Anime/Manga Characters =/= White

Okay so while I’ve never been a huge fan of Anime or Manga, I am a fan of both mediums I just tend to stick to what friends recommend or things done by the same individuals I’ve enjoyed before. I was part of the Anime club in my High School, in fact I was the vice-president and I enjoyed a lot of the series and OVAs that we saw. What I didn’t enjoy was the fetishization I saw coming from a lot of the white boys in the group.

Now from talking to friends I understand that my high school group was actually better than a lot because except for me all the officers were Asian and aware of the issues with fetishization. Now that I’m thinking about it this was the reason I was brought in as VP because they didn’t want the office to go to the only other guy running, a really annoying white guy who used to try out Japanese pick up lines on all the Asian girls in the group despite the fact that a large percentage of them were from China.

Yeah, that kind of guy.

Anyway I’ve gotten completely off-topic. My point is that there was/is a weird dynamic among those white boys of a huge fetishization of Asian culture and bodies while at the same time coding most of the anime characters as white. I had a huge disconnect recently when I heard someone on the street say to a friend that one of my favorite shows, Avatar: The Last Airbender, was great but why were all the characters white? My head jerked around so quick I almost got whiplash. I didn’t understand how she could see those characters as white and before I could find a way to insert myself into their conversation and question her about this they were gone. It’s something I couldn’t help but think about though.

Well my good friend bankuei has busted out some deconstruction of these issues in his post: Why Are They All White? over at Deeper In The Game: From Geekdom To Freedom. Head over and check it out, here’s a sample:

The usual point most of these folks like to bring to the table is that all the characters have big eyes. At the same time, none of these people turn and ask of American comics, “Why are they all steroid/silicone breast enlargement junkies?” Oh, that’s right, they’re able to parse and comprehend that this is a style factor of the genre, not a literal representation.

But why is that?

18 responses to “Anime/Manga Characters =/= White

  1. That’s funny, I didn’t think there were any white people in Avatar,

  2. Meep-
    Seriously though! I never thought it either so hearing that comment was one of those moments where I just froze like: wha???

  3. Yeah, that’s the part I find the fucking creepiest about anime at conventions- it’s like this sick weird white man yellow fever pick up zone that gives me deep creeps. It’s not -quite- as bad as many traditional martial arts schools, but yeah…

  4. Argh, I bang my head against a wall every time this “anime characters are white!” crap comes up. Most anime/manga characters only look “white” to Westerners because they’re drawn in the “unmarked” state, so to speak. Or, to throw away the linguistic terminology, they’re drawn with *default features*. The reason is that, for Japanese audiences, the default state of characters is Japanese. Anime characters are Japanese unless otherwise stated – hence, they don’t need to be drawn with racialized characteristics.

    But white Westerners look at the unmarked, unracialized characters and assume that they’re white. Because to white Westerners, the default state is white. Any character drawn without specific racial markings must, of course, be white!

    There’s been some back-and-forth about Speed Racer on several blogs where I’ve seen this argument come up. Yes, I’ve seriously seen people argue that characters with names like “Michiko” and “Daisuke” were intended by the Japanese creators to be white.

    And yes, I’ve seen the same thing happen in Avatar fandom, too. In the Avatar world, the default state of characters is some sort of fantasy Asian ethnicity; they’re obviously not white. But because they don’t need to be contrasted to white people (there are no white people!), they don’t need to be drawn with explicitly racial markings, either. And some people see the characters drawn without stereotypical racial markings and assume that they must be white, because the default is always white.

    I’m sorry for the long comment, but this is an issue that, like I said, makes me bang my head against a wall.

  5. bankuei-
    The white guys who just love anime soooo much and think they actually were meant to be Asian in this life or were in a past life. They creep me the fuck out. I had way too much experience around them in high school and going to an Anime con with my high school club…well let’s just say that the shiver that goes up my spine when I see them, it has a reason for being there.

