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Why do so many anime characters have non-Japanese names?

By Casey Baseel

There are a lot of things that surprise newcomers to anime. Why are the characters’ eyes so big? How come everyone has funky hair colors? What’s up with all the panty shots?

A lot of those have simple answers. The giant eyes are an influence from legendary manga artist Osamu Tezuka, who was in turn inspired by classic Disney designs. Anime artwork uses a relatively small number of lines in drawing faces, and a large palette of hair colors is a quick and easy way to differentiate otherwise similar-looking characters. Male anime fans in Japan are extraordinarily open about their love of undies.

With those questions out of the way, let’s take a look at something a bit less cut-and-dried: Why are there so many anime characters with non-Japanese names?

For those not used to it, it can be a little startling to sit down to watch cartoons from Japan, only to find the hero is named Ed, Spike, or Eren. In a case of things coming full circle, anime enthusiasts in Japan have started to become aware of the fact that foreign fans are puzzled over how many major figures in Japanese animation have Western-sounding names. Website Byokan Sunday culled the following theories put forth by Japanese Internet users.

1. It makes it easier for the show to become popular overseas

Overseas revenue sources, whether through home video sales or broadcast and streaming license fees, are becoming increasingly important to Japanese content creators. Of course, it’s hard to get people to remember to buy your DVDs when they can’t remember the main character’s name, and the logic behind this explanation goes that avoiding Japanese names makes them easier for foreign fans to remember.

While that reasoning definitely has some plausibility, Naruto, Bleach, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica each went on to international success despite the monikers of protagonists Naruto Uzumaki, Ichigo Kurosaki, and Madoka Kaname, who have unusual names even by Japanese standards. In light of that, we’re not sure how big a role overseas sales potential plays in naming anime leads.

2. The character was originally inspired by a Westerner

This likely had a bigger impact during the golden era of the Hollywood action blockbuster, but the fact remains that mainstream Japan consumes far more Western movies and TV programs than vice-versa. With people accustomed to seeing non-Japanese action heroes and on-screen adventurers, some just don’t feel a need to make their anime leads the same ethnicity as the core audience.

The pool of foreign acting talent in Japan may not be large enough for live-action producers to fill their works with surrogates for their favorite international stars, but anime is a different story. Sometimes the homage goes beyond their physical appearance, and the creator may even give the character part of the original inspiration’s name as a tip of the hat.

3. The creator doesn’t want to designate an ethnic background for the character

While giving a character a set ethnicity can help flesh out their back story, that same informational tidbit can also backfire and become a distraction if it’s incorrectly or inadequately portrayed. On the other hand, picking a name that’s not only not Japanese, but doesn’t seem to indicate any nationality at all, leaves all storytelling options open.

For example, "Space Dandy’s" Dandy (who is a dandy, in space) has the pompadour, jacket, and slouch of a Japanese rogue, which means if the director wants him to spend a whole episode wearing a traditional fundoshi loincloth or searching for an inter-dimensional ramen joint, he can. But if in a different episode he wants Dandy to spoof "High School Musical" and attend an American-style prom, he can do that too, all without having to take time out to worry about how a Japanese character’s sensibilities would make him react in that culturally unfamiliar situation. By giving the character a name with no real ethnicity, he can be whatever the script needs him to be at any time.

4. Using a Japanese name makes the world seem too realistic

Between the lack of extra costs for building sets and the relatively young age of the audience, a lot of anime falls into the fantasy and science fiction genres. To some creators, though, the escapist fun and drama would be spoiled by giving the characters Japanese names, which, being what the primary Japanese audience is most familiar with, seem the most immediately real.

Say you’re making a space opera, and aren’t trying to directly connect it to any historical political or military conflicts on Earth. That becomes harder to do if you name the captain of your space carrier Takeru Yamada. In this anime’s world, did Japan revise its constitution so that it would have an active military again? What sort of societal conditions brought that about, and what were the repercussions? Those sort of questions might be difficult for Japanese viewers to ignore, and have the potential to overshadow the story the director is actually trying to tell.

On the other hand, name the captain Bright Noa, like in the original "Mobile Suit Gundam," and you can shift the focus back to the here and now of giant robot warfare.

Likewise, most anime fantasy settings have a distinctly European flavor to them. Name your swordsman Yoshihiko, and people will be thinking about if this world has an equivalent to Japan. If so, why did Yoshihiko leave his homeland? What caused him to get rid of his samurai lamellar and buy a suit of Western-style plate mail? If you don’t want the narrative to get bogged down dealing with all that, why not just sidestep the whole issue by naming him Gourry?

Which leads us to the question, have you ever met someone named Bright or Gourry? In creating a deliberate break from reality, often the names used in anime don’t exist in any culture. "Magic Knight Rayearth" named most of its cast after cars. Knights of Ramune did the same thing with beverages.

Sometimes, this even sends a clear message of what to expect. The 2007 TV series "Baccano" largely takes place in the seemingly ordinary confines of 1930s New York, but one of your first clues about the supernatural events that lie ahead comes while the cast of characters’ names appear during the opening animation, and you see a character with the name Jacuzzi Splot.

Source: Byokan Sunday

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- 10 anime scenes that puzzle non-Japanese fans -- Awesome anime fan art inserts the cast of Madoka Magica into classic rock album covers -- The Best of the Best of Manga: Shonen Jump’s 20 Best Sellers of All-Time

© RocketNews24

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Because Japanese have a serious identity problem.

