On the whole, black characters are quite rare in anime and manga. Plus, it’s been pointed out before that the majority of them are based on racist stereotypes. Although there is a black population in Japan (in fact, the current Miss Japan is half-black), most Japanese people are only exposed to black people through the media, which tends to reinforce their ignorance. As a result, you’d be hard-pressed to find an anime that focuses specifically on black issues.
The Little Women anime (1987) is one of the exceptions, as it goes out of its way to educate its young viewers about slavery and the American Civil War. The notable thing about this production is that it actually adds black perspectives that were entirely missing from Louisa May Alcott’s novel. The character of Hannah, the family maid, was changed into a black woman, and there’s also a subplot in the early episodes focusing on an escaped slave named John. 
As great as this is for people who like some diversity in their anime, it still remains that these perspectives are included for the benefit of a Japanese audience, not for an African American or even a White American audience. These representations are drawn primarily from second-hand sources. Moreover, the distinctive qualities of “Black vernacular” are completely erased through translation, which serves to obscure the complex relationship between race, gender and class.
If anything, this anime makes visible the uncomfortable politics of Alcott’s original novel, for by depicting black bodies without their voices, Little Women affirms a sanitised version of racial relations that revolves entirely around the white, middle-class experience.
This is a post about translation. It shows how all translation is, in the end, a matter of representation. I’ll compare how the white characters and black characters in Little Women are “represented” in Japanese, with a particular focus on women’s speech (which makes sense since this is a show about, you know, little women). But before we get to that, let’s go over some basic concepts in translation and sociolinguistics.
Words mean things because of context
It’s true. I like to think of this as the “Romeo and Juliet” principle: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Basically, unless a word is linked to an object or concept in your mind, it is just a sound. And also, just as importantly, words sound differently to one’s ears because of the context and meaning we attach to them. “Rose” sounds like a pleasant word, while “poo” doesn’t.
Likewise, the reason why dialects and speech styles sound differently to our ears is because of the social connotations we attach to them. For better or worse, we make judgements about a person’s class and social background based on the way they speak and write. We also make assumptions about a person’s gender identity, even with a supposedly gender neutral language like English.
To sum up, the premise of sociolinguistics is that words mean things because of context, and that you can understand languages by looking at the social dynamics that shape them.
Things start to get complicated when you include translation into the mix, because translation involves its own set of assumptions. Namely, translation assumes that languages are separate and distinctive. This is done mainly for the sake of practical convenience, because how else are you going to transfer a message that is understandable in one context but not in another? You can’t mix up all the words because that would just confuse everyone.
In order to make translation work, you need to ignore or downplay the fact that not everyone who speaks the same “language” can actually understand each other’s words. Still, you can’t group all these different linguistic contexts together, label it all as [insert language of your choice] and call it a day – not without huge caveats at least.
Translators are always faced with problems about how to represent the diversity within one particular language into another language. This gets particularly noticeable when it comes to regional languages and dialects. Often, the diversity is simply erased, or perhaps represented with the same “ethnic” voice that applies to every speech style that deviates from the standard dialect. The translation theorist Gayatri Spivak has this to say about translating ethnic dialects into English:
In the act of wholesale translation into English there can be a betrayal of the democratic ideal into the law of the strongest. This happens when all the literature of the Third World gets translated into a sort of with-it translatese, so that the literature by a woman in Palestine begins to resemble, in the feel of its prose, something by a man in Taiwan. (pp. 371-2)
– From “The Politics of Translation,” in The Translation Studies Reader (2004), 2nd edition, edited by Lawrence Venuti
To put this in perspective, let’s use a Japanese example. An observant anime viewer should be able to tell the difference between the Tokyo dialect used by most anime characters and the Kansai dialect. The Kansai dialect tends to be highlighted in translation as well. Most famously in ADV Films’s Azumanga Daioh release, Osaka’s Kansai dialect was translated into a Texan drawl.
