Foreigners in Anime

I have always been the weird foreign kid. When I was younger we moved around so much that I never got to know what it’s like not to be the outsider. I have no innate appreciation for feeling like I thoroughly belong somewhere and that somewhere truly belongs to me. My home is where the things and people I love are.

*****It should be noted that by foreign character here I’m sticking to non-Japanese characters that are presented in a Japanese setting and need to interact with Japanese culture and society. There are of course tons of anime set outside of Japan that feature entirely “foreign” casts****

This said I can tell through anime that there’s a certain cultural attachment between the Japanese people and their homeland. Markers of traditional Japanese culture and values are usually shown with respect and in a positive light. On the other hand depictions of foreigners are well, rare. To be fair they are getting more common and more diverse, probably to show the growing diversity of the general Japanese population. However, there are still some tropes or at least trends that persist when portraying non-Japanese characters in anime.

traditoinal japanese clothig
I get it, traditional Japanese aesthetic is beautiful

I think these trends are interesting to look at. They shouldn’t be taken to seriously though. Every nation has both positive and negative biases of those they consider outsiders and these get exaggerated for effect in our fiction. But occasionally these hold a kernel of truth about how we see others, or at least how we once saw them and can be a clue to how others see us. Like I said, I’m using a huge grain of salt here. Sometimes tropes are just a random trait an author thought would be cool that got copied over and over again because it was, in fact, cool, or funny or simply popular. Basically, sometimes tropes don’t actually come from anywhere meaningful at all.

With that out of the way, let’s take a quick look at foreigners in anime. One thing you may have noticed is that for a long time, main cast foreigners tended to be very often blonde and usually half Japanese.

Being an island (well a whole bunch of islands) Japan was more isolated than mainland countries to the influence and influx of other nations. As such, people from other lands, especially those that were visibly different, tended to be viewed as even more exotic and just plain alien than in most places. And like just about everyone else in the world, exotic things tend to be both fetishized as exciting and attractive and feared as dangerous. Did it seem like I hit my head and went on a tangent out of the blue? Don’t worry, this paragraph has a point, and my head doesn’t hurt that much anymore!

Tamaki
oh good

By making characters half Japanese you get the best of both worlds. You can make them look different and striking (blonde) while still maintaining some comforting familiar. Sure they may speak a different language but they also speak Japanese fluidly. No need to worry about scary language barriers. As a side note, I recently read an article that said that Japan was the least English literate nation in Asia. I found this incredibly surprising but it does explain why they would have discomfort with non-Japanese speakers. This isn’t a judgement call by any means. I’m certain that there are still way more English speaking Japanese than Japanese speaking North Americans.

By contrast though, whenever it is much more frequent that foreigners that serve as antagonists have no Japanese background at all. In this case, their “otherness” is what’s emphasized. Not that foreigners are vilified in general. It’s simply a way to make the difference between characters even more pronounced.

Another classic foreigner archetype is the lovable foot, used as comedic relief. These are not presented as openly stupid characters but there is an assumption that Japanese society and cultural norms are particularly difficult to assimilate for outsiders. As such you have a bevy of well-meaning but slightly clueless gaijin getting into all sorts of hijinks over simple misunderstandings.   This hapless visitor trope is widely used in fiction around the world and by no means unique to anime. It was, however, one of the most common representations of non-Japanese until fairly recently.

One of the archetypes that I’ve personally come across less often in anime than in western works is the mystic or magical foreigner. One of the reasons may be That in western works the wise old mystic trope is very often used with Asin characters so it might not translate that well. Rather than secret knowledge or ancient traditions, foreigners in anime often come with notions of wealth or power. They are also commonly depicted as more carefree than the rest of the cast and bafflingly beautiful. I say bafflingly because I’m not sure this translates at all to real life biases. This is an interesting glimpse of the different perceptions we hold.

sakamoto
I was tempted to use the other yuri but this guy is good too

Slowly though, I can see how current trends starting to show up in shows. Foreigners may occasionally use expressions or words in their own language but we see characters that are otherwise perfectly at home working or studying alongside native Japanese. A blonde character has just as much chance of being a delinquent or Yankee as a European. In fact, we see their size (foreigners are still often considered tall and imposing, especially if they are men) rather than hair colour being used as a physical marker for people of different nationalities.

I’ve also noticed that the clueless visitor is slowly getting replaced by a very Japan-specific, foreign Otaku trope. You have characters speaking broken Japanese so thoroughly obsessed with the culture and history that they tend to be more insistent on tradition than their Japanese counterparts.

Even though it’s a bit of a caricature and a way to poke gentle fun at people who are basically…well, me, I really like this new trope. Anime as a medium is responding to and incorporating its own international fan base into the narrative. We get to be a part of the stories we love so much. It shows a willingness for anime to grow alongside its audience. And what I have found particularly nice is that the depictions of foreign Otaku in anime are pretty much the same as the ones of Japanese Otaku. We are united in our neediness. And it’s sweet.

Because both manga and anime are still overwhelmingly written by Japanese authors we still don’t have much foreign point of view characters. Either they are half Japanese as mentioned above or the story takes place in a different country and as such, they are not in fact foreigners. I’m sure this is going to change very soon though and I am looking forward to seeing that.

