The portrayal of marginal groups and foreigners in anime


Marginal groups are quite problematic for Japan, and while they are used in anime and manga, we don’t see them used particularly often. What is so fascinating about the use of marginal or minority groups in anime is that their portrayal and the subsequent reactions of many other characters in the series bears a striking resemblance to the attitudes towards such groups in real life. Marginal groups such as the Zainichi Koreans and Ainu are central to the creation and maintenance of a Japanese national discourse about a shared identity and culture. As Wirth (1945) suggests, marginal groups, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the rest of society for differential and unequal treatment, and therefore begin to view themselves as objects of collective discrimination (Wirth, 1945:347).

By exploring marginal groups such as the Ainu and Koreans, we can begin to see how the central themes of Japanese national identity have been created around notions of a single, unified country with a monoethnic population. And as Anderson (1983) argues, nationalism thinks in terms of ‘historical destinies’, so, by attempting to create a new nationalist discourse, the Japanese state is deliberately making links to Japan’s success in the historical past to demonstrate that there will be similar success in the future (Anderson, 1983: 136).

The widely held view in Japan of what it means to be pure Japanese is that an individual has Japanese nationality, they have Japanese lineage and, by extension, Japanese ancestors, and have internalised Japanese culture, but this whole notion is problematic because notions of race are contentious (Hammond, 2006:547; Fukuoka, 2000). One of the most striking examples of attitudes towards foreigners comes from the Eureka Seven anime series, along with its sequel, Eureka seven AO. In Eureka Seven AO, Ao is effectively a social outcast, someone who looks different and is not original from the island.


The islanders constantly blame not only him, but his mother Eureka for their misfortune, labelling them as a bad presence and effectively do all they can to get rid of him. The persistence of status inequality is a major characteristic of the Japanese social system, and while there are features in Japanese society that emphasise and promote social integration, it is clear that conflicting opinions about the nature of what it means to be Japanese can have major consequences for the level of social conflict in Japan (Pharr, 1990: 9). We see the islanders and in many ways the wider worlds attitude towards Ao and Eureka as another side to the internal conflict of the islanders.

They wish for independence, but due to independence their economy, fishing and other rights have been severely reduced, there are numerous other reasons for such things to occur, however there is also the need within the population to find someone or something easy, or simple to blame. Ao is therefore a scapegoat, viewed as being a soft target which everyone can easily focus their anger, hatred, anxieties and fears onto. He is the outsider, the ‘other’ that is in opposition to the common held beliefs of the masses, and is deliberately ostracised in order to maintain this division between those outside and those inside of society.

Strausz (2006/2007) argues that as Japan begins to grapple with the problems of impending population decline and an aging population ‘many commentators and policy makers are calling for programs to introduce foreign labor into Japan (Strausz, 2006/2007:656). In order to reaffirm notions of a single Japanese culture and society when there are acknowledged problems to do with ageing population, and the need for foreign investment, there needs to be an other that can be used to create a bounded notion of Japaneseness.

This attitude is displayed in both Eureka Seven series, although it is most overt in the earlier stages of Eureka Seven AO, with numerous comments on the problematic relationship that Okinawa (now a free state) has with both Japan and America. Due to various trade regulations imposed upon this new state of Okinawa the economy has suffered considerably, with what appears to be a significant crisis looming. As Gilroy (1983) argues, the process of national decline is presented as coinciding with the ‘dilution of once homogenous and continuous national stock by alien strains’ (Gilroy, 1983: 46).

The mass media of Japan pick up on such rhetoric, helping to create the idea that alien cultures ‘embody a threat which, in turn, invites the conclusion that national decline has been precipitated by the arrival’ of other ethnic groups (Gilroy, 1983: 46). Such opinions are fostered and naturalized through the concentrated way with what Japan’s mass media disseminates messages from the political establishment, helping to foster national sentiment, while at the same time creating notions of marginal ethnic groups inferiority to that of Japan’s mainstream (Gu Lynn, 2006:485).

The Japanese distrust of foreigners, along with the self-orientalising policies of central government, has lead to discrimination of groups that broadly come under the term ‘foreigners’ (Crieghton, 1995). Foreigners, and in particular, those of Ainu or Korean ethnic background, have significantly lower status in Japan than most Japanese (excluding barakumin – ‘untouchables’). Certain groups, such as the Zainichi Koreans, while legal residents of Japan, with Japanese passports, are nevertheless conceptualised as ‘outside people’, even if they are not from another country (Creighton, 1995).

