Celebrating Diversity In Anime

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A few titles out of the vast sea of anime shows that portray cultural and racial diversity.

It makes sense as to why we’ve seen light-skinned characters for the most part in anime. We don’t have to cover the fact that anime originated from Japan and the fact that the Japanese ethnic group makes up roughly 98% of the country. Having that as information, we can see why the majority of anime titles feature just Japanese characters. We get it. BUT anime has been, and is still, celebrated worldwide. This art form has been exposed to a large audience, one composed of many ethnicities and races.

Yes, we’re talking about a majority here, but we can’t disregard the fact that there are portrayals of racial diversity in anime. Director and anime filmmaker Shinichiro Watanabe is a believer of bringing diversity into his stories.

Lots of times when you watch anime, the characters all have white skin – all the characters in fantasy stories have white skin, which I never liked. I wanted to have lots of characters in Bebop without the white skin, and if people weren’t used to that, well, maybe it would even make them think a little bit about it.

If you’ve seen Watanabe’s work, you may notice that he puts a major emphasis on characters of colored skin. It’s because of creators such as him that the industry has been changing little by little. So let’s take some time to celebrate a few of the many titles that have been shaping the industry for a broader audience.

1. Samurai Champloo

Samurai Champloo Characters: Fuu, Mugen, Jin
Samurai Champloo Characters: Fuu, Mugen, Jin

As previously mentioned, Shinichiro Watanabe is very serious about avoiding nationalism, which makes Samurai Champloo interesting. I mean, how can a show with samurai in its title avoid nationalism? Well, it’s also in the title: Champloo, which means mixed. The story takes place during the Edo Period, and it follows three characters; Fuu the leading lady in search of the samurai who smells of sunflowers, Jin the exemplary samurai turned ronin, and Mugen a fierce vagabond with a unique fighting style. From these three characters, it is Mugen who stands out with his dark-colored skin and foreign appearance. This character is relatable those who were raised underprivileged, and despite it all, he remains strong and independent. It is not until later that it’s revealed Mugen’s Ryukyuan background, an indigenous minority group in Japan.

However, this is not the only detail that praises diversity. Watanabe made sure to include foreign characters, and of course – the most important fact of all – the blend of traditional Japanese culture with hip-hop; hence the champloo. This episodic series always keeps the main goal in mind: find the samurai who smells of sunflowers. But throughout the journey, the three protagonists stumble upon situations that cover diverse cultures, characters, and even religion.

The episode “Unholy Union” presents the introduction of Christianity in Japan, and the event brings the main characters closer to the sunflower samurai. This episode also gives further insight on Ikitsuki Island’s Hidden Christians (secret practitioners of Christianity) during the aftermath of the Shimabara Rebellion that took place in Nagasaki.

As a consequence, it had enforced a ban to the religion. It is then learned that the samurai who smells of sunflowers was a christian who ran away in order to protect his family. The episode also introduces another foreign character known as Xavier, son of Francisco the 3rd. Xavier traveled across the seas as a representative of God, imposing the new religion.

“Baseball Blues” is a fictional take on how baseball was brought to Japan by the United States. And “Stranger Searching” introduces a Dutch character, but not only that; there are implications about his homosexuality. These episodes explore beyond Japanese culture, which is what Watanabe truly intended to do with the series.

2. Durarara!!

This fantastical action story set in Ikebukuro depicts a rather large cast of characters with a variety of backgrounds. One of the major focuses is Simon, a dark-skinned sushi chef who hails from Russia. In the first season, not much is known about his background except that used to work, along with a character named Dennis, in the Soviet special forces. In the beginning of the season, there’s a clear understanding about the show’s theme: gangs.

Not only are fictional gangs such as the Yellow Scarves, Dollars, and Blue Squares are introduced, but it all leads to connections to actual organized crime syndicates like the Yakuza. Everything that occurs in the first season leads to more involvement with the Russian community, introducing characters that are associated with weapon dealing organizations from Russia.

As expected, these organizations set conflicts in motion with other gangs. Writer Ryōgo Narita’s works (e.g. Baccano!) feature an ensemble cast of characters with different backgrounds, strongly focusing on each of their viewpoints. In Durarara!! having that streak of diversity pushes the story forward, making it a huge necessity. Even though it doesn’t necessarily have to do with racial diversity, the folklore used come from different cultures. For instance, Celty is the Irish Dullahan, depicted as a headless rider. Coming from Celtic lore, the Dullahan is known to guide souls to the afterlife.

