In recent times, I have noticed an increasing number of people who seem to believe that the word ‘anime’ means ‘animation’. Under this definition, any cartoon or other animation, whether Japanese, Western, Chinese, or Eskimo, would qualify as an anime. Let us be very clear: in English, anime ≠ animation; anime = Japanese animation. Consider this discussion a corrective to a misconception.
In determining the meaning of a word, one’s first port of call should always be a (reputable) dictionary. Now, there is no dictionary more reputable than Oxford. Oxford Dictionaries, which is the online equivalent of the Concise Oxford, defines anime as “A style of Japanese film and television animation …”. That is clear on its face. Let us dig a little deeper.
The Oxford Dictionary of English, the definitive record of the English language, third edition, defines anime as “[a] genre of Japanese or Japanese-style animated film or television entertainment, …; a film or television programme of this genre” (online, behind a paywall). Turning from the world’s most trusted dictionaries to the world’s most trusted encyclopaedia, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is also quite clear that anime are a Japanese phenomenon. Any other encyclopaedia or English dictionary you care to mention (including Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary, if you must know) will say the same. That suffices for the appeal to authority.
Now, I accept that there can be arguments at the margins about whether a certain non-Japanese cartoon which is made in a Japanese style can qualify as an anime. Thus, Avatar and RWBY are arguably anime. However, cartoons like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park; and animated films like Toy Story, Frozen, and Moana are obviously not anime. Yet, under this extended definition, they would all be anime. Even the later Star Wars films could be said to have anime elements, because of all the CGI they include. This is absurd.
That is because, while arguments can be made at the margins, the core meaning is clear. Every dictionary I checked for the purposes of this discussion, which includes every reputable dictionary, define anime by reference to Japan. The definitions are not always on all fours with one another. For example, some definitions refer to Japanese ‘cartoons’, while some refer to Japanese ‘animation’. This is potentially significant because not all animations are hand-drawn cartoons (for instance, Berserk (2016) is CGI). Additionally, some definitions include Japanese-style cartoons made elsewhere, while others do not. However, the fact that they all agree on the Japanese element despite these differences only goes to reinforce that element.
Furthermore, the fact that some definitions allow Japanese-style cartoons, far from lending support to a wider interpretation, merely goes to underline and reinforce the core Japanese element. That is because the inclusion of Japanese-style cartoons is predicated on the assumption that there must be some relationship with Japan.
Now, it is probably true that in Japanese, the word anime, which is arguably derived from the English word ‘animation’ (and arguably from the French), refers to all animations. This is irrelevant. The word ‘anime’ has been adopted into the English language and is therefore an English word. It takes its meaning from how English speakers use it, not from how the Japanese use it. This is not at all uncommon: it is just how languages work. They adapt and evolve across time and space. They borrow words from other languages and change the meanings to suit their purposes. The reverse occurs as well. English words are adapted into Japanese and take on different meanings in Japanese (here are some examples).
Of course, etymology can be relevant to determining the meaning of a word. However, even if we accepted that the Japanese meaning carried some weight, this factor would be completely outweighed by the very clear common English usage, as reflected in all the dictionaries. Furthermore, the etymology just goes to show why ‘anime’ means ‘Japanese cartoon’. The very fact that it is a Japanese word suggests that, in the English context, the phenomenon it denotes must be limited in some way to Japan. Otherwise, there would be no reason at all to have adopted the word into English. If ‘anime’ means simply ‘animation’ or ‘cartoon’, then it is completely superfluous, because we already have the words ‘animation’ and ‘cartoon’.
One might point out that because we already had the word ‘Japanimation’, ‘anime’ is superfluous either way. Yet if we investigate the history of the word ‘anime’ , we find that a) anime came first but b) there were good reasons to coin the term’ Japanimation. The word ‘Japanimation’ was created because, at first, ‘anime’ did not catch on in the West (it was pronounced ‘ay-naim’). Once they became popular, ‘anime’ reasserted itself. Japanimation is clearly, on its face, limited to ‘Japanese animations’, the words of which it is a portmanteau. Since anime and Japanimation are synonyms, it follows that ‘anime’ cannot be synonymous with ‘cartoon’ or ‘animation’. The synonymy does not render ‘anime’ superfluous, because, as that article points out, “[f]ans never liked [‘Japanimation’]. It sounded too close to a racial slur, and therefore vaguely pejorative”.
Furthermore, let us look at the word ‘manga’. This word is the counterpart to the word ‘anime’, and it too is clearly limited to Japanese comics. ‘Manga’ is not equivalent, in English, to ‘comics’ (or ‘graphic novels’ as they are now called). Thus, by analogy, ‘anime’ must also be limited to the Japanese context.
Even if ‘anime’ had a secondary (superfluous) English definition synonymous with ‘animation’, it would not change the fact that the primary meaning is limited by reference to Japan. It is an irrefutable fact that there is a subset of cartoons which are made in Japan. In English, this subset is referred to by the word ‘anime’. To deny this is to deny an objective fact about the very nature of reality.
The ordinary English usage of the term ‘anime’ is limited by reference to Japan. Try this thought experiment. If I created a discussion entitled ‘The Simpsons v Futurama’ at one of the major Disqus anime channels, the mods would likely not allow it, and you yourself would likely be taken aback if you received an invitation to such a discussion. Your immediate thought would surely be ‘those are not anime’. This intuition is itself evidence about the meaning of the word ‘anime’. The fact is, everyone knows that when someone says ‘anime’ in English (and other languages which have adapted the word?), 999 times out of 1000, they mean ‘Japanese animation’.
Ultimately, words either have meaning or they do not. Their meaning depends primarily on popular usage, as evidenced subjectively by intuition and objectively by dictionaries. One cannot simply decide, as did Humpty Dumpty, that, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”. That would lead to linguistic anarchy and would undermine the very purpose of language, which is to enable humans to understand one another. Words have meaning. ‘Anime’ means, at its core and in English, ‘Japanese animation’.
(It is fine to define anime as ‘Japanese cartoons’, too. Even though not all Japanese animations referred to as ‘anime’ are cartoons, most of them are. It is only bending the language a little to say that Japanese CGI animations, like Berserk, can be Japanese cartoons. However, to say that ‘anime’ can include any and all animations is to stretch the word beyond what its natural English meaning can bear.)
In short, Anime are by definition a subset of animation. This subset is distinguished from other animation by anime’s Japanese origins. All anime are animations, but not all animations are anime. Since not all animations are anime, anime and animation are not the same thing. Since they are not the same thing, the word ‘anime’ does not mean ‘animation’. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?
Originally posted at Anime for the People.