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This is Not a Cow.

Warning: LONG POST IS LONG, but has pretty pictures- but not ones by me, unfortunately. Long story short, I ended up writing this for my Japanese class, and even learned a few things in the process. Hope you enjoy it!

This is Not a Cow:
Semiotics and How Japan Sees the World

A few years ago, the electronics giant Sony attracted controversy for one of its advertising campaigns. The Netherlands billboard ad, made to hawk the latest model of Sony’s Playstation Portable (PSP) gaming device, was decried as racist and offensive. It’s easy to understand why: A stark black and white photo depicts a digitally-whitened woman choking a pitch-black woman, with the slogan, “PSP White is Coming.” The odd thing was that when asked for a statement, Sony of Japan replied that they had checked the ad and hadn’t seen anything offensive about it.

Figure 1- The offending ad from Sony.

This statement puzzled me. Could the corporation simply be that ignorant of the ad’s effects, or was there something deeper here? Was there some reason they didn’t see the ad as racist; did the Japanese think this ad was offensive at all? Here’s where things get tricky. Obviously, we can’t hope to know of the Japanese public’s opinion, especially since the billboard was not even erected in their land. However, it seemed that Japan was one of the few countries that weren’t shocked by the ad campaign. Luckily, the campaign was quickly abandoned, and just as soon forgotten.

Unfortunately, this is not a standalone case. In any number of Japanese manga (Comics, pronounced mahn-guh) and anime (Japanese slang for animation), you can find depictions of other races that are less than favorable- particularly Africans and African-Americans. Encountering these characters and caricatures is a step back in time, though not a pleasant one.

Figure 2- "Joco" as he first appears in the American adaptation of Shaman King. Note the bottom panel, where one can see where his lips were edited.

In the wildly popular manga Shaman King, for instance, a character named Joco hails from New York and used to be in a street gang before turning to a life of religious solitude. His spirit animal is a fearsome jaguar, and he wishes to become a great comedian. Already sounds a little stereotypical, but there’s more: Joco is merely the name Shonen Jump gave him when the manga was translated and brought to the United States. His original name? Chocolove McDowell. Chocolove. What’s worse is the character’s appearance, and indeed the appearance of all black people in the manga. “Joco’s” face is nearly covered with a pair of thick round lips, and bears a 70’s-era afro.

Figure 3- Joco as he appears in the animated adaptation of Shaman King.

Manga and anime are now considered unique styles of animation, but this wasn’t always the case. At the end of World War II, Japan was devastated. The atomic bomb had done its damage, and the US soldiers moved quickly to help rebuild the nation. As part of this cultural exchange, the soldiers introduced American films, like The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and most importantly, cartoons.

Figure 4- A cover for the American reprint of Tezuka's most famous work, Astro Boy (Known in Japan as Testuwan Atom)

Japanese teenagers like Osama Tezuka (Creator of Astro Boy, among many, many others) were fascinated and astounded by the beauty and elegance of the Walt Disney feature films, the artistry and depth that seemed inhuman. Inspired by these films, Osama Tezuka began making his own comics based on that art style: the first manga. If you compare the earliest of manga to the American comics that inspired them, you’ll note how similar they are.

Figure 5- Example of Tezuka's earlier work, bearing many similarities to American comics of the same time.

Today, manga and anime are synonymous with Japan. Unlike their American counterparts, there was no concept of comics being only for children- it was accepted as a valid art form. Part of this is because manga was far easier to make than live-action films, and far less costly. It made sense that instead of having to design and make an elaborate costume, you could simply draw it and save time and money. Through these and other cost-cutting measures come many of the classic trademarks of anime: The large sweat drop to indicate a character’s exhaustion; the stylized nerve (usually drawn with three red curved lines) to indicate anger; the use of chibi (chee-bee), transforming a character into a figure with a big head and miniscule body for comedic purposes. Manga-ka (manga creators) used these visual shortcuts to help cut corners and save cash. So how did this lead to the offensive portrayals of African-Americans?

For the answers, we turn to semiotics. In simple terms, semiotics is the study of relations between objects and how a viewer observes them. In more complex terms, it’s how we assign symbols to everything in our lives. To make this easier to explain, here is a prime example of semiotics:

Figure 6- This is not a cow.

The picture above may seem to make no sense. Clearly, it’s a cow, you might think- but it’s not. It is not a cow; it is a representation of a cow- a picture, in other words. Similarly, the picture below is also not a cow.

