known games. Games about cooking, games about running a convenience store, games about being a mosquito, games about managing pop idols.

Animal Crossing Cooking Mama IdolMaster
Ka Katamari Damacy Mojib Ribbon
Phoenix Wright SotC Tail of the Sun
Tondemo Crisis Za Combini

How about Manga. For every Sailor girl scout hero manga there are 10 or 20 about amazing things. There are literally manga on almost any topic. Manga about a father who cooks along with recipes in every chapter. Manga about trying to make a type of bread that Japan will be famous for. Manga about the romance between werewolfs and woman. Manga about raising a family. Manga about intelligent parasites that talk to the person they inhabit. Manga about symbiotic relationships between aliens and humans. Manga amount being finding a book of death where if you write someone’s name it in they die and the corruption of power it brings to the owner.

Cooking Papa Death Note Parasyte
Sazaesan Yakitate Japan

And what of anime? Although there’s just as much variety there, even the creativity inside a single show is amazing. My favorite is One Piece which in my experience is just about the most creative thing ever. One Piece is about a group of pirates and their adventures. In One Piece they have faught mermen, traveled to islands in the sky with angel people and fought god’s army. They visited a 100 story tall city of canals with giant locks that lift boats to the top stories. They visited an chain of mangrove trees so big that each forms an island that is big enough to hold a small town. They have freed slaves. They have run into characters with skin so slippery you can’t cut them, characters that shoot wax from their hands, characters that transform into various animals, characters that are made of electricity, characters made of smoke. They’ve gone to an island where every animal is either super long or super tall. They’ve met animals that shoot cannon balls. They’ve gone inside a whale so big it’s got a small island inside and the stomach is painted like a sky. They’ve visited giants that fight dinosaurs. Been to a winter island where a reindeer learned to be a doctor. I’m making a short list here. One Piece has been running as one of the most popular anime ever in Japan for over 10 years now, they’re at episode #450 at the time I wrote this and it’s still amazing me with the new stuff they come up with. Recently they ran into a troupe of drag queens.

Dr. Chopper Dog Cannon Enel
Giants God's Army Long Animals
Lucci A Merman Mr. 3
Rabun Shabondy Skypiea
Smoker Water 7 Ivankov

I think the problem is there just so much stuff and so what happens in some importer brings what he thinks will sell to the states, say giant robots, it succeeds so instead of getting another original he and all his competitors just look for more of the same because to them if giant robots succeeded once then why take the risk and try something new, just import more giant robots. Then, to countries outside of Japan, everyone thinks “Those Japanese are so un-creative. They just keep making giant robot stories.” Well, that’s a false picture.

Japan is EXTREMELY creative and their designers are not afraid to express that creativity. In fact as far as I can see it’s massively encouraged. From hundreds or thousands of galleries and showings all over Tokyo to the fact that it seems like anything can find a market in Japan or at least be given the chance where as in the states, unless it’s going to be a blockbuster best seller you’ll find a hard time getting any store to carry it.


PS: If you decide to check out One Piece do NOT under any circumstances, look at the American version. It’s been gutted of everything that makes the original rock. Find yourself some fansubs of the original Japanese.

  • Troy

    After 7 years in Japan I went to the Comic Market for the first time, and seeing the immensity of the nation’s creative talent collected in one place was pretty mind-blowing.

    10 years ago we didn’t really have any actual senmongaku-type educational routes for this kind of stuff, but in Japan AFAICT there’s a much stronger sub-culture of creative effort.

    Sturgeon’s Law still applies, but the Japanese do have a 20-30 year lead on the world in this area.

  • http://summeroceanbreeze.blogspot.com MsPhotogLady

    I’m really to be finally posting online after all these years. There really is no mystique (sp) about it, is there? I just dropped by your blog and had to write something. I’m a recent college grad, journalism major if you must know, and I love the art of photography. I’ve got my website up but it’s nothing to brag about yet. None of my stuff’s been posted. Soon as I figure out how to do that, I’ll spend the afternoon posting my best pictures. anyway just thought I’d drop a line. I hope to return with more substantial stuff, stuff you can actually use. SPG

  • http://astrowis.blogspot.com Raj

    Every country has a personality and character which comes through long beliefs and their society’s experiences i.e,meaning of life particularly. Japan has its own and Japanese creative work shows it.Wars,violence,immortality,superhuman,love,care all are human primitive characteristics which still dominate and influences our mind on creativity.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_T37WLN4XNBOFKHN7H3IQYEDGPQ Anoki Anderrsen

    Japanese are simply awesome .

  • http://livinginthesun.info/portugal/ Ogie Morten

    I love Japanese culture. I like their traditions and their talents..

  • Pingback: Does Asia Have A Future In The Creative Age? « Sashimi & other Slides :: Business Blog for Management Consulting, Japan & Internationalization

  • ASR

    thats true , japanese are good at creativity . I find all types of anime , from one piece, naruto , bleach to usagi drop to feed my anime addiction :) :) . And never get bored as there’s variety.
    I mean its even visible in the way they paint , their video games and other stuff.

    PS: The dubbed version of anime are like anime with soulless characters. Subbed are really good .

  • thinsmek

    One Piece is awesome, I know Japanese kids who have grown up with it their whole lives :D