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 the most popular manga today, black characters are often at the center of the stories: One Piece, Naruto, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure… If these characters are generally rather well represented, in the past, the drawing was often humiliating, even racist. To understand the evolution of ethnic representations in manga, you have to dive into the history of Japan and its relationship to the rest of the world.

Japan, an isolationist country under Western influence

Historically isolated, Japan was, during the Edo era (from the 17the in the 19the century), almost completely closed to foreigners. the sakoku, a policy of isolation of the country, was thus established in 1650 by the Tokugawa clan, worried about the breakthrough of Christianity. Barring commercial exceptions, for more than two centuries, it was impossible for the Japanese to leave the country and for foreigners to enter without authorization.

In the imagination of the Japanese at the time, who only saw dark-skinned people on boats transporting slaves from Africa or the islands of South Asia, they were necessarily dominated beings. And in Japanese art, they are depicted as such.

Julien Bouvard, teacher-researcher, lecturer in Japanese studies at Lyon-III University, specialist in the history of popular culture in contemporary Japan, specifies that “the first contacts with Africans or with people of African descent go through the Japanese vision of Western domination over the world: slavery, colonization, and therefore an asymmetrical relationship between peoples”.

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

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

Read also: The Rediscovered Legend of Yasuke, Japan’s First Black Samurai

With 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), the Japanese political system then changed radically, feudalism giving way to a modern nation 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 the XXe century, we find, in the first manga, black characters represented with the stereotypes of the “good savage”, as drawn in the West at the same time. Their skin is the color of Indian ink, their prominent lips white, their features exaggerated.

“In Japanese children’s comics of the 1930s, we regularly find these clichés of a naive African, as in the great success of Keizo Shimada, The Adventures of Dankichi [1933-1939], which explores the Southern Isles populated by black natives”explains Julien Bouvard.

Some accounts of the time, however, are intended to be humanistic and denounce the condition of blacks. If in Tintin in the Congopublished between 1930 and 1931, the hero is accompanied by a character inspired by the figure of the servant of the colonial Congo, while the black characters are represented as large lazy children expressing themselves badly, in theAstro Boy by Osamu Tezuka, the hero has, on the contrary, the will to liberate black people from their dominated status.

Plate from the manga

From racist drawing to a more respectful representation

For the mangakas, who initially write for a Japanese audience that is not very, if at all, diverse, the racial question has never been a debate. Even today, Japan’s immigration policy is one of the strictest in the world.

But, from 1989, controversies launched by Japanese associations against racism – in particular the Association to stop racism against black people in Osaka – led to the evolution of representations of black people in the public space. These initiatives have pinpointed “Companies that marketed products using blackfacesclichés of the “good African savage” that still existed at that time”, specifies Julien Bouvard. The question of a correct and respectful representation of black people now arises.

In Europe and America too, more and more lovers of manga and Japanese animated films are undertaking to denounce the racist nature of certain characters: Lippoutou, in the series Pokemon (broadcast since 1997), Mr. Popo, God’s Slave in dragonball (1984-1995), or even Chocolove McDonell, in Shaman King (1998-2004). These characters have since evolved: Mr. Popo went from the color black to a midnight blue, Lippoutou turned purple, and Chocolove lost her plump lips in the 2021 anime version of Shaman King.

Black characters at the center of their own story

Today, character design blacks have improved considerably, without the question of racial representation becoming central in manga. The ethnic or geographical identity of the characters, black or not, often remains undetermined. In the Japanese manga, to a realistic representation, we often prefer very codified characters, “a bit like 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. She can then be so in a way that is still very marked by stereotypes – the African-American, a rap fan, who does not speak Japanese very well – but also in a more respectful and profound way, when she is interested in questions colonization and domination.

Thus, in Attack on Titan, by Hajime Isayama, the question of ” skin color [du personnage d’Onyankopon] is 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 the domination of the second, the empire of Mahr. Implicitly, it is a form of colonial domination against which he fights »explains Julien Bouvard.

Onyankopon in the anime

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

Today, from the Kilik of Soul Eaterto Carol from Carol & Tuesdayvia Sister Krone in The Promised Neverland, the manga no longer lacks deep, powerful, nuanced black characters. An evolution that allows fans around the world to find heroes who look like them and who they can draw inspiration from.

Plate from the manga