Anime film characters: Do we perceive the intended race, or our own?

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of my favorite cartoons as a child was "Speed Racer." It featured an all-American boy (first name, "Speed," last name, "Racer") engaging in that most American of pastimes: driving fast cars. Except that "Speed Racer" wasn't really American; it was made in Japan, and the original Japanese voices were crudely overdubbed in English. Perhaps I can be excused for not noticing the Japanese origins of the show -- I was only 10 years old. Even now, as an adult looking back at those cartoons, the characters do seem awfully American-looking. Or perhaps that's just my Caucasian bias.

Does everyone see a little bit of themselves in animated cartoon characters? Or do the artists actually draw the characters to look more generic, less racially distinctive? There have been few studies about the perceived race and ethnicity of animated cartoon characters, and none focusing on the unique Japanese anime style.

So Amy Shirong Lu randomly selected 341 main characters out of 3,098 anime films made between 1958 and 2005. Each image was carefully edited to depict only a head-on, facial portrait-style picture. All clothing and background images were edited out, like this:


The character depicted here is Asuka Langley Soryu, from the movie Neon Genesis Evangelion, and of mixed Japanese and German descent. Lu recruited 1,046 people to view a randomly-selected set of 90 of the pictures and judge the characters' race based on the features depicted in the pictures. The animators' intended race of each character was judged based on the promotional materials for the film, or watching the movie itself. Still, in 125 of the cases, it was either impossible to determine the character's race or the character was of mixed ancestry. About half of all the characters were intended to be Asian, while only about 10 percent were Caucasian. Did the viewers responses match the actual race of the characters? Here are the results:


Overall, the respondents didn't do very well! They correctly identified faces intended as Asian less than half the time, and vastly overstated the number of Caucasians.

But perhaps this was due to the race of the respondents. Lu asked the respondents to identify their own race, and indeed, her sample was strongly biased towards Caucasian respondents. These graphs divide respondents into Asians and Caucasians:


Asians were significantly more likely to say the characters were Asian, and Caucasians were significantly more likely to say characters were Caucasian. So it seems that we are simply more likely to see our own race in anime characters than the race of others. Still, it's interesting to me that Asians still underestimated the number of intended Asian characters in the cartoons. Lu notes that many critics have accused anime of "ethnic cleansing," stripping the characters they depict of any ethnic identity. Early anime artists acknowledged a debt to Disney films, and attempted to mimic the Disney style, so perhaps there's some truth to these accusations.

Lu also suggests that there are many other cues to race besides facial appearance: clothing, behavior, and speech accents also play into the perceived race of a cartoon character. Perhaps if the characters were seen in context, viewers would be better at judging their race.

Lu, A.S. (2009). What Race Do They Represent and Does Mine Have Anything to Do with It? Perceived Racial Categories of Anime Characters Animation, 4 (2), 169-190 DOI: 10.1177/1746847709104647

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There is another factor that might be at play here. In Japan it is not uncommon to have mixed race individuals on TV as presenters, actors or models. They are frequently seen as physically prettier than either single race Japanese or non Japanese. In this way its perhaps not surprising that anime characters are also drawn in a similar way.

"stripped of ethnic identity" means Caucasian? Is this what you mean to convey?

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 03 Nov 2009 #permalink

Am I completely misreading the figure? It looks like Asians still strongly over-estimated the caucasianess of the characters? They did better at estimating the asianess but they still underestimated that as well.

Anyhow, given the fact that asians still way over-estimate the number of caucasian characters I'd have guessed that it's a general viewer bias more so than a race specific viewer bias.

Interesting stuff! Though not, on the whole, extremely surprising. My friends and I were watching the live-action Death Note movie a while back, and the general consensus was that characters who were meant to be Japanese looked more so than their anime counterparts. And, of course, that's not counting characters who were American or Japanese-English-Russian-French in the anime, but played by Japanese actors in the movie.

The screwy things anime does with hair colour and the limited degree of differentiation among faces probably affect perceptions, too.

(The otaku in me suspects that the head-shot of Asuka comes from the original Evangelion TV show, rather than the movies which joined the franchise later.)

