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Media, Gender & Identity book details


Website by
David Gauntlett.

Gender and sexuality in
Japanese Anime

This is not an expert guide. Just when I'd got enough information to start writing about this subject, it started to fall apart. That in itself is (hopefully) an interesting enough story, so rather than trying to give you the definitive account of gender and sexuality issues in anime, I'll tell you about that journey of only-partial discovery. (As well as this page there's one of 'further comments' which people have emailed to me).

But first, of course, we'd better briefly cover: What is anime?

Anime is the term used outside Japan to refer to Japanese animation. (In Japan, anime is the term for animation in general). Anime films, videos and TV shows are based on the style, and often the content, of manga, which are Japanese comics, or what we might call graphic novels.

Indeed the term 'graphic novels' is more than usually appropriate here, since manga are often long series written by identifiable, individual authors (rather than the teams who are usually responsible for American comics). Furthermore, it is completely normal for manga to be read by adults; and manga come in a broad range of genres, as with novels in the West. [Gilles Poitras provides a good introduction to anime].

About gender and sexuality in anime

I started looking into anime recently as I'd seen a couple of websites by transgendered people -- male-to-female transsexuals, to be more specific -- who were anime fans and liked 'the nonchalant presence of characters from sexual and gender minorities' (as it says at Anime for the Transgendered) -- which sounds cool. As Western viewers will know, in American and British TV, movies and other popular media, our main male characters are usually identifiably masculine and our leading female characters are usually feminine. Any 'gender play', or non-straight characters, are unusual to say the least. Why would they be more common in Japanese (animated) drama?

In these websites I'd seen, certain stories were seen as important because they featured characters who switched from being male to being female (and back). For example, the very popular series Ranma ½ is about a teenage boy who turns into a girl when he comes into contact with cold water, with, as they say in showbiz, hilarious consequences. Similarly, Futaba-kun Change is a "slapstick romantic comedy" about a young man who changes into a woman when he gets excited.


This fluidity of gender sounds, at first glance, quite radical. But this is where things started to fall apart, as I mentioned at the top. The premises of these tales -- as you may have spotted if you are quicker than me -- can actually be seen as rather conservative, couched in fixed and traditional ideas about the difference between men and women, which produces the 'comedy' of changing from a man to a woman. If gender was irrelevant, there'd be no humour. This premise wouldn't be out of place in an American sitcom of the 1960s, as Annalee Newitz notes. For further help, I turned to Helen McCarthy, author of The Anime Movie Guide. She describes Ranma ½ as a "formulaic and cynical play on romantic stereotypes... conservative and sexist". Oh dear.

So it looked like maybe those transgendered people liked these shows because they might agree with the idea of a fundamental difference between men and women, which that kind of humour is based on. That's also the basis of the idea that there are men, and there are women, and you've been born as the wrong one, isn't it? Sigh. I'm sympathetic to those people -- gender outsiders we like! -- but it's a can of worms that is better tossed over to B.C. Holmes. Meanwhile I'm still despondent that anime failed to be queer-theory-in-the-movies. I'd wanted masculinity and femininity to be collapsed, not reinforced and used for traditionalist laughs.

(I could be being unfair here -- these series do at least play with gender, and could be seen to be exposing the performance of gender...).

A Japanese student, Shun, emailed me with this comment: "Ranma ½ did play with male/female roles and made jokes based on this, but the important fact in this story is that Ranma was always being himself. Strong, true to himself, a fighter, rough and sensitive at time... just as most people are a mix of 'masculine' and 'feminine' traits, rather than changing identity from one to another. This helped to created the view that differences between women and men may not exist. Futhermore, in Ranma, female characters such as Akane and others are very strong and unique in their own right... They helped to create an acceptance of strong women characters. The bottom line here is: who cares what you are. We all try to be funny, try to make sense of ourselves, try to show off, fall in love and fear to die!". Very interesting points.

But anyway, what happened to 'the nonchalant presence of characters from sexual and gender minorities' ? Hey hey -- do what you like with the bathwater, but this baby's staying to see what else we can find...

Gender outlaws in anime

Anime does nevertheless include some gay and bisexual characters, as well as other positive plays on gender conventions. Shunsuke has created an excellent guide to this area, Josei Ni. He says: "I have been an anime fan since January 1996, and in that time I have seen a lot of anime. A lot. And having been on the internet since before that and talked a lot to anime fans, one thing I noticed was amazing tolerance and regular examples of non-heterosexual people and relationships. Even straight people I know who are into anime like the way gay and bisexual relationships are portrayed as positive and loving, seeing people as humans and not freaks."

