by Kendall Bazemore

Japan has long produced visual media that has captivated readers and viewers for decades. Manga and anime are two classic mediums through which fantastical worlds and profound characters come to life. Of all the hundreds of thousands of characters that exist in these worlds, there are a handful that share a close resemblance to African Americans. Though these characters are not always explicitly identified as black, they are heavily coded as black or Afro-descended. The aesthetic of black coded characters in anime and manga reflect the same ideologies of black males in U.S media and society. Popular series like Naruto and Samurai Champloo both use tropes of black males and demonstrate common ideas about their masculinity and how they are read by others. Hip hop is the vehicle through which Japan understands American blackness which manifests itself in various ways in Japanese media.

Naruto has become one of the most globally successful and easily recognizable manga series spanning over 15 years of publication. In the ninja world, there are five independent nations, each lead by the respective leader known as Kage. The northern most land is known as the Land of Lightning and at its center is the capital, Kumogakure or the Village Hidden in the Cloud. The inhabitants of this village are heavily coded as being black or of African descent. They have darker skin tones, fuller facial features in their lips and nose, and resemble black people in mannerism and speech. The leaders of the Hidden Cloud Village are known as the Raikage. These shinobi have been acknowledged by the members of the village because of their tremendous power and ability to lead. Of the five Raikage, the Third Raikage is known to be the greatest Raikage and shinobi the village has ever produced.

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The Third Raikage, known primarily by his title, is considered a superhuman even within a world of super powerful people. His physical stature and chakra prowess were legendary. According to Naruto Wiki, The Third Raikage stands at an imposing 205 centimeters (6’7’’) and weighs approximately 105.1 kilograms (231 lbs). He would use his chakra to create a protective cloak around himself that amplifies his strength, speed, and mass far beyond normal human limits. The Third Raikage’s incredible body and endurance enabled him to accomplish almost impossible feats. During his life he single handedly and without armor, fought a monstrous creature known as the Eight Tails and thwarted its rampages several times. If that isn’t enough of a testament of his power, during a mission, he and his team were surrounded by some ten thousand enemy shinobi that he single handedly fought in order for his team to escape. He fought this army for three consecutive days and nights before he was finally killed. The Third Raikage depiction in the manga as superhuman reflects patterns of how black men are thought of in the media.

The visual aesthetic of the Third Raikage is a reflection of the different ideas the black male body is communicated through the media. His muscular build and towering height intimidates all who meet him on the battlefield. In chapter 554 of the manga, the Third Raikage is reanimated and used as a tool of war. He is encountered by a shinobi, whom he had known while he was alive named Motoi, who says to him, “You are so strong it’s frightening.” The black male body in popular media are typically seen as being superhuman. Their bodies, no matter their size, are sites of danger and ferociousness, and these sentiments are authenticated by physical adornments like tattoos, scars, and bruises. According to Nicole Fleetwood, “in the context of blackness and masculinity, authenticity imbues the subject with a mythic sense of virility, danger, and physicality.” As mentioned earlier, the Third Raikage frequently fought a beast called the Eight Tails to protect the village. On one of these occasions the Third Raikage injured himself during the fight, piercing his lightning armor, leaving a scar on his chest. This scar is the only visible sign of an injury on the Raikage’s body after a lifetime of fighting.

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The Third Raikage also has a tattoo on his left arm, which contains the power of black lightning, another ability of his body. These adornments authenticate the Raikage’s masculinity as a black coded character, thus transmitting the same narrative of danger that is applied to black male bodies in real life. This perceived danger of the black male body is demonstrated in ABC News’ interview with Darren Wilson about the shooting of Mike Brown. In the interview, Wilson describes Brown as he approached the car as being “a demon” and immediately felt as if he was in danger. When Brown finally made contact, Wilson spoke on how strong Brown was — “I felt the immense power he had” — which made him believe that he had no other alternative but to use deadly force. This superhuman ideology of black men is actively and consciously portrayed by the Third Raikage and other black coded male characters in manga and anime.

