Image source: 映画『君の名は。』 on Twitter
Recently, the 88 major “anime pilgrimage” locations within Japan for 2018 were announced by the Anime Tourism Association, ranging from spots in Hokkaido as seen in Erased; all the way to Okinawa, where the Tetsuo Kinjo Museum—a facility showcasing valuable materials concerning the creator of Ultraman—is located.
Some English press outlets have already picked up the story and discussed it briefly, but I would like to go more in depth beyond the announcements of the locations themselves. I believe the whole notion of the “anime pilgrimage” and its monetization is an important factor and perhaps a pillar of support for the Japanese local communities, which is a point that warrants some further insight. In particular, there needs to be some analysis about certain nuances in what Mobile Suit Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino—acting as chairperson of the Anime Tourism Association—actually said at the announcement event.
The Japanese press has been mostly playful in its reporting of the announcement, made during a press conference held at the “C3FA Tokyo” pop culture event, many with headlines mostly focusing on the tongue-in-cheek Tomino quotes such as “I don’t like [the list]” and “none of my shows are on [the list],” and so on. Fair enough; Tomino’s eccentricity is something which invariably grabs people’s attention in Japan.
But let us not undermine his very important point. I believe what Tomino is really trying to focus on is an active effort to move away from anime as “escapism” and more towards a conduit for social reform and revitalization. It is therefore pointing at a crossroads in how we consume our entertainment in such an affluent society. The topic is deserving of some commentary, because a lot of the online reactions I have seen have simply been along the lines of “He’s never pleased,” or, “He just hates modern anime.” Both he and Hayao Miyazaki—who has a similar reputation as being something of a curmudgeon among Japanese anime fans—are very aware of the role of fandom and its potential to galvanize the economy in regional communities. However, they are also wary that the activities will end as their corresponding anime fades into the past.
For the Japanese, the concept of the “anime pilgrimage” is really nothing new. One can make the argument that it has even been going on since the 1970s—with the likes of Heidi, Girl of the Alps, A Dog of Flanders, and a whole plethora of other World Masterpiece Theater anime series playing a major role in tourism to the Swiss Alps and Antwerp, respectively. Moreover, the breakout fan pilgrimages to Washinomiya Shrine in Saitama due to the hit series Lucky Star back in 2007 was a major turning point in terms of the realization that there was potential profitability in local regions if there are promotional tie-ins with anime content. This has led to a marked increase in involvement by regional government agencies in the planning of anime projects as well as active participation in the production committees thereof. I even wrote about the case of Tachikawa and its growing role in all of this last year.
The stern warning by Tomino which we must now heed at this stage, therefore, is all about sustainability. In my view, he appears (quite rightly) concerned that we are patting ourselves on the back way too early, and the time to celebrate is really when we have achieved some real, long-lasting effects in our efforts to revitalize the local economies. He had some strict words for the attendees of the event, saying that there are things such as infrastructure issues yet to be resolved because of an increase in traffic due to the popularity of Anime Tourism. “We should not be satisfied with just coming here,” he said, in an almost scolding fashion, indicating that more real work needs to be done other than simply attending the event and making announcements.
To go even further, we can even say that the very approach that the Japanese media is taking in its coverage is perhaps in itself part of the problem. The fact that the very headlines used for the articles on the announcement events seen in the Japanese press outlets such as Sankei News focus more on the perceived anger and backlash from Tomino himself—only to later reveal within the body of the text that he was just joking—is highly ironic.
This is because it seems that Tomino is actively trying to warn people not to let themselves completely slip away into the fantasy worlds of their favorite anime as they follow the tracks of their heroes down to the pilgrimage locations, and instead always keep one foot firmly planted in reality. Thus the “juicy sensationalism” of the article misses the point of his important message. His warning was stern, but it was also compassionate. After all, he is one of the founding fathers of the modern animation scene in Japan and has been instrumental to its development as a deep-rooted culture that is traversing national and cultural borders. He does not take that responsibility lightly.
He pointed out that there has never been an example of such a vigorous and lucrative trend on the scale as the anime pilgrimages ever seen before, with any other medium of popular culture, certainly not art and literature. His key message, therefore—not only for anime fans but for the very committee that he is chairing—is that we must not let this opportunity get away, and we must move on to actively think and discuss each step in the process for regional revitalization, using anime tourism as a springboard.
He emphasized that there is nothing wrong with becoming interested in a certain area through anime, but that the important thing to remember is that ultimately, the anime serves as the gateway towards the healthy recovery and revitalization of the local region, and not simply as a means to an end in itself. Otherwise, we would end up with people visiting a certain area to give a brief boost to the local economy, generating not much more than a blip for a few weeks, and then the fans would move on the next project once that product cycle has geared up, leaving the old one behind.
The decrease in population of young people (taking up the majority of modern anime fans), coupled with the increase of anime series every year (around 370 this year!) means that very few people have time to watch everything, and once a typical 13-episode series is over, it is even harder to manage to go back to it and continue supporting it.
The interesting thing about anime is that it can be a powerful tool for societal change because of its popularity. However, this is a double-edged sword—its popularity may create an overzealous consumerism (if it hasn’t already) that undermines the very motivation for societal change. But, of course, anime is necessarily a vehicle for consumerism, and has always been, so it cannot be faulted for that. We can approach it from a different perspective, however.
Tomino will always be recognized for Gundam—a science-fiction allegory of the struggle for independence of colonies, with overpopulation as its background. Today, his creation is a national industry unto itself, at its heart a decades-spanning franchise with series, books, toys, model kits, and games that consumers can lose themselves in. Having had many opportunities to speak to him in person, even inviting him as a guest in a “Constructing the Future Society” event I organized in 2013, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that he did not have that sort of expansion in mind.
I believe he sees anime, in particular science fiction, as an opportunity for young people: a springboard to greater wisdom and pensive consideration of their future. Instead, the role of pop culture as “escapism” taking over is certainly something to ponder and mitigate in some way, for the sake of society. While there is nothing wrong with relaxing with some entertainment to let off steam after the drudgery of work, anime can—and perhaps should—be more.
All of this provides much food for thought regarding where we go from here, because the issues facing Japanese society are real and they are not going away by us pretending they do not exist. Maybe anime can save Japan. But only if we allow it to.