This is a question that used to run through my mind repeatedly when I first started watching anime. Even my mom would point out the unusual features of these characters, figuring their big eyes conveyed contempt for the typical smaller eyes many East Asians have. There would be other comments along these lines that would make one think the Japanese hated their appearances in favor for for a more European look.
Though after visiting the city of Tokyo, this has made me change perspectives somewhat. I have to admit there is a large influence from the Western world (shops, frequent use of English, music). However, there never seemed to be the idea of self hatred, or the drive to become white. While over there, I was taking a few summer classes, and one of my teachers commented on this. Briefly she mentioned “Please don’t think that anime characters are trying to look Western. The large eyes are meant to convey emotion.” Although if you look in the history of anime, the image of big eyes were largely borrowed from the cartoon Betty Boop and the animation of Walt Disney. So you may think to yourself why didn’t they take these white characters and make their features look more Asian? Well if you look at the history of Japan, you notice there were many different aspects borrowed from other countries (mainly Ancient Chinese and Korean civilizations) with their original form somewhat intact. For example, let’s examine the Japanese language. Much of the written language is borrowed from traditional Chinese characters (kanji) with different pronunciations added to them. Some words may have also came from Korean, which was brought there from early travelers. So there seems to be a sense of blending different aspects of culture into the Japanese way of life (Sounds familiar America?)
But think about it (especially in Betty Boop’s case), do you realistically see white people with eyes that large?
Think about it, what type of shows do you typically see characters with big eyes? Comedies, romances, other less serious genres. But for thrillers and mysteries, you would typically see characters with smaller eyes. What does this say?
Yes there were products that were designed to make eyes bigger, but when one stops to think about it, it doesn’t seem to imitate white features so much as imitating the features of a young girl (think about it – how many white people do you see with eyes that cover half their face).
If you look at any small child around the area, their eyes were typically larger and rounder, which leads to a more innocent look. People who are familiar with this Japanese pop culture see a large influence of this cutesy “kawaii” look everywhere; there is a small cute mascot for almost every business and city, the “innocent” look is popular for women, along with the incredibly high pitched voice many women adopt. So rather than women trying to imitate a European look, it seems more like there is a strive to look more innocent and childlike. This leads to another question as to why images of innocence is often associated with a sort of sexual thrill (many hentai anime/manga featured girls who looked somewhat young), but that shall be for another day.
This leads to another question of the potential infantizing of women, which is a theory that can also be applied to American culture. Big eyes, smooth hairless legs, and the idea of being more submissive are all popular beauty standards American women here are expected to adopt. So why don’t we assert the argument that many white women wish they were children?
You may also ask “Well what about the pale skin of anime characters?”. First off most Japanese people tend to be pale (unless they are from the country). You may also point out that whitening creams are popular in Japan, and I have to admit I have seen whitening creams (along with the option to whiten oneself in those purikura machines). However, if you look historically at courtesans and geishas, they would also paint their faces white (with lead based paint unfortunately). Would we say Geishas are trying to be white? Or maybe there is another culture significance of white skin? Could it be that it signaled royalty, for a women who was a part of the royal court would often times spend their days inside the palace. As a result of this, they may be a bit pale. Either way, historically pale skin has been a beauty standard in Japan.
“Well what about the blonde hair that so many characters seem to have?” First off let’s examine these anime shows: do they involve other characters with unnatural shades of hair and fantastical scenarios that involve small creatures, robots, aliens, talking animals, etc? If so, this is not a realistic depiction of everyday life. Keeping this in mind, why would you expect the characters in the show to have realistic appearances?
Now let’s consider more realistic anime:
What do the above people have in common? Let’s examine someone with blonde hair in a manga that has a more realistic premise:
What sort of words run through your head when you look at this character? Something along the lines of “I don’t exactly want him teaching my kids or really leave him alone with any children.” In contemporary Japanese society, having blonde hair tends to denote the idea “that person is trouble,” “they’re probably an gangster”, “let’s hide our money from them”, etc. This is more of a thought held by many older Japanese people, but it is still a popular association, much like tattoos are still associated with the yakuza. Black and dark brown hairdos that are both common natural colors for the average Japanese person, so consequently any other color is still seen as “odd” much like it is in America. Take a look at any other realistic manga/anime: Ikigami, Monster, Battle Royale, etc. What do they have in common? They feature more realistic plot lines (which for the most part are also quite solemn) that feature characters with dark brown/black hair.
Let’s examine blogger Julian Abagond’s take on this subject in his article “Why Do the Japanese Draw Themselves as White?” In this he points out “The Japanese see anime characters as being Japanese. It is Americans who think they are white. Why? Because to them white is the Default Human Being.”
For example, if you look at this figure of a stick man, what race do you assume him to be? Most likely a white man, even though there are no features to tell you otherwise. That’s because in our Eurocentric culture, whiteness is seen as the default race. Any other has to be explicitly stated. Similarly, in (homogenous) Japan, a Japanese person would automatically assume that figure is Japanese. Why? Because there the default race is Japanese. Americans would have to add slanted eyes or some other stereotypical feature. Abagond goes on to say “So they feel no need to make their characters “look Asian”. They just have to make them look like people and everyone in Japan will assume they are Japanese – no matter how improbable their physical appearance.”
As shown above, when there are foreigners in anime there is usually a marker to indicate this “otherness”. The white characters have features typically associated with white people – wide nose, chiseled jaw, larger ears, blonde hair. The character of Hispanic descent looks hispanic – larger lips, higher cheekbones, and dark skin.
So why is it that people assume that anime characters look white? In my personal opinion, this could possible result from a colonized way of thinking. Being under the rule of Western Imperialism, minorities would often try and imitate their oppressors, often times to gain a better standing in society. If you look more like your oppressors, you would be viewed upon more favorably by those around you. However, Japan was never colonized by European countries. They instead chose to close their borders and reject any type of foreign influence. All of this changed during the Meiji Restoration, but one has to realize the Japanese did not have to deal with this burden of self hatred. They may not feel the constant pressure of looking like another culture as minorities who live here may.
It seems Abagond put it best “Some Americans….want to think the Japanese worship America or worship whiteness and use anime to prove it. But they seem to be driven more by their own racism and nationalism than anything else.”
Although I’m not going to touch the trend of many South Korean women getting double eyelid surgery.
All images are from Google. I retain no rights.