Anime and the Social Construction of Race

imageA common misconception about anime cartoons amongst uninitiated audiences in majority-English-speaking countries is that anime characters are drawn to look ‘White’ rather than ‘Asian’. First of all, neither of terms are factual fixed categories - they are social constructions. That is, the meaning attached to race, whether ‘White’, ‘Black’, ‘Asian’ and so on, and the groups classified under these labels, change from one society to another, depending upon culture, time and place.

In an excellent exploration of the social construction of race in popular culture, sociologist Julian Abagond shows that Japanese animators do not, in fact, draw anime characters to personify their aspiration to be ‘white’. Instead, these characters reflect the animators’ own cultural biases - which is that Japanese people are the prototype model of the ‘default human being’. Abagond writes in Sociological Images:

imageIf 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…

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.

As Abagond’s analysis shows, perceptions of race and gender influence how people ‘read’, understand and draw meaning from animation. For Japanese animators, their characters reflect their view of normality - that everyone in their creation is Japanese (or Korean or Chinese or wherever the anime is produced). Audiences that have an uncritical view of race and Whiteness presume that ‘Asian’ drawings should look ‘Asian’. Yet this term - Asian - means different things to different groups. In Japan, the category of Asian is not very meaningful. Instead, mainstream Japanese culture portrays the Japanese people as the ‘default human being’. Gender and class also affect how this default human being is imagined (usually male, affluent and lean).

Just all art forms embody the biases and taken-for-granted cultural assumptions about the world, what audiences see in anime drawings are mediated by the ethnocentrism of the animators and audiences. Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s group is superior to others. Viewers who think Japanese anime characters are trying to look ‘White’ are therefore viewing this artform through ethnocentrism.

Quotation originally from Abagond’s blog, via Sociological Images.

Image of Jubei from Ninja Scroll from Jinni.

Sociology of Anime: Ninja Scroll

imageAs part of my sociology of anime series, here’s a discussion of Ninja Scroll, the 1993 Japanese cult classic, which was directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri.

Ninja Scroll is concerned with a familiar anime trope - the battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ ninjas. Set in feudal times, Ninja Scroll tells the tale of Kibagami Jubei, a solitary warrior who is tricked into fighting for his life as he is pursued by a band of demons in a war against the government. The narrative is filled with visually rich martial arts scenes interwoven with complex depictions of sexuality. This includes heterosexual sex and connotations of gay love and bisexuality (these representations warrant discussion on their own right, which I will address in another post). 


Ninja Scroll is filled with visceral images of pestilence, poison, revenge, vigilantism and solitude. These ideas are cross-referenced to themes of love, redemption, honour, obligation, nationalism and social justice.

Canadian sociologist Jay Goulding argues that Ninja Scroll's narrative concerns with sexual fantasies, demons, violence and vengeance represent a new technological interpretation of traditional Buddhist ideals and a modern appreciation of Japanese history.

Similarly, as I discussed in my previous anime post, Jin Kyu Park argues that the international appeal of anime is its integration of ideas from various cultures and its elaborate spirituality. Anime represents fantasy and escape, as well as counter-cultural and anti-authoritarian aspirations. This is signified in Ninja Scroll by Jubei’s role as an avenging rogue who reluctantly fights against supernatural and state forces. image

If you haven’t seen Ninja Scroll - get to it post haste! Otherwise how will you know what to do when you are tricked into going on a quest to overthrow a group of demons after you’ve been poisoned and you fall in love with a martial arts imperial food tester? Pfff - you wouldn’t know what to do, that’s what!

The sociology of animation - saving your life.

Image credits:

Jubei: IGN

Yurimaru: Gary’s Ninja Scroll Page.

Kagero: Gary’s Ninja Scroll Page

The Sociology of Anime - Origins and International Appeal

imageThe history and influence of anime is rich and complex, from its origins in early 20th Century Japanese manga comics to its present-day popularity around the world. Korean communications researcher, Jin Kyu Park, has explored the influences on anime and its appeal to international audiences. Park documents that the growth of anime links back to Japan’s economic boom in the 1960s, which enabled the development of new television genres, including anime.

The first televised anime series was Otagi Manga Calendar in 1962, but its successor Tetuwan Atomu in 1963 achieved greater popularity. Over the next two decades, the scope and influence of anime had spread beyond Japan. By the 1980s and 1990s, Park establishes that anime had developed a strong cult following around the world. Technological advances facilitated this process. With the diffusion of video recorders, fans were able to obtain copies of anime series and share them through anime fan clubs and conventions. image

Several anime series contain the some of the most internationally recognised animated characters, including Astro Boy - the manga cartoon of the 1950s which was turned into an anime TV series in the 1960s. Anime took off to a wider  worldwide market through Pokémon, a late 1990s video game which was turned into an anime (and which I, incidentally, could never get into).

To uninitiated audiences, the most easily observable and perhaps the most shocking aspects of anime are its graphic depiction of violence, sex and supernatural themes. Park has explored the international consumption of anime by its fans in a different light. Park argues that this popularity is due to the way anime integrates various cultural, historical and religious ideas from Japan and other societies. In particular, Park sees that anime’s concern with spirituality marks it out as distinctive from other popular cultural animation genres.

It is not simply that anime regularly depicts non-human characters, such as demons, monsters, angels, aliens, magical animals, gods and other mythical beings. Instead, Park argues that the transcendental appeal of anime is that these beings often represent aspects of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, in a way that is less clear-cut than other religious representations of morality, such as in mainstream Christianity.

imageThe fact that anime cartoons borrow from various religious traditions makes it simultaneously distinctive and appealing to international audiences. Park interviewed American anime fans, one of whom explains the appeal of anime this way:

I guess I would say that because anime is so all encompassing, they aren’t afraid to step into different cultures or ideas and then draw and make a storyline out of it and create something that’s entertaining and beautiful at the same time. I think that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. ’Cause they aren’t restrained by anything. The sky is the limit. They can draw anything they want to. And still keep a cheerful attitude about it. I really like that.

Park’s research shows that fans of anime see it as distinctive and ‘beautiful’, with its themes of social resistance, adventure and sacred quests. The appeal of social rebellion in anime films is expressed through the idea that anime is not ‘restrained by anything’.

Anime, like other forms of animation, might be easily dismissed as light entertainment - thus falling into the realm of the ‘mundane’. The longevity and international appeal of anime speaks to its unique contribution to transnational popular art.

In future posts, I will consider other issues related to the international value of anime as a cultural export and I will discuss case studies of some of my favourite anime films.

If you have any favourite anime shows or films, let me know which ones and why.

Image credits

Otogi Manga Calendar. Via: Opisy-Anime.

Astro Boy. Via: Glen Johnson’s 60s Anime!

Spirited Away. Via Anime News Network.