Updated: Jan 2, 2021
I think anime kinda made me disillusioned to friendships. To those who already watch anime often, I think you may already know what I’m alluding to – the unearthly dedication and support to one’s friends (sometimes even enemies) because you believe in the good and growth in them. The incessant self-sacrifice in order to induce safety and/or happiness for a loved one; someone cherished so innocently, so purely, that there is no romantic tie. Just an unpolluted friendship, a bond that is so strong, all the evils of the world – EVEN DEATH – cannot break you apart.
But maybe this perspective isn’t exclusive to anime; maybe it’s even a character trait embedded in Japanese culture.
I walked into a ramen shop in Boston about a month ago and saw this written in huge, white letters upon the burgundy wall over my head:
NAKAMA [n.] A person that shares your destiny for whom you would sacrifice your life; Its meaning is too entangled to be “friend” but it is also too deep to be just “companion.”
If there’s an entire country who really embodies this notion (no matter how small or large), that’s pretty awesome. (Might I add, there seems to be a close equivalent in Iran that we call, yar).
Under the font, were drawings of manga-esque characters with their backs turned to the customers but their fists in the air. As usual, upon seeing these kinds of images, I had an immediate feeling of camaraderie and hospitality – inspiration even.
So I was curious.
After researching a bit online (for about five minutes), nakama may actually just be a fictional trope in Japanese television – actually given its deeper meaning from the legendary anime One Piece – but Japan is famously known for its low crime rate, its unarmed officers, its friendly strangers who will fasten a young man’s tie because it’s undone and he’s headed for an interview, and they want him to succeed! So will gladly aid in his looking sharp without needing to be related to this person in any way. Then they’ll wish him the best of luck and pray he gets the job! As if they knew him. As if they were family. So even if nakama is a fictional concept, it seems there is an innate goodness instilled in the Japanese people that obviously gave root to the concept of nakama. An innate, unrelated goodness we haven’t really grasped anywhere else (that I’ve been exposed to at least).
And whether it be instilled in Japanese tradition or simply an injection to their entertainment, I love that I grew up with this idea of nakama. Though this mentality has (I’ll be perfectly honest) made me lose a few friendships here and there, it’s definitely kept the right ones closer and stronger for longer than I expected or felt I deserved. My most valuable friends have respected and even reflected my personalized form of nakama because of the familial relationship it had inevitably created between us.
I was exposed to anime at quite a young age, and I was re-exposed to anime at the crack of dawn of every morning as my brother snuck out of our bedroom to watch reruns of Dragon Ball on the Cartoon Network; the early hours were a safe haven for a relatively violent and bloody show of foreign origins despised by most parents but loved by some teensy children (such as ourselves). He used to take out our most recently purchased bag of pita bread and pack of American cheese from the fridge and would nibble his way through the end of each – until we had nothing left to use for our family breakfasts during the weekends (reflecting on this now, I’m sure this drove both my mom and dad a little crazy).
Now, I often credit my having an older brother for a lot of my toughness and a lot of my disconnect with the common American young lady – my best friends in school were mostly boys. We were always playing Pretend. Dreaming we were magical creatures climbing trees and burning down buildings was a lot more fun than being a part of the local girl-gang in my opinion (which I was also a part of. But I picked my shifts). I owed this early exposure and exercising of a speedily-expanding imagination to my older brother and to the shows he didn’t let me watch.
The shows I only watched while hiding behind the couch and peering over the cushions with my little fingers hinged on the edges of suspense. Clawing through the fabric – just to watch Dragon Ball without him knowing; without him catching me and demanding that I leave (because apparently I was deemed too young for such mature content). Despite him being only two years older than me and like… eight. If he ever did spot me, I’d have to not only be yelled at (mind you, while my parents were sleeping in our tiny apartment in Los Angeles which struck a whole other type of fear through my 3-foot-frame) but I would also have to sink to the floor and stare at the wall for the next two hours – behind the couch, listening to the show instead. Painting the scenes in my head as I had to imagine they were on the TV screen because my evil, older brother claimed I was too immature to see it.
