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On Christmas Day, 2010, a Japanese orphanage received an unexpected donation: 10 leather backpacks, five red and five black. The traditional backpacks, called randoseru, are typically given to schoolchildren by parents or grandparents before they begin first grade. Because the packs are expensive, the children at the orphanage usually used hand-me-downs. Now, a handful of kids would have shiny new packs of their own.
The anonymous donation was accompanied by a note, which read “Please use these backpacks for the children.” Curiously, it was signed with the name Naote Date, the alter ego of Tiger Mask, a manga and anime character. The mysterious signature caught the attention of national media in Japan. It went on to inspire hundreds of similar donations around Japan –under the name Naote Date, as well as other fictional characters.
While working for CNN, travel writer and photographer Robert Michael Poole covered the Tiger Mask phenomenon, which, he says, caught his eye because it “said a lot about Japanese society in an external and internal way.” Interested in hearing about more about how acts of kindness might differ culturally, we asked him to elaborate for Kind World.
So what is Tiger Mask, and what made the character a good fit?
ROBERT MICHAEL POOLE: Tiger Mask was a manga and anime that became popular in the late '60s and early '70s. It told the story of a wrestler who competed in the U.S. wearing the mask, known for his ferocious skills. But once a young boy told him that he wanted to grow up to be as vicious as Tiger Mask, the wrestler realized the impact of portraying a villain to children, and changed his life to return to Japan and compete as a hero instead.
Because the Tiger Mask character became a do-gooder and hero to kids, it’s no coincidence that the gestures were directed towards children’s centers and schools.
How long did the phenomenon last?
POOLE: People doing good deeds using the name mostly took place over a matter of a few days in January 2011 – the result seemingly of publicity after the first incident on Christmas Day 2010, and the second on New Year’s Day 2011. It was never clear if they were connected in a real sense, or copycat events and gestures, but some news media reported over 100 people donated anonymously within the first month. That faded over time, and then on March 11, 2011, Japan was struck by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resultant tsunami, after which all charity donations were directed to that catastrophe and the story disappeared.
How important was secrecy to the donors? Were any identities ever revealed?
POOLE: To my knowledge, none were unmasked, and I doubt that any Japanese media made a big effort to do so – that’s not the nature of Japanese society. In Japan, there is no concept or easy translation for the concept of pride, to be “proud of” something that you did, or that someone else did. Society is based on everyone serving everyone else, almost like a big family, and even though it can be maniacally hierarchical and so subservient as to seem oppressive (it is for many), it also makes for a peaceful society where showing off is frowned upon.
As such, doing a good deed is not something anyone would boast about, and doing good deeds without expecting anything in return is seen as honorable. Those ethics are so deep-rooted that, for the Japanese, their highest aim is to not be seen as having disturbed or troubled anyone else. Any public gesture of donating could be seen as making the people receiving the donation feel like they were unable to help themselves.
What do the Tiger Mask gifts say about charity in Japan?
POOLE: Japan has never really held the kind of big charity events that western cultures do. When major disasters happen, including abroad, Japanese organizations can and do give large donations because no individual is seen as being the giver in that scenario, but when it comes to personal charitable donations, that culture has never caught on and you never see people asking for money in the streets – it would be fairer to say that Japanese think about good deeds and charity as actions and behavior, not about giving money. There was no special reason to donate to kids at that time (it seemed entirely random), but it clearly touched a nerve with people who otherwise have few outlets to donate.
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