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.
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, the 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!
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.
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?