Racialized characters in Japanese video games


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Hi Blog.  As Japan switches its economic clout into more “soft power” issues (i.e., selling its culture instead of its hardware; cf. METI’s promotion of “Cool Japan”), we are seeing instances of where Japan’s conceits and “blind spots” (i.e., a lack of cultural sensitivity towards, for example, minorities both in Japanese society and in other societies) have seeped into its output, with imperfect filters in place.

Take for example one of my favorite sites for procrastination and indulging in hilarious writing:  They have a pretty good research staff, and have dug up several instances of Japanese video games (since Japan dominates the industry) that are, as they put it, “politically incorrect” (today’s word for “racist”, since you can still be “politically incorrect” yet use it as a source of, say, humor; but it’s still the same “othering”, racializing, and subordinating process).  Here’s the link:

I won’t appropriate the text or the images because it’s better presented there.  But we have examples of:

  • Gay characters in the Sega’s VENDETTA street-fighting game the dry-hump everything as a weapon, and in BARE KNUCKLE 3 that mince about flamingly etc. (these were left in the Japanese version but removed from the overseas versions and in subsequent versions).
  • Blackface and n*gger-lipped characters in Nintendo’s SQUARE NO TOM SAWYER game (which never got released in the US; wonder why).
  • GEKISHA BOY, where street-animal African-Americans come in three types:  “street pimp, prostitute, and Michael Jackson”.
  • Sega’s DJ BOY, which features a stereotypical Big Black Mama shooting fireballs out of her anus.

And plenty more.  As demonstrates, the Japanese market generally keeps these (and other) stereotypes and conceits alive and well (as if Japan doesn’t need to worry about how they affect public perceptions of minorities in Japan), while for overseas markets things get sanitized (or not, occasioning protests and backpedaling) when Japanese sellers suddenly develop a “sensitivity”.

Some (including might call it “innocent”.  I won’t.  Especially when the racist versions are allowed to remain on sale in Japan regardless (“for domestic consumption only“, in that allegedly impenetrable “secret code” that many Japanese seem to think the Japanese language is).

If Japan really wants to keep its cultural exports viable, maybe it should attempt understand how other people anywhere, including within Japan, might feel about being represented in such a fashion.  Or, if stereotyping is used as a source of humor, allow for everyone to be “fair game” (which, I have argued before, doesn’t happen enough in Japan; there is certainly ample Japanese protest when Japanese get similarly stereotyped).  Arudou Debito

15 comments on “ Racialized characters in Japanese video games

  • Final Fantasy 13 – A pretty cool black guy, nothing I would call racist, even in the Japanese version

    Yakuza 4 – A terrible racist/foreigner sterotype character (says YES! and WOW! all the time, while speaking the worst Japanese I’ve ever heard)

    Tekken – technically everyone in the game is a sterotype of something, but the black guys, like Raven, are pretty cool

    To be fair, there are a lot of games and anime and whatever that poke fun at old Japanese people, young Japanese people, Salary men, Buddhist Monks, and the list goes on.

    I’m not excusing anyone from doing this, but I think if one takes a look at the big picture, you would see that Japan is just a society of poking fun at everyone… probably because they don’t think there are any major problems to deal with.

  • Very important article/story. Instead of Japan constantly looking at how others see itself, maybe the they should actually look on how they are viewing others.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @B #2
    ‘Instead of Japan constantly looking at how others see itself, maybe the they should actually look on how they are viewing others.’ If only!

    @Pondscum #1
    ‘if one takes a look at the big picture, you would see that Japan is just a society of poking fun at everyone… probably because they don’t think there are any major problems to deal with.’
    Pondscum, you are falling for a ‘myth of Japanese uniqueness’!
    Japan is a society where anyone with any power uses it to bully anyone they can (the younger, newer employees, women, NJ, etc). They do it because they can get away with it! There are never any repercussions! No one ever stands up to the bullies. Partly, this is because it is good manners in Japan to ‘ignore stupid people’, which is really code for ‘pretend it isn’t happening, and hope that it doesn’t happen to me’. This is the mentality you can see in the response to the triple nuclear meltdown ruining the dreamy day!

