(Source: Chunbum Park. This hybrid rendering contrasts a whitewashed anime face with an original Northeast Asian face.)
Is it just me, or has anyone else also thought that the Japanese anime characters don’t look very Asian? The characters are often drawn with large eyes, a narrow and pointy nose, double eyelids —which are uncommon among Northeast Asians— and light-colored hair. They also often have ample body features such as large breasts and wide hips, which are said to be rarer among Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people. A lot of questions arise from this. Does the art of anime actually represent Northeast Asian people? Or is it meant to be a non-specific abstraction towards not one race of people but rather a neutral and fictional invention? Or, do they represent a specific stylization towards a particular race?
(Source: Wikipedia. Example of a traditional Japanese manga, by Hokusai)
Japanese anime is the animated version of manga, which is a Japanese cartoon with traditional roots going back to the 1100s. In fact, anime is short for animation. The art of modern Japanese anime and manga began with Osamu Tezuka, who pioneered the style in his cartoon “Astro Boy” (1952-1968), which often featured light-skinned characters with large eyes and a small nose. In fact, the first litmus test to the question of whether Japanese anime characters look White or not can be found by comparing the traditional Japanese manga such as the Hokusai Manga of the 1600s to the modern Japanese manga and anime. The art in Hokusai Manga and its contemporaries depicts Japanese-looking figures, while most characters of modern Japanese anime and manga appear to be not Japanese or Northeast Asian.
However, most anime and manga feature characters with Japanese names, born and raised in Japanese society and culture, who are by all accounts Japanese. So why don’t they look it? This style has become popular around the world, which begs the question of why another art form with truer-to-life Northeast Asian features hasn’t. Instead, this seemingly whitewashed art medium is what has dominated popular culture.
Litmus Tests Indicating Whitewashing in Anime
(Source: Brooklyn Museum. A snippet of On the Heights by Charles Courtney Curran.)
How can we find proof – direct or circumstantial – that there is indeed frequent whitewashing of Northeast Asian/Japanese characters in anime?
We’ve already gone over the comparison of traditional Japanese manga from the 1100s-1800s which depicted Japanese with true or realistic Northeast Asian physical features with Japanese manga and anime from the 1950s and onwards which shows Japanese people with specific, idealized or exaggerated European traits. In the latter case, the characters are further infused or polished with a sense of cuteness ( “kawaii” in Japanese) or sexiness, depending on the genre of the anime. One example of an anime series with cute characters would be K-On! while an anime with “sexy” characters would be something like Sailor Moon and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Another litmus test for whitewashing is to find the rare cases that actually show Japanese characters with Asian features. The notable exceptions are Denno Coil and Akira. These kinds of anime contrast the other anime series that usually feature whitewashed characters.
A third litmus test is the comparison of superior (or main) and inferior (or side) characters in certain Japanese anime or manga series, where there is a clear hierarchy based on physical appearance, with more Asian-looking characters being relegated to the inferior or side character roles and the more Caucasian-looking characters being centered as the superior or main character types. Examples include Detective Conan, in which the more attractive or smarter characters (such as Shinichi Kudo) are endowed with more Caucasian traits, while the less attractive or more ordinary characters appear more Asian (like Genta Kojima). Another example is the “Hating the Korean Wave” manga, in which the inferior Korean characters appear more Northeast Asian, while the superior Japanese characters appear more Caucasian.
The last two litmus test techniques involve comparing the depictions of western and Asian characters. One way to go about this is to compare western people in classical western art with the anime characters. Depending on the style of the anime, which in certain cases features characters with normal-sized eyes, there is literally no difference between the two. For example, compare Fujiko Mine from the series Lupin the Third with the three women from On the Heights (1909) by Charles Courtney Curran. In my view, especially the idealized lady on the left-most side of the painting is virtually indistinguishable from many anime characters who are depicted without very large eyes in certain anime series.
The second way to use that litmus test method is to look within the anime itself and compare the Japanese/Northeast Asian characters with the western characters, if there are any. Often, the two are virtually indistinguishable in their physical appearance. An example is the Full Metal Panic series, in which Kaname Chidori and Teresa “Tessa” Testarossa have very little to demarcate their racial differences in terms of their physical appearance.
