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"Why Do Japanese Characters Look White?"

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This is a common question Westerners have. Japanese characters in anime, manga and video games, they say, "look" Caucasian. That is all a matter of perspective, no?

In a post titled "Why do the Japanese Draw Themselves as White?", blogger Julian Abagond argues that the Japanese do not draw themselves as white. Rather, Westerners (Abagond specifically says "Americans") think that they do.

"The Japanese see anime characters as being Japanese. It is Americans who think they are white," he writes. "Why? Because to them white is the Default Human Being." To illustrate his point, he includes this image:

Abagond says most Americans will look at this image and see a white person, because, he argues, Americans see the white as the default.


According to Abagond, "For them to think it is a woman I have to add a dress or long hair; for Asian, I have to add slanted eyes; for black, I add kinky hair or brown skin. Etc."

The other must be marked, he contests. "If there are no stereotyped markings of otherness, then white is assumed."


However, in Japan, white is not the default. Japanese is. Thus, there is no need for them to "look Asian", because no matter how ridiculous the characters look, everyone will assume they are Japanese.

The same thing is true in America. To make his point, Abagond points to Marge Simpson. "After all, why do people think Marge Simpson is white? Look at her skin: it is yellow. Look at her hair: it is a blue Afro. But the Default Human Being thing is so strong that lacking other clear, stereotyped signs of being either black or Asian she defaults to white."


And physical features like huge round eyes, yellow hair and white skin are inconclusive in Japan for "whiteness": The eyes are unrealistic. Hair color is not limited to yellow as there is blue, green and purple hair. Small noses are not indicative of "white" or Westerners in Japan — big noses are. And white skin is not exclusive to Caucasians as it has been a symbol of beauty in Japan since before Japan had contact with Europeans.


Fascinating argument. And I do agree that Japanese people do not see many of these characters as "white" per se. In truth, I do think the reality, however, is somewhere in between. While I do not believe that Japanese people are "drawing themselves as white", one cannot underestimate the impact of Western culture on Japan before World War II and after as well.

Before the war, European fashions and American music was popular. What's more, they were held up as something that was "modern". The U.S. Occupation brought a flood of American pop culture — pop culture that had been banned during the war. There is a marked difference in how Japan portrayed itself in the 19th century and the 20th century. Advertising and illustration also evolved and changed during the last century as well. The country's long history in illustrative arts had an impact on this changed. So did Walt Disney. Then again, so did homegrown Osamu Tezuka.


Another thing that cannot be underestimated is how many of the stereotypes Americans have about the Japanese have their root in stereotypes created during and after the war. The same is true for stereotypes Japanese have.

And while things like blond hair and blue eyes are associated with foreigners — but as I pointed out in this post, it can sometimes be totally unrelated to Westerners.


For thousands of years, Japan has been brilliant at borrowing from other cultures, absorbing and making something their own. Their language, consisting of influences from China and Korea, is proof of that. Japanese fashion as well has been, at times, a wonderful mix of indigenous aesthetics and influences from abroad — whether that be China in, say, the 8th century or France during the 1960s.


The characters in manga, anime and, in turn, video games are just another example of the country reinventing and drawing on its own Japanese sensibilities.

Guest Post: Why do the Japanese Draw Themselves as White? [Sociological Images via SankakuComplex NSFW]