If this year’s siege on the capitol in the name of white supremacy is any indication, the discussion of race and racism in the U.S. is an uncomfortable topic (to put it mildly) and one that is poorly understood despite playing a pivotal role in the country’s history, from the enslavement of Black peoples to the genocide of Native Americans to the past and ongoing structures that continue to oppress and minoritize people of color. Walk into any HR development session today and the word “diversity” is used as an oblique euphemism for topics pertaining to non-white staff, job applicants, and stakeholders.
Interestingly, ask anyone who plays D&D what their “race” is or ask a Tolkien fan to break down the faerie “races” and an impromptu TED Talk will ensue about elves, orcs, drows, and trolls. Whole histories about the complex relationships, conflicts, cultures, and politics of these fictional beings have been documented and compiled. In this context, race is made “safe” (i.e. sanitized from real-world ugly histories) as fans explore the prejudices—sometimes called “fantastic racism”—that some of the inhuman species harbor against each other (e.g. elves think they’re superior to dwarves). As mentioned previously, these metaphors are executed to varying degrees of success, especially depending on how well context is developed. This discussion takes on an additional layer when humans are used as their own collective “race” among the others, occasionally producing human-and-supernatural hybrids. These characters exist in a liminal sense, being between two worlds, and parallels to mixed-race or multicultural identity are not uncommon.
However, few stories make this fantastic mixed heritage a driving story engine and few explore as thoroughly as Rumiko Takahashi’s enduring manga Inuyasha.
Running from 1996 to 2008, the manga spans over 550 chapters following the quest of a half-human and half-demon, Inuyasha, across feudal-era Japan. While the plot evolves and the characters grow over the course of the lengthy series, Inuyasha’s original goal remains at the core of the story: he seeks the powerful Shikon Jewel (the story’s MacGuffin) in hopes of shedding his humanity and attaining a full demon identity. Repeatedly, Inuyasha is challenged to favor one identity over the other; ultimately, he grows to accept himself as being both.
A point of clarification: in the official Viz Media English translation of the series, the word “demon” is often used as the best approximate term to the original “yokai.” Broadly speaking, yokai refers to a variety of Japanese nature spirits which can be either malevolent or benign. This article will use the terms interchangeably.
The term for Inuyasha’s identity as a half-demon is “hanyo” (a neologism Takahashi coined to mean “half yokai”). Clearly this term grates on Inuyasha as the first time he is referred to as such, in chapter 3 of the manga, he punches a hole through a wood-planked floor. The second time Inuyasha’s parentage is discussed in chapter 12, he flattens the character mentioning his human mother into the floor. Hot-temper aside, the notion of humanity is not something that Inuyasha aspires to early on in the story.
To Inuyasha, his humanity holds him back. In chapter 39, Inuyasha’s biggest secret is revealed: every month on the new moon, he becomes fully human. These nights are the most terrifying for him as it leaves him completely vulnerable without claws or supernatural strength to defend himself. With the backdrop of Japan’s Warring States Era (1467-1615), Inuyasha lives in a violent and austere world where the weak are bulldozed by battle or snapped up by hungry yokai. Between mortal humans and supernatural yokai, it’s fairly obvious to see which is more advantageous for survival. The reader knows from these instances that the more “privileged” identity in the Inuyasha storyline is yokai. Orphaned at an early age, Inuyasha is fed up with the constant struggle to survive and recognizes that his best option is to abandon his hanyo identity in favor of one that is fully yokai.
“Pain and suffering’s what being a half-demon’s all about,” Inuyasha remarks (chapter 218).
It should be noted that human and yokai unions are not exclusive to this contemporary manga. Folktales often tell of kitsune (fox yokai) who seduce humans in disguise. Inuyasha, however, asks the question, what happens to those offspring? Where do they belong in the world?
Navigating Hanyo Life and Belonging
In a rare moment of vulnerability, Inuyasha reflects on his own existence, “Neither one nor the other. Not a demon, but not a human either. No place to belong” (chapter 115). Undergirding Inuyasha’s quest for survival is an intense desire for some place to belong.
As a half-demon, Inuyasha is feared by human societies and shunned by yokai. While the manga features a couple of instances wherein Inuyasha comes to the rescue of other hanyo and thereby reflects on his own identity, the most consistent characters that tug on either side of Inuyasha’s identity are his older, pure-blooded yokai half-brother, Sesshomaru, and Inuyasha’s ex-lover, a human priestess named Kikyo.
Sesshomaru taunts Inuyasha with the label of “hanyo” (idiomatically translated to “half-breed”) and constantly berates his younger half-brother for his human heritage. In seeing Inuyasha with his human companion, Kagome, Sesshomaru remarks, “You, [Inuyasha], with your mortal wretch of a mother, you seek your own level at last” (chapter 13).
Throughout the series, Sesshomaru’s interaction with Inuyasha is driven primarily by his desire to possess the Tetsusaiga, the coveted sword their father bequeathed to Inuyasha. When the two fight over the family heirloom for the first time, Sesshomaru challenges, “Let us test the purity of the Tetsusaiga against the equal purity of Sesshomaru” (chapter 17).
