The Portrayal of Black People in Manga and Anime

by Allan Kastiro

UntitledI have been a big fan of Manga and Anime for as long as I can remember. I always admired how the Japanese style of drawing cartoon characters was different from that of popular western comics and animations. The characters in Manga and Anime have always stood out because they are unique. That is, many of them have exaggerated and flamboyant features and this always stood out for me and many other fans alike. Never did it ever occur to me that the way the Japanese creators illustrate their artistic work had significance on how race and ethnicity is viewed or construed in Japan.

As I began to read and watch more Manga and Anime, I began to notice how non-Japanese characters (people of color, specifically of African origin) were drawn and represented and many of them had very stereotypical characteristics. This can be seen in their dressing style, behavior, speech patterns and activities they are engaged in.  One such character is ChocoLove McDonell (pictured above) from the manga and Anime ‘Shaman King’. Where do I even start with this … His name is CHOCOLOVE!!! The character is an African American who has his hair in an afro, has exaggerated lips and wears an African wrap on the lower half of his body. Ohh and his animal spirit is a Jaguar! Many other non-Japanese characters are as controversial for example Mr. Popo from Dragon Ball and Jynx from pokemon who both appear to be in black face, Staff Officer Black and Killa from Dragon Ball, Bugnug or ‘dark eyes’ from Crying freeman et cetera. The characters mentioned are all African American with the exception of Bugnug  (which means Ant-Eater pokemonapparently) who is the leader of the Askari (Swahili word to mean soldier) which is an African revolutionary organization.  Bugnug is first introduced to Crying Freeman manga readers when she launches a surprise attack on Yō Hinomura who is the main character.  She is illustrated to look ‘exotic’. She is beautiful with long curly hair but is muscular and masculine in her behavior. It is  impossible to compare her to the other Japanese females in the same manga as they seem more fragile and feminine.

bugnugDuring the battle with Yō Hinomura (Crying Freeman), Bugnug is completely naked and only carries a blade. When she is finally defeated by Yō Hinomura, the two become allies and she later on gets his assistance to defeat a coup d’état in her organization. It seems as though the creators of this manga and anime went all out to display Bugnug’s supposed ‘Africanness’ by naming the character Bugnug which they go on to translate as Ant-Eater, having her fight naked, which I believe represents a kind of primitiveness and then including a coup d’état in her storyline which occurs within her revolutionary organization. So this leaves me to question why some characters of African ancestry are represented in this manner in manga and anime.  Do all the people of African ancestry have these characteristics and why have these stereotypes been continuously perpetuated?

When trying to answer these questions, it is important to note that Japan has always been a homogeneous nation and this has created a kind of distance between them and other cultures from many parts of the world. Thus, a lot of what Japanese people know and perceive has been spread through western media which is dominated by America through entertainment, news, music et cetera.  In the article ‘What does “American” Mean in Postwar Japan?’ by Yoshimi Shunya (2008) he writes that,

From the late1950’s onward, “America” was distilled as a uniform image with even greater power than before to gain people’s hearts. ..Until the early 1950’s the word “America” was simply invoked as a model to be emulated… “America” also came to be associated with the “pop-culture” of Japanese youth. As “America” became less direct, more mediated, and increasingly confined to images, it conversely became more interiorized and its effect on people’s consciousness became deep. (Yoshimi Shunya, 2008)

slamdunkThis exposure has been both positive and negative in that it has opened up Japan to other cultures and has made the Japanese people more aware of the differences between their cultures, traditions and those of people from other parts of the world but has also promoted the adoption of negative stereotypes thus most of what the Japanese know are imagined racial distinctions that have been created and promoted by the western media.

As I come to the end of this blog post, I would like to point out that not all black people are represented stereotypically in some of the Manga and Anime works and some Japanese characters have even been made to have darker skin tones or even display several characteristics that one would categorize as being black. An example that comes to mind is  Takenori Akagi from Slam Dunk!

In conclusion, I believe that as Manga and Anime continue to spread and attain wider audiences, their popularity will help raise awareness on how race and ethnicity is viewed in different parts of the world and this will in turn create a better understanding of these different cultures and ethnicities.

Reference

Shunya Y. (2008). “What Does ‘American’ Mean in Postwar Japan?” Nanzan Review of American Studies 30:83-87

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26 thoughts on “The Portrayal of Black People in Manga and Anime

  1. Akagi is not black. If you read the comic, he is a regular japanese kid with Japanese family. He is portrayed in that manner because he was modeled after Patrick Ewiing.

  2. I hope the cartoon developers aren’t getting upset that black americans want to buy back their corner stores, restaurants, and nails salons….

  3. Am I the only one who remembers the whole isolationist period? Or how the Shinto religion once stated that Japanese people are Kami (something they somewhat had/have in common with China, who also had an ethnic supremacy thing going on)? The horrifying Imperial era was them competing and doing swimmingly at it. Absorbed White culture down to their racism??? *pfft* Spoken like a true, disgruntled, White guilt-perpetuating diaspora member.

  4. Calling Jynx a racial stereotype just shows you’re ignorant of other nation’s cultures. Jynx is a parody of a fashion craze in Japan, a delinquent and rebellious one. Yes, I’m referring to Kogal and Ganguro (yes, I’m aware that Ganguro literally means black face) which was all about defying societal norms. Think “Goth” and how it started out as a counter-normative non-conformist thing that teenagers would do and it’d piss their parents off to no end, and now it’s just normal. It’s not at all intended to make fun of those with more melanin in their skin. She was also inspired by Japanese folklore, in particular the Yamauba.