In Defense of Anime
(Source: Chunbum Park. This hybrid rendering contrasts a whitewashed anime face with an original Northeast Asian face.)
It is true that Japanese anime characters do not 100% literally resemble white Europeans. Their figures are exaggerated and fuse modern Japanese aesthetic sensibilities (such as the “kawaii” aesthetic or an aura of seduction/sexuality. Also, I can see that in the case of 2D comic or animation, in which the illustration of characters relies heavily on sharp lines, it is difficult to depict certain Northeast Asian features such as the nose that generally tends to be less tall and wider than a western/European nose, and must be modeled more gently using gradations rather than sharp lines for pleasing effects. In my personal experience of drawing cartoon characters as a hobby, it is much easier to demarcate the nose of a cartoon character using sharp lines shaped like a triangular jab (as seen from the side) or a single dot or line (as seen from the front) to attain aesthetically pleasing results.
Furthermore, race is a social construct, so not every person of a particular race or nationality will have the same features. There are also exceptions to the generalizations regarding race, such as some Northeast Asian women having voluptuous bodies. If race is a social construct, and there are greater genetic variations within specific races than between the races, then can it be argued at all that the Japanese anime characters generally resemble White people? Who is to say what white or Asian people should look like?
An article on the website Craftknight by a user named Valentin argues that Japanese anime characters appear white because this perception is purely based on a western perspective, but Japanese people see themselves in the anime characters. Is there any validity in this argument?
(Source: The Asia Pacific Journal. Hating the Korean Wave manga depicts the “inferior” Koreans with exaggerated and uglified Asian features.)
I would explain this Japanese perception of anime characters as being intrinsically Japanese as a collective defense mechanism to the potential accusation of racism and whitewashing against anime. Any smart Japanese person would know that the whitewashing of Japanese anime characters must be vehemently denied for anime to become accepted into the global market, which the West currently dominates. Anime is widely considered a Japanese cultural product, after all, even as the Koreans and the Chinese have produced their own imitations in the form of manhwa and manhua.
Japanese people assert that anime characters appear Japanese and not Caucasian, but they also deny the atrocities and the war crimes of the Imperial Japanese Army against other Northeast Asian nations, including the Nanjing Massacre and the Unit 731. In my opinion, it is most likely a collective defense mechanism to preserve the national interests of Japan.
(Source: The Asia Pacific Journal. Hating the Korean Wave manga depicts the “superior” Japanese with delicate and Caucasian features.)
The Case of The Simpsons
(Source: Chunbum Park. Both of the women’s names are Akane Sakamoto, a fictional character whom I made up. They are both clearly Japanese and Northeast Asian – one in anime version and another in more realistic version. The first rendering on the left clearly does not look European, while the second rendering is clearly a racist, stereotyping image of Northeast Asians.)
In their defense of anime, Valentin brings up the case of The Simpsons, in which most of the characters appear neither Caucasian American nor African American, despite the series depicting an American family as the protagonists. So does this justify whitewashing in anime?
In my opinion, this is a false equivalency because the Simpsons characters are abstracted or stylized with a set of fictional traits such as yellow skin, blue hair, and duck-like shape above the mouth area that do not point to another race. It’s just as if a LEGO figure had a bright yellow skin, and one could still tell that the figure was Caucasian. Also, there is a focus towards achieving a unique, recognizable style of character design, and certain ethnic traits are introduced only to the side characters.
On the other hand, Japanese anime characters are stylized specifically towards having white traits. It does not help that Japanese culture traditionally admired light skin and tall noses. Comprehensively or compositely speaking, the Japanese anime characters appear white – in terms of the nose shape (which goes beyond being just tall, since Asian nose is not aquiline and does not become a narrow and pointy triangle), the size of the eyes, the frequent featuring of the double eyelid, colored eyes, and colored hair, etc. etc.
