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Representation in Western Adaptations of Japanese Media

Updated on April 1, 2017

So I recently caught the movie, Ghost in a Shell the other night. And initially my feelings were mixed about it because of the obvious reason everyone’s been bitching about since the casting was announced: all those White people playing Japanese characters in a Japanese city.

I am a long time fan of the anime TV series, so admittedly there were some bias I had. Yet it seemed so glaring, even though the overall movie was pretty good. So I asked a friend, Chris, who lives in Japan about what the Japanese perspective was on the issue. He explained that they were actually excited by the new movie and had no problem with the casting, nor saw such issues as problems when doing adaptions of their products and culture. They know who they are and what they’ve done.


After Chris told me about this, I recalled how many anime shows overall I have seen where the characters did not look Japanese and it was just about all of them. Even the Ghost in a Shell anime series had most of the main characters looking like other races. So it was apparently true that the culture had no issue with “white-washing”, and when the studios and actors say that they are acting non-racial roles, this time they got a free pass.

Part of the issue at play with my initial prejudice was that I live in a culture that is highly sensitive to the issue of diversity and the obstacles it faces. Arguably, America is the most sensitive country in the world to these issues because of our history. So when I am watching a film from another culture that doesn’t appear to obey those progressive codas of having a multi racial cast or a cast not accurate to the source material, I automatically want to call ‘foul’.

It never occurred to me really that the originators of the product I enjoyed actually may have given its blessing to make the shows and films the way that they did.

"...what we see as normal is what is dominant in our environment."

No Borders, No Race, Still Japanese

There is a term in Japan called, mukokuseki, roughly translated to mean ‘without nationality’. The idea is that Japanese don’t have issues with their anime and characters not looking racially accurate because they just naturally assume the character to be Japanese to begin with. That is their base setting and is not determined by how he/she looks.

Many of their most successful exports demonstrate this idea. The Dragonball franchise has no real racial distinctions nor makes any deliberate attempt at diversity. Samurai Champloo seamlessly blends its own history with foreign, hip hop culture in its stories. Many fighting games like Tekken and Street Fighter, feature characters as Japanese or Chinese warriors, but racially looking nothing like them.

The reason the characters look the way they is to deliberately set them apart as unrealistic to establish that the show is not reality. People don’t naturally have blue or pink hair. Nor are their eyes naturally radar-dish size big. They are telling a story and everything else in it is meant to convey that story. The reason some counter-critics say that we notice physical, racial differences is because White people is our default for normal. Or in other words: we are projecting our values onto theirs, at worst overruling them entirely.

Another Blogger, Julian Abagond, has said that what we see as normal is what is dominant in our environment. So us seeing Goku power up into a blond-haired fighter and us thinking it’s a racial statement says more about us than it does about the Japanese.

Apparently, the Japanese have translated this perception of mukokuseki into the live- action version of Ghost in a Shell. The only ones complaining about white-washing, at least in this film, are the non-Japanese.

Samurai Champloo fused Japanese history with modern, hip hop to produce one of the best anime's produced.
Samurai Champloo fused Japanese history with modern, hip hop to produce one of the best anime's produced.

The Case for Diversity Against the Norm

The argument has been made by those defending proper racial casting that just because the Japanese don’t have an issue with it, doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue. Hollywood’s record is well known. Studies and cases are sighted where lack of racial representation in media leads to low self-esteem in those groups and that it does not represent the modern world. A proper, multi-racial, and justice-based society should have people of all colors in it, represented properly by their respective cultures. This point of view is one of the reasons why Ghost was cast the way it was.

Of all the main characters, only two are actually Japanese. Of course, it’s also done for marketing reasons, but the point is our dominant (or power-sharing) societal beliefs instruct us that the norm should be Japanese adaptation=Japanese actors.

Another point is that not all cultures share the Japanese’ acceptance of not being physically identified as that race or culture. When the movie, 300 came out telling an exaggerated version of the Battle of Thermopylae, Iran was noticeably perturbed by the portrayal of their Persian ancestors as being weak, deformed, or without morals against their superhero-like White, Spartan protagonists. And even the Spartans earned critics for not looking Greek!

When Rogue One came out, a Mexican child who had seen it urged his father to go see the movie because it had a Mexican actor in one of the lead roles. The father apparently couldn’t believe until he saw the movie and was deeply impacted. It is clear that some cultures and people do care about accurate representation on the large screen.

Similar issues have cropped up in several other contentious areas besides movies, including feminism, the role of religion, and civil rights too. In most of these cases, the struggle between the western and non-western parties is their perception of what the norm should be. But that is another topic for another day.

These people feel they have special insight into a type of righteousness that other cultures maybe ignorant of. They believe that their interpretation of justice is the most progressive and righteous version of it out there. So sure, the Japanese don’t have an issue with White-casting’, but that is only because they are not aware of it.

"Americans don’t like that sort of grayness, no matter how liberal or conservative they are."

Take it For What it is

What I took away from this was confronting a prejudice that I did not know I had. Why would I? I wasn’t trying to oppress anybody and force someone to conform to my views: and yet I was. It is not easy giving Hollywood studios a free pass on something that they have doing for decades that was rooted in injustice. Or to say that such issues are a matter of perspective and subject to a case by case basis. Americans don’t like that sort of grayness, no matter how liberal or conservative they are. But within the context of western interpretation of Japanese stories and media, I have to go by the latters’ standards. At least in terms of not crossing that line of doing physical harm to other people or justifying it. That is my one red line.

Otherwise, I will take Ghost in a Shell for what the actors and directors say it is: a non-racial based story. And I will have to put aside my natural bias and be aware the next time I find myself squirming because I find a cultural adaptation unnatural it maybe the problem is with me and not what I am watching.


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