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From anime to Zen, foreigners are mastering Japanese culture

Seira Ryu does voice work in Sailor Moon, a Japanese animated TV show she watched as a child in China.

TOKYO   Manga and anime have become some of Japan's most successful cultural exports, winning fans across the world. Until recently, Japanese artists dominated the field, but that is beginning to change.

"Hokuo Joshi O-sa ga Mitsuketa Nihon no Fushigi (Nordic girl Asa discovers the mysteries of Japan)," written by Asa Ekstrom, 32, has had a publishing run of 110,000 copies. "It is a smash hit for a comic book not serialized in a weekly magazine," said Shun Yamasaki, an editor at publishing company Kadokawa. The collection of four-frame comic strips, comprising two volumes, shows things the Swedish author found interesting living in Japan. Experiences she turned into comic strips include bumping into a man who was too eager to give directions in English, and an editor sending her emails in the middle of the night.

Asa Ekstrom draws manga on a tablet computer at her home in Tokyo.

Ekstrom decided to become a manga artist after watching "Sailor Moon," an animated Japanese show, on TV. Partly because Sweden's market was too small to make a living creating manga, she came to Japan in 2011. Her manga, posted on her blog, became popular and the first volume of a collection of her work was published in March last year. "My work has been recognized in Japan, the home of manga," she said, with a smile.

Speech balloons -- the bubbles that express characters' speech -- are the hardest part, Ekstrom said. She sometimes needs to translate Swedish words that she chooses into English first, using one dictionary, and then use an English-Japanese dictionary to translate them into Japanese. Yamasaki, the editor, goes through long conversations with Ekstrom after seeing her initial work, to help her find the right words. "When we get over these difficulties, it's a great feeling," Yamasaki said.

Seira Ryu, a 30-year-old voice actor at Aoni Production, a major voice acting agency based in Tokyo, is from China. She dreamed of becoming a voice actor when she was a child and came to Japan after graduating from Beijing Foreign Studies University. She studied at a vocational school and debuted as a professional voice actor.

"It was particularly challenging to overcome the Japanese pronunciation of the 'small tsu' character (consonant elongation)," she said. "The Chinese tend to mispronounce phrases such as 'ikko ikko' (one by one) as 'iko iko.'"

When she was a student, she uploaded her speech in Japanese on the internet and learned correct pronunciation gradually by being corrected by strangers. Now, Ryu appears in the popular anime TV shows "Sailor Moon Crystal" and "One Piece."

"Her wide-ranging expressiveness is her strength," said Katsuaki Ikeda, an Aoni Production executive. "She is progressing daily through hard work."

Ryu now also uses her voice acting skills developed in Japan, the home of anime, in Chinese anime films. "One of my goals is to play the same character in both Japanese and Chinese versions," she said.

The Japanese government has high hopes for anime as an industry with growth potential overseas. At a meeting in March, the Council on National Strategic Special Zones adopted a policy to increase opportunities for foreigners to work in the anime industry.

"It's necessary to create an environment that allows skilled people to demonstrate their talent, regardless of nationality," said Ichiya Nakamura, a professor of media policy at Keio University's Graduate School of Media Design. 

SHINTO MASTER   Boasting a history of more than 900 years, Konno Hachimangu Shrine is located near Tokyo's Shibuya station but away from its hustle and bustle. "Shinto symbolizes the Japanese traditional way of life, as people here are tolerant of foreigners and give great importance to cleaning themselves and their surroundings," said Florian Wiltschko, a 28-year-old priest at the Shinto shrine.

Florian Wiltschko, an Austrian priest at Konno Hachimangu Shrine, in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward

Traveling to Japan with his family 14 years ago, he was enthralled with old shrine buildings that blend in with their surrounding landscapes. "Many of my contemporaries were interested in Japanese comics and animation," the Austrian priest said. "I don't know why, but I used to be very curious about the country's traditions and culture."

After graduating from an Austrian university, Wiltschko returned to Japan and studied Shinto at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo to formally become a priest. At the university, he met Hiroaki Hiruma, the current chief priest of Konno Hachimangu Shrine, who was impressed with Wiltschko's ability to communicate in multiple languages.

"This shrine is visited by many foreigners," Hiruma said. "If foreign visitors have any questions about Shintoism or our shrine, he can speak both English and German to give them precise answers."

People in other countries have developed a keen interest in Japan's traditional religions. In the 1970s, Zen Buddhism experienced a boom abroad. John Lennon and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs were known to immerse themselves in Zen meditation practices. Hirochika Nakamaki, professor emeritus of the National Museum of Ethnology, said many foreigners regard Shinto and Buddhism not so much as religions, but rather as part of Japanese culture.

Antaiji, a Zen temple of the Soto sect, has a German-born abbot, Muho Noelke. The temple is in a mountainous area of Shinonsen, a town in northern Hyogo Prefecture. When he was unable to cope with stress during his high school days in Germany, he was introduced to zazen, a sitting meditation practice which forms an important part of Zen Buddhism. The experience eventually opened the way for him to become a Zen monk.

Continuing to practice zazen day after day, Noelke has found that his mind gradually becomes serene and calm. "By changing my posture, I can completely change my consciousness," he said.

Guided by German-born abbot Muho Noelke, left, monks practice zazen at Antaiji temple in Shinonsen, Hyogo Prefecture.

At age 25, he was ordained as a monk at Antaiji, a temple specializing in Zen that has no parishioners. After many years of training at monasteries in various parts of the country, Noelke succeeded his teacher as the ninth abbot in 2002.

In addition to Japanese, the temple accepts foreigners as trainee monks, including people from China, the U.S. and Germany. Both Japanese and English are used in daily conversations.

At the temple, which is a self-sufficient community, trainees are supposed to practice for at least three years. A typical day consists of four hours of zazen and up to seven hours working on a farm. On about 10 days a month, they practice zazen for 10 hours. Takuhatsu, a traditional form of ritualized begging, is also an important part of the practice for monks.

The Zen monastery has also started collecting donations through the internet. The donations are used to pay for necessities that cannot be produced within the temple, such as electricity.

Even since becoming abbot, Noelke has continued his hard training. Kazushi Ochi, who entered into Zen training at the temple one and a half years ago, said the abbot practices longer and harder than any of the other monks.

"I am not conscious of the fact that the abbot is a foreigner," one local resident said. "I think he is rather a community partner."

Noelke has accepted foreign practitioners from more than 30 countries. "Some people come here because they have lost their way in life, so I would like them to find their own solutions through Zen practice," the 48-year-old abbot said, with a gentle smile.

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