From “Astro Boy” to “Attack on Titan”, the slow evolution of the representation of black people in manga

Manga has been established alongside Western comics for decades, and its heroes, like its audience, come from all over the world. In today’s most popular manga, black characters are often at the center of the stories: One Piece, Naruto, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure… If these characters were generally well represented, in the past, the drawing was often embarrassing, even racist. To understand the evolution of ethnic representations in manga, you need to examine the history of Japan and its relationship with the rest of the world.

Japan, an isolationist country under Western influence

Historically isolated, Japan, during the Edo period (from the 17the on the 19the century), almost completely closed to foreigners. the bag, a policy of national isolation, thus established in 1650 by the Tokugawa family, worried about the collapse of Christianity. With commercial exceptions, for more than two centuries, it was impossible for Japanese people to leave the country and foreigners to enter it without permission.

In the imagination of the Japanese at that time, who only saw black-skinned people on the boats that brought slaves from Africa or the islands of South Asia, they must be dominated beings. And in Japanese art, they are depicted as such.

Julien Bouvard, teacher-researcher, professor of Japanese studies at Lyon-III University, specialist in the history of popular culture in contemporary Japan, determined that “The first contacts with Africans or people of African descent pass through the vision of the Japanese to dominate the West around the world: slavery, colonization, and therefore an asymmetrical relationship between peoples”.

Japanese painting by a group of Portuguese immigrants who arrived in Japan in the 17th century (before the

A vision filled with curiosity: at the end of the 16th centurye century, Father Organtino Gnecchi-Soldo, an Italian Jesuit priest, wrote that the Japanese “Love seeing black people, especially Africans. The Japanese are even willing to travel a hundred kilometers just to see them and enjoy their company for three or four days.

Also read: The Rediscovered Legend of Yasuke, Japan’s First Black Samurai

At the beginning of the Meiji era in 1867, Japan once again opened up to the world, under pressure from American traders. As historian Ninomiya Hiroyuki explains in Premodern Japan (CNRS Editions, 2017), Japan’s political system then changed, feudalism gave way to a modern country following the Western model.

Woodcut of a 'Dutchman walking with his Javanese slave holding an umbrella and a dog'.

Blacks in the first manga: stereotype of the “good savage”

At the beginning of XXe century, we see, in the first manga, black characters represented with the stereotypes of the “good savage”, as taken in the West at the same time. Their skin is the color of Indian ink, their prominent lips are white, their features are exaggerated.

“In the Japanese children’s comics of the 1930s, we often find these clichés of a naive African, like the great success of Keizo Shimada, Dankichi’s Speeches [1933-1939], exploring the Southern Isles inhabited by black natives”explained Julien Bouvard.

Some narratives of the time, however, were meant to be humane and criticized the plight of blacks. If in Places called Tintin in the Congopublished between 1930 and 1931, the hero is accompanied by a character inspired by the figure of the servant in the colonial Congo, while the black characters are represented as large lazy children who express themselves badly, inAstro Boy by Osamu Tezuka, the hero has, on the contrary, the will to free black people from their dominated situation.

Plate from the manga

From racist drawings to more respectful representations

For mangaka, who originally wrote for a Japanese audience that was not very, if at all, diverse, the question of race was never a debate. Even today, Japan’s immigration policy is one of the strictest in the world.

However, from 1989, the controversies launched by Japanese associations against racism – especially the Association to stop racism against black people in Osaka – led to the evolution of the representations of black people in public. space. These initiatives are targeted “Companies that sell products with black facesclichés of the “good African savage” that still existed at that time”, Pointed out by Julien Bouvard. The question of a proper and respectful representation of black people now arises.

In Europe and America too, more and more lovers of manga and Japanese animated films plan to criticize the racist behavior of some characters: Lippoutou, in the series. Pokemon (broadcast since 1997), G. Popo, Ang Ulipon sa Dios sa dragon ball (1984-1995), or even Chocolove McDonell, in Shaman King (1998-2004). These characters have evolved since: Mr. Popo goes from black to midnight blue, Lippoutou turns purple, and Chocolove loses her plump lips in the 2021 anime version of Shaman King.

Black characters at the center of their own story

Now, character design blacks have progressed significantly, with no question of racial representation becoming central to manga. The ethnic or geographic identity of the characters, whether black or not, is often unclear. In Japanese manga, in a realistic representation, we usually prefer codified characters, “Same as Mickey”summarizes Julien Bouvard.

However, there are exceptions: it happens that the question of identity is raised, when the theme of ethnic and racial differences is precisely at the heart of the work. He may seem in a way still marked by stereotypes – the African-American, a rap fan, who doesn’t speak much Japanese – but also in a more respectful and deep way, if he is interested in the questions of colonization and domination.

So, in Attack on Titan, by Hajime Isayama, the question of “skin color [du personnage d’Onyankopon] interesting, because it is linked to its geographical origin, which is different from those [d’autres peuples issus de l’univers de ce manga], like the Eldians or the people of Mahr. The character is deep, because he binds himself to the first, the Eldians, to fight for the dominance of the second, the empire of Mahr. In fact, it was a form of colonial domination that he was fighting »explained Julien Bouvard.

Onyankopon in the anime

Another example: the ethnic identity of Kevin Goodman’s character in the manga Billy Batby Naoki Urasawa, also specified here, because “The goal is to tell the living conditions of an interracial couple during the separation of the black community in the United States”Julien Bouvard always insisted.

Now, from Kilik to Soul Eaterfrom Carol Carol & Tuesdayby Sister Krone of The Promised Neverland, manga has no shortage of deep, powerful, nuanced dark characters. An evolution that allows fans around the world to find heroes who are like them and who they can draw inspiration from.

Plate from the manga

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.