Why Do Japanese Characters Look White?

This is a common question Westerners have. Japanese characters in anime, manga and video games, they say, "look" Caucasian. That is all a matter of perspective, no?

In a post titled "Why do the Japanese Draw Themselves as White?", blogger Julian Abagond argues that the Japanese do not draw themselves as white. Rather, Westerners (Abagond specifically says "Americans") think that they do.

"The Japanese see anime characters as being Japanese. It is Americans who think they are white," he writes. "Why? Because to them white is the Default Human Being." To illustrate his point, he includes this image:

Abagond says most Americans will look at the above image and see a white person, because, he argues, Americans see the white as the default.

According to Abagond, "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 must be marked, he contests. "If there are no stereotyped markings of otherness, then white is assumed."

However, in Japan, white is not the default. Japanese is. Thus, there is no need for them to "look Asian", because no matter how ridiculous the characters look, everyone will assume they are Japanese.

The same thing is true in America. To make his point, Abagond points to Marge Simpson. "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."

And physical features like huge round eyes, yellow hair and white skin are inconclusive in Japan for "whiteness": The eyes are unrealistic. Hair colour is not limited to yellow as there is blue, green and purple hair. Small noses are not indicative of "white" or Westerners in Japan — big noses are. And white skin is not exclusive to Caucasians as it has been a symbol of beauty in Japan since before Japan had contact with Europeans.

Fascinating argument. And I do agree that Japanese people do not see many of these characters as "white" per se. In truth, I do think the reality, however, is somewhere in between. While I do not believe that Japanese people are "drawing themselves as white", one cannot underestimate the impact of Western culture on Japan before World War II and after as well.

Before the war, European fashions and American music was popular. What's more, they were held up as something that was "modern". The U.S. Occupation brought a flood of American pop culture — pop culture that had been banned during the war. There is a marked difference in how Japan portrayed itself in the 19th century and the 20th century. Advertising and illustration also evolved and changed during the last century as well. The country's long history in illustrative arts had an impact on this changed. So did Walt Disney. Then again, so did homegrown Osamu Tezuka.

Another thing that cannot be underestimated is how many of the stereotypes Americans have about the Japanese have their root in stereotypes created during and after the war. The same is true for stereotypes Japanese have.

And while things like blond hair and blue eyes are associated with foreigners — but as I pointed out in this post, it can sometimes be totally unrelated to Westerners.

For thousands of years, Japan has been brilliant at borrowing from other cultures, absorbing and making something their own. Their language, consisting of influences from China and Korea, is proof of that. Japanese fashion as well has been, at times, a wonderful mix of indigenous aesthetics and influences from abroad — whether that be China in, say, the 8th century or France during the 1960s.

The characters in manga, anime and, in turn, video games are just another example of the country reinventing and drawing on its own Japanese sensibilities.

Guest Post: Why do the Japanese Draw Themselves as White? [Sociological Images via SankakuComplex NSFW]


    Maybe he has a point. Asian and Caucasian have pretty similar skin tones so maybe we are just defaulting them to being white. I more agree with you though Brian and think it's somthing in between. One thing I do think is certain though is if we didn't perceive the characters in anime, manga or Asian video games as mainly white then those 3 things would be a lot less populer in western society then they are now.

    I not sure - so I think we need a Kenyan to decide

    =_= i think is just because it looks better on screen=_=
    Anime and manga usually define the nationality of their characters by their style of clothings

      There are rarely any westerners in Japanese anime, manga or games. When there are, you can clearly tell them apart. I've never thought japanese game characters looked white.

    I seem to recall from a media theory lecture at university (so factor in the size of the grain of salt you may wish to use now) that one of the main reasons for the phenomenon of anime characters being (intentionally) drawn as Caucasian was initially to increase the potential for export of Japanese-produced cartoons in a post-WW2 world rife with anti-Japanese sentiment.

    The logic being that if the characters looked in any way Japanese or Asian, they'd not even remotely be considered for broadcast by western countries.

    I can't share most of his points, look at Final Fantasy XIII. Lightning, Snow, Vanille... they are direct translations from the manga comic look of a character into realistic 3D. Give somebody/ANYbody a short look at them and ask them, if they're japanese and I doubt you'd get a "of course" out of anybody including japanese.

    Take a look another look at old-school manga like Lone Wolf & Cub and ask somebody if those characters are japanese and you'd get a lot of "sure they do"'s!

    Point is: MOST - not saying all(!) I'm not saying ALL! Naoki Urosawa has a good mix for example, that still looks undoubtly japanese - bust MOST modern manga portrays westerners, even if they claim to be japanese.

    There's no arguing against how their video game characters look white, though.
    The 3D ones, that is.

    Shin Megami Tensei is the only series I can think of where you could properly guess at a character's ethnicity by looking at their artwork.

    I was going to say, when are you going to start linking SankakuComplex as source.