Samurai Champloo, a popular Japanese anime series by director Shinichiro Watanabe, focuses on the journey of three people searching Japan during the Edo period for “the samurai who smells of sunflowers.” Of these three, the character Mugen is the most erratic and flamboyant in the group. Mugen, as he is drawn by the creators, is heavily coded as black. Mugen is brown skinned with messy, brown hair in an afro-styled shape. The clothes he wears are baggy and loose fitting, highly reminiscent of the hip hop inspired fashion of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Mugen’s personality and fighting style are heavily rooted in blackness as well. According to Champloo Wikia, Mugen is “rude, lewd, vulgar, and nihilistic, Mugen is something of an antihero. He is fond of fighting and has a tendency to pick fights for petty reasons.”

UntitledIn terms of how he fights, Mugen uses a lot of b-boy dancing type movement in combination with martial arts and swordplay. This blend of style creates movements such as spins, kicks, flips, quick slash, and other wildly unpredictable attacks. Mugen’s fighting ability is directly tied to his physicality. As his weapon suggests, he uses direct combat as well as hand-to-hand combat when necessary to deal with confrontation. This eagerness of Mugen — ready to fight at a moments notice and his uses of violence to resolve problems — is a reflection of an ideal of black masculinity.

In her book We Real Cool, bell hooks discusses a story about Frederick Douglass. He did not feel his manhood affirmed by intellectual progress. It was affirmed when he fought man to man with the slave overseer.” This struggle was a “turning point” in Douglass’ life:

…it rekindled in my breast the smoldering embers of liberty. It brought up my Baltimore dreams and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after the fight. I was nothing before — I was a man now.

UntitledIn this instance we read that Douglass gets his manhood affirmed by fighting another man. This reveals much about how black men’s masculinity is inherently tied to violence in some capacity. In a later chapter, hooks says that “long before any young black male acts violent, he is born into a culture that identifies patriarchal masculinity by the will to do violence. Showing aggression is the simplest way to assert patriarchal manhood.” Being aggressive is expected of black males as the only means of communication for their emotions and to show that they are “real men.” This sentiment is echoed in an essay titled “Notes from a Former Homophobe” when the writer says:

one way that masculinity and manhood was learned and proven was through fighting… In the environment that I was raised in there was always an emphasis on masculinity and manhood as evidenced through one’s ability to physically control the body and actions of others.

Mugen exhibits this idea multiple time through the series. Whenever he is faced with an emotionally charged situation, he immediately draws his weapon and attacks. In episode 13 titled “Misguided Miscreants,” figures from Mugen’s past catch up with him. It is revealed that Mugen was born on Ryukyu island, a place where criminals were sent for exile. There he met siblings, Mukuro and Koza, two of the other young people from the island. Eventually the three of them become involved with a band of pirates that stole goods and money being transported by sea, killing everyone they stole from in the process. Mukuro eventually becomes the leader of the pirates and his greed grows tremendously. He and Koza create a plan to frame Mugen for an assassination so they could keep a higher share of the bounty. The plot was successful and Mugen was caught by the local authorities. They attempted to execute Mugen by fire squad but he survives the encounter. Upon learning of the truth about what happened that day, Mugen immediately draws his weapon and kills everyone in the pirate gang.

UntitledHe is injured several times during the melee; however, he does not lose momentum in his rampage. After the bloodbath, he returns to Jin and Fuu but does not speak on what happened to in his past any further. According to hooks:

Taught to believe that a real male is fearless, insensitive, egocentric, and invulnerable a black man blocks out all emotions that interfere with this “cool” pose.

Mugen demonstrates this idea in this episode centered on his personal story. Black masculinity is established and reinforced by violent behavior and rejecting any kind of emotional expression through conducive means.

