In what felt something like a case of deja vu from last year’s Masatoshi Hamada blackface fiasco, Japan welcomed in 2019 with yet another racially insensitive controversy, this time in the form of an ad from food company Nissin.

The commercial, which has since been removed from YouTube, featured a light-skinned anime version of tennis star Naomi Osaka that bore little resemblance to her actual appearance as a mixed-heritage Japanese and Haitian-American. Almost instantly, accusations of “whitewashing” began to fly.

“I’m tan, it’s pretty obvious,” she told reporters at a news conference following the debacle. In the tradition of corporate “cultural misunderstandings,” Nissin apologized and claimed there was no intention to whitewash Osaka.

In recent years, that word — whitewash — has more often referred to casting decisions in Hollywood, not Japan. In 2017, it was used to decry the selection of white actress Scarlett Johansson for the role of the Major (aka Motoko Kusanagi) in the live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s “Ghost in the Shell.” The character is Japanese in Shirow’s original manga, the popular 1995 anime of the same name and, perhaps more importantly, in the minds of the franchise’s countless devoted fans — a fact they made well-known on social media.

In Japan, however, the casting wasn’t even an issue in the mainstream media. Most news coverage simply reviewed the history of whitewashing in America so that their readers could make sense of all the fuss overseas.

While whitewashing is presented as a by-product of what is often characterized as America’s “oversensitivity to race,” that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in Japan — it does. However, it’s not given too much attention in Japan as people here have a long tradition of (however unconsciously) whitewashing themselves. In fact, the practice is so normalized many no longer recognize it.

Spot the difference: A composite image shows Naomi Osaka in real life alongside the anime version that featured in a now-deleted YouTube ad for food company Nissin.
Spot the difference: A composite image shows Naomi Osaka in real life alongside the anime version that featured in a now-deleted YouTube ad for food company Nissin. | AP, YOUTUBE / VIA KYODO

The stateless state

The likely goal of the Nissin team that whitened Osaka’s skin and erased all markers of her black heritage was not to make her white but to reimagine her as “Japanese.” Manga aficionados might say she had been rendered mukokuseki (stateless) and of indeterminate ethnicity, a practice that amounts to a lack of commonly perceived Japanese facial features that are instead replaced with quasi-Caucasian ones.

This “stateless” — and in Japanese eyes, “raceless” — state has become the default in anime, not only for Japanese self-representation but for that of other nonwhite groups as well. Its application to those groups varies and does not always result in actual skin lightening. For example, there are instances where nominally “black” characters have dark complexions but mukokuseki, quasi-Caucasian features.

To be fair, there have been exceptions: Santa Inoue’s hip-hop influenced manga “Tokyo Tribe” is full of characters with black facial features. These representations, though, remain few and far between.

One argument in favor of mukokuseki features such as light skin, large eyes and narrow noses posits that these physical traits are read as white only by Westerners, that they exist in other racial groups and to read them otherwise is in itself an act of cultural imperialism that attempts to impose the racist perspectives of the West upon a Japan that is wonderfully free of such biases. This perception, however, ignores history and the role that Japan’s contact with the West has played in the transformation of its own self-regard, a legacy that persists into the 21st century.

Whitewashing the self

Scholars such as John Dower (“War Without Mercy,” 1987) and Frederik Schodt (“Dreamland Japan,” 1996) have noted that the Japanese practice of rendering themselves with Caucasian physical features began during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Japan began to adopt, assimilate and internalize virtually all things Western: fashion, educational and political systems, and artistic and literary styles to name a few. At its most extreme, Meiji thinkers even advocated intermarriage with whites to kairyō suru (improve upon) the Japanese race.

This desire for racial improvement found graphic expression in the practice of the Japanese reimagining themselves as Caucasian in appearance. According to Dower, during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) woodblock prints portrayed Japanese combatants as “essentially Caucasian figures: tall and fair-complexioned, with long, almost rectangular faces.” The Chinese, however, retained their racial features and were depicted as short, round-faced and yellow-skinned.

Despite the rise of pan-Asian rhetoric during World War II, the Japanese continued to portray themselves as Caucasian-like figures in art, while other Asians were represented as having darker skin. None of this suggests a Japan free of racial bias.

Even though the Japanese have been seen to whitewash themselves, it hasn’t been simply a matter of skin color and that is why the term “whitewashing,” at least in the Japanese context, is inadequate and misleading. After all, the Japanese have traditionally viewed their own skin color as white, as did early European missionaries and merchants to the country, whose accounts of the Japanese they encountered were otherwise devoid of descriptions of their physical appearance. Indeed, according to University of Haifa professor Rotem Kowner in “From White to Yellow” (2014), it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that the Japanese came to be seen — and eventually came to see themselves, at least rhetorically — as members of “the yellow race.”

The Japanese rendering of themselves, and some other nonwhite groups, as mukokuseki is selective at best; it is not applied across the board. Africans and other Asians have typically been rendered with their ethnic and racial features intact and often exaggerated, sometimes to grotesque proportions identical to those found in the West.