He goes on to say: "The thing that really struck me about anime as I gradually came to terms with my own bisexuality is the number of positive images and stories involving homosexuals and bisexuals. Granted, a great number of these are male fantasies about lesbian sex [erk!], but there are still a lot of images of loving and tenderness to be found. Anime didn't cause me to become bisexual, nor is it the main reason I'm coming out, but anime and the fan community were definitely a big help in accepting who I am."

Karen Smith is another anime fan who helped me out. I asked her about this simply because she obviously had seen a lot of anime, and read about it. Karen said, "I am not sure why it is that anime is like that, but I think it is really cool".

She confirms, "There are a lot of anime characters that are gay, or they make some men look and act very feminine. For example Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus from Sailor Moon [pictured right]. Sailor Uranus is a woman but she dresses and looks like a man. Everyone thought she was a guy and all the girls liked her. Her and Sailor Neptune are in love. They never really explain it that much because it is no big deal to them."

Ben Kong, of the York University [Canada] Anime and Manga Association, wrote to me: "Parents and educators often cringe when they have an initial glance at anime. One example [again] is Sailor Moon, an animated series that found success in Japan, Canada and the U.S. The presence of transgendered, gay and bisexual characters was strong in this series, as two of the ten heroic characters were lesbians and three others transformed from male to female when they summoned their superhero powers. Considering the fact that [the North American] marketers had targeted children as their primary audience, this became a hotly debated issue in the U.S. and Canada. Therefore, North American networks aired the early episodes of Sailor Moon only, where the aforementioned characters were not present." Part of Ben Kong's explanation for why such characters appear in anime is that anime is an art form, and a much more complex kind of drama than Western animations.

"Anime is different from most conventional forms of animation here in the West for its character development. Similar to a soap opera or mini-series, each character develops personality, maturity and a plot as the series continues. For example, Sailor Moon goes from a frightened teen in the show's initial episode, and develops into a more mature and caring heroine in later shows. She essentially 'grows up' on the screen each day, until eventually becoming a Queen and a mother. Compare that to the popular animated shows Charlie Brown or South Park, where characters carry the same identity and status for each episode."

This was helpful, but didn't seem to explain why it would be that the Japanese would be interested in having, and willing to accept, gay, bisexual and other queer characters in their animated dramas.

Anime in the Japanese cultural context

Jennifer Diane Reitz is the writer of a webpage on anime with transgendered themes. She has been an otaku -- a committed anime fan -- almost a decade. "During that time I have immersed myself in as much Japanese art, culture, language and subculture as I could," she told me. "I have correspondents from Japan and constantly accumulate information. I regularly chat with, see films with, and visit the otaku shops of my Japanese friends." Jennifer should be well qualified to explain why anime happily includes these queer components, then.

Jennifer says: "In modern day Japan, queerness in general, by which I mean not simply homosexuality but transsexuality, transgenderism, and bisexuality as well, are not accepted, but neither are they a matter of grave disgrace either. Rather the subject is simply one that is considered very private -- in general, more private than even heterosexual relations.

"Heterosexual expression itself is kept private, with such acts as simple kissing being considered inappropriate for public display, and in many homes, inappropriate even for children to see their parents performing. Homosexuality is considered just beyond the already highly private expressions of affection so common in western culture.

"In ancient Japan, homosexuality was simply considered a rare but perfectly acceptable behavior [however, see below]; the opening of Japan to western culture is primarily responsible for what mild distaste towards homosexuality exists. The foundations of this distaste are religions, originating for the most part from two sources, the teachings of Buddhism, and the influence of Christianity. The Christian influence comes more from the deliberate assimilation of western culture that Japan instituted than from conversion; it is estimated only one per cent of the Japanese people are Christian".

However, contradicting this, I was emailed by Shun, a Japanese student studying at an Australian University. He is certain that Jennifer is wrong about this: "I have seen that Jennifer Diane Reitz has said 'In ancient Japan, homosexuality was simply considered a rare but perfectly acceptable behavior'... This is just so not true. I would, as Japanese, like you to remove this misleading comment. Homosexuality was never accepted in Japanese society... it was suppressed just as much as in the West". [See the 'further comments' page for more on this].

Anyhow, Jennifer continues: "Homosexuality, transsexuality and transgenderism are considered exotic, and therefore interesting. This fascination is partly erotic, but mostly one of the excitement of the unfamiliar. Just as a fantastic character such as a magical being or interstellar entity is stimulating, so is the exotic nature of the character who crosses gender boundaries or common sexual expectations. Because such characters are larger than life by virtue of being exotic, they become more likely to be portrayed as heroic rather than villainous, or at the very least, comedic yet with a human side."

