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

 

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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 artworkuses 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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

▼ Problem solved (now get cracking on a new season of Slayers, please).

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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 seriesBaccano 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 this.

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Seriously, any time you’re watching a show and a guy named Jacuzzi Splot shows up, you know things are about to get weird.

Source: Gowtham Grosz

By Gowtham Grosz

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