But what about the differences between one regional dialect and another? How would a Kyushu dialect be any different from, say, a Kyoto dialect?  Such minute language differences (as far as the target audience is concerned) are rarely highlighted in translation unless it’s relevant to the plot. Just compare the Barakamon translations to the original if you’d like to see this in action. 
There’s a wealth of literature highlighting how this happens to languages translated into English, but it happens with other language pairs as well. When things are lost in translation, it tends to happen at the expense of the politically marginalised.
Having established that this is a Thing, let’s look at how Black vernacular in particular is translated into Japanese.
A Literary Example: Gone With the Wind
Before we examine Little Women and how it erases the Black vernacular, let’s briefly look at a counterexample: Gone with the Wind, written by Margaret Mitchell and translated by Misaki Okubo and Sachiko Takeuchi.
As anyone who has read the novel or watched the film should be aware, Margaret Mitchell was not a big fan of blacks. To be blunt, she was a white supremacist. Black characters in Gone with the Wind are portrayed as racist caricatures, either as degenerate ruffians or for some reason really happy about being slaves. In the novel, their lines are written with such heavy orthography that they are, let’s face it, unreadable. Here’s an example:
Big Sam: No’m, us ain’ runned away. Dey done sont an’ tuck us, kase we wuz de fo’ bigges’ an’ stronges’ han’s at Tara … . Dey specially sont fer me, kase Ah could sing so good! Yes’m, Mist’ Frank Kennedy, he come by an’ tuck us.
Scarlett: But why, Big Sam?
Big Sam: Lawd, Miss Scarlett! Ain’ you heerd? Us is ter dig de ditches fer de w’ite gempmums ter hide in w’en de Yankees comes.
The Japanese translation attempts to replicate the effect by making the black characters speak with a garbled Tohoku dialect. They speak with the polite desumasu (ですます) form but then add the plain copula da (だ) at the end, which makes the sentence sound ungrammatical and unsophisticated. They also pronounce ai sounds as ee: Gozaimasu (ございます) becomes gozeemasu (ごぜえます), and so on.
The reason the Tohoku dialect was chosen here has a lot to do with language ideology (i.e. what people imagine speakers of a particular language to be like) and with the stigma around the Tohoku dialect. This only makes sense when you consider how, since the early days of the Meiji government, there has been a heavy push for standardising the Japanese language, and speakers of the Tohoku dialect came under direct pressure from the “Dialect Abolition Movement” (方言撲滅運動). Even today, the stereotype around Tohoku dialect speakers is that they’re rustic and dull-witted. Choosing to equate that stereotype with black slaves does not paint a flattering picture of either group.
It’s also worth noting that gendered language is barely present at all in the Japanese rendering of Black vernacular. In the “standard Japanese” often employed by fiction writers, it’s incredibly easy to tell apart a male and female from the first person pronouns they use, along with their sentence endings. In Gone with the Wind, all the black characters use the pronoun washi (わし) to refer to themselves regardless of their gender, so it’s not as easy to tell them apart. 
For black women, it seems, the typical standards of femininity that are associated with Japanese “women’s language” (女性語) don’t apply. This doesn’t mean that gendered stereotypes don’t apply at all to black women. Their crude speech implies that they lack the grace of upper class women, that they are undesirable in a romantic sense.
All of this means that the “women’s language” you hear in anime actually has implicit assumptions about race and class built into it. It’s telling that it’s used to convey the speech of middle class white women in translation while women of colour are excluded. In fact, the sociolinguist Miyako Inoue has written about how the discourse on Japanese “women’s language” initially evolved out of a need to create a unified urban class for women in Meiji Japan. The ideal of the “good wife, wise mother” (良妻賢母) applies only to a very specific type of Japanese woman. 
It is this stereotype that we need to keep in mind as we turn our attention to the gendered language in Little Women.
