Final Letters of Kamikaze Pilots

kamikaze pilots

Here in the United States, kamikaze pilots are seen as evil or misguided at the least. They took the lives of many American soldiers during World War II. Our history books often fail to show how kamikaze pilots were as human as the Americans they killed. This is a collection of letters from kamikaze pilots written just before they flew their final missions. They show a concern for family and mundane, everyday things. These translations may be a little awkward at times.

Kamikaze Special Attack Group Fugoku
Killed near Luzon Island on 13 November 1944
Native of Shizuoka Prefecture

Honorable Older Brother,

Once again, orders have come down for the attack from which we will never return. I feel not the slightest regret. Already I have grown intimate with death, the ultimate character-building passage that we human beings have to face. All that is left is to carry out the duties for which I’ve been trained and to fulfill the Imperial mandate. I am deeply ashamed that in the twenty-seven years of my life I have been such an unworthy son and younger brother.

I will have to leave everything up to you. It is with an untroubled heart that I fulfill the obligations for which I was born. I am merely carrying out my duties as a man.

The made-in-Manila bar of toilet soap you’ll find in my things was given to me by the chief of staff. Please take good care of Mother, and take care of yourself in the coming winter.


Captain Furukawa Takao to his wife
Killed in the sea off Kagoshima on 21 April 1945 at age 25
Native of Saga Prefecture

Recently, in calmer moments, I find my thoughts returning continually to you and our soon-to-be-born child. Please take good care of your health.

When we first arrived at our base in Kyushu, there was a sudden change in plans, and we were all ordered into special attack units. I expected to depart at any moment. Every day, as I waited for my first, and last, attack, I reread the letter you wrote the day you made the jelly and gazed at the photos of you and Sister Etchan.

Surprisingly, my heart was perfectly at peace-as though another me were gazing upon the me that was so calm.

But orders, for better or for worse, changed again, and I was assigned to another squadron and given other duties. We made two sorties to Okinawa; the first was completed without incident, and I returned without doing anything especially heroic.

Mr. Hagiwara, who visited us the other day, asked about you. Try not to be upset, but he was shot down the day after he arrived.

Now, more than ever, the fleetingness of human life astonishes me, but I have become a much stronger person. You too must be strong. Wait for me. I will return without fail. Until you’ve safely given birth to our child, I have no intention of dying easily.

Captain Adachi Takuya to his parent
Kamikaze Special Attack Group No. i Seikita
Killed in the Okinawa area on 28 April 1945 at age 23
Native of Hyogo Prefecture

Honorable Mother and Father,

The difficulty of the journey you made to see me was clearly evident in your disheveled hair and in the hollows under your eyes-it made me want to bend my knees and worship before you. In the wrinkles on your brows was vivid testimony of the pains you took to raise me. Words could not express my feelings, and what little I did say was superficial in the extreme.

Yet, although acutely conscious of how little time we had, I saw in your eyes and in your gaze all you wanted to say but couldn’t.

When you took my hand and passed it over your chilblains, I experienced a sense of profound peacefulness unlike anything I have experienced since joining up -like being a baby again and longing for the warmth of a mother’s love. It is because I bask in the beauty of your deep devotion that I can martyr myself for you-for in death I will sleep in the world of your love. Washed down with my tears was the sushi you prepared with such loving care, for it was like putting your love to my lips. Though I ate but little, it was the most delicious meal of my life.

Honorable Mother, even if I was never able to fully accept the love you gave me, I received so much wisdom from you. And Father, your silent words are carved deeply into my heart. With this I will be able to fight together with you both. Even if I should die, it will be with a peaceful spirit.

I mean this with all my heart.

The war zone is where these beautiful emotions are put to the test. If death means a return to this world of love, there is no need for me to fear.There is nothing left to do but press on and fulfill my duty.

At 16oo hours our meeting was over. Watching you walk out the gate, I quietly waved goodbye.

Letter from Second Lieutenant Tomisawa.

I trust that everyone has been doing well recently.

I am dearly grateful that you went to all the trouble to come visit me the other day in such a busy time.