Furthermore, within anime, particularly those with a high school or junior high setting, there are times when particular characters are labelled as ‘Yankees’. This term is used to describe someone who is a delinquent, a troublemaker and a person who is effectively outside of societies rules (or so they like to believe). The term itself is clearly a reference to the American occupation of Japan during the early 1950s, along with the continued use of specific areas of Japan (Yokohama and Okinawa) to station military and naval personnel. By labelling those considered as troublemakers ‘Yankees’ they are in effect created in the image of an outsider, a social outcast, or perhaps a threat to social and cultural harmony.

Crieghton (1995) suggests that just as the west essentialises the east in its orientalist discourse, so to does Japan essentialise foreigners, along with placing marginal groups with legal residents status under the term ‘gaijin’, or in the case of Koreans ‘Zainichi’ (outsiders) (Crieghton, 1995: 137). The social construction of gaijin (foreigners) denies their uniqueness and how their cultural identities fit within Japanese society, furthermore, it places them into an essentialised category and denies their cultural identity. Representations of the ‘other create and highlight contrasting statements about how special being Japanese is among the ‘essentialised self-orientalisms’ created such representations are ‘Japanese assertions of uniqueness and cultural homogeneity’ (Creighton, 1995: 137).

This is, in turn, reinforced through the Japanese education system, along with popular views expressed and reported through the mass media to do with Japanese identity and the dangers of foreigners. In particular, very little is taught in Japanese schools about Japan’s colonial past, helps to maintain commonly held beliefs about a unified Japan, along with notions of superiority and inferiority (Okana & Ysuchiya, 1999). An example of such attitudes towards ethnic minorities can be found in the series Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai, a series where the main character Kodaka Hasegawa (and also his sister Kobato Hasegawa) are only half Japanese with a now dead English mother. They both inherit their mother’s blonde hair, and Kodaka is looked down upon and avoided largely because of this physical characteristic.

Because of his looks and blonde hair Kodoaka is mistaken for a delinquent, with teachers and students assuming that he has died his hair in order to deliberately stand out from everyone else. Because of this central misunderstanding Kodaka is marginalised, and eventually ostracised by everyone at school. We also see a similar attitude towards foreigners in the series Sakamichi no Apollon, with Sentarou labelled as a delinquent, along with being cursed by his grandmother because of his American heritage. This setting is a little different to Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai due to it being set in the 1960s, which was a period of immense social upheaval around the world. So, while the insults that Sentarou has to deal with are more extreme than those Kodaka faces, they are still coming from the same background and attitudes.

As Lie (2001) argues, the concept of ethnicity is ambiguous in the absence of fixed, defining criteria. Therefore it is not easy to define pure Japanese blood or ethnicity, or the exact point where someone has sufficiently internalized Japanese culture and social norms to be considered ‘True Japanese’ (Hammond, 2006:547). Furthermore, Japanese education teaches the states notion of a single homogenous society, with no attempt to address the concerns of minority and marginalized groups. Education plays a significant role in portraying Japan as a single, unified country with monoethnic community, and homogenous culture.

Schools socialise and acculturate children for their adult lives, furthermore the interactions between teacher and student, along with interactions between students helps to form particular values and attitudes towards the wider world, along with their own country (Okano & Tsuchiya, 1999). As Okano and Tsuchiya (1999) suggest, children, at the most basic level, learn to follow the school rules, and rigidly sticking to their textbooks due to the nature and structure of the Japanese education system, there is little questioning the history that is in front of them (Okano and Tsuchiya, 1999: 4).

Ethnic differences are therefore displayed in educational institutions, and, above all, in family life. Within series such as Eureka Seven AO and Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai we see the internalization of commonly held beliefs surrounding racial prejudices at a young age. Those who initially pick on AO are the children of his island, and while the adults later capture him, we see how they have constant used the appearance of his mother as a reason for their social and economic decline. Similarly, the attitudes that we see towards Kodoka are those that the children at his school have acquired from their parents, such opinions are picked up from family and are circulated through the school environment, thus naturalizing them.

A social marginal group – this is from Sakamichi no Apollon showing the violence of the student protests that Japan experienced during the 1950s and 1960s.