  6. Nenena-
    Well said.

    But white Westerners look at the unmarked, unracialized characters and assume that they’re white. Because to white Westerners, the default state is white. Any character drawn without specific racial markings must, of course, be white!

    On point. Any character that is not compare/contrasted with white characters or explicitly racialized is white in their mind. There’s also a lot of arrogance/privilege in that, that they can believe that this media coming out of an entirely different part of the world stuill has them and their whiteness as a focus. How big must your head be when you can believe that everyone in the world is super interested in whiteness and that they would only make white characters? It blows my mind.

    Speed Racer and the way it’s read white is really a good point. That might be why I’ve had this whole push/pull in my head as to if I want to go see the live action movie when it comes out because as much as I loved the cartoon there’s something about there’s been something about the movie that twinges me and I do think it’s the fact that everyone (or almost everyone) is white in the film. Just…ugh! Makes me want to join you in the head banging.

  7. Seriously? Someone thought the characters in AVATAR were all white? Uh… they are pretty obviously Asian to me. There are the accents of some (like Iroh — and I find it weird that he speaks with an accent that no other character has, but anyway ^^), there’s the writing, the black hair/eyes, the very obviously Asian-style beards of many of the male adult characters, the clothing, etc… Really? WHITE? *rolls eyes* They do not look white.

    I can understand getting confused about the races of some anime characters. There are fantasy animes in which it’s really unclear — like Nausicaa, or Trigun, or something — because the white characters are often drawn in the same style as the Japanese ones. So it gets ambiguous.

    But most anime? The majority? Pretty clearly Japanese. In fact, so much of it is set in Japan anyway, coding the characters as “white” instead of Japanese seems… well, stupid.

    As for using Japanese pick-up lines on Chinese girls… Waow. Just… wow.

  8. So are the”big eyes” or “every character is drawn alike so your mind creates a domino effect of indentification” the only thing brought to the table?

    Where does that leave a person of color like myself?

    I come across seeing a number of natural blonde hair (green or blue eyed if they go for natural human ranges) or red hair (and sometimes brown) characters that my mind continually codes as white. Even when these characters are supposed to be (ethnic unless their backstory is display/stated otherwise?) Japanese or Asian. Even in spite of some of them having a Japanese name (full, surname or otherwise).

    Its just seems a touch of stretch to not code them as just white.

    As for Avatar, I never really came across that sort of thing in the fandom much per se. Though a lot of people tend to code Aang as white–mostly citing that one of the creators in an interview states himself as being like Aang or something. Fan art of the characters are usually bleached/whitened to some extent if not fully outright. Which feels more than a little disturbing when it’s done to characters like Sokka and Katara. Not sure if I wanna touch the part of most RPers and fanficcers who write and/or draw their self-created/original Avatar-based characters on what feels like the identifiably white side of the spectrum.

  9. Sorry, forgot to mention I found your place due to the sidebar of links on the Angry Black Woman’s site.

    First time here and browsing about.

  10. Juan:
    Thanks for stopping by.

    Where does that leave a person of color like myself?
    Since I don’t know you beyond this (and even if we were BFF) that’s really a question you have to answer yourself.

    Its just seems a touch of stretch to not code them as just white.
    But here’s the thing, they’re not meant to be white. You have every right to code them how you want but the fact remains that the people who actually created the characters do not mean for them to be white. As for hair color, as Bankuei said in his post Asian people do dye their hair, I simply don’t think that hair color can be an indicator of race. Beyond hair dye I have a little brother and two cousins who’re are mixed race and have naturally blond hair and blue eyes. And eye color gets played with all the time in fiction people with purple eyes, gold eyes, white eyes without regard to the race of the character and this is ignoring the simple use of contacts.

    As for Avatar I think all the thinks you mention are part of the fandom coding or trying their damnedest to code the characters as white. The bleaching of the skin in fanart, the continual Aang is white argument all of those add up. Also the fact that in one of my later posts I point out a major convention of over 1,000 people is having a panel that describes all the Avatar characters as white. So I definitely think it’s out there and prevalent among fans.

