“Gaijin” Others in Japanese Manga, 1930s-1950s


A review of Gaijin: Cultural Representations through Manga, 1930s-1950s, by Karl Ian Uy Cheng Chua.

Karl Chua’s dissertation makes an important contribution at the intersection of studies of modern Japanese imperialism and print culture. As the title suggests, the dissertation is an examination in Japanese comics of “gaijin,” broadly meaning both foreigners and non-Japanese persons. The manga and related materials he investigates come almost exclusively from a single source, Kodansha’s magazine Shōnen kurabu (Boys Club), which enjoyed almost a half-century long print run from 1914 until 1962. He explores the changing faces, both literal and metaphoric, that defined Japanese conceptions of themselves and preconception of others primarily from the 1930s to 1950s. I say “preconception” because as his first example shockingly demonstrates, natives of the South Seas were represented with the most pernicious racial caricatures à la Little Black Sambo associated with black Africans and African-Americans. Other nationalities and ethnic groups — Chinese, Manchurians, Americans, and so on — were similarly depicted in ways that reinforced existing prejudices. This underscores Chua’s central contention that manga was a crucial site for ideological reproduction for the molding of young (boys’) minds, during the era of Japanese empire and slightly beyond. Although the comics can rightly be considered to have been produced independently from one another by different artists/writers, including the father of modern Japanese manga, Tezuka Osamu, Chua does an admirable job of showing their deeper intertextual and intracultural representations of foreigners, and the relationship of the manga to the broader journalistic content of the magazine.

The ensuing chapters unfold in chronological order in a way that is also meant to reflect Japan’s preoccupations with race at different junctures in the mid-twentieth century. Beginning with a series of comic strips portraying New Year’s in the South Seas in Chapter 2 (“The Dark Continent”), Chua traces representations of Chinese/Manchurians in Chapter 3 (“Chinamen”), Americans and Britons in Chapter 4 (“Whitey”), and aliens of the terrestrial and extraterrestrial varieties in Chapter 5 (“Of Aliens and Fantasy”). Chapter 6 (“Around the World”) comes full circle with iconic boy adventurer Dankichi and the slight shifts in representation of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific from the 1930s into the 1940s. The final chapter, Chapter 7, is a brief conclusion that reprises the main points of the preceding chapters.

Chapter 1 effectively serves in lieu of a formal introduction, and contains a useful overview of the objectives of the dissertation. As Chua states, the thesis has two primary objectives: first, to outline how Japanese society’s image of the other has changed from 1930s-1950s through an analysis of the manga published in the magazine, Shōnen kurabu, during the specified period; and second, to re-evaluate the power relations of the Japanese-Other relationship being portrayed in the manga, that is to show the position of the Other vis-à-vis that of the Japanese (p. 3).

The chapter also contains a section on critical sources for methodology by Edward Said, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Willam O’Barr, John Russell and others. After a brief explication of their respective contributions, Chua notes the four main libraries and archives — Tokyo Metropolitan Library, National Shōwa Memorial Museum Library, The International Library of Children’s Literature and The Museum of Modern Japanese Literature Library — from which materials were gathered. Lastly, the chapter contains a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the rest of the dissertation.

Chapter 2 discusses Tagawa Suiho’s manga Nanyō no Oshōgatsu (New Year’s in the South Seas, 1930) which represents the islands as if they were Africa and the inhabitants according to the racial caricatures of Little Black Sambo. This bizarre manipulation of American racism is further complicated by the fact that the black-skinned natives are engaged in all of the ritual activities associated with Japanese New Year festivities. As such the comic strip maps the schema of Western civilizational theory onto the ethnicity of the people even as it maps supposedly universal (Japanese) customs onto their culture. With no sign of any Japanese presence and the inversion of tropical summer for winter, there is clearly something more insidious than mere parody at work here. However bumbling the natives are made to appear in their primitive inversion of Japanese modernity — using African wildlife, for instance, in place of industrial, urban and mechanized technologies — the exaggeration of South Seas’ “blackness” conforms to the logic of Western racism. That is to say, the natives strive to act properly, but do so in comical ways that underscore their inherent failure to fully occupy the subject position of the superior race (Japanese). The ultimate purpose, of course, was to inscribe the diverse cultures from South and Southeast Asia to the South Pacific into the universality of Japanese imperialism, while simultaneously maintaining a crucial ontological distinction between Japanese self and colonial Other(s). As Chua notes, this was an extension of the Nanshinron, or “Southern Advance Doctrine” for the benefit of young readers: to condition them to accept the naturalness of Japanese customs at the furthest reaches of the empire while also marking colonial subjects as inferior.

