“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie— Mugen Train” hit American cinemas on April 23, 2021. The film earned $19.5 million during its opening weekend, making it the most watched foreign-language movie in America of all time. The movie is often described as a “cultural phenomenon” for its role in bringing the popularity of anime to the forefront of U.S. news. Netflix announced the number of households watching anime on its service jumped by 50% in the year leading up to September 2020.
Streaming services have made foreign films and television shows more accessible to American audiences, and this includes popular forms of Japanese pop culture like anime. With engaging and varied plots, high-quality animation, and shows for all ages, it makes sense audiences sought out this form of entertainment during the COVID-19 shutdowns. The resurgence in popularity surrounding anime is great news for Japan. The country could expect a rise in interest to continue and thus an opportunity for cultural exchange.
Traditional forms of cultural exchange such as US-Japan study abroad had been very popular in recent years. In the 2018-2019 academic year, 8,928 students from the United States studied abroad in Japan. In the 2017-2018 academic year, there was a 12.4% increase in students going to Japan compared to the previous year. In 2016-2017 academic year, 18,780 students from Japan studied in the United States. Unfortunately, study abroad and travel are still restricted in Japan because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but consulates and Japanese cultural societies across America have been taking advantage of their new audience’s desire to learn about Japanese culture.
The Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC), the largest in the United States, moved their exhibits online in order to continue their mission of “building connections between people and cultures”. The Embassy of Japan Washington DC’s Japan Information and Cultural Center (JICC) followed a similar pattern, offering movie viewings and Japanese art exhibit tours virtually. While COVID-19 restrictions caused their platforms to go online, this has opened doors for cultural diversity and an expanded audience. Those who became interested in Japanese culture through the sudden popularity in anime may not have had the option to travel or study abroad for the foreseeable future. However, they do have the new opportunity to view high quality content online. As the Embassy of Japan in Washington D.C. mission statement says, these cultural education opportunities are for “enriching the relationship between Japan and the United States through active, vibrant cultural exchange”.
Shannon Wells is a participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a first-year Master's of International Studies student at North Carolina State University.