The Tezuka Controversy

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 (ASRAB), 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 (“Desperate 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.

Those sentiments are echoed by the major publishing houses still printing those manga, as well as by the
Japan Cartoonists Association, whose members include some of Tezuka’s peers and protégés. Such supporters say that the Black characters are basically taken out of context from Tezuka’s overall positive themes, an action further complicated by the Japanese-English language barrier. But most importantly, Tezuka’s images of Black people are defended as the natural art of exaggeration in comics.

“Deformation and exaggeration are the basis of [Tezuka’s] work,” said Matsutani. “He portrayed his own nose in some cartoons as being several times larger than its actual size. Even his Japanese characters are drawn satirically as good guys or bad guys.”

Defenders of Tezuka’s manga as a kind of “Japanese cultural heritage” believe that such images are allowable under the freedom of artistic expression. They feel that banning or revising a comic because of its objectionable images sets chilling precedents against the whole industry, not the least being excessive self-restraint among all manga cartoonists.

Nishio Hidekazu, legal affairs manager at the
Kodansha publishing company, stands by Tezuka’s work on the whole as “representing love and humanitarianism,” not bigotry and intolerance. Officials at Kodansha, Tezuka Productions and the Japan Cartoonists Association all agree that the creativity and high moral standards seen in Tezuka’s lifetime of manga far outweigh any imperfections involving Blacks in his drawings.

At the same time, it does appear that the protests have been heeded at the corporate level. Manga fans will notice that the offending Black characters prevalent throughout the classic comic book edition of
Jungle Taitei have been completely edited out of the brand-new video version. The White characters remain intact.

In addition, city officials in Tezuka’s former hometown of Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, are planning to build by early 1994 a ¥1 billion museum devoted to Tezuka’s cartoons. The massive, multi-media “
Tezuka Osamu Memorial Hall” was originally intended to feature without exception the estimated 150,000-plus pages of manga from Tezuka’s career. But in view of the continuing protests, museum organizers recently decided to exclude from exhibition the cartoons now under fire for racism, according to a Takarazuka city planning director.

Matsutani and the other publishers have decided to deal with the protests with a Japanese-language disclaimer, printed on a slip of paper and inserted into Tezuka’s comics. It begins:

To Readers: Some of Tezuka’s works contain many illustrations of foreigners, including Black Africans and Asians. Some of these illustrations depict countries at a very undeveloped stage or exaggerate the bygone era. There is a great difference between these drawings and the present situation. Recently, such methods of illustration have been pointed out as discriminatory toward Blacks and certain foreigners. As long as some people find these drawings offensive and insulting, we must listen to their voices seriously.

The disclaimer goes on to point out that parody, or exaggerating people’s features, is one the most important methods of humor in manga. It states that since Tezuka is deceased, it would infringe on his personal rights to have a third party alter his works, and that they felt a responsibility to protect what is considered part of Japan’s cultural heritage. Finally, it asks the readers to become more aware of the existence of various types of discrimination and to deepen their understanding of this problem through their contact with Tezuka’s works.

Matsutani and other publishers are confident this measure is the best solution for the time being. But equally confident are the U.S. and Japanese protesters, including the newly opened Stateside chapters of Osaka’s ASRAB, who say they will continue putting the heat on Tezuka Productions as long as those images of Blacks are marketed to consumers in Japan.

So for now, the debate continues: Is Tezuka Osama an artistic deity of saintly stature or a mere mortal who never realized the depths of his own prejudice — or both? The ongoing controversy does not lend itself to an easy solution, and no one can say what Tezuka himself might make of this problem if he were still alive.

No matter which way the issue is considered, one thing is clear: the “God of Manga” is far from fading into oblivion.

Brian Covert is an Osaka-based freelance journalist.