  11. I’ve also clicked my way over from ABW website.

    I hesitate to comment about such topics, because I’m not sure, as a black woman, 100% if it has anything to do with me (plus I know I have my own issues), but I was curious about the part where you said that the characters start looking more ‘neutral’ because of the absence of comparing themselves to white people.

    Is that just referring to eye shape, or do you think a similar situation will happen to other characteristics in “races” if you will? Like in the hypothetical world where black people created an artform their skin tone would ‘neutralize’ itself into a lighter color.

  12. TierList E-
    Hey Tier & welcome. I think you meant to submit this comment for my friend bankuei who wrote the actual post “Why Are They All White?” and not to me, who just linked to it with a little commentary.

    I don’t want to answer for him. So you should go comment and ake him but my interpretation was that he was talking more about white folks reading the art as white because it did not have stereotypical images of Asians as a representation of their race.

    Avatar for me is in no way drawn as if the characters are white, I never thought any of them were but because they’re drawn with variety and not as stereotypes many white fans read all the characters as white, even ones like Katara and Soka who are very clearly People of Color.

    Anyway that’s what I think but if you want a more complete answer on what he meant head over and comment at his blog.

  13. Hi TierList E,

    I happened to come across this comment and would be happy to give some context on that thought.

    For manga specifically, it pulled from Disney’s use of exaggerating eye size in order to create more expressive characters. So the eye size is, in part, a reaction to the medium and a means of working with it.

    As far as skin tone, I can’t see any reason folks would need to drastically change skin tone.

    Though, ironically, I remember as a youth, I drew in all pencil and added tone to all my characters and even white characters were perceived by POC by some folks because they had a tone.

  14. Thanks for both of the responses, and I apologize for the misdirection.

  15. Seems like your a racist bitter person

  16. i just heard about this stigma that all anime characters are white despite the name and culture represented in the anime housing the characters. (bleach and naruto as the main subject). i was very surprised that anyone would look at some show completely inspired by japanese or at least asian culture and label the characters as white. i find it to be racist because i assume that these people could only recognize asians in cartoons if they had slanted eyes and buck tooth with a pointy hats.

    this was a very good read and i thank you

  17. hey i was googling for anime marking and tattoos but this link popped up on google.

    After reading your post i was dumbfounded and shocked thinking that there are people out there that think the characters from Avatar (and other anime like naruto and bleach) are white.

    it is obvious to any anime fan that they would be Japanese or asian, for the clear fact that they are drawn by japanese people, and made for japanese people originally. people need to go out and watch the japanese versions with english subs and they can then see the characters speaking japanese. all the culture in the anime which includes art, builidings, writing, cooking are all japanese. you always see them eating or cooking some japanese dish. my favourite being sukiyaki and ramen. when ever i see them eating it i get hungry. sorry for going off topic.

    but it is clearly obvious when a character in a series is drawn as a “white person” that usually being an american. for starters they usually have normal looking hairstyle with a natural colour. japanese toons always have a spiked up or awesome looking hairstyle and alot of them have bright or cool colours. then is the toon is “white” or “american” they usually have some background… either them coming over from america to live in the new town or country – japan or you find out one or both the parents were american. they usually tell you in the first few episodes. or if a majority of the toons are american they will usually give the background on the japanese character which is usually the main one. then when the “white” or American toons are drawn they will usually have smaller/normaler looking eyes compaired to all the japanese/asian characters. not only they they are usually wearing more boring clothing instead of all the cool unique and different clothing everyone else wears.

    with this i dont know how people can possibly think that because all the characters or some of them are “white” that they must be white people and not Japanese/asian. if i ever hear someone think that the character is white because his skin colour is white.. im gonna slap them :/ haha

    sorry for the long post, i just had to give my opinion/rant as an anime fan ^^

  18. Pingback: Ironman Hits Theaters, Thirteen Wins Clarke Award, Gandalf Is Back by Ironman Hits Theaters, Thirteen Wins Clarke Award, Gandalf Is Back | Fantasy Magazine

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