Racial stereotypes in manga: freedom of expression or blatant racism?
by Brian Covert
The legacy of the late Tezuka Osamu (1928-89), Japan’s Manga no Kamisama, or “God of Comics,” shows no signs of fading away. Nowhere is that more evident than in an ongoing series of protests in both Japan and the United States against several of Tezuka’s most acclaimed works. Critics denounce what they consider to be disparaging images of Blacks in Tezuka’s manga, and in doing so, they question the artist’s reputation as a humanist untainted by ignorance and prejudice. Through a binationally linked letter-writing campaign, protesters are demanding that Tokyo-based Tezuka Production Co. Ltd. (which overseas the business side of Tezuka’s legacy) and other major Japanese publishers discontinue sales in Japan of comics containing the images they find offensive. So far, the publishers have held their ground and refused. Thus the stage is set for future battles not only over Tezuka’s illustrations, but also concerning the sensitive issue of artistic freedom vs. social responsibility among all manga artists. “In a word, I’m really upset,” says Arita Kimiko, who in 1988, along with her husband Toshiji and son Hajime, founded the Osaka-based Association to Stop Racism Against Blacks, the organization that started the protests. “I want Japanese people to realize prejudice against Blacks does exist in Japan and I want them to know the pain it causes Black people,” Arita said. “As a teacher, I just can’t ignore this problem.” The group and its growing list of U.S. allies are targeting several images of Blacks portrayed by Tezuka and other well-known manga cartoonists as savage cannibals, mindless servants to White people or sexual beasts. Protesters charge that the images of Blacks with huge lips, unfocused eyes and animal-like physical characteristics present Blacks as subhuman when compared to figures of other racial or ethnic groups — including Japanese characters, who are commonly drawn with distinctly European features. ASRAB’s efforts at home and during its two Stateside tours have attracted publicity and widespread support from many institutions and individuals throughout the U.S. Black community, spanning the fields of politics, business, religion, entertainment and education. “My greatest concern is that seeing these images will somehow make (Japanese) people believe they are true on a subconscious level…and that they will act based on this warped view,” says Dr. Harriette W. Richard, a professor of psychology at Northern Kentucky University and board member of the Association of Black Psychologists. The Tezuka comic protest has its roots in ASRAB’s founding four years ago. Following the lead of a controversial Washington Post article, ASRAB began focusing unprecedented attention on Japanese toys and corporate logo of Blacks that were considered racist. ASRAB eventually succeeded in pressuring major Japanese corporations to drop such logos. Publishers in Japan even ceased printing for a time the controversial children’s book Chibikuro Sambo (“Little Black Sambo”) due to the pressure. In the course of its anti-racism crusade, ASRAB also came across those same stereotypes of Blacks in manga, a ¥440 billion-a-year industry that seems to permeate very aspect of Japanese life. Much to their own surprise, ASRAB members said, they found that some of the most offensive images were drawn by the “God of Manga” himself. The targets of protest include mange from the very pinnacle of Tezuka’s distinguished career: masterpieces like Jungle Taitei (1950) and Tetsuwan Atom (1952) — better known to Western audiences as the cartoons “Kimba the White Lion” and “Astro Boy,” respectively — as well as Shin-Takarajima (“New Treasure Island,” 1947) and Hi no Tori (“The Phoenix,” 1954). Other Tezuka manga hard-hit by the protests include African Americans trying to pass as Caucasians by purchasing artificial White skins in Chikyu o Nomu (“Swallowing the Earth,” 1968); an obese Black woman with four breasts and six clinging babies in Yakkepachi no Maria (“Yakkepachi’s Maria,” 1970); and the rape of a White female by a Black male in southern Africa in Chojin Taikei (“History of the Birdmen,” 1971). Such stereotypes are found in more than a few of the artist’s comics, according to ASRAB, which estimates that at least 20 Tezuka manga contain elements of racial discrimination. These kinds of images are nothing new, having been borrowed from Western stereotypes of Blacks ever since Japan’s first historical ties with Europe and America, explains Dr. John G. Russell, a Tokyo-based African-American anthropologist and author on the subject. In both his 1991 book Nihonjin no Kokujin-kan (“Japanese Perceptions of Blacks”) and a recent article in the Japan Quarterly journal, Russell also notes that Tezuka was aware of the discontent over his Black images as far back as 1965 during the U.S. civil rights era. At the time, the famed cartoonist reportedly met with White executives of the NBC television network, who subsequently persuaded Tezuka to alter his cartoons containing Black characters for the touchy American market. Russell points to Tezuka’s own 1977 comic Kami no Toride (“Paper Fortress”) as revealingly satirizing not only the meeting but Tezuka’s own discomfort about revising his Black figures as well. The Black stereotypes, however, were never changed for the Japanese market. “Tezuka knew they were considered degrading, yet he continued,” said Russell. “He could not plead ignorance.” The growing number of protesters remain unsatisfied with what they view as apathy by the Japanese media and insensitivity by publishers in confronting the issue of racism in Japan. “We have a long way to go,” said Arita Kimiko of ASRAB, which now cites a multiracial membership of more than a hundred. “In our limited contacts with publishers, we have gotten no satisfactory responses. I want to ask them: Why haven’t you recognized those racist illustrations?” “We are taking the protests very seriously,” responds Matsutani Takayuki, president of Tezuka Production, in a rare interview with a foreign journalist. Since September 1990, when ASRAB first raised the issue, it has been discussed between Tezuka Productions and other Japanese publishers. They have since labeled the protests “deplorable,” stating that Tezuka would not and did not deliberately discriminate against Black people in his manga.