light novel (RAITO NOBERU or RANOBE) More like a novella or a collection of short stories, with a small number of illustrations. Published as mass-market paperbacks or serialized in popular literary magazines.
manga In Japanese this refers to any type of cartoon, animated or static. English-speakers use the term to refer to Japanese comic books. The Japanese tend to consider cartoons to be a serious, or at least respectable art form, and these are much more widely read than in America. Unlike their American counterparts the images are usually not colored. Stories are commonly produced by individual artists and published in thick weekly or monthly magazines. See manga demographics.
Video games are often used as the basis of television series, though the result is often disappointing. Some Japanese video games, called eroge or “H-games”, have strong sexual content (not necessarily hentai). Such sexual material is generally removed in a television adaptation, sometimes resulting in a story that makes no sense at all.
Visual novels are video games that consist mostly of reading text off the screen, usually accompanied by visual images, spoken dialog, music and sound effects. At intervals the player is prompted to make choices for the characters, which determine the outcome of the story. A dating sim is a game in which a male protagonist has the chance to establish a relationship with any of a number of young women. An otome game is the reverse, with a female protagonist.
chibi (runt/dwarf) A caricature style that depicts the character as very short with exaggerated childish features. Often used to indicate that the character has become hysterical or otherwise lost control.
cyberpunk A type of science fiction story that depicts a society in which computer-generated virtual reality (or at least some sort of artificial reality) has largely supplanted physical reality in people’s lives.
fan service can in principle be anything that is not necessary to the story and included only to please the fans. In practice the term almost always refers to gratuitous displays of the female form. American television viewers will be familiar with this concept, but due to Japan’s more casual attitude toward nudity, Japanese TV shows sometimes take this farther than any American TV producer would dare.
gambatte (頑張って) (trying one’s best, persisting) A common exhortation (“gambatte kudasai!” or “gambatte ne?”). Actually this is a cultural imperative. As a general rule, all anime characters, even children, are expected to demonstrate the “gambatte spirit” of courage and determination. “Gambare!” is more forceful/less polite.
harem comedy A story in which a young man of no obviously outstanding qualities is for some implausible reason pursued by a number of beautiful women. An otome (“maiden”) story is the reverse, with a naive young woman surrounded by attentive bishounen.
A henshin sequence is a highly stylized transformation sequence, usually featuring the convention that when a magical girl uses magic to change from her street clothes to her fighting costume there is a moment between the disappearance of her street clothes and the appearance of her fighting costume when she looks naked. Depending on the story this can range from very innocent (Shugo Chara) to downright perverted (Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha.) Cardcaptor Sakura cleverly avoided the problem by ducking into her friend’s van and changing her clothes the conventional way.
Isekai is a genre, common in light novels, in which ordinary people from our world are somehow transported to a fantasy universe where they become great heroes. Usually these are a form of harem comedy, with a nebbish from our world teaming up with a group of beautiful girls from the other world.
Iyashikei or “healing” anime features gentle stories about decent people doing nice things in picturesque environments. There’s generally not a lot of plot. When it is done well watching it will leave you feeling good about the world.
moe (Two syllables: mo-eh) A difficult term, similar to kawaii but implying a level of cuteness so overwhelming that the speaker falls helplessly in love. A moe character typically displays “moe traits” that the speaker finds irresistible, commonly including things like clumsiness, timidity, glasses, maid uniforms and cat ears. These traits are cumulative so a clumsy cat-eared maid who wears glasses would be especially devastating. (Yes, this is a real Japanese word: 萌え .)
otaku is a term sometimes used by dedicated English-speaking anime fans to refer to themselves. The Japanese have no specific word for an anime fan; it would be sort of like Americans having a special word for someone who watches television. As used in Japanese the term implies someone whose hobby has become an unhealthy obsession.
yuri (“lily”) A code word for lesbian content or themes, sometimes only implied. This comes in two major forms: 1) Sad stories about doomed romances, marketed to girls. 2) Smirking fan-service vehicles, marketed to boys.