The Women in Little Women
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story of Little Women, it is a loosely autobiographical novel that follows the lives of four American girls: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. The first book is set during the Civil War, but we never see any of the fighting at all. Instead, the novel focuses on the domestic and family lives of the girls. It was a huge commercial success at the time and is today known as a classic among women’s literature.
The Little Women anime, or Ai no Wakakusa Monogatari as it is known in Japan, was produced as part of Nippon Animation’s World Masterpiece Theater.  The aim of the World Masterpiece Theater was to create animated versions of classic Western literature and adapt them for children. It is easily the most significant project Nippon Animation has ever done in the realm of TV anime, lasting for almost thirty years straight and spanning around thirty projects. 
The Little Women anime is not a straight adaptation of the novel. It ran for 48 episodes and only begins telling the story of the novel from the start of episode 22, so as you can see, it took a lot of liberties with the material. Nevertheless, it does function as a Japanese translation of the novel in one particular sense: the viewers are supposed to “hear” the English voices of the characters through their Japanese utterances.
As is conventional in fiction writing, the four girls speak with women’s language to each other. They end their sentences with particles such as no, yo, noyo, wa and kashira. It’s also evident that the girls “perform” femininity because of social expectations. For example, even when our boyish and independent-minded heroine Jo gets mad she still keeps using women’s language to express herself. Readers of the novel should be aware of Jo’s resistance against traditional feminine values, but curiously enough, this struggle is downplayed in translation.
Hannah the Black Maid
As I mentioned earlier in this article, women’s language is generally restricted to middle or upper class women. Unlike the other female members of the March household, Hannah the maid does not speak women’s language. However, she does not speak a bastardised Tohoku dialect either.
To be precise, Hannah speaks keigo (敬語), an honorific form of Japanese. Now, keigo is a very complex part of the language that it is difficult to sum up accurately, but it is generally used to observe hierarchies of power, particularly in the workplace.
Hannah’s subordinate position in the household is made abundantly clear in her introductory scene in episode 1, where she is shown speaking keigo to the twelve-year-old Amy. It should be noted that Amy uses plain-form Japanese, displaying her casual relationship with the maid.
As much as keigo is used to indicate power differences between individuals, it also indicates sophistication on the part of the speakers. Hannah’s use of keigo doesn’t display the same backwardness as the pseudo-Tohoku dialect does in Gone with the Wind. If anything, it implies the opposite, that Hannah is a very educated and eloquent woman.
Overall, Hannah’s role in the family feels quite ambiguous. The hierarchies implicit within honorific speech are based on age and one’s employment standing. On the surface, at least, race and gender have nothing to do with it. Maids are supposed to speak keigo to their masters no matter where they’re from. And perhaps that’s the reason why Hannah’s language gives me a sort of cognitive dissonance. The use of keigo here imposes a Japanese understanding of social hierarchy that doesn’t quite match my own understanding of Hannah’s social position in a 19th-century American society.
Let me explain what I mean by this. We are told that Hannah is “like family”, that she is an equal as far as the Marches are concerned. Even if Hannah is not technically equal to her employers, this would not be reflected in the way they speak to her. Thus, Hannah’s keigo creates a sense of distance from her employers that an American family would likely not tolerate. It also makes visible the fact that she is in a subordinate relationship.
At the same time, any hint of her racial identity is erased from her speech. This is juxtaposed with a narrative that doesn’t bring attention to the fact that black people were economically disadvantaged and prejudiced against even in the abolitionist North. Realistically speaking, a low-paid housemaid was likely one of the few job opportunities available to Hannah. This is never addressed, and in fact we are outright told that blacks and white are equal in the town of Gettysburg where the early episodes are set.
Thus, I can only assume that the anime is pushing forward a message of liberalism that is unfortunately blind to the complex reality of race and economic oppression. In this particular narrative, the black maid chooses to be a bit-part player and a subordinate to her wealthier white employers. Her character design (which was created by Yoshifumi Kondo, the late Studio Ghibli stalwart) even looks exactly like Mammy. You might remember Mammy as the slave from Gone with the Wind who was always so happy to be a slave.
