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Do Manga Characters Look "White"?

While I'm still trying to put together a coherent intro to the main theme of this blog (to wit, the decline of shōjo manga), I've decided to fill the awkward silence with an essay I wrote in 2004 that seems relevant to the very recent controversy about Scarlett Johansson being cast in the role of KUSANAGI Motoko in the Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell. Rather than try to add to a perfectly good pile of essays on why this casting choice was wrong, I offer this in the hope that it will make people think twice before they offer the defense I've seen so many times in the past few days, which is the idea that "the original characters weren't drawn to look Japanese," or that "the original characters are Westernized anyway." Those characters aren't "Westernized" and they're not "white": a lifetime of conditioning has tricked your mind into thinking they look white, because they lack stereotyped racial markers invented by the West.

By the way, this essay garnered me more hate mail over the years than any other piece I've ever made public. I suspect re-publishing it here will garner even more. Particularly ugly comments will be deleted.


I have given presentations on manga to Western audiences many times, but regardless of the particular themes of my talks, when the floor is opened up for discussion I am invariably asked the same question: “Why do all the characters look Caucasian?” You may have asked yourself the same question.

I answer that question with a question of my own: “Why do you think they look Caucasian?” “Because of the round eyes,” or the “blonde hair,” is the common response. When I ask then if the questioner actually knows anyone, “Caucasian” or otherwise, who really looks anything like these highly stylized cartoons, the response may be, “Well, they look more Caucasian than Asian.” Considering the wide range of variation in the features of persons of both European and East Asian descent, and the fact that these line drawings fall nowhere remotely within that range, it seems odd to claim that such cartoons look “more like” one people than another, but I hope you will see by now that what is being discussed has nothing to do with objective anatomical reality, and is rather about signification.

A key concept in semiotics is that of “markedness” and “unmarkedness,” elaborated by linguist Roman Jakobson in the 1930s.* An “unmarked” category is one that is taken for granted, that is so obvious to both speaker and listener it needs no marking. A “marked” category, by contrast, is one that is seen as deviating from the norm, and therefore requires marking. Well-known examples in English are the words “man” and “woman.” “Man” has for a millennium meant both “human being” and “adult male human being.” The word “woman” comes from a compound meaning “wife-man,” and denotes the relationship of the signified to that “unmarked” category, “man.”

In the case of cartooning, of course, we are dealing with drawn representations rather than words, but the concept of “marked/unmarked” is every bit as salient. In the case of the U.S., and indeed the entire European-dominated world, the unmarked category in drawn representations would be the face of the European. The European face is, as it were, the default face. Draw a circle, add two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, and you have, in the European sphere, a European face. (More specifically, you would have a male European face. The addition of eyelashes would make it female.) Non-Europeans, however, must be marked in drawn or painted representations, just as they commonly are in daily conversation (e.g., “I have this Black friend who...”). The grotesque racial and ethnic stereotyping of former decades has been largely purged from the mainstream, but only to be replaced by less offensive, yet nonetheless stereotyped, signifiers. Non-Europeans living in a European-dominated society absorb these standards themselves, and not only are continuously made to be aware of their “otherness,” but adhere, out of necessity, to the Eurocentric system of signification. If an American of Asian descent wants to create a children’s book intended to build self-esteem among Asian American children and educate other children about Asian American experiences, she must first make sure the readers know that the characters represented are Asian, and so, consciously or not, she resorts to stereotyped signifiers that are easily recognizable, such as “slanted” eyes (an exaggerated representation of the epicanthic fold that is often, but not always, more pronounced in East Asians than in Europeans or Africans) or pitch black, straight hair (regardless of the fact that East Asian hair can range from near-black to reddish brown, and is often wavy or even frizzy). So it is that Americans and others raised in European-dominated societies, regardless of their background, will see a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, free of racial signifiers, as “white.”

Japan, however, is not and never has been a European-dominated society. The Japanese are not Other within their own borders, and therefore drawn (or painted or sculpted) representations of, by and for Japanese do not, as a rule, include stereotyped racial markers. A circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth is, by default, Japanese. It should come as no surprise, then, that Japanese readers should have no trouble accepting the stylized characters in manga, with their small jaws, all but nonexistent noses, and famously enormous eyes as “Japanese.” Unless the characters are clearly identified as foreign, Japanese readers see them as Japanese, and it would never occur to most readers that they might be otherwise, regardless of whether non-Japanese observers think the characters look Japanese or not. When non-Japanese characters appear in a manga in which most characters are Japanese, that character will be differentiated from the others with stereotyped racial markers of some kind. For example, a character of African descent may be shown with pronounced lips, frizzy hair, and shaded skin. A European character may be shown with a pronounced nose and jutting jaw.