  • @Jim
    Jim, technically you’re also falling for the ‘myth of Japanese uniqueness’ because you’re stating that those traits are only limited to the Japanese, as well.

    The reality of the Japanese gaming situation is that historically it has always produced games marketed at domestic audiences. In the past, these domestic-minded games also achieved success overseas, but now that’s not working quite as well. Many Japanese game companies have started hiring foreign development companies to develop the games locally for local gamers, and while the results are still up in the air, not many of those games have seen positive reviews. Also, for the record, there have been a number of times where games that left Japan’s shores were edited for foreign markets – these Cracked examples just happen to be the most ridiculous.

    It would have been nicer if you had chosen a more timely article, or even something about a more recent game. These examples are so far removed from modern gaming that they’re hardly worth mentioning anymore. For example, number one on the list is Custer’s Revenge which is a game where you control General Custer to rape Native American women. Nothing like that could ever make it to store shelves nowadays. The same goes for many of the Japanese examples listed.

    If you’re interested in what was one of the most controversial race-related gaming topics out of the last few years, you should check out this article:

    This topic developed after gaming reporter N’Gai Croal of Newsweek saw the first trailer for the upcoming Resident Evil 5 (Biohazard 5). His opinion on the trailer became the subject of MANY articles with people expressing opinions on both side of the argument.

    To quote the section from wiki:
    Allegations of racism
    A scene from the E3 trailer depicting Chris firing on infected villagers.

    Resident Evil 5’s 2007 E3 trailer was questioned for its depiction of a white protagonist killing black enemies in a small African village. Newsweek editor N’Gai Croal began the criticism, stating, “There was a lot of imagery in that trailer that dovetailed with classic racist imagery.” He acknowledged that only the preview had been released.[80][81]

    The second trailer for the game, released on May 31, 2008, revealed a more racially diverse group of enemies, as well as Sheva, a BSAA agent[82] who assists the protagonist.[83] However, designer Jun Takeuchi denied that complaints about racism had any effect in altering the design of Resident Evil 5.[84] Takeuchi commented that the game’s producers were surprised by the controversy.[85] In an interview with MTV, he explained that Capcom’s staff is racially diverse, and acknowledged that various cultures may have had different opinions on the trailer.[85][86] In an interview with Computer and Video Games, producer Masachika Kawata also commented on the issue, stating, “We can’t please everyone. We’re in the entertainment business – we’re not here to state our political opinion or anything like that. It’s unfortunate that some people felt that way.”[87][88]

    In Eurogamer’s February 2009 preview of Resident Evil 5, Dan Whitehead expressed concerns about the controversy the game may generate, stating that “it plays so blatantly into the old clichés of the dangerous ‘dark continent’ and the primitive lust of its inhabitants that you’d swear the game was written in the 1920s” and “there are even more outrageous and outdated images to be found later in the game, stuff that I was honestly surprised to see in 2009.” The article also states that the addition of the light-skinned Sheva “compounds the problem rather than easing it.”[89]

    Glenn Bowman, Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent, Canterbury,[90] has stated that he does not believe Resident Evil 5 is racist. Bowman added that the game presents an anti-colonial theme.[91] One particular scene in the game, said to show black men dragging off a screaming white woman,[89] was submitted for evaluation to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which deemed it not to be racist. Sue Clark, Head of Communications at the BBFC, stated, “We do take racism very seriously, but in this case there is no issue around racism.”[92][93]

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @Icarus #4
    You are in error.
    At no point do I state that Japan is the only country where bullying as an accepted dynamic of social intercourse takes place. The subject of the discussion is Japan, therefore I am commenting on Japan. Putting words in my mouth is not clever.