As previously mentioned, the black male body is seen as a site of inherent danger and violence. Similar to the Third Raikage, Mugen exhibits behaviors and mannerisms that reflect real life beliefs of black men. This narrative of the dangerous black man manifested itself when 22-year old Darren Hunt was murdered by the police. The police in Salt Lake City responded to a report that Hunt was acting “suspiciously.” They approached Hunt in a predominantly white neighborhood when they say he lunged at them with a sword. They began shooting at Hunt, causing him to flee. Wounded, he made it a few feet away before he was shot and killed. One of the officers said he knew he had to stop Mr. Hunt before he was able to hurt or kill someone. Former prosecutor Kent Morgan said in response to this case:

You must have immediate danger to someone in the vicinity… You can’t just say, ‘Well, he’s armed and he’s running away maybe he’ll hurt somebody,’ that’s not a reason to shoot someone.

There are images of Hunt that day where he was dressed similarly to Mugen, leaving many to believe he was cosplaying. Hunt, at that moment, unfortunately embodied the same fear and danger that Mugen evokes in the anime. Hunt, being a black man with a weapon in a white neighborhood, immediately provoked a sense of “danger” to those around. Hunt was seen as being “dangerous and violent” and “needed to be stopped.” This false narrative has been within the United States for centuries; however, these ideas have found their way to Japan and are reflected in their media as well.

The performance of black masculinity in manga and anime calls into question how it is viewed in Japanese culture. Both of the series mentioned here are Japanese in origin, and we see similar tropes of black coded male characters in each series. According to Nina Cornyetz:

Pre-World War II images of Africans and African Americans that circulated in Japan were fettered by the binarism of ‘black equals savage’ and ‘white equals civilization.’

Such delineations buttressed the Japanese racial ideology that had represented darker Asians as inferior. John G. Russell has argued convincingly that images of American blacks in Japan have frequently reproduced American racialist stereotypes, evidenced by the popularity of The Story of Little Black Sambo, and the modern yet still reductive portrayals of African Americans as “sexual objects, studs, and quintessential performers.”

UntitledBlack bodies in Japan are viewed in similar fashions as they were in America because of the colonial history of the country after the second World War. These ideas of black male bodies are then translated in the manga and anime series that are produced with black coded characters present. We can find evidence of American ideas of black bodies in various characters from other anime and manga series, like Dragonball Z and Pokemon, as reflection of performances of blackface.

Cornyetz, in this article, speaks on how hip hop transmits images of African Americans in Japan which in turn gets reproduced in Japanese culture. Applying this to manga and anime, we see how in both the Naruto and Samurai Champloo series, hip hop is attributed to black coded characters. As mentioned previously, Mugen is heavily influenced by hip hop fashion and dancing. His fighting style resembles elements of breaking; his clothes baggy and loose fitting. In Naruto, there is a character named Killer B, the adopted son of the Third Raikage, who is heavily coded as black as well.

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Killer B, from the moment he is introduced, speaks in raps, rhyming his words to convey his thoughts and opinions. While he does this, he uses different hand gestures similar to how DJs scratch records and how rappers move while rhyming. In both series when Mugen and Killer B are speaking at times there is hip hop playing in the background with scratches and bass lines similar to freestyling beats. We see how blackness and hip hop — as they are portrayed in America — are present in Japan and the media that is produced there. Black aesthetics are globally transmitted and represented in Japanese culture, thus representation of black bodies and the culture associated with them are apparent as well.

We see how blackness in popular Japanese media is portrayed by the black coded characters created in manga and anime. Ideas of black men possessing superhuman strength has been prevalent in American society’s thinking when linked to criminality and the justification of excessive force used in those cases. In manga and anime, this idea is applied to black coded male characters to create fearsome and powerful characters like the Third Raikage. Black men’s alleged susceptibility to fighting and conflict has long been an idea reinforced in black males from childhood. They are expected to use force to express their emotions and never vocalize them. Mugen from Samurai Champloo demonstrates this idea of black male’s violent tendencies in his story as well as his silence after his violent episode. Black masculinity as portrayed in Japanese media parallels the same problematic sentiments that exist in American thinking. Black masculinity routinely falls into the same category, globally representing and reinforcing the same narrative.


