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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35 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.

    • To be fair, I think that’s partially attributed to curly hair probably being harder to draw.
      I remember as a kid, whenever I tried to draw black peoples’ hair, or just curly hair, it was much more difficult to draw than just straight, spiky hair.

  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………

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  12. It is inexcusable how Japanese creators are incapable of avoiding negative racial stereotypes…
    When there’s something called the INTERNET.
    Like, seriously, if there’s going to be a black stereotype, then I’d rather there be no black characters. I can accept the fact that Japanese characters are much more marketable and preferred over foreign characters.

  13. Thank you so much for this article! I am half Jamaican and half British and I love manga and amine, however, it has always bothered me how black people are drawn and portrayed. I (still) don’t understand why Japanese people insist on drawing black people in such blatantly disgusting manor; it’s very painful to view, and to be honest, quite rude. It especially stings coming from a culture that values politeness and showing respect. The only black character I’ve seen drawn properly (aka looking like a normal human being) is Shihouin Yoruichi (for drawing a normal looking black character arigatou gozaimasu Kubo-san<3). Maybe manga drawers will get it someday! Watashi wa mattemasu!
    Cheers!
    KC

    *disclaimer: There may be lots and lots of well drawn black characters I am not aware of; my knowledge of manga and anime characters is (extremely) limited. My hope is, as I continue to read these wonderful adventures from brilliant artists and superb storytellers, to find many more strong examples like Yoruichi-san with the rest of the carefully crafted characters. : )

    • Isn’t it obvious? Japan is still in a state of mind of light-skin worship and it’s worship of the very culture and demographic of a nation that bombed the living daylights out of them during WW2. May I also mention that Japan also censors much of its history? There’s been documentation and articles of today’s Japanese youth without a clue what actually happened in WW2 besides Pearl Harbor and Fat Man.

      The only way the manga/anime situation is going to change is for people of color to rise against hollywood and start suing these movie-makers for the poor representation of people of color as a whole, as well as getting on the mainstream media’s case how they always portray blacks as aggressive, dumb, or criminal-minded. It’s one thing when news is news but it is OBVIOUS white propaganda is being used behind it.

      Yet these same whites that they worship will call them “gook” and “chink” behind their backs and faces. Not very smart if you ask me. Also, a problem is a LOT of Asian guys try to act like white males, which I find weak because yes indeed they DO follow the prejudice that a culture of biggots do. I’ve encountered asain men (particularly Chinese) being disrespectful or plain stupid because they thought they were “mentally superior” to myself (Yet I’m an Honor Student and on Dean List going on Presidential) and all because I simply asked the guy a question concerning a homework (this is a tutor, btw and they get paid to assist students) and now i’m considered ‘stupid’ because I supposedly “asked too many questions”? Well, you shouldn’t be a tutor number one if you have a sexist and profiling issue, not even less that the guy even knew he was directing his comments to an honor student!Arrogant!I earn every grade that I make through sacrifice and persistence! My degree is in technology so it’s already a challenge having to deal with a male-dominated industry surrounded by white and Asian men, then at times too the issue of self-seeking non-color females whom, I have personally heard and witness look at girls of color in this field as a “sub part that we can get to later”. Me, and many other females who are in technology are working hard to change these ridiculous hurtles and barriers. While not everyone can do technology ,we can’t allow a current and ignorant-demography to “chase” us out so they can keep being E-Kings while their very users are sending the same biggot hate-speeches without penalty. Just go to any “black” labeled video on youtube or even reddit, and it will be spammed with biggot-hate-speech by idiots, which is a reflection of the poorness of the western culture. Now what they’ve been doing is bumming off the YouTube monetary viewer system to literally fund their side-project hate-speech channels, to keep posting toxic content. When more of us get in positions can demand change and actually start banning/removing these type of useless individuals and their “followers” off the net, since their entire and only goal is to promote hate under the guise of “Pride”. It’s an agenda, period.