The Little Women anime is a good show, but like everything, it’s not perfect.
Some tentative conclusions
Despite good intentions, the Little Women anime still relies on popular media stereotypes in order to portray a black woman. This is understandable. The way that black people’s voices are translated and represented through Japanese media makes it difficult for even an educated Japanese-speaking person to distinguish clearly between historical fact and racist caricature. While it’s generally agreed upon that a pseudo-Tohoku dialect is a go-to translation for non-standard dialects, it is extremely problematic because of the negative connotations the dialect carries. Not to mention that translation conventions give an impression that languages are more homogeneous than they really are.
How best to translate a black woman’s voice into Japanese remains an open question to which I can offer no easy answer. At times like these, I realise how fortunate I am that I can listen to an African American woman speak in English and understand her words through her own voice. However, my capacity to listen and understand does not extend to members of countless other language groups. I would not be able to meaningfully distinguish between the language groups in, say, India, or even my mother’s country: the Philippines. It would be impossible to learn every language in the world, and so I must rely on translation, however messy the process is.
I wrote this post with the hope that I could contribute to a clearer understanding of language ideology and its relationship with race, class, nationality and gender. Much feminist critique of anime fails to incorporate discussions of race, nationality and class, perhaps because many anime characters are drawn with a de-racialised, “mukokuseki” look that shrouds the complex interactions between Japanese and global media. I think that a focus on translation and on the processes through which language ideology is reinforced will give us a better understanding of the contexts in which anime is created.
There’s a lot more that I could write on this subject, but I’ll stop here because this post has gotten ridiculously long. In any case, I hope to explore certain ideas more fully in later posts, so if there are parts of this post which seem underdeveloped, it won’t remain that way forever.
As always, if you have questions/criticisms about this post, please let me know!
Until next time!
 The anime’s foray into the politics of the Civil War can perhaps be explained by the sensibilities of the scriptwriter Akira Miyazaki. (Not to be confused with Hayao Miyazaki, who worked as an animator at Nippon Animation between 1973 and 1979.) Akira Miyazaki was a veteran writer for Nippon Animation and a graduate from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, so if anyone at the studio had a good feel for foreign literature, it was him.
 It’s also worth pointing out that not all “Kansai dialects” are the same. In fact, there is considerable variation between regional dialects. But anime tends to make out that all Kansai dialect speakers use the same vocabulary, so this is a moot point for translators.
 This blog gives a detailed episode-by-episode overview of the Japanese used in the Barakamon anime.
 In standard Japanese, “washi” tends to be used by old men. The word sounds rather quaint to my ears.
 For a further exploration on the relationship between Japanese “women’s language” and language ideology, read ‘Speech without a speaking body: ‘‘Japanese women’s language’’ in translation’ by Miyako Inoue.
 By the way, Nippon Animation’s Little Women might be the most well-known adaptation, but Toei Animation also released a TV adaptation of the novel in 1981.
 The World Masterpiece Theater was rebooted in 2007 with an adaptation of Les Miserables, but it appears to have been received with considerably less success.
I never personally run into circumstances like this since I mostly specialize in legal and non-fiction (I translate for a living, although only between English and my native language), but yeah, this is certainly one of the most discussed issues in our circle. When you adapt a foreign vernacular into its cultural equivalent (or a rough approximation of it) in the target language, you’re essentially no longer ‘translating’ but ‘localizing’, and even the best kind of localization would still mean you lost a lot of distinct nuances from the source language and culture. There are many good reasons to localize, but there’s the always inevitable downside.
