I did a couple of posts about Matt Thorn’s classic essay, The Face of the Other, in which he explains:
I have given presentations on manga to Western audiences many times, but regardless of the particular themes of my talks, when the floor is opened up for discussion I am invariably asked the same question: “Why do all the characters look Caucasian?” You may have asked yourself the same question.
I answer that question with a question of my own: “Why do you think they look Caucasian?” “Because of the round eyes,” or the “blonde hair,” is the common response. When I ask then if the questioner actually knows anyone, “Caucasian” or otherwise, who really looks anything like these highly stylized cartoons, the response may be, “Well, they look more Caucasian than Asian.” Considering the wide range of variation in the features of persons of both European and East Asian descent, and the fact that these line drawings fall nowhere remotely within that range, it seems odd to claim that such cartoons look “more like” one people than another, but I hope you will see by now that what is being discussed has nothing to do with objective anatomical reality, but is rather about signification.
Still, this can be a hard sell;a cartoon character with wide eyes looks white to us; it’s hard to believe they look Japanese to the Japanese. As commenter awb says:
The article seems to be telling me not to believe my lying eyes. I think he is saying that people are trained to accept the western european look as “standard” or even preferred and because Japan was never dominated by a western society the see themselves as the “standard” and therefore their manga is reflective of that. But, jeez, they don’t look asian! Yes, there are some Japanese without the folds on their eyes and those with frizzy hair but is he telling me the vast majority don’t?
After a whole thread of my constant nagging, awb did eventually (and perhaps just to shut me up) agree to accept Matt’s expert opinion that the Japanese see the manga characters as Japanese. But…it’s not that easy to shut me up. And, moreover, I’ve thought of a really good example to explain how it is possible for the Japanese to see the round-eyed manga characters as Caucasian. So, I give you….the Japanese Superman.
That’s the original Joe Shuster version of Superman, of course. And if you’ll look closely, you’ll see that…he looks Japanese. He’s got dark hair. He’s got narrow slanting dark eyes. Shuster’s ideal man is Asian. An inferiority complex, perhaps?
No, of course not. Even though Superman iconographically “looks” like he could be Asian, we see him as white, because of the context and because our iconographic default is “Caucasian”, even when, as in this case, the signs actually point somewhere else. In Japan, it works the same way, but in reverse; Japanese is the default, and if you want to represent, say, a Caucasian, you have to take some specific steps to get there.
So why is Superman stylized like that? I don’t have any idea, really…but I’d like to think it’s for the same reason that manga characters look “white”. That is, there’s iconographic influence. Tezuka borrowed his iconography from Disney; it’s not impossible to believe that Shuster got some of his iconography from a generalized Art Nouveau illustrational milieu, which was in turn heavily indebted to Japanese prints. Those older prints represent Japanese faces in a way similar to what we still (perhaps influenced by those very prints?) think of as iconographically Asian.
Update: In comments, Tom undoes my elegant theory with a tiny little squiggle. Darn it.
Update 2: But…Mitch defends the Japaneseness of the design. Phew!