* I will have you know, this was the final power trip I allowed him to have over me. The future was bleak for my older brother, but bright for my unrelenting defiance and eventual overthrow of his tyrannous nature. Bullies are not to be tolerated. *
But I was just so damn curious. Like what could be so amazing, so interesting, that it pulled my brother out of his bed at 5 am every morning like clockwork to eat cold bread and cheese and sit two inches away from the TV screen for the next two/three hours??
It had to be thee coolest thing ever.
So I risked it all. I risked the deportation back to my bedroom, the hellish fire that could awaken my sleeping parents, their hellish fire after being woken by their son’s hellish fire which would then be redirected to me as the source of his hellish fire that had woken them up in the first place.
It all didn’t seem worth it. (But it was).
I couldn’t wake up as early as him every day, but I always made it out to see at least the concluding hour of Dragon Ball/Dragon Ball Z those mornings. I did it so often, that eventually, my brother refrained from fending me off with a foam baseball bat or a stick. Maybe he understood that I was his little sponge whom he could influence and make awesome, rather than the rabid gerbil he made me out to be that ejected out of our mother’s womb for the sole purpose of ruining his life. My seat placement beside him was a promotion. I had graduated to soft-plaything; something that could still be tormented and abused, but should no longer be feared.
I didn’t understand why he liked cold pita bread and American cheese so much, but that seemed to be the Snack of Kings. And I had just been promoted. Beggars can’t be choosey, y’know?
This development in our sibling relationship was also when I discovered my severe case of lactose-intolerance. So in a way, anime’s role in my life was more than just a didactic ruling of friendship and sibling-warfare, but also a court hearing for prospective-allergies.
After discovering my intolerance of yellow-American cheese, my mom introduced my small intestine to goat milk, goat cheese, and an array of goat-rather-than-cow related products; it was a comparatively smelly alternative lifestyle-change that I remember enjoying. I also was not a very picky kid – but again, I saw myself as a trampled vagabond of the streets – so I took what was given to me without question.
But I was a sanctified vagabond. I had made my way from the nosebleeds to the courtside all on my own, a product of my own resilience and ambition. And I thought I was incredible. Like… I wasn’t even old enough for this show. My older brother said I wasn’t allowed to watch these things, and yet here I was… him petting my head and eating cheese while I ogled skyward toward a sizzling, 90s, television filled with awkward screaming, high-voltage blasts and decapitated heads. I was taking it all in and I was loving it.
And one of the reasons I loved it was because Goku (who’s literal growth we have avidly followed from Dragon Ball to DBZ and onward) had a son that he fought alongside. Like how cool would that be?! His son, Gohan, was around my brother’s/my age (depending on the episode_ and was being taken out on missions?! Like what?! The amount of TRUST that Goku not only had in his son but in his comrades taking care of his son was powerful. He had enough faith that his son could help him – the greatest Super Saiyan in the world – “fight crime,” defeat enemies, purge the universe of evil!
But also knew when to tell Gohan to like back the f*ck up cause he was 6 and had little to no training. And that was dope.
I was six. I could be great. I could have friends bigger and better than me (which I already did ‘cause I was the shortest kid in my class and still am at the bold age of 22) but friends who still believed in me in spite of that! I could be everyone’s equal. The grown-ups would see my latent potential, the bold energy I harbored, and pay no mind to my age. They would look at me and expect greatness; not because my father was their friend nor because my father was great, but because I was their friend and I was great.
They would do anything for me. Even give up their life for me? Whoa.
The episode that is engrained in my memory most was my brother’s favorite – we re-watched this scene countless times once YouTube became a thing on the internet and a mighty weapon for internet babies like us to digest.
Gohan turning Super Saiyan 2 for the first time.
Mostly I just remember Android 16’s head bouncing around on the dirt, and his dreary eyes looking up as he drawled… “Gooooohaaaaaaan. Let it gooo…” in this deep, robot voice – but let’s remember why 16’s head was rolling around at everyone’s feet. Because he had just pounced on Cell’s back with the belief that he still had a bomb lodged inside his body and was ready to self-destruct – to sacrifice his own life in order to save his comrades. Comrades now, but enemies not so long ago. Hell, Android 18 was going around bustin’ everyone’s asses and suddenly she’s marrying Krillin – goes to show that bad guys can have a lot of good inside them (and if you’re marrying Krillin… you have a lot of good inside you).
