Anime Characters Aren’t White (Because Race In Anime Is Contextual)

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When discussing the casting choices in the recent live action Ghost in the Shell movie, many of its defenders whip out one observation in particular: the Major doesn’t look particularly Japanese in the anime, they say, so why should she look Japanese in the live action adaptation?

While reading comments like this, I always feel the need to resist a reflexive eyeroll. It’s the sort of misguided assumption that reeks of someone who: A) doesn’t know much of anything about anime and/or B) is seeking justification through every avenue available to them.

After all, anime characters in general tend to not look Asian, nor do they realistically resemble any other race.

Yes, anime characters often have pale skin, big eyes, and colorful hair, which are all characteristics that cause many Westerners to believe that the characters “are white.” But most of them also have more lithe bodies and softer jawlines than is typically associated with white people. In fact, when explicitly depicting white people, an anime will sometimes physically differentiate them through their broader shoulders, sharper jawlines, and smaller, more realistic eyes.

But more often than not, the race of an anime character cannot be determined through physical appearance alone. If an anime is set in Europe or America, it likely features characters who are virtually indistinguishable from another anime that is set in Japan or China.

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It’s almost as though anime is a reflection of some other plane of existence, one in which differences in skin tone may exist, but race itself is murkier than in our lived reality.

I’ve seen Chinese characters with orange hair, mixed race characters who look no different from fully Japanese characters, and supposedly multiracial casts containing characters who all look remarkably similar to one another.

For the most part, the race of an anime character is revealed through setting and context rather than physical appearance. If an anime is set in Japan, then unless anyone says otherwise, the characters are presumably all Japanese. Likewise, if an anime is set in Italy, then the characters are presumably all Italian, and so on and so forth.

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Atlus’ Persona video game franchise, and especially the recent Persona 5, is a perfect example of this. Persona 5 adopts a distinctly anime art style in its character design: the main cast all have pale skin, large expressive eyes, and hair colors ranging from bright orange to blonde to sage green. According to Western sensibilities, these characters look white. Yet they are undeniably Japanese simply because the game’s setting is undeniably Japanese.

Persona 5 takes place in modern day Tokyo, and the game makes no effort to obscure this fact. There are frequent, almost incessant references to real life districts and locales, many of which are recreated onto our TV screens with loving detail. As this game revolves around a group of high school students, the story unfolds within the confines of the Japanese school calendar, which includes shorter weekends and vacations than in the West. Much of the protagonist’s free time is spent eating ramen, sushi, and monjayaki with friends. The setting is so aggressively Japanese that, regardless of the characters’ physical appearances, the player is not once allowed to forget that they are watching a group of Japanese teenagers.

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Yet if we were to extract these exact same character designs and transplant them into a JRPG that instead takes place in a medieval European setting, they would fit in just as comfortably as they did in fictional Tokyo.

I’m no sociologist, but if I were a gambling woman, I would bet good money that this is likely a reflection of some crucial difference between our societies. In Western animation, we are painfully aware of race. Race is an automatic and unquestionable factor in determining the physicality of any given character. If a character is Asian (and human), then we’ll make damn sure that they look Asian (and human). Whereas in anime, a character’s race will not necessarily have any bearing on their appearance.

This is not to argue that race is a complete non-issue in anime. There is an implicit bias in terms of which races and which regions of the world are most often depicted. After all, the general lack of dark skinned protagonists equates to a lack of stories set in countries with dark skinned people — or more specifically, countries outside of East Asia, Western Europe, and the US. In fact, out of the hundreds of anime movies and shows I’ve watched, I can’t recall a single one that primarily took place in any African country, yet I can instantly list off a few that were entirely set in France.

Still, it’s an important reminder that Western depictions of race aren’t universal, and that not every single pale-skinned cartoon character you come across must be a white person. To return to the topic of Ghost in the Shell, the Major of the anime is Japanese because the other characters refer to her as Japanese. It truly is as simple as that.

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