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, 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!

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.

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?

19 thoughts

  1. I’ve always felt that anyone who saw American characters in anime and then met someone like me would be disappointed. But then the same is true for some fans of anime here in the West with regard to Japanese people vs. most anime characters.

    It never felt like it should be that strange to have foreigners in these series, though — one of my very first series ever was Cowboy Bebop, and that was full of non-Japanese characters including most of the main cast. But that’s an exception, I guess, considering the setting and story. Same for sci-fi series like Planetes with international casts.

    1. To be fair after watching tons of American cartoons with Americans in them people might still be disappointed meeting the real thing. we should just all move to cartoon land!

  2. I’ve always loved stories that involved some intersection of cultures or travels. Each episode with Ash was a new adventure into some part of that world. Spike & the gang could go from one planet to the next.

    The islands, I think, have just as much a healthy fascination with other peoples as they do with the Japanese. There’s just something…mystical, I guess, about that place, which anime seems to capture so well in its storytelling and world in and of itself. Anime seems to be that hole or two through which we can catch a glimpse of Japan, told through a Japanese or even that rare non-Japanese creative.

    To my knowledge, Miyazaki was just as intrigued by Disney as Disney was with Miyazaki. The cultural back-and-forth was something to behold as animation grew on both sides of the world. Fun too. 🙂

  3. I do like how Japan, and anime in particular, is starting to become more “aware” of foreigners, and how they really act when in Japan, i.e, not just using the typical “beautiful, blond-haired, blue-eyed person who acts like British royalty” as much. Most foreigners are the opposite. The tropes have become more sophisticated and truer to life over time, which I suppose reflects the fact that more people are visiting or moving to Japan these days.

    One stereotype I haven’t seen in anime are the “Jaded Gaijin” types who basically got to Japan as an English teachers with minimal effort. They put no effort into adapting to their new home, and then create blogs/vlogs endlessly whinging about how rough and unfair life in Japan is, completely oblivious to how much less is expected of them as far as societal norms go, compared to the average Japanese native. Constructive criticism is one thing as Japan certainly does have its issues, but it’s clear they’re just unhappy with their lives there, yet for some reason refuse to leave. Most commonly found getting drunk at some gaijin bar in Tokyo, airing grievances with fellow ingrates. It’s probably just me, but I’d love to see an anime that pokes fun at those sorts of people. They’re more common than you’d expect. I’d kill for the chance to move to Japan, and I’ll need to work a hundred times harder than they did for even a chance at doing so, as I can’t go the typical English teacher route. So, uh… yeah. Not much sympathy for people like that– and they could easily serve as the butt of a few jokes.

    1. I’m not sure those types stick around long enough to have a sugnificant cultural impact. I mostly come across them when I look for “what is life like in Japan” or something like that. I figure Japanese people don,t look up that type of stuff. I once tried to see an outsider’s perspective on Montreal and I didn’t recognize the place.
      This said, it would be a super interesting archetype to see in anime

      1. Yeah, that’s where I first encountered them, as well. But that’s the weird thing– they *do* stick around! The main reason they don’t have any cultural impact in Japan is because they often stick to English-speaking circles both inside and outside of Japan, and don’t really interact with the society they’ve paradoxically chosen to immerse themselves in… which is probably why they’re so miserable in the first place.

  4. Non Japanese females tend to have.. very prominent female features. Almost all foreigners also tend to come from high class…unless they are chinese. Any European kid in anime is wealthy as heck. .. (at least if they are introduced in a setting beween Japanese people). I think they also tend to be a bit more self absorbed than the average Japanese kid. Oftenly very handsome, Pretty but most are bitchy or elitist as well.

    This rule doesn’t count when the setting is foreign like.. let’s say Baccano. Stil apparantly they seem to think we tend to be very rich! And prefer white clothes! Lot’s of europeans are depicted wearing something white or super pale at least.
    Germans tend to be magical, while french tend to be models and snobs. Italians seem to have a slightly more positive image as well.. more introduced as the romantic then as the “guido” or scummy sleasebag we oftenly see them being depicted in the west.

    Oh right and Russians oftenly seem less evil and are depicted poorer than the rest of Europe but more Jovial and like a huge farmer community or something..Kinda StarDew Valley or something!

      1. Hey in Video Games Russians are usually rich crime lords or femme fatale with fur coats!

        Meanwhile according to anime all britsh kids have a mansion… While i usually imagine Geordie Shors folk!

  5. I’ve noticed that Asian foreigners (outside of Chinese) are comparatively rare in anime. Can you think of a Korean character, for example? I’m sure I’ve seen a few, but the only non-Chinese Asian foreigner I can think of off the bat is “Maria” from Zetsubou Sensei (I’m guessing Fillipino?).

    About the foreign looking Japanese, they’re often making the joke that they’re expected to speak English but don’t. The first time I’ve seen this was in Ichigo Marshmallow with Anna Coppola (who out of desperation pretends that she can’t speak Japanese to boot, so she can’t respond to anything anyone says), and the last time, I think, Olivia in Asobi Asobase.