When your top priority is faithful representation of the source text/culture, oftentimes the best way to translate a vernacular is not to translate at all. When you’re dealing with a show where localization isn’t an absolute necessity (such as the Little Women), I’d always prefer characters to speak in their own language/the most logical choice of language based on their circumstances. There’s a myriad of practical hindrances when you’re doing that in visual medium with its phonological nature though, let alone an anime production, which has to look for VAs with necessary qualifications to achieve faithfulness on top of many other considerations.
It’s tough. Anthony Pym once said that, from a purely ethical standpoint: “We should translate in certain circumstances only, investing variable effort, in order to promote long-term cooperation between cultures. In all other cases, it would probably be better not to translate.”
I remember finding this statement confronting when I first heard it, because I always thought, “Isn’t a flawed translation better than no translation at all?” But, well, it’s complicated. And like you said, even the best localisation misses nuance from the source language and culture.
In the end, we have to accept that translation is a matter of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. As imperfect as translation is, you can’t have a dialogue with another culture without it. So we just have to keep an open mind and do our best to account for the blind spots.
I don’t have anything specific to add, I just felt like commenting to say how very much I enjoyed reading this article, and how impressed I am at the work and research you obviously put in to writing it. :)
Thanks! Glad you got something out of it :)
It’s a great post. Not everyone does have the eyes for nuance, but such important details when put in specific contexts.
(But did you get the inspiration to write about this specific anime from somewhere else?)
After reading this, I opened the Vietnamese version of Gone with the wind. Everyone, black or white, talk in the same way (I might have to check some of the others American works, too). In our language, for the Northern part of the country, the closest thing you can get to the stigma to Tohoku dialect is a character speaking Thanh Hoa voice, but for some reason I’ve never seen characters in the same work (after being translated into Vietnamese) speak with different dialects, or outright faults that is part of the author’s illustration of that said character. We’re more concern with keeping everything correct and sound, I think.
Also, continue with your line of thought, does an average English (or any international language) speaker from a non-English country could ever understand, or even know the contexts of a specific use of the said language? If the translator is willing to go all the way, would, for example, Tohoku-dialect or keigo, have a positive effect to intrigue the readers and encourage them to do their own research?
Glad you liked the post! I got the idea for the post because I’ve been watching the Little Women anime lately. As I was watching, I idly observed that the way the characters spoke (in Japanese) didn’t match my image of how they spoke in the book. I did some thinking about why this was the case, and this post was the eventual result.
It’s interesting that the Vietnamese version of Gone with the Wind doesn’t display similar issues with dialects. It’s actually really fascinating that the translation avoids the issue altogether since the differences between white and black speech are super obvious in the English novel. But if this is conventional for Vietnamese translations like you say, then it’s not a big surprise.
Lots of translation theorists talk about this and some of them even try it in practice by leaving lots of words from foreign dialects in a translation. But outside of academic texts and literary fiction, it’s just not common for translators to do this. Why? Because it’s too distracting for readers. It’s certainly possible for individual readers to take interest and do their own research, but on the whole, it doesn’t really work for a mainstream audience.
The anime fandom is a bit different in that regard, and lots of anime fans are interested in the Japanese language, which I would consider to be a good thing overall.
To be honest, I think this is perhaps the best post you’ve written on translation in general and on the difficulties therein specifically. I recall one of your earliest posts on translation essentially dealt with this exactly same topic—the struggle of translation as representation—and while I found it interesting, I frankly didn’t quite understand.
With this piece as a case study, though, I feel I do finally understand you were trying to make in that post. About how applying the cultural standards of one language (and its accompanying dialects and all the cultural context that surround those) says something a (potentially inaccurate!) about the situation of the language translated from.
So yeah, you’re doing great work here. Makes me want to up my blogging game, too!
Yes, the whole matter comes into perspective when you look at examples of how your first language is translated into other languages. I found that looking at English -> Japanese translations helped me come to grips with all these ideas about translation when I was first studying them in class.
In any case, thank you! I’m glad you found the post informative. Now I feel the need to step up my blogging game too.
