Do manga characters seem white to you?

by Agathe Schwaar

1337781095390Manga are a topic that has been well-researched in  Japanese Studies. However, when it comes to racial identity, we can see strong wonders about the racial identity found in the manga characters. On the one hand, if you search on the internet the question in English “Do Manga look like white people”, you have 14,000,000 results. On the other hand, if we do the same search in Japanese “漫画キャラクターは白人っぽい“, you only get 736,000 results and it is mainly a translation on the question asked by foreigners.

18289p74nf2ixjpgTerry Kawashima (2002), in her essay “Seeing Faces, Making Races: Challenging Visual Tropes of Racial Difference,” argues that the manga characters are mainly based on whiteness’ particularities and they influence the young women when it comes to the concept of beauty. According to her, the manga readers had been “culturally conditioned to read visual images in specific racialized ways that privilege certain cues at the expense of others and lead to an over determined conclusion” and highlight the issues on how “race” is a social constructed category.

It is true that media and films had been marking differences between characters from different countries or social background through racial and social features that had left stigmas in our observation of the World. However, Manga’s drawing is less likely to be considered as a description of “whiteness” characteristics. One the manga’s particularity is the notion of 無国籍 or literally “a country-neutral quality” (Iwabuchi, 2002) which defines manga characters having no any race attributed to them. Koichi Iwabuchi (2002) in his researches calls this particularity as “odorless”: It has not specific features and it is one of the reasons why manga are successful abroad. The most common examples are Hello Kitty and Mario in the Nintendo’s video games.

cc_future_130610_wmainSo why do we see specific racial features in these “odorless” characters? It is mainly because of our personal representation of racial differences. These differences are called “markedness” by Matt Thorn (2004), we used our own culture and features of our own personal experiences to identify the character’s race. For example, look at a manga character with blond hair and blue eyes who is eating a bowl of rice with chopsticks. Where a French person will see a French personage because of its physical features and because he is himself French, the Japanese will see a Japanese person because this he/she is eating a bowl of rice with chopsticks.

It is undeniable that we mark manga characters with racial features which we encountered in our personal life. In this context, it is less likely that Japanese people also see white people in the manga they read. What they must see is a typical Japanese person. It is then difficult to confirm Terry Kawashima’s argument on the “white privileging” perception we may see in manga. Thinking that Japanese readers see white people in manga would imply a sentiment of inferiority of the Japanese community toward the “white race”. If we follow this idea, we fall into a generalization of the supremacy of whiteness in our current society and destroy the main principle of manga’s ideology neutral racial or “無国籍”. However, when it comes to racial stereotypes in manga characters, we actually reach another important issue on racial representations in Mass Media and we should put more attention on this subject.


Iwabuchi, K. (2002). Recentering globalization: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kawashima, T. (2002). Seeing Faces, Making Races: Challenging Visual Tropes of Racial Difference. Meridians, (1), pp.161-190.

Thorn, M. (2004). Do Manga Characters Look “White”? Retrieved from

Costumes, props, and appropriation

by Deanne Walters

For a discussion on appropriation is it apt start off with a definition on what cultural appropriation is. Cultural appropriation is taking part of another group’s culture and removing it from the original context; often simplifying it and the original culture. This post is going to focus on cultural appropriation going on in mass media in two areas, fashion and music videos.

This section will look at the example of Native American appropriation in fashion and costumes in America. A new trend that has been going on is Native American inspired clothes. As seen with the Urban Outfitters line of ‘Navajo’ styled clothes, a major problem with this kind of appropriation is that it simplifies culture. Navajo is just one of hundreds of Native American tribes. It also commodifies this culture as it simplifies it, so it takes a complex group of cultures and turns them into products for hipsters. This removes any cultural context that might have been attached to these items or patterns in effect turning these products in to stereotypes of Native American cultures.

There are also much more blatant stereotypes of Native American people, such as costumes. These reduce vast cultures down to one idea often based on stereotypical images produced in media. Costumes also ignore any and all cultural context behind them. A common accessory in both costumes and fashion are headdresses. While the original meaning behinds these were symbols of strength worn only by warriors and chiefs now they are just seen as a fashion accessory or a costume. In both fashion and costumes Native American cultures are simplified and commodified for the economic benefit and enjoyment of non-Native Americans. This is contributing to the erosion of Native American cultures.