He erases Inuyasha from the situation completely. To his brother, Inuyasha is inconsequential unless he can somehow become Sesshomaru’s equal. For Inuyasha, the original answer to that was the Shikon Jewel.
It is later revealed that Inuyasha had planned to become fully human with the Shikon Jewel. When he began to feel acceptance and love from the priestess Kikyo, Inuyasha was willing to become human for her. Initially, this comes as a surprise to most of Inuyasha’s friends. However, if we turn to mixed-race theory, Inuyasha was considering one of several options typically explored by mixed-race individuals. In 2003, Dr. Maria P. P. Root described five ways in which mixed-race individuals navigate their identities: 1) accept the identity assigned by society; 2) choose a monoracial identity; 3) choose a mixed-race identity; 4) create a new racial identity; or 5) select a white identity. Inuyasha grapples with the first option, considers the second option with Kikyo, and aspires to the last one (if yokai identity is framed as the desirable identity as opposed to a marginalized human one).
By the series’ conclusion, the Shikon Jewel is fully restored and Inuyasha has the chance to make one wish on it. He knows he could choose to be fully demon at last or select a fully human identity. Ultimately, Inuyasha decides on Root’s third option, which is accepting his mixed identity. Much of this decision, in particular, is owed to the series’ deuteragonist, Kagome, who is a fifteen-year-old girl from modern Japan and Inuyasha’s closest friend as well as eventual romantic partner. While a completely separate essay is necessary to explore Inuyasha and Kagome’s relationship more thoroughly, it is sufficed to say that Kagome’s acceptance of Inuyasha as a half-demon that strongly influences Inuyasha’s own self-acceptance. Outside of the manga, the Inuyasha movies, The Castle Beyond the Looking Glass (2002) and Fire on the Mystic Island (2004), both overtly tackle Inuyasha’s own self-acceptance as a hanyo. In The Castle Beyond the Looking Glass, it’s Kagome who tells Inuyasha, “I love you as a half-demon.”
Real World Identity
In Japan, multiracial identities remain a complex issue, especially as a society that holds homogeneity in high regard. In Japanese, the word “hafu” (literally, “half”) is used as a term to refer to someone of mixed race. Many mixed Japanese individuals have spoken out against the term, noting the exclusion the term engenders as well as the implication that identity is an absolute. Japan’s 2015 Miss Universe, Ariana Miyamoto, observed that the term is one that helps her describe who she is, stating, “If I say I am ‘Japanese’ the reply would be: ‘No, you can’t be.’ People will not believe that. But if I say I am ‘hafu,’ people agree.”
In chapter 332, the term “hafu” appears in the Japanese version of the manga when Inuyasha runs into Kagome’s friends in the modern era. With his silver hair and golden eyes, Kagome’s friends outright ask Inuyasha if he’s hafu. Being unfamiliar with the term, Inuyasha repeats it questioningly and Kagome fills in with a tentative yes, rationalizing to herself that he is half-demon after all. Her friends squeal excitedly in fascination. Interestingly, in the Viz English translation, the word is substituted with the Hawaiian term “hapa.” This selection was possibly made to find a term that has potentially less derisive associations, but a quick search will uncover that “hapa” itself is a challenging and complex term that shouldn’t always be broadly applied.
Again, identity itself is a complex issue. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Inuyasha is that for a story so strongly rooted in Japan it maintains universal appeal. The story’s themes of having a mixed identity and the struggle to find a place to belong certainly resonate with American audiences.
Throughout history, the U.S. has manipulated the construct of race in order to disenfranchise people of color through policies such as the “one drop rule” for Black Americans and the use of a blood quantum to assign “authenticity” to Native Americans. Anti-miscegenation laws were common and finally struck down by the Supreme Court in 1967. Since 1970, the number of mixed-race children born has increased by a multiple of ten; however, before the year 2000, people completing the U.S. Census could not select more than one box for their racial identity. Individuals with a multiracial identity often struggled to select one identity at the expense of completely ignoring the other. Over twenty years later, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris faced (and continues to endure) racist vitriol for her identity as a multiethnic woman, being both Black and Southeast Asian.
While society at large still has a ways to go, Inuyasha itself never attempted to paint a rosy picture of a perfect reality. What audiences can take away is that a mixed-race identity is actually a journey with many possible routes—and the person whose opinion matters the most is that of the mixed-race individual. Self-acceptance is as essential to survival as is finding love from one’s immediate community.
A little sentimental? As Inuyasha would say, “Feh.”
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And this is only the tip of the ice-berg. I want to read more.
I grow up with Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2 and Laughing Target OVA – with the former I always connected with Ranma’s dual identity, being mixed race. When I finally watched the Inuyasha anime in my adulthood I completely connected with Inuyasha. I am even more curious to learn about Takahashi history and social views.
After reading this article, I no longer romanticise Kikiyo and Inuyasha’s relationship. I see how Kagome was more accepting of Inuyasha (I understand Kikiyo had selfish reasons too). Was Kagome’s advantage time and social progression? I guess not completely, as what you highlighted in the article but maybe in the future another reincarnation of Kikiyo would be better than her last.
Small note – I have only watch the dub (for reasons) and the social politics of Kagome’s friends was slightly lost.
Thanks for the article!