Since my injury is already healed, do not worry.

At last for me also the time of final service has arrived. I very deeply appreciate my special upbringing until now. I am one who lacked courage, but please do speak well of me.

In order to destroy our enemy, I will summon courage with all my might and will go to strike. We are the ones to deliver the country from the current crisis. Taking pride in this, I will surely do it. My comrades have already done it. Even right now my comrades, believing in those who will follow after them, are striking the enemy.

Shall I keep silent? Shall I try to be quiet about this?

Father, Mother, please do congratulate me.

Brother, sister, please take care of Father and Mother.

I surely will be protecting everybody from the immortal faraway skies in Nansei Shoto (Okinawa and other islands in archipelago that stretch south of Kyushu and toward Taiwan). Even though my body dies, I will certainly defend you.

Please give my kindest regards to the neighbors. I hope you will always keep in contact with Mr. Ebihara of Honjo. Since I have been busy, I have not been able to write a letter to him for a long time. Please give my greetings to Mr. Nishigaya also.

With this I give you my final farewell. Thank you for everything. Goodbye, goodbye.

Second Lieutenant Tomisawa


Lieutenant Kishi Fumikazu to his family
Killed in the Philippines on 24 October 1944 at age 22.

Dear Mother and Father, Brother and Sister,

End of autumn. The backyard must be filled with the cries of insects, as it is every year around this time. My heart is full to bursting with memories of the many evenings we spent talking together. I suppose you are all somewhat concerned about how I’m doing.

During my visit home in May, Sister said to me, “Ever since you joined up, Mother has been setting meals before your photograph. She’s given up drinking tea, and every evening she visits the shrine to pray for you.” I was so moved that I was unable to thank her. Mother really wore herself out at the farewell party the night before I left to join my unit. She was so busy preparing for my departure that she didn’t sleep at all the night before.

And on my sun flag, she wrote HAPPILY WAITING FOR A RETURNING CHILD. Whenever I can, I gaze at those four noble characters for the nourishment they give my soul. The fighting has become extremely intense, and there is no guarantee of my safe return. The image of all those poor school kids and everyone else singing war songs and waving a sea of flags as they saw us off to the front is burned indelibly into my mind. I firmly believe in the benevolence of the Emperor and of our parents. Mother seems to be growing weaker by the day. Brother and Sister, you will have to give her the love that I cannot.

Please forgive my impiety; I pray for the continued good health of you all. The three photo albums I sent the other day are keepsakes for Brother and Sister. Please don’t worry about me. When you hear of my death, be happy for me, for I will have achieved my ambition.



Last Letters of Kamikaze Pilots.(2001) Manoa 13 (1). 120-123.

Naemura, Hichiro. 1993. Rikugun saigo no tokkou kichi: Bansei tokkoutaiin no isho to isatsu (Gordon, .B.trans.) Osaka: Toho Shuppan.


Considering the Bombing of Hiroshima

With President Obama’s scheduled visit to Hiroshima, he will become the first US president to visit the site of the first wartime atomic explosion. People have debated the need to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagaski, but most of the arguments come from hindsight. At the time, the outcome of the war was uncertain. America considered an invasion of the Japanese homeland. Planners looked at what happened on islands in the Pacific and feared what a land invasion of Japan would involve. Japanese military death rates on the islands were staggering (Frank, 1999):

  • Attu: 98.8%
  • Tarawa: 99.7%
  • Roi-Namur: 98.5%
  • Saipan: 97% ( only 921 were taken prisoner out of 30,000)

At least 1,000 civilians committed suicide on Saipan, but exaggerated reports of up to 10,000 suicides made military planners realize how bloody an invasion of the Japanese main islands would be (Frank, 1999). The US military expected American casualty rates of 1 for every 7 Japanese. They were looking at the possible end of the entire Japanese way of life and an American death toll that could well have shaken American democracy. The decision to drop the atom bombs considered all of this.

We forget that they also didn’t understand the full power of nuclear weapons. Nothing like an atomic explosion had been used in warfare before. Radiation poisoning was relatively unknown. Some of our criticism for the decision is based on what we’ve learned since Hiroshima.

