Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics


Video Game Characters: Japanese, White, Other?

NIS' Mugen Souls

Are Japanese video game, anime, and manga characters white?

Let’s take a look at some recent and upcoming video game releases:

from top left: Bluehole Studio’s MMORPG Tera; Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma; Square Enix's Heroes of Ruin; and Kingdom of Hearts 3D;

bottom left: Xseed Games Unchained Blades, and The last Story; Sega's Anarchy Reigns; NIS' Legasista,

What do gamers and viewers perceive about these characters? What do you see?

Dr. Amy Shirong Lu conducted a study in which participants viewed a random selection of anime characters. They were asked if they thought the characters were intended to be white or Asian. Both Asian and Caucasian participants incorrectly identified characters as white (although Asians did so to a lesser degree).

With the exception of Bluehole, which is a Korean company, all those listed above are Japanese video game producers. In an interview with the Playstation blog for his Sony Computer Entertainment game Gravity Rush, (Gravity Daze in Japan) Game Director Keiichiro Toyama said:

“The main character was the most difficult thing to lock down, so we thought a lot about it. If we made something completely Japanese, then it would be only acceptable to Japanese users, and we’ll lose audience in other territories. So we avoided that.”

The majority of creative properties coming out of Japan are steeped in fantasy. Even so, features typically identified as Asian are excised. Hair colors run the gamut of the rainbow, and eyes usually are anything but almond-shaped. Are these still Japanese characters, if they don’t look “Japanese”? The characters speak Japanese, many practice Japanese customs, and if not in a fantasy world, are in a Japanese locale.

Marketing to a worldwide consumer base may be just one reason why Japanese designers commonly create characters that do not resemble themselves. The face of an Anglo-Saxon seems to be good business. Despite proclamations of a melting pot society, America overwhelmingly continues to propagate a monolithic Anglo-Saxon culture. Many still utilize “American” to denote “white”, and images exported from America are overwhelmingly white. The amount of Asian images coming from America and Europe is miniscule.

From comic books to movies to video games, the lack of Asian depictions may say, “Asians are not representative of us.” And that could affect the images that get marketed towards America. For example, the perpetual shunting of foreign films to art houses may temper a desire to produce an image that the “average consumer” does not identify with. And if Hollywood executives are overwhelmingly white, it stands to reason they see most characters as such. Imbuing more diverse representation in imagery may have to start at the decision-making level.

The infiltration of Hollywood images is perhaps even more pervasive in the mind of Japanese creators than when Commodore Perry forced the opening of trade in Japan. Throughout Asia, the people discarded their cheongsams and kimonos for Western suits and dresses. These days, American culture is more than just a fetishization, it’s an occupation. And that ideal may be represented in the characters created.

But it's possible that despite the blue hair and saucer pan eyes, the characters are just assumed to be Japanese; not white or race-unspecific.

For some, race has no place in their fantasy world. But for others, it enhances it.

Square Enix will soon release Sleeping Dogs, in which the player is Wei Shen, an undercover cop taking down Hong Kong triads.

Finally -- Wei Shen is a character I can see myself as.

6 comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
LTE wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

The Anglo-Saxons strike back

"A quick google search will tell you that Steve Jobs' ethnic background was Syrian and German."
.
Both groups are Caucasian which still leaves Steve "white". If you have the product of a Thai and Korean union, you still have Asian though Thai's have a slightly different look than Koreans. For some odd reason different branches of the Caucasian race are treated as separate races.
.
"Not sure if his ethnic background actually contributed in any way to the creation of the Iphone."
.
I am saying he part of an ethnic group (see above).
.
"Try not to throw the word Anglo-Saxon around too much. It seems like some student will read that from some textbook and throw it around without actually understanding what it means."
.
This post will probably be the only time I use the term Anglo-Saxon this decade. I used it only to respond to it's use here and I prefer not to use the term white either unless there is a compelling reason to do so (mainly in discussing politics).
.
"Also, a lot of American-based brands are created by individuals without European roots. For instance, Yahoo's co-founder was Jerry Yang and YouTube's co-founder was Steve Chen."
.
Wang, McCoy and many others. You can see interviews with these people on business news programs though they rarely break out into the public mind.
.
The point of my response was Ken Choy's view "white" movie company executives have no interest in things Asian. Those executives are out to make money and if Asian stories sold they'd make Asians movies until Asians begged them to use white people for a change of pace.
I have another theory. For many years now American film companies have invested in movies made in China so it is possible those films fill an Asian content need plus you have the added advantage of getting the content at far lower cost. Why pay top dollar for the domestic stuff?

correction yes wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

LTE you made a mistake

A quick google search will tell you that Steve Jobs' ethnic background was Syrian and German.