That was very interesting. I’ll be back to read it more closely. :)
“When things are lost in translation, it tends to happen at the expense of the politically marginalised.”
But if we take “politically” in its broader meaning of “taking part to the collective social life”, isn’t that basically implicit in the act of translating – and in fact almost its *purpose*? Translating from some small country’s language, with all its detailed dialectal inflexions, into a “koiné” like English is today gives you that impression of “flattening”, of destroying identity, exactly because it’s discarding part of what makes that work typical and distinctive; but that part was also what made it unintelligible to a huge fraction of people. A less extreme example – I am from Sicily, so I always found especially enjoyable the novels by Andrea Camilleri (you may know him as the author of the Inspector Montalbano series, which got an excellent TV adaptation). These novels are full of terms borrowed from Sicilian vernacular conveying a lot of peculiar and impossible to translate shades of meaning. The same happens with a lot of other great Sicilian writers – Luigi Pirandello and Leonardo Sciascia to mention two. These can vary from decently understandable to nearly unintelligible if you’re an Italian mothertongue; and most likely an almost impossible read if you’re a foreigner who only learned Italian at school (it might work out if you’re an academic and especially focus on southern dialects and culture). I know that almost no one else will be able to appreciate those works as a born Sicilian, in fact, for both linguistic and cultural reasons, but I don’t think there’s much that can be done about it. Translating them will broaden their impact, if at the expense of part of their value.
I guess my point is, if someone’s plight reaches for the powerful and the masses, it needs to speak THEIR language at some point; and that means it’s unavoidable that it will have to rely on content more than on those nuances of form that will end up being lost in translation. It’s something that’s intrinsic to the act itself. If everyone already knew that culture and its reasons well enough to capture all the aspects of a text it produces, by definition, that culture would not need to speak for itself in order to be heard.
Man, that’s a great example. I’d better note that one down.
This is the reason why I can’t give translation too hard a rap. For all the potential pitfalls, it plays a necessary role in our world.
I personally like to think of it this way: a translation is the beginning of a conversation. Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter whether the translation was good or bad. It can always be critiqued and improved upon later. The important thing is that at least people now have a point of reference. Without a translation, we wouldn’t be able to have the conversation at all.
> Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter whether the translation was good or bad. It can always be critiqued and improved upon later.
Yeah, definitely. Plus there’s an argument imho for PURPOSEFUL simplification of some issues. For example you point out some specific problems with the way Little Women deals with race. But most of these are considerations you can only make when you have a deep enough knowledge of the context and the issues that you can start making out small contradictions even in well-intentioned standpoints. It is, in a way, Step 2 – but when a work is aimed at children, especially ones growing up in a culture as isolationist and occasionally xenophobic as Japan’s, Step 1 is already a pretty big darn step. It’s like teaching physics – first you teach Newtonian mechanics. You KNOW they’re technically wrong, but for most ends and purposes for beginners they’re good enough. Only when the time comes to actually go in depth you break out Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.
I was once literally *banned* from a blog for defending Hiromu Arakawa for a scene featured in Fullmetal Alchemist – when Major Miles reveals his Ishvalan identity to Edward Elric, and the latter basically tells him he doesn’t care about people’s race at all. In the context of an elaborate analysis of racial dynamics in the US, many feel that saying “I don’t *see* race” is actually an act of hypocrisy that is used to dodge the fundamental issue of systemic racism by pretending it’s not even there. But that is a very contextual observation and most certainly not what Arakawa-sensei was implying (especially in FMA’s heavily racist world, and considering her care for the plight of the Ainu). However many subtle distinctions may need to be done when judging and discussing race politics at a higher level, it seems to me that “don’t see race in people, see people” is an excellent core teaching to give to kids. Anything else comes later.
This reminds me of something I wanted to include in the original post but decided that it was too much of a detour.
For a show aimed at kids, Little Women actually had some real nuance when it came to its depiction of the Civil War.
