Japanese Animation: Mukokuseki

Mukokuseki is a Japanese word meaning “no nationality,” stateless, without country of origin, mixed or bastardized. Inserted into English speech, however, the word is typically given a more specific meaning. Following Koichi Iwabuchi, who introduced the word to English audiences in his 2002 book Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism, mukokuseki is used by academic scholars of Japanese popular culture to indicate the erasure of ethnic and racial characteristics from Japanese cultural products. For Iwabuchi, the prevalence of mukokuseki is a troubling trend. “The propensity of Japanese animators to make their products appear non-Japanese,” he argues in an essay on the “Japanese-ness” of Pokemon, “is evidence that a Western-dominated cultural hierarchy continues to govern transnational cultural flows.” Or, to use more objective language: the products of the Japanese animation industry are designed primarily to satisfy Western consumer demand, and, to do so, they thus incorporate Western values.

Iwabuchi’s argument rests upon a single, interesting observation, and that is that characters in anime do not appear to be, in their racial characteristics, Japanese. Since the first anime, Astroboy (Tetsuwan Atomo), was broadcast in 1963, anime characters have generally been drawn with very large eyes, as well as hair in a variety of non-native colors and textures. From a realist perspective, anime characters thus often appear (according to scholars like Iwabuchi) more Western than they do Japanese. But is this actually evidence of a “Western-dominated cultural hierarchy”?

Probably not. The most successful early animators, such as Osamu Tazuka and Hayao Miyazaki, who established many of the tropes that would govern anime as a distinct genre, did not produce their cartoons for a Western audience. Indeed, at this early time, a Western audience was the farthest thing from their minds (before 1978 not a single anime had been distributed in Western markets). Their characters’ large eyes (and, to a lesser extent, their varied hair) were rather the result of the animators’ inspiration and model: the cartoons of Walt Disney. What mukokuseki thus demonstrates is that anime is not an original Japanese cultural form at all, but is itself derived from a pre-existing Western form. Such transnational borrowing is and has always been one of the primary drivers of cultural innovation. If we were to call it, in this instance, “Western-dominated cultural hierarchy,” then we would, by the same criteria, have to call macaroni and cheese an example of Italian-dominated cultural hierarchy.

Mickey Mouse       Astro Boy

It is also not evident that the racial characteristics of anime characters are, from a realist perspective, any more demonstrably Western than they are Japanese. A caucasian American male, for instance, would probably not recognize Pokemon’s Ash as a representation of his own ethnicity (nor would a caucasian American female recognize her ethnicity in Pokemon’s Misty). In fact, too much Western racial specification would likely sit poorly with anime’s Western audience. As Ronald Kelts notes in Japanamerica, “It is the very Japaneseness of the anime, manga, and cultural icons that American fans and critics seek–not direct mimics of our own aesthetic styles.”

Which one is the Caucasian?

What makes mukokuseki most interesting as a phenomenon is, in fact, not that it demonstrates Western cultural hierarchy, but that in manages, through the erasure of Japanese racial characteristics, to produce a cultural product that is stamped all the more as intrinsically Japanese. The racially empty style of Japanese anime, even when produced by non-Japanese artists, reads as Japanese—and this despite whatever market localization occurs in its translation for Western distribution. Western children, in other words, get the Japaneseness of mukokuseki. Perhaps academic scholars of Japanese pop culture should follow their lead.

5 Responses to Japanese Animation: Mukokuseki

  1. waiting for the next installment…

  2. I know a lot of people that think Misty is European. She’s a blue eyed red head, when the Kanto games were realistic in terms of human design in relation to race.

  3. Some of the earliest Japanese animators suggest that they relied on large eyes for simple economic reasons more than anything else. Larger eyes made it easier, and used fewer frames, to express emotion. Early financial and technical limitations probably had a lot to do with many of the conventions that have come to define the genre. Generally it has only been in retrospect that we have come to redefine what were probably pretty practical decisions in terms of more volatile cultural politics of representation.

  4. I know this post is old, but there were a few anime distributed in the States prior to ’78. Toei’s feature films from Hakujaden to Gulliver’s Space Travels got cinema releases, and Kimba ran from 1966.

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