    • So if the author disagrees with your view, he’s “ignorant of other nation’s [sic] cultures”? Thus, he’s ignorant not just of Japanese culture, but the cultures of other nations too? Making such a claim detracts from your argument. If a student were making such a claim in a class assignment, their grade would suffer.

      • I’m not quite sure what you’re going on about. This isn’t really a matter of agreement or disagreement. 1+1 does not equal 3. 1+1 equals 2. In the same manner, Jynx is what she is, and isn’t what she isn’t. Yet they still changed her skin to purple in order to avoid conflict. I can’t even look at Jynx now without thinking of how people are cowed by these “activists” who demand everything they see as “racist” and offensive be changed or removed, regardless of truth.

      • First you criticize the author as ignorant of other cultures, and now you criticize activists. What do activists have to do with your claim that the author is ignorant of other cultures? Also, you seem to claim that there is one, and only one, interpretation of the meanings behind various characters. Who decides which interpretation is the correct one?

      • This issue goes beyond this article. It was a widespread controversy for awhile. I’m not really speaking to anyone in particular, so much as the collective of people who feel this way about Jynx. The “interpretation” of the character is meaningless. It’s the intent and actual meaning behind the character that matters, and that’s determined by the creator.

  5. To be fair to Crying Freeman, though, Yō Hinomura fights in the nude a lot. He also ends up sleeping with a lot of the female assassins quite a bit, too; he has an Asian James Bond thing going on.

    To her – and Crying Freeman’s creators’ – credit, Bugnug is viewed as somewhat of Freeman’s equal, and the two worked more in a partnership rather than a subordinated role.

  6. I love anime but i hope they can get black people right. The hair is almost always straight and sometimes white. I welcome some natural, curly as fuck, kinky african hair and even more black hairstyles.

  7. Just for saying, Japan isn’t homogeneous neither – I know many Far Eastern countries really loves claiming that propaganda about both-ethnically-as-linguistically-homoheneous national-spreading monoliths just for hiding mild racial/ethnic segregation nay colorism belonging in their nations but that’s just a made-by-ethablishment myth – seen there exists few aborigenal pre-Japanese populations (often dark-skinned to the point to be allmost considered as Blacks for some “white” Japanese folks, like Jomons or Ainus…) still living nowadays but forced to be assimilated by the mainstream national dominant culture(/s) .

    Whom to Jynx from Pokémon franchise, she was in fact a caricatural tribute for Gangūro, an urban youth subculture… of course we could also saying that same subculture is in somehow a caricature of dark-skinned peoples especially Black people.

    Either, institutionnalized racism exists in Japan since feudalistic times, with the conquests of many clans and populations used to have allegiance for the vainquor, many-centuries-along cultural influence by Chinese Empire having herself especially developped since the VII-VIIIth Century – with the arrival of Arab-Islamic black slavery trade in their borders – a lot of hate gul racial prejudices against Black people as much from Africa than from Asian countrysides.
    The arrival of Hollandese explorers and their slave trade in Japan starting the XVIth Century then the widespreading cultural influence of Western both culture & ideals since the XIXth Century doubled by seventy-two years of traumatic, brutal, American occupation – with obviously their own ideals whom racial prejudices and bigotry against so called colored peoples – didn’t really changes for better in anything about the perspective of dark-skinned persons in the Japanese Pop culture…

    • I’ve noticed that today’s youth in Japan are influenced by rap music and black culture from America, I don’t know how I’d handle Japanese kids calling each other niggas, but I believe black characters would add so much to anime and manga, I’m a multiracial man from Chicago and we one of the most gentrified cities in America.

  8. I would like to point out two hard SF series “Moon Light Mile” and “Space Brothers”. Both are present day or slightly in the day after tomorrow. Both have African American characters who are in positions of power and authority, astronauts, and generally good people. In Space Brothers, It stops there while the Japanese characters actually look Japanese, one has blond hair and the other has curly hair and is called “Afro” by the African American characters as a joke, the Black characters are depicted with heavy heavy African features. Of the five or six characters there is no they are all very dark skin, no variation. When the multiracial crew goes to the moon there is a Comic book that comes out in Japan depicting them as different animals. The Japanese astronaut is drawn as rabbit because of hopping antics on the moon. But the Black American astronaut is depicted as a very black Gorilla. In a place where Nazi symbols are still strong Japanese artist are just plain ignorant of what is good and what is bad and need to instructed.

  9. Having been to both Korea and Japan, the people are very whitewashed and try to “fit in” with what white people generally do in their minds, which is make fun of darker skinned people. Ask yourself, why are most Japanese characters either look Caucasian or are drawn exactly the same as Caucasian characters, but the black characters are drawn with stereotypical facial features? Why don’t the Japanese ever draw actual Asian looking characters such as the ones in Akira? This self hate in deep in most of Asia when them putting Caucasian people in their ads over other Asians, not to mention mass skin bleaching in areas like Thailand where they tend to have darker skin. Many Asians are known to get work done of their eyes and say they want a “western” look, which is funny in itself because they mean Caucasian, yet the majority of the world have the same eyes as Caucasians (other than some eye colors). I was in Korea for four years and Japan for one so I know what I’m talking about………

  10. Pingback: 86 – Slam Dunk! – The Cartoncast

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