      As to Japanese men, be yourself instead of trying to fit as another “white guy”. Its not appealing, and makes one wonder if your ashamed of what you are. I’ve spoken to parents of Asian kids and basically, they said after their sons go to college, they start rejecting their food and wanting “USA” food, which already has wrecked the diets of Americans everywhere with its unhealthy and processed state just to “be western”. They also try to loose their accents. It is not very smart as, folks like me will eventually be making six-figures while your off chasing that fantasy-blonde representation of what you consider “female beauty”. Many of the women your looking at don’t even exist, their botoxed, scripted, Adobed, and plastic-surgery based upon the geneology of races that actually HAVE many of the features their looking for. What you will have in reality is a fat, angry, aggressive single-mom meth-pumping white female or a divorcee with a complex that’ll gobble up your life savings. Reality check. Not every female is like this but so many have divorced, hugely fat, and re-married in the USA that it’s become a joke along with horrible aging genes that makes 30 year olds look like their 60 year old turtles. And especially when there’s beauties like Lola Chuil, whom is exactly what these men are looking for! Young, gorgeous, petite, and with natural beauty! This is what females of color truly look like, and not the “ugly dark baboon” stereotype that so many are viewed as and subjected to thanks to racism.

      Then you have idiots like Nobita from youtube who, several times in their video have vividly promoted the same stereotypes based on from fictional-movies and propaganda press of what “blacks are” as thugs, criminals, etc. Yet the guy himself is unattractive, would not be winning ANY grammy awards, and looks like a pimpled-face closet jobless BUM. Yet these are the very type of individuals that give Japan a bad reputation, seeing that normally those curious to go to the country are met with this ignoramous instead of an actual informative non-bias videos. His videos actually chase away potential tourists and or exchange students/businesses because who wants to be associated with a nicompoop idiot with a race-chip on his shoulder? It’s types like this and others I want to start banning from the clear-net and sending their butts to the darkweb were they can co-exist with the other creeps, drug-heads, murders,weirdos, and rift-raft that gathers there. It’s also very stupid to base any instance of research or exposure on a media that exist entirely based upon the interpretation of a film-director and exist mostly of fiction and propaganda.

      I like manga/anime alot but as someone of color I find these little subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination portrayls of what a “color” person suppose to be or behave as is a DIRECT fault of the Black-Face which originated in America and most often, anime/manga was inspired from DISNEY who did plenty of black-face stereotypes along with japanese stereotypes during WW2. If anyone recalls there were several Bugs Bunny cartoons that featured japanese men as sneaky and slanty-eyed with bad accents and buck teeth who always end up dying or killed in the end.

      People of color should be suing Disney, Hollywood, and the USA for the amount of not only local damage, but international damage as well to the reputation of a demograph of people. That is why specifically you don’t see anymore cartoons poking fun at japanese characteristics, yet we’re still seeing the issues of big-lip, ugly=dark and wicked claims stemming from a biggot bunch that believes they rule the world. Even doing a google search will result in “Black people are ugly” or “Black people have low-IQ” all of course, are devil lies and propaganda spewed fourth from nasty biggots who don’t realize that their skin-tone isn’t going to save them from another Hurricane Katrina or any other devastating natural diaster but want to pass the poison down to keep opression and dictorialship going. Unlike humans, Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate on destruction. It doesn’t care if your white, asian or black, if your in its way it’s gonna wreck your stuff.

      Yes, It is USA and Britain who started and created most of this mess today. Even when Prince Harry recently got married to his bi-racial wife some of the British Newspapers were sprouting out discriminatory comments. Australia is also nasty and racist as well too. If you do research you’ll see a lot of origins of manga were inspired by “Disney” before it became its own sub-culture. USA is at fault for most of this, and people of color should be suing the living daylights out of these companies and others and forcing them to reprimand the years of stereotype damage they’ve done.

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