Are manga characters White?
By Matthew A. Thorn
Whenever I speak to non-Japanese people about manga, I always get the same question: "Why are the characters White?" I answer: "Why do you think they are White?" "Because of the round eyes," or the "blonde hair," is the common response. When I then ask if the questioner actually knows anyone who looks anything like these cartoons, the response may be, "Well, they look more Caucasian than Asian." Considering the wide range of variation in Caucasian and Asian features, and the fact that these highly stylized drawings fall nowhere within that range, it seems odd to claim that such cartoons look "more like" one people than another.
Linguists have a useful pair of terms - "marked" and "unmarked" - for talking about one of the ways people categorize ideas. An "unmarked" category is one that is taken for granted, that is so obvious to both speaker and listener it needs no marking. A "marked" category, on the other hand, is one that is seen as deviating from the norm, and therefore requires marking. For example, in English, the word "man" (which can mean "humankind") is unmarked, while "woman" (which comes from "wife-man") is marked as a subcategory of "man." In the case of cartooning, of course, we are dealing with drawings rather than words, but the concept of "marked" applies here too. In the case of the European-dominated world, the unmarked category in drawings would be the face of the European. The "White" face is the default face. Draw a circle, add two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, and you have, in the European sphere, a male European face. Add eyelashes and it becomes female! Non-Europeans, however, must be marked with characteristics such as "slanted eyes" or shaded skin. Even non-Europeans living in a European-dominated society unconsciously absorb and adhere to these standards.
Japan, however, is not and never has been a
European-dominated society, and the Japanese do
not need to include stereotyped racial markers such as slanted eyes or straight, black hair. In Japan, a circle with two dots for eyes and a line
for a mouth is Japanese.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Japanese readers should have no trouble accepting the stylized characters in manga, with their small jaws, all but nonexistent noses, and famously enormous eyes, as "Japanese." Unless the characters are clearly identified as foreign, Japanese readers see them as Japanese, and most would be surprised to learn that so many foreigners react differently.
Foreigners often seem to view manga drawing styles as an indication that the Japanese have an inferiority complex towards the West and long to be "White." I disagree. Japanese may feel ambivalence about the West, as well as about their own "Asianness," but they also often display a strong streak of nationalism. As difficult as it may be for non-Japanese to accept, I think the perception of manga by foreigners usually tells us more about the prejudices of those foreigners than it does about those of the Japanese people who create and enjoy manga.
Shukan ST: Aug. 13, 2004
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