Note: After spending a week in the Kansai area (nothing work-related, just a brief sojourn), I thought it would be nice to bring out this old article. This is a repost of an article I originally wrote for Crunchyroll. As always, check my writer profile to see my latest articles.
In the second season of Blue Exorcist, the action shifts to Kyoto, the former capital of Japan for over a thousand years. In many ways, it’s an ideal setting for the Blue Exorcist story. The characters’ powers are often inspired by Buddhist motifs (Suguro, for instance, recites Buddhist chants in order to cast barriers). Given that Kyoto is famous for its historical Buddhist temples and imperial palaces, it makes complete sense for the setting to shift to Kyoto as the story delves into the characters’ backstories and the events of the past.
There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to Kyoto and how the city is typically portrayed in anime, but today I want to introduce you to one particular technique used in Blue Exorcist to help set the scene in Kyoto—the characters from Kyoto all speak with a dialect. This might be difficult to fully appreciate in translation because the differences in the characters’ speaking styles are not marked in the subtitles. Dialects are notoriously difficult for translators to handle in general, so how are English speakers meant to understand the Kyoto dialect used in the Blue Exorcist anime?
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.