For the past several articles, I’ve talked about a trope in anime that I called “the token foreigner”, and as we have seen there are several different types of portrayals of non-Japanese characters in Japan-centric cartoons. They’ve ranged from absolutely horrid to mostly harmless to full and well-developed characters. My purpose in writing these articles was to describe a common theme that I’ve seen in anime that I noticed was a reflection of things both I and other non-Japanese people living in Japan have experienced. The idea of “token characters” is not new, as similar stereotypes can be seen in other animated and non-animated mediums from other countries. However, I haven’t seen anyone explore “token” characters in Japanese animation to the same extent, and while researching these articles I was surprised to find very little information on the topic, if any. There have certainly been those “is anime racist?” talks out there, but I feel like they tend to be less nuanced and don’t understand that there can be a spectrum to things. It is rather naive to say that anime (or media in general) is never racist. But it is equally flawed to say that anime (and again media in general) is inherently and willfully racist. There really is no hard-line “yes” or “no” answer to this question and trying to make it into such an argument misses the point of how such stereotypes and token characters arise.
One video on racism in anime by youtuber “Gaijin Goomba” comes somewhat close to the mark when looking at this nuance. He also spent some time living in Japan and based on the experiences he described in his video, I could relate to a lot of what he was saying. Though I disagree with his final analysis that without a doubt “anime is not racist”, I do like his take on the fact that a lot of what we see in anime and what is portrayed in Japanese media is just an extension of how Japanese people view the world. It is a reflection of society, and that society is one that never grew up learning about things like slavery or having a chance to interact with people of other countries and cultures. When anime is made with a Japanese viewer in mind, the humor, the stories, and the characters are written in a way that would relate to a Japanese citizen’s frame of reference. And if the creators and the viewers don’t have a great frame of reference for how a foreign person acts or looks, that’s when you get these stereotypic token characters. I picked the topic of “token” characters in anime because I find them an interesting facet of how a country views people of other races and backgrounds. Especially since a majority of the time the harm that they can cause is not deliberate or willful, and can even come from a desire to be “inclusive”.
Though a large part of these essays has been critical on anime, it does not mean I hate the medium or even any of the specific cartoons that I called out while writing them. Most of the examples I used were from anime that I have seen in their entirety, and I enjoyed many of them. At the same time anime is not perfect. Like any other cartoons or medium it has its flaws. But it is good to point out those flaws in order to raise awareness and push for improvement, which I believe it is capable of.
A majority of my interactions with people in Japan are positive ones, and it’s likely that you’d hear the same from any other foreigner visiting or living in Japan. But, like every country, there is a small percentage of bad interactions that come from mostly ignorant roots. Ignorance is by no means a defense of these portrayals of foreign people, but it certainly makes them understandable. Furthermore, we have seen that when given the right tools or environment, anime and manga creators can create really good roles for non-Japanese characters. Eyeshield 21 is based around American Football, a decidedly non-Japanese sport, so it is likely that while researching the sport, the creator also got an idea for how to better portray American characters. Detective Conan is an analytical detective drama based on “truth” and getting details right; therefore it makes sense that its creators had to put in effort and research when writing its well-developed cast of foreign characters. Finally Cyborg 009 involves characters and events from all over the world, and it tackled nationality and identity from a largely philosophical perspective. Japanese animation media has a lot of potential to grow and improve, and I am hopeful that future cartoons produced by Japan will get better at depicting foreign characters.