Anime characters do look very caucasian but with always japanese style hair. That seems to be the predominant style. The large cutesy eye style probably doesn't help. I think it's one of those things that everyone does and no-one thinks about it anymore. Although I suppose you could say that about quite a few things.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 03 Nov 2009 #permalink

It would be interesting to see if viewers would more easily recognize as Asian the Xingese characters from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, or the Asian characters who built the RX-3 for the villain Beck in Big O.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 03 Nov 2009 #permalink

I was borderline otaku in high school, and I understand that the different Japanese accents are often used to convey regional information. For instance, although they may draw and colour Caucasian characters virtually identically to Japanese characters, the way the voice actor speaks the lines is used as a dead giveaway. It may not map directly onto the real world (unsurprisingly), but in these cases the voice is a dead giveaway the character's "different". The trick is more widely used to set up regional stereotypes, in much the same way an overblown Texan or Brooklyn accent establishes certain expectations in American media. (People have already linked to TVTropes, so I guess I'll continue the trend with a relevant page.) People not fluent in Japanese don't seem to be able to pick this up as readily (I only noticed when my way-more-otaku friends pointed it out, and even then it's difficult). I doubt a repeat of this study with voice information would be informative, though, since this practice doesn't consistently carry over to dubbing, though they occasionally try.

(Btw, Blake's right; that cap is actually from one of the last episodes in the original Evangelion TV show (the alternate-universe sequence), rather than the movie. As ashamed as I am to admit I know that, I swear I've been clean for years.)

the way anime chars are drawn, it can be tricky enough to correctly perceive their intended species.

it's an interesting experiment, but i'm unsure which it tests more --- implicit biases, or the shortcomings of a particular, rather drastically stylized, art genre.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 03 Nov 2009 #permalink

I second what Sigmund posted. More than half of the manga/anime I've read/watched has at least one mixed race or completely foreign (i.e. not Japanese) character. That combined with varying hair color and the tendency of manga artists to not color in a female character's dark hair in all panels makes it even more difficult... not to mention everyone having large, round eyes for emotional expressiveness.

The more manga/anime I read/watch the easier it has become, though. Oh, there was a manga (Sorry, I can't remember the name.) I read where the mangaka noted that the Japanese characters in the manga saw themselves as they appeared in the manga, whereas a foreign character saw them as figures would appear in a traditional Japanese painting (Specifically from the Edo period, I think).

Additionally, is it just not that easy when you aren't dealing with characters that conform to stereotypes of what different races look like to begin with. One Native American grandparent in my ancestry has only made me not look like any of my other heritage parts and get mistaken for part Asian several times.

Hair color is too big a cue. No one would guess that girl was Japanese/German because she has red hair, only one in a million Japanese/German pairings would produce a brightly red-haired girl. This happens all too often in anime with their hair and skin-tone.

Brian D:

I just checked — couldn't help myself. It's not the alternate-universe sequence of episode 26 (that's the one where Rei is the new student) but the end of episode 8: "I'm Asuka Langley Soryu. Charmed, huh?"


In our society, yes, Caucasian is synonymous with stripped of ethnic identity. For more info (not that this is a reliable source in any way, but it's rather amusing), check out this video:

Start it at about the 3:14 mark if you want to skip some misogyny and video game chatter.

I don't think they are stripped of identity, its just that the identity is racially mixed (although culturally Japanese - at least thats where the stories tend to be set). To me anime characters look like my son - who is mixed Japanese-European.

My inclination is to agree with JohnV. The study does not show that individuals are more likely to perceive their own faces than the intended faces. It shows that individuals are more likely to perceive Anime characters as caucasian with some significant, but not overwhelming same-race biases among asians and caucasians.

I think there were also problems with the way this study determined the "intended" race. The fact that the study was unable to determine the intended race for 125 characters should tell us something and their method of determining the animator's intensions based on promo material and film content doesn't actually give us any clues about how the characters were drawn. I find it easier to believe that the characters are ambiguous with caucasian similarities. Perhaps there is some same-race bias in people, but that might only come into play because the participants in the study don't think it's obvious which race the characters are.

I also question the use of the "asian" demographic. "Asians" are made up of many different people groups with a range of differing features. That brings out a lot of variation in what "my race" means for the participants and in what a "stereotypical asian" might look like in the imagination of the participants.

