The depiction of race in anime is a tricky subject. After all, the Japanese characters do not look explicitly Asian, and portrayals of white or black people are often laughably stereotypical. Many fans are likely to attribute this to the general racial homogeneity of Japanese society, as well as a lack of extended exposure to people of different races.
However, this does not explain why non-Japanese Asians tend to be portrayed just as stereotypically as Western characters. Most common are characters of Chinese ethnicity, who are often designed to look distinctly Asian in a way that Japanese characters are not. This is most frequently seen in the clothing and accessories of Chinese characters, who sometimes wear traditional outfits such as the qipao or have their hair styled in buns.
Sometimes the Chinese characters even have narrower eyes or speak with stereotypical accents. For example, the character Kagura from Gintama adds the words “aru yo” at the end of her sentences, which is a stereotype for Chinese people in Japan.
Generally, Chinese characters tend to come in two varieties:
- They look physically different from the Japanese characters through a combination of dress, physical appearance, and speech patterns. These are often minor characters. (e.g. The Chinese Federation in Code Geass)
- They do not physically differ from the Japanese characters, and their ethnicity is not a significant factor in their characterization. These are often major characters. (e.g. Hei from Darker than Black or Levy from Black Lagoon)
I wrote an academic essay on this topic (I’m a nerd, I know) several years ago, in which I concluded:
In terms of the likeability of Chinese characters, the results are much more encouraging than I had expected. The large majority of Chinese characters are depicted as essentially good people who easily garner the empathy and even respect of the audience. But their physical differences mark them as Others who belong to a different group of people, one that is separate from Japan.
In other words, Chinese characters are often depicted in an Orientalist manner, by a country which is itself often the victim of Orientalist portrayals in the West. In anime, Chinese characters often serve as the more traditional and “more Asian” counterpart to the Japanese characters, who are comparatively portrayed in a more “racially neutral” manner.
Conversely, if a Chinese character has a major role, they are much more likely to be indistinguishable from the rest of the cast, particularly in regards to facial features. It is uncommon for a Chinese character to be physically different from Japanese characters and still have a prominent presence in the narrative.
One of the few exceptions is Ling Yao from Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Another more extreme case is Ping Pong. It features a character named Kong Wenge, who has a major character arc despite the fact that a significant amount of his dialogue is spoken in Mandarin Chinese; so far, this is the only anime I have encountered in which a Chinese-speaking character inhabits a lead role.
Ping Pong is certainly an exception to the rule. But its existence does seem to suggest a greater malleability of thought in regards to the roles that Chinese characters can adopt in a Japanese story. Perhaps in the future, characters like Kong Wenge won’t feel like such a rarity—and Chinese girls might finally be free from the tyranny of qipaos and hair buns.