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This essay on Reddit gives a pretty good definition for iyashikei:

Iyashikei means “healing-type” and the genre’s works reflect this meaning. Iyashikei aims to heal the viewer through delivering a sense of relaxation and catharsis. This is accomplished through a tranquil – though not necessarily happy – in-show experience which allows the viewer to calm their mind and relax by focusing more on the emotional experience than on the intellectual.

The essay gives several examples of iyashikei shows, including Aria, K-On, Mushishi, and Non Non Biyori.

In my meager explorations of Japanese literature, I've noticed a peaceful and sometimes pensive feeling similar to the tone of many iyashikei, especially in the poetry. It seems that iyashikei is a genre with pretty deep roots in Japanese culture, so I'd expect it to take off early on in anime.

I'm curious what the earliest iyashikei anime or manga was. The earliest I knew of was Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, from 1994; the Reddit essay mentions the Studio Ghibli film Only Yesterday, from 1991. Are there any earlier? Given my hypothesis that iyashikei came from a longstanding and uniquely Japanese cultural perspective, it seems like there should have been.

Series this old wouldn't have been identified as iyashikei at the time (even Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou and Only Yesterday seem to predate the term), but if modern fans would identify it as iyashikei or something similar, it's potentially an answer.

  • Perhaps the concept is old, but the word "iyashikei" itself is apparently only attested back to 1999, or so claims Japanese Wikipedia. The claim seems plausible; the earliest occurrences in BCCWJ are from 2001. ("Iyashikei" is a straightforward compound word with compositional meaning, but simply does not seem to have been used until relatively recently.) – senshin May 18 '16 at 4:56
  • @senshin Yeah, I should have been more clear; I meant what we would identify today as an iyashikei series. It needn't have been called that at the time. I don't think (and your research agrees with my impression) that anyone at the time called Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou an iyashikei series; that label was attached in retrospect. If that condition requires a more rigorous definition of iyashikei, I'll try to provide one. – Torisuda May 18 '16 at 6:43
  • does that mean Ecchi and Hentai is Iyashikei ? – Tanya von Degurechaff May 19 '16 at 2:49
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(This was originally going to be a comment, but I'm going to go ahead and make this an answer and explain why I'm not sure it is possible to effectively answer this question. I could well be convinced otherwise, though!)

Unlike obscenity, you don't know (old) iyashikei when you see it

So, here's the problem, as I see it. iyashikei is one of those things that is characterized less by the content of a work and more by the effect of that work upon its audience.

Today, content creators have a well-worn library of narrative approaches that they can use to make their work iyashikei (e.g. "cute girls doing cute things"), and so we can look at a present-day work and see how it uses these approaches to effectively "heal" the audience. Alternatively, we can look at how a work comports itself relative to "canonically" iyashikei works that it discourses with, like Aria and so forth.

But when we look at works that predate the iyashikei "canon" and its associated library of approaches, how do we effectively evaluate whether a work is or is not iyashikei? Based on how it makes you feel, I guess.1 But that doesn't help us come up with a good answer to "which was the first?". That's the issue - it's simply rather difficult to say what is or is not iyashikei the further into the past you go.

For example:

I strongly disagree with the reddit user's claim that Only Yesterday is iyashikei.

While it is, on the whole, a calm and relaxing movie, and happens to employ some of the narrative trappings common to modern iyashikei works (wistfulness for rural Japan, in particular), it pairs these elements with decidedly un-healing bits, like the various mishaps Taeko experiences during her childhood, and the obstacles she faces in her budding relationship with Toshio. It is a beautiful slice of Japanese life, but is it healing? No, at least not to me.

If we lifted Only Yesterday out of 1991 and released it for the first time in 2016, would we call it iyashikei? I don't think so. It is not, in my view, substantially in discourse with the modern "iyashikei canon".

Why is iyashikei a Thing, anyway?

There's something of an argument that the crystallization of iyashikei in the late 90s as a Thing (throughout Japanese media; not just in the otaku realm) is a direct response to the trouble Japan was experiencing at the time - the bubble had just burst, and Japan was really reeling for the first time since World War II. This explanation is pretty reductive, and it'd be silly to claim that the economy is the only (or even primary) cause, but it seems uncontroversial that Japan's national woes at the time did contribute to the reification of iyashikei.

Taken out of its context as a response to the Japanese zeitgeist of the 90s, does it even make sense to talk about iyashikei? I'm not sure that it does.

A long, rambling footnote

1 This is not to say that it is always impossible to identify a work as having a quality that was only effectively delinated after the work's creation.

Take, for example, the realm of gothic fiction. When Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto, he wrote the first gothic novel, even though he could not have known that, since the idea of gothic fiction as a distinct thing did not come about until some years later. But we can nonetheless distinctly see that Otranto is a gothic novel (never mind the fact that the whole genre is named for Otranto to begin with), because there are specific narrative trappings that characterize gothic fiction (spooky castles, fantastic romances, etc.), and Otranto exhibits them.

But iyashikei works are not characterized by their narrative in this same way. Where, on the one hand, you have the (admittedly large) cluster of "cute girls doing cute things" anime, you also have "man has mystical encounters with spiritual entities" (Natsume Yuujinchou, Mushishi) and "parenting is great" (Usagi Drop, timeskip notwithstanding) and "shibe does shibe things" (Itoshi no Muco) and "whatever Glasslip is" (Glasslip), and I don't know how to identify a coherent commonality among all these things besides "they make me feel fuzzy inside".

  • This isn't the answer I was expecting, but it makes a lot of sense, and I now realize I overlooked a lot of things when I posited a connection between Japanese literature and iyashikei. The point about The Castle of Otranto is well taken; I definitely intended "iyashikei" in the extended sense, not some restricted sense where it's equivalent to "cute girls doing cute things", so you're correct to point out that the content varies widely, and the commonality is more about a style and a mood than anything concrete. – Torisuda May 18 '16 at 15:17
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    I haven't seen Only Yesterday, but it's interesting to me that Aria and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou supplement their idyllic settings with backstories that indicate hardship in the past, especially in light of the idea that the genre was a reaction to the economic and social problems in Japan of the 1990s and early 2000s. To me, some part of the healing nature of these shows comes from this underlying theme that hardships will pass and things will get better. And, had I thought about this more deeply before I posted, I would have realized that... – Torisuda May 18 '16 at 15:31
  • ...the "healing" concepts in Aria and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou are actually pretty Western, and don't show an obvious influence from Japanese literature the way some of these other shows do. – Torisuda May 18 '16 at 15:33
  • I've thought some more, and I'm not 100% convinced that it's impossible to identity older works as "proto iyashikei". (I'm only about 65% convinced.) But I do agree that, if it is possible, it would require both a ton of massively subjective definitional judgement calls, and a critical framework that would take dozens, if not hundreds, of pages worth of floaty, abstract language to flesh out. So it's well outside the scope of an SE answer, and I'm accepting this answer in recognition of that. – Torisuda May 22 '16 at 5:56

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