0 ( +6 / -6 )

e.g. Love Hina.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

For the same reason 99% of pet dogs in Japan have no-Japanese names.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Because anime is the realm of 憧れ akogare, or yearning for something more interesting than your own pathetic life. So we have characters with names like Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

This article is written as if most Anime characters have non-.Japanese names when in fact, less than half of all main characters use non-Japanese names.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

The article misses the most obvious and most common reason why anime characters don't have a Japanese name: because said characters aren't Japanese. Take anime like The Sacred Blacksmith, Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan to use the English title), Spice & Wolf, Suisei no Gargantia or Strike Witches: most characters (if not all) have non-Japanese names. It seems to be becoming more common in the more recent anime, which seems to tie in with the explanation of a more universal appeal. In the case of Strike Witches as well, the characters are typically named for real people (each Strike Witches character is based off an actual WWII pilot, though the character's names are altered slightly. Charlotte Yeager for example is named after USAF ace Chuck Yeager). I don't agree with points 3 or 4 though. Typically, a character's ethnic background seems to be an important part of defining the character and explaining why they behave the way they do. Only in a handful of cases is their background left undisclosed. As for making the anime seem realistic, that's generally an oxymoron, unless it's supposed to seem realistic. Even if there is say; a Dragon called Masamune, is that more realistic than a Dragon called Ryuu? It's still a Dragon, no matter what you call it.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Because the setting or the background of the character isn't japanese? there's a lot of anime with japanese characters, though the ones with western characters seem to be on the rising.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

we should use Japanese name!

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

Akemi Mokoto: This article is written as if most Anime characters have non-.Japanese names when in fact, less than half of all main characters use non-Japanese names.

"Less than half" seems a huge proportion if it was meant to say "almost half", in a population 98.5% ethnically Japanese.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

All these points have serious flaws to them. First of all the foreign market is actually of little financial significance to the Japanese. Yes it's big and dedicated, any convention or anime only isle in an video store will prove that but once licensed most money goes the Western distribution and dubbing companies not the Japanese creators or IT holders themselves. That's why in spite of Westerners having very specific tastes for cynical and violent anime like Hellsing and Cowboy Bebop very few Japanese writers have altered their trends away from cuter and happier anime like K-ON!, Precure and Love Live which are loved throughout Japan but reviled overseas to suit Western audiences. On the second point I think consumption of Western media is limited to only a handful of videogames and movies. I see no indication that Japan likes the kind of TV shows Westerners like. On the flip side anime has had a profound and wide reaching affect on Western animation and thought for at least ten years now so consumption of Japanese media must be quite high. Vritually all anime has Japanese flavors to them such as an adherence to pacifism, group harmony and hard work. Super popular titles like Avatar the Last Airbender, Legend of Korra and Teen Titans and movies like Frozen and How to Train Your Dragon cite inspiration from Japanese animation and the particular plots that go with them. The second point made skirts but does not acknowledge the fact that lots of anime characters are Westerners. Also a lot of anime characters inspired by Westerners aren't necessarily non-Japanese characters I'm watching a show called Tokyo ESP which has a Japanese yakuza boss obviously modeled after Gerald Butler's Leonidas, years ago there was an anime called Seto no Hanayama with another yakuza boss obviously modeled after Arnold's Terminator. Also the notion of having a non-Japanese lead to improve appeal is just not true. Lots of shows tend to have Japanese characters in them regardless of the setting. Later Gundam titles, Shingeki no Kyojin, Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha and Strike Witches all have Japanese characters mixed and often leading the non-Japanese cast. It's pretty much no different than most Western titles that throw in a White male into a non-white setting and have him lead like Avatar and Pathfinder. And it's not just to appeal to some sense of ethnic pride from the core audience, often a show can't go on unless you tell it from a perspective the audience can relate to. In addition to that lots of Japanese characters have Western names for no better reason that because the writer thought it sounded nice. I'm watching a magical girl metaseries called Precure and quite often there's a Japanese girl in it with a Western name like Iona or Alice. I mean why not? Robin Williams named his daughter Zelda after the video game. Ethnicity is actually very important to an anime character, Shingeki no Kyojin's Mikasa's mixed heritage is even a early sub-plot. Rarely is it not mentioned or at least acknowledged in some fashion, even in sci-fi or fantasy shows race is focused upon even if it's a fictional one. I think this is simply due to a lack of widespread multiculturalism in Japan more than anything else. Japanese writers like using it as a tool to explain why character's behave the way they behave or as a means to making characters exotic. That's one of the reasons there are so many blondes in anime even if they're Japanese. Sometimes this can be just lazy stereotypes but most of the time it's just to acknowledge different cultural strengths and amusing nuances. In the case of Strike Witches and Girls Und Panzer each character has a set of amusing behaviors and strengths modeled more or less after their ethnicity. Food and personal habits unique to their background are also important in making the characters more interesting.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Avatar protaganist is a White male? He looks asian. Name = Aang.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Around one half of all Annamae characters in Japan, a country is that's 97% Japanese, are not Japanese?

No, nothing wrong with the Japanese identity. Nothing to see. Here. Move along. Along

0 ( +1 / -1 )

it also may be caused by our admiration of western world. Especially Germany and USA.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

If what the article suggests is correct, then despite the often heard image of Japan being xenophobic, Japanese Anime is far more open than American Comics where characters seem to be mostly limited to White and Black.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Aren't some of the characters not Japanese? I have yet to meet a non-Japanese with a Japanese name.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@Cliffy. My middle name's Japanese. There are quite a few non-Japanese characters in anime these days. Take Shingeki no Kyojin for example. Every character has a non-Japanese name, barring Mikasa Ackerman. Even then, her surname isn't Japanese. I can't say that I've seen a non-Japanese character with a Japanese name though, or a Japanese character with a non-Japanese name. Not yet anyway. Oh, actually there is one non-Japanese character with a Japanese name, from Blood+: Saya Otonashi. She was born in Europe. My memory isn't as bad as I feared then.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

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