“Why Do Anime Characters Look White?”

This was a post I actually ran into on a few other sources but it is a question that I have been asked countless times, by many people unfamiliar or just breaking into Anime. The person that actually created this post brings up some good points and the video its self adds a somewhat convincing opinion as to ‘why’ it is believed.

Why do the Japanese draw themselves as white? You see that especially in manga and anime.

As it turns out, that is an American opinion, not a Japanese one. The Japanese see anime characters as being Japanese. It is Americans who think they are white. Why? Because to them white is the Default Human Being.

stick-figure.png

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.

Americans apply this thinking to Japanese drawings. But to the Japanese the Default Human Being is Japanese! So they feel no need to make their characters “look Asian”. They just have to make them look like people and everyone in Japan will assume they are Japanese – no matter how improbable their physical appearance.

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.

When you think about it there is nothing particularly white about how anime characters look:

huge round eyes – no one looks like that, not even white people (even though that style of drawing eyes does go back to Betty Boop).
yellow hair – but they also have blue hair and green hair and all the rest. Therefore hair colour is not about being true to life.
small noses – compared to the rest of the world whites have long noses that stick out.
white skin – but many Japanese have skin just as pale and white as most White Americans.

Besides, that is not how the Japanese draw white or even Chinese people. The otherness of foreigners is clearly marked by physical stereotypes – just as Americans do with people of colour. In anime White Americans are stereotyped as having yellow hair, blue eyes and a long or big nose:

Gone are the big round eyes and the strange hair colours. Because those things have nothing to do with whiteness.

Note that the Japanese drop the markings of otherness if the action is set in a foreign land, like China or America. In that case the characters are drawn in the regular anime style. Because for that story the Default Human Being is understood.

Some Americans, even some scholars, will argue against this view of anime. They want to think the Japanese worship America or worship whiteness and use anime to prove it. But they seem to be driven more by their own racism and nationalism than anything else.

The source can be read here

While I think a interesting point is being made, at the end of the day it doesn’t terribly matter what stereo type said character fits by their appearance. In most cases the show will actually mention where the character  lives and even a bit of information on where he/she/it is from — assuming if it is even a lifeform or item of earth. Many times a show will take place in a non-existent town or city on a unknown planet. I personally view Anime and Manga as a form of art and the characters are designed and created to fit what the artist imagines and creates them as.

5/11/2011 Edit
Disabled comments, it was interesting to see the comments and have a discussion but trolls are starting to come out from under the bridges.

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4 thoughts on ““Why Do Anime Characters Look White?”

  1. avatarRobert

    “As it turns out, that is an American opinion, not a Japanese one. The Japanese see anime characters as being Japanese. It is Americans who think they are white. Why? Because to them white is the Default Human Being.”

    Wrong. If you ask Blacks, Indians, South Americans, etc. they will tell you the same thing. Anime characters are white. If these features were symbols of “otherness,” then why not black skin and afros in Anime? Because East Asians don’t like those traits any more than most White people do. Features of blackness/browness are considered unattractive by East Asians, while features of Whiteness are considered attractive. It’s not racist, it’s just a fact. Blonde hair only occurs in White Europeans. Blue / green eyes only occur in White Europeans. Those two females in that Anime picture at the top of this post… can you find A SINGLE JAPANESE OR CHINESE person that looks like them? Probably not (unless they were 3/4 white and 1/4 Asian). I can walk down the street in the US, Canada, the UK or Germany and probably on a busy clubbing night find a few white girls that look like them (tall, white skin, brown hair, blue eyes). Those traits simly do not occur in East Asia. East Asians generally have flat noses, black eyes, black hair, are shorter, and have yellow/brown skin tone. They look nothing like Anime characters.

    I think there’s something wrong with a culture when they produce work like this. I do think the Japanese are insecure about their own appearence, along with many other East Asian groups. They purchase skin whitening creams, have operations to make their eyes look round, etc. Pretending that these issues don’t exist only makes them worse, and makes you look ridiculous. Here’s a summary of why Anime characters are white:

    1. Eye color (blue / green) – White European. vs. East Asian (black/brown)
    2. Eye shape (round) – White European. vs. East Asian (almond/slanted)
    3. Hair colour (blond / etc) – White European. vs. East Asian (black)
    4. Nose shape (small, pointed) – White European. vs. East Asian (flat, rarely pointed)
    5. Height / limb length ratio (tall / long) – White European vs. East Asian (short, short limbs)
    6. on and on….