The next example of cultural appropriations is Japanese culture in music videos and performances. The most recent example is Avril Lavigne’s ‘Hello Kitty’ music video, but this is nothing new this has been seen in Gwen Stefani’s ‘Harajuku Girls’ and Katy Perry’s American Music Awards performance of ‘Unconditionally’. All of these examples simplified and stereotyped Japanese culture into a prop, something to add ‘exotic’ spice to a music video or performance. In the two music videos the only people who were Japanese or of Japanese decent were background dancers maybe getting a line or two in the song. The only thing that matters for people producing this content is the profit they will make from it. This cultural appropriation and is contributing to the stereotyping of Japanese culture.

The clear link between these two cases of cultural appropriation is simplification and commodification. Complex cultures are being turned into caricatures and used for profit. Overall, cultural appropriation in mass media often ends up stereotyping and only profiting individuals with no deep connection to the culture they are appropriating. As seen with these two example cultural appropriation is wrong and should be stopped.


Fager, C. (n.d.). Cultural appropriation. A Friendly Letter. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from (nd.). Indian headdress. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Ray, P. (2013, November 1). Cultural appropriation: Halloween’s post-modern problem. The society pages. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Sharp, G. (2011, June 7). Discussion of cultural appropriation. The society pages. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Sharp, G. (2012, May 10). Social media and the fight over urban outfitters’ appropriation of native american cultures. The society pages. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Zimmerman, A. (2014, April 25). Avril Lavigne’s dumb ‘hello kitty’ video is rife with cultural appropriation. The Daily Beast. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from


Accepting a Cheap Imitation of “White Features” as Beauty in Japan

Anime Drawing / Download & Color it yourself!

(Photo credit: Serena.)

by Yuta Kobayashi

Shoujo Manga has existed in Japan since the early 1900s. Consisting of sensitive artwork and a storyline aimed for young girls, these visual novels have been a part of the lives of many Japanese women since childhood. Although the original target audience of these Shoujo Manga was the young female population in Japan, the release of animations and live action dramas of these mangas in recent years have broadened the target audience towards a much larger population. For this reason, Shoujo Manga can be currently considered to be a widely accepted genre within the Japanese society.

Shoujo Manga is generally known for their sensitive artwork and their dramatic storyline. In most cases, the audience understands that the stories and characters involved are purely constructed from the imaginations of the authors and realize that these visual novels do not necessarily portray reality. However, at the same time, it can be considered true that these visual novels have the potential to influence the lives and the behaviors of the audience in reality.

In “Seeing Faces, Making Races: Challenging Visual Tropes of Racial Difference,” Terry Kawashima (2002) suggests how in Japan, the modern ideal image of beauty consists of a mix of both traditional Japanese and White values. She introduces the fact that some of the features of the modern Japanese concept of beauty, for instance, large eyes, small hook like noses, small mouths, and a round face, are represented on the characters illustrated in Shoujo Manga. In Japanese society, women tend to value beauty very highly. As suggested by Kawashima (2002), what is considered as ideal and beautiful within the Japanese society will be performed and “imitated.” In essence, young women who read these Shoujo Manga will unconsciously attempt to imitate the beautiful looking role models in the novels.

Kawashima (2002) introduces the idea that the modern concept of beauty in Japan can be considered a cheap imitation of Western beauty. To an extent, this can be considered true. In Japan, hair coloring and the usage of Bihaku, or skin lightening, products as a means to enhance looks, especially among women, are common. This artificial form of beauty, in essence, can be obtained through the consumption and usage of cosmetic products. In this manner, it can be assumed and accepted that the modern concept of Japanese beauty is heavily influenced by various aspects of Western beauty.

Kawashima (2002) suggests that Japanese beauty is “oppressed” by Western values. For some people, it may seem odd that Japanese people prefer beauty that is considered not their own. To deny one’s own sense of “traditional” beauty for something artificial or foreign may be interpreted negatively by others. However, I believe that it is not always bad for one to accept an oppressed concept of beauty, especially if the society is willing to accept the idea. The concept of beauty is forever changing. The spontaneous behavior of people in society to act in such way is natural. To add, in a society like Japan, to be beautiful means many things. This cheap imitation of beauty may be interpreted negatively by some people, but for many Japanese people living in the Japanese context, this cheap imitation of beauty is an essential part of life in society.

Some Questions:

Who decides what Japanese people should look like?

Should Japanese people be free to define for themselves what Japanese beauty is?


Kawashima, T. (2002). “Seeing Faces, Making Races: Challenging Visual Tropes of Racial Difference.” Meridians, Vol. 3 – 1 (pp. 161-190).