    The Gymnastics Samurai has a foreign ninja character (people speculate from the ending that he’s Brasilian). Foreign ninja geeks are pretty common. I’m currently re-playing Disgaea 4, and I’m reminded that the ninja has a foreign-geek voice set, where he keeps saying easy Japanese words like “sayonara” with an accent.

    One I remember is John Brown, Australian Catholic priest, who unexpectedly speaks in Kansai ben, because that’s where he learned Japanese. His accent consistently amuses people who hear him for the first time, since it’s not what you expect from the mild-mannered blond boy.

    (Regarding that last picture: Ikoku Meirou had pretty good French – according to online French native speakers. That’s notable, because English foreigners sometimes have worse English than the Japanese characters who try to communicate with them.)

    Oh, and who can forget Simon, the black Russian sushi Chef from Ikebukuro (Durarara).

    1. You’re right, only one Korean comes to mind, Makishima’s hacker friend in Psycho-Pass. Well, putting aside Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il in the utterly ridiculous “Legend of Koizumi”.

      As for other Asian foreigners, if memory serves, RahXephon’s dark-skinned pilot Elvy also hails from another Asian country, with her nickname “Bunga Mawar” meaning “Blossoming Flower” in Indonesian.

      You brought up the Philippines, there was a Filipina immigrant mother recently in Japan Sinks. I hear the character was actually Japanese in the original manga, but Yuasa has been known to fiddle with old material in order to better reflect modern-day Japan.

      On the other hand, Full Metal Panic’s Sousuke was depicted as Afghan in the manga, but the anime decided to get him another birthplace in fictional Helmajistan, in other words a mountainous war-torn hellhole in Central Asia.

      I do remember seeing a few Indian characters over the years, even when the setting’s not South-West Asia or Victorian Britain but mainland Japan: a research scientist in Darker than Black, a top-notch engineer in Code Geass, a whip-smart transfer student in Hayate the Combat Butler… Wonder if there’s a broader theme there, connecting India to intellect. What’s more, these characters are all female. Right, we also have a turbaned Sikh dude in Tsuritama, though I forgot all about him.

      On a final note, my favorite foreigner in anime has to be Guilty Crown’s Dan Eagleman, an American-football-coach-cum-military-officer… Basically, a chivalrous but clueless colonel, who bombs the shit out of everyone with a perpetual smile on his face. An obvious parody perhaps, but one I’ll never get tired of.

      1. Ooh, thanks for the great list. I totally forgot about Japan Sinks and Tsuritama. I forgot about Psycho Pass, too, but that character didn’t leave much of an impression on me, so I’m less surprised here. I haven’t seen the rest (except for Hayate, but I don’t think I got that far into the show). I dropped out of Guilty Crown around episode 7, I think. I simply forgot the show existed and by then I couldn’t be bothered catching up with the three or four episodes that were there already.

        Also, I completely forgot about India. You’re right, Indian characters aren’t rare.

        1. The still present tensions between Korea and Japan might have something to do with how few Korean characters there are. No clue why there are no Vietnamese ones…

    2. Re: Chinese specifically, but they have their own set of stereotypes in Japan (see Kagura from Gintama for some of that).

      Off the top of my head, there was the guy in Ping Pong (Chinese), some one-off enemies in Dimension W (I…think they came from Hong Kong?), Seung-gil from Yuri on Ice (Korean) and of course manhwa adaptions are generally set in Korea rather than Japan (the Korean bits in God of High School still throw me for a loop on occasion).

      1. With regards to China I was thinking of Shampoo from Ranma 1/2 (and others from the show I’ve forgotten), as well as Syaoran from Card Captor Sakura (Hongkong? I can’t fully remember), and I pretty much stopped thinking there. There was an episode about Chinese immigration laws in this season’s Ikebukuro Westgatepark, and Great Pretender involved a Chinese off-spring of a Japanese crime syndicate in its last arc (but the cast’s international to begin with, so I’m not sure they count for the sake of this post). The Ping Pong character was great.

        I didn’t think of Yuri on Ice for Korean, that’s a good catch. However, I’m not sure I would have counted him had I thought of him, because I was sort of stuck on “non-Japanese characters that are presented in a Japanese setting” (see Irina’s post near the top). For example, I wasn’t checking if any of the Korean fighting game characters made it into their anime adaptions. My mind can get stuck in such grooves at times.

        1. Syaoran and Meiling were from Hong Kong, yes.

          (Also, just for context, I was giving the original answer on my phone while on public transport and so my train of thought didn’t really stay on the rails as much as it usually does, hence why I gave a Chinese character when you said “excluding Chinese” and giving characters in international settings when Irina put down those boundaries. Taking those conditions into account, the Ping Pong guy is probably the only one that counts out of that list.)

    3. I love Simon!
      I watch a lot of Sports! anime and they often have rivals (or rival teams) from other Asian countries. Ippo had all sorts of Boxing opponents. But they’re usually very minor characters so I’m not sure they count. Like one step above extras.

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