This subject is one that is quite important to me, personally, and this entry is very likely not going to be the only entry I write about this. For now, consider this an introduction to one of my favorite types of characters, not just in anime, but in all types of stories (though it most certainly has a large part in anime culture).
Osananajimi is a Japanese term that translates to “childhood friend”, and indeed means just that. In and of itself, the term has no romantic connotations and can refer to any unrelated person, male or female, with or without romantic connections, with whom a person has grown up with. From what I gather, culturally the Japanese value those whom they have grown up with as having a special connection with them, and as such, the childhood friend has been a popular character in classical fiction, including as a romantic interest.
In the world of anime and related media, though, the popularity of the osananajimi as a romantic interest largely comes from their use in dating sims and visual novels, particularly Shiori Fujisaki in Tokimeki Memorial and Akari Kamigishi in To Heart. (Also worth noting is Kanon, which likely helped popularize the “meeting with childhood friend after a long time apart” variation.) Since then, theosananajimi has been a common character in all sorts of anime, manga, and the like, with some recent examples including Rihoko Sakurai in Amagami, Chiwa Harusaki in OreShura, Manami Tamura inOreImo, and… well, the entire core cast of AnoHana.
|Not even death can separate them... not that death didn't try. (Official art.)|
As for why this character is so popular, I would say it’s because they exemplify a lot of traits—faithfulness, ability to love despite imperfections, ability to be open with each other, and a deep sense of intimacy that comes from a well-developed friendship—that are very desirable in any romantic partner.
The osananajimi has been one of my favorite character types since very early in my anime-watching experience, though that is very largely in part due to one obscure, unlicensed (and probably will never be licensed) visual novel adaptation called Lamune, which even now has one of my favorite portrayals of a childhood friend romance in anime. As for why I like such characters—and their romances—so much… that is a good question. It’s not like I have any female childhood friends myself that I wish I could be with, nor do I particularly care about finding one again in the first place. The aforementioned desirable qualities of a romantic partner could be a factor. However, after some consideration, it became clear to me why I like osananajimi characters so much.
It’s because they remind me of my relationship with God.
Growing Up with God
In Christian culture, we place a lot of emphasis on the testimony, our personal stories of how we came to become Christians—and rightfully so, as one of the best way to witness to unbelievers is to share with them how God has personally changed our lives. Unfortunately, one tendency that has come out of this is to romanticize certain testimonies—particularly, those of people who never knew Christ growing up and had lived lives of complete depravity until they hit rock bottom, and which point they discover Christ and their lives turn around completely. Don’t get me wrong; these stories are great. I’ll refer to these stories as “Paul” stories, since they are similar to what happened to the man formerly named Saul who persecuted the early Christians until a dramatic encounter with Christ changed his life (and name).
However, what I think can happen because of the romanticization of “Paul stories” is that there are those who feel like, because their testimonies are not as dramatic as these “Paul stories”, their testimonies are not worth sharing because they will not be as effective. Those who have grown up in Christian households, gone to church all their lives, and perhaps even lack a definite moment which they can point to as the moment they had accepted Christ, are probably most likely to feel that their testimonies are inadequate for lack of a dramatic conversion.
I contend that this is nonsense, and that the testimonies of those who have grown up knowing God are not inferior, but simply different.
One of the great things about romance stories is how they can reflect the story of a God who “so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV). The image of God as a lover pursuing his beloved is one that is very much biblical, and can be seen in such places as Hosea and Revelations—in fact, if this image is not perfect, it is more because human romance is inadequate in reflecting the full extent to which God loves us, not the other way around.
Given this image, then, “Paul stories” are very reminiscent of classic “knight on white horse” romances, where two people meet under some crazy circumstance (such as running into each other while late to school) and fall in love and suddenly their lives are turned upside down. The image of Belldandy of Ah! My Goddess descending into Keiichi’s life works almost too well as an example. In fact, anime is full of examples of “magical girlfriends” (and boyfriends) that unwittingly serve as a reflection of God winning the heart and changing the life of someone who did not know Him before.
