As more anime fans push to be more self-aware, progressive, and inclusive in their activities, different trends in fanworks are happening. One trend is fanartists deliberately illustrating anime characters with darker skin than what’s portrayed on-screen. (I’m linking to no examples because I don’t want to inadvertently attract toxic attention to artists.) The rationale behind such fanart is to compensate for the lack of representation of dark skin in the majority of popular media, including anime. Part of this emerges from Western fans also noticing similarities within their own culture of Western media, where white people are still overwhelmingly represented, even as tides are changing.
There is backlash as some argue it’s inappropriate to try to “correct” media from a much different cultural context. Beyond racist trolling, there’s genuine worry that people are clumsily approaching Japanese media the same way as media made by white Westerners, replicating racial dynamics that may not be applicable to Japanese media. The racial and ethnic demographics in Japan are vastly different from other Western countries. There’s definitely something here to look into and talk about.
So let’s talk about it then.
In English-language discourse, colorism is the term often used to describe skin color hierarchies and prejudice in society. What is colorism? Alice Walker was the one to coin the term in 1983, and she defined colorism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” She was writing specifically about the historical and still present preference of lighter skinned black people within black communities in the United States. However, the term has gained prominence as a way to pinpoint a specific form of discrimination that exists across the world.
While colorism heavily intersects with racism and xenophobia, it’s not interchangeable with these concepts. As explicitly stated by Walker’s definition, it extends towards internal dynamics within individual ethnic and racial communities. Not only has it been noted within black communities, but also Asian and Latinx communities. It’s a complicated, loaded topic beyond simply light-skinned people being preferred and prioritized, but that’s the relevant point to expand upon. In order to dive into this topic, I found it necessary to investigate what academic research there was on the subject when it came to the Japanese cultural context, so there’s more of that than usual here.
Among many Asian cultures, skin tone has often been associated with class. Darker skin indicated the economic necessity of outside labor (such as farming), while lighter skin enough wealth and luxury that allowed one to stay inside. (Of course, this doesn’t account for natural melanin levels, but beauty standards and class stigma have never been particularly thoughtful or considerate ideas.) In Japan, the term “bihaku” (美白) refers to the beauty of pale skin, and is often used in cosmetics advertising.
In 1969 Hiroshi Wagatsumi wrote “The Social Perception of Skin Color in Japan,” one of the first studies of Japanese people’s attitudes towards skin tone. Despite its age, it’s a paper I see cited often in discussing this issue. In it, he summarizes and explores the cultural history of light skin preference among Japanese people from past to the then present. He found that early Japanese writing points to whiteness of the skin as a quality perceived as not only a fundamental beauty standard, but as a perceived Japanese quality. However, it’s also significantly gendered. Paleness has been much more prized in women compared to men.
Mikiko Ashikari conducted fieldwork from 1996 to 1997 to examine how Japanese people conceptualize the relationship between skin tone and race. The paleness of a Japanese’s person’s skin is not only worthy of compliments but an indicator of racial purity and belonging. Ashikari notes one theory about Japanese skin tone that came up among her participants: People from the north have pale skin while those from the south have darker skin due to sunnier weather. As she puts it, “Different skin tones among the Japanese are just due to the different weather of each region, and that we Japanese originally share a common Japanese skin colour.”
There are contexts in which darker skin can be complimented, but only under specific circumstances of resulting from leisure activities such as vacation, tennis, etc. In other words, because of the newer conventions of modern society, tanned skin could be a positive indicator of class but it’s distinct from naturally darker skin. In contrast, pale skin has remained a positive quality to possess.
I should note that there are some contemporary Japanese fashion subcultures that gravitate towards purposefully tanned skin (kogals, ganguro, b-style) but as subcultures, they aren’t on the same level as the mainstream beauty standard of pale skin. Also, tanned skin within these subcultures is seen as a form of aesthetic rebellion or exotic experimentation. Darker skin is not being celebrated as a natural facet or variation of human appearance, but as a marker of difference.
