I posted yesterday about the fact that Japanese Vogue uses almost all Caucasian models, and wondered how that jibed with Matt Thorn’s contention that manga characters are not supposed to represent Westerners despite the big eyes. There were a bunch of interesting points in comments, and I’ve thought about it all a little more. So here are my conclusions as a largely clueless Westerner.
— I think Matt Thorn has to be right about the manga. I never really doubted that actually, but Bill weighed in to confirm it. When Japanese people look at the characters in manga, they see Japanese people, not aspirational Westerners. I accept that.
— Matt moves from this point to argue that the Japanese don’t have an inferiority complex re: the West, because they were never dominated by the West the way other parts of the world were. I think that this is trickier to argue. Japan was, in fact dominated by the West; the U.S. occupied it. That was a really big deal in Japanese culture and politics.
The point is, there would have had to have been some sense of inferiority at the time; they did get conquered, after all, and in an extremely memorable and humiliating fashion. That’s not to say that Japan *now* is laboring under a massive inferiority complex that inflects every part of their culture. I’m quite persuaded that feelings of inferiority don’t have much to do with the fact that the Japanese draw their characters with big round eyes (except for the possibility that Tezuka’s fascination with Disney was tied up with the general fascination with America that came out of the war, maybe.) But, if you’ve got any kind of cultural issues around bodies and beauty, you probably will see them in fashion magazines. And as W. David Marx points out here, there do seem to be some “lingering issues of perceived racial inferiority” in the way the Japanese relate to fashion — a sense that clothes look better on Europeans, which means that many high fashion magazines use European models (as opposed to most Japanese magazines, which use Japanese models.
So, to recap: manga iconography is not evidence of feelings of inferiority. However, that doesn’t mean those feelings don’t exist at all, and there seems to be some evidence for them in the Japanese preference for European models in certain kinds of fashion magazines.
I should add that there’s also a good bit of evidence in all parts of Japanese culture for feelings of *superiority* in reference to Westerners. And lord knows, it’s not like you can’t find evidence of weird body/beauty issues in American magazines as well. And obviously, if Japanese are fascinated with the West to some extent, Westerners are also fascinated with Japan — thus this post.
Update: Incidentally, while I don’t think I have feelings of inferiority re: the Japanese in general, I do think they make better comics than we do.