But alas, 16 no longer had a bomb inside his body, and therefore Cell blasted him to bits and kicked his skull aside like it was the neighbor-kid’s deflated soccer ball. This is where 16 recites his epic speech of encouragement:
“It is not a sin to fight for the right cause… It is because you cherish life that you must protect it… I know how you feel, Gohan.” Despite being an android.
And then Cell stepped on his face and his head exploded – but! With all the coils, gadgets, chips, and metal – out came a lot of blood; and that was very humanizing to me. That things that bleed – animals, humans, and apparently androids – we all have a quality that bonds us, a frailty and an appreciation for life that unifies us. We are all unified by the blood in our veins. Despite being just an android! Gohan was right! 16 did love life, and he gave it up because he loved his friends even more and wanted them to enjoy the rest of their existences. It’s an abrasive scene, but thanks to my older brother, Andrew, one I’ve seen a million times nonetheless.
And due to the power of emotions! Gohan crosses the threshold and reaches Super Saiyan 2.
With glistening tears in his eyes.
It reminded me of the samurai – avenging the death of a loved one. Pride. Brotherhood. Bonds. Protection. Justice. Self-sacrifice… Nakama.
And then came Naruto.
This could easily mark the end of my existence. I lost my youth at the mere age of 12. Cause if Naruto doesn’t traumatize you for life, then bless your soul – nothing else can, my child.
Masahi Kishimoto intended the first arc of Naruto Uzumaki’s adventures to be his last as well. That single manga was illustrated for the notoriously heart-wrenching plot movement of Squad 7 facing Zabuza, Demon of the Hidden Mist, and the orphan, Haku. (Let’s not get too into this though cause that’ll just tear me up in seconds).
Transformed into an anime, this plot movement was the first for many of us to watch. And very quickly were we faced with the complex of sympathizing for the enemy, maybe a little too much.
Zabuza Momochi, a rogue Shinobi of the Village Hidden in the Mist is known as one of the most dangerous ninjas of the land. Very unexpectedly, we learn he also practically raised an orphan child named Haku on his own, training him as a swordsman to defend himself. Haku has a special ability that people in his village feared; therefore, people like Haku and Haku’s mother were summarily executed. So Haku’s mother taught him to keep his ability a secret – until her own spouse discovered their secret and murdered her. Haku lost control in response to this, kills his own father and the rest of his village and is then found by Zabuza Momochi…
In this first arc, Zabuza is hired as an assassin that inevitably clashes with Squad 7 (our protagonists), and we’re obviously rooting for Squad 7 to survive! We want them to win. The lead character, Naruto is in Squad 7! Clearly we like them the most. Then why is it that every fan of the show immortalizes Zabuza and Haku?
Because we see a bond between Zabuza and Haku. When Haku appears in the mist to sacrifice his safety in order to keep his caretaker safe – that act changes everything.
As of yet – there is no strong bond holding together Squad 7. Yeah, Naruto and his comrades fight their hardest, and one of them almost to the death; they have to utilize the teamwork they’d been avoiding for so long – but that’s not nakama. The bond of love between an assassin and his conditioned apprentice, though? THAT was nakama.
You see that moment; that presentation of empathy, love, and care for something other than themselves; made those characters greater – unselfish, forgiving, merciful and kind to someone outside of them – making them stronger than any of the adored members of our beloved Squad 7. Their pasts, their wrongdoings, their sins I won’t say meant nothing… but they suddenly meant much less. Because we just witnessed their humanity, and much more than their humanity – selflessness.
In fiction – we frequently equate the enemy with negative qualities. They are the enemy, therefore they must carry no virtue. They are all evil.
But a person who steals bread, inspired by the love for their starving children… A person is risking their life, reputation, and future with an evil act in order to protect/save others.
