Ethnicity in Xenoblade Chronicles X

In my apartment, free time has recently become dominated by Xenoblade Chronicles X, epic Japanese RPG.  The premise is explained in this video:

Quick summary: In 2054, Aliens destroy earth.  Earth sends out colony space ships.  One of these, New Los Angeles, crash lands on an alien planet.

Xenoblade Chronicles X offers an interesting case study of ethnicity in Japanese video games, because unlike other games which take place in fantasy worlds, this one takes place in our world (although a different planet).  What’s more, it takes place in a future version of Los Angeles.  Los Angeles, of course, is very ethnically diverse, so by looking at the cast we can see a Japanese interpretation of ethnic diversity.

Lin Lee Koo

Lin Lee

The first character whose ethnicity really raised my eyebrows was Lin Lee Koo.  She looks East Asian, doesn’t she?  Now isn’t that odd?

Typically, in Japanese portrayals, Japanese characters lack obvious ethnic markings (just as Americans wouldn’t bother giving ethnic markings to white characters).  It’s common for Japanese characters to be read as Japanese in Japan and read as white in the US.  Lin Lee appears not to fit this pattern.

An examination of the name reveals the reason.  Lin Lee Koo is not a Japanese name, it is a Chinese or Korean name!  The reason Lin Lee is marked as Asian is because she is not Japanese.  She represents the Japanese view of what Chinese/Koreans look like.

Elma

Elma

The ethnicity of Elma is hard to place.  Her skin is in the midtones, and her hair is white and straight despite her being only 29.  Her name gives no clues.  This may surprise you, but I think she is Japanese.  She is allowed to have many unique physical characteristics precisely because she is part of the “default” ethnicity.  If you gave so many unique characteristics to a character of minority ethnicity, no one would be able to recognize them as such.

It’s very common for Japanese characters to be portrayed with many different hair colors, often corresponding to the character’s personality.  According to TVTropes, “white hair tends to indicate dignity and skill (or simply obvious age)”.  This indeed matches Elma’s character.

Vandham

Vandham

Jack Vandham is big, blonde, and mustachioed.  I would describe his personality as hammy.  He is an embodiment of a Japanese stereotype of Americans.

In the cutscene where Vandham is introduced, he uses the expression “stick in the rear”.  Elma comments that she doesn’t understand many of his expressions, but thinks it wise not to ask about that one.  So part of his personality is the use of strange Americanisms.  Although the Vandham’s expressions don’t seem strange to me at all.  I guess they got us Americans down!

Lao Huang

Lao

Just like Lin Lee, Lao reads as East Asian.  His name suggests Chinese.  So this is another case of non-Japanese Asian groups being marked.

The above characters were all fairly obvious, but the rest of this list is more speculative.

Irina Akulov

Irina

Irina just reads as white to me, and her main distinguishing feature is a permanent glare.  But her name marks her as Russian.  In the US, we often see Russians as a subgroup of White, sort of like Irish or French, but in Japan I’m not so sure.  This leaves me wondering if she’s a Japanese stereotype of Russians.  She does look a bit like Kaori Kawamura, who is a pop singer who popped up when I searched for Russian Japanese people.

Gwin Evans & Doug Barrett

Gwin and DougGwin on left, Doug on right

Here are two characters I’m not sure about.  They look white, and their names seem white, but they’re not obvious stereotypes.  But they also have a few Japanese facial features leaving me to wonder if people in Japan actually read them as Japanese.  Or maybe they’re just read as “default”, meaning that Japanese audiences just don’t think about their ethnicities too much.

I noticed that all the major white (excluding Russian) characters are men.  Does this perhaps reflect what Japanese see in western media?  I would be interested to see what a Japanese stereotype of an American woman is like.

Kentaro Nagi

Nagi

Secretary Nagi’s appearance and name both mark him as Asian, and Japanese in particular.  This would seem to contradict my earlier claim that Japanese games often portray Japanese characters as unmarked.  Why are some Japanese characters legible as Japanese to Western audiences, and others aren’t?

Notable omissions

There are many many more characters, but this sums up the major human characters (excluding the customizable player avatar, the blue demon alien, and the talking potato).  Now, what do you see missing?

Yep, there aren’t any major Latin@ or Black characters!  This is particularly odd since it’s supposed to be LA, where Latin@s make up about half the population.  My research suggested that Japanese tend to think more in terms of nationality rather than ethnicity, thus they might not devote much thought to distinct ethnic groups in LA.  Instead, we have a multinational cast, mostly consisting of Japanese, white Americans, Chinese, and possibly Korean.

This makes sense, since Chinese and Koreans are the largest ethnic minorities in Japan.  Americans are a much smaller group, but we tend to be attention hogs, what with being a world power and having occupied Japan after WWII.  Viewed through a Japanese lens, the most notable omissions are probably Filipin@s and Brazilians, who are the next biggest groups of immigrants.  I suspect that Japanese culture doesn’t really share our ideas about having deliberately multicultural casts.

All images were borrowed from the Xenoblade Wiki.

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9 thoughts on “Ethnicity in Xenoblade Chronicles X

  1. drransom December 14, 2015 / 3:58 pm

    I think it’s quite noteworthy that the avatar creation screen doesn’t have any real black options. I would expect at least token representation in the avatar creator from an American game.

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  2. Siggy December 14, 2015 / 6:58 pm

    I think it’s funny that when you look up the XCX avatar creator, all you find are a bunch of complaints that the English version of the game removed an option to change boob size. Yeah, so I get that there is a large range of natural boob sizes and people would like avatars to reflect that, but seriously, there were a lot more obvious omissions from the avatar creator.