When considering history, we have to be careful not to project our knowledge on the past. History is set in our eyes. American victory appears a foregone conclusion, but it wasn’t definite at the time. The US military debated what path to take to minimize American casualties.  Japan hoped to settle for a negotiated peace rather than an unconditional surrender. For those of us who live now, the plans are obvious. But again, at the time no one was certain what would be the best path. For all we know, the dropping of the bombs wasn’t the best path. A negotiated peace or something else could have turned out better for world history. However, all of this debate is rather pointless. What happened, happened. It cannot be changed. While it is useful to look at possible alternative scenarios–after all, it is a good way to draw up plans should a similar conflict happen in the future–we need to be sympathetic toward people who lived through the events.

Backwards projection–projecting our knowledge and understanding of the world onto people and texts from the past–prevents us from understanding events through the eyes of those who survived them.

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When it comes to history, it is sometimes best to set aside opinion and knowledge. It is best to open the heart and mind toward the people you see in photographs. Imagine their suffering. Imagine their dreams. Too often history is lost to dry facts like dates and places. History is about people and their lives. It is a human story. History teaches us how to act today. Without it, we are destined to keep repeating the same decisions and mistakes. The fact no other nuclear bomb has been dropped in war since Hiroshima and Nagaski (at least as of the writing of this article) is a positive legacy.

People sometimes call for the US to apologize for dropping the bombs. It is better to look at images like the ones above and dwell on the human element. Developing active compassion and a deep concern for humanity is a better way to respect the suffering of those caught in the events of history than an apology.


Frank, R. (1999). Downfall. The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire. New York: Random House.

Photos are taken from the US National Archive.

Anime as a Storytelling Medium

utena_anthyAnime and manga are storytelling mediums equal to movies and books. Anime has more flexibility and one unique strength that movies cannot have.

Anime and manga are a style of their own, just like Cubism or Pointillism. Some people lump anime into the “Superflat” art movement because of the flat nature of anime art. But whatever you want to call it, anime is valuable. Back in 2001, animation cells from the anime Princess Mononoke– animation cells were once thought to be trash–sold for thousands of dollars (Watson, 2001).

Anime storytelling roots extend far back in Japanese art, but the years after  World War II marked the beginning of anime as a storytelling medium.  Unlike American cartoons, anime focuses on realism in image and movement. This realism started with the “God of Anime” Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka wrote over 150,000 pages of story, covering every genre and age group (Watson, 2001). He set the groundwork for anime’s breadth. In contrast, most animation in the United States is produced for and watched by children (Halsall, 2004).

Themes of Anime

“Anime is complex and multifaceted, fabulous storytelling combined with extraordinary animation.”

The wide appeal of anime makes it hard to define, but anime stories typically follow the following themes (Halsall, 2004):

  1. Technology (or magic) vs. humanity.
  2. Problems of technology (or magic) vs. whatever is trying to destroy the world or city.
  3. Good vs. Evil. In a person or in a society.
  4. Rite of Passage. A child growing to adult or a person becoming a better, healthier person.
  5. The challenge of living with other people.

However, anime is more than its stories. Anime is a medium, a tool for stories. A medium conveys information. Oil painting is one type of medium. Comic books are another.  The techniques of anime– its flatness, large eyes, animation style–are similar to the composition, paints, and techniques used to make paintings. Lately, we’ve seen anime turned into live-action movies. Attack on Titan is one example. Story and medium (the word media is the plural of medium, similar to datum and data) are separate. Attack on Titan isn’t an anime, it is a story that happens to use anime as its medium. This sounds nitpicky, but the distinction is important. Stories can be shared across many different media. A book can become a movie, inspire a painting, or become a comic book. Each medium has strengths and weaknesses that affects how the story works.