What about the stories of those who have grown up in Christian households, then? Their stories are more reminiscent of the osananajimi romance story, where two childhood friends grow up learning about each other and being with each other, until one day they realize just how deep their feelings are for each other and how they want to devote themselves to each other for the rest of their lives. The exact story may vary, but it ultimately comes down to a reflection of the Christian who comes to the point where they want to devote him/herself to the God they grew up learning about.
It helps that many of the qualities of osananajimi characters that I mentioned earlier can apply to God as well: He is faithful, loves us despite our imperfection, and will be fully intimate with us (though as intimacy is a two-way street, how intimate we actually are with God depends on us).
To talk about why I personally like osananajimi stories, though, I need to give my own story, about a God that I grew up with and how I realized just how much He loves me despite my mistakes and how I decided I wanted to follow Him.
From a young age, I grew up going to church every Sunday and learning about the Bible and God. During my childhood, this “friendship” I had with God was for the most part pretty casual; however, as I entered into middle school and my mind was more capable of understanding what Christianity was about, my “friendship” with God grew closer. It’s during this time that I could say that I “accepted Christ”. However, as close as two osananajimi characters might be to each other, it’s still very different from a romance, and likewise, my relationship with Christ was not at the level of “devoted Christian”. I would go to church and knew a lot about Christianity intellectually, but in my heart I had not truly fallen in love with God.
Things got worse during college, as my actions (or lack thereof) led to a somewhat subpar performance during college academically, and I hardly even bothered to go to church or Bible study. I hadn’t turned my back completely to Christ, but if you can imagine two childhood friends starting to feel distance in their relationship as they grow up, that’s how I felt my relationship with God was like. Though just as one of the two osananajimi frequently continues to pine after the other, so God continued to love me and pursue me, even as I kept Him at arm’s length from me.
After graduating college, I was having trouble finding a job, when an opportunity to join the Navy was presented to me. Little did I know this was God’s way of finally closing the distance between me and Him.
Through a series of events (which, considering the training I had to go through, had to involve some divine intervention), I ended up in Hawaii, where among other things, I discovered some friends I could really connect with and a church I could call home. At this point, I realized just how much God has done for me and how much He loved me, and realized just how much I wanted to follow Him. Like the moment the relationship of two childhood friends progresses from friendship to romance, this marked the start of a whole new level of relationship with Christ.
All this brings me to today. I will admit that I am far from being an ideal Christ-follower; there are many times my heart gets distracted by the things of this world. That God is a merciful God that still loves me no matter what is something so great that I do not want to take it for granted. (After all, the only reason God can be this merciful to me is because all of His wrath that I rightfully should have received has been diverted to Christ when he died on the cross.) Osananajimi may be well-known for their ability to love despite all the shortcomings of their beloved, but there’s a God that cannot be beat in that department.
More Than Just A Friend
As much as this post has been focused on the analogy between osananajimi characters and God, I must point out that such an analogy must be incomplete. The Christian’s relationship with God is the most complex, intricate, and multifaceted relationship a person could have, in part because all the members of the Trinity—God, Son (Christ), and Holy Spirit—are one and the same. So at the same time we relate to God as a Father and King, so we relate to Christ as a friend and, alongside the rest of the Church, his bride, and we relate to the Holy Spirit as… actually, that’s a very complex one that could have its own entry entirely, but for now, think of any anime where a character gains power by being possessed by another entity.At any rate, my goal for this post is to explain why I like osananajimi characters so much, and the role my faith plays in that. I also hope to encourage anyone else who has a “grown up with God” testimony to find the beauty in their own story and not feel that it is an inferior story just because there’s no dramatic event like there was in Paul’s story. Of course, if you do have a “Paul story”, that’s great and worth sharing, too. No matter how one comes to know Christ, it cannot be anything but a glorious happening.
For future posts in this series, I'll look at specific examples of osananajimi in anime and what we can learn about God and Christianity from them. For now, what do you think about osananajimi characters or romances? Do you have any osananajimi couples that are your favorite?