  • Then apparently I’m living in the Twilight Zone because your counter argument to someone doing EXACTLY the same thing you did was to say, “Pondscum, you are falling for a ‘myth of Japanese uniqueness.”

    Well here’s my counter argument to that: “At no point did Pondscum state that Japan is the only country that pokes fun of others. The subject of the discussion is Japan, therefore he was commenting on Japan. Putting words in his mouth is not clever.”

    And now you have derailed the conversation. The topic is the Japanese gaming industry. Try to keep it on topic without using ‘Japan is’ or ‘Japan does’. Any line of debate that starts that way is clearly wrong because not the Japanese gaming industry is not uniform, and it’s not made up of robotic drones all pressed from the same mold. Enough with the ad nauseam pejoratives.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @Icarus #6

    I’ll indulge your straw man; that I am trying derail this thread.
    Note to Debito; if you feel that I am derailing any thread, I will of course refrain from posting.

    Pondscum was apologizing for Japanese institutionalized racism being visible even in Japanese computer games. His claim was that this is an expression of the Japanese sensibility for ‘poking fun’ at people, in some harmless, knockabout, kind of way.
    I put forward that Pondscum’s analysis was in error. Japan is not a country where everyone is fair game for ‘poking fun’ (never heard of power harassment, DV, bullying, discrimination against 2nd or 3rd generation Korean immigrants, the Douwa?), rather Japan is a culture based on bullying. If you don’t agree with that, by all means please yourself.
    However, I would draw your attention to’s ‘Shoe on the other foot Dept.’ , and ask you to look at (for example) the outrage over the BBC Hiroshima incident. Can you explain why the Japanese got so angry about that? After all, the BBC was just ‘poking fun’ a little, right?

    — Let’s end this two-way debate soon.

  • So basically, “Don’t say ‘this culture is X’ or ‘this culture does Y’ or ‘this culture verbs Z’.”

    “You have to say ‘in my experience, most of the time, most people in this culture, are X’.”
    “You have to say ‘in my experience, most of the time, most people in this culture, do Y’.”
    “You have to say ‘in my experience, most of the time, most people in this culture, verb Z’.”

    Reality check: it can be shortened to “Japanese are X” and “Japanese do Y” and “Japanese verb Z”.

    There’s nothing wrong with stating generalizations, as long as the statement is more true than not.
    Negative aspects exist, about each culture, and people can and should plainly state negative aspects.

    “But, but, that pattern you found hurts my feelings, I only like positive patterns mentioned about my culture.”
    Instead of trying to outlaw generalizations, simply tell us: is the generalization more true than not?
    When a generalization is more true than not, then you should not hide it. Admit it and improve it!

    “Stop saying my culture is racist!” No, since the pattern IS prevalent, your culture needs to STOP BEING RACIST.

    “But, it’s racist to say a culture is racist!” No, Nazi culture and Japanese culture IS racist. Admit and improve.

    — And treat all cultures and cultural tendencies as fair game for critiquing and lampooning.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Thank you to Debito #7, and Anonymous #8.
    As a final word, I would like to say that I don’t see how my comments on Japan are ‘racist’, since I am Japanese (like Keene, ‘I feel it in my heart’).

  • Nice one, Anonymous! The good ol’ Japanese are Nazis one! sigh…

    Modern gaming has a number of race- and gender-related issues to deal with, mostly because the industry as a whole tends to rely heavily on stereotypes. This goes for Japanese, US, and European gaming companies. It’s is only very rarely that you see game characters break from the stereotypical molds.

    The article I posted above shows, however, that because Japanese companies rely on a large portion of their income coming from overseas, that race-related issues have become much more important than during the 80s, and in many cases these game companies go to great lengths to avoid problems; including consultations with branch offices and employees overseas. Does that mean all the problems have been eliminated? No. But that applies universally, no matter where the games are developed.