Many people, myself included, have problems with “anime.” But it isn’t anime we have a problem with. It is the stories that ruffle us. Many of the stories in anime are poorly paced and told. However, this has little to do with anime as a medium. Live-action has poor storytelling too. A poor story dressed up with blockbuster actors or excellent, vibrant animation is still  a poor story. Now, I am not saying anime doesn’t influence stories. Every medium has limits. A live action movie can’t portray the outlandish things drawn media can. That is why movies rely so much on computer animation for transforming robots and creating vast environments. But no matter how shiny the special effects or how well known the actress, a poor story is a poor story. The medium can’t save it.

Anime’s Strengths and Weaknesses

FLCLNow that we have story and medium separated, let’s talk about strengths and weaknesses of media. Some media lend themselves better to certain stories. Live-action features recognizable faces and names that can capture a story. Anime has a different strength: unique characters. Whereas Clark Gable will always look like Clark Gable no matter what character he plays (I am a classic movie fan), an anime character will appear only once. That character will only belong to a certain story. Sure, other characters may resemble the character, but Eureka will only appear in the Eureka Seven universe–OVAs and other retellings are still a part of a story’s universe. Just look at American comic books for examples of this! This uniqueness gives anime an advantage over movies. Once the story is over, the character will not appear again. Spencer Tracy appeared in many movies. Ichigo only exists in the Bleach universe.

This makes the death of characters in anime crash down on us. They are dead in a stark, final way. Sure we can rewatch the series or write fan fiction, but when a character dies in anime or the series ends, the character will not appear again. Movies envy the finality of an anime character’s death. Even characters that live on, the finality of the viewer’s parting with them can’t be matched by movies.  Samurai Champloo‘s ending is a good example of this wistful parting of character and viewer. This is the greatest strength of anime’s storytelling.

Because it is a drawn medium, anime tells stories that requires live-action to splurge on special effects. Think about the Lord of the Rings movies and their extreme sets and computer animation. Middle Earth took a lot of effort to create on the screen. Contrast this with what a painting can do. Anime enjoys the “suspension of disbelief” that movies have to work at achieving. Because movies feature living people, we have to stretch our ability to believe what we see. However, anime, because it doesn’t seek to replicate reality, enjoys more leeway. We can  believe weird stuff when it is drawn easier than if it was live. We expect reality– and anything that looks real–to behave in certain ways. Violating those ways can shock us out of a story. Books and movies have to work hard at building worlds that can have odd stuff, like magic, without shocking us out of the story. Anime and comics can blast us without too much worry.


Perfect Blue shows the high level of storytelling anime can achieve.

Anime’s techniques contains its weakness…at least for America. Because Americans associate animation with childhood, anime has limited appeal. And this limited appeal limits the type of stories that make it to the United States. Teens and twenty-somethings dominate anime’s US audience. This means companies send stories that appeal to this limited audience. This forces the medium into a niche that has proven difficult to escape. In turn, this also encourages lower quality storytelling. Expansive adult stories, like Ghost in the Shell, are rare because American adults are not socialized to view anime as a valid storytelling medium.

Certain stories fit best in certain media. The elements of the story may be best handled by the techniques of a certain medium. Take Lord of the Rings. Because of the themes and general believable nature of Middle Earth, the story favored movies. There is a bad cartoon of The Hobbit. Now, imagine One Piece as a movie. I really can’t see the odd world translating well to live-action. It would lose what makes One Piece One Piece.

The main point to take away from this is the separation of story and medium. Anime isn’t the stories. Anime is the method of telling those stories.


Halsall, J. (2004). The Anime Revelation: How I Learned to Love Japanese Animation and Changed Our Teen Video Collection Forever. School Library Journal, 50(8), S6.

Watson, L. C. (2001). Japanimation: breaking down the boundaries. Art Business News, 28(4), 72-74.


Mayo Chiki!

Mayo-Chiki-mayo-chiki-34640005-1280-720Every once in awhile I like to watch a fluffy, silly anime. Mayo Chiki! is certainly one of those…on the surface. Underneath the light-harem antics and relationship tangle waited a surprising theme. First, my usual summary.

Kinjiro – nicknamed Jiro – is a nice high-school guy with a problem. He is terrified of girls, and whenever one gets too close, he experiences severe nosebleeds to the point of passing out. Well, one of the most popular boys in school, Konoe, has a secret that Jiro falls into: Konoe is actually a girl! The rest of the anime focuses upon Jiro keeping Konoe’s secret safe and their blossoming relationship.