Self-sacrifice is the greatest sacrifice is it not? And great self-sacrifice, I imagine, should be the hardest decision to make. The amount of bravery and inner-peace needed to execute such a choice… is impressive. I am grateful to have never been placed in the predicament where I must choose between my life and another’s. Would I have the strength to give up everything for someone I love? Could I make that decision? I have no idea, but I can tell you that when I see a mother sacrifice herself for her child, or any adult jump in front of a child they are unrelated to who is in harm… there’s something magical behind that choice. There’s a passion, a power of emotion that exceeds the brain and is pure heart – which may be stupid – but it’s selfless. And altruism is admirable if not the most admirable.
Nakama is a purely altruistic act, and though I cannot say I’ve ever felt that I would give my life for my friends in a moment (which seems like nakama-extremism), I know I sacrifice a lot for my loved ones, even when we are not blood related. I donate a lot, I believe in people a lot, I offer plenty of my time which in my opinion… is giving my life.
But a lot of people do not understand this idea of nakama and are very quick to judge it, if not feel unsettled by it; it is not clinginess, it is not desperation; it is just empathy, faith, and affection but it does not take away from someone’s love for themselves – at least it shouldn’t. It is there only to make you stronger.
So maybe that’s why some of our most evil characters in popular culture are incredibly strong. Enemies in fiction aren’t always 100% made out of Satan-Squeeze. We do see some humanity in our antagonists here and there. But there’s a weird, religious, consecration when a bad guy “sees the light” and decides to suddenly “go green and be good.” So it almost seems like… there really is no adversary… cause… in an instant, they’re absolutely cleansed.
So… if everyone can be saved, then that means everyone is made of goodness. And then what a relief that is! What a belief that is! Ahhhh what a happy, spiritually satisfying ending ☺.
This brings up the complicated character development between Naruto Uzumaki and Sasuke Uchiha. (We’re diving into murky waters, my friends).
Sasuke Uchiha was my favorite character from the moment I laid eyes on him, but he has probably one of the most tragic pasts I’ve ever had the honor of absorbing. Born of the Uchiha Clan, Sasuke was raised among some of the most intelligent, perceptive, and valuable ninja-warriors of Konoha. Their trademark is the Sharingan – a powerful dōjutsu (an eye technique) that augments a ninja’s insight and hypnotism against their rival… basically. Sasuke lives a pretty normal and happy childhood, constantly idolizing his older brother, Itachi, and striving to be just as strong and helpful to the community as his brother has been. Then we discover Itachi has had undisclosed motives for a long time. Abruptly, he unleashes… going on a rampage, slaughtering the whole entire Uchiha clan, including his and Sasuke’s parents… but leaves Sasuke alive and alone.
So Sasuke’s mission practically from birth becomes to avenge his clan, locate, and defeat his brother.
But then he meets Naruto Uzumaki and Sakura Haruno who seem to veer him from the path of self-destruction and revenge. He finds a family he once lost amongst Squad 7 and its hilarious but unsurpassable sensei, The Copy Ninja, Kakashi Hatake (who, for lengthy reasons, also attains an eye with the clan’s Sharingan). There is a bond growing between all four of these characters, an empathy, a pure caretaking quality that was not there when they were up against Zabuza and Haku.
But inescapably… we lose Sasuke to the dark side (and let’s just leave it at that for now).
One of the worst things that can probably happen to you as a human being (aside from an audience member) is seeing your favorite character go bad. Yeah sure it’s kinda cool and they become even edgier than they once were, but there’s nothing cool about seeing someone you believed to be your best friend go rogue and forsake the home you built together because suddenly you and your friendship mean absolutely nothing to them… That always sucks.
But according to nakama, you have an unbreakable bond… yet you see the goodness being sucked out of your nakama’s soul… does that mean that you give up on the friend who has given up on you? Do you turn your back on the criminal your best friend has now become?
One of my dad’s favorite movies is Seabiscuit. He’s definitely a big fan of the comeback-kid and always tended to root for the underdog. His favorite quote in the film became one to live by in our household. It was when Chris Cooper’s character was asked why he kept trying to fix this horse that had injured its ankle. It was a racehorse. With an injured ankle it had become useless. And to that he responded,
“You don’t throw a whole life away just because it’s banged up a little.” Beautiful.
So when your BFF goes all homicidal on the townspeople… what do you do? Well, because of anime, I don’t think I’d ever be able to completely hate them. Even if I had the responsibility of killing them… the nakama between us would still exist despite their death and my being the cause of their death.