However, in Celty’s early story it is told she woke up missing her head, traveling to Japan in search of it. Throughout her journey, she became affiliated with the Dollars and an underground transporter, yet still keeping her goal to retrieve her head.

3. Michiko to Hatchin

Not only does Michiko to Hatchin have a large cast of diverse characters, but it also takes place in fictional Diamandra; most likely somewhere in South America that’s very much embedded in Brazilian culture. From speaking Portuguese to depicting streets and slums that resemble the state of Mato Grosso and Rio, Diamandra also flaunts Brazilian culture with samba music, traditional food and beverages, and the clothing the characters wear.

Michiko, an escaped criminal from prison, saves Hatchin from her abusive foster parents and they go on a journey to find Hiroshi Morenos (Hatchin’s biological father and Michiko’s past lover). Michiko shares similar traits to those of Mugen from Samurai Champloo; it’s no surprise these two titles come from the same studio Manglobe. As low-key deranged Michiko can be, she’s driven by love and remains courageous regardless of her past. Other characters like Atsuko Jackson represent mixed races of Latin and African American. Their reasons for most of the characters having Japanese names is unclear. It could perhaps allude to the fact that there’s a large Japanese community in the city of Sao Paulo, but it is never specified. The story also depicts relevant social issues in Latin America, which allows viewers to delve into unknown lives, and for others – perhaps to relate.

4. Yuri on Ice!!!

The most recent anime show that captured the hearts of many viewers is Yuri on Ice!!! (a.k.a that ice skating anime.) Heartwarming story aside, the series heavily relies on diversity. Taking place in the professional skating world, characters from a wide array of countries are introduced to push the story forward. It makes sense coming from a sports anime, but one can truly appreciate the detail that went into the characters representing their countries. For instance, King JJ (representing Canada) has sponsors on his jersey that resemble real Canadian companies.

Each character has physical traits that represent their homeland. However, figure skater Leo de la Iglesia (representing the United States) is not depicted as a Caucasian, BUT an American of Hispanic/Latino descent. It’s so refreshing to see a familiar face that’s considered a minority to be the representative of the US. Yuri on Ice also explores different cultures in every each character’s skating routines.

A prime example would be Phichit Chulanont, representing Thailand. During his last performance, Phichit imagines himself skating along with his friends whilst wearing traditional Thai regalia. Scenes with cultural exposure was one of the main reasons that made this series stand out – not to mention, all the hints of different languages that were used in the dialogue. Красивая! (My goodness, I sure hope I typed that correctly!) Important moments happened in different locations; such as the proposal that took place in Spain. Let’s not forget how accurately depicted Barcelona was.

Finally, the representation of LGBT was crucial to moving our hearts. A lot of Yuri’s success was connected to Viktor’s help which, of course, was strongly tied to romance.

5. Cowboy Bebop

Now let’s wrap up the list with another Shinichiro Watanabe art piece, Cowboy Bebop. Released in 1998, yet still holds a lot of pop culture and even modern society relevance. It’s known to be the first anime title broadcasted on Adult Swim in the United States. It was another title that reaffirmed for the West what anime is capable of as a storytelling medium beyond being a genre for children. Not only that, but it presented a lot of familiarity to the Western audience, with characteristics of spaghetti westerns, references to the works of John Woo, Bruce Lee and Ridley Scott, its music, and a portrayal of racial diversity were among the reasons the series appealed to a mass audience.

These details also offered a chance for westerners to relate to the characters. The story begins with bounty hunters Spike Spiegel and Jet Black who are later joined by Faye Valentine and Edward Wong. In the series, we’re transported into a universe where Earth is barely habitable. Instead, human civilization dispersed to different planets and moons. Earth was damaged due to the creation of a “stargate” forcing an exodus of mankind. As a consequence, it led to a major diaspora of humans within the galaxy. Which is why, as we stick around throughout the story, there’s multicultural environments in select planets including racial diversity.

There are also signs presented in languages such as Russian, Spanish, Mandarin, English, and Japanese; hinting at the mix of identities on every planet. However, there’s really no specific classification the population; there’s really no dominant race either. A good example of the multicultural mix is with Ed’s “full name”. Because she didn’t grow up with parents, she gave herself the name Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV. The full name holds origins from various nationalities. Even the name her father calls her, Francoise is of French origin. As the episodic story pushes on, we see how the civilization works accordingly with the narrative.

