In many Japanese myths and manga and anime, heroes are foreigners who come from outside the community. This has to do with Japan’s history of seeing innovation almost always being brought from overseas. We don’t know the author’s real intent, but Dragon Ball is a representative example of the Japanese cultural idea about heroes.

Show host Kyota Ko explains why.


Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Jap  anese bringing you a podcast about things I thin k you would like to know about Japan and its culture. My name is Kyota Ko.

I grew up watching Dragon Ball. If you had been a boy living in Japan in the 90s, there would have been no way you could live through a week without finding yourself in a discussion about it in school. Everyone watched it. Dragon Ball was not an anime only anime geeks watched. It was standard entertainment for all Japanese boys. Every boy believed that if he practiced enough, he would maybe one day be able to shoot Kamehameha out of his palms. 

And Dragon Ball is totally relevant to our topic today, the idea that Japanese heroes are almost always foreigners. In almost any Japanese storytelling, heroes come from outside to solve problems for the troubled community, as opposed to Western culture in which heroes tend to be the chosen one, the special kid, or a mutant who rises to power from within the community in trouble. The reason for this difference is in Japan’s unique history. 

Now if you’ve watched Dragon Ball at all, you may have noticed that the main character Goku keeps fighting aliens and gods who are threats to humanity, one after another, but he is not even from Earth. He looks like a human being but he’s not. He is from another planet. He comes from outside the human community and fights for the helpless and vulnerable human beings. Meanwhile, human beings can only run and hide from the destruction the aliens cause.

Up to here, it sounds much like Superman who comes from the planet Krypton. He’s not an Earthling. He is a Kryptonian who got sent to Earth by his father on a rocket because planet Krypton was on the verge of being destructed. The main character of Dragon Ball, Goku has the exact same background. There’s no plot twist up to this point. 

But here’s the weird part. Goku was brought up by an elderly Chinese man and Goku himself looks Asian. But after like 250 episodes of the anime version, Goku’s best friend gets killed by an enemy alien and from the outrageous anger about it, Goku’s hair turns blonde and his eyes turn green, basically becoming a super powered caucasian and beats the shit out of the alien. 

I was a teenager back then, and so were all my peers and all we thought about this was WOW holy shit that’s cool! And the Internet hadn’t taken off at that time, so we grew up never hearing or seeing some people pointing out that it was strange for an Asian to become exponentially stronger by basically turning white. That’s like a bad racist joke. 

The most commonly understood reason the author of the original comic book series of Dragon Ball – his name is Akira Toriyama – the reason he decided to turn Goku’s hair color into a light one is so that he could make his job easier. All Japanese comic books were hand-drawn in black ink back in the 90s, so Goku’s original hair color being black meant that someone had to fill in the hair space with black ink every time he made an appearance. 

And Dragon Ball was on a comic magazine called Jump, which was published on a weekly basis, so the schedule was always tight for Mr. Toriyama. So it’s very believable that he took advantage of the make-over opportunity of his main character and got rid of the need for using so much ink and time, by changing Goku’s hair color blonde, which would be expressed in a black-and-white world by using no ink at all.

But it’s also true that the vast majority of Japanese people didn’t have a problem with their Asian hero transforming into a white hero at the time that Dragon Ball episode was first aired on TV. I myself didn’t at all. There was in fact a common sentiment among Japanese people at the time in which white people were seen somehow superior to Japanese people.  

Many attribute this sentiment to: Japan losing World War II to America, Japan playing catch up with the Western world by basically imitating the economic and political practices of the West after the war, and a lot of cool Western pop and fashion culture being brought into Japan all the way up to now. 

But I don’t think it’s just those series of events in the 20th century that led Japanese people to see the West as something to feel awe towards or as an example to follow. And it’s not just the Western world – it’s basically all foreign advanced civilizations that Japan looks up to, and Japanese people have seen the world overseas this way since the beginning of history. 

To Japanese people, innovation has almost always been brought from overseas by foreign civilizations. And Japan has survived and faired pretty well as now the third biggest economy in the world by accepting innovative technologies or ideas that came from other countries. This, I think, is the reason Goku attaining tremendous power and him turning into a form that looks like a foreigner at the same time was naturally accepted by Japanese people. 

So to trace back the history of Japan experiencing innovation thanks to foreign civilizations, let’s go back in time to the 16th century. The Western world was going through what’s called the Age of Discovery. European countries were competing with each other to explore the globe and claim land overseas through trade and colonization.

So one day in 1543, a Portuguese ship landed on an island between Okinawa and Kagoshima. This is in the Southern West part of Japan. It’s a smaller island called Tanegashima, and basically the ruler of that island bought 2 handheld guns from the crew of the ship, learned how to use it, had his servants decompose the gun to learn its mechanism, and helped to spread the technology throughout the country. 