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Kendall Bazemore. VCU Student. Pokemon Master. Gamer. Amateur Astronomer. Oh, and I write sometimes. Follow @blackaqualad on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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12 thoughts on “Black Masculinity as Performed in Japanese Visual Media

  1. There is no way in which I may avoid the grand nature of my speech. I have a broad measure of your thought to challenge; it ain’t easy. I ask some sensitivity on your part, reader. Grandiosity has been re-framed, in this myth that words do change their meanings as perceptions change; now meaning anything that touches that which is fundamental in such a way to influence a great portion of what one stands for. This change of perceptions is a response to an old conflict, as matter of rumor. However if words change their meaning, then the pretextual assumption must be that we are all speaking standing from the same place. This is a war of cultures, and there are a great many whom that position has seductive message for. Not all of those persons can be typed as politically conservative.

    I am a 30 year old country southern adopted formerly baptist zen black man with white skin. I have been abused in near every conversation I have ever had; responded to as every measure of fool that may exist. I ‘am not black.’ I don’t do what ‘we do.’ Anymore, I must concede that I cannot be a “good citizen” without parroting the common line that my detractors are raca. The response speech that will tell me that I am wrong will call me raca; so little is the price of calling ones fellow a fool in the short term; so expensive is the price of calling ones fellow a fool in the long term; so expensive is the price of embracing those of traditional masculinity.

    I ask that you be sensitive to that, if you defend, you take the offensive. “Words are harmless” is the founding notion of the dialogue form of the millennial. People of color have a different fundamental stance: please be sensitive to the potential of hypocrisy in usage of tried and successful stances. Myths do harm when they’re all a population has to work with.

    I reply today to pose a challenge question to you. In the classic rhetoric of the philosopher, I will present my case first; following that I will pose my question.

    It is an evil of the economic class distinction black bourgeois to fortune one’s life position “you want, you wish, etc.” As I have experienced that rhetoric, it has always been attack on my character and nature. Having grown through the communist intellectual roots and counter cultural rage of my own poor community, the strategy of developing what one must avoid as to not faux pas cannot go without being contrasted, but also without comparison and responsibility linking, with the criminal cultural solidarity of gangland druggame.

    The same notions are identifiable in the cultures of gender interactions in the white community. Woman may not be questioned in the presence of other women; and likewise in the presence of those who would later have to question her. Woman is deemed frail in an emotional and social elevation capacity. The conclusion I must reach is that of a cultural fusion between feminist and black militant that caused the same cultural adoptions that happened during the cultural interactions between gambino and black gangster. Having been a domesticated human group, having kept from Africa only the nature of our ‘fuck it’ response to not knowing, any measure of complexity to our cultural roots becomes greeted with great hope, I wager from my only culturally denied experiences with racists, sexists, and other forms of bigots.

    What must not be denied is that what the culture we adopted was evolved from a fusion between being the protected slave class of inherited ladyship and the inheritor of the crumbling foundations of ethnic slaver privilege.

    Those actions which simply dismiss some portion of thought are the most prevalent forms of argument among this new civil rights counterrevolution. This wealth led movement of Feminism has waved hand and dismissed it’s cultural appropriation of womanism, a movement of women who left feminism in distaste. This wealth led movement of Feminism has waved hand and dismissed it’s sexual stereotyping of the male, and thus dismissing woman’s role in creating the cultural dimorphism of nobelisse oblige culture. This wealth led movement of Feminism has waved hand and dismissed it’s own appropriation and permissiveness toward ad hominem by stereotype.

