x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

In childhood and beyond, Japan has animated my life

The culture and especially the animation of Japan has permeated Arab youth subcultures, making the recent disaster all the more poignant.

'Is someone different at age 18 or 60? I believe one stays the same," said Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese manga artist and animator behind works like My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

With their dramatic eyes, expressive mouths and unruly hair, the Japanese characters of the manga genre have captured the hearts and imaginations of generations of Arab youth, including my own. I can't remember a time when I didn't have a crush on an animated Japanese character, especially those heroes with long hair, a princely manner and imbued with some sort of superpower.

My latest fascination is with the main character in Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, which is loosely based on Alexandre Dumas's classic novel. The count's witty statements and insight into the human spirit in the anime series really struck a chord with me.

Sitting with a group of teenage youths, some half Japanese and others studying in Japan, we discussed the many ways that Japan's culture and products have influenced our Arab culture. Despite the age differences and nationalities, I saw that the allure of the animated characters has shown no signs of slowing down, with new fans constantly joining this subculture.

Anyone sitting next to us at the coffee shop in Dubai would have thought we were talking about real people in our lives, not animated ones. The dubbed anime series in the 1980s and 1990s especially shaped our values and dreams, leaving some of us reaching for the impossible. I owe my choice of career to the dubbed animated series, Hello! Sandybell, which was about a girl who becomes a journalist as she searches for her mother. It looked like such fun.

And the Japanese influence continues: most Arab families have at least one Japanese car in their garage. As one Emirati youth told me: "I knew how to speak Japanese at the age of five. I could say Toyota, Mitsubishi and Honda." The first car I bought was a silver two-door Honda that I had souped up and added a bit of Arabic calligraphy to its bumpers as I raced through the extreme winters of Canada.

And no household is Hello Kitty free, with my childhood friends and I still competing over who has the latest and coolest Hello Kitty item, with five of us carrying wallets bearing the face of the white kitten with a ribbon on its ear. My friends who have daughters like to pretend they go into those shops to buy gifts for "their children".

One of the main reasons I have always dreamt of going to Japan was because I admired how its culture holds cats in high regard, with the maneki neko, translated to "beckoning cat", found in homes and shops in Japan. The cat statue sits with its paw raised and bent, beckoning people and "luck" to enter. Where else but in Japan would there be cat and dog cafes and an island, Tashirojima, better known as Cat Island, dedicated to the elderly and cats? I doubt we will ever see anything like that in the Middle East.

While various industries have been affected by the disaster there, I believe they will bounce back. With expertise such as that which had a hand in building the Dubai Metro, it is a certainty.

Japan has touched our lives before the tragedy and continues to as we watch it struggle to recover from a triple disaster. But whatever happens, we will not forget the Japan of our childhood.

Meanwhile, I think Mr Miyazaki was right: we are the same inside regardless of age. Perhaps my crushes on animated figures would explain why I haven't yet found my own prince, or rather, count.