Such is my argument, but many find it unconvincing. They insist that manga characters are unmistakably “Caucasian,” and that the ubiquity of Caucasian characters in manga and Japanese popular culture generally are clear indicators of a desire on the part of Japanese to identify themselves with the European West, rather than the Asian East. Indeed a number of Western scholars have suggested that Japanese today harbor just such a desire, that they deny their “Asianness” and try instead to identify themselves with the Western, “white,” Center.** The curious fact that Chinese characters appearing in manga are often portrayed using the same markers of “Asianness” (slanted eyes, straight black hair) common in Western representations may seem to be irrefutable evidence of this assertion.

Yet such assertions are rife with flaws. First of all, they seem to take domestic concepts of ethnic identity that have developed in the politically charged context of an ethnically diverse society, such as the U.S. or the U.K., and apply them wholesale to Japan, a foreign society, as if the Japanese were just another “minority” vis-a-vis a European American “majority.” For Asian Americans to assert their “Asianness” (regardless of whether or not such a trait actually exists) may be politically meaningful in the context of U.S. society, but it certainly does not follow that Japanese, or any other Asian people, should, or meaningfully could, embrace a similar identity.

Second, the notion that the Japanese harbor an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the White West seems to me based on the largely unconscious assumption that non-Western peoples envy the West, and more specifically on the American fantasy that everyone in the world naturally wants to be American. Of course, the scholars and intellectuals who note such (imagined) tendencies in Japan do not applaud it; on the contrary, they cluck their tongues and wring their hands and wish loudly that the Japanese would shun the temptations of the West and remain true to and proud of their heritage. But the eagerness with which they seek out evidence of a desire to be “white,” and the stubbornness with which they ignore evidence to the contrary, suggests to me that their apprehension of social reality is heavily filtered through an unintended ethnocentrism. Finally, the evidence of such an inferiority complex is hardly conclusive, and there seems to me to be as much evidence against it as there is for it. For example, the case of stereotyped representation of Chinese in manga can be explained without concluding that the Japanese identify themselves with the White West. Setting aside manga in which stereotypes are used to get a laugh, or to assert a racist viewpoint (and that does happen from time to time), racial stereotypes usually appear in manga only when the stereotyped character is a minority within the story. A Chinese character in a manga set in Japan is marked, through stereotyped visual markers (and often speech habits, too), so as to distinguish her from the Japanese characters, who are in the unmarked category.

Interestingly, in a manga in which Chinese or European characters are the majority, such as a story set in China or Europe, majority characters are generally drawn exactly as Japanese characters would be drawn in a manga set in Japan, without any racial stereotyping at all. In the context of such a story, the Chinese or European characters are not Other, and markings of Otherness would be superfluous. The artist would make the foreign setting obvious through names, clothing, customs, architecture, and “props,” rather than burdening every character with stereotyped racial features, which would limit her ability to distinguish characters from each other, and would also make it difficult for readers to identify with protagonists. Furthermore, if a Japanese character appears in such a story, she will usually be marked visually as Japanese, although usually only by black hair and eyes. (Readers are often expected to identify with such characters, and more exaggerated markings would interfere with that identification.)

Racial markings in manga, therefore, are generally relative. By contrast, an American comic book set in Japan or China would most likely portray every character with stereotyped racial signifiers (and probably with contrived accents, as well). It may be that Westerners, accustomed to non-relative, standardized racial markers, are baffled by the Japanese system of relative signification, in which a single artist may portray a Chinese character one way in one story (set in Japan), and very differently in another (set in China).

It may be true that Japanese are, on average, often ambivalent towards the West, towards America, and towards all things not Japanese. And, yes, they are often sharply critical of their own society, and may sometimes look to other societies for preferable alternatives. But in these respects, they seem to me to be pretty much like any other people. It seems to me there are far more interesting questions to explore, and so I will say no more on the subject, though I have no doubt that some of my readers will be reluctant to drop entirely the question of whether or not the Japanese want to be “white.”


*See On Language, by Roman Jakobson (edited by Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston), Harvard University Press 1995

**I must confess that, while I once had a list of scholarly works that made this assertion, I lost the list and have subsequently failed to find any such works. I hope this is an indication that scholars have become more cautious about making such generalizations.

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