Many people wonder why it’s taken so long for diversity to be represented positively in anime. The short answer is that anime originates from Japan, a country that doesn’t have a population as diverse as, say, the United States. When diversity isn’t inherently part of a culture, the artistic products of that culture won’t necessarily represent diversity accurately, if they’re represented at all.
It’s an unfortunate reality that Japanese animators have historically depicted black anime characters in a racist or stereotypical manner. This is mostly due to ignorance. It has taken diverse animators and animators, with an accurate awareness of diversity, for that to change.
A quick look at why diversity might be lagging
Foreign animators are the most likely source to bring positive diversity to anime. Under Japanese law, however, foreigners face strict restrictions when working in animation. Visas given to foreign animators are different than visas provided for other professions, and they aren’t as stable. For example, foreigners who graduate from Japanese vocational schools often need to leave the country due to visa denials despite legitimate job offers. This unfortunate state of affairs has left anime, for the most part, deprived of the diversity fans crave.
The best thing about anime might be the abundance of samurai characters, but the growing representation of diversity is a close second. Here are several places where diversity is positively represented in anime:
1. Afro Samurai
Americans might be obsessed with samurais more than they’ll admit. Afro Samurai was developed in 2000 specifically for American audiences, and embodies a heroic representation of a black anime character. Afro Samurai takes place in feudal Japan, where a young samurai warrior witnesses his father killed. The young samurai dedicates his life to getting revenge for his father’s death.
The best part of Afro Samurai is Samuel L. Jackson does the vocals, and RZA creates the music from Wu Tang. Afro Samurai is just one of many cool black anime characters being represented today.
2. Sailor Moon
An oldie but a goodie, Sailor Moon is not only classic anime from the 1990’s, but it’s also considered revolutionary for portraying a simple same-sex relationship between the two sailor scouts Uranis and Neptune (Haruka and Michiru).
During episode 92, “A Handsome Boy? Haruka Tenoh’s Secret,” the main character (Serena/Usagi) and Sailor Venus/Minako lust after a handsome boy named Haruka. They discover Haruka is taken by a beautiful blue-haired girl named Michiru. Later, Haruka is revealed to be a girl who dresses and acts like a boy.
Although the characters hold hands, give each other intimate looks, and share romantic dialogue, they don’t openly declare their love or kiss on screen. Nonetheless, they are positive LGBTQ icons.
Why does anime lack normal LGBTQ characters?
When the Meiji Constitution was enacted in 1881, it condemned homosexuality as a deviant act and demoralized feminine men. Even today, Japan isn’t that accepting of the LGBTQ community. A 2007 study done by REACH Online found only 8% of gay and bisexual men in Japan had come out to both parents. While 6% came out to their mothers, only 1% came out to their fathers.
Additionally, when same-sex romance is depicted in anime, it’s usually depicted as sexualized. It’s rare to see LGBTQ anime characters depicted as regular characters without an explicit focus on their sexuality.
These two reasons could be why there’s so much censorship or same-sex romance in anime.
3. Ouran High School Host Club
It seems like animators are attempting to insert LGBTQ characters into anime, even if they have to let their fans do some guessing.
Ouran High School Host Club stars a female main character named Haruhi, who cross-dresses in an all boys’ club. By the end of Ouran, she’s seen in dresses but still rejects the stereotypical female gender role.
Unlike most portrayals of cross-dressing, Ouran doesn’t present it as a joke or a fetish. Instead, Haruhi is generally interpreted to have a genderqueer or gender-ambivalent identity. Still, there’s room to grow when it comes to transgender representation in anime.
Diversity – coming soon to an anime near you
It takes time for cultures to change, and for the products of culture to reflect that change. Hopefully, Japan will ease up on the requirements for foreign animators, and we’ll see more diversity represented in this wonderful form of art.