Manga, Racism & Tezuka [part 2]

But at the same time, Matsutani and other publishers still feel that the offending images of blacks are basically taken out of context and complicated by the English-Japanese language barrier.

“The unfair thing is the protesters’ way of judging his work by only a few scenes. I feel sorry for Tezuka in this sense,” he said. “I would like to ask protesters to read and review all his stories from cover to cover.”

Perhaps one of the most harmful side-effects of this whole matter, Tezuka supporters say, is limiting the freedom of expression to do their jobs.

“Freedom of expression is the very basis on which cartoon creators are protected,” stresses Yasuaki Tamura, secretary general of the Japan Cartoonists Association. “No outside force can limit that. The extent of free expression should be determined by the individual artist.”

Matsutani agrees. “I would like writers and cartoonists to express whatever they like. This is my personal opinion,” he says. “I don’t want them worrying too much that their drawings might cause problems or make someone angry. …I would like to leave the decision on how to draw a cartoon up to the artist’s conscience.”

Freedom of expression aside, the value of Tezuka’s work is not lost on publishers. Since his death three years ago, Tezuka’s original cartoons have skyrocketed in price and created a new boom for comic book speculators.

Shin Takarajima, one of the Tezuka comic serials targeted for racism, was reportedly worth ¥200,000 while Tezuka was alive but shot up four times that amount after his death. Other Tezuka classics are said to be going for much higher prices.

Tezuka’s legendary rise to fame may help explain all the attention over his work.

He was born in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, and began serializing cartoons in elementary school, putting together his own handmade comic books to show to classmates. He drew all through his school years; by the end of World War II in 1945, he could boast of having drawn 4,000 to 5,000 pages of cartoons.

Tezuka’s first amateur cartoon was published in 1945 while he was a medical student at Osaka University. Her continued drawing mostly to help pay his university expenses, and he made his professional debut as a cartoonist one year later. Although he did earn his doctorate in medicine, he realized his real love lay in the pen rather than the stethoscope.

Eventually he hit it big in 1947 with Shin Takarajima, a fable centered around a mythical archipelago which was an instant hit among readers. Other successes followed, and Tezuka became a household name.

He moved to Tokyo in 1954 and was a human magnet for other up-and-coming cartoonists seeking to make the big time. Readers, too, could not get enough of Tezuka’s tales, whether they were science fiction thrillers of good vs. evil, detective capers, historical surveys or even romances. As his familiar style developed, Tezuka took pride in presenting his comics more as animated movies than as simple one-dimensional sketches.

But Tezuka was not without his human weaknesses, some of which he revealed publicly. A 1990 book titled The Treasured Words of Osamu Tezuka reveals how years earlier he had been chastised during a promotional lecture at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Tezuka recalled how he was taken to task by female UCLA students in the audience who insisted that the heroine in his movie version of Phoenix 2772 represented oppressed women everywhere. Tezuka later confided to colleagues that the unnerving experience made him more sensitive in drawing images of women.

Reactions over his images of black people did not fare much better. Tezuka remembered well how in the mid-1960s requests had come from U.S. black civil rights groups for the artist to present his black characters more realistically. In 1965 Tezuka reportedly met white executives from the U.S. television network NBC, who attempted to persuade Tezuka to present his black characters in a way more acceptable to the American public.

Tezuka later recounted these incidents in interviews and even skeptically satirized his meeting with TV execs in his 1977 comic Kami no Toride (Paper Fortress). Tezuka eventually agreed to their conditions, but unlike the UCLA incident, he indicated retrospectively that he had misgivings about those racially oriented requests.

The person closest to Tezuka, his wife Etsuko, wonders about the rising fuss over her late husband’s most acclaimed comics. “Some years have passed since his death, and Jungle Taitei is a very old cartoon,” she said. “I wonder why people are protesting now. I’m rather mystified by it all.”

Dr. John G. Russell, a Tokyo-based African-American scholar and author on the subject, responds that “Tezuka continued to draw stereotyped blacks in Japan until his death. He knew they were considered derogatory, yet he continued. He could not plead ignorance.”

Despite these and many other arguments, Tezuka’s legacy grows ever larger. City officials in Tezuka’s former hometown of Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture are planning a multi-story museum in his name to be completed in early 1994. Organizers had initially stated that they would show all his works without exception. In light of the protests, however, it was recently decided to exclude the cartoons under fire from the ¥1 billion Osamu Tezuka Memorial Hall, according to Minoru Yamashita, a Takarazuka city planning director.

Add to that the brand-new video releases of Tetsuwan Atomu and Jungle Taitei, still favorites among Japanese children. But those, too, are not without changes. The offending black characters that pervade Tezuka’s classic comic edition of Jungle Taitei are completely edited out of the video version, while the white characters remain intact.

As for Tezuka’s manga, publishers have decided to continue selling future editions with this Japanese-language disclaimer on a slip of paper inserted inside:

“To Readers: Some of Tezuka’s works contain many illustrations of foreigners, including black people and Asians, that exaggerate the appearance of their descendants. There is a great difference between the drawings and those people nowadays. Such methods of illustration have been pointed out as discriminatory toward blacks and other foreigners. As long as some people find these drawings offensive and embarrassing, we consider them inappropriate — even though Tezuka had no intention to discriminate.”

Osaka’s ASRAB and other groups say the disclaimer does not go far enough, and that it further confuses readers by not clearly designating which parts of the comics are considered racist and which parts aren’t.

The still-unfolding controversy does not seem easily resolved. A cross-section of solutions offered by Japanese and U.S. protesters range from total banning of the comics to archiving them for documentary use only.

Their bottom line, in any case, is that the outdated black images must go and that Japanese publishers must stop profiting from them. And with the sting of racially offensive comments by powerful Japanese figures still felt in the black community, an economic boycott of Japanese-made products sold in the United States is frequently cited as an alternative in dealing with the publishers.

Just like Tezuka’s popularity, the protests show no signs of fading. A newly opened Chicago chapter of Osaka’s ASRAB is the latest addition to the grass-roots opposition. And from her home in Cincinnati, Ohio, Kuwahara of Northern Kentucky University says U.S.-based groups, following the lead of protests from within Japan, will keep the heat on publishers for as long as they market black stereotypes to Japanese consumers.

Which is exactly what they intend to do. “Partial shortcomings are not a satisfactory reason to abandon Tezuka,” Nishio of Kodansha said. “Take, for example, the novel Hakai (Broken Promise) by the famous writer Toson Shimazaki — it contains many offensive expressions about the burakumin (Japan’s outcaste minority). But that work is still on bookstore shelves with a disclaimer. We believe the best way to compromise on this issue is to publish Tezuka’s work as it is with an explanatory note.”

Matsutani stands firmly by that joint decision. “I consider this the best measure to take at the moment. We will continue to address and deepen understanding of the matter.

“In the future, we may not even need such disclaimers,” Matsutani concludes. “As history changes, so will peoples’ opinions. Unless we are God, we cannot always be right.”

No one would more likely agree on that point than Osamu Tezuka, the God of Manga, who offered these prophetic thoughts to the Akahata newspaper in 1974:

“I want to freely draw whatever pictures I like. However, in the publishing industry, the bottom line of boosting sales has priority over a cartoonist’s free will. So we have to compromise. We get pressure from readers and critics, too, indicating that some illustrations are educationally worthless or cheap or too manneristic. My worry is that manga may become as depraved as the rest of the mass media culture.”
Brian Covert is an Osaka-based freelance journalist.

[Japanese translation of this article]