28c. White Lines – Shōjo Manga and Racial Difference

Shōjo manga draws a great deal of critical attention, because its very existence as both a demographic and conceptual category, for better or for worse, foregrounds questions of gender to the same degree that shōnen, as I have previously argued, tries to minimize them.  Shōjo manga seem to play with gender and how gender is construed, romantically and otherwise, in a far wider variety of ways than manga for “boys,” and so, as a result, they function as far better objects of analysis when critics come along with their theories of performativity and what have you.  Far less examined, though, is the degree to which shōjo manga foregrounds racial and cultural difference, even though one can readily observe any number of shōjo manga that take place in exotic locales and whose characters are marked as distinctly non-Japanese.

The Inversion of Statelessness/Mukokuseki

The foregrounding of racial difference in shōjo is of particular importance for manga studies, because it runs directly contrary to one prominent way in which Japanese media commodities (and commodities in general) are often understood, as, in a sense, culturally scrubbed, so that they might be more effectively sold in non-Japanese markets where an explicit Japaneseness might be considered a liability.  Whereas earlier, when discussing this mukokuseki or “statelessness,” I focused on a certain Anglicization of Japanese consumer electronics, I think it is worth noting that this cultural scrubbing reflects less Japan’s standing with regard to European and North American countries, who generally regard Japan favorably and occasionally with a certain reverential awe, as with the recurring adulation of Japanese corporate management principles, but with regard to East Asia, where, in Korea and China especially, Japanese companies find themselves stuck between a desire to, you know, make money by selling junk to their neighbors and an imperialist legacy that colors all discussions of Japanese foreign policy in the Pacific sphere.

One of the most frustrating aspects of mainstream Japanese politics is how quickly the Japanese have sought to “get over” their imperialist mucking about in the early 20th century, even as they more or less openly antagonize the very countries in which they mucked by consistently failing to acknowledge that anything happened there.  The message seems to be “we’re giving you TVs and pop music; why do you keep going on and on about comfort women and history textbooks?”  This cultural scrubbing of so-called hard and soft goods allows Japanese companies to establish themselves in the markets of their closest neighbors even as foreign ministers cancel planned summits over some politician’s gaff (*cough*Aso*cough) or as Japan and its neighbors quibble over territorial possession of a bunch of uninhabitable rocks in the Japan/East sea.  Of course, this paradox does not hold universally; in Taiwan, for instance, animus toward Japan is more or less non-existent, and so Japanese media commodities such as TV dramas, pop music, and comics have had a solid market there for some time.

Your quintessential Japanese girl

Your quintessential Japanese girl

When it comes to illustrated media, anime and manga in particular but not just those, mukokuseki tends to take on the sense that visual features of illustrated characters have little meaningful relationship to how they are identified racially.  A girl in manga or anime can have blonde (or blue or pink or rainbow-colored) hair and still be identified as Japanese–or anything else, for that matter.  Part of the reason for this has to do with the material limitations of how manga are printed.  In newsprint, you are generally limited to one color, two color, or four color printing, and though over the years manga have made use of all these, they are nowadays for the most part black-and-white with occasional “full color” glossy pages.  This presents the artist with an interesting problem.  If we think of hair, for instance, you basically only have black (or whatever ink color), white (or whatever page color), and shades that combine them.  Blonde, then, is simply the color of the blank page, black/brown the color of the ink, and everything else some form of line shading or screen tone.

These limitations of print media, then, make any identification of racial difference almost purely discursive.  This is not merely a concern with manga but a reflection of how “black-and-white” or, more precisely, single color printing affects the visual representation of race in all comics.  That is an argument much broader than the purview of this blog, but it is worth keeping in the back of your mind as I go through my genealogy of representing “foreignness” in shōjo manga.

Also worth bearing in mind is the eerie parallel between the vaguery of “white” and gaijin as overly inclusive racial categories.  I mentioned last week how gaijin seems in practice to refer to any non-Japanese and typically non-Asian “foreigner,” though I would add that this term also largely erases any meaningful distinction between the racial/ethnic groups it includes.  Similarly, the category of “white,” especially as applied demographically in the US, is almost entirely without any fixable meaning.  In Latin America, “whiteness” typically refers to European ancestry as over against native populations.  The term mestizo, like the shading/toning above, awkwardly combines the two in ways that upon close inspection are revealed to be arbitrary and yet are no less meaningful for people who use the term.  “Whiteness” in the US is even more of a meaningless-yet-meaningful clusterfuck, seeing as over the years it has included ethnic groups that it historically excluded (e.g. the Irish) and even now technically includes ethnic groups (Arabs, for instance) that any White Pride asshole would foam at the mouth over.

Blonde and/or Japanese

Terry Kawashima, in “Seeing Faces, Making Races: Challenging Visual Tropes of Racial Difference,” makes the important point that a shōjo manga “author tends to use the same stylized features across her or his oeuvre: Japanese characters in one work often look strikingly similar to ‘white’ characters in another.”   The perceptions of any one illustrated figure, she notes, must be understood in terms of “visual conventions that are naturalized through repeated appearance and culturally shared understanding.” (Meridians vol. 3 no. 1 [2002] p. 169)  I would agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, yet the lack of detailed consideration of the very media in which shōjo manga appear substantially weakens her argument.  While speaking in unnecessarily vague terms about the visual tropes of shōjo manga (which range much more broadly than she gives them credit for), Kawashima prefers to contextualize the blonde hair or blue eyes of manga and anime characters in terms of contemporary women’s fashion/beauty in Japan, in particular the range of cosmetics available for whitening the skin and bleaching one’s hair.