Chapter 3 shifts the locale to China and Manchuria, where, as Chua notes from the outset, the longevity of Chinese culture and its deep cultural contributions to Japan made such a schema impossible to reproduce. Particularly in the wake of the Manchurian Incident, Chua maintains that while Manchuria was portrayed as a new and friendly nation bursting with natural resources, comics such as Yoshimoto Sanpei’s Pokopen series consistently emphasized that China was not to be trusted. Indeed, the stereotypes of scowling faces, Fu Manchu moustaches, and alternately foolish or cunning behaviors were repeatedly utilized to negatively portray them as the enemy. Chua further observes that Japanese superiority was demonstrated in the increasingly martial tone of comics leading into the 1940s by Japanese soldiers and officers outsmarting the Chinese through “their use of innovative technologies” (p. 85).

In contrast to the racial depictions of the previous chapters, Westerners were not subjected to offensive stereotyping. Chapter 4 explores how the representation of Westerners changed in tandem with the geopolitical climate of the 1930s and 1940s. The United States and Britain were increasingly portrayed as “bullies” and as “a threat to Asian sovereignty and their power” in the 1930s to the point that “Japan has to join forces with China and India to prevent this threat from happening” (p. 139). The curious result of this animosity, Chua documents, was the removal of American and British characters in favor of abstract symbols of national power. At the same time, articles extolled Japan’s concern with liberating colonial states under Western power. In the postwar period, this too would change. When American Occupation soldiers were depicted, they were now adults in the company of Japanese boys, a telling ideological reproduction of Japan’s realignment with the United States as a junior partner, or little brother, in the geopolitics of the Cold War. Encouragement of English learning, which had been banned during the war, was likewise a new focus of young readers’ education by manga.

Chapter 5 takes up representation of the non-Japanese Other during and after the period of Occupation Army censorship, 1945-1949. Taking as his point of departure a 1949 issue of Shōnen kurabu that imagines Japan ten years into the future, Chua traces the brighter possibilities afforded by futuristic utopias such as Yokoi Fukujirō’s Fushigi na Kuni no Putchā (Puchar of the Mysterious Country, 1947-1948). The chapter then shows how science fiction emerged in the 1950s as a means of representing Japan’s rapid, science and technology-driven economic recovery, and to return to Japan’s traumatic war experiences and depictions of the Other in novel ways, particularly the use of “aliens.” Perhaps of greatest interest to readers of mainstream manga is his mention of Tezuka Osamu’s Rokku no Bōkenki (The Adventures of Rock Home) in the mid-1950s, which he argues recapitulates the prevailing stereotypes of the magazine’s prewar manga. This is not in and of itself a new accusation, as Tezuka’s anime films now include a contemporary disclaimer to much the same effect. Nonetheless, it is highly instructive to see Tezuka’s work properly situated in its historical context.

Chapter 6 reprises the longtime contributions to the magazine by artist Shimada Keizō, creator of the character Dankichi from the 1930s. Chua observes how Dankichi’s adventures in the South Seas, which culminated in his coronation as the king of a native tribe, set the tone for Japan’s civilizing mission in the tropics. Dankichi’s adventures would also bring him into conflict with dastardly Westerners and Chinese bad guys. Into the 1940s Shimada would branch out with a spinoff character and another Dankichi series that at least would end the Little Black Sambo-style depictions of non-Japanese, yet kept the innate structure of Japanese superiority intact.

From the outset in the first chapter, Chua makes reference to Ozaki Hokki’s Omoide no Shōnen kurabu jidai: Natsukashi no (sic) meisaku hakurankai (Memories from the Era of Boys Club: A Nostalgic Exhibition of Famous Works), which includes essays by the manga artists Tagawa Suihō and Shimada Keizō about how they created their respective iconic characters Norakurō and Dankichi, respectively. Chua looks beyond the pages of the manga to articles, photographs and other sections of the magazine to situate their representations of foreignness and Japaneseness. His inclusion of manga and other materials in the appendix of each chapter amounts to a veritable treasure trove. The result is a close reading of manga in Shōnen kurabu alongside an abundance of graphs, illustrations, articles and the like.

As a comprehensive study of the changing representations of the Other in Shōnen kurabu, Chua’s dissertation makes a solid contribution to the field of Japan Studies by disclosing the pervasive stereotypes and logic of racism implanted in young readers throughout the middle third of the twentieth century via the medium of manga. Its value therefore is not only for scholars of manga, but to a broader reading public in Japan today. The once-impressionable readers of Shōnen kurabu now belong to an aging and largely homogeneous society for whom cultural rapprochement with former colonial subjects and liberalization of immigration policies may yet, ironically enough, prove the best salvation for defusing Japan’s long-term demographic pressures.

Seth Jacobowitz
Assistant Professor of Modern Japanese Literature
Yale University

Primary Sources

Shōnen Club, print run 1914-1962

Dissertation Information

Hitotsubashi University. 2010. 252 pp. Primary Advisor: Nakano Satoshi.


Image: Tagawa Suiho. Nanyo no Oshogatsu. Shounen Kurabu. Tokyo: Dai Nihon Yubenkai Kodansha,  January 1930, pp. 112-113.

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