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.

References

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 http://www.matt-thorn.com/mangagaku/faceoftheother.html

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Mimicking the non-existent

Anonymous student post

Body alterations are a strange thing. Just the words themselves—“body alterations”—make them seem so foreign to our lives, like they’re not something natural. Yet looking at people throughout my life has made me realize that body alteration has become the norm for many people, and desired by, perhaps, many more. If we were to look at how many people use make-up, have surgery, aim for a different body weight/composition, or even just get a piercing, we would see just how widespread this notion of changing our bodies is.

Yet, after reading Terry Kawashima’s (2002) article on racial indicators, I find body alterations strange in another sense. Kawashima discusses this idea of mimicry, in particular the mimicry of “white” traits by Japanese people, arguing throughout her paper that this is not the case for most of Japanese society. But it raised an interesting question about mimicry in relation to body alterations for me: When someone aims to alter their body, is it because they are trying to mimic something or someone else?

This can be a tricky question to navigate, as some will find it too broad a question while others will point out that there are as many reasons for changing one’s body as there are people. Despite this, I can’t help but feel that, at least from what I’ve seen and read, the answer just might be yes, but not in the way that the question is worded. The cautious reader will be skeptical, and thus, I suppose, explanations are in order.

Part of my answer is reinforced by some particular experiences of mine. Growing up with sisters can be difficult, especially when they are constantly attempting to put make-up on and dress fashionably, even when it makes you late for school. Anxiety, I learned, fueled my sister’s actions; she wanted to look “normal”, and thus she would groom herself constantly. For her, body modification was a way of becoming invisible. This resonates with my own experience growing up with raised bumps on my back. My mother, in all honesty, was more worried about them than I; she blamed them for the way I dressed and the activities I gave up when I was older, as well as for my shy and withdrawn personality. She went so far as to offer me a chance to have plastic surgery. Unable to explain to her (or myself) why my scars were not a problem to me, I consented.

After having plastic surgery on only two bumps, and after having grown up with more time to mull over that experience, I’ve realized that my mother believed I couldn’t think of myself as “normal” while I had something “subnormal”, especially when she saw the anxieties my sister held. Body modification, in this context, meant to her an attempt to elevate myself back to “the standard”.

Broadened to a larger scope, we can see in other’s experiences through things like blogs and academic literature that body modification extends across the board. It affects how people relate their body to race, gender, age, culture, health, and all these other touchy subjects that people seem afraid to address sometimes. And—again, from what I’ve seen and read—I think that all these changes that we make to our bodies has something to do with trying to obtain an ideal. In the end, it’s difficult to say that there’s some definitive “real” thing that people try to mimic, because most of the things I’ve listed are just social constructs. Race doesn’t biologically exist, health is relative, and age is reliant on different perceptions of time. In the end, perhaps all people are really trying to do is aim for something that’s not really obtainable because it does not exist in any measurable way. So in a way, we are trying to mimic something; it’s just not something that we can point to and say “there it is”.

Curiosity, slow down!

tattoo_1038

(Photo credit: doviende)

by Sheena Sasaki

Curiosity is one of the important phenomenon to how individual acts. I believe that sharing of culture is not taking place only to understand each other for world peace, but also with curiosity towards things which you are unfamiliar with. With curiosity, people are attracted to unknown cultures of the communities outside of theirs.

When I lived in the United States, I saw many non-Japanese having tattoos of kanji (Chinese/Japanese word character) as part of their fashion. One of my friends also had kanji tattoo as well. He told me that he had strong interest in Japanese cultures and traditions and would like to major in Japanese practices in the future. His curiosity was the base of his view of what he wanted to do in the future.

He also proudly said that he chose by himself the kanji he asked to have tattooed on his body. What he wanted as his tattoo was “ogre.” In kanji, it is written as “鬼 (oni)” My friend did not know the kanji for the word, but the tattooist told him that he knew. The reason my friend was interested in this kanji of oni was its definition and meaning behind the single word. The word does not simply mean “ogre” or “monster.” It also refers to ghosts and souls of dead people, something hidden and invisible, something of abnormal physical characteristic, and something which curses people. All of this definition combined created the monster of oni. Although I am not the person who deeply knows and practices my country’s culture, I felt proud to some extent. However, at the same time, I also felt some uneasiness when I took a glance at his tattoo. As I wrote, the kanji for oni is “鬼,” but what was tattooed on his arm was “豚,” which means “pig” or refers to some who is very fat.

This type of small misunderstanding is seen often. I have also seen people walking around in kimono with right side crossed bottom which is how dead bodies wear kimono. I remember my kimono teacher saying, “I am very happy that many people outside of Japan began to hold interest into kimono, but I feel sad at the same time when I see wrong practice of kimono wearing is widely known.”

It seems that some people fulfil their curiosity just by touching or experiencing only the atmosphere of the unknown culture. I believe the wrongly mimicked cultures make people uneasy or to some extent sad since to them, it may mean to them that foreigners do not really have interest and understanding to their culture. Mimicry may be a first step to knowing the new culture; however, stopping at the stage of mimicry strikes people as incongruous. This sense is similar to when your name is wrongly remembered. You know that the person did not purposely misremember the name, but you still feel some uneasiness. Curiosity helps people to hold interest into cultures they have never practiced. Meanwhile, small curiosities may lead to misunderstanding or wrong practices of certain cultures.

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?

References

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