Families and the education system are therefore ‘not only the nation in microcosm, its key components, but act as the means to turn social processes into natural, instinctive ones’ (Gilroy, 1987:42). Notions of superiority and inferiority to do with ethnic background are therefore reproduced in the socialising space of education, and as Gilroy (1987) argues, racist and ethnic ‘ideologies and practise have distinct meanings bounded by historical circumstances and determined by struggle’ (Gilroy, 1987: 42). In terms of the struggle in AO, we see how many adults on AO’s island do not necessarily believe that he caused their problems, however, due to their circumstances, they needed someone to blame.

Similarly, the problems that Kodoka faces are a direct result of the power of education and the school as a socialising space within which commonly held attitudes and beliefs are shared and reinforced. The rigid school system of Japan, coupled with the lack of information in all commonly used textbooks, allows the current discourses and assumptions about Koreans, Ainu, and foreigners in general to be maintained. And as Okano and Tsuchiya (1999) argue, modern school has been further used to assimilate those from other ethnic groups, and although this assimilation is not as overt as it once was, it still exists and further demonstrates the difficult position that many ethnic groups find themselves in (Okano and Tsuchiya, 1999:111).

This is problematic when creating a bounded notion of hat it means to be Japanese. This is all a part of the creation of a Japanese identity, that encompasses elements of the traditional, the rural landscape as ‘true Japan’, and a specific culture, along with a single ethnic identity that have been created as ‘Japanese’. We have to ask ourselves, however, whether or not these discourses are as wide ranging as they once were, as Foucault (1978) argues that we must make allowances for the ‘complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both and instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for and opposing strategy’ (Foucault, 1978: 101). The existence of ethnic Koreans and Ainu in Japan are in direct opposition, therefore, to the Japanese states discourse of a monoethnic population.

Marginal and minority ethnic groups demonstrate that the Japanese state is far from homogenous, with diverse cultures, social structures, along with a variety of political and social ideals and beliefs (Gu Lynn, 2006; Tsuda, 1998). Furthermore, they show that the ideal of a homogenous, harmonious society has been created in direct opposition to other sets of beliefs in the region, with the common conception of the Japanese state based around not being the ‘other’. The Zainichi Koreans and to a lesser extent the Ainu, are therefore used to justify the central discourse of the Japanese state, and as Anderson (1983) argues, the discourses surrounding racism and the marginalization of ethnic minorities ‘justify not so much foreign wars as domestic repression and domination’ (Anderson, 1983: 136; Chapman, 2007).

Historical and recent evidence suggests that the public imagination about foreigners is a political construction of the governing elite, which adopts moral cultivation and regulation of Japanese commoners as one of its major public responsibilities (Shipper, 2005). Racial prejudices in Japan however appear to be largely devoid of links to real events and social reality such as the living conditions and socioeconomic backgrounds of foreigners. It can be argued therefore that the Japanese behavior towards the Zainichi Korean and Ainu ethnic groups is a result of efforts in molding Japanese minds through government actions, along with the influence of the media and role of education (Garon, 1997). Although, as Okano and Tsuchiya (1999) argue, there remains a legacy Japans colonial period, when the Japanese defined Koreans as inferior, this resulted in the Japanese them deliberately discouraging the maintenance of the Korean language and culture (Okano and Tsuchiya, 1999:113).

The majority of the Zainichi Korean and Ainu populations are indistinguishable from the so-called ‘mainstream’ Japanese population (Chapman, 2007:2). Lie (2001) points out that estimating the numbers of these minority groups in Japan is difficult because neither governmental nor sociological surveys incorporate ethnic diversity. Furthermore, minority groups such as Zainichi Koreans and Ainu may try to pass as mainstream Japanese (and often do) in order to avoid discrimination. We see this in the example of Haruka Morishima from Amagami SS, a quite normal, if very beautiful and sexy high school girl, who is nevertheless a quarter English. This does not lead to anything, and because of the series structure, along with the reaction of Junichi, you quickly forget about Haruka’s ethnic background.

More importantly, we only learn of her ethnicity when Haruka and Junichi have become close, suggesting that if she had not fallen in love with Junichi we would have never found out that she was a quarter English. This then means that any discourse about the monoethnicity and homogenous nature of Japan is flawed due to the inability to find a proper ‘other’ that is distinguishable and different (Chapman, 2007; Hammond, 2006). A single, shared culture has been one of the central themes to Japanese nationalist discourse, creating ‘Imagined Communities’ (Anderson, 1983) where a single shared language and culture are essential for maintaining the commonality between different groups of people (Carvalho, 2003; Hall, 1990). However, such links are hard to maintaining, and arguably there are significant differences between different groups, based on social status, cultural capital, along with perceived notions of superiority and inferiority (Ishida, 1989). Therefore, these ‘Imagined Communities’ are often created in opposition to groups considered as outsiders, marginalized from mainstream society (Anderson, 1983).