Another cool fact about Bebop is the use of music. Composer Yoko Kanno used jazz as the main genre whilst mixing western, blues and opera. It made the melody set the genre’s tone. Not only that, but the music played a big part in the narrative of the story. Episodes are known as sessions, and each of these “jam sessions” were named after songs that would correlate with the episode’s plot. This titles include “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “My Funny Valentine” (which of course has to do with Faye), “Toys in the Attic”, and other titles recognizable in the West.

The Wrap-Up

There’s an abundance of titles that portray racial diversity. Some of them are a couple of years old, and some are pretty obscure. Nevertheless, there seems to be a movement of newer titles that celebrate diversity. Directors like Sayo Yamamoto (Michiko to Hatchin, Yuri on Ice!!!), and Shinichiro Watanabe are keeping the ball rolling when it comes to bringing more diverse titles to life. Even creators like LeSean Thomas (Cannon Busters, Children of Ether) are making a stand to keep creating characters that represent the faces of our world.

We need more diverse everything. Not only does it allow viewers to enter a new point of view, but also gives us a peek of a new culture. Fiction builds empathy. When we read or watch characters that do not look like us nor live like us – we begin to understand them. In the words of Gene Luen Yang, “You understand what makes you similar and how vast the differences are, and it helps people who are different from you. Right now it seems like – not just in America, but around the world – we need a little more empathy.” So raise your glass and let’s make a toast. Here’s to more diverse titles to come. Cheers!

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Eliz Aviles

I'm a Puerto Rican writer and a stationary hoarder. You can find me with my nose stuck in a book or burning my fingers with the hot-glue gun as I work on cosplays. My goal in life is to publish young adult novels for diverse audiences.

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  1. The “demand” for diversity, especially for another country, is pretty bad. The idea we need to see ourselves do well to do well is demeaning. The first African American Olympic ice skater, when asked repeatedly about her “role models” , eventually said, “I don’t need to see someone black do something to believe I could”. I don’t need to see Hillary Clinton be president to believe a woman could be president. Don’t need to see Asians in American entertainment industry to believe Asians can do well in America.

    Frankly Asian Americans do extremely well, in fact have a higher per capital income than most races in America. When others think we (minorities) need to see minorities be successful to think we (minorities) can be successful, it’s patronizing. So the demand for diversity for humanitarian needs is just identity politics.

    Already had a few years of forced diversity in Marvel comics and they admit themselves it didn’t work out financially, as most “diverse” titles they release do very poorly. and its not cause comic nerds are racist/sexist/bigots/ect.

    I’m not against other racial/gendered/cultural perspectives in media. I technically write “diversity” stuff. As generally it isn’t from the perspective of a white American male. But I don’t write diversity. I ask to be seen as a person, not a minority group. So I write as a person, not a minority group. I’m against the social group think that says we have to have this for what ever reason that generally isn’t true to begin with.

    1. Have you heard of the “model minority myth”? The disaggregated data of Asian Americans reveals significant socioeconomic disparities between Asian American ethnic groups.

      Reading Between the Data: The Incomplete Story of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (Feb 2014)
      https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/AAPI-report.pdf

      How data disaggregation matters for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (Dec 2016)
      http://equitablegrowth.org/equitablog/how-data-disaggregation-matters-for-asian-americans-and-pacific-islanders/

      And for a counterpoint on diversity in comics:

      http://www.cbr.com/no-diversity-didnt-kill-marvels-comic-sales/

      1. doubt you will read all of this, but for those who want another perspective. here you go.

        The fact “Asian” is comprised of many ethnic groups does not change anything. You can subdivide essentially any racial groups and say the fact they are composed of multiple groups, which perform differently, so the statement is not “accurate”. in fact if you separate the groups you help push the numbers even higher. Indian’s have a even higher average income than the rest of the “Asian” population and whites and since they don’t have the rest of the Asian population inflating their numbers, they stand out more. less population doing even higher numbers.

        if you intend to say, since Hmong/Cambodia/what ever poorer Asian group has a less average income than whites, so the statement “Asians” have a higher income than whites” is wrong. you know your just twisting the narrative beyond a point of generalization, which i was at, to a point of maliciousness. i hope your not trying to imply that.

        if you subdivide Hispanic into richer groups like Argentinians, Peruvians, and Venezuelans (Group A) which all have a average income of over 50k. and remove the poorer groups like Hondurans, Dominicans, Mexicans (Group B), who all have 30k-35k average. then compare them again. you can say Hispanics (group A) are well off since the national average is about 50k. or you could say they (Group B) are worse off. so i don’t see the point in the “model minority” if you can use it to exacerbate the numbers by playing even more into identity politics, i don’t see much value in it other than general perspective, nothing wrong with mircoviewing, until you try to skew ideas. but still doesn’t change much.

