America has Walt Disney and Japan has the late cartoonist Osamu Tezuka (1928-89), beloved as the undisputed godfather of the art of cartooning known as manga. Tezuka is renowned for having revolutionized the Japanese postwar cartoon industry with his unique style, ushering in the modern-day comic book craze.
In death Tezuka has become known as the reigning manga no kamisama (“God of Comics”), immortal and nearly unquestionable in his concern for humanity, a theme that appears throughout many of his estimated 150,000-plus illustrations.
“He was always full of ideas and had a strong pioneering spirit. He loved manga and he loved peace,” says Takayuki Matsutani, president of Tezuka Production Co. Ltd., which oversees the business side of Tezuka’s legacy. “He used to say that manga was a common global language and a medium to encourage world peace.”
The camera-shy Matsutani himself looks as if he might have been a character created by the pen of Tezuka: square-framed, tall, neatly groomed and graying hair, with a tanned and friendly face that any child would love. The perfect person for the job.
Like many people in Japan, Matsutani grew up on Tezuka’s images and holds the artist in high esteem. So high, in fact, that when asked during an exclusive interview to list some of Tezuka’s shortcomings, the corporate executive is visibly bothered. His face turns red, and he speaks slowly and deliberately: “I’m not qualified to answer that.”
But the rising stack of letters on Matsutani’s desk indicates otherwise.
Far from viewing Tezuka as a god, protesters in both the United States and Japan are now labeling him a perpetrator of racial prejudice toward black people and an overrated icon whose sensitivity toward humanity ended at the color bar.
“These comics are not comical at all,” Shirley Richmond, director of an 850-member community group in Jackson, Tennessee, wrote to Matsutani. “They display a terrible racial insensitivity which I hope is not typical of Japanese people.”
Another letter, from the Sisters of Saint Dominic, a religious women’s group in Racine, Wisconsin, assails the “destructive, negative stereotypes of Africans and African-Americans in Tezuka’s comics….”
And yet another, from Ronald Chisom, executive director of a nationwide U.S. grass-roots coalition called the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, states: “Any corporation that would produce such trash for someone to read should be put out of business.”
Critics point to the black characters portrayed in many of Tezuka’s classic works as proof of their charges. Tezuka’s treatment of blacks in his cartoons, they maintain, contain all the recognizable elements of negative stereotypes transplanted from Western societies.
“My greatest concern is that seeing these images will make (Japanese) people believe they are true on a subconscious level,” says Dr. Harriette Richard, a professor of psychology at Northern Kentucky University and board member of the U.S. Association of Black Psychologists.
“I don’t find any discrimination in Tezuka’s work,” counters Hidekazu Nishio, a general manager at the Kodansha publishing company. “The basic concepts in his cartoons are humanitarianism and love.”
This chasm in outlook over Tezuka’s illustrations is the focus of an ongoing face-off between Japan’s most powerful publishing conglomerates and bilaterally linked community organizations. The latter demand that such images be pulled off the store shelves immediately; publishers are staunchly refusing. The battle lines are drawn, encompassing the thorny issues of free expression and social responsibility in their midst.
At issue are the portrayal of blacks in such Tezuka masterpieces as Jungle Taitei (1950) and Tetsuwan Atomu (1952) — known to Western audiences as Kimba the White Lion and Astro Boy, respectively — as well as Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island, 1947) and Hi no Tori (Phoenix, 1954). These four cartoons are considered to be at the pinnacle of Tezuka’s illustrious career.
Critics denounce these and other Tezuka comics sold over the counter for consistently featuring blacks in what they view as degrading roles as savage cannibals, sexual barbarians or shiftless servants to white people.
Moreover, they claim, physical features are overly distorted in the form of bulbous lips, unfocused eyes, and animal-like faces that make blacks unrecognizable as human beings when compared to caricatures of other races.