I am not quite sure that this is a good thing. You see… sometimes… I do believe we need to lose friends, and we shouldn’t keep raising excuses for why it’s okay that they’ve truly begun to suck as people. It is their fault. You have tried. You’re now beginning to work yourself to the bone defending an ego that apparently doesn’t even want your defending.
The fatal flaw of nakama: difficulty knowing when to let go.
But the problem that I feel most people face, is letting others go too easily. I watch my acquaintances releasing friends like breath out of their lungs sometimes, and the stories I hear of them being suddenly dropped from a friendship are staggering… I think people have forgotten how to be brave, and forgotten how to be there for our buddies when they need us the most and evidentially become the most difficult versions of themselves to deal with. It is hard being a good friend – if anyone tells you otherwise I can confidently state that they are wrong and probably have a lot of interpersonal issues as well. But it is hard being there when someone needs you, especially when they need you more than that one time.
I credit this rude awakening to my emotional intelligence, my time spent being introspective and aware of the people and the world around me – to my understanding and my empathy. Because I know I’ve “strayed-from-the-path” before, I know I’ve hit concrete walls and sulked in the pitfalls of depression, and more often than not was abandoned by my friends rather than finding them waiting for me to wake up on the other side as a new person. And I’ll tell you what – I got used to the abandonment, but I never accepted it as a viable approach. So every time a friend of mine hit the concrete walls or were in the jaws of anxiety and stress, I was always sitting cross-legged with my head cocked to the side, my ears wide-awake, and a smile in my pocket for when they were ready. ‘Cause I knew that’s what could’ve helped me. I knew that support meant something to people. I was showing my friends in pain that they had a cheerleader, and I was going to be rooting for them until they’d come back to Earth.
And did I learn this from the air? Did I think of this approach by myself? Ruminating on it, anime and manga trained me to be a good friend before I even had a friend to be good to.
But what about when they don’t come back to Earth? And what if it’s because they refuse to? When do you let go, and does letting go mean ‘stop loving?’
That’s when things get complicated.
But nakama still doesn’t lose its value.
My BFF is a homicidal freak now, right? Okay. So it appears that I’m head of the defense force that is meant to take my ex-BFF DOWN TO THE GROUND… those characters that suddenly just flip the switch and delete every memory they have had with that person… that’s great and all, and I’m sure a useful tool when you’re in the business of saving lives (you’ve essentially deleted your bias towards a person who is now your enemy) but that doesn’t feel very human to me. Like we just discussed above, you’ve also given up on someone. And the idea of giving up on someone does not exist in anime. Unless it’s a supporting-role who had a hand in poorly raised one of our vindictive protagonists. But they always feel shame in the end anyway, and the protagonist has the inner peace to forgive them because of their understanding, their love, and at the root of it – nakama.
So how and why did nakama appear in manga and anime? Where did it come from and why is it still so prevalent in Japanese culture? Could it be a reaction to something rather than an intrinsic value?
What if nakama was in some way a response to shame? That if you did not behave this way towards your comrades (for example fellow samurai) you would then be identified as a coward, unwilling to risk your life for your brethren. Therefore you have brought dishonor to you family. Dishonor on your cow! (as per Mushu) and shame upon your head. An ultimate, sin according to the ancient culture, inducing suicides throughout the empire.
So could the innocent idea of nakama have been born from the embarrassment of shame? And is that why western society does not grasp this value… as a value? How do we experience shame and do we value it?
What is our idea of shame? I’ll tell ya, it usually doesn’t stem from how we treat other people:
Someone cheated on their spouse? Yeah well it happens.
Someone keeps cheated on their math tests? Shame.
A person is corrupt in the workplace? It’s terrible, we hate it but… what’re we gonna do, it happens.
A person comes out as gay. Shame.
A human who likes a unique style of music. Shame.
A human who was raped. Shame.
A teenager who isn’t athletic like their parents. SHAAAME.
You see, we treat shame as a form of social acceptance, and by that I mean, if you do not meet the criteria of the put-together citizen, you should be ashamed of yourself! During the Edo Period of Premodern Japan, if you were a Samurai and could not uphold Bushido; “the way of the warrior,” the moral code of that culture; shame was brought upon you. But their moral code was often in the pursuit of benefitting other people.