Figure 7- This is not a cow either.

However, it barely looks anything like a cow- it has a silly grin on its face, the eyes are far too large, and the patterns on the cartoon are unrealistic. But this is still considered a cow. Why? Because we are taught at an early age that this is what cows look like, even if they really don’t; it’s similar to a child being taught that the sky is blue, grass is green, and that apples are always red. These are all symbols- they represent other things.
In semiotics, an object can represent not only another object (such as how the cartoon represents a cow), but at the same time ideas related to the object. What sort of things does one associate with a cow? Maybe the rolling green hills where a cow might graze, or the farm that a cow might live on, or maybe even foods made with a cow. Even at this point, the object can also represent abstract ideas, such as peace, sadness, or evil. Could the cow represent a simpler life, out in the country? Or perhaps there’s a more sinister motif; maybe the cow represents a dreary human existence, mindlessly grazing our lives away while we wait to be processed and served up on someone’s dinner plate. Or it could just be a silly cow.
Knowing when and where a symbol is intentional is crucial to art, and specifically where all of the troubles begin with the manga blackface characters. Manga was intended to be made on the cheap, artists frequently used visual shorthand to cut corners, and this philosophy extended to character design. Need a boy for a protagonist? Give him short dark hair and big eyes. How about a young girl? Take the same model, make the hair longer and change the pants into a skirt. It was in this same mindset that the manga-ka used when creating characters from other countries.
Interestingly enough, many of these stereotypes were borrowed from American cartoons. The Japanese, for instance, were designed similarly to the ‘average’ characters in American cartoons, but only with dark hair- light hair was reserved for foreigners. The Chinese and other Asian peoples were depicted, ironically enough, much like the Japanese were depicted in cartoons of the same type during WWII: Squinty or slanted eyes, grossly exaggerated teeth, and a backwards lifestyle and manner of speech. The reason for this has more to do with Japan’s icy relationship with other Asian countries, but that’s another topic entirely. Our main focus is on the depiction of Africans and African-Americans.

Figure 8- A title card for the short film Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs, an animated blackface cartoon produced by Warner Bros. in 1942.

The blackface was, in truth, a quick way for a Japanese reader to identify the character as ‘African’. While in America, the blackface routine began as a comedy bit to promote racism and slavery, the Japanese simply saw it as a visual shortcut. The problem here is that, up until now, it’s highly unlikely that the Japanese had ever seen an actual African. Because Japan kept to itself for so long, it had little exposure to the rest of the globe as it developed its own unique culture. Therefore, when the American soldiers brought over the cartoons depicting these wild tribal men with huge thick lips and pitch-black skin, the Japanese began incorporating this misguided image into their newest form of entertainment. Because there were no actual Africans or African-American (African-Japanese?) to see this, there was no one who saw anything wrong with it, and the trend grew well into the 80’s, and even today (though thankfully to a far lesser degree).
At the same time Japan was using the blackface design, civil rights groups were trying to take it down. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and all of the African-American men and women were fighting for their right to be treated and respected as human beings. Quite frankly, Japan never was involved in any sort of Civil Rights movement, and thus never saw anything wrong with the usage of these images. However, this does not fully excuse them. In this day and age, Japan should be aware of the consequences of using these characters and stereotypes. Just as America has put the use of blackface to rest, so should the Japanese, and let it be a lesson that even ignorance is no substitute for tolerance.


Shaman King Pic #1: Scanned from Shonen Jump May 2007- Volume 5, Issue 5, page 278
Shaman King Pic # 2: http://vincenthache91.free.fr/foto/personnages/episodes/episode%2037/chocolove%204%20episode%2037.JPG
Astro Boy Book Cover: http://images.darkhorse.com/covers/11/11526.jpg
Tezuka Comic Example: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/9/99/Tezukamanga.jpg/150px-Tezukamanga.jpg
Cow Pic # 1: http://www.aspkin.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/07/grazing-cow-1b.jpg
Cow Pic # 2: http://www1.istockphoto.com/file_thumbview_approve/2901953/2/istockphoto_2901953_cartoon_cow.jpg
Coal Black Title Card: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:1942_Coal_Black_And_De_Sebben_Dwarfs_Ad.jpg
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About AmanitaZestone of us since 6:17 PM on 04.25.2008