On The ‘Whiteness’ of Manga

Recently I got into another conversation on how characters in Japanese comics look just like white people. I’ve had several conversations and arguments about this and I personally do not agree that all characters in manga look like Europeans because they have big eyes and hair that is not black. Today I remembered an episode in which I bought comics and a friend who doesn’t read manga decided to comment on them. I had two comics with me that day, one was a Korean comic (manhwa) and the other was a Japanese comic (manga). The Korean comic was Cynical Orange while the Japanese comic was Ooku. Both comics are vastly different in themes and plots and this obviously affected their respective cover artworks. As soon as my friend saw the front cover of Cynical Orange her reaction was akin to disgust and she said something that went like this; ‘What is up here? Why does this character look so white? I mean look at her eyes and her hair. Why can’t they draw characters that look more Asian?’

I tried to explain to my friend (who is Persian and white btw) that the character on the cover, the heroine Hye-Min actually didn’t look like that within the pages of the comic. She actually has black hair and though the big eyes are to be expected in any manga or manhwa that does not mean that she’s white. I also mentioned that the fact that she’s drawn with blonde hair on the cover should not be taken as proof that the author has some sort of racial inferiority complex and secretly wants to look white etc. However when my friend saw the cover of Ooku, she was much more satisfied saying something that went like; ‘This is more like it. This comic is definitely better, the character looks more Asian.’

Somewhere along the line I must have mentioned that the comic with the blonde woman on the cover was Korean and the one with the ‘more Asian’ looking character was Japanese. Due to this my friend concluded that Korean authors like to draw their comics so the characters look European while Japanese authors are more realistic in their depiction of characters in their comics. Needless to say I found her reaction interesting.

In case you’re wondering, here are the comics she commented on


Cynical Orange (the Korean manhwa)


and Ooku (the Japanese manga)

Like I mentioned above both comics have vastly different themes. Cynical Orange is the typical shoujo manga about a beautiful high school girl bullied because of her perfect looks and actually very ugly (and violent) on the inside who falls in love with a playboy. The major conflict is that the heroine has to discover and deal with the fact that the man she has always looked up to as her older brother may actually be in love with her etc. Ooku on the other hand is a mature comic with more complex. It is a historical (I guess a more suitable term would be alternate historical) piece of work set in an alternate feudal Japan in which most of the men have died due to an unknown plague causing the women to take up the men’s jobs leading Japan to become a completely matriarchal society where women hold the most important political positions and men are their consorts. The comic is particularly centred on a female shogun and is named after the ooku (which was historically the harem of the Edo castle accessible only to the shogun during the Tokugawa era).

Of course I could go on about how the plot influenced the cover artwork and all but I know that if my friend had seen another work by Fumi Yoshinaga (the author of Ooku) she will not have reached the conclusion she did.

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6 responses

  1. Yes I have spotted this too before. Much like your friend I do not understand why the wide eyes dominate manga. Yes there are some Japanese people with doe eyes but there are also some without. Why are the doe eyes considered beautiful but the others not?

    I understand what you mean by linking the artwork to the story. I guess I just don’t understand why the typical manga female looks like an extraterrestial Japanese woman rather than a real Japanese woman.

    • well the main reason manga characters have doe eyes is because of Betty Boop (basically Japanese artists were influenced by their American counterparts at that time). another reason manga characters are drawn with big eyes is because this supposedly makes it easier for expressions to be shown. i don’t know about that because i’m not much of an artist but as someone who has attempted drawing in manga style i learnt that you can portray different emotions on a character’s face just by drawing their eyes in certain ways. simply due to this, i don’t think this is a matter of prefering doe eyes over others.

      haha the thing with drawing and art is that you can basically draw any form and use that to represent who you are (have you see those ancient Yoruba masks?). the dominant form of manga has big eyes and i really doubt if it is meant to be realistic. for more reading, i suggest this http://abagond.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/why-do-the-japanese-draw-themselves-as-white/

  2. An old post of mine you might find interesting:

    http://thegrandnarrative.com/2008/11/16/why-do-korean-cartoon-characters-look-socaucasian/

    Not my best post by any means: I hadn’t been blogging for very long, and looking at it now I’m seriously cringing at how long it took me to get to my points…if indeed I had any. But I did at least extensively quote people who know far more about the subject than myself though, so hopefully there’ll be at least something you can take from it!^^

    • thanks for the link James. i’ve read that post a couple of times and i did have a hard time getting your points but as you said, i got at least something from it. so thanks!

  3. interesting that you mentioned this – cos I was looking up new manga to read, and i actually found that the Korean manhwa I came across had more Asian looking characters than the Japanese ones… and only once have i found a manga where the Japanese character had naturally-occuring blonde hair (as opposed to dyed hair like in Bleach)

    And I saw Ooku at the bookstore – I SOOO WANT TO READ IT! I’m still reading Bleach because I want to see how it ends, but I think my “action-action-all-the-way” shounen phase will come to an end once I finish watching Full Metal Alchemist.

    • you’ve reminded me why i initially thought my friend’s reaction was interesting! when i started reading Korean manhwa i thought all the characters looked more Asian as well.

      i think the only time hair colour is explicitly mentioned in manga is where it’s meant to stand out as part of the plot. for example in the manga Peach Girl, the main character has light hair and tanned skin leading people to mistake her for a ganguro. i always thought Ichigo’s hair was his natural colour. i’ve been reading a lot about how lighter hair colour usually denotes that the character is special or different in some way and now that we know that Ichigo is half-Shinigami half-human it sort of puts things in perspective. in the latest anime i’m watching Sarai-ya Goyou, almost all the characters are ‘normal’ as they’ve got dark hair and eyes. the only person with light hair and eyes in the anime is marked out as exceedingly handsome. i came to the conclusion he’s handsome not because he has light hair and eyes but rather has light hair and eyes because he’s handsome. i don’t know if that makes sense.

      Ooku is an amazing piece of work! you know i stopped reading Bleach after a while but am now back into the series. i tend to mix the manga i read a lot so right now i’m reading several shoujo, shounen and josei titles. that reminds me i have to start watching Full Metal Alchemist!

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