Tezuka cartoons under particular criticism are Chikyu o Nomu (Swallowing the Earth, 1968), where blacks in the United States rush to department stories to buy artificial white skins they can fit into; Yakkepachi no Maria (Desperate Maria, 1970) for its portrayal of an obese black woman with four breasts and six babies clinging to her; and Chojin Taikei (History of the Birdmen, 1971), in which a black male rapes a white female in a barn in Africa.
Supporters of Tezuka defend these images as nothing more than the art of exaggeration.
“Tezuka portrayed his own nose in some cartoons as being several times larger than his real one,” Matsutani says. “Even his Japanese characters are drawn satirically as good guys or bad guys. We find it deplorable that a few scenes cause all of his works to be judged as racist.”
The Japan Cartoonists Association, whose members include many of Tezuka’s peers and proteges, shares those exact sentiments.
Just how did such a serious judgment on Tezuka’s work come about?
Ironically, it began not as a Japan-bashing-type of overseas endeavor but as a little-known local protest that quickly spread abroad through the efforts of a Japanese group in Osaka known as the Association to Stop Racism Against Blacks.
ASRAB was formed in 1988 and now claims a membership of more than 100 multi-racial supporters. The association’s campaign to spotlight racial discrimination against blacks in Japanese corporate logos and toys eventually led it to the field of manga, a ¥440-billion industry that has come to permeate every aspect of Japanese society.
While collecting various manga, the group’s founding members were taken aback to see that many of those cartoons containing stereotyped images of blacks were drawn by none other than the God of Comics.
“We admit that Tezuka displayed excellent qualities as a cartoonist,” said Toshiji Arita, vice-chairperson of ASRAB. “But that’s exactly why we became disappointed: Even he drew black people with the same stereotypes held by all Japanese. We just wanted people to realize that some of Tezuka’s cartoons contain discriminatory illustrations.”
Arita estimates that at least 20 Tezuka comics contain elements of racial prejudice against blacks.
In September 1990, the group began sending letters of protest to some of Japan’s largest publishing houses, as well as to Matsutani of Tezuka Productions. The issue was discussed between the companies and an apologetic but firm response was issued: Tezuka’s books were not deemed deliberately racist and would continue to be published with the black caricatures intact.
Frustrated by what it considered unsympathetic publishers and an apathetic vernacular press, ASRAB eventually took advantage of its connections to present its Tezuka protest directly before several high-profile institutions in the United States.
Those institutions included the Washington D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies; the Black Business Council; the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History; students and staff of Howard University, the prestigious black college; the New York-based Council on Interracial Books for Children; and the city of Baltimore’s Community Relations Commission, whose director, John B. Ferron, publicly called such images “an absolute insult” to blacks.
The Congressional Black Caucus, an influential group of legislators within the U.S. Congress, also recognized ASRAB’s efforts. Back home in Japan, ASRAB’s campaign was virtually unknown to the public; in the United States the group gained wide-ranging publicity and solidarity from various sectors of the black community.
Not least from the educational field. In spring 1991, two faculty members at the University of Northern Kentucky decided to open a U.S. branch of ASRAB to help carry on the Osaka organization’s work against racism. The faculty members are Dr. Michael Washington, director of Afro-American Studies, and Dr. Yasue Kuwahara, a communications professor from Tokyo.
Kuwahara’s devotion to the issue of racial prejudice began in 1988 when she was an assistant professor at Xavier University in Louisiana. She went there fully confident that she knew enough about American students to teach at the predominantly black university.
Instead, she said, like “an average Japanese person,” she discovered how little she knew about black people and culture.
The professor spent the rest of the year being educated about African-American culture by her own students, an experience that changed her life. “I made up my mind then that I would dedicate my life to the undoing of racism,” she says.
Kuwahara was instrumental in launching last year’s wide-ranging U.S. letter-writing campaign to Tezuka Productions, demanding that the Tezuka cartoons containing stereotyped images of blacks be discontinued. She says the campaign is supported by more than 200 religious, educational and peace organizations.
As the dozens of letters from the United States began coming in one after another to Tezuka Productions, it became obvious that the protests were now more than just a domestic matter. “We are taking them very seriously,” Matsutani said.