We see such attitudes towards foreigners appear in anime and manga on a regular basis, not all of them offer a negative interpretation of what appear not be commonly held beliefs however. While we see the negative impact that AO’s perceived ethnicity has upon his place within the community of his island, he is nevertheless cared for by his grandfather and freely accepted by those of Generation Bleu. There are clearly other reasons for these events, however, his ethnicity, while significant to his current place within the world of Eureka Seven is shown to be both positive, but also negative. Similarly, the attitudes towards Kodoka help to demonstrate the common held beliefs of foreigners place within Japanese society, along with the importance of the school as a socialising space.

In terms of Haruka, her sudden revelation may not seem as important to the story, but the time and place chosen to tell Junichi could suggest an element on unease about revealing that she was not full Japanese. Such ideas and attitudes are fascinating to watch, especially when we see these characters begin to make new friends, and stronger links within the series. That characters such as Kodoka and AO can make their own friends demonstrates that while these attitudes towards foreigners and those of different ethnic background are still very strong and influential (even making their way into a visual medium such as anime), they are not universal. We have series such as Asobi no Iku Yo, where the ‘foreigners’ (aliens in this case), are treat with curiosity, but respect. The series is set on Okinawa however, an island that has its own complicated situation with the Japanese mainland, which does help to explain the acceptance of foreigners. But, once again we can see how anime, while a work of fiction, can, like all forms of media, help to reproduce commonly held beliefs within society and culture.

An extreme but interesting example of ‘foreigners’ not knowing or understanding the culture that they are in, thus demonstrating their ignorance and stupidity. This is regardless of whether they know what is necessary in the country and culture or not.


Anderson, B. (1983), Imagined Communities, Verso; London.

Carvalho, D. (2008), Migrants and Identity in Japan and Brazil, The Nikkeijin, Routledge; Oxon.

Chapman, D. (2007), Zainichi Korean identity and Ethnicity, Routledge; New York.

–––– (2004), “The Third Way and Beyond: Zainichi Korean Identity and the Politics of Belonging,” Japanese Studies, Vol, 24(1), pp. 31-34

Creighton, M. R. (1995), Imaging the Other in Japanese Advertising Campaigns, In: James, G. Carrier (ed.), Occidentalism, Images of the West, Clarendon Press; Oxford.

Foucault, M. (1978), The History of Sexuality: Volume One, An Introduction, Pelican Books Ltd: Hammondsworth.

Fukuoka, M. (2000), Lives of Young Koreans in Japan, Trans Pacific Press; Melbourne.

Gap Min, P. (1992), A Comparison of the Korean Minorities in China and Japan, International Migration Review, Vol 26(1), pp. 4-21.

Garon, S. (1997), Molding Japanese Minds, Princeton Univeristy Press; Princeton.

Gilroy, P. (1987), There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack, Routledge; London.

Gu Lynn, H. (2006), Vicarious Traumas: Television and Public Opinion in Japan’s North Korea Policy, Pacific Affairs, Vol 79(3), pp. 483-508.

Hall, S. (1990) ‘Cultural identity and diaspora’, in J. Rutherford (ed.), Identity, Community Culture, Identity, Lawrence & Wishart; London.

Hammond, K. (2006), More than a Game: A Critical Discourse Analysis of a Racial Inequality Exercise in Japan, TESOL Quarterly, Vol 40(3), pp. 545-571.

Hammel, E. A. (1988), A Glimpse into the Demography of the Ainu, American Anthropologists, New Series, Vol 90(1), pp. 25-41.

Hiwasaki, L. (2000), Ethnic Tourism in Hokkaido and the Shaping of Ainu Identity, Pacific Affairs, Vol 73(3), pp. 393-412.

Ishida, H. (1989), Class Structure and Status Hierarchies in contemporary Japan, European Sociological Review, Vol 5(1), pp. 65-80.

Lie, J. (2001), Multiethnic Japan, Harvard University Press; Cambridge.

Okano, K. & Tsuchiya, M. (1999), Education in Contemporary Japan, Inequality and Diversity, Cambridge University Press; Cambridge.

Pharr, S. J. (1990), Losing Face, Status Politics in Japan, University of California Press; Los Angeles.

