Sunday, January 26, 2020

Small Irises

In anime, some characters have small irises, so in this article I'll list how to refer to them in Japanese and how they're used in anime.

Usui Kenta 雨水健太, example of character with small irises, shihakugan 四白眼.
Character: Usui Kenta 雨水健太
Anime: Karin かりん (Episode 1, Stitch)

In Japanese

To say "small irises" in Japanese, the terminology is a bit complicated. First off, there are the anatomical terms:

  • hitomi

  • doukou
    (same meaning.)
  • kousai

But these aren't the terms that are normally used. Instead, it's these:

  • shiro-me
    White-eye. (literally.)
    The white part of the eye: the sclera.
  • kuro-me
    Black-eye. (literally.)
    The non-white part of the eye: the iris and the pupil.

In phrases like these:

  • kuro-me ga chiisai
    The black-eye is small.
    [Somebody's] irises are small.
    (double subject construction.)
  • kuro-me ga ookii
    The black-eye is large.
    [Somebody's] irises are large.

Other phrases include:

  • kuri-kuri shita me
    Large and round eyes.
  • kuritto shita me
    (same meaning.)

Besides these, there's also a couple of terms, sanpakugan 三白眼 and shihakugan 四白眼, which normally refer to small irises.

Technically, these terms are defined by how much of the sclera is visible when looking straight forward. If the sclera is visible either under or above the iris, that's sanpakugan, "three-white eyes." If it's visible both under and above, it's shihakugan, "four-white eyes."

Diagram showing the difference between sanpaku eyes, shita-sanpakugan 下三白眼, ue-sanpakugan 上三白眼, and shihakugan 四白眼.

It just happens it's easier for sanpakugan and shihakugan to occur with characters that have small irises than those that have large irises.

Hijikata Toushirou 土方十四郎, example of small irises, sanpakugan 三白眼.
Character: Hijikata Toushirou 土方十四郎
Anime: Gintama 銀魂 (Episode 17)
  • Context: Hijikata's sanpaku eyes.


In anime, characters that have small irises tend to have small irises for a reason.


First and foremost, any character can end up getting drawn with small irises when they've been surprised by something. It's very common in expressions of shock.

Senku's weird face.
Character: Senkuu 千空
Anime: Dr. Stone, ドクターストーン (Episode 3)


Characters that have small irises as part of their design tend to share personality traits based on stereotypes.

Broadly speaking, if large irises are associated with cuteness, glee, and happy things, small irises are associated with unfriendliness, anger issues, and sad things.

In particular, sanpakugan is associated with bad fortune in China, and with being a criminal in Japan.

Characters that have sanpakugan, or small irises in general, are often school delinquents, involved in gangs, yakuza members, criminals, and so on.

  • me-tsuki ga warui
    The look in [their] eyes is bad. (literally.)
    To have a bad look.
    To have a hostile look.
    To have a menacing look.

I guess this is partly because delinquent characters often get into stare downs before fights where they just stand there staring menacingly at each other.

Yamamoto Taketora 山本猛虎, versus Tanaka Ryuunosuke 田中龍之介, example of characters with small irises having a stare down.
Left: Yamamoto Taketora 山本猛虎
Right: Tanaka Ryuunosuke 田中龍之介
Anime: Haikyuu!! ハイキュー!! (Episode 12)

That is, the uglier and more menacing look in their eyes, the better they are at scaring off opponents, and the better delinquents they can become.

こまったなあ どうしよう なんていえばカドがたたないだろう くそ・・・びびってたまるか ガンつけなら負けねえぞ なんといえば く・・・負けねーーーっ 負けてたまるか う~~~ん
Manga: Angel Densetsu, エンジェル伝説 (Chapter 2, 最恐(!?)の大番長の巻)
  • Context: Kitano Seiichirou 北野誠一郎 enters the classroom and sees his seat is currently occupied by Takehisa Yuji 竹久優二, who is a delinquent.
  • komatta naa doushiyou
    こまったなあ どうしよう
    [Oh no]. [What should I do]?
    • komaru
      To trouble. Often used in reference to inconveniences and problems. In this case, someone being seated in his seat "troubled" Seiichirou.
  • nante ieba kado ga tatanai darou
    What do [I] say [to solve this amicably], [I wonder]?
    • kado ga tatsu
      (For) corners to stand. (literally.)
      When an action makes a relationship worse. In this case, asking Yuji to move to another seat might make him mad.
  • kuso... bibitte tamaru ka
    [Shit...there's no way I'll chicken out!]
    • Yuji thinks Seiichirou is challenging him into a stare down.
    • bibiru
      To be afraid. To chicken out. To drop out of a challenge.
    • tamaru
      To endure. (literally.)
      Often used in the patterns tamaru ka and tamaru mono ka to say they won't endure something, that something isn't acceptable.
  • gan-tsuke nara makenee zo
    If it's a stare down, [I] won't lose!
  • nanto ieba
    What should [I] say.
  • ku... makeneeee'
    Gh.... [I] won't lose!
  • makete tamaru ka
    [There's no way I'll lose]!!
  • u~~~~~~n

In some series, a character that has bad looks is actually a nice guy who is often misjudged by his appearances.

