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.