Japanese don’t draw anime characters to be white

chibi anime -- do Japanese draw the characters to look "white"?I’ve written before about Japanese anime, or animation, as well as the genre’s characters and their large eyes, and wondered if they symbolize a desire to look more Caucasian.

But this brief guest post by Julian Abagond on the blog Sociological Images titled Why Do the Japanese Draw Themselves As White? that offers very interesting food for thought.

Abagond makes the case that Americans (white people) think Japanese draw anime and manga characters to look Caucasian, but that’s a Western construct, and that “Americans” (he conflates nationality with ethnicity, a common slip in race/culture conversations, even by well-intentioned people and often by Asians) see everything in terms of white unless there are stereotypical symbols that identify a character as another ethnicity.

He says that Japanese simply do the same and don’t think they’re drawing anything other than human beings in their own image: Japanese. He points out that Caucasians in anime are drawn differently from the “regular” anime characters — not with wide eyes and crazy hair colors. So the characters we think are drawn to look “Western” are just Japanese to the Japanese.

If I draw a stick figure, most Americans will assume that it is a white man. Because to them that is the Default Human Being. 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 has to be marked. If there are no stereotyped markings of otherness, then white is assumed.

Marge SimpsonThis makes great sense to me. And, he punctuates his point with an obvious piece of proof from American pop culture:

You see the same thing in America: 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.

That’s true — the Simpsons are yellow, and we all know (or assume) that Matt Groening created the cartoon family to be a “white” American suburban family. Now, that’s some chewy food for thought. What do you think?

18 Comments to "Japanese don’t draw anime characters to be white"

  1. Janice S Wong's Gravatar Janice S Wong
    September 27, 2010 - 6:35 pm | Permalink

    I have had that said to me before…why aren’t some of the characters more asian looking…they all look Caucasian….I never really thought about it before but it might help not to have such wide eyed caucasian looking charactures, and few Asian ones so people woudn’t get the idea that the Japanese were treying to be something they are not…since Anime going world wide they are attracting a bigger audience….but it might help the young asian audience to see someone who looks like them depicted….TOO,

  2. Emily Tennant's Gravatar Emily Tennant
    October 20, 2010 - 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Hi. I’m a Caucasian from the United States. I’ve seen quite a bit of anime throughout my lifetime. I have never ever thought that the characters were drawn to look Caucasian. I thought they were Japanese. I think it’s pretty easy to distinguish who’s a foreign Caucasian in anime (blond hair, blue eyes, and a horrible accent that makes even me cringe).
    If these findings are based off of actual polls and surveys, then I am (once again) embarrassed to call myself American.
    Anyway, I just wanted to put in my opinion as one person from the U.S. Not all Caucasians from the U.S. are culturally insensitive.

  3. October 25, 2010 - 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Hi Gil, thanks for the thought provoking post. As you’re probably aware, the anime style of drawing cartoons has influence beyond Japan: character drawings in South Korea, Taiwan, and China show a distinct relation to those depictions we’ve seen in manga. The bigger your eyes, especially for women, the more beautiful you are.

    I agree there’s no intention to draw characters to be white, or European. But I also wonder why the round eye look is considered more attractive by Asians than their natural features? This of course is such a transformation of values, given maybe a hundred years ago geishas were depicted with more Asian eyes by the great masters of Japanese painting.

  4. MendicantMonkey's Gravatar MendicantMonkey
    November 18, 2010 - 2:29 pm | Permalink

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Mukokuseki

    “Mukokuseki is the use of ambiguous racial features in anime, with characters having wide eyes, light skin, great stature, and various hair colors. It literally means “stateless”, though the term relates to more abstract anime and is used for hyperbole in this case. Your Mileage May Vary if this is more on the caucasian side of things, with the round eyes and light skin. ”

    TV Tropes might be mostly opinion, but I find it to be a great resource when studying TV, especially anime, as comparative literature.

  5. MendicantMonkey's Gravatar MendicantMonkey
    November 18, 2010 - 2:45 pm | Permalink

    @Liz Matsumoto: I have heard there are studies showing that large eyes and pupils are minor indicators of female sexual interest, and thus men (of any race) are biologically wired to find them attractive. The deadly nightshade was called bella donna (“pretty lady”) because an extract made from it was used to cosmetically dilate pupils for this purpose.

