Mukokuseki

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Synonyms: Ethnic ambiguity
See also: Animanga, Manga, Anime, Race and Fandom, Whitewashing, Racebending
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Mukokuseki (Japanese: 無国籍, "stateless"), when used as a term in the animanga community, refers to the lack of physical features indicating a character's ethnic background.

Overview

The TV Tropes article outlines mukokuseki and some of the more popular justifications or excuses behind it:

People (rightly or wrongly) typically fall back on one of two explanations for this trope.

The first is that the purpose of mukokuseki is to make characters look distinct so that the audience, and the artists don't get confused. In works set in the largely homogeneous Japan, it can be hard for an animator to make unique designs in such a simple art style for several dozen straight black-haired, brown-eyed people.

The second is the idea that the artists are appropriating features from the exotic "other" (in this case white people) into their character designs either for their own interests or for marketing purposes. It is speculated that the pervasiveness in Japanese pop-culture of physical features such as fair hair and light eyes suggests they're considered interesting and "exotic". Because these phenotypes don't exist in what ethnically Japanese people, light hair and eyes are considered just as unusual as unnatural hair colors. [...]

Although Mukokuseki is applied to Japanese characters, Chinese and Korean people in manga, anime, and Japanese video games are sometimes still given Facial Profiling. This is rooted in how Japanese propagandists depicted themselves as fair skinned, befitting their native beauty standards, while supposedly civilizing Koreans and the Chinese as if they were apart of the Yellow Peril. Modern depictions of Chinese and Korean people usually aren't as unabashedly racist as they were during World War II. [...]

A Trope Codifier for this was Sailor Moon, the cast of which grows quite large over the course of the series (although this trope was pervasive before Sailor Moon). Despite a majority of the characters being 100% Japanese, they have every hair and eye color possible — and even some that aren't. A point of contention is that the main character has yellow hair and blue eyes, making her look "white". Taking into account that her mother has blue hair and her daughter has pink hair, it's clear the color isn't meant to indicate any race. In the live-action adaptation, the wild colors were part of the main cast's transformations, but, in their civilian personas, they had black or brown hair. SM's influence on Japanese pop culture helped to spread the look and it now pervades all media (anime, manga, advertising, video games etc).

On the other end of the spectrum from the Sailor Moon example, the creator of Naruto, Masashi Kishimoto, went on record saying he was happy Naruto was designed with blond spikey hair because after the series went international it made the character more relatable to Western audiences, and even stated that "Naruto has blue eyes and blonde hair, so any child actor in America could play him" in a live-action adaptation (although his perspective comes from the Japanese stereotype that most Americans are blond-haired and blue-eyed white people).

Regardless of what they look like, assume that the character's race matches the original primary audience unless it's heavily implied (through setting, culture, costume, or Word of God) to be otherwise. That's true of all media that doesn't use Facial Profiling — Eastern or Western, even literature where you have to use your own imagination. But it can really be either explanation, or both. Without Word of God, it can be hard to tell, which is why some people unfamiliar with the concept come to the conclusion that Japanese people have a rather skewed sense of self-perception.

Arguably started by Osamu Tezuka, whose art style was heavily influenced by the works of Walt Disney, Max and Dave Fleischer, and other American cartoonists, though the big anime eye trope was established decades before Osamu Tezuka. Also, Big Anime Eyes still differ in style from American creations such as Big Disney Eyes and Big Looney Tune Eyes; mainly, the former aren't as unrealistically circular. That's part of the reason you don't confuse Red Hot Riding Hood or the Disney Princesses for anime characters, or even Rapunzel.

In part, this trope has to do with the Default Human Being concept. Without obvious ethnic or gendered features, the audience will assume the character defaults to their culture's idea of the common human. This can be seen in the West with the featureless stick-figure depicting humanity as a whole and indicating white men specifically at once. Just as American animators will give Asian distinct features to indicate they're different from the European default, Japanese animators will often give European-descended characters distinct facial features to make them different from the Japanese default, even if both defaults are functionally identical.[1]

Meta discussion and discourse

[Responding to "Why do so many anime characters look like Westerners with physical characteristics like blondes and redheads?"]

I feel that it is a biased view. Unless there is a specific plot that implies that the character is Western / Western, it is likely that the character is stateless or Japanese in nature.

For example, here [Assassination Classroom]. One foreigner (Russian in this case) is blonde to distinguish him from being non-Japanese. However, the other characters are Japanese (despite having green, purple and red hair).

Hair color is generally only for aesthetic appeal. If everyone had brown or dark brown hair, even if it was more realistic, it wouldn't be visually interesting.

As others have pointed out, the hair color may represent the character's personality.

