When Dr. Takeo Suzuki agreed to teach a course on Japanese anime and manga culture this fall, he was supposed to have only 10 or 12 students.
After the class filled up in the first hour of registration, the dean agreed to expand it—first to 15 and eventually to 35 students.
“But I still have a waitlist, and some students, actually a few of them, do not take my class, but they come to class and listen. When was the last time you heard somebody actually come to class for no grade? Right,” said Suzuki, who for eight years has been the executive director for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Center for Global Education, his “real” job.
Anime is a style of Japanese film and television animation aimed at adults as well as children. Manga is the style of Japanese comic books and graphic novels.
“It’s fun,” Suzuki said of the class’s draw, “and I have a great participation rate. Not only do we talk about the Japanese language, tradition, history, beliefs—pretty much everything—but they are described in these manga shows and animated movies. I have very educated students who like to learn.”
Senior Marietta Song, a Chinese-American graduate of nearby Hixson High School, said she is taking Suzuki’s class because anime was an outlet that helped her grow up and was a big part of her self-identity.
It also helped as an icebreaker during years of childhood discrimination, in which bullies associated her with the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and the Korean War. She even remembers being called “Nagasaki” and “Hiroshima,” the two Japanese cities upon which the U.S. dropped atomic bombs to end World War II.
“Anime has really, really told me things about Asia that I would’ve never learned here in America, because here in America we mostly focus on certain things and I wasn’t really taught much about Asia at all. In fact, growing up I was faced with a lot of discrimination,” Song said. “Anime influenced my culture, so it’s definitely had a dominant role within American pop culture. I think it really helps people mingle together, share a connection.”
When Song meets a Japanese exchange student, anime and manga get the conversation started, she said.
“So it’s always nice to see how Asian pop culture really dominates here in America, and it’s really become a bridge to do multicultural connections,” she said.
Anime and manga were outlets she said “comforted me” and drew her into archery through the manga series “Inuyahsha,” whose main character was Kagome Higurashi, a 15-year-old middle school girl from modern-day Tokyo and a graceful and elegant practitioner of archery.
With Kagome as a role model, Song took up archery at age 8 and, at Hixson High, was one of the state’s top shooters.
“And even though I’m not Japanese, I can still understand how lonely it can be being in a different, whole new world. Me as an Asian-American, there’s always that strange bridge. I’m too Asian to be American. I don’t fit in as an American, but if I were to go to Asia, I can’t be Asian because I’m too American. Yeah, it’s that weird thing,” said Song, who will graduate from UTC in May with a bachelor of arts degree in studio art with a minor in communication.
Caleb Nabors, a junior business major from Cookeville, Tennessee, said he is taking the anime and manga class without credit because he was a foreign exchange student in Japan and is interested in the culture.
“I’m also taking it really because I love the professor,” said Nabors, who also is enrolled in Suzuki’s Japanese language class.
He’s hooked on the manga and anime series “Demon Slayer,” which is set in medieval Japan.
“It shows how they handled politics and combat, stuff like that,” Nabors said, “and you can kind of see the Japanese history come into that, which I think is really cool. Understanding cultures will help me understand more people in general. And I used to live in Japan, so I could use this to understand them more.”
Chattanooga sophomore Joseph Sanders, an East Hamilton High graduate, is an engineering major who needed a “fun elective” that would not further weigh him down with after-class studies.
“It doesn’t demand a whole lot of me outside of the class,” Sanders said. “I can go to the class, usually get my stuff done and then we just do discussion or something, maybe a weekly project, or whatnot. It’s not like physics where I’m spending three and four hours a day on it.”