    Here’s a link I dug up:

    http://www.ehbonline.org/article/S1090-5138%2804%2900026-1/abstract

    Mascara, eyeliner and blush all go to make ladies of all races look more interested in sex than they may actually be. 😉

  6. April 5, 2011 - 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never been big into anime (I love it as an art style, but I didn’t watch the cartoons), but I’ve always thought they looked Caucasian too.

    I draw my own cartoons with huge eyes, and I’ve always wondered how to make someone look asian. My eyes aren’t realistic representation of anyone else’s eyes, so it seems silly to insist on making them uber slanted for asian characters and yet, how else am I going to distinguish them?

    So far I’ve just avoided it, but now I’m illustrating a book with a mix of Caucasian and Chinese characters and it’s a bit of a problem.

  7. Sanghee's Gravatar Sanghee
    June 16, 2011 - 1:19 pm | Permalink

    I was taught when I was younger that the reason for anime characters looking like they are caucasian (and lets be honest…they do. I am Japanese and Korean, and my mother looks nothing like a drawn anime character) is because the man who really founded anime ( Osamu Tezuka) was inspired by Walt Disney. Disney was the pioneer of the field at the time, and many artists from Asia explored the possibilities through the company’s work.

    Therefore, the first anime designs looked like white people. And while it has evolved, some elements remain.

  8. Rachel Lynn H.'s Gravatar Rachel Lynn H.
    May 9, 2012 - 7:34 am | Permalink

    Hello! I like anime, but don’t watch the TV shows. Anyway, I wish they’d make many of the women have pants and short hair without bangs like in some anime.
    That way it isn’t sexist. Oh yeah, and not pornographic with revealing bras and panties like most anime…….I mean, anime pictures of females should be for ALL ages, not just perverted men and certain people.

  9. James Nelson's Gravatar James Nelson
    October 17, 2012 - 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Although Mukokuseki is defined as the use of ambiguous racial features. Here in the West those features are not considered ambiguous at all. The question is not so much Do Japanese draw themselves as White. You’d technically have to ask that of every Japanese artist to find out if that was the case and no answer could be broadbrushed to include every artist. At this point you’ve got artists who are generation X’ers who don’t know anything about the history of Tezuka and the Disney influence, it’s just the style they grew up with. The more significant question is what race do foreigners particularly those in the West perceive the race of most anime characters to be? And the answer is: Not ambiguous. In a race conscious society such as America thinking of race (especially in entertainment) is second nature. Back in the 70’s when Starblazers came out few people knew that it was from Japan, being dubbed and all. Most people assumed that the characters were white. Sure they gave the characters regional accents, but I’ve encountered Middle Easterners and Asians that have a better grasp of the English language than I do and the only way I might be confused about their ethnicity is if I only heard them over the telephone only. I would say that the term Mukokuseki is really an oxymoron as it is impossible to have truly racially ambiguous characters. No one is confusing the characters of Tokimeki Memorial as being Latin American, Black, or Middle Eastern.

  10. Bryan Campbell's Gravatar Bryan Campbell
    November 14, 2012 - 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I watch a ton of anime. I do not know the Japanese language so I mostly watch it with English subtitles and sometimes dubbed in English. I always wondered the same thing, why does most anime look Caucasian. I’m not talking about the little kid anime with wide eyes and colored hair. I’m talking about anime The Black Lagoon… the characters look like normal Caucasian humans, nothing crazy like you would see in other anime. Check out this image: http://media.photobucket.com/image/recent/6xix6/Black%2520Lagoon/BlackLagoon24-02.jpg

  11. Tabatha Netherland's Gravatar Tabatha Netherland
    December 19, 2013 - 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Hi! I’m American and I absolutely love anime. I grew up watching Sailor Moon and Digimon. Not once did I ever think–even now–that anime drawings looked Caucasian. However, they don’t look Japanese either… They don’t look like any NATURAL human being on this planet. Cartoons have and always will be meant as an over exaggeration. If you draw and study different styles of animations, you would be able to see the Japanese slant in anime eyes. Yes it’s not physically slanted, but it does come to a point on the top lids on the outside just as if it were an almond shaped slanted eye. I agree that they are just drawing themselves and their culture. They are just over exaggerating just the same as western animators do. Honestly, how many people do we know look like Sailor Moon or Rapunzal from Disney’s Tangled?

  12. November 3, 2014 - 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Just look at the picture above. Does it look like a ANY human could have HUGE eyes unless it was some kinda disease or disorder? I didn’t think so. Is it possible to be born with overly spiky hair that happens to be blue or purple? Don’t think so.

Leave a Reply