    I feel great awe when encountering the writings of the venerable grandmother hooks. As philosopher, I find the hardline she presents to be without dependency upon trust for the reader to believe. With that said, the perfection of her kung fu is now in question. Her analysis of masculinity, as well as the popular line on masculinity, does not raise the objection itself that masculinity must achieve first and seek acceptance second if ever. The masculinity presented in the founding arguments upon case are masculine traits of western euro-asianic innovation ‘white pride’ people. Violence, such as that violence regarded above, is core to the protection of the white collective myth from rightly deserved ridicule and mockery. If you will note, ridicule and mockery – not bigotry – were those pillars of the feminist attack on the racial construction and solidarity phenomenon known as bullying.

    My question then is this: With my having questioned the foundations of the trowing out of masculinity, I have supported the cries of those persons who would not otherwise be innocent. The ‘traditional male’ (oh the outrage!) himself could never remain an innocent for long, nor could he remain out of conflict with that tradition around him. There is no part of any western euro-asianic nobelesse oblige which can remain innocent; it’s thought cut down by fifty percent due to it’s dependence on fast and loose taboos; thus being incapable of approaching wide swaths of nature with embrace; thus turning to violence where no answer is acceptable.

    Having supported the cries of those who cannot remain innocent, have I inherently supported a tradition that is not mine?

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  2. I would opine that the words “Stereotypical Young” would be appropriate to append to the front of your Title.
    But, I’m just an old, japanese-born, military-raised black nerd who is just happy not to be so anomalous anymore.
    Keep on Keepin’ On.

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  3. If you want to get technical, Mugen’s fighting style employs moves from capoeira, an African fighting style, originally from Angola, popularised in Brazil, and from which b-boy dancing, or breaking is descended. I’m pretty sure they didn’t think to have him break dancing during his fight scenes.

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  4. In many parts of Asia, especially on the islands of Japan and Taiwan, there are tall (Mugen/Raikage colored) “dark skinned” people. They have round eyes(sometimes) and often have larger noses and profiles than the people westerners consider to be Asian. They are the most recent original inhabitants of these places, before the people we know as Taiwanese and Japanese came along. They face a little less violence than Native Americans, but they are still marginalized and face pressure to “”Asian-ize”” as much as possible. Just like how non-white groups are told to “lighten up”. The are some times interpreted as Black or Native american by western viewers and the “Asians” who consider them as “other” and mold multiple stereotypes together.This is on purpose to deny them statehood, But they are NOT *Black*. Check out the Ainu, Melanesian, Amis and Bunong people. As for the DBZ and Pokemon they are probably caricatures of Tantric Buddhist gods, Tantric Bhuddhism was in places like Tibet and India where there were more naturally dark skinned people so there were many people of this color in paintings. They had red,blue green, cream, yellow brown and black skin tones to represent different ethnicities. The swastika in Asia is a symbol of peace. Don’t do the “colonial white” thing and interpret it from our American lens. You will miss out on the cleverly hidden Brown skinned people who live in Asia. Peace.

    http://images.google.de/imgres?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Frywiki.tsadra.org%2Fimages%2F6%2F60%2FTadren.jpeg&imgrefurl=http%3A%2F%2Frywiki.tsadra.org%2Findex.php%2FHayagriva&h=500&w=365&tbnid=t5GQLEV886mQaM%3A&docid=x3qjYO9R_y11ZM&ei=XwTiVpPTAYblmAWeoaSwCw&tbm=isch&iact=rc&uact=3&dur=1067&page=1&start=0&ndsp=31&ved=0ahUKEwjT_sv5o7fLAhWGMqYKHZ4QCbYQrQMIITAB

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    1. A long time ago while researching the impending erasure of the last surviving black villages of eastern Asia for my own enlightenment, I discovered what was for me a surprising truth. Blacks had not only settled in Asia, but had conquered large sections. They also served as generals and lessor officers in several Asian armies. Their fighting ability was well known and celebrated. It has also been proven (much to the chagrin of the Chinese) that the first inhabitants of China were black. There is an interesting article addressing that very fact here:

      https://soapboxie.com/misc/Chinese-Scientist-Prove-The-First-Inhabitants-Of-China-Were-Black

