How we see each other
Mostly unrelated to the rest of this Metafilter thread was this brilliant comment
Remember that different cultures focus on different features when thinking about race. Americans focus on skin color and eye shape. But from what I’ve heard, what strikes most Asians about white people is their long noses, big chins, and pale hair, not their eyes or skin.
Sure enough, you’ll sometimes see an explicitly American or European character in anime, and they tend to have gigantic long noses and huge jutting chins. Hair color is a little more complicated – after all, anime characters of all races can have bright blue hair – so we probably shouldn’t read too much into it.
So the round-eyed, small-nosed, small-chinned, black-haired (or magical blue-haired) characters are meant to be Japanese. They just conform to Japanese ideas of how the Japanese look, not American ideas.
(Another interesting thing to notice is that Japanese, Chinese and Korean characters in anime look blatantly different, while American artists tend to draw them all more or less the same way. Again, evidence that race looks very different through Japanese eyes than through American ones.)
Hadn’t really thought of that before – that our cultural lenses create different, not opposite, physical/racial archetypes.