Does Asian means, people who life in Asia or does it mean Americans who's parents were born in Asia?
Maybe it's not the own race that matters but the race of people you interacts with in your daily life?

Is the sample controlled for the amount of anime the person watched beforehand?

By ChristianK (not verified) on 03 Nov 2009 #permalink

This is an effect that cartoonists have known about for some time. Given a simple drawing, viewers will fill in the unknowns with their default assumptions. For North America these assumed characteristics include "male" and "caucasian".

Consider the case of cartoon animals. A plainly drawn animal is assumed to be male; to make it female, a signifier of femininity is usually added (a bow, a skirt, lipstick). Many cartoonists now try to avoid or subvert this effect, but understanding it is still important.

Like ChristianK, I wonder whether the "Asian" sample was Asian-American or from Asia. I suspect it would make a difference. My wife, who is from Korea, says that most of my characters look Asian to her.

Of course the style of drawing and social pressures of what is shown in the media bias perception. Why should this surprise us?
I'm Asian and I can't tell what ethic group these characters are most of the time. Look at that picture you posted. Red hair, big eyes.....what cue says Japanese to you? Now it's true you do see a lot of Japanese with dyed red hair these days. Doesn't that tell us something?
I much prefer seeing an Asian character whom I can tell the race that these "idealized" cartoons. It speaks of a certain cultural cringe which I find disturbing.

So I know I am just one person, but throughout my life, I have definitely noticed this trend. I am half "Caucasian" and half Filipina. I notice that people who are Asian assume that I am (some sort of) Asian, and those who are white, assume that I am white. I even had a half-black girl once ask me if I was half-black. Hawaiians think I am Hawaiian, and people speak Spanish to me all the time. :)

Perhaps for Western Caucasians this trend exists. But Indians (not the red kind, I mean the sub-continental ones), who are rather dark Caucasians and often of mixed Caucasian and Australoid race , don't seem to be subject to this effect. I don't think anyone perceives Anime or Cartoon characters as Indian unless they are specifically drawn as such (like Apu in the Simpsons). In fact, even that recognition is the leap of faith because these characters are so often influenced by what Western or Japanese animation artists' idea of what Indians are like.

Ditto what Joseph Hewitt said.

I've heard pretty much the same thing said in a lecture by a professor teaching a manga course at a Japanese university. It is NOT our own race/gender that we project onto a caricature, but the race/gender that is dominantly accepted as "neutral" by the culture we grow up in.

Thus, in North America, we assume a stick figure or a simple smiley face is a Caucasian male, while both of these may be interpreted as an Asian male in predominantly Asian countries. A quick glance at the abstract leads me to believe this study was conducted in the US, in which case, I doubt it says anything about international perceptions of a race/gender norm. Even for an Asian raised in America like myself, a non-descript stick figure or smiley is definitely a Caucasian male. More identifying features are needed for other racial/gender identifications, and WHAT features are for a specific race/gender may also vary from culture to culture.

So in Japan, things like the size of eyes and hair color/style in a caricature do not necessarily identify race; emotions are expressed primarily through the eyes and so they need to be of a certain size, and hair color/style is necesary for quick identification of characters and further insights into their personality.

Thus, it is not due to some foreigner-worship or home culture inferiority complex that Japanese artists portray their characters with distinctly non-Japanese features. They do this KNOWING that they AND their Japanese audience share the understanding that the cultural norm is for characters to be Japanese unless otherwise noted. A blond Japanese character on a printed page or in an anime is totally different from a bleached blond Japanese in real life (many Japanese may view the real-life bleached blond as somewhat of a delinquent, while there is no such bias towards a blond drawn character). Portraying a Japanese character as blonde may simply be emphasizing that she has very light and brownish black hair that may be quite noticeable to other Japanese people, or even that she has a bright personality (Sailor Moon, anyone?). People do not usually assume it is REAL blondness that is being depicted, because that is still rare among the Japanese population.

Maybe it says something about the people I hang out with, but I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender movie. This fabulous cartoon is being made with mostly white actors, although the characters' clothing, architecture, writing, food, etc. are all clearly non-white.

Because of the anime style of drawing, not all of the characters look clearly "Asian" (however one chooses to define that), especially because one group of people are supposed to be Inuit, but to fans of the cartoon, it's unbelievable that anybody could consider Aang, Katara, or Uncle Iroh white!