The 1500s was a time of intense civil war in Japan. There were several dozens of regional samurai lords fighting with each other for food and territory. They were all fighting on horses and on foot with spears and swords, and bows and arrows, until guns were introduced. As you can imagine, guns changed warfare drastically. Samurais who worked on their skills with swords and spears for years were instantly killed with guns. 

So guns gave regional lords with not-so-big military power a chance to beat their rivals who outnumbered them, or at least have a chance at protecting themselves if their rivals decided to invade them. So all lords in Japan scrambled to purchase as many guns as possible. 

And eventually, the lord who was most skilled with military tactics and financing his warfare ended up conquering the whole country, partly because he bought so many guns and he kept his regime connected with Western trading companies and missionaries. He made sure he was up to date with global technology. His name is ODA Nobunaga, and everybody who grew up in Japan has learned about him in school. 

Moving forward in time to the 19th century, way before Japan teamed up with Germany to fight against the Allies in WWII, Japan worked really hard to catch up in terms of technology, like by having its first steam engine, telecommunication, Western architecture using bricks, and Japan went as far as to adopt Western food culture, Western clothings, Western everything. People back then literally thought that anything Western was great. 

But I’d like to point out here that it’s not that Japanese people worshiped the West or white people because they are Western or white. They worshiped the West because they were in fact at the cutting edge of the world in the latter half of the last millennium. There was so much to learn from the West. That’s why Japanese people have developed a sense of respect towards the West. 

But when China was the leading economic power of the world until England took over the position in the 18th century, Japanese people looked up to China. Many of the art forms that remain in Japan now are derived from ancient Chinese art. Ink painting came from China. We wouldn’t be able to read or write Kanji characters if it wasn’t for China. We wouldn’t be eating with chopsticks if it wasn’t for China. Japanese people tried really hard to adopt Chinese culture into their lives because they felt there was a lot to learn from them. Japanese people know in the back of their minds that it is partly thanks to China that we have a rich culture.

So it’s obvious to everyone’s mind that learning from foreign civilizations has always been key to Japan’s success.

And there’s this killer evidence that suggests that the Japanese had been considering heroes to come from outside the country. 

The oldest historical record of Japan is called Kojiki and this is basically a book of myths about how gods formed the land of Japan. In Kojiki, it is stated that an ancestor of the first emperor called Niniginomikoto – such a long name for a person – was given a rice stalk from one of the three greatest gods Amaterasuoomikami – another gigantic name. Niniginomikoto was told to grow rice and spread rice farming throughout Japan. So there is this painting with Niniginomikoto kneeling before this beautiful goddess who hands him a rice stalk. 

So all this is a myth but it is considered a historical record in Japan because it is a fantasized and exaggerated version of what actually happened in history. So now if we look at the real history of rice, we see that there is a certain level of accuracy in this myth, because rice did not originate in Japan. It originated in mainland China. Food historians have found that rice most likely originated in the downstream area of the Yangtze River, which is like 1000km North East of Hong Kong. Chinese people were growing rice in rice paddies 7000 years ago, and in the course of around 4000 years, rice farming techniques made it to Japan. 

Almost 3000 years ago, the people living in Japan were starting to suffer from food shortage because they only relied on hunting and gathering. And then some people who knew how to grow rice moved to Japan from China, Korea or Taiwan and from them, rice farming techniques spread throughout the country, and rice became Japan’s staple food. 

The timeline of the Japanese myths and history more or less match, so we can kind of imagine that what actually happened was: Japanese people around 1000 BC were hungry and then right when they needed help, people from overseas came in and basically worked some magic – they produced rice for everyone out of a single rice stalk. It’s no surprise that these foreigners were seen as gods. So the first big innovation was rice, and it was brought into Japan by heroes who came from outside.

There is a funny representation of this cultural idea in the Japanese language – in colloquial Japanese language. Whenever someone needs help and someone else swoops in to give instant help, instead of saying “thank you” Arigato, Japanese people say “god!!” 神! 

So I hope you now see why Japanese people are totally cool about Goku turning into a white guy to save the Earth. Historically, Japan has always flourished with the help of foreign, more advanced civilizations, and therefore heroes are thought to come from outside. If they come from outside, they’ll typically look very foreign.

The whole story of the anime and manga One Piece seems to be built around the idea that heroes come from overseas. It’s basically the pirate Luffy and his crew landing on a troubled island and saving the day for the locals, and then leaving to do the same for another island. This plot template is also seen in many old Japanese myths and folk tales.

I hope you enjoyed this episode. それでは、またお会いしましょう。