Gothloli (for “gothic lolita”) is a fashion style in which teenage girls wear outfits that are exaggerated versions of dresses worn by little girls in the 19th century. In real life this tend to look rather odd, but it can look very cool in a 2-dimensional drawing. Hence the style of beloved by manga artists and anime character designers.
mahou shoujo (magical girl) A heroine of a shoujo story who has magic powers. (Or the heroine of a shounen parody of such stories.) Sometimes used for any female superhero. Not to be confused with the “magical girlfriends” who appear in some shounen and seinen stories.
A miko or “shrine maiden” is a (traditionally unmarried) woman who works at a Shinto shrine, performing ceremonial dances and assisting in other ceremonies and rituals. Since they also do much of the unglamorous work needed to keep a shrine running they are sometimes compared to nuns, but there is no lifetime commitment involved. In fantasy fiction they are commonly portrayed as having supernatural powers to fight evil. They can be recognized by a traditional costume that includes a white top with long wide sleeves and a red divided skirt (hakama).
oujo “Princess” or ojou “young lady.” A standard “rich girl” character. Her most notable characteristic is her manner of speech, which is very polite and often old-fashioned. In a group of young people she will typically be the only one using polite speech. She can probably also do the scary “noblewoman’s laugh.” Rarely a villain, she is more likely to serve as the heroine’s friend or rival, or as a love interest for the hero. She tends to be imperious and used to having her own way, but secretly she feels lonely and isolated. Anyone who sincerely befriends her will find her fiercely loyal.
ronin 1) A masterless samurai, traditionally considered a pitiable figure. 2) A would-be college student who has failed the entrance exams and is now studying full-time in the hope of passing them next year.
tsundere A beautiful (but powerful and intimidating) girl who abuses the hero but ends up falling in love with him. (There seems to be no general agreement on the proper term for a cold-hearted bishounen who is mean to the heroine.)
Yamato Nadeshiko is the traditional name for an idealized image of a perfect traditional Japanese woman. A Yamato Nadeshiko always wears traditional Japanese clothing and has mastered many traditional arts. Like an ojou-sama she always speaks politely, but unlike some rich girls her politeness is sincere and is never used as a weapon. A YN is cheerful, pure-hearted and kind, respectful to her elders and gracious to her inferiors. Though she may appear to be weak and deferential she is actually strong-willed, with an unbreakable determination to do the right thing.
The term lolicon is short for “Lolita Complex”, thus it means pedophilia or a pedophile. By extension a loli is a character who seems designed to appeal to a lolicon: either a young girl presented in a sexualized manner or a grown woman who looks and sounds like a young girl.
Folklore, Magic and Religion
kami is usually translated as “god” or “spirit”, but the concept is somewhat broader than the former and narrower than the latter. There are many spirits that are not considered kami. Kami are sacred spirits, such as the gods of mythology, the spirits of sacred places, or the spirits of the blessed dead. (The last case is similar to the Western concept of a “saint”.)
There is also a concept of ikigami (“living kami”): either a person who becomes a kami while still alive, or someone who is possessed by a kami and speaks with its voice and authority. The anime Kamichu includes both sorts.
kappa (“water imp”) A water spirit or deity, resembling a small bald human, often with a tortoise shell or a beak like a duck. They have small holes in the top of their heads which, when filled with water, allow them to move about on land. Some are helpful but many are dangerous and may drown people. They may be bribed with cucumbers, which they love. If you meet a kappa on land you should try bowing to it. The kappa will politely return the bow, causing the water to spill out of the hole in its head, leaving it unable to move.
onmyoudou is an esoteric system of occult studies associated with the legendary tenth century wizard Abe no Seimei. Advanced practitioners are supposed to be able to create and control magical servants called shikigami, which are often made from paper.
tanuki (“raccoon dog”, often mistranslated as “raccoon.”) This is an Asian animal related to foxes, but with markings like a North American raccoon. Like foxes they are shape-shifting trouble-makers, but they are also symbols of fertility and good fortune.