I think a better study would have been the intended consumers(Japanese people in Japan). My theory is that eye/hair etc. in anime is not so much a marker of ethnicity or ace as it is symbol of character traits. For instance eye shape; big and round indicates youth and cheerfulness, thinner eyes depict being older or more serious, thin upcurved eyes that are rarely open indicate tricksters, and eyes slanted on the outside tend to depict characters who are very traditionally Japanese (or sometimes very feminine). They do not code for ethnicity-my guess would be that Japanese people would find the unmarked character to be Japanese.

Tradionally American cartoons code of for character in related ways; strong square chins equal good strong male characters, pronounced rounded chins with thin necks for weak characters, triangular chins for villianous. We don't see these traits as literally true-if you really saw someone with Superman's super square chin in real life we would not find it as attractive.

Couple points. Though it has been a number of years since I have visited Japan, I did notice that a large number of the models used in advertisements were caucasians and many of their most popular female stars and young male pop stars were asian females that had more caucasian looking features.
It may be true that we tend to see ourselves when the is ambiguity, and a hallmark of anime is white/asian ambiguity. But it is also true that the could choose to draw characters with more distinctly asian facial features and choose not to. When they do, the characters are often only supporting characters. These are choices because in many segments of Asian culture beauty = western (read caucasian).

By jacoby carter (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink

I'd tend to think that Japanese animators nowadays think about exportation markets. They think that Western-looking characters(*) will appeal more to Western viewers. Also, it seems to me that some elements of a Western look, such as large eyes, a long nose, and of course big breasts, are seen as beautiful by the Japanese.

(*) I hate the word "Caucasian". By the way, Mt Caucasus is located in Asia.

By Christophe Thill (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink

"Anyhow, given the fact that asians still way over-estimate the number of caucasian characters I'd have guessed that it's a general viewer bias more so than a race specific viewer bias."

Um, could it not just be an animator bias? In other words, anime animators aren't very good at (by which I mean don't care too much about) conveying a specific ethnicity when drawing their characters. Anime is very stylised compared to western animation (huge generalisation, I know, but it's true on the whole). Ethnic identification is not something that's emphasised in the style.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink

I would dispute the methodology used to determine which cartoon characters are in fact "intended" to be Asian. Race is a cultural construct, and animated characters can embody a range of racial aesthetics. Japanese people have naturally dark hair, yet how many Anime characters have similarly colored locks? But more importantly, the earliest Anime was directly inspired by the animation style of American and European works, and many of the aesthetic cues- such as the exaggerated size of the eyes of characters- still remain. Additionally, many genres of Anime express infatuation with American cultural archetypes.

I think a more thorough understanding of the history of this diverse form of animation is necessary before implying that the results of a particular survey demonstrate that everyone is intrinsically racist.

I remember participating in this study over 4 years ago when I was a student at UNC-CH. What a coincidence to see it here now...

jacoby #28 said:
"These are choices because in many segments of Asian culture beauty = western (read caucasian)."
I disagree. I don't think that Japanese, for instance, want to look caucasian/european, it's really the look of the mixture of Japanese/other that is seen as beautiful.
I think its a subject worthy of study. I suspect there may be some sort of cognitive bias towards the sort of symmetrical features more prominent in the face of mixed race individuals. I don't think this is a specifically Japanese factor either - I can think of many situations where it also applies in a non Japanese setting (Brazil or Cuba, for example).

So many anime (ex-)fans on cog daily?!

To typo180 re. determination of the intended race: (tedious) direct quotes from the org ft note:

âThe country of origin was explicitly mentioned for 205 of the 341 characters. For characters who came either from fantasy (n = 11) or of some unknown origin (n = 125), their nationality was coded as âotherâ, after an anime featuring the character was watched but nationality could still not be ascertained.â

âIn coding charactersâ nationality and intended race, I only referred to information released and created by the anime production companies and their designated distributors rather than any ofï¬cial fan site or publication. In addition, a characterâs nationality was not coded as âJapanâ but âOther/Unknownâ if this character comes from âNeo Japanâ or âNew Japanâ in some Sci-Fi stories because Neo/New Japan are ï¬ctional places and cannot be used to infer charactersâ race. The number of characters coded as Japanese and Asian may be underestimated.â