Jiro’s condition, which Konoe (who works as a butler) and her boss,  Suzutsuki, decide to fix, is a satire of the nosebleed trope. The anime leverages and makes fun of other tropes, like the accidental boob grab and the usual hot spring situation. Aside from this, the anime addresses the problem of body image. Despite being a filler episode, episode 13 is actually one of the most interesting because of the way it explores this issue. The anime pretty much ends in episode 12, by the way.


Before I get into episode 13, I will point out the long running examples of the body-image issue in the story. At the center is Konoe and her cross dressing. Because she wants to work as a butler, she keeps her gender secret. Why she can’t work as  female butler is a result of Japanese gender roles. The disconnect of her passion and her gender creates a body issue. She is uncomfortable with her breasts (which she wraps until flat) and dressing as a girl. Suzutsuki uses Jiro to help Konoe become more comfortable with being female.  At the same time, Suzutsuki works to keep Konoe as her butler.

The final episodes focuses on the side character Nakuru Narumi. Narumi wears cat-ears and writes yaoi slash fiction based on the perceived homosexual relationship Jiro and Konoe have. She also has a fetish for glasses. As she admits, her personality isn’t popular with the boys. In the final episode, she approaches Jiro with a problem and admits she has a problem with her breasts. She has massive “rocket-shaped” breasts, and she wonders if that is all the boys like. Not only is Nakuru buxom, she is also a ganguro, a fashion subculture that tries to be the opposite of Japanese ideals of beauty. Her sense of fashion comes from self-discomfort. It is a way to keep the boys away. She admits she wishes her breasts were smaller. She wishes boys wouldn’t only look at her chest. Jiro ends up helping her understand not all guys will only see her breasts. He finds her face– without the glasses–most attractive.

Nakuru’s admission is rather unique. Most of the time anime girls want their boobs to be larger. This scene shows the counter to the assumption that a girl has to have big breasts for people to like her. The scene shows even “hot” buxom girls like Nakuru have body-image problems. And those problems are the same as less-blessed-by-nature girls: feelings of inadequacy and desires to be loved for their souls rather than merely their bodies. Of course, guys also struggle with this, if to a lesser extent.  Culture puts a lot of pressure on girls to appear in certain ways — both physically and in their behavior. Mayo Chiki! focuses on breasts as symbols of  these problems. Konoe and Nakuru feel uncomfortable with their breasts–by extension their femininity–because of society’s view and expectations of women. Breasts are seen as limiting. For Konoe they hurt her career. For Nakuru they hurt her ability to find a real relationship.

I was surprised to see a fluffy anime like Mayo Chiki! touch on the problem of body image. It goes to show that even frilly comedies are worth a try.

Doing Justice to Transgender Characters on TV

It’s always a good sign when something ‘weird’ stops being funny, and is taken seriously. As it seems, that is happening – in some cases – with transgender characters in Japanese TV.

A Queer Family in Last Friends

First off, I have a correction to make. In my post on lesbians in Japan I was very dismissive of the TV drama Last Friends and its treatment of the transgender character Ruka. Her/His friends and family showed different stages of discomfort and the most accepting person, himself a rather feminine male, was in love with Ruka and thus most inclined to promise help and assistance. When asked about his/her gender and sexuality at a press conference, Ruka seemed to evade the question, and that seemed to settle the affair, burying it deep in the closet.

Last Friends Takeru Ruka Michiru Rumi baby family queer

The queer family formed in the final episode of Last Friends

Since then, I have re-wtached the series several times (I wrote an essay on it) and realized that my data was SO incomplete! See, when I first watched the final episode, the file I used was corrupted, and I was missing what I assumed were merely the end credits. Turns out I also missed the entire closing sequence: Michiru names her baby after Ruka as if s/he were the father, and finally, the love triangle Michiru-Ruka-Takeru decide to live as a queer family. In the last voiceover of the series, the same Michiