Fantasy Races in Japanese Video Games

Part Two – On Pokémon

Lenora from Pokémon BW

This essay is intended to be a short introduction to issues relating to race in Japanese video games. I’m going to talk about the two most recent Pokémon games in this segment before moving on to the Final Fantasy franchise in the next segment, but first I’d like to give a quick overview of racial and ethnic issues in real-world Japan.

Japan is often characterized as “a homogenous society,” an expression often taken to mean that the country is culturally homogenous, politically homogenous, linguistically homogenous, religiously homogenous, economically homogenous, and racially homogenous. Disproving any of these assumptions is so ridiculously easy that I won’t waste our time by doing so, so let it simply suffice to say that none of them are correct: There is a great deal of cultural, political, linguistic, religious, and economic diversity in Japan, and these diversities lead to the same sort of conflicts and opportunities resulting from similar diversities in the United States.

Racial diversity is a bit more complicated, so allow me to provide some statistics taken from the English-language Wikipedia entry on Demographics of Japan, which summarizes data gathered by the Japanese government in its 2010 population census. Japan currently has the tenth highest population in the world, with between 127,000,000 and 128,000,000 people, of whom roughly 500,000 live abroad. 2,039,000 people, or about 1.6% of Japan’s local resident population, are foreign nationals, most of whom are from China, Korea, and other countries in East and Southeast Asia (although 10% are from Brazil). There are also generally around 50,000 U.S. citizens living in Japan at any given time, as well as an additional 30,000 members of the U.S. military stationed in Japanese territories. The other 125,000,000 people in Japan, or 98% of the population, are of the dominant ethnicity, who are sometimes referred to as “Yamato people.”

In comparison, California had a little more than 37,000,000 people in 2010, 37.6% of whom self-identified as Hispanic and 14.9% of whom self-identified as Asian. Even taking into account its ethnic minorities, such as the Burakumin of western Japan, the Ainu of northern Japan, and the Ryūkyūan Islanders of Okinawa Prefecture, Japan does at first glance seem fairly racially homogenous, at least from a relative perspective.

This is not to say that there is no discrimination in Japan, as even members of the dominant ethnic group can face unnecessary hardships for having the wrong skin tone, hair texture, or dexterous hand (or blood type). Human beings are terrible creatures, and they will find ways to discriminate against one another regardless of what classifiers they’re given to work with. It may be appropriate to point out at this juncture that race is not real – at least not in the sense that it is something that can be scientifically quantified, either genetically, taxonomically, or phenotypically. Race is entirely socially constructed, and different societies construct racial divisions in different ways. Because we’re social animals, race feels very real to us, and the sociological behaviors governed by such perceptions are undeniable. Still, the constructions of race common in the United States, as well as the histories associated with these constructions, do not map perfectly onto Japanese society, just as they don’t map perfectly onto British or Brazilian or Bosnian society. It is therefore reasonable to expect that Japanese texts deal with issues relating to race in different ways that do American texts.

So how is race portrayed in Japanese video games?

I decided to approach the topic by looking at the two most recent generations of Pokémon games, Pokémon Black/White and Pokémon X/Y. Pokémon Black/White is set in the Unova Region, which based loosely on New York City and its adjoining suburbs, while Pokémon X/Y is set in the Kalos Region, which is based loosely on France.

Despite the incredible racial diversity of New York and New Jersey, there were only three named people of color (POC) in Pokémon Black/White: Lenora, Iris, and Marshal. Aside from those three characters, everyone else in the entire game is either Japanese or Caucasian, depending on how you interpret the default light-skinned anime person.

In contrast, in Pokémon X/Y, which enjoyed a simultaneous release across multiple global territories, Grant and possibly Olympia are the only named “black” characters, but just about anyone else, from the player-protagonist character to the NPCs in the towns and cities to the other trainers that ambush you in the wild, can be one of three races: default light-skinned anime person, definitely white, or a sort of pan-POC race.

Pokémon XY Trainer Select Screen

This configuration does three things. First, it sets up “white” (as coded by light blond hair, pale blue eyes, and slightly pinkish skin) as the only definite racial classification. Second, it literally sets up “default light-skinned anime person” as the default, which is interesting in that “default light-skinned anime person” is clearly not the same as “white.” In territories like America and Europe, people of Asian descent are perceived as POC; but, in this game made in Japan, the non-“white” classification is the default race: You look are a stick figure (in this case, the “default light-skinned anime person” player-protagonist character) and see a Japanese/”Asian” person. Third, whereas Grant is probably of African or Caribbean descent (as coded by his darker skin and afro-textured hair), the “pan-POC” race erases racial difference more than it emphasizes it. This “pan-POC” race could be interpreted as Latin American, or as Middle Eastern, or as Pacific Islander, or as mixed race – or however the player would like to interpret it, really.

