Why Aren't More Races Represented In Anime And Manga?

by Justin Sevakis,

J. Sinclair asks:

I'm very disappointed in the lack of variety of skin tones of manga and anime characters. If you were to break the shades down by Copic markers the only color you get is E00 Skin White, and rarely a dark skin color E15 Dark Suntan. Other than Dragon Ball, and Gundam 00 little to no other manga shows White, Black, Indian and Asian looking characters as of late. How do you believe this hinders growth of the genre?

Anime and manga are made in Japan, for Japanese people and by Japanese people. Japan is an ethnically homogeneous culture -- 99% of the entire population is the same race: Japanese. Every other race living in the country -- Caucasian, African, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and other Asian ethnicities -- only comprise a total of 1% of the population. And so, since the vast majority anime and manga take place in Japan and involve Japanese people, their characters are drawn to look Japanese.

If you answered, "but why don't they have slanted eyes, and why are some of them blond?" that's you bringing your Westerner point of view to their artwork. Anime characters are idealized, and given different hair colors for stylistic reasons, but what you see is basically how those artists like to interpret the world around them. The world around them just happens to be Japan.

There are two genres of anime that are exceptions, that usually don't take place in Japan or involve Japanese people: fantasy, and science fiction. Fantasy anime usually takes place in a generic Tolkien-inspired European fantasy world, and so of course everyone is going to look Caucasian. Caucasians aren't depicted much differently than Japanese people, but if you look closely at many series you'll notice subtle differences, such as lighter blue eyes, and an emphasis on larger bodies and very light blond hair. The main character, whom the Japanese audience is supposed to identify with, often has darker hair and slightly different shaped eyes.

Science fiction, on the other hand, often considers different ethnic groups, particularly if it takes place in outer space. The various Macross and Gundam series often feature characters with different racial backgrounds. But many series fail to be more inclusive. Series that take place in various other countries or the United States also occasionally feature people of color, but mostly just in token bit parts. Japanese people who haven't traveled much overseas must rely on stereotypes of those countries, and unfortunately -- due to whitewashed American entertainment or whatever other reason -- many simply consider "American" to mean "Caucasian," and are genuinely surprised to find out just how diverse this country really is.

Overall, there is definitely a lack of non-white, non-Japanese races represented in anime and manga. Japan, like most countries, has some issues with race. That said, I really don't think there's any willful exclusion at work here. Japanese people just don't think very much about other races because they don't see those other races very much -- out of sight, out of mind. Manga is a black and white medium, and so shading people's skin tone is usually difficult from both an artistic and legibility point of view. Anime has less of an excuse, but being heavily influenced by manga, it's naturally going to have the same look.

As for how this hinders the growth of anime and manga -- if you mean in terms of sales or finding an audience, I don't think it does at all. Much as we'd like to think otherwise, there is, in fact, very little positive effect on sales of entertainment product when there's an ethnically diverse cast of characters. In fact, in many, more racist parts of the world such as China and Russia, having more ethnicities represented may actually hurt sales. This is why Hollywood isn't exactly rushing to diversify their movies, even though it's the right thing to do. Those parts of the world are very important territories in which they have to sell their movies, and having people of color in the cast is seen as a risk. The push to include as many races as possible into entertainment is mostly an American thing, so anyone aiming for success outside of America isn't going to consider diversity to be all that important.

The fact of the matter is, much as non-Japanese otaku would like to see characters that look like themselves in their content, they are simply not going to get that very often in animation and comics from a country where virtually everyone is the same race. In telling stories, no matter how fantastical, an artist can only create based on their own life experience. If their experiences don't include any substantial interactions with non-Japanese people, their work is going to reflect that. They could try, but they'd be relying on hoary and outdated stereotypes rather than anything real. And then you potentially get something even more offensive. There are plenty of bizarre American stereotypes in anime and manga involving white people, and most of them are not flattering.

If you mean to say that all of this hinders the growth of anime and manga as storytelling artforms, then it most certainly does. The world is a very big and diverse place, and both anime and manga would be far richer if it tried a little harder to consider the history, the mythology and lives of people of other backgrounds in its storytelling. But I could say the same for virtually every other kind of mass entertainment.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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