Takasu Ryuuji 高須竜児, example of sanpakugan 三白眼.
Character: Takasu Ryuuji 高須竜児
Anime: Toradora! とらドラ! (Episode 1)
  • Ryuuji isn't a gang member, but he's the son of one. He inherited his father's bad looks, and, because of that, everyone who meets him is afraid of him at first. This inconvenience drives him to despise his father.
Usui Kenta 雨水健太, example of character with small irises, shihakugan 四白眼.
Character: Usui Kenta 雨水健太
Anime: Karin かりん (Episode 1, Stitch)
  • Context: Kenta looks at a girl talking to him, who says:
  • nanimo niramanakutemo
    [You] don't need to stare at [me] [for this].
  • ore wa betsuni, me-tsuki φ warui no wa umare-tsuki dakara
    [I'm not doing that, this is just my normal face.]
    • betsuni - not particularly [doing it].
    • me-tsuki ga warui - the look of one's eyes is bad, they look angry and unapproachable.
    • umare-tsuki - attained when [I] was born, i.e. this is the face I was born with.


Besides delinquents, small irises are also common in unapproachable characters.

Levi リヴァイ, example of tiny irises, sanpakugan 三白眼.
Character: Levi リヴァイ
Anime: Shingeki no Kyojin 進撃の巨人 (Episode 13)

More specifically, small irises are common in disillusioned characters, who often are neither nice nor amicable, so nobody enjoys talking to them. Characters that have gone through misfortunes and faced cruel realities just kind of end up with this sort of eye.

Hikigaya Hachiman 比企谷八幡, example of small irises, sanpakugan 三白眼.
Character: Hikigaya Hachiman 比企谷八幡
Anime: Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru. やはり俺の青春ラブコメはまちがっている。 (Episode 1)
  • {{shinda} sakana no you na} me
    Eyes {like [those of] a fish [that] {died}}.
    Eyes like those of a dead fish.

This is also true about dejected characters living empty lives.

Kobayashi 小林, example of small irises, sanpakugan 三白眼.
Character: Kobayashi 小林
Anime: Kobayashi-san Chi no Maidragon, 小林さんちのメイドラゴン (Episode 1)

Of course, just because a character has small irises that doesn't mean their life sucks, but characters whose lives do suck tend to have small irises.

Furthermore, in most cases, characters that have small irises are male. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Most delinquent characters are male. Characters that are gang members, cold-blooded, heartless soldiers, and jerks coping with their childhood traumas through sarcasm and snark, are often male, too.
  2. Larger irises are cuter and anime needs cute anime girls, not tiny iris'd creepy girls.

Not Cute

The second reason is very important: tiny irises are not cute.

Kojika Sousuke 小鹿宗介 taking off his "large-iris colored contacts," deka-kuro-me karakon デカ黒目カラコン.
Character: Kojika Sousuke 小鹿宗介
Anime: Handa-kun はんだくん (Episode 8)
  • Context: Kojika uses contacts to make his eyes look cuter.
  • deka-kuro-me karakon
    Large-iris colored contacts.
    • dekai
      Large. Big. Huge.

For better or for worse, tiny irises are not cute.

Tsutsui Akane 筒井あかね didn't like being bullied for looking like a girl, so he drastically changed his appearance and became a delinquent. This included changing from large irises to tiny, non-cute irises. The text reads moto otokonoko 元男の娘, "former boy-who-looks-like-a-girl."
Character: Tsutsui Akane 筒井あかね
Anime: Handa-kun はんだくん (Episode 3)
  • Context: Tsuitsui didn't like being bullied for looking like a girl, so he drastically changed his appearance and became a delinquent. This included changing from large irises to tiny, non-cute irises. Don't ask me how he did this. It doesn't seem very physically possible.
  • moto otokonoko
    Former boy who looks like a girl.

How not cute are they? Around this much:

Nunotaba Shinobu 布束砥信 has tiny irises in the manga, shihakugan 四白眼, but larger irises in the anime adaptation.
Character: Nunotaba Shinobu 布束砥信
Manga: Toaru Majutsu no Index Gaiden: Toaru Kagaku no Railgun, とある魔術の禁書目録外伝 とある科学の超電磁砲 (Chapter 18, 八月十日①)
Anime: Toaru Kagaku no Railgun S, とある科学の超電磁砲S (Episode 2)
  • In the manga, Nunotaba 信 has tiny irises, and shihakugan.
  • In the anime adaptation, her irises are drawn much larger, like the average cute anime girl.

Well, maybe someone thinks tiny irises are cute. Maybe you think tiny irises are cute. That's fine, who am I to judge?

But the point is that the general consensus is that tiny irises are not cute, and that can be seen in the stereotypes attributed to them, and the plot of various stories in manga and anime. I think that's worth keeping in mind.

Faces & Expressions

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  1. Ok, this was very helpful!! I always wandered why some characters would be portrayed with small irises, and why some would be called delinquents because of that...
    So thank you!! ^^
    ... now I would just like to find some real life examples...^^'