By: Von McKnight
It’s actually a really common question, one that I find myself wondering about on and off but have never really looked into. Why do the majority of Japanese characters seem to look more white than Japanese? There are a lot of reasons for why this is the case, and while all of them are valid in their own ways, there are a few that stand out as both answering the question and forcing the one asking to reflect on why they are seeing a character as white even though they may not be.
In modern Japanese society, having lighter, whiter skin is seen as being more beautiful. Women will wear sunscreen, walk around under umbrellas, keep their skin covered on sunny days, and buy skin-lightening beauty products to maintain a light, fair skin tone. This beauty standard (under the marketing term 美白 bihaku ‘beautifully white’) has existed in Japanese history independent of Europeans/Americans seeing white as the default/standard skin color (for example, the notably popular traditional female Japanese dancers 芸者 geisha), and could be seen as a reason for why Americans are seeing white in Japanese characters: because they are, but for completely different cultural reasons. However, given that this skin-whitening fashion style applies primarily to females, it doesn’t really work as the go-to explanation for the whiteness of Japanese characters as a whole (although given that the characters tend to be drawn with more feminine features, regardless of whether they are male or female, there could be an argument there).
Another possibility is that Americans are simply projecting whiteness onto Japanese characters because they do not specifically index anything that is explicitly Japanese. One has to account for the differences in our cultures when it comes to the average, or ‘default,’ representation of a person. In America, primarily in literature, a character who isn’t textually stated to have a particular skin color, or to be a specific race, is assumed to be white. This is because in America, white is the dominant culture that is seen as normal or standard. For example, when a movie comes out that is based on a book with characters of unspecified skin tones, most people expect those characters to be white. Anyone who paid even the slightest bit of attention to The Hunger Games knows that when the first movie came out, people on the Internet lost their minds because some of the secondary characters, originally assumed to be white, were cast as POC. This is especially sad, given the fact that some of those characters were actually stated in the book to have dark skin.
Racists aside, the same idea holds true in Japan: most characters, unless stated otherwise by the writers, are assumed to be Japanese because that is the default race in their culture. However, when Japanese media is brought overseas for US audiences, people will look at these characters with no distinctly Asian features and, by default, end up seeing them as white. The Japanese themselves say they do not ever see their characters as white; they see them as Japanese. Occasionally a game, anime, film, or manga will come out where the characters are drawn with distinctly Japanese features (eye/face shape, hair color/style, etc.), but that is usually dependent on the style of the artist.
Another question that pops up is: why do Americans tend to see Japanese characters as white, even though the characters in question tend to look to unrealistically fantastical? For example, looking at the long and popular Final Fantasy franchise, you get characters from every nook and cranny of the rainbow. Their hair and eyes are impossibly colorful and stylish, with perfectly smooth and chiseled facial features – qualities no living person has naturally. A proposed theory is that Japanese video game companies are attempting to appeal to both of their largest audiences by creating characters with features idealized by both cultures: the Japanese themselves, and the Western consumers. In order to achieve this, Japanese characters are drawn or created with the best of both features – a stylish blend of white and Asian, blurred together to the point where the characters don’t especially look like one over the other. Another proposal is that the characters are simply characters, not real people. Thus, there is no real need to apply specific racial features to them, be it white or Japanese or anything else.
Looking at the above image (from the future Final Fantasy XV), what say you? White, or projected white?
- Which reason do you believe best explains why Japanese characters appear to be white? Why?
- Where is the line drawn between projecting whiteness vs. how the character objectively looks?
- Two sources below use the Simpsons as an example of Americans defaulting a character as white, as there is nothing about them to index another specific race. Do you agree with this point? Why or why not?
Abagond, Julian. “Why Do the Japanese Draw Themselves as White?” Sociological Images RSS. 30 Aug. 2010. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/08/30/guest-post-why-do-the-japanese-draw-themselves-as-white/>.
Ashcraft, Brian. “Why Do Japanese Characters Look White?” Kotaku. 1 Sept. 2010. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://kotaku.com/5627268/why-do-japanese-characters-look-white>.
Stewart, Dodai. “Racist Hunger Games Fans Are Very Disappointed.” Jezebel. 26 Mar. 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://jezebel.com/5896408/racist-hunger-games-fans-dont-care-how-much-money-the-movie-made>.
Shoji, Rena. “Japanese Whiteness and Bihaku Products: Media Influence on Aesthetic Values of Japanese Skin.” Japan Sociology. 30 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://japansociology.com/2014/10/30/japanese-whiteness-and-bihaku-products-media-influence-on-aesthetic-values-of-japanese-skin/>.