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.

But hold on a minute! Maybe the issue is not quite so clear cut. Just because these characters don’t look particularly Japanese does not necessarily mean they are intended to be Western. Cartoons the world over tend to simplify certain features for stylistic effect. The large eyes of manga, while at odds with the narrower eyes of the Japanese, are often used to denote youth or innocence. In Ramna ½, the younger characters tend to have much larger eyes than the adults, while Death Note‘s Light Yagami begins with large eyes which narrow as he grows ever more corrupt and evil. The crazy hair colors have origins in the old black and white manga. Different shades were used as a device to make characters more easily distinguishable. With the advent of color animation, artists took these shades and transposed them as a spectrum of bright, outlandish colors. Wide eyes and bright colors are used in comics all over the world, so it is possible that our perception imposes race confusion where none exists.

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Dr. Amy Shirong Lu, currently an Assistant Professor at Indiana University, conducted a study to see how accurately the intended ethnicity of an anime character could be identified. 341 main characters were selected from 3098 anime films made between 1958 and 2005. Images of these characters were edited so that only a portrait-style head shot was visible, obscuring any identifying clothing or background imagery. 1,046 people each viewed a random selection of 90 pictures and had to judge the character’s race based on only their facial features and hair. According to the movies and promotional materials associated with the characters, about half were explicitly intended to be Asian, while only 10 percent were intended to be Caucasian.

Respondents greatly over-estimated the number of Caucasian characters, seemingly backing up the idea that the characters are intended to look white. However, Dr. Lu also had the respondents identify their own race as part of the study.

When the results are separated in this way, things start to look a little different. While the number of Caucasian characters was still overestimated, Asians were found to be more likely to identify characters as Asian, while Caucasians were more likely to say the characters were Caucasian. This seems to suggest that anime characters are, to at least some extent, ciphers upon which the beholder imposes their own interpretation, a process Dr. Lu refers to as “Own Race Projection.” These results echo Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, where he states that cartoon images are a vacuum upon which the reader imposes their own identity. In the simplified features of an anime character, we may be inclined to see ourselves. To McCloud, such cartoons can be an “empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel to another realm. We don’t just observe the cartoon, we become it.”

Whether intended to look Caucasian or ethnically neutral, the question mark over race in Japanese cartoons has no doubt contributed to its universal appeal. Looking at some of the more popular Japanese games in the West, it’s not just the appearance of the characters that is ethnically bleached, but the entire world in which they inhabit. JRPGs like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Lost Odyssey place their ethnically neutral characters in imaginary worlds with their own invented cultures, currencies and architecture, utterly divorced from the signposts of real-world race. Critic’s darling Shadow of the Colossus even has its characters speaking in an invented language with subtitles. While ethnically specific scenarios can create an intimidating barrier to entry for outsiders, these worlds are new and unfamiliar to everyone, places where we are all strangers in strange lands.

The occasional manifestation of Japanese culture in Japanese games is always going to slip through the cracks, but, for the most part, this is all for the better. Games with settings firmly rooted in Japan tend to stay within the Japanese market (which is why I’m not holding my breath for a worldwide release of the King of Colosseum series). Yet little nuggets of culture still find their way across the ocean. In the 8-bit classic Alex Kidd in Miracle World, I always found it strange that all the boss fights were Rock-Paper-Scissors contests. It was only later that I discovered that Janken, an equivalent game, plays a big role throughout Japanese childhood and is used to settle virtually all schoolyard disputes. Similarly, Eternal Sonata features an odd scene late in the game where Polka receives a fortune from a dispenser and must tie the scrap of paper to a tree. This event makes perfect sense if you have ever been to a Shinto shrine, but might seem a little odd to anyone else. To the uninitiated, these cultural nuggets are usually greeted as just another peculiar aspect of a game’s fantasy world, while the Japanophile can take pleasure in being “in” on the reference.

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Racial ambiguity and fantasy settings have proved a winning formula for the Japanese games industry, but that may be about to change. Business has not been good in Japan recently and this has led videogame companies like Capcom to look more aggressively to the global market, farming out development to Western companies and tailoring some of their content to appeal directly to foreigners.

Enter Frank West! All-American wise-cracking photojournalist and star of Capcom’s Dead Rising. Inspired by zombie flicks of the 1970s, Frank’s undead ass-kicking in the Willamette shopping mall has a distinct American flavor. Designer Keiji Inafune developed Frank specifically to appeal to Western tastes and it’s telling that the character names, locations, and voice acting remain unchanged in the Japanese version of the game. If I hadn’t seen the Capcom logo pop up, I could have sworn that the game was an American production.

On top of the highly specific geographical and cultural setting, race in Dead Rising is also uncharacteristically distinct. While still “cartoons,” the survivors are drawn in a photo-realistic style that makes Caucasian, Asian, Black and Latin ethnicity easily discernable. Sure, Capcom has featured ethnic characters in the past (eg. the ridiculous national stereotypes depicted in their fighting games) but here there seems a more sincere effort to place the game in a real, multi-ethnic American setting.

Faced with the challenge of a market downturn, you can’t blame Capcom for trying something new. Despite poor sales in Japan, the game sold well in the West, and a sequel is on the way. Frank’s successor, the equally all-American motocross champ Chuck Greene, will battle his way through that most iconic of American locales, a Las Vegas-style casino. The strategy is clearly considered a winner, but what does this mean for the future?

It is a shame that such pandering is necessary, and, in an ideal world, a good Japanese game should succeed regardless of its racial and cultural content. It’s hard to imagine how a Final Fantasy game might be improved by characters conspicuously eating hamburgers and playing basketball, or using chopsticks and playing kendo, for that matter. Purged of ethnic baggage and infused with quirky charm, many of the best Japanese games offer escapism to lands of pure fantasy. It should be enough that we can project our own image on to these worlds, without requiring videogames and all other form of art made-to-order for our cultural and ethnic sensibilities.

A three-year resident of Japan, Fintan Monaghan currently works at a human rights NGO. His freelance work has been published on a wide variety of Japan-related subjects.

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