Generally, darker skin has usually been associated with foreignness and the Other. Wagatsuma cites early texts from some of the first encounters between Japanese people and African people (servants and slaves of the Dutch). Plenty of anti-blackness was espoused. The physiology of African people, particularly their darker skin, was explicitly associated with demons and animals. Additionally, there are the Ryukyuan people, the indigenous population of the Ryukyu Islands that include Okinawa, also referred to as “Okinawans.” Lumped in with the Japanese nation and people, they have gone through the hardship of Japanese colonization. With this in mind, Ashikari observes that while the Ryukuan people are superficially regarded as only culturally different, they are actually viewed as racially and physically different as well. Ryukuan ancestry and darker skin tend to be linked together as hereditary. One participant in Ashikari’s study noticed he was treated with polite distance once he opened up about being part Okinawan and that it was easier to pass as only a third generation Japanese-American.
When it comes to people of European descent, most scholars note that while this kind of foreign contact has influenced Japanese attitudes around skin tone and beauty standards, colorism had been around long before then. Still, both Wagatsumi and Ashikiri sense a complexity in reactions to the pale skin of white people from early contact to present. On the one hand, their skin quality is seen as generally inferior. On the other hand, their paleness was admired. People who are “haafu” (ハーフ), a term often referring to multiracial Japanese people, are popularly portrayed as light-skinned, Western, and exotic. Those who are darker skinned are usually Othered and ignored. So while paleness can’t be reduced to an issue of Western sensibilities or Japanese people “wishing” to be white, Western influence is present and complicated.
So light skin preference in Japan is still quite present today, from its strong skin-lightening industry (also known as skin “brightening”) to purikura (プリクラ), photobooths that have fun, cute customizations and also often brighten participants’ skin in the final products. (Both of which are activities engaged in primarily by women and girls.)
When it comes to anime and phenotype, many Western fans often debate the “Japaneseness” of character designs and attribute perceived racial ambiguity to subconscious aspirations to appear more racially white. Some of this can be explained by “mukokuseki” (無国籍), often translated as “statelessness” in the sense of lacking a specific nationality. Academics often use it to refer to the seemingly “generic” qualities of many Japanese media products, particularly anime and video games. These texts are perceived to be lacking overtly “authentic” or “traditional” Japanese qualities.
The most salient aspect is generally character designs, where characters have physical traits not based within the realistic range of the Japanese phenotype. Mukokuseki is not direct emulation of Western culture or white people, but movement towards more abstract and “universal” appeal. It’s comparable to what Scott McCloud discusses in Understanding Comics about the emotional relatability of more abstract, cartoonish art vs. more realistic art in comics. Mukokuseki is often interpreted as part of the soft power of anime as cultural export: media that’s not conspicuously Japanese, and yet endears foreigners to Japanese culture.
However, that isn’t to say there isn’t a complex history with the development of anime’s aesthetics. Mainly, the importation of American pop culture during the Occupation of Japan after World War II. Emily Yoshida wrote a fantastic article about this subject and the limbo quality of Japanese ethnicity in anime. In particular, how this “mukokuseki” quality translates differently between audiences in Japan and audiences in the US.
After all, it would be silly to take “mukokuseki” at face value and state that anime is nationless. It’s still a cultural product of Japan for Japanese audiences, regardless of any (deliberate or not) aesthetic strides towards some nebulous universality. This fact is much more conspicuous in non-Japanese, non-East Asian countries like the US. Japanese people are the default in Japan, and thus don’t need to visually assert that a character looks Japanese if the story and character carry sufficient cultural context. The phenotype of Japanese people doesn’t need to be at the forefront of artists’ minds when designing Japanese characters. What’s more important is the agreed upon visual signifiers of personality and character archetypes within the narrative.
This all brings forth an unnerving conclusion: Paleness is an agreed upon trait of stateless, “universal” appeal in character design of anime characters. In other words, it’s a part of being a “blank slate.”