    Here are some examples:
    Black people – Black people in games are often stereotyped as hulking powerhouses who talk trash and solve issues through violence.
    Japan – Barrett (from Final Fantasy VII)
    US – Cole (from Gears of War)

    Women – Women are still rarely featured as anything more than busty vixens or demure plot devices.
    Japan – Juliet Starling (from Lollipop Chainsaw)
    Europe – Lara Croft (from Tomb Raider)


    And, Jim, I just can’t for the life of me figure out why the Japanese embassy in England would take offense with jokes about the atomic bombs. Also, it’s amazing how relevant that is to politically incorrect moments in gaming history.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @#8 Anonymous

    >No, Nazi culture and Japanese culture IS racist. Admit and improve

    Well, if we follow this dubious assumption, it will lead to the conclusion that anyone belonging to a particular group of culture deserves punishment for being racist. Nothing is more dangerous than equalizing the latter with Nazi in this respect.

  • The fact that:

    Gay characters in the Sega’s VENDETTA street-fighting game the dry-hump everything as a weapon, and in BARE KNUCKLE 3 that mince about flamingly etc. (these were left in the Japanese version but removed from the overseas versions and in subsequent versions).

    shows that marginalisation of gays within Japan is acceptable.

    This should help to make the point that anti-gay bias in Japan is clearly present.

    I do at times hear the opposite, from those who assert that homophobia is a product of Christianity/Islam, and that Japan therefore does not have it.

  • #8

    The point you make

    “Nazi culture and Japanese culture IS racist.”

    is quite insensitive.

    Japanese culture is often racist.

    But Nazis were not merely racists.

    They were genocidal.

    Japan today is not engaged in genocide.

    Japan did of course in World War 2.

    But the use of the present tense suggests that Japanese racism of 2012 is equal to Nazi genocide of World War 2, and that is untrue.

    However unfair Japan may be today in 2012, it certainly is not engaged in planned and systematic murder of whole foreign peoples or marginalised groups.

    We must be accurate and precise in describing the problem, if we are to achieve credibility for our just complaints.

  • Charuzu, the topic of homosexuality in gaming is still extremely controversial. I would agree that marginalization of gays in Japanese video games falls in line with the exposure that ‘o-nee kei’ characters get on TV. They are widely accepted and featured in prime time programming slots, but often times the celebrities become simple caricatures, probably told by producers to flaunt their goofiness and homosexuality.

    However, I would definitely draw the line in saying that also means that anti-gay bias is prevalent. The very existence of o-nee kei characters on TV argues against that, but you could also look at how the yaoi (male-male romance) genre of manga is one of the most popular amongst women in Japan.

    At the same time, just in the past year we’ve seen a lot of conversation about this topic in the gaming industry as one of the biggest gaming companies in the world, Bioware, has made it a point to include homosexual romance scenarios in its most recent games. This then led to a lot of support, but it has also resulted in large-scale online attacks against Bioware writers by people who consider the games ruined for the straight-male gamer.

    Also, it’s worth mentioning that the character Poison from the Street Fighter/Final Fight series has become somewhat of celebrity in the fighting game circuit because of his/her gender ambiguity, and one of the most famous Street Fighter competitors to come out of Japan is a transgender named Kayo Satoh.

    Like I said before, it’s kind of irritating that this article was highlighted when there’s actually much more complex issues involved in modern gaming compared to the 80s. Japan still has a lot of work to do in overcoming many race-related stereotypes, but this is the same for everyone else in the world: positive role-models for minorities are extremely underrepresented in games.

  • Icarus #14:

    You say:

    “I would definitely draw the line in saying that also means that anti-gay bias is prevalent.”

    I would heartily disagree.

    My regular conversations with my Japanese gay and lesbian friends make it clear that there are whole professions excluded to them, that stereotypes are normative etc.

    And, for J lesbians, given the already powerful misogyny that is present, things are worse in many ways.

    Admittedly, I know more gays than lesbians, but I still do hear from them as well.


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