Grant from Pokémon XY

I don’t want to make value judgments about the implications of this configuration, and I’m not going to veer off on a long tangent by problematizing my own interpretation of these races in light of different theories of resistant reading. However, I do want to say that the games make it completely natural for people of different races to be everywhere and in every profession without any sort of racial stereotyping – or any mention of race at all. Even areas that are meant to be almost stereotypically French, such as Aquacorde Town and Laverre City, have the same mixture of in-game races as the more cosmopolitan areas. The only people belonging to a race that is explicitly identified take the form of various NPC “tourist” trainers, who are given Japanese names and based on stereotypes of Japanese travelers, but perhaps, coming from the perspective of Japanese developers who traveled to France to do fieldwork, such caricatures are not malicious but light-heartedly self-referential. In any case, in the most basic terms of the representation of racial diversity, Pokémon X/Y is head and shoulders over its predecessors in the Pokémon franchise.

Rising Star Didier from Pokémon XY

The Pokémon games have always been set in a utopian version of the contemporary world in which humankind lives more or less in harmony with nature despite not having sacrificed any modern comforts. In such a world, young women and men can travel freely without having to worry about their safety, and roads and communities are structured to accommodate a society completely without cars, which allows people of all ages and from all walks of life to spend time outside wherever and whenever they desire. One of the player’s main goals in each game is to prevent a criminal or activist organization from disrupting this eco-paradise by monopolizing or otherwise exploiting natural resources. In other words, the status quo of the Pokémon games is a society in which people live together peacefully and happily in a close and respectful relationship with the natural world.

In such an environment, there is almost no discrimination on the basis on economic class, or religious affiliation, or on the basis of sex, gender, or sexual orientation. There are even a few transgender characters dotting the Pokémon landscape, and there are almost no gendered pronouns floating around to suggest that performance of gender does or doesn’t correspond to physical sex (no one refers to the “boy” player-protagonist character as “he” or “him,” or to the “girl” player-protagonist character as “she” or “her” in the English translations, for example). It would make sense, then, for race to be treated in the same manner, namely, as mere window dressing that says nothing about the personality or abilities of the character in question.

One might argue that it is irresponsible of the Pokémon developers to release Pokémon X/Y simultaneously across several global territories without attempting to address the real-world social and historical issues related to race, which is after all a major new addition to the franchise in the most recent generations of games. I would counter this argument by suggesting that the Pokémon games engage with the real world not by offering direct critique but rather by serving as a model of what an ideal world would look like and encouraging the player to defend this world from those who would despoil it. By making absolute and unquestioned racial equality a characterizing feature of this utopian society, Pokémon X/Y – and Pokémon Black/White to a lesser degree – encourage the player to become invested in parrying any challenges to this ideal. A player can thus spend well upwards of fifty hours enjoying the benefits of a society in which race is never a critical or problematic issue, and in which obvious truths like “racism is stupid and wrong” never need to be stated outright.

Pokémon XY Female Protagonist

The above art is by Pixiv user Rina.
(Thanks to Kaitou-Al for the link!)

Part One – On Cultural Difference
Part Three – On Final Fantasy

6 thoughts on “Fantasy Races in Japanese Video Games

  1. Before I go any farther into this series, I want to point out that I am as white as a Wonder Bread and mayonnaise sandwich.

    If anything I have written is incorrect, or if I’m demonstrating the blindness of my white privilege, please don’t be afraid to call me out on it. I will not fight you; I will just be extremely embarrassed and fix whatever needs to be fixed.

    I do want to qualify my argument here and state that the portrayal of race in the Pokémon games and anime is far from perfect, but I’m still optimistic about the utopian portrayal of race being a non-issue in the two most recent generations of games.

    * * *

    I found the closing image on Tumblr and haven’t been able to locate the artist or source for the image. Any help anyone can offer me will be greatly appreciated.

    I generally don’t like to use images that I can’t attribute to their creators, but I think this particular digital painting is worth sharing, as the vast majority of images returned in Google searches for terms like “Pokémon XY female protagonist” or “Serena from Pokémon XY” display the default or white versions of the character.

    Even though both the official promotional material and many Pokémon fandom cultures demonstrate a clear preference for the white-in-scare-quotes versions of the character, or more appropriately because they do so, I think it’s groundbreaking that the player is able to choose a POC protagonist character. Representation is so, so important, especially in media franchises on the scale of the Pokémon games (for the record, Pokémon XY sold around 12 million units worldwide).

    1. I actually didn’t know about that. Thank you so much for posting it!

      I’m going to get more into the more thorny implications of this trope in the next section when I talk about anime-flavored JRPGs like those of the Tales Of and Suikoden series, in which brown skin is too often equated with “foreign” or “savage,” which is a little… you know.

      Anyway, I’m definitely going to reference the related trope of Amazing Technicolor Population when discussion more obvious fantasy races. I owe you one!

      1. I’m going to get more into the more thorny implications of this trope in the next section when I talk about anime-flavored JRPGs like those of the Tales Of and Suikoden series

        There goes my next question – I’m really looking forward to seeing how you read the games that do specifically feature continents and even countries. And even try to emphasize differences in characters’ names…

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