Anime is Japanese, and Japan is one of the most homogeneous countries on the planet. It is no doubt easy to dismiss concerns about diversity in anime by saying Japan doesn't really care about what white people in the United States might want. And, in all honesty, that's a valid point. While anime has become increasingly diverse in regard to gender and sexuality, racial diversity, until recently, didn't appear to be a huge priority. Most anime feature Japanese characters in a Japanese setting. When characters of a different ethnicity appear, most often they're white.
However, in the past couple of years, more and more characters of diverse racial backgrounds have been appearing. While they aren't the first anime to feature people of color, Carol & Tuesday and Cannon Busters have made a major recent push to add racial diversitye. Let's take a look at what that means for the medium.
The State of Racial Diversity in Anime
Contrary to popular belief, anime has always had racial diversity; the problem is, only certain races have been regularly represented.
Obviously, there is no shortage of white anime characters of European and American background. Shows like Hellsing, Trigun and Baccano! have primarily white casts and take place in Europe, America, or alternate worlds inspired by them. Even shows set in Japan feature numbers of racially diverse characters. The idea of the foreign-exchange student is such a common trope that anime like Lucky Star satirize it.
While it might be odd to call white European and American characters in anime an example of racial diversity, you need to remember that 97.8 percent of Japan's population is native Japanese. To Japanese audiences, white characters are an example of diversity.
Furthermore, there are other characters of Asian descent who appear in anime. There are also a lot of characters of mixed race; Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion is a prime example. And, undeniably, there are anime with huge, multinational casts. Fullmetal Alchemist, Yuri on Ice, Shaman King, Axis Powers Hetalia, and Cowboy Bebop feature hugely diverse characters from multiple ethnic backgrounds. Those series, however, are not the norm.
People of Color in Anime
However, all of that comes with an important caveat: Very few of these characters are people of color. But that's slowly changing.
In the 1980s and '90s, there were only a relative few. Black from Dragon Ball, Anthy and Akio from Revolutionary Girl Utena, Casca from Berserk, and Akagi Takenori from Slam Dunk are noteworthy exceptions, but they are far from the rule. Arguably, one reason for the popularity of Tite Kubo's Bleach in the West is the presence of multiple people of color in the series. Yoruichi and Kaname are two major people of color in Bleach, but even Chad, one of the earliest characters introduced in the series, is half-Mexican.
But now? Sword Art Online has Agil; Michiko & Hatchin has Michiko Malandro; Yuri on Ice has Phichit Chulanont; and now Carole & Tuesday has the titular Carole Stanley. Cannon Busters' entire cast is made up of people of color. There appears to be an increase of racial diversity in anime. But why is that?
Let's Look at the People Making These Anime...
When you look at the creators of these racially diverse anime, a few recurring names crop up. Carole & Tuesday and Cowboy Bebop are both directed by Shinichirō Watanabe. Michiko & Hatchin and Yuri on Ice are directed by Sayo Yamamoto. Tite Kubo (Bleach), Kentaro Miura (Berserk) and Hiromu Arakawa (Fullmetal Alchemist) are creators whose works feature diverse casts.
In particular, Shinichirō Watanabe has been transparent about his influences. His anime Samurai Champloo mixes Japanese samurai with hip-hop. Cowboy Bebop and Carole & Tuesday both feature tons of references to Western music.
All of them have cited western media as an influence on their creative bodies of work.
Furthermore, Cannon Busters is based on the comic by LeSean Thomas, an American animator and comic artist who commonly cites anime as an influence on his body of work; the series is a Western-Eastern co-production. The reason the series has appealed to Western audiences looking for a diverse cast is because it was made by Westerners wanting diversity in anime.
The International Appeal of Anime
And in many respects, that brings us to a key aspect of why racial diversity is spreading in anime: the international conversation.
In the' 90s, anime didn't really reach a U.S. market all that often; it was niche entertainment at best, obscure at worst. However, after Pokemon, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z and Naruto hit Western markets, anime exploded in popularity. America and Europe became prime markets for the Japanese anime industry, which only became more apparent with the rise of streaming services like Crunchyroll and Netflix, the latter of which released Cannon Busters and Carole & Tuesday.
The influence of anime on American culture is immediately obvious. Western cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra and The Boondocks aesthetically draw from anime. It should come as no surprise that Cannon Busters' Thomas worked on the latter two.
The Cross-Cultural Highway Travels Both Ways
But just as America has become fascinated with Japan, Japan has become increasingly fascinated with America. American movies tend to perform well in Japan. Western franchises, however, have had a deeper impact on Japanese culture than you might realize. Multiple Trigun characters are directly inspired by Spider-Man, with Vash's red outfit being inspired by Spidey's, and Monev, one of the Gung-Ho Guns, literally being named and designed after Venom (Monev is introduced lifting weights, much like Eddie Brock).
Arguably, one of the most noteworthy examples of Japan's increasing fascination with the West comes from outside the anime industry. Game developer Hideo Kojima often cites American films and media as an inspiration for his games. Most notably, the character Solid Snake is heavily inspired by Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken from John Carpenter's cult film Escape from New York. Kojima is candid about how Western influences impact the development of his games. His collaborations with Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro led to both the canceled Silent Hills and the upcoming Death Stranding.
The point is this: Anime, like all of Japanese media, is becoming increasingly influenced by Western media. Western audiences have been pushing for increased diversity and representation in media for years now. It makes sense that this push for inspiration would influence and inspire select Japanese creators as well.