A tengu is a bird spirit which typically takes the form of a man with the wings of a bird and either a very long nose or a bird’s beak. This if often translated as “goblin” although except for the long nose there is not much resemblance to the European myth. Tengu are proud and fierce and usually hostile to humans. Sometimes they can be helpful, particularly by training young heroes in martial arts, at which they are expert.
youkai: a general term for a wide variety of monsters, nature spirits and powerful animals that can take human form. They are not necessarily evil but are usually unfriendly and almost always dangerous. Though supernatural, they are beings of this world and can be killed. Japanese writers usually classify Western monsters like werewolves and vampires as youkai. (Perhaps this is why vampires are usually not depicted as “undead.”) The term ayakashi is often used with the same meaning.
The distinction between a youkai and a kami can be fuzzy. If a helpful youkai can convince people to build a shrine for him and leave offerings, he can properly be called a kami. Such low-level gods will tend to vanish if their worshipers die and their shrines are forgotten.
A yuki onna (“snow woman”) is a beautiful woman who appears to men who are lost in a blizzard. She will offer to let them stay overnight at her house; if they accept they will later be found frozen to death. Occasionally a yuki onna will spare the life of an exceptionally handsome young man, or even marry him.
Manga magazines are generally targeted toward a specific demographic audience. If you know the type of magazine a story was originally published in you may be able to make an educated guess about what kind of story it is. These demographic categories are often used when discussing anime since animes are often adapted from manga series, and when they are not they are often adapted into manga series.
- kodomo ( “children” ). Stories are non-threatening and feature simple dialog written in hiragana.
- shounen ( “boys” ). Marketed to boys approximately middle school age through high school (but often read by girls and older men). Kanji characters are written with furigana to assist younger readers. Stories tend to emphasize action and adventure. Pretty girls are common, but romantic subplots are usually not allowed to get in the way of the action. Some stories feature juvenile sexual humor.
- shoujo ( “girls” ). Marketed to girls from about middle school through high school. Stories often contain fantasy elements but the primary emphasis is on characters and relationships. The artwork is often ostentatiously pretty or flowery, with many kawaii elements. Romances are generally chaste, though a few recent stories test the limits of this rule.
- seinen ( “young men” ). Marketed to older males of university age or higher. Kanji is written without furigana. There are a wide variety of stories including dark adventures, sentimental stories about children, gentle romantic comedies and boisterous sex farces. Sexual humor is common but it is rare for the characters to actually have sex. Many of the most popular stories contain obvious elements of male wish-fulfillment (e.g. magical girlfriends).
- josei ( “young women” ). Marketed to older female readers. Stories emphasize characters and relationships, but usually have a more realistic tone than shoujo stories. Some are sexually explicit, but don’t expect to see this in a television adaptation.
- hentai ( “perverts” ). Hard-core pornography, often of a very disturbing nature. Anime adaptations are generally limited to OVAs that are of interest only to fans of cartoon sex.
hiragana is a phonetic character set recognizable by its graceful curving strokes. Unlike an alphabet, the characters represent sylables rather than phonemes. It is used for particles, verb and adjective endings, and any native Japanese words that do not have a common Kanji representation.
kanji uses characters derived from Classical Chinese. The characters encode meanings rather than sounds. For the most part the characters retain their original Chinese meanings, but are associated with equivalent Japanese words instead of the original Chinese. Kanji is used for common nouns, verb stems and adjective stems.
katakana is an alternative phonetic character set with short angular strokes. It is used to write foreign loan words, or for special emphasis (like writing English in UPPER CASE).
kana refers to either phonetic character set: hiragana or katakana.
romaji is one of several systems for writing Japanese using the Roman alphabet, assigning a standard sequence of characters to each kana character. Katakana is sometimes represented by UPPER CASE characters.
furigana is the practice of putting small kana characters next to kanji characters to indicate the pronunciation. In children’s books this is done for all kanji. In writing for adults it can be used to indicate the meaning of obscure kanji. It can also be used to create complex puns or other wordplay.