One episode shows us an escaped slave, named John, who’s trying to hide from the Confederate soldiers who will force him to fight in their army. In his desperation not to get handed over to the soldiers, John takes Beth hostage. Instead of treating John like an enemy, Mrs. March understands why he went to the lengths he did and, after kindly asking him to let Beth go, decides to hide him in her house.
Later on, the Confederate soldiers come knocking on the door to look for John. In order to distract the soldiers, Beth plays a tune on the piano. The soldiers listen to the song, and one of them remembers his childhood and gets misty-eyed. When they leave, they thank Beth and the other girls politely.
The remarkable thing about this scenario is that it humanises both the escaped slave and the Confederate soldiers. In fact, it might even be more nuanced than a good deal of American stories about the Civil War. The Civil War is still such a politicised issue in the U.S. that a work of fiction showing Confederate soldiers as nice people and an escaped slave doing bad things would probably be criticised. In this case, the cultural remove was perhaps a good thing, as it gave the writers more license to tackle what would have been a contentious subject in the American context.
Yep, right on point. There’s this common need to just band together against “otherness”, to simplify things because that makes us feel reassured about our own goodness. The basest, most vile form of it is racism and the ilk – just brand someone else “inferior” based on superficial details and roll with it. But while ideologies might be a choice (to a point), branding entire groups of people as basically non-humans based on them holding some despicable ones is definitely not that much better. It doesn’t leave much grounds for politics in the end – whenever you refuse the humanity of the other side, really, not only violence is justified, it is fundamentally the only rational option.
[…] ← How would a black woman speak in anime? A case study of Little Women […]
a friend of mine had this to day about your article :)
My criticism is that this ignores that it ignores the form of language as being communicative in itself, which is something that is not entirely in built into English grammar. We don’t have polite forms, our polite form is our standard form. We don’t have in English, a verb tense that deals solely with the abstract. As a language form in itself, English is confusing and nebulous. So to make it coherent even in translation, you have to jiggery pokery it into the form of the translated language while keeping the meaning. It is an inevitability of translation and is not an issue of representation as much as it is an issue of language being culture laden and the translatability of these kinds of issues without the context.
Thank you for the comment! My response to your friend is that language and culture are inextricably linked. Translation will always have issues of representation because languages don’t account for communications within other cultures. So while your friend is broadly correct, it doesn’t invalidate what I’m saying either :)
The article you cited, in the first paragraph, is 16 years old. Certainly someone who “understands Japanese” would cite currently released anime/manga featuring modern black characters, rather than depend on old English sources. Yahoo! Questions in Japan is a great way to ask Japanese people to help you find manga with black female characters. Secondly, the 2015 Young Jack Black anime episodes 7& 8 features a black female character. Also, this website lists brown and dark skinned characters in anime: http://www.colorq.org/petsins/2005/9/anime.aspx. Thirdly, Japanese media showcases Black athletes, singers, and actors achievements in a good light. So Japanese are aware that there are black people doing “good things” out there. Far more now than ever, since a lot of American entertainment is being created by Black people and a lot of Japanese urban fashion brands are inspired by Black people as well. Lastly if language and culture is interlinked, than why do you think its appropriate to use a 1988 Japanese anime of a 19th century Western book to convey what Japanese currently think about Black women?
This is a very dubious reading because “Little Women” isn’t a Japanese book nor is it a book exploring Black culture. It’s a book written by a White person in the 19th century; where Black women were often employed as maids. However the maid’s blackness is not the point of “Little Women.” it is more a reflection of the ridge American social class structures for women at that time.
If “Little Women” was written today, the maid would probably be Hispanic instead of Black; as migrant Hispanics workers have taken the place of most Blacks in the American maid/service industry. So the maid’s race isn’t important at all. Where a person fits in the social class ( not their race) is what ultimately makes someone a maid. Thus when the economic opportunities increased for black women, opportunities not available for migrant Hispanic workers, less and less of Black women became maids and more and more migrant Hispanic women replaced them.