While a valuable addition to thinking about racializing discourses in shōjo manga, I feel like it misses the forest for the trees, for a few reasons.  1) By focusing almost exclusively on the reactions of (largely hypothesized) contemporary “Japanese” and “Western” readers, she pays little attention to how the stylistic conventions she identifies solidified over time and, more importantly, how those conventions reflect contemporaneous visual media that are poorly reflected in current manga magazines and related media.  2) She also fails to consider just how common clearly non-Japanese characters and locales are in postwar shōjo manga, especially since it has a direct bearing on how, in the absence of clear visual markers of race, discursive patterns of ethnicity and otherness are read onto otherwise semiotically blank figures.

To understand what bugs me so much in point #1, we have to look at the popular girls manga magazines of the 1960s in order to find something that is nowadays missing from those print media.  Consider the following cover of Shōjo furendo from September 29, 1963.


While it’s easy enough to claim that a line art figure is, in racial terms, semiotically ambiguous, when dealing with photography, however, it is much harder to make claims that this very blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl with her very blonde and blue-eyed doll would likely or even potentially be read as anything but “white” by a Japanese reader.  You possibly could, after extensive investigation into this particular girl’s ethnic background, demonstrate that the label “white” is arbitrary at best, however that would do little to undermine the ways in which this girl’s appearance play to stereotypes of racial difference.  Moreover, the cover advertises a feature on “Western Clothes for Fall” (aki no yōfuku), so the idea that a certain degree of exoticism could be read into this text is not entirely out of line.  However, the mere presence of photographs of “white girls” is not enough to establish the connection between this common place of shōjo zasshi and semiotically ambiguous line art figures.  For that, consider this cover of Bessatsu māgaretto from 1968.


Again, another blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl, this time drinking what I can only assume from the dopey expression on her face is a rum and coke.  Juxtaposed with her this time are various saucer-eyed, stereotypical images of girls in shōjo manga.  Note especially the three headshots to the upper left of the photograph in the center, each one, to my eye, blonde, seemingly leading one’s gaze in a line toward the photograph of what I presume to be a real life blonde girl.  Now, nothing here says, “you must read these illustrated figures as white girls,” but given their close relationship within the visual field of the page, one could be easily forgiven for doing so.  It’s also hard not to make this identification with the magazine as a whole.


The magazine Māgaretto (i.e. Margaret), which began as a weekly in 1963 but is now published biweekly, is named after a particular variety of daisy, which figures prominently on the cover above.  Another blonder-haired, blue-eyed girl wears a single bloom of this eponymous flower in her hair, establishing an uneasy but palpable relationship between the identity of the magazine itself (and what manner of world view it seeks to portray) and a certain stereotype of whiteness.  Now, I have gamed the system somewhat by choosing the most obvious examples, so let’s see how this plays out in more uncertain territory.


The dark brown verging on black-haired girl with dark eyes on this Bessatsu māgaretto cover is, to my eye, at least, far more racially ambiguous.  However, the fact that she could be read as either Japanese or not is of utmost importance to the point I am trying to make.  We have similar visual props to the covers I examine above (i.e. the blonde doll and the seemingly blonde line art portrait to the upper left of the photo), so the connection between this girl and the less ambiguous ones above, while not obvious, is also not entirely out of line.  This relative uncertainty about racial identity, or more precisely readerly projections of racial identity, throws the following fashion spread from a 1967 issue of Shōjo furendo into stark relief.


When I first looked at this two page spread in a feature about summer fashions from around the world (in this case, the US), I assumed that all the models were Japanese.  However, as the caption just below the square photo on the bottom left indicates, what we have hear is, in fact, a mix of Japanese and non-Japanese models.  Where Kawashima asserts that the semiotic ambiguity of manga characters is almost entirely dependent upon who is reading that character and what their own cultural background is, the prevalence of both racially clear and racially ambiguous images in the very media in which shōjo manga appear contributes as much to the racializing reading of manga characters as generalizations about the potential subject positions of any given reader.

With this media landscape in mind, you cannot overlook the fact that so many shōjo manga, long before the immensely popular period pieces of Ikeda or Hagio, center on markedly non-Japanese characters and take place in non-Japanese locales: Mizuno Hideko’s Hanii hanii no suteki na bōken (Europe) and Fire! (the US), Asuka Sachiko’s Kaitō kōmori danshaku (the UK), Ueda Toshiko’s Fuichin-san (China), to name a few.  Though this might be something of a stretch, I think you can also add to this list fantasy characters that can be easily identified as non-Japanese, for instance Yokoyama Mitsuteru’s classic magical girl manga Mahōtsukai Sarii.  Unlike shōnen manga, where these types of stories are, in my experience at least, relatively rare, in shōjo magazines they are quite common.  Much is said of shōjo bunka or “girls’ culture” in Japan about how it serves as a social space isolated from mainstream Japanese culture in which girls can develop into… well… whatever it is girls are supposed to develop into.  It is possible to imagine, then, a media space both for and about shōjo isolated from the logic of “cultural scrubbing” that otherwise seems to be the order of the day in Japanese commodities, a space that eschews the false dichotomy of Japanese and foreign, and where the two uneasily blend into each other in a manner analogous to the “foreign” and “Japanese” models in the two page spread above.

Next Week: a different take on photography and manga

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com

One comment

  1. […] Nagoya station, back when she was more known for her roles in independent films.  Now, admittedly, what “whiteness” means in Japan is a matter of critical controversy, but something remains to be said about why, for instance, the fashion industry is constantly […]

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