      There is an ancient and famous Japanese proverb that states, acknowledging black combat prowess,: “For a Samurai to be brave, he must have a bit of Black blood.”
      — Japanese Proverb
      Then there is Sakanouye No Tamuramaro: A well documented black Shogun of early Japan. Information regarding him can be found here:

      http://atlantablackstar.com/2014/09/07/the-world-of-sakanouye-no-tamuramaro-black-shogun-of-early-japan/

      Many Japanese know a great deal about the history of the black warrior in Japan’s history. They simply prefer not to discuss it. For the Japanese action fantasy writer to recognize black men as very suitable material to work with is not surprising.

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  5. ~long comment, recommendation for Chad of Bleach~

    It’s been a few years since I had a chance to watch episodes of Bleach anime (the Cartoon Network dub only.)
    I used to live near a public library that carried some anime DVDs (Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, DBZ, Sailor Moon, Pokemon movies the ones with Brock/Takeshi, Max/Masoto, and May/Haruka as Ash/Satoshi company.

    There was even a few Cardcaptor Sakura and Tokyo Mew Mew DVDs sandwich near the Ghibli films Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro.)

    From what I remember of Bleach, Ichigo’s friend Chad (a mixed race Black/Mexican/Japanese) was strong and could battle well. But he was so much more nuanced. Chad was thoughtful and kind, respectful to his family, honored his grandfather’s culture. Religion was very important to Chad. He was a loyal and good friend, called Ichigo out a few times when Ichigo was being clueless, rude, or ignorant.

    In contrast to some of ichigo’s other pals, and various member of the Soul Reaper Society who were often brash, impulsive, made snap judgement about people, etc Chad tended to be more introspective.
    He was sometimes quiet, but not in “super stoic no emotions” quiet. Or quite in the “dumb muscle” stereotype. He chose his words carefully, was often calm, but not perfect. He had flashes of temper or annoyance, everybody does. But he was mostly chill, very genuine, had strong values.

    Ichigo’s tomboy-ish sister Karin had a crush on Chad. (Karin was the girl twin who loved soccer/football and always tried to be brave by not crying even when hurt emotionally or physically.) Chad gave her very good advice, made her realize that a girl can cry sometimes and still be brave, tough, worthy of care compassion and respect.

    I hope I am not be overselling Chad’s awesomeness because like Karin, I had a teen crush on Chad. Dudes in anime and other media can be hot and also complex, nuanced, non-stereotype male characters.

    ~Elizabeth

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  6. I always felt Mugen was a way for Shinichiro Watanabe to speak about how often Ryukyu / Okinawans are marginalized then and now. They had their own culture and traditions and Japan more or less forced them to submit to their culture. Like how RZA harkens to the struggles of Shaw Brother Heroes in their fights for independence or vengeance via the Wu Tang clan, I feel that Mugen is an extension of that but in the reverse; Mugen’s supposed ‘blackness’ is a subversive way to use the anti-establishment message of hip hop to comment and critique on the authoritarian rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. I don’t think it’s overt disrespect on African Americans per se, but an opportunity to place a culture that Japanese don’t get to experience much into the jidaigeki context (i.e., to freshen up topics that Japan is so unwilling to talk about sometimes). This is in complete contrast to Jin since he is more or less the somber, stoic loner swordsman trope that typifies all Asians to begin with; he’s the typical ronin of that age. They work in tandem to show how brutal the Tokugawa regime is to Christians, to homosexuals and even to well meaning foreigners. And let’s not get started on how they treated normal people. I’m no expert on Hip Hop, but it’s always been THE anthem for the disenfranchised, and Mugen’s Okinawan-ness and sense of style go in tangent to it. At least that’s what I think. Otherwise, great piece.

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  7. there are plenty of non “black” people with the same physical features so….REACHING. but great article non the less

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