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Why do the Japanese draw themselves as white?
By Julian Abagond
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.
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.
All images are from Google images; Abagond retains no rights.
Julian Abagond is a middle-class, West Indian, New Yorker; he is also a computer programmer who enjoys ancient Greek. He writes whatever he wants at his blog.