The country of Japan is like anywhere else – a place with some wonderful in the mix with some not so much. Historically, its largely homogeneous society has put itself at the top of an imaginary hierarchy in northern Asia. Aside from those considered ethnically Japanese, the cultures/people that it seems most enamored with are the titans crafted by America’s and Europe’s cultural output. Japan’s animation developed hugely influenced not just by this output, but the pre- and post-World War II strides in animation in America and Europe. Since that time, it has managed to mix American and European biased cultural reflections into an avatar for characters that are supposed to be thoroughly Japanese.
In Japan’s old timey art, the depictions by most Japanese artists show people with eyes that typically have the single-eyelid look. It wasn’t universal, but it was certainly common enough to be a perfectly normal avatar for being a normal human being. The creative output of countries that rule the world on a pop cultural level, however, seemed to give Japan a bit of an inferiority complex. A few of the latest Final Fantasy videogame installments tend to not completely whitewash the eyes of characters; and even if they’re still a typical combo of Japanese characters filtered through a European sensibility, that’s a rarity.
Anime like the original Robotech typically put Japan at the center of a world in which there’s an international peacekeeping force comprised of American, European and Japanese characters – characters who are all relatively in sync and speak Japanese. Even though many series have continued in this template, it’s almost unheard of to have a black character on these teams (which is among the original Robotech’s virtues.)
When an anime is comprised of an entirely Japanese cast, the characters are either the general pale, dark-haired avatar of the average Japanese person, quite obviously an almost Aryan vision of whiteness (anime loves its blond protagonists), or pale with some dyed hair color. Characters with hair colors that are impossible without dye seem to partially be a subconscious result of the need for characters to be, if not white in the most Western sense, something more than the typical avatar of just an old fashioned, black-haired Japanese character. Japanese animation doesn’t ever feature these characters dyeing their hair; these colors are supposed to be natural features. And while some people in Japan are certainly pale, there are also Japanese people whose skin tones are much more tan. Maybe there’d be a lot more if there wasn’t such a premium on paleness.
“Non-white protagonists” are still most often seen as an oxymoron. But most anime is not remotely reflective of how ridiculous that is.