The Power of Friendship! Super Sentai and the Japanese Collectivist Culture
Have you ever wondered why anime, manga, and other Japanese media seem to focus so much on groups and friendship? Why is it that these characters can overcome even the toughest challenges by relying on their friends?
It’s not just a coincidence or lazy writing – the power of friendship is a reflection of deeply rooted Japanese values.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger, the 35th Super Sentai series. You may recognize Super Sentai as the show that Power Rangers is based on. Comparing the two in terms of cultural translation over time is practically an entire field of study by itself, but for today let’s focus only on the Japanese version.
Gokaiger is... it’s like the best thing ever. Five space pirates inherit all of the previous Super Sentai’s powers, so they can transform into any one of them at will. On top of that, they frequently run into sentai members from previous teams, who give them Grand Powers that provide their mecha with new finishing moves. It’s kinda like a superhero team-up special, but with 200 characters at once. It’s rad.
And when you examine the characters and how they interact with each other, Gokaiger is a fantastic example of Japanese collectivism in action. ...Even though the characters are technically aliens.
Collectivism means that the group is given priority over the individual. It has its roots in Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism and is a driving force of Japanese culture. Japanese people often identify strongly with their “in-group” and value its interests over their own individual desires. This can be seen in sports teams, families, workplaces, and more. Many businesses in the country use the “amoeba” style of management, invented by Kazuo Inamori, which strongly focuses on group dynamics.
Naturally, this philosophy shines through in their media all the time. The Gokaiger team, despite their appearance as arrogant and dismissive pirates, is actually a tightly knit group of friends who support each other no matter what. Each one of them has their own battles to face, but time and again, the other members join in to help so that nobody has to go it alone.
A great example of this is the Joe vs Barizorg subplot. Joe, who is Gokai Blue, used to be a soldier in the evil empire that serves as the antagonistic force of the show. It was a nightmare, but he had his best friend/senpai Sid to help him through. This takes a turn for the really bad when, years later, Joe discovers that Sid has been cybernetically modified into Barizorg – one of the generals of the evil empire.
Joe tries desperately to save Sid from Barizorg, but he can’t do it with just his own power. He refuses help from the rest of the team, however, they’re incredibly persistent. They support him, help him train, and even give him their weapons because if Joe has an obstacle to face, then it’s their responsibility to take it on as well. Many episodes later, Joe finally does defeat Barizorg thanks to – you guessed it – the power of friendship.
As for what happens to Sid... that’s better experienced by watching those episodes yourself. I certainly wasn’t expecting the show to handle it the way they did.
If you watch Gokaiger, or you’re just a big fan of subtitled anime, you’ll hear the word “nakama” thrown around a lot. It’s usually translated as “friend” or “comrade”, but the more literal version would be “member of a group”. Friends are intertwined with groups in this context, so anti-group or self-serving behavior is strongly associated with a betrayal of friendship.
Basco is another enemy of the Gokaiger team, but he actually used to be in a different band of pirates with Captain Marvelous/Gokai Red. He betrayed that group by taking the hard-earned treasure for himself and turning the others over to the evil empire – “To obtain something, you must give something up. And I'm giving you guys up.” He’s motivated entirely by his own ambitions, which serves as a stark contrast to our heroes.
But even the main characters seem selfish compared to the other Super Sentai members they meet along the way. The Gokager team initially dismisses Earth as unworthy of their protection, since they’re just here to find the Greatest Treasure in the Universe. They care deeply about their own in-group, but nobody else really matters to them.
This all starts to change in the team-up movie Gokaiger Goseiger Super Sentai 199 Hero Great Battle (which is just as awesome as it sounds). They learn that all 34 of the previous sentai teams willingly gave up their powers to defeat a huge portion of the evil empire Our main characters later obtained all of their powers, so they’re the only ones left who can defend Earth.
The other sentai show them that protecting everyone, not just those they personally care about, is what makes them heroes. Even though the alumni sentai can’t transform, they still devote their lives to serving the Earth in their own ways – being a police officer, teaching martial arts, or even selling treats to kids.
The Super Sentai so embody Japanese culture that collectivism is the very backbone of their existence. Once the Gokaiger team embraces this, they become true successors of the sentai name. And then they all pose dramatically on a mountain to defeat the bad guy – as you do.
So why is the power of friendship and selflessness such an unstoppable force in Japanese media? Because it comes directly from the core values of its creators. Even pirates from outer space get it! When it was time for their series to be over, the Gokaiger team willingly passed the torch onto the next heroes. After all, it’s not their own desires that matter in the end. It’s the larger group that must continue to prosper.