The eight rules of bushido code are as follows:
Righteousness Heroic Courage Benevolence/Compassion Respect Integrity Honor Duty and Loyalty Self-Control
These laws outline the responsibilities of samurai; to be deeply honest with yourself and your neighbor, to not only find opportunities to help your neighbor but to create those opportunities when they do not arise. Understanding that true strength does not come in proving your strength. Staying true to your word and being aware that you are the judgment you sleep with at night. Decisions you make and how these decisions are carried out are a reflection of who you truly are.
For, “you cannot hide from yourself.”
But it appears that our in-vogue moral code dictates that you must hide from yourself because if you are different… you are a deviant. Its standing does not rely on our treatment of others but more on our ability to conform to a certain standard of acceptable normalcy. Not too weird but not too common. So our code just seems to be self-imposed and self-inflicted. We don’t seem to really value how we treat one another but how well we mold to one another. I think the last time I was taught that being kind to others was a code to live by was in kindergarten, when I learned, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Pretty much, treat people how you’d wanna be treated. And then of course “keep your hands to yourself.” * thumbs up *
But after that… I dunno… there wasn’t much stress on the ethical upbringing of our population, of our citizens. Do we really not care that much? Yeah sure, I took ethics in college, I took several courses in Sociology and Philosophy and studied the Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking… Literature can often times be a nice bridge into empathy as well… but these were all choices. I was not obligated to take any of these classes… which means… a lot of people don’t. And won’t. And even if they did/do, college may have been a late start to have these discussions.
We are raising a population of Narutos that will not chase after their Sasukes. Generations of children that believe hurting someone is an okay practice if that person hurt them first and feel no shame afterwards. That reflecting fire proves your strength rather than dousing it and turning your cheek and being a bigger person. The way we’re going, everyone is going to want their fire to be larger and brighter than their enemies’ and their friends,’ igniting an egotistical flame that’ll just burn down city hall… thanks guys.
Hot-heads are generally looked down upon in Japanese entertainment. They’re a source of humor and the butt of everybody’s jokes because they’re assumed to be quite immature and stupid. They are nothing like their leaders; they lack self-control and respect, empathy, and awareness (we idolize this in the West). In these shows, characters have certain codes to live by that are very similar to the samurai’s bushido, and if you’re not striving for that admirable way of life… something seems to be wrong with you:
The way of the ninja in Naruto.
Saiyan Culture’s emphasis on pride, honor, strength, and honesty.
And even in shōjo manga like Mermaid Melody and Special A, there is a camaraderie between our main characters that is so strong, any outside force cannot defeat it. You see these stories do not have to revolve around intense, dramatic plots entrenched in suspense and guided by their twists and turns. The characters set in a village ravaged by demons are quite the same as characters trying to survive high school. They are inspired by their peers; peers who neglect them, hate them, terrorize them, love them… they want to grow and become stronger because of their peers.
There is a constant theme in anime about weakness and how weakness is looked down upon, but not in the overtly-masculine way that you may think. It is not that weakness itself is shameful, but that one’s inability to protect their loved ones is shameful. Characters are often tormented by their guilt for feeling like deadweight, like an anchor, being incapable of protecting their best friends and their families. So they are motivated by their pain, their rivals, their nakama all in order to evolve and grow into someone stronger – and a character’s strength is measured by how well they can protect other’s.
What an incredible notion. Measuring strength based on your selflessness and your ability to love.
If I have to lose friends because they do not understand nakama… because they find weakness in it, they’re missing out on a tool that builds up only the toughest and the bravest. It hurts, but it must be endured and it must be accepted by people like myself. Those friends I will lose are luckily few, and are not guided by the same light that guides the characters I’ve admired since my childhood. And people like that cannot inspire themselves, nor will they be able to inspire others.
I am an endless fire lit in perpetuity by the sensation of my nakama, and I will continue to be fueled by this heat, inspired by every day and every night, because I have people I care for and people to live for. My ability to love can break the bank – and I can thank my evil, big brother for that.