Welcome to part two in my series of articles about “The Token Foreigner” seen in Japanese animated shows. Last week I defined what exactly is a “token foreigner”, and I left off talking about the use of non-Japanese characters as antagonists or rivals in anime. This week I’ll be focusing on a special category in the rival foreigner trope, and that is specifically how it is used in the sports genre of anime. What makes the token foreigner trope in sports anime particularly heinous is that not only are the foreign characters often a stereotype and antagonistic, it is their foreign-ness that defines them as a rival to the heroes.
I am overall not a huge fan of the sports genre. Sports anime run similarly to how American underdog sports movies play out: small unknown team or person rises up against all odds and gains fame in said sport through perseverance and excessive training montages. It is common in anime of this genre to bring in someone from another country as a tough opponent to beat. What a lot of sports anime do that rubs me the wrong way is that what makes the token foreign character a formidable opponent is that their “strength” is usually not attributed to a specific skill, but the fact that they are foreign. This is because, according to these anime, foreigners are built differently and have stronger and/or unique physical traits that give them a biological advantage in a specific sport. And when a show starts explaining in detail the physical differences in ability or appearance in characters of different races, is when that awkward racism comes in. In the boxing anime, Hajime no Ippo, when Ippo finds out his opponent is the American Ozuma, the main thing that frightens him is not Ozuma’s records, but the fact that he is a “big” black guy, despite being in the same weight class as him.
One of the most dehumanizing examples of a foreign character I’ve seen in a sports anime is in the basketball anime Kuroko no Basuke. In one episode the characters play against a team that includes an exchange student from Senegal named Papa Mbaye Siki. The character is introduced to the team as the main “threat” on the opposing team, apparently due to his height.* First of all, the main characters can’t pronounce his name, so before even having met him face to face, they give him a nickname. The name they choose is “Oto-san” which means “dad” in Japanese. Get it? Papa? Dad? It’s funny because it’s racist. When they finally meet the guy, he is portrayed as rude, degrading to those shorter than him (i.e. everybody), and has that classic heavy accent and poor Japanese ability. Furthermore, look at this exchange that the main team’s captain and the opposing team’s captain have:
The other guy doesn’t say anything to defend Papa, and there’s nothing here that shows that he or the team are hard working or reliable. Instead, they just talk about him, and other foreign students, as if they were some tool to use in a sport – not as if they are actual people or players! It’s really demeaning. Furthermore, why can’t you have more than two foreign players? That in itself seems racist.
One bizarrely specific thing in common with a lot of foreign characters in sports anime is how they are introduced to the protagonists. Unlike other methods of introducing an antagonist in these anime, which are usually face to face or witnessing them do a particularly athletic feat, the way that foreign characters are introduced are through pictures. This way of introducing said opponent further removes them from interacting with the protagonist(s) and further dehumanizes them by only allowing us to get a handle on said character through specifically what they look like. Hajime no Ippo, Kuroko no Basket, Eyeshield 21 – they all introduce their foreign characters in this way, and it seems to be for the purpose of inducing shock in the viewers. In Hajime no Ippo and Kuroko no Basket there is this scene where someone else is telling the protagonist(s) of about the opponent and ends on a “…you just have to see this” moment, to which they show them a picture of said opponent, and the protagonist(s) do a double-take.
If you hadn’t noticed, the above two examples included black characters. This is where we get into yet another ugly side of anime, and that is the portrayal of black characters. One thing I noticed is that in sports anime, the “tough” foreign opponent is usually black. Which makes things much more awkward, especially when they start talking about biology, or in some cases start comparing the characters to animals.
Japan seems to have been behind the times in how a black person is portrayed, and especially in how they are drawn. It seems to have taken anime a lot while longer to realize that blackface is not okay. In the 90s, there was even a fashion fad called “ganguro” that essentially involved women darkening their skin with make up and wearing heavy lipstick to enlarge the look of their lips to mimic the look of black people. Many probably thought that was endearing.** After all, things like slavery and the American Civil War aren’t commonly taught in Japanese schools, and therefore many Japanese people don’t have a frame of reference for what can be considered racially charged.
You can see this in anime as well. When anime was first coming out in the 60s and even in the coming decades, it was common to draw black characters in the style of American 1930s darkie comedies. Also mimicking 1930s black stereotypes, black characters are seen as the comic relief when they are not being antagonists in sports anime. Even when you don’t have human characters the design origins are obvious. Jynx from Pokemon and Mr. Popo from the Dragonball series are pretty infamous for their controversial character designs***. But even as recent as 2000s anime, you can still see some hints of that blackface design. For example in Shaman King you have the character, Joco, or as he is known in Japanese, Chocolove. Yes, that is literally his name. Chocolove**** is an African character complete with big lips, afro, and a freakin’ cheetah as his spirit animal. He is another purely comedic character, and he is so incredibly awkward to watch on screen. Another common issue that I see of characters from Africa, is that their “primitive-ness” is heightened, as explained in this article which uses the example of a character named Bugnug in the manga Crying Freeman.
The good news is that with the growing popularity of anime and the tendency for anime to take place either in a fantasy setting or outside of Japan, the number of decently represented black characters is growing. Furthermore manga artists and animators alike are realizing that there are many more design options for said characters outside of the older blackface stereotype. I recommend checking out this article for examples of said characters, since the writer is a lot more thorough on the topic*****. That being said, even though black characters have been finding their place in the fantasy genre of anime, it’d be nice to see more black characters in real-life settings to give them a more grounded portrayal.
That’s all I have for today, so I’ll leave you until the next part in which I talk about when a token foreigner is not even foreign, in: “Westaboos and Half-Japanese Characters in Anime”.
*Which I get is a huge advantage in basketball, but they never mention any other skills that he has.
**In my own experience, I feel like most of Japan’s racism is not willful, but more along the lines of “really need to tell you something“.
****Ugh, I hate having to write that.
*****The article also makes an interesting case for Bugnug’s character from Crying Freeman, since according to the writer it is the first anime/manga in which an asian male and a black woman kiss.