Shipper, A, W. (2005), Criminals or Victims? The Politics of Illegal Foreigners in Japan, Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol 32(2), pp. 299-327.

Sjöberg, K. (1993), The Return of the Ainu, Cultural mobilization and the practice of ethnicity in Japan, Harwood Academic Publishers; Amsterdam.

Strausz, M. (2006/2007), Minorities and Protest in Japan: The Politics of the Fingerprinting Refusal Movement, Pacific Affairs, Vol 79(4), pp. 641-656.

Tsuda, T. (1998), The Stigma of ethnic Difference: The Structure of Predjudice and “Discrimination” toward Japan’s New Immigration Minority, Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol 24(2), pp.  317-359.

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About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

9 Responses to The portrayal of marginal groups and foreigners in anime

  1. py687 says:

    Nice article and extensive research. Eastern cultures tend to be more collectivistic than western ones. Anything that’s part of the “out group” is therefore rejected or looked down upon. In a way, it’s really a shame that they’re not as open as other countries (like the US) are to different cultures, race, or religion.

    • illogicalzen says:

      I disagree actually, a lot of Asian countries are not as collectivistic as you suggest. In Japan for example there are numerous different groups and sub groups whose ideals and attitudes clash, we dont see this because the state wishes to portray a harmonious society. Rejection of foreigners is partly historical, with the Tokugawa Bakufu having a policy of inclusion and exclusion – not allowing the Japanese people to leave Japan, while also not allowing foreigners in. This was their official policy, but unofficially, foreigners were allowed in and there was extensive trade with the outside world. I also dont think the US is quite as open to other cultures as you might suggest, if anything, it appears to have a more collectivist attitude than most other countries, with significantly tougher border controls than the majority of Europe. Japan definitely has very strong ideas of superiority and inferiority, but it is important not to essentialise and simply say that the country and culture is not open to new ideas and people, because it is.

      • py687 says:

        I speak from personal experience that the Chinese, at least, a pretty collectivistic. And I suppose living in the west coast of the US is quite different from other places in the country, but here in Washington we’re rather open minded.

        I’m not saying the Japanese are closed to new ideas either, but that it would be understandable from this perspective if they were less inclined to accept other cultures. Though I suppose this is true for every person and every culture/country.

        • illogicalzen says:

          True enough, I was over-generalising there actually, especially when my own experience is essentially Japan and South Korea. I think all countries are very similar with different attitudes in different parts and cities. Osaka for example is far more accepting of foreigners than Kyoto, Sapporo is also quite accepting as well in my experience, along with Tokyo (largely because of its position as Japan’s business hub). Japan as a country has a latent strain of xenophobia, one that is often hidden incredibly deeply in the society itself as well. But more than this we have an interesting case where the ‘ordinary’ people are often more accepting of foreigners or marginal groups, but the state itself is not.

          This piece comes from my own research, so its much shorter than the full article (so it would be readable on a blog), but what interests me is how ideas surrounding foreigners of ‘gaijin’ have filtered down into anime. While many people may not believe in this ideas and reject them, they clearly have a strong place in Japanese society and culture otherwise they would not appear in such obvious ways in a visual medium such as anime.

  2. mitch0o says:

    WOW! this is a really interesting article! It have the potential to be send to a sociology magazine. I also want to tell you I really like your blog. You have a great talent with word a you have a sharp sense of observation to analyze societies (both Japanese and the others one) through the anime sphere.

    • illogicalzen says:

      Thank you – I have been interested in Japanese culture and society for a few years now and I am even studying it at university so obviously elements of my studies will make their way into my writing. For my part I often find many blogs and more general writing about anime and manga, or wider Japanese culture brush over important elements of the society or perhaps do not understand it enough. This does lead to an awful lot of generalisation about why certain series and themes exist, which is unfortunate. Either way I just find the way anime in particular mirrors Japanese society and culture, with long heled beliefs and values making their way into specific series or anime in general.

      • mitch0o says:

        You are totally right: people tend to stereotype the Japanese society on the general theme they see on anime or manga and don’t take the time to look what is “behind” these themes. But the Japanese culture and society, like in fact any culture or society in the world, is more complex than that and this complexity is what makes it interesting. It’s refreshing to read a blog like yours that takes a step ahead general reviews or bland critics. (Well, I shouldn’t be saying that, since my own blog isn’t really more complex than general reviews… whatever…)

  3. She says:

    what animes are the pics from

  4. Pingback: Top 3 Anime of 2018 – MomenTimes

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