    Literally no other body proportions can be adjusted. The male models can be young or old, but all the female models are young. Inexplicably, hair styles were limited according to your choice of face. And out of all the rainbow skin colors you could choose, they only went dark enough that you could make a light-skinned black avatar.

    I made a male avatar with brown skin and a reddish mohawk. I am happy with that, it really reflects who I am inside. Except I wish I could make him fat. 😦 (subtext: I am underweight and White/Chinese.)

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  3. Sennkestra December 15, 2015 / 1:35 pm

    Ah yes. My roommate has xenoblade so I’ve been listening to the soundtrack pretty consistently for the last few days. (It’s a really good soundtrack though so I enjoy it).

    Re: the japanese characters as asian thing – I think how “asian” a character looks partially depends on the type of character they are. I don’t play games as much, but in anime it’s common for certain more serious/traditional/conservative characters to have more marked “asian” features than others; especially main characters who get the ‘generic’ big eyes, crazy hair, etc.

    It gets tricky though because the stereotypical “asian” markers are 1. Black hair (which is boring to have on everyone when it can be pink instead) and 2. Eye shape (which is more often repurposed to indicate other traits: big eyes = innocent and/or main character; narrow eyes = serious, etc.). So like, when you see that particular combination of traits, it’s hard to tell when they’re being marked as “more asian” vs. when they’re just being marked as a serious type.

    A lot of markers also sort of only go one way – other east asians characters will have black hair and americans will have blond hair, but characters having blond/black hair aren’t necessarily of any specific group.

    As for the two ambiguous ones, Doug looks…. ‘generic’ to me and Doug looks a little asian, but mostly because of the hair (and it’s hard to tell in a still).

    A lot of anime and games don’t have clear visual markers for asian vs. white characters, leaving them all as kind of “generic”, so depending on the context I usually just go off names.

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  4. queenieofaces December 15, 2015 / 1:35 pm

    It’s worth noting that Latin@s are not…hmm…looked on super favorably in Japan (especially Brazilians). While Chinese and Koreans aren’t always looked on favorably either, they’re a lot closer by and have a lot more contact with Japanese folks than Latin@s (with the exception of Brazilian Nikkeijin…who often wind up being segregated and discriminated against and are also arguably Japanese). So I’m not surprised to see their omission here.

    Also, you’re sort of correct in terms of thinking about nationality rather than ethnicity–there’s an assumption that nations tend to be ethnically homogeneous (thus the myth of Japanese homogeneity even though there are a bunch of different ethnicities in Japan). So even though they KNOW there are black people in the US, if you say “American,” they’ll tend to think brash, loud, blond-haired, and blue-eyed. (This is part of the reason why people consistently tell me that I’m not “really” American in Japan, bleh.)

    Also! Fact that you probably don’t care about but I’m going to tell you anyway because it’s relevant! The idea of Japan as a homogeneous nation really only began post-war, because before that the dominant idea was of Japan as an empire, and an empire is necessarily not mono-ethnic. So you have things like Manchukuo (the puppet state of Manchuria) being imagined as a nation of five races. A lot of the homogenization actually happened under the Occupation, when (like in Europe) there was an attempt to move people back to the “right” countries (based on their ethnicity) regardless of whether they or their parents or grandparents had ever actually lived in that country.

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  5. Sennkestra December 15, 2015 / 1:42 pm

    As for Elma….she falls pretty cleanly into the “dark skinned blond”/”dark skin, white hair” trope that seems to be a defined look in anime, just one without a clear real world correlate….almost like tolkein elves or something.

    I’ve seen all sorts of speculation – south asian? mixed race? japanese gyaru style? generically ethnic? but I think it comes down to “looks cool”, and it can be used for any of the above.

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  6. Siggy December 15, 2015 / 2:56 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts and expertise!

    @Sennkestra

    Kentaro Nagi is the most minor character on this list, and he is very serious, so I think that fits with your explanation of why he looks more Japanese.

    Elma, by contrast, is basically the main character. (The player avatar is arguably just a sidekick on her team.) I’m not as familiar with anime so the dark-skinned blonde archetype is new to me, and she’s awesome. She is cautious and reasonable, very refreshing compared to the standard brash grizzled heroic male space marine type that is so endemic in western games.

    I like the music a lot too. It doesn’t seem so popular amongst fans because I guess people don’t like hip hop fusion? It’s funny that there are more Black people in the soundtrack than in the city.

    @Queenie

    I was not aware of Japanese attitudes towards Latin@s. I would have guessed they treated Latin@s like spectacles, which is what I hear about Japanese attitudes towards Black people. I’m not sure how that interacts with Brazilian immigrants, since my sources said that most of the immigrants were actually ethnically Japanese who were living in Brazil (Nikkeijin, as you called them, but I’m clarifying for others). Not sure Japanese creators would think to write Brazilian Nikkeijin into stories, or how they would be portrayed.

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  7. Sennkestra December 15, 2015 / 10:13 pm

    @siggy huh it’s interesting to hear that people haven’t liked it. It’s been well received among my friends, but that’s probably because the composer (Hiroyuki Sawano) did some well known anime scores recently, so we were already fans.

    Sawano has a very distinctive style, which definitely shows though in the game soundtrack, so it can be a little distracting as an ost sometimes (esp in cutscenes). So i guess i can see it being rather polarizing.

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