Next, the anime’s intended audience is a Japanese, who may or may not know American history well. So the Black maid’s dialect is reflective of a lower class Japanese person (because in terms of social status, a Black maid in the 19th century was on the same class level as a Japanese country bumpkin of any era). The anime producers weren’t concerned how “black women speak” as much as “how a lower class person” speaks. Again, its the restrictiveness of the social class structure for all women (regardless of race) that the “Little Women” is grasping at. Good translation seeks to keep the original author’s intentions intact.
Japan did not have color-based slavery. Slavery was based 100% on class. Japanese do not think in “black and white” but in “rich and poor.” In this way (in order for Japanese to get the real meaning of the “Little Women” theme) the maid’s social class is more relevant than her color. ” This is what the Japanese anime producers attempted to show by having the maid drawn as a “mammy” caricature. One of the themes in “Little Women” is that privileged women were just as stuck in their social positions as a poor woman. Neither women could be truly independent to follow their own dreams. This is what the Japanese anime is trying to pick up on, not so much “how black women speak.” but how the 19th century black woman playing the “mammy” character is equal to the white girls having to following the “good little woman” role in society.
For the most part, “Black people” in anime/manga speak like “foreigners” (if the setting is exclusively a commentary of the Japanese social order) or reflective of their personality (if its not about Japanese society) . Much like the “white people” in anime/manga. The fact that you had to search so long to see “how Japanese think Black women speak” shows you that Japanese don’t think blacks speak any differently than Whites. While Black may have been drawn stereotypical in the past , this was not due to Japanese’s perception of “what Blacks looked and acted like” but of “taking white’s word for what blacks looked and acted like.” Now that pictures of black people can be found with a quick google search, black anime/manga characters do not look as stereotypical as they did in the past. Finally there are just as much “black” anime characters as their are “white” ones. Most anime/manga characters are overwhelmingly Japanese; even the half Japanese characters act 100% Japanese. The white characters are generally stereotypes as well, blonde/hair blue eyes with huge forehead, noses, and jaws who speak in broken Japanese: http://i.imgur.com/4xAsggs.jpg. They look and act super different than the main Japanese character. The only reason why people think there is a lack of black characters is because they subconsciously perceive anime characters to be white (due to Westerners thinking yellow skin & slanted eyes = asian); even though they act 100% Japanese and most have Japanese names.
In fact, you researching this only uncovers your own prejudice. As if being a Black woman means you inherently speak “different” than the culture you were raised in. This idea is pretty much a “Western” based idea (not a Japanese perception, to the average Japanese all English sounds the same to them) and isn’t true as a quick Youtube search can show you that Black women speak in a variety of different ways; much like a White, Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern does. After all, a spoil White British girl from London is going to speak differently than a white humble Southern USA girl.
It seems as if you think culture or language is a static thing. Nowadays, “urban Black slang” is becoming more and more used by White culture; “fierce,” “hot mess,” “haters,” “turned up,” “bae,” “naenae,”on fleek,”basic b*tch,””ratchet,” “slay,” thot,” “Throwing shade,” “twerking,” “Yolo,” or whatever “Black Twitter” comes up with next. Finally many black people practice “code switching,” which means their dictation can change depending on their audience and/or situation : http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2013/04/code-switching.
So a “Black woman” is going to speak based on her social status, native country origin, and the audience she’s speaking too. However Japanese people don’t think to deep into this, “black woman’s speak” is regulated to her Japanese equivalent social status & personality; i.e. stoic middle aged no-nonsense black woman, speaks like a stoic middle aged no-nonsense Japanese woman. Watch the “Walking Dead” in Japanese and hear how “black” Michonne’s Japanese voice is.
[…] directly relate to Spice and Wolf, I in particular would recommend checking out his post How would a black woman speak in anime?: A case study of Little Women, which is really […]
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