In the West, or in the U.S. at any rate, I think the "good old days" that many people have come to wax nostalgic for are more often the days of university or just young adulthood in general. In pop culture, at any rate. That's not to say we don't have our share of movies, TV shows, and literature featuring high schoolers, but I think they often appeal to the limited audiences. If I had to compare, I'd say American entertainment tends to be more dominated by college and post-college themes.
Are Western and Japanese media really so different in this aspect? I think so, and here are a few observations I've made as to why.
Exhibit A: Manga and Anime
I lump these two together because more often than not they go hand in hand (a large number of anime series are taken directly from manga). Of course not all manga are high school-themed. There's a wide enough variety of Japanese comics and cartoons out there to satiate a veritable army of nerds.
I'm hardly claiming that all or even the majority of manga and anime have to do with high school. However I think a relatively large percentage do.
While doing a little research, I came across a Japanese blog with an entry about the most popular manga in Japan during 2009. According to a survey conducted by Nikkei Entertainment Magazine, the popularity of many series is shared across demographics (more so considering age than gender, though).
Of the top 20 manga listed by the survey, 5 of them featured high school students or settings (君に届け; 桜欄高校ホスト部; 名探偵コナン; xxxHOLiC; おおきく振りかぶって).
That means that in 2009, 25% of the top manga were high-school related.
When you consider other big titles like Death Note, Slam Dunk, and Boys Over Flowers, there's a pretty strong case for the argument that "a lot of manga and anime have something to do with high school."
Exhibit B: Movies
When it comes to Japanese movies, many of the more well-known titles don't have anything to do with high school (though Godzilla may well step on a few schools). A lot of the more classically popular films fall under the 時代劇 (period drama) or fantasy/scifi headings.
Looking a little closer, there are a number of Studio Ghibli (makers of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away among many others) movies with high school student protagonists: 猫の恩返し (The Cat Returns), 海が聞こえる (Ocean Waves), and the upcoming コクリコ坂から(From Kokuriko Hill).
How many Disney animations with high school characters can you think of?
Couple this with the fact that like anime, a lot of Japanese movies come from manga series. Thus you have Death Note (the movie), Boys Over Flowers (the movie), Gokusen (the movie), etc.
And let's not forget one of the most (in)famous movies to come out of Japan, Battle Royale, originally a novel about adults sending high school students to an island to fight to the death.
|She's a winner!|
Exhibit C: Video Games
These days there are almost as many different kinds of video games as comics. Plenty have nothing to do with high school, but the genre does creep into even this medium.
To start, once again we have many manga spin-offs. More Death Note, Slam Dunk, ad nauseam.
If you're a fan of Japanese games, you may be familiar with the Persona (Shin Megami Tensei) series. Not quite at the same level of name recognition as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, but it's been picking up steam over the years, especially due to its recent releases for the Nintendo DS. Essentially its a series about high school students who can control demons or spirits.
Many high school-themed games don't make it abroad for one reason or another, and thus I don't have very much information or even an English name to offer you. One Google search for "high school protagonist games" turned up this title from 2004, Kuron Youma Gakuen Ki (Story of the Nine Dragons Academy?), which appears to be about a high school boy who decides to be come a treasure hunter (a legitimate pursuit in this game's world) and transfers to a special academy in Tokyo.
I was also recently playing a baseball/high school game called Atsumare Pawa Puro Kun Koshien, in which you can take the roll of either the coach or team captain of a group of high schoolers and must train and lead them to victory. In Japan, the best high school baseball teams qualify to enter a nationally televised tournament that's held annually at Koshien stadium (incidentally not too far from where I live). It's basically the equivalent of high school students getting the chance to play at Fenway Park. The goal of this game is to get your team to Koshien. If you fail, apparently your life and the students' baseball careers are over.
I also have a game called Inazuma Eleven, which is similarly about a soccer team of high schoolers with big ambitions. I believe that one has made it out of Japan.
There are also plenty of other games, often of the dating orientation, that are centered around high school life. I haven't played any of these, though, as I find them creepy.
Why don't many of these games make it out of Japan? For some reason they're not anticipated to sell well abroad. In many cases I believe it's because Japanese people just have more of an affinity for high school than we do abroad.
So the high school theme appears more often in Japanese pop culture than in many others. What does it mean? I don't know - you tell me. It could be that despite the wads of homework and sometimes slavish dedication to a club or sport, high school provides (or provided) the last memories of freedom for many Japanese people, and that's something they cherish.
One of my friends theorized that the Japanese have more of an appreciation for that "time of innocence," and that high school marks the time before adulthood when some things are still pure. That could be. It might go partway to explaining one of the more prevalent fetishes associated with, uh...lower Japanese culture.
What do you think? If you've spent some time in Japan or have consumed a lot of Japanese media, do you think Japan is more fascinated with high school life than other countries? If so, why do you think that is?
I'm curious to see what you come up with.
Update: Some good stuff in the comments. From Ryan Cecil:
"I wanted to say that I do agree with your friend about the "Age of Innocence." It was first brought up to me by a Japanese friend, explaining why high school students don't have part time jobs. "We Japanese like our children to be children." Having a job just doesn't seem right for a child, so that's a good reason to prohibit it.
It's also brought up a little bit in my debate classes, when students talk about school uniforms: "We feel like students when we wear school uniforms." So the high school atmosphere thing is important not just to nostalgic adults, but students too. Also, I think you can look to the way (it seems) certain events are ubiquitous at every school, such as sports day, cultural festivals, and certain school trips. I think creating "happy high school memories" is real important to Japanese people.
There's also the way, compared to Americans, Japanese high school students are more naive about... almost everything. I think they feel like they're "supposed to" be naive, especially the good kids. (Maybe it's subversive to be a precocious high school student here)."
Think that's well put. Perhaps because in many cases Japanese people have to make a very quick transition to adulthood, this last period of youth and innocence is especially valued. I'd love to have a native or two weigh in on this.
One thing that gives me pause, though, is my perception that a lot of high school students are (a) sexually active as are teens in other countries and (b) often work part-time jobs though they're not supposed to. According to my understanding of the concept, (lack of) sexual awareness and experience are cornerstones of "innocence," so I'm not too sure it's something Japanese youth really possess. Though that wouldn't necessarily preclude them from trying to hold on to it.
Eryk brings up another good point:
"I think high school is interesting because it is a period that blends care-free living, protection, and a very real community with a shared set of seemingly insurmountable problems. College is too care-free to inspire the drama needed for good storytelling; and the social cohesion isn’t the same. "
Adversity can really help build great relationships, and it could be that all the hard work and drama of high school make for not only good memories but also strong friendships. Some of your classmates become your buddies in the trenches, struggling a'la J-drama to overcome the odds and win that baseball championship or study your ass off and get into Tokyo University.
And some perspective from Kaori. I recommend reading the comments if you're interested, but here's part of her thought:
"I agree with you and a lot of the comments. High school really is pretty much our first taste of freedom, and the fact that it's within a certain boundary (because let's face it, your still kids) makes it all the more exciting. It's probably a mix of innocence and adolescence."