    The Japanese imagine themselves to be White. It’s unfortunate. They need to honestly deal with self image issues and cultural issues in their media, particularly in Anime.

    1. avatarE

      “Anime characters are white.”

      Wow- there sure are a lot of white people born and raised in Japan that have Japanese names!

      I strongly disagree with this response. As the author stated, in America white is the default- take a look at any screenplay. The “male in his mid 30s” is more than likely white; but if any person of color is written, their ethnicity is often explicitly stated, or they will cast a white actor. The author presents a valid point in this argument.

      “If these features were symbols of “otherness,” then why not black skin and afros in Anime? Because East Asians don’t like those traits any more than most White people do. Features of blackness/browness are considered unattractive by East Asians, while features of Whiteness are considered attractive. It’s not racist, it’s just a fact.”

      Um… actrually, it IS racist. Saying dark skin and coarse hair is unattractive knowing they are features typically found within ethnic minorities is hella racist. And quite bigoted to claim it’s not, I might add. There are a few titles that have anime characters with dark skin and highly textured hair with no mention of them being of African descent, either.

      “I think there’s something wrong with a culture when they produce work like this. I do think the Japanese are insecure about their own appearence, along with many other East Asian groups. They purchase skin whitening creams, have operations to make their eyes look round, etc. Pretending that these issues don’t exist only makes them worse, and makes you look ridiculous.”

      So there is something wrong with a culture when they have CARTOONS that give off (in your opinion) the appearance of white people, but there is nothing wrong with the fact that there are almost no people of color in starring roles on television in the US? Really? And why would Asian people feel insecure about their appearances when they are the dominant ethnicity? It’s not as though there are hoardes of white people on Japanese television. Light skin is preferrable to dark skin not because it is deemed more attractive, but because it serves as a symbol of social status/wealth. You know which Asians are typically thought of as having dark skin? Poor laborers. I won’t disagree that eyelid surgery is indicative of a desire to adopt a more “westernized” appearance, but this can be traced all the way back to WWII with American Soldiers attempting to disguise their Japanese wives to bring them to the states. I don’t believe the author is trying to ignore the issues, but please make an effort to present your POV without turning it into a personal attack.

      “The Japanese imagine themselves to be White.”

      Again, I disagree. Just because the American influence is strong (albeit a bit forced), doesn’t mean they want to be white. Do you know how strong the hip-hop, reggae and R&B following is in Tokyo? People darken their skin, wear afros and dreds, etc. But they don’t think they’re black- I would say they emulate very passionately, but for you to claim that an entire country imagines itself as white smacks of ethnocentricsm, which is exactly what the author is pointing out.

      “They need to honestly deal with self image issues and cultural issues in their media, particularly in Anime.”

      I won’t disagree that there are image issues in the media, but that’s the media for you. I rarely seen American television that accurately represents the ethnic make up in this country, and when I do it just reinforces some racist stereotype. And since Japan has little to go on aside from what they see in the American media, we can hardly place all the blame on them, now can we?

  2. avatarAnon

    Skin color plays a bigger role in America than other things, like features (lips, nose, eyes, etc.). Mixed people like Afro Hispanics and Afro Asians living in America alwas get mistaken for being Black simply because they have brown skin. Alot of Americans don’t bother to pay attention to characteristics and features. So naturally when an American views an animated character with fair skin they automatically assume that they’re white. I also wanna add that racial stereotypes are very prominent in America. Take Pokemon for instance. The character Dawn sounds stereotypically White American but the character Brock sounds stereotypically Black American. If you’ve lived in America long enough, you’ll clearly hear vocal differences between characters in the American version of Pokemon. And the fact that Americans have somewhat given truth to various racial stereotypes largely adds to the racial differences, social pressures and the “white is right’” assumptions that the country has and will continue to face.

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