        Either way that does not effect my statement that “I as a minority don’t need to see my minority in TV, movies, music, business, anywhere to think i can be successful”. in fact looking at the data from the first link, my specific ethnic group (southeast Asian) is the lowest in almost all categories, under 20k average income, yet I do pretty well personally. currently above the national average. guess I’m ruining the curve.

        also funny thing i have to point out in the second article. “But the rosy narrative that all the members of this group are relatively homogenous and successful”. do they think people do not understand how basic statistics work? all people within a statistic are doing the average that the statistic says? do they think people don’t know what average means? average means what everyone has? are they writing for children that take sociology courses during recess?

        as for my marvel comics statement, let me rephrase, “force” diversity and “diversity” are two different things. making a character a specific group too appeal/pander tends to fall into lazy writing. which many readers can pick up on. just having a character a specific group cause it plays into the plot/”feels” right is diversity. this can be a very fine line.

        like i said i have no problem with diverse writing. i do it myself. but when ppl/writers/studios/companies/whatever play into identity politics for, ultimately, money. it’s insulting to the reader and usually effects the writing at some point. let me amend my statement. it’s not diversity that is marvels issue, its the pandering to identity groups, pushed with poor writing. because when you pander, you don’t have to put too much effort in, cause they gonna buy it anyways because it has their group in it. bad business thinking and it caught up to them.

        the fact all comic sales fell, and the article writer blames 1 reader’s fatigue, 2 relaunching series, 3 weak slate of series, 4 crossovers, 5 competition, 6 change in reader’s taste, 7 poor marketing and thinks force diversity isn’t even a factor is sad.

        first i, myself, and essentially all the other comic nerds i know don’t just stop reading comics. the idea comic nerds been reading for years and now just all of a sudden lost interest in comics all together? cause secret wars is over, now comics aren’t worth reading? no, we still read comic, just not weak titles.

        second, comic series relaunch titles all the time. most series have multiple on going plot lines and continuities that release after each other and even simultaneously. i personally don’t like this, but they always do it, literally for over 50 years. but now it all of a sudden is a problem?

        third, weak slate in series- i tie that too force diversity as it creates weak stories as described previously.

        fourth, crossovers- generally fans love crossovers. i don’t have numbers, but i would think they are the higher sellers. sure too much of them get annoying, but too much of anything gets bad. having a bunch of cross overs, isn’t going to stop readers from reading. i watched Naruto fillers till my eyes bled. i can handle some crossovers even after they get excessive.

        fifth, competition, dc pretty much always been a competitor, for decades. comic nerds read what ever is good. we cross over dc, marvel, and image comics, dark horse lines all the time. of course we have our favorites, i personally like image and marvel over dc. but i read all. dc releasing rebirth is not an attack on marvel. they release new comics like every other publisher. its their job. both will release and both will be read.

        sixth, readers taste- sure popularity in genre’s change all the time. but superheroes has always been a staple and probably will always have a large portion in comics. so readers wanting “escapist stories” does not have more impact than in general.

        seventh, marketing- marvel is one of the largest comic book companies in the world. they have their marketing networks built. they market what they got. pretty simple.

        of course, there are multiple issues contributing to marvel’s poor sales, all of these are factors, and force diversity is another one of them, and one we could easily fix. stop pandering.

        1. Thanks for your response and clarifications. I don’t actually disagree with what you’re saying on how pandering sacrifices good writing and storytelling.

          I was merely pointing out the diversity of experience among Asian Americans since the “model minority myth” is used to obscure the challenges of marginalized Asian American ethnic groups. Asian Americans’ perceived collective success is often used as a racial wedge, minimizing the role of racism in other racial/ethnic groups’ struggles, e.g. “If Asians can succeed, why can’t Black people?” even though anti-Asian racism and anti-Black racism have different histories in the US. Anyway, that’s straying off-topic, and I don’t wish to continue that discussion further, but I appreciate you reading the links I shared.

          At a conference I attended, writer/professor/former TV host Melissa Harris-Perry gave a provocative talk that challenged this notion of Belonging and the desire to see ourselves represented in certain fields. She gave an example where she as a mixed Black woman was assumed to be “the help,” which is a common experience among some women of color, and usually the response is to resist that and be upset that someone stereotyped them as such, but she now embraces it because her ancestors have been “the help,” and she believes it’d be a rejection of them and a devaluing of the work they did to insist, “No, I’m actually x profession”. I hadn’t considered that perspective before.