Ironically, the fact that Nissin opted to render Osaka as mukokuseki may represent an attempt to present her less as “hāfu” (biracial) or black and more as Japanese, particularly since her athletic victories elevate Japan’s international standing. Since parity with the international community (effectively the white West) continues to be measured by proximity to its cultural, institutional and aesthetic ideals, Osaka’s “whitewashing,” it would seem, serves as the price of admission.

Tackling diversity

Without Caucasianization and blackface caricatures to fall back on, Japan is often at a loss as to how to represent its diversity. This self-created dilemma was once expressed by right-wing manga artist Yoshinori Kobayashi in a 1993 “Gomanizumu Sengen” (“Declaration of Egoism”) manga for the popular weekly Spa. Responding to international criticism about racially stereotyped depictions of blacks in Japanese manga and character goods, Kobayashi lamented that if Japanese were no longer permitted to draw blacks as exaggerated racial caricatures, they would have to draw them in the style of a Caucasianized Michael Jackson.

The argument can be made that Japanese rendering themselves mukokuseki has nothing explicitly to do with trying to look Caucasian, since they have traditionally viewed their own skin color as white. Indeed, anthropologists Hiroshi Wagatsuma and Toshinao Yoneyama in their classic study of Japanese racial attitudes “Henken no Kozo” (“The Anatomy of Prejudice,” 1967), noted that Japanese have not only traditionally viewed their skin as white but that they view the texture and color of their skin, smooth and unblemished with freckles, as purer and more aesthetically appealing than Caucasian whiteness.

Nonetheless, such perceptions did not prevent Japanese advertisers from using white models to hawk skin-whitening creams or, more recently, to use them as exemplars of hada bijin (skin beauties), whose visages are plastered on street-corner photo booths equipped to lighten the skin and digitally remove any “imperfections.” In some cases, there is no ambiguity at all: An online advertisement for Takasu Clinic, a popular chain of cosmetic surgery clinics, asks potential clients, “Naritai no wa seiyōjin-gao? Hāfu-gao?” (“What kind of face do you want: Western or Biracial?”), complete with illustrations and photographs of Caucasian faces.

Say cheese: The instructions for a photo booth in Tokyo use the term
Say cheese: The instructions for a photo booth in Tokyo use the term ‘hada bijin,’ which literally means ‘skin beauty,’ and allows people to lighten their skin for their photos. | SHAUN MCKENNA

The language used to discuss these makeovers is not explicitly racialized; instead, white attributes are stripped of any ethnic connotation and serve as symbols of wealth, cosmopolitanism and aesthetic refinement: Caucasian whiteness is conveniently elided, safely couched in the language of culture and geography — but not race.

We can see this omission of race in the raison d’etre of Japanese model Vanilla Chamu who has admitted to undergoing more than 30 cosmetic surgeries to “become a French doll,” a dream whose underlying motivations can be gleaned from her 2013 autobiography, “Cho-seikei Bijin” (“Super Plastic Surgery Beauty”), in which she confesses she wished her mother had married a (white) man so she could have been born biracial.

Such “race-blind” elisions, however, have not characterized the treatment of blackness in Japan. In the late-1980s and ’90s, when some young Japanese began to frequent tanning booths, sport Afros and adopt black stylings, the Japanese media dismissed them as “kokujin ni naritai wakamono” (black wannabes).

Why erase Osaka’s blackness? Perhaps because Japanese — or their corporate guardians — are uncomfortable with it. Perhaps Osaka can only be accepted as Japanese if she is rendered in the same way Japanese render themselves in the self-whitening world of anime and manga. Ironically, for Osaka to retain her non-Caucasian features, she would remain an outlier, an exotic who is half-black and half-Japanese, which itself is an uncomfortably ambiguous, intermediate existence that serves as a repository for some of Japan’s most xenophobic biases: When Ariana Miyamoto was chosen to be Miss Japan in 2015, Japanese social media was less than pleased and called into question her Japaneseness.

Last year, when American actress Meghan Markle, another individual of mixed-race heritage, married Britain’s Prince Harry, Japanese internet trolls heaped abuse on her, comparing her to an ape and prostitute, with one predicting the “end of England.” Similarly, the public euphoria surrounding Osaka’s U.S. Open win over Serena Williams did little to silence trolls who compared both athletes to gorillas and dismissed their accomplishments as quirks of racial genetics. Indeed, the emergence of athletes Asuka Cambridge, Abdul Hakim Sani Brown and Rui Okoye has served to reinforce Japanese stereotypes about the physical superiority of blacks and people of black and Japanese heritage, just as the overrepresentation of mixed-race white-Japanese models in popular culture has reinforced stereotypes of white aesthetic supremacy.

Now that Osaka is ranked No. 1 in the world, these incidents will most likely be glossed over — just in time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Those who point them out will be regarded as lugging their own baggage of racial prejudices into Japan’s racism-free Eden. This would be a mistake. Osaka’s victory should be celebrated, but recent history provides a clear and sobering lesson: The self-celebratory note struck in the United States following the election of President Barack Obama was prematurely and egregiously read as a sign that America had overcome its racist past and embraced a more inclusive future. In the end, the issue is less about whitewashing than how Japan will respond to the increasingly visible diversity in its midst.

John G. Russell is a professor of cultural anthropology at Gifu University.

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