Basically, most of the characters depicted in anime are Japanese (generally), not whites or Westerners. Even if there are many "foreign-like" characters from the perspective of us non-Japanese, even Japanese have various answers as shown in the video below.[2]

In his article "Whitewashing racial bias: The ball's in Japan's court", John G. Russell criticizes mukokuseki, in particular citing the egregiously whitewashed anime depiction of real-life biracial tennis star Naomi Osaka:

While whitewashing is presented as a by-product of what is often characterized as America’s “oversensitivity to race,” that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in Japan — it does. However, it’s not given too much attention in Japan as people here have a long tradition of (however unconsciously) whitewashing themselves. In fact, the practice is so normalized many no longer recognize it.

The likely goal of the Nissin team that whitened Osaka’s skin and erased all markers of her black heritage was not to make her white but to reimagine her as “Japanese.” Manga aficionados might say she had been rendered mukokuseki (stateless) and of indeterminate ethnicity, a practice that amounts to a lack of commonly perceived Japanese facial features that are instead replaced with quasi-Caucasian ones.

This “stateless” — and in Japanese eyes, “raceless” — state has become the default in anime, not only for Japanese self-representation but for that of other nonwhite groups as well. Its application to those groups varies and does not always result in actual skin lightening. For example, there are instances where nominally “black” characters have dark complexions but mukokuseki, quasi-Caucasian features.

[...]

One argument in favor of mukokuseki features such as light skin, large eyes and narrow noses posits that these physical traits are read as white only by Westerners, that they exist in other racial groups and to read them otherwise is in itself an act of cultural imperialism that attempts to impose the racist perspectives of the West upon a Japan that is wonderfully free of such biases. This perception, however, ignores history and the role that Japan’s contact with the West has played in the transformation of its own self-regard, a legacy that persists into the 21st century.

Also see this Tumblr thread discussing mukokuseki.

Some have also criticized mukokuseki for whitewashing the ethnic diversity of the United States by portraying the "typical American" as invariably blond-haired and blue-eyed, leading to whitewashing characters for big-budget American live-action film adaptations (notably the heavily criticized Dragonball Evolution and Ghost in the Shell) in the name of "accurate" cultural translation.

Specific incidents

During the Sailor Moon redraw art meme, some fan artists were criticized for giving typically Caucasian features the blond-haired Tsukino Usagi in their stylized renditions of the character.[3][4][5][6]

The misconception that the blond character Arataka Reigen, of Mob Psycho 100, is white, been the subject of ridicule.

wait is reigen asian? i kinda assumed since he's blonde and a con artist and mp100 has a unique artstyle he was meant to be mob's white friend[7]

you guys really see names like reigen arataka and really think they’re white huh?[8]

Fan works

Some fan works take advantage of the ambiguity of mukokuseki conventions in order to racebend characters or create blood relationships between characters who don't resemble one another.

In the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure/Persona 4 crossover fan fiction A Different Kind of Truth, the blond-haired blue-eyed American Johnny Joestar is half-Japanese, the nephew of Persona 4’s Dojima Ryotaro.

Some humorous fan works may play with the fourth wall by having the story acknowledge the absurdity of mukokuseki.

In the Haruhi Suzumiya fan fiction You Got HaruhiRolled!, the characters Kyon has a moment of panicked self-awareness when he realizes that he is one of few students who look remotely Japanese: "I JUST REALIZED SOMETHING! [...] I AM THE ONLY CHARACTER IN THIS SHOW WHO LOOKS REMOTELY JAPANESE! THANK YOU!"

In Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series, Japanese characters Yami and Kaiba discuss mukokuseki during a flashback of their previous lives in Ancient Egypt.

Yami: I give you our sexy Ancient Egyptian ancestors!
Kaiba: Why are they white?
Yami: What?
Kaiba: I mean, they're Egyptian, right? Why are they white?
Yami: Why would you choose to focus on that?
Kaiba: And for that matter, aren't we supposed to be Asian? Why are we white?
Yami: Kaiba, stop activating the race card and pay attention!

Racebending anime characters

Racebending anime characters has been the subject of some discourse. Some fans feel that racebending anime characters in fan works is erasing the characters' Japanese ethnicity, and also reinforcing the misconception that the characters—in being designated as acceptable subjects of racebending—must be canonically white. Others feel that racebending Japanese anime characters serves the same purpose as racebending white characters from media made in white-majority countries—giving representation to marginalized groups and challenging the status quo.

Outside of the social justice angle, some simply enjoy racebending for the creative enjoyment and aesthetic variety, while others feel that racebending fundamentally changes a character to the point of OOC-ness.

External links

References