Blog By Barry

January 3, 2009

Why White People Think Manga Characters are White

Filed under: Comics and cartooning, Race, racism, and related issues — Ampersand @ 7:44 pm

Image uploaded by Steve Keys

Excellent essay by Matt Thorn (with a curtsy to Shati):

A key concept in semiotics is that of “markedness” and “unmarkedness,” elaborated by linguist Roman Jakobson in the 1930s. ((See On Language, by Roman Jakobson (edited by Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston), Harvard University Press 1995.)) 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…”). […]

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.

Read the whole.

This sentence stung me a little:

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).

I’m not of Asian decent, but I’ve hit this problem as well: because of the limits of my drawing ability, the only way I can draw recognizably Asian characters is by using slant-eyes and straight, shiny black hair (see this cartoon, for example). I’m a bit embarrassed by this, but I’d be more embarrassed if I were drawing a cartoon in which Asians never appear. (Or, more accurately, a cartoon in which characters my readers will identify as Asian never appear.)



  1. This is ridiculous. Manga/Anime characters are drawn to look ethnically White. Whether the rationalization is that wide eyes convey more emotion or whatever the fact remain that large round eyes and non-Black hair are the exact opposite of natural Asian features. Why the Japanese and other Asian groups choose to do this is a mystery to me, but to ignore the idea of self hate, because it’s uncomfortable for people to talk about or whatever is just stupid.

    Comment by Butch — January 16, 2011 @ 9:50 pm

  2. “White” people don’t “Think” manga characters look “White” they know they do and so does every other person that’s NOT attempting to rationalize away what’s clearly obvious. One cannot under any circumstances mistake an Asian person for a “White” person in real life so that somehow that rule shouldn’t or doesn’t apply in illustration just doesn’t hold up. The confusion is purely self-deception at work. Consider the fact that the only reason slanted eyes are viewed as “less then…” to begin with is because society has a very high regard for White supremacist values even without consciously knowing or admitting to it. Everyone is brainwashed.

    Comment by Butch — December 1, 2011 @ 9:05 am

  3. I think a lot of people are being a slight bit disingenuous. Because I am familiar with Japanese anime I expect that the majority of anime or manga characters I see may indeed be Japanese, but I don’t know that for certain unless I read or watch the manga/anime. The style in which something is drawn is not in and of itself an indication of anything other than likely country of origin. Look at Otomo’s character designs for Akira, and his designs for Steamboy. One story takes place in Japan and the other in Britain, but the character designs are practically identical!

    I can say that I have trained myself not to make assumptions about the race of characters in manga, as I have seen the manga style used to portray classic books such as Heidi or Daddy Long Legs, or tell stories that take place in non Japanese countries as in Rose of Versailles. It may sound at first listen, to appear super enlightened to say “I see anime characters as Japanese,” but that attitude is really just as biased an opinion as thinking that anime characters look white. You’ve all heard the axiom about “Assume”.

    Comment by goldenboy62 — October 12, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

  4. As I read manga and watch anime, I tend to perceived them as japanese. The skin color was yellowist rather than reddist. The eyes, cosmetic, fashion, hair style, act, design, sound fx also represent them as japanese even if they designed as western character.
    1. Candy Candy
    2. Slamdunk
    3. Hokuto No Ken
    4. Saint Seiya (greek mythology)
    5. Hello Kitty

    There maybe some people who watch anime which intended for international market. So it can be totally different when people look at character intended for international market eg:

    1. Mimi Candy

    2. Usavich

    3. Mario Bros

    4. Transformers (old cartoon)

    So I think it’s all depends on the design and style. I don’t think people will interpret Candy Candy or Hello Kitty as white european people, don’t you?

    Comment by jinaaruunagai — November 18, 2013 @ 7:05 am

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