Translation or Whitewash? The Problem with Yo-Kai Watch in America

The art of “translating” a media property from one cultural context to another requires more than simple language transliteration. Translating works of art has existed from the moment people from different cultures encountered one another. But at what point does translating something for an American audience necessitate whitewashing as well? Today, we’re going to look at two animated properties available on Netflix — Yo-Kai Watch from Japan and Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir from France — to determine at which point whiteness trumps cultural context when making a kids’ show more acceptable to American audiences.

The reason I chose to focus on these two seemingly disparate shows in particular, aside from the fact that my daughter loves to watch both, is that each employs a different philosophy when it comes to localizing its characters and situations for American audiences. It just so happens both shows also feature Asian leads, but more on that in a minute.

Of course, for an English-speaking audience to comprehend what is happening in a story set in a non-English-speaking country, the ability to understand the language being spoken is priority number one. This is why both Miraculous and Yo-Kai Watch are dubbed in English and not just subtitled. Also, since both shows are aimed at young children, it makes even more sense to dub the audio than make children read captions that may or may not correspond with their reading abilities.

That said, both cartoons ostensibly take place in foreign countries. Miraculous takes place in Paris — the Eiffel Tower features prominently in the show’s opening credits. Yo-Kai Watch, on the other hand, is set in a fictional Japanese city called Sakura New Town. And while there are no historical landmarks to root the show’s real-life setting, there are enough cultural markers to indicate the characters don’t live in America.

Never mind the hiragana on the road. Anyone’s who ever been to Japan would recognize the cultural authenticity of this location.

But if you were to tune to either show, you’d notice only one is allowed to retain its geographic location and cultural specificity. Miraculous is about a teenage girl named Marinette who is able to transform into a ladybug-themed superhero to protect the city from an evil mastermind named Hawk Moth. In the French version of the show, her name is Marinette Dupain-Cheng, and visits cafes along the Champs-Élysées. In the English version, her name is still Marinette Dupain-Cheng. It’s still French. 

Contrast this with Yo-Kai Watch in which the story is about a young boy named Amano Keita who has the ability to see and communicate with yōkai, literally spirits steeped in Japanese folklore. Through a magical device that he wears on his wrist — like a watch, get it? — Keita can summon previous yōkai he has encountered to deal with whatever the storyline requires. When all of this is translated for the Disney crowd, however, much of that cultural context is lost. Keita is now “Nate Adams” and Sakura is “Springdale.” And the yōkai are little more than a variation of pocket monsters to be collected by the hero.

To be fair, even in Japan, Yo-Kai Watch is intended to be a franchise not dissimilar from Pokémon.

Of course, the animated series is based on a video game where the object is to do just that. The difference, though, is that children in Japan are already familiar with the concept of yōkai by the time they can handle a Nintendo 3DS. By stripping the Japanese cultural context from the series, American children are denied the opportunity to learn about or appreciate the folklore that belongs to another country. Instead, those cultural markings — not just yōkai, but characters wearing kimono, ancestors who resemble samurai, etc. — all become events that happen in “Springdale” to the “Adams” family.

In Miraculous, the characters are still allowed to exist in their own cultural context. It may be translated into English, but the audience is fully aware how French everything is. For the characters in Yo-Kai, though, they aren’t afforded that luxury. Characters and settings must be read as “American” (i.e., “white”) to be considered, I dunno, more palatable? To ten-year-olds? Because such a child would freak out if they had to learn a Japanese name or understand that the family is eating nabé  and not “stew?” At the very least, if you’re so determined to change the setting of the show to America, why couldn’t it be about Japanese American kids? Don’t they exist?

I also understand this isn’t a new practice in anime adaptations. It’s why Hikaru Ichijyo has to be Rick Hunter after all.

Part of the problem with this kind of cultural erasure is that it perpetuates the false notion that culture only belongs to white people. It’s why ScarJo as the Major in Ghost in the Shell isn’t whitewashing. Because the character is racially ambiguous at best. Want to know the reason so many fans think “racial ambiguity” defaults to whiteness? Because it’s a message they’ve been fed since they were ten years old.

I’d rather impressionable minds in America be exposed to a diverse set of cultural touchstones. Maybe they don’t know anything about Japanese folklore, so why not expose them to it through a show like Yo-Kai Watch? Maybe if these kids grow up appreciating the nuances of other cultures, they won’t be so quick to assume that those cultures belong to them. Maybe by the time those kids grow up to create live action adaptations of their favorite animated show, they’ll understand why it’s important to see through the lens of someone else? Maybe they’ll understand stories belong to everyone. Not just white people.

4 thoughts on “Translation or Whitewash? The Problem with Yo-Kai Watch in America

  1. Excellent and interesting article! Even though I’m a white person myself I feel the same way regarding Disney’s treatment of the localization of Yokai Watch the TV series, but this does make me wonder how would the third game in the series Yokai Watch 3: Sushi/Sukiyaki/Tempura be affected by localization since the game has locations based off American cities as well as yokai based off of figures or aspect of American culture. Seems like there would be a small snag with the anime and game both taking place in “Springdale” which is assumed to be an American town.

  2. Great great piece here Keith. Your Robotech reference was the kind of thing I wish more people would articulate and acknowledge. Great stuff!

  3. Couldn’t the very same criticisms that the author of this article is making of the adaptation of Yokai Watch be made of Miraculous itself? After all, it’s obviously visually very inspired by anime, as its creator has admitted; but the culturally Japanese elements that you would expect to find in a typical anime are replaced with “very French” cultural references.

    The American Yokai Watch is the same thing done on the cheap.

  4. I watched Robotech as an 80s teen. Then I discovered the Macross Movie with all original names intact . A half decade later I saw a fansub at an anime club viewing and was over the moon; then came an English dub with the original names.

    Someday there will be unaltered shows on regular channels.

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