Valentin cannot expect to bring up a few points and counter them with individual arguments to defend anime from accusations of racism and whitewashing, since the whitewashing in many anime is done so from multiple angles simultaneously. The Simpsons’ character design is indeed a case of abstraction. Anime characters are not; anime character design is intentional stylization towards white traits.
(Source: Chunbum Park. Clearly the nose on the left side is not an Asian nose but something else; the noses in the middle and on the right side are Asian noses, not white and anime noses – anime nose is clearly not an exaggerated and idealized version of the white nose. Obviously, since race is a social construct, any one of these noses can be a Japanese/Northeast Asian nose. **Sarcasm is not intended**)
Racialization of Beauty
(Source: Chunbum Park. This person is obviously a Japanese man or woman. Look at their beautiful Japanese eyes and nose and lips and eyebrows and chin and jaw shapes and the hair color that is intended to be their natural Japanese hair color. It’s called abstraction, after all.)
As discussed by Shirley Anne Tate in Black Beauty (2009), beauty is racialized–meaning that beauty has become about race with white beauty is the center due to the legacy of Western colonialism and domination.
The concept of the racialization of beauty is an apt description of the whitewashing in anime. Anime in its modern form was invented at a time when the West was (and still is) a dominant force for hundreds of years. Perhaps the Japanese animators initially wanted to make a cultural product that would penetrate the western market by appealing to the taste of westerners, which were often motivated by underlying racial bias.
My professor in graduate school told me that in the ‘90s illustrators could never depict an Asian person in a major role for an advertisement because of the widespread racism within western society. Anime offered the solution by not curing the racism but by feeding into the existing racist mindset of western society, which desired to consume cultural products in its own image.
Shirley Anne Tate argues that the “original” beauty does not exist because people constantly borrow from one another, and the original is in fact a copy of a copy, in layman’s terms. Her solution is “hybrid” beauty which allows people to borrow beauty practices and stylizations from other people and cultures without placing any beauty as the iconic center, which white beauty has occupied to this day.
When I was a kid in South Korea in the 90s, and I was exposed to anime for the first time, I knew immediately that the characters in anime did not look Asian but rather Caucasian. My cousins also thought the same thing, and they obsessed over how their nose shape, which was perfectly beautiful Northeast Asian nose, did not conform to the alien shape of the Caucasian nose in Japanese anime. My brother and I would look at our nose in the elevator and repeatedly widen the nostrils on purpose as a joke. I don’t know what my brother was thinking, but I felt that my Northeast Asian nose was ugly compared to the anime nose. I couldn’t realize the immense merits and beauty of my Northeast Asian nose, eyes, and hair.
The solution to whitewashing in anime is perhaps for anime to change and abandon its use of white features. Or perhaps it’s to simply acknowledge that there is this problematic trend and to consume anime with the awareness. Or perhaps the cure is for everyone inside and outside of the anime fandom to discuss this issue further and come to a mutual understanding and consensus about a solution. The cure to the problem is not going to happen if people keep on denying the problems for various reasons. Maybe they enjoy the whitewashed appearance of the Northeast Asian/Japanese characters in anime. Perhaps they just want to deny every problem and argue that everything is okay because they are anime fanatics who do not want anime to change, but they will still give nonsense arguments about how anime character design is abstraction like The Simpsons. They use linguistics and word tricks to deny that the problem exists in the first place and to argue that the problem is only real inside your own head.
It’s a ridiculous fantasy to give everyone a nose job with a Caucasian nose and big blue eyes. No one would dare to depict Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr in that way, so why keep on depicting Northeast Asian/Japanese people who are not white people with white traits? I grew up watching Japanese anime, such as Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, Laputa: The Castle In the Sky, Let’s & Go, Pokemon, Digimon, and others, so I want anime to change and evolve for the better. We as people must learn from our mistakes and to move on by enacting meaningful change. The same holds true for the creators of anime who racialized the beauty standards and whitewashed the Northeast Asian/Japanese characters.
I challenge people who draw anime and manga to try to draw the nose wider and less tall than a Caucasian nose. Try to give more Northeast Asian flavor to the eyes of Northeast Asian characters, rather than making them all look white. All I’m asking is for these creators to face the reality of race, and the art form will be better off because of it.