          And Melissa would agree with you that it shouldn’t be necessary for people of color and other minorities to see themselves represented in order to be successful, but for me, it helps to see role models or characters with similar experiences do well, so I feel less alone or more encouraged. Perhaps you and I just engage with our media differently, so our expectations, needs, and interests differ? I’d also prefer no representation instead of one-dimensional or stereotypical representation; if someone can’t do a minority character justice and write them in a complex, authentic way, I’d rather not be witness to it.

          Where have you seen diverse writing done well in comics? What Image Comics has been publishing has been promising to me.

          1. The problem with the model minority myth is it is just micro-viewing statistics and assuming people don’t understand what the term average means. you can do it for any and every statistic. we assume whites are well off. but if you micro-view the statistic, not every person in that group has that average income. some have high income, others have low, the average is the middle. so the millionaire white people raise the average when there are many more poor white families living in trailer parks. do we say there is a model minority myth for whites? society sees white families as well off, but if you look into the statistics that would fall apart as well. lets say 1 white family has a million dollar income and 10 white families have 10k income. the average would be 90.9k average (1,000,000+100k/11), which is almost double the national average. which is amazing, but seeing how 10 of those 11 families live well below the poverty line, its horrible. so the model minority logic is well flawed when trying to dispel the idea “Asians make more money than whites”. but its fine when trying to look subdivide groups. maybe someone wants to know how much a specific ethnic group makes compared to the racial group its apart of. that’s fine and maybe even useful information.

            i understand the impulse to support your group, it feels so ingrained in human behavior. i get that feeling myself sometimes, and it seems society endorses it. but it will lead us into a very dangerous and bad habit, tribalism. the idea i “have” to support something cause it pertains to my group and society will harass me if i don’t is a bad situation. i could end up supporting shit or getting bothered for not doing it. i don’t like identity politics and try not to play into it.

            sure its nice to see people of my minority group do well, but i wouldn’t support them if i thought personally they weren’t good. society turns a blind eye to the negatives if it supports their views. but you should be consistent. if you would complain about a white writer for writing bullshit, you should complain about a minority writer writing bullshit. not just give them a pass because they are apart of your minority group. I’ve been attacked because i didn’t blindly support Asian things because i didn’t objectively think they were good. tribalism gone right, which is the problem with tribalism. .

            as for diverse comics i enjoy and like, though ill admit i have some guilty pleasures that i cant completely justify: miles morales as spiderman (hisplanic), harley quinn (female), spawn (black), saga (alien, i guess thats diversity?), monstress (female), wayward (female half japanese), the maxx (the main character is male, but honestly i see julie as the real main character since the story revolves around her), savage dragon (dragons are diverse?), kabuki (female, japanese), invader zim (alien), the walking dead (diverse characters in there are done well), the wicked +the divine (female), fisheye placebo (asian, webcomic)

            1. Not sure if you’re referring to a universal “you” or me directly, but I don’t support minorities for the sake of it if they’re not up to par; like I said, I’d rather see no representation than poor-quality representation. I do believe in holding writers accountable when they mess up, regardless of their background; for example, recently a woman of color young adult fiction writer received criticism from disabled folks on her portrayal of disability. Holding marginalized identities shouldn’t absolve people from accountability, but sometimes they use their identities to shield themselves from valid critique.

              Thanks for the recommendations; I enjoy Saga and Monstress, too, and it’s a plus that they feature mixed race characters and their illustrator and writer, respectively, are mixed Asian like me. 😉 But that doesn’t necessarily mean I wouldn’t read these works if that wasn’t the case; I’m just more invested, and that can go one of two ways for readers: either they support a work uncritically because of their bias, and it manifests as “stanning” or the tribalism you speak of, or they hold a work to an equal or higher standard because they expect more from those creators, strong writing included. I fall into the latter camp.

              Anyway, I don’t think our views are quite as divergent as they seemed; thanks for the dialogue.

  2. Great article! I would also like to recommend BBK/BRNK. It was mainly overlooked due to it being CG (gorgeous looking CG though), and crazy even if it all makes sense at the end (it’s also crazy fun). At first, it doesn’t seem so but this show has one of the more diverse casts I’ve ever seen in an anime. You’ll notice once the teams from other countries start showing up, especially the one from America and China. Really cool female characters too and an interesting male lead who’s not testosterone-fueled 😉

    This is what team America looks like:
    http://static.anime21.blog.br/2016/03/Bubuki-Buranki-10.mkv_001108.624.png

    And the team based in Honk Kong if I’m not mistaken:
    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CyP6791UQAETt66.jpg

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