âThe coding of the charactersâ intended design is time-intensive and requires a coder to at least read English and Japanese, browse all ofï¬cial websites, read all video/disc covers, and watch all episodes of the 341 anime works when necessary. Due to time and ï¬nancial constraints, no other coder was asked to validate the charactersâ nationality and race. I adopted a very conservative standard when coding the charactersâ origin. The default for a character was âOtherâ unless there was any explicit statement, dialogue, or introduction about the characterâs nationality and/or race. No conï¬icting information about the charactersâ background across all ofï¬cial media was detected throughout the coding and I am conï¬dent about the reliability of character coding.â

To lucy in japan: yes, this study was conducted in the US and the majority (over 75%) of the participants were Caucasian (self-identified) and around 10% were Asian. The original survey was done in a university with quite an international population and some respondents forwarded the survey to their oversea friends.

To Aaron: yes I agree that race is a construct but sometimes to proceed with statistical inference folks need to bear with it but not with unreflective thoughts.

All anime is actually based off the style of old Disney films. The big eyes, small noses, and dopey sidekicks all come from Disney. So yes, most anime characters look White, because the models they're based off of are White.

I would also like to point to things like the preponderance of eyelid surgery in Japan to suggest that they see the characters as having Caucasian features.

Evangelion series creator Hideaki Anno has stated that a live-action Asuka would best be played by Emma Watson: therefore, the creator intends for her to actually "look" simply German: it's actually a frequent conceit in many anime shows that characters are "a quarter Japanese" (Asuka is only a quarter Japanese, btw, not half) in order to have familiar Japanese names.

Growing up in the West, I used to wonder (angrily) why American cartoonists always draw Asian characters as having mere slits for eyes, often drawn as a simple line. I didn't perceive my Asian family as lacking eyes, and I wondered why Americans did.

Before you ask why Japanese artists draw Asian characters as having such large eyes, maybe you should first ask why American artists draw Asians as having such small eyes. I suspect it's related.

Something I find rather amusing is that this Lu 2009 paper cites Wikipedia in its introduction [it actually says: "Indeed, Osamu Tezuka (1928â89), one of the founding fathers of Japanese anime and manga (comics), who was much impressed by Disney animationâs success, borrowed many visual elements from American animation studios and set up the âbig-eyeâ style of anime characters (Wikipedia, 2007) in his early works such as Astro Boy (1963â6) and Princess Knight (1967)."

Now, I'm surely a fan of Wikipedia, myself, but I was under the impression that citing it even in the most informal of situations was sort of a taboo...

Oh, come on.
Anime characters are blatantly Japanese. Or at least asian.
Their face shapes don't look remotely caucasian, their eye placement and general shape doesn't fit caucasians, the small nose/big eyes/small mouth directly corresponds to Japanese standards of beauty, the body shapes and heights and mannerisms... all distinctly Japanese.

And you'll note that when westerners are drawn in anime, they're frequently portrayed with SMALLER eyes, large noses and squarer jawlines.
Anime characters often look a little ambiguous to us, simply because here in the west, western features are the norm. We expect them. As in Japan, Japanese features are the norm. Why go out of your way to make your cartoon characters look like people that you'll see every day on your way to the supermarket...?

Oh, come on.

Anime characters are blatantly unrealistic cartoon like drawings. No human being has eyes half the size of their head, asian or not.

Not all whites have huge noses and huge jaws. There might not be as many whites with small noses and heart shaped faces, but they aren't some super rarity that you never see. There's also asian people with very square jaws and asians that have larger noses. You can't just assume an entire race falls out of a single mold.

I'm not saying anime characters look white. They don't. They don't look like any race to me, because they are simplistic drawings. But to say that if a character has a round face, or big eyes, or a small nose, they must be a certain race... that's silly. All races can have these features. Just because they appear more often in asians doesn't mean asians are the only ones.

Sorry for the rant. It just annoys me when people say all white people have huge noses and huge jaws. It's like saying all asian people have narrow eyes. =_=

Bottom line. They are cartoon characters. They don't look like any race. If you want to look like an anime character in real life, you need to buy one of those freaky anime mask things.