Industry of Inclusion

Industry of Inclusion
The New Face of Japanese Games

Fintan Monaghan | 31 Aug 2010 12:33
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Growing up in the 8-bit era, my on-screen alter-egos tended towards anthropomorphic animals or a handful of chunky pixels that I assumed were human. Add to the mix the localization of names and the lack of voice acting and it's not surprising that I never realized most of my games were Japanese. Yet today, as Japanese videogame characters have converged with their anime counterparts in sophistication and artistic detail, their ethnicity remains far from obvious.

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With a baffling spectrum of hair and eye colors, high noses, and large saucer eyes, Japanese characters stand in contrast to the generally-uniform straight black hair and brown eyes of their Japanese creators. This has led many to conclude that the artists consciously purge their creations of Japanese characteristics, a process known as "ethnic bleaching."

There is no clear reason as to why this process occurs. Some suggest a deeply ingrained inferiority complex or idolization of the West, which has popularized the Caucasian look. Others disagree, arguing that the look is not so much "Caucasian" as it is "ethnically neutral," rendering the creations more marketable abroad.

Japanese culture has gone through periods of intense influence from the West during its modern history. The Sakoku period of self-imposed isolation from the world came to an abrupt end in 1853 when the American Navy, under Commodore Perry, forcibly opened the country to foreign trade. The overwhelming superiority of US weaponry led many Japanese to believe that their traditional culture was holding them back and, in order to survive in the wider world, they would need to embrace not only Western technology, but Western culture, too. Kimonos were abandoned for suits and ties, and wealthy city dwellers waltzed to Strauss in elaborate Victorian Ballrooms.

After World War II, the Japanese were once again exposed to Western influence as the country was occupied and administered by US forces until 1951, reinforcing the notions of Western supremacy once again. It was around this time that the early manga-ka came to prominence, with artists strongly influenced by American animation (particularly Disney but also the likes of Felix the Cat and Betty Boop). Borrowing from this style, characters like Astro Boy, with his large, saucer-shaped eyes, laid down what were to become the enduring conventions of anime.

None of this proves that anime characters are intended to look white, yet Caucasian features have an undeniable appeal in modern Japan. Ayumi Hamasaki is one of Japan's most popular and successful pop idols, thanks in large part to her rather unusual looks. With her pale skin, large round eyes and long blond hair, Hamasaki is the envy of many a Japanese girl and rumors persist that she went under the knife to achieve her distinctive look. Even average Caucasians living in Japan often find themselves receiving a lot of favorable attention for their "cool, exotic" looks. The blond wide-eyed protagonists of the Final Fantasy franchise look more at home on a Californian beach than in a Tokyo high-rise, and Japan's fetishization of the Caucasian look only reinforces this impression.

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