Individually, he was a little bit of an element of his own.

Not sure if his ethnic background actually contributed in any way to the creation of the Iphone.

He wasn't a trust fund kid. He did not even attend an Ivy League.

Try not to throw the word Anglo-Saxon around too much. It seems like some student will read that from some textbook and throw it around without actually understanding what it means.

Also, a lot of American-based brands are created by individuals without European roots. For instance, Yahoo's co-founder was Jerry Yang and YouTube's co-founder was Steve Chen.

LTE wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

Let me add this...

"Many still utilize “American” to denote “white”, and images exported from America are overwhelmingly white."
.
I should have added this:
Part of the white thing is an attitude that is not usually associated with other races. I used cache but I really meant attitude.

LTE wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

Nothing on tv tonight

"The face of an Anglo-Saxon seems to be good business. Despite proclamations of a melting pot society, America overwhelmingly continues to propagate a monolithic Anglo-Saxon culture."
.
Hate 'em or love 'em, Anglo-Saxons changed the world and invented the IPhone. They were a ballsy bunch, marched around the globe and people admire it. There's a cache. White guys invented the American brand and you always remember the guys who invented the product, not the guys who copied it.
As for American culture, why would the Chinese pay to see more Chinese? They're looking for different. Americans that go to China expect to see Chinese. I watch a Chinese movie, I expect to see Chinese, not a film populated with Jewish grandmothers from the Bronx.
.
As for anime, I don't think you have a bunch of Japanese kids viewing them while thinking they wish they were white, they just like the characters and what they do. How many kids wished they were Daffy Duck or Elmer Fudd? I'm not an anime fan but the few I have seen, I see Japanese, not Swede. Japanese animators have rounded out the eyes a little but that aside I never felt I was watching Bulgarians, I was seeing Oriental.
.
"For example, the perpetual shunting of foreign films to art houses may temper a desire to produce an image that the “average consumer” does not identify with. And if Hollywood executives are overwhelmingly white, it stands to reason they see most characters as such. Imbuing more diverse representation in imagery may have to start at the decision-making level."
.
Many films from Europe meet the same fate. American movie executives have long ago gave up any hope Americans will read subtitles. Some Asians films such as Crouching Tiger, Curse of the Golden Flower have done well. Departures from Japan won an Academy Award (well earned) . A good story can sell but won't bring in the big money because of that brick wall called subtitles.
.
Another problem (as I understand it) is Asians in America buy black market dvd's, undermining the incentive to do more Asian themed product.
.
You do have an option, make the films you wish to see, The big Hollywood studios were all started by men who thought they could tell a story better, no reason why an Asian- American can't do the same. Who knows, you may come across that elusive combination that will make people go wow.

Rick Kitagawa wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

interesting..

Weird, I only saw three of the video game examples as white, and the rest as Japanese. It also might be due to the fact that I associated the more realistically rendered characters as being white, and naturally assumed the more stylistic renderings were Japanese.

Maybe since I watch a lot of anime, I'm used to characters that are traditionally drawn with Japanese characteristics as being Japanese, if only because they speak and act with Japanese mannerisms.

I watched one anime dubbed (which I rarely do), and I totally thought the guy was American, but then I watched the second season of it subbed, and he was totally Japanese.

That said, I understand the large, more problematic issue of having a global media where white is the baseline. I guess if that study is correct, then maybe my own perceptions are moot since they're probably limited to a select demographic of people who watch foreign movies in the language they were produced in.

Ken Choy wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

Very Interesting

Thanks for chiming in, Rick.

 

I do think your statement "the more realistically rendered characters as being white" very much interests me and the implications of that has my mind soaring. Especially because in Western imagery, those of Asian descent have mostly been presented as the outsider or oddity. In the same vein as the mystical African American. 

While I love TNG, it's odd that one African American wore a visor, one was a mystical being, and one was a Klingon.

For video games, the avatar is us in that world. That so goes beyond the Cabbage Patch study of who is prettier.

In video games, we're asking who is us.

 

Thanks for your contribution--much appreciated!

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Please register or login to post a comment.

About The Author

Ken Choy

Ken Choy is a community organizer and filmmaker, and producer of Breaking the Bow. He is gay, green, and gluten free.