    I agree with Rene, i think its a intentional thing done by Japanese developers to widen there characters appeal.

    but then asked if there characters are Japanese they would proclaim loud and clear that they are as it would be pushing patriotic buttons and they wouldn't want to alienate there Japanese base of fans.

    I think the point here is that many anime characters do not have an Earthly nationality, physically. Their ethnicity doesn't actually show up in their DNA, so to speak. I think many of the commenters here are validating the Default Human Being, by using white as a starting point, and looking for the markings of the 'other' races (African lips/hair, Asian Eyes, etc) and by not finding them in particular, that means these characters are white.

    I've never seen a 'white' person with naturally blue hair, or eyes the size of teacups. I've never seen a white person with no lips and legs two or three times longer than their torso (Sailor Moon I'm looking at you!). Besides, why would characters in Final Fantasy, for example, be Caucasian, Asian, Indian or any other Earthly ethnicity? THEY AREN'T ON EARTH!

    We white folk also have a tendency to conflate the various kinds of "white" together. Just looking at Lightning and Vanille, they are both redheads maybe making them Welsh, ethnically. Is an Italian still white? What about someone with Germanic or Norse blood? These ethnicities look quite different a lot of the time, though they all have fair skin. And taking those three characters as further example... their names are all words that could mean 'white.'

    Anyway, Final Fantasy characters don't even look human to me. They look like idealised, fantasy Elves without the ears. They are meant to be fantasy characters--why shouldn't they look that way?

    The big eyes were inspired by Disney...

    You project your own thoughts onto cartoons, actually there are many details missing in ANY cartoon face and your imagination fills in the blanks.

    Spot on Adam Ruch. I too thought the Final Fantasy characters looked somewhat "different". Elves with no elf ears is one way to put it!

      But Elves were invented by norse and whatever guys, so they resemble an idealised version of their inventors.
      A japanese guy inventing an ideal human and making non of'em look anywhere japanese, THAT is the strange thing. There is a black character in FFXIII (PLEASE don't say, there are black elves too, because they just have a different skincolor but have nothing to do with african ethnicity) but nobody looking japanese.

    ...the stick figure's head is WHITE.

    Marge Simpson comes from an ENGLISH SPEAKING AMERICAN FAMILY.
    (The Bouvier family.)

    This is not perception, this is known.

      While Marge's original surname is French, her mother is ALSO an English speaking American of no outside decent.
      (Same of her dad.)

    i have a hard time of equating stick figures and japanese animation as both "unmarked" -- simply ludicrous. i find the matter is analogous to fashion models vs people in general (taken to the next level by racial displacement) -- neither ones can be remotely healthy.
    ape's recount seems to be the sensible reasoning,
    yet would have many who would dissent. sad, really.

    (((((2013 response))))) lol

    I've been playing Final Fantasy since the day it came out on NES, I was 11. I'm black American

    (hate the term African American, not from Africa- and family I have outside of United States are actually white European... Don't know anyone in Africa lol.. I'm probably mixed, don't really know or give a crap to be honest).

    Ok with all that said, I've never been bothered about white characters in games, comics, or cartoons ect. I don't care about the race- so long as the character is cool, story's great, music is awesome, and most of all; the game is fun as hell.. Today I make my own characters, and very soon games (have some people interested in making games with me, based on the graphic novels I'm working on). My characters are different races, no I didn't do that to be all politically correct- I hate that crap too. The main character in an RPG I'm working on is white, as are the two in one of the beat-em-up books/games I'm working on.

    With Final Fantasy, many of the characters are meant to be Caucasian, however they all tend to get a bit of a Japanese look (more so the ones who are supposed to be Asian). For example Ashe from Final Fantasy XII, was modeled after a French actress Sylvie Testud, but the designer stated her features were altered to look more Japanese; I can see it too! Also when the Japanese get into the serious cosplay of Final Fantasy characters, They REALLY look like the characters. I saw one girl done up as Vanille from Final Fantasy XIII, and man did she look like Vanille 150%. I've seen the same with one girl who cosplayed as Tifa from Final Fantasy VII, and the BEST cosplay of Cloud from Final Fantasy VII, was actually a Japanese female... Who also did an outstanding Lightning from XIII. When I see Caucasians cosplay as Final Fantasy or Anime characters, its a bit rare that I see something that looks really like the character, unless for example if the character is designed to look very Caucasian. My friend who is white, looks VERY much like Chris Redfield, I swear! He's got the same body, hair everything... He would have been a better Chris than Mr Prison Break, in that Resident Evil film.

    Many Japanese pop/rockstars, and models look like anime/video game characters. In western developed games, if the character is Caucasian, and I see an Asian cosplay as that character.. It doesn't look quite right, but I don't see it as bad, I mean if you love that character regardless of race, and you want to dress up as em, to show your love for it, and cosplay in general- then rock on.

    Abagond's argument sounds like a bunch of PC hokum. Everybody carries stereotypes. The Japanese are no different. There is a clear difference in facial features between, say, the Nio Guardians and most anime or Manga characters.

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