The High School Setting

Sometimes anime and manga as a whole are criticized for having too many stories take place in high school or involve high school students, and indeed there are a lot of titles, both good and bad, which fall into that category. While explanations range from “that’s how old a lot of readers are,” “there is a certain ideal to high school, the moment before you become an adult,” and even “so they can sexualize teenagers,” I have to wonder if it has anything to do with high school as a point of commonality among Japanese people.

Most young people in Japan go to high school (if someone can argue otherwise, please do), but once they go beyond high school their lives start to branch out more. Some go to college, some enter the work force, some go to technical training schools, and so on. This is even a plot point in some manga which make the transition out of high school such as Initial D. What this means is that, as a writer, if your aim is to have a position in life that the majority of your readers can directly relate to, then that period becomes harder to manage because not everyone will have that roughly similar experience post-high school.

Obviously this doesn’t mean that people cannot relate to characters outside of their own experience, or that people will reject heroes in unfamiliar settings, but that you end up losing that simple and easy connection. Such a loss can be overcome and frequently is, but high school perhaps remains that time people can look back to and say “I lived in that.” They might not have the magic powers or have gone to the rich school where everyone eats diamonds, but there is the thematic shorthand nevertheless.

6 thoughts on “The High School Setting

  1. I don’t know if this applies to Japan, but the high school setting is also used in the US, and here it’s often used as the setting for comedies of manners. How you act, how you dress, who’s cool and who isn’t are the stuff of comedies of manners and they’re really important in high school (and not that important anywhere else).


  2. Personally, I’ve always found the high school setting kind of annoying. Not only are Japanese highschools so much different than the ones in my country that it becomes a completely alien set up, but the fact that, in general, I have a very strong dislike for teenagers as protagonists. (Or hell, teenagers in general, to be honest). That’s why I enjoy stuff like Genshiken – It’s set in college.


  3. I wrote a similar post about the high school setting in anime, mentioning all the points you brought up ;) I agree that one of the reasons it’s frequently used is because, like you said, it’s the last period of life we’ve all lived. But then one could ask, why not use middle or elementary school then? Well, because high schoolers are also more closer in age to adults while still being “kids,” so that widens their appeal. It’s also the age where they’re transitioning into adulthood and discovering who they really are, so that lends itself to good storytelling situations too.


  4. I was once told that Japanese high schools are all built on a nation-wide plan of some sort, and that’s why they all look the same down to the architecture in anime.

    That aside, your “this is what people can identify with” strikes me as more of a fanciful thought. I think Japanese people value originality and novelty far less than Americans, who are great lovers of innovation. (A Japanese guy pointed this out to Noah and I once.) Originality in setting (and even genre and character) is far less important in Japan than in the U.S. It’s practically a genre shorthand.

    I found it interesting (and significant) that the makers of the Comipa software chose “high school” as their first setting. Their second software might be “sword and sorcery” as if everyone knows what that means. Taverns, castles, green fields with one hit-die slime… Viewers might have experienced taverns and slime in their game lives…

    Anyway, I suspect the reality of Japanese high school is vastly different from the highly stylized anime high school experience. It’s more of an anime fantasy setting than something viewers can identify with from real life. It is more like a comedy of manners.


  5. I agree with @erinf that in most cases the high school of anime is almost as much of a fantasy world as it is a representation of a real school anyone may have gone to. I taught in a Japanese high school for a while, and while it did physically resemble tons of schools you see in anime (oddly enough, the entryway at my school looked almost exactly like the one in high school of the dead, hmm…), it was a unique place and the interactions between students were of course more nuanced than the role-like interactions you see in a lot of anime, which are in many cases as set as the fighter-thief-wizard-cleric roles you see in FRPG settings.

    So for a lot of anime makers the HS setting is just an easy tome of preset ideas you can pull out to make the setup easier.

    But I think in the case of anime with supernatural fear elements or elements of change/discovery I think it’s set in high school in Japan because that’s the phase when people feel most awkward, where they don’t really know who they’re supposed to be or how to act, and where they’re forced to learn who there are and what to do in short order. It does relate to the idea of social mores and interaction, but it’s not just that.

    In many western countries the idea is that you go through the ropes in HS and then college is the time to explore and find yourself. But in Japan, they don’t get that college time. College is more about drinking parties and relaxing for 4 years before work starts. There isn’t much expectation of growth beyond taking in certain classes you need to graduate, and I would imagine that’s mostly because Japanese college life doesn’t rotate around living on campus like it does in many western countries. You might learn to drive, learn to ski and date a lot, but you don’t get the chance to have the crazy always up life of a dorm when you have to commute an hour plus to and from school every day.

    Of course I didn’t go to college in Japan, but that’s the feeling I get talking to college students and people just entering the workforce – that college was a 4 year pause. It’s fun (and probably tiring) but not demanding spiritually.

    So for kids in Japan, the business of studies in HS is also pressed into a 3 year span where they’re expected to experiment, try to fit in, and find out who they are before they’re shoved into a future life that probably has nothing to do with performance in college (because getting in is the hardest part).

    Just my thoughts.

    BTW great blog!


  6. Taking it from the writer’s perspective, I think a high school setting allows a certain level of immaturity that allows for character development as the kids start to consider more serious problems. It’s also easier to comment on social interactions when you have mandatory classes together, meeting with the same people over and over, as opposed to having blocked out schedules with hundreds of students in your classes that you don’t know. If you look at Genshiken, being a college club doesn’t just define the series, it’s what makes consistent social interaction possible.


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