When you look at anime, it’s pretty easy to see. Dark-skinned anime characters, especially ones that aren’t foreigners, are relatively rare. In fact, it’s difficult to find a current cast of characters that expand beyond having maybe two skin tones. Even that can sometimes entail just a couple of characters that are either noticeably dark skinned or slightly tan in comparison to the rest of the cast. Not only that, but many noticeably dark-skinned characters conform to certain flat archetypes such as being promiscuous, athletic, or a country bumpkin. When the main cast is expanded to have a variety of different skin tones, it’s often a deliberate creative decision of multiculturalism within the narrative (such as Yuri!!! on ICE and Cowboy Bebop). However, that’s not even getting into the issue of merchandise, promotions, and supplementary materials that blatantly lighten characters’ skin tones.
Of course, there’s nothing really wrong with such a skewed composition within an individual series. There’s nothing inherently better about characters with one skin tone or another, but that’s the point. It’s distressing to notice the chosen default for most storytelling tends to be pale skin. A media environment where one type of appearance is consistently uplifted, at best, is bland and doesn’t honestly reflect the world, and at worst, perpetuates narrow, harmful standards for who is considered “beautiful,” or even simply who is allowed to be human.
But what does this mean for fandom?
As I implied in the beginning, I tackled this topic because of fandom. When I speak of fandom, I primarily speak of Western, English-speaking fandom, which is significantly (but not exclusively) populated by Americans (such as myself). Obviously, there’s much more fandom outside of this relatively arbitrary boundary and, especially now with the Internet, dividing lines between people from different countries and cultures are blurring. However, this is my personal background for what fandom entails and I won’t pretend to know much outside of my cultural bubble.
Criticism for treating pale Japanese characters as white-coded characters viable for progressive racebending is understandable and something I’ve seen happen. Erasing Japanese people from their own media with intentions of social justice is a strange but familiar irony. There’s something to be said about the ugly idea of East Asian people as watered down white people. And yet, when you dive into the research and the personal testimonies, colorism is present and pervasive in Asia, affecting Asian people. So it’s not surprising that it’s distinctly present in much of Japanese media such as anime.
As an American, amateur writer outside of Japan, I don’t have much of an impact on this issue nor should I. My choices are mostly restricted to either engaging with Japanese media through authorized, mediated means, or not. I don’t hold any significant influence over media decisions or discourse in Japan and I certainly don’t aim to. I’m also sure that I’m way behind on this topic compared to Japanese academics, media critics, and fans.
What I can do is ask for more fellow Western fans to rethink what they watch over and over again. To not accept at face value that every character is some shade of #fbefe4 or #fbe5d1 because that must be how all Japanese people are. This isn’t to say that light skinned Japanese people aren’t real but that maybe there are culturally ingrained and transmitted beauty standards to consider.
Even within Western fandom, as Westerners primarily interacting with and among other Westerners, this is an issue that affects anime fans. Many people of color, (including Japanese people) are in Western fandom. Many of these fans are not light skinned. As mentioned before, it pops up in many Asian-American communities, both as a carryover from the cultures of their originating countries and then reinforced by white supremacist racism. Even in good faith debates (without anti-black rhetoric), it seems unfair to prioritize an abstract, toothless notion of cultural differences over the very real experiences of those living in societies that prioritize racial whiteness and light skin. People of color carving out spaces and images for themselves to exist freely can be valuable. I know for me, this fanart has made me, a Chinese-American, feel a little safer to exist in fandom.
At the end of the day, this issue does not need to be painted as a battle of cultural sensitivity vs. social progressivism in fandom. Cultural sensitivity is what pushed me to research colorism in Japan and look into nuances outside of an American perspective. To me, cultural sensitivity doesn’t mean letting marginalization slide but rather being open to correction and further discovery outside of your familiar worldview.
I believe anime fandom challenging colorism is complicated but not inherently misguided. Japanese people (both nationals and of the diaspora) are not hidden behind some barrier of no contact where their pop culture is our free-for-all playground. Additionally, we are not the authorities on cultures outside of our own. However, that doesn’t mean problematic elements of the media we engage with can’t be acknowledged or questioned. To understand what’s problematic in the first place though, you have to learn about a piece of media’s originating cultural context and history. Fandom’s transformative nature is neither inherently good or bad, but at its best, I think we can creatively examine the unexamined. And while we’re doing so, be mindful of ourselves and others.