Have you noticed any trends in the way foreigners are portrayed in anime?
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Contributed by Irina
from I Drink And Watch Anime!

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37 thoughts on “Foreigners in Anime

  1. A very good and interesting piece. I do really hope that anime will see an increase in foreign characters and even foreign locales. It’s a fantastic medium and I think it’s a shame that its creators often stick with the same Japanese settings, folklore, and characters, or create fantasy world and then still stick with those same, familiar elements.

  2. One of the bigger trends in the inclusion being on the rise in general. Japan is certainly attempting, by force or by actual awareness, to be a bit more inclusive of non-Japanese in their medias. Like a lot of other popular culture, this seems to be trend with when they announced their bid for the 2020 Olympics and then securing it.

    Living in the Japanese super country-side at the moment, it’s a bit helpful knowing there’s some representation in popular medias. However, the streotypying is a bit more harmful then good in a lot of cases. I genuinely had to explain to 13-14 year olds that hamburgers were not the lunch food of choice for most Americans and I couldn’t remember the last time I ate one personally. I won’t dive into POC representation since well… that’s a whole layer for perhaps a seperate post.

    I’m curious once the Olympics finish if non-Japanese characters will remain in anime. It’s an intersting thing to think about for sure!

      1. Anime is hurtling towards the mainstream, and Japan is taking (baby steps mind) to address that. It’ll be interesting to see what anime is like in five years. Either way I’ll still be here yelling from the rooftops about the coming storm.

          1. Well hopefully that is not the case, the money is in Japan, we are only the extra gravy, and Japan isn’t willing to throw away their billion dollar industry and the people who buy all the merch, just to try and get that hollywood money.

            But who knows, I’ve been saying for years that when the superhero bubble bursts, the west is going to be looking for something to fill it in, and anime is just sitting there with THOUSANDS of stories ready to tell.

  3. The “other Yuri” (aka Yurio) would’ve worked better, because as far as I know, Hayabusa’s (the blonde from Sakamoto Desu Ga) just a delinquent who’s portrayed with the “foreigner look” in order to show he’s a more important character…(that may just be an assumption based on the fact his first name is Shou, so don’t quote me on that.)

    One trope that comes to mind is the Chinese person in anime – they’re shown with traditional dress a lot and speak with the sentence pattern “-de aru”. Some of that is a universal thing perceived about Chinese, but because of what’s so similar about Chinese and Japanese people in real life, it’s interesting to see exactly how exaggerated they can be.

  4. Actually, I was always amused by the Japanese take on Western names–they’d do pretty decent on the first name, but the surname tended to be a random selection of 3-5 foreign words forced together. Something like Alice Wormdogeatenshoe. I rather miss that trope. . .

  5. That was a great post. I know the term “gaijin” is thrown around a ton, but I’ve noticed stereotypes when it comes to non-Japanese characters. Some are alright like Monster, but then again Naoki Urasawa is a huge Germanophile and the story takes place in Europe. The Japanese-American or biracial Japanese element (usually Japanese/White mixed) is something I’ve noticed like Asuka from EVA, Ryoichi from Whistle, or Jotaro Kujo from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure to name a few. I’ve noticed the foreign otaku thing like in Genshiken with one minor character. However, some racialized elements come into the culture such as the unfortunate Ganguro girl trend which stems from blackface or assuming Indian characters only eat curry while wearing turbans which can be off-putting. Some series are better than others when it comes to writing non-Japanese characters.

    1. Most cultures have biases. I didn’t realize Ganguro stemed from black face, I thought it originated in oni depictions in kabuki and noh tradition. I should research it more

      1. That’s true. I’m from America, and I have noticeable African features, so I’ve been subject to discrimination multiple times before and that’s saying nothing about the stereotypes in America’s media.

        Ganguro can literally mean Blackface in Japanese. There was a slight influence with a mountain witch in folklore, but a majority of it when it surfaced in the 90s when Rap, New Jack Swing, and R&B were really popular. Since those genres are associated with Black culture here in the States, you had women copying the look of the singers and rappers who were getting airplay in Japan. One obvious character influenced by that unfortunate fashion alongside previous stereotypes that was made in that decade would be Jinx from Pokemon.

  6. I think ‘Skull-faced Bookseller Honda-san’ had an interesting take on foreigners. While it was a little jarring in the first episode to see foreigners portrayed as fat fujoshi-types struggling to speak Japanese, our serves as a reminder that western media still relies on stereotypes too. Plus it makes sense in context, that a bookstore employee would mostly see foreigners shopping for nerd-paraphanelia.

  7. I’ve always found it amazing that Japanese characters in anime and manga are almost always portrayed as Japanese, but can pass very easily for Europeans (read: white) because of their designs. Is that me bringing in my own views? Or do artists and creators just like the wider range of designs. It’s one of those outsider looking in sort of situations I suppose.

    1. Interestingly enough, some of those designs in most anime go back to Osamu Tezuka. He was inspired by Walt Disney, so the Caucasian-esque aesthetic was an archetype when he made manga and anime. Yes, I’m going to ignore the low-hanging fruit that involves Disney ripping off one of Tezuka’s biggest works, but Tezuka set that look for future anime/manga creators. Granted you have exceptions of Japanese and other Asian characters actually looking like those ethnic groups such as Planetes for example, but that’s how it started in some strange way.

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