So is Japan more liberal about these issues?

Jennifer says: "This is not to say that Japan is a queer-positive society overall, for it is not. Japanese society is more accepting of many things western cultures actively seek to destroy, but only under the understanding that the matters in question are kept private. Few Japanese parents would welcome the prospect of a queer child, and there is a certain exclusion offered openly queer individuals in Japan, for they are considered odd, or different, and being 'different' in Japan is a source of interest, but also immediate suspicion.

"So, perhaps the best way to understand the representation of queer folk as positive, or at least comically human, characters in Japanese media, is to see Japan as a culture fascinated by difference, precisely because it is maintained as a homogeneous society. It is a culture that is not overly hateful towards queer issues, but neither is embracing by any means, and finds acceptance of the queer mostly as entertainment, or as a hidden and therefore unoffensive, subculture. The hidden nature of queer culture in Japan is not, however, linked with dread fear of violence as might be often found in western culture, but is rather more an extension of the general social disdain for overt expressions of intimacy of any sort.

"There are also places held for queer folk in ancient Japanese historical account, and those places - certain performers, famous court musicians, the companions of certain famous warlords, and the like, are not at all unholy or wretched. Indeed some are exceedingly noble or self sacrificingly heroic. This must also flavor the portrayal of queer folk in anime and manga.

She concludes, "Japan does not yet have the full taint of of the hate and intolerance of western religion, and in that is without the motivation to wholly condemn the queer."

Representations of women (and men) in anime

So what about gender representations in anime more generally? Eri Izawa grew up in a Japanese household in the USA -- punctuated by a few visits to Japan -- and began reading manga in the mid-1970s. In his interesting essay on this subject, he suggests that in the 1990s Japan remains a sexist, conservative culture -- although the very fact that this is noted by Eri's friends in Japan may indicate that things might slowly change.

Eri's analysis of gender relationships in anime begins with a catalogue of depressing examples of female characters in stereotypical, subservient roles. On the more optimistic side, he notes that in some anime, women and men are shown to have a "stable, equal relationship". Eri writes, "Usually the male is assumed to be stronger, but the female is often smarter (at least academically) and/or more stable. There's a balance here, and both sides have a respect for the other, personally and sometimes professionally".

Furthermore, Eri notes that in some anime, the female heroes are 'super women' -- such as Mikami (Ghost Sweeper Mikami), Gally (Gunnm) and Natsuki (Natsuki Crisis) -- who "are stronger and smarter than everyone else around them, including their love interests. And, unlike some other [manga and anime characters], they are not ashamed to be better, and they fight hard to stay sharp and competent". Male partners strive reach a similar level. "The trend is for the heroine to remain independent and aloof until the male character gets enough of a 'grip' to improve himself until he is worthy of her".

Later in his essay, Eri writes: "Recently, with the introduction of Western comics (you know, skin-tight costumes), physical exaggeration is more prevalent than ever before -- women with voluptuous figures, men with ridiculously huge muscles. And as a side note, some manga have a subtle fascination with homosexuality. Finally, though, to help straighten the record: as much as some manga depict women in sexually-tinged embarrassing situations, some also depict men in such situations, too. The Japanese are far more open about nudity and sex than, say, Americans, and so feel free to poke a lot more humor at it -- and not all the humor is degrading to women".

In conclusion, Eri says, "If we took the 'average' of the attitude to relationships (at least in young people's manga, not in adult-oriented stuff), I think that the average attitude would come out to be male-chauvinistic, but a lot less so than twenty years ago, and possibly less so than Japanese society itself. As much as there are stereotypical manga where girls are weak and wilting or perhaps just lust objects, there are newer manga where girls are equal partners, or sometimes even 'ahead' of the guys. This is interesting, because the rest of Japanese society does not appear to be quite as enlightened. Perhaps manga-writers are a vanguard of society, paving the way for the masses".


We'll leave it on that upbeat note, then... One of the curious questions which haven't been resolved here is about the extent to which a female character such as Iria [shown right] can be an empowering female icon whilst at the same time being a sex object capable of getting teenage boys very hot under the collar...


Since I wrote the above page (mostly in 1999) I have been emailed by various people about it. Some of the most interesting comments - which contain many valuable and well-informed observations - appear on the FURTHER COMMENTS page (created 2002).

Many thanks to Jennifer Diane Reitz, Ben Kong, Karen Smith, and Shunsuke for their help with the preparation of this page.


Slantgirl on Mulan