Anime characters are almost always drawn with... "anime" facial features. Eyes are big and round, every color is allowed for eyes and hair (not to mention hairstyle), etc.

Since there are anime series starring both Japanese and non-Japanese characters, how can one distinguish them? I'm asking both in-universe and out-of-universe.

Comments and answers to this question claim that Western characters tend to be drawn with big noses, square jaws, blond hair, wide mouth, etc. But to me it seems not always the case! For example, in Yu-Gi-Oh, Bandit Keith has some of these features, but Pegasus Crawford has not, and they are both supposed to be American. Naruto, Jonouchi etc are blond and Japanese. Most characters in Escaflowne have a long nose regardless of their origin.

For even more blatant examples, let's compare Lelouch Lamperouge and Suzaku Kururugi from Code Geass:

Lelouch Lamperouge VS Suzaku Kururugi

or Teletha "Tessa" Testarossa and Kaname Chidori from Full Metal Panic:

Tessa VS Kaname

Same big round eyes. Same pointy chin. Very similar noses. And, for the two girls, crazy hair color. (Similar comparsions can be done for Light Yagami an L from Death Note, and for many others).

I'd say that, at least out-of-universe, the viewer is expected to tell them apart only from their names (or, in case of biracial characters, from the double surname, e.g. Asuka Langley-Sohryu, Kallen Stadtfeld-Kozuki) and from dialogue (e.g. a character declare his/her origin). But I wonder: am I missing something? Are there subtle physical traits that the viewer is supposed to use to get their origin before they declare it?

Theoretically, there shouln't be the need to tell them apart: a character (like a real person) is defined by his/her actions, not from his/her ethnicity. But in-universe, characters seem to always recognize at a glance if another character is Japanese or not. For example, in an episode of Full Metal Panic, Sosuke asks to free first the Japanese girl (Kaname), then the Western one (Tessa), as it is obvious to everyone who is who. In Code Geass, the distinction beween Britannians and Japanese is an important plot point, and people doesn't seem to need to know the name of a character to tell if he/she is Britannian or Japanese.

So is there some kind of artistic convention? A physical equivalent to a translation convention? E.g. when we audience know that Suzaku is Japanese and Lelouch isn't, should we assume that in-universe they HAVE different facial traits? (or, in the case of Kallen: after she says that she is half-Britannian half-Japanese, are we supposed to imagine her with some "mix" of features so that other characters can identify her as both Britannian and Japanese?)

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    Considering this question was asked: Which nationality is All Might?, I don't think there's a sure-fire to know...
    – Aki Tanaka
    Commented Oct 28, 2018 at 16:09
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    might be worth looking into whether there are speech pattern differences that express these distinctions (especially in the case where there is no obvious physical distinction) Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 2:07
  • @HotelCalifornia: if there are, are they comprehensible by non-Japanese? and they would be probably lost in translation when dubbed. Life is not always "easy" like changing Willie from Scottish to Sardinian :) Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 21:08
  • @teem porary I'm not really sure what you're getting at when you say life isn't "easy." It's highly likely that such distinctions, if present, would not be understood by people who don't speak the language. In any case, I think it should be assumed that certain things (especially speech patterns) will be lost in translation. Case in point, the decision of some translators to render kansai-ben as a "country" accent loses out on most of the original nuance. All that seems to be beside the point though, as your question (as posted) seems to be about what distinctions there are, and only about... Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 20:05
  • (cont)... translating the distinctions as an afterthought. If you intended that to be more of a focus, I'd suggest editing your question to make that more clear. Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 20:07

1 Answer 1


You can't really. It's up to the character designer / artist if they want to give the characters visually distinct race traits, but they're not obligated to and many times they don't, as you noted with Code Geass. The most reliable way to tell if a character is Japanese (without being explicitly told they are) is their name.

It's best to take things on a case by case basis and use common sense to parse the information the show gives you. If a show is set in Japan, you can safely infer most of the cast will be Japanese regardless of what they look like. If you notice most of the cast look how Japanese people in real life typically look, you can infer that when a blond haired blue eyed character appears, they aren't Japanese. Again, these are assumptions you make based on the context of the show, not universal rules.

The only universal assumption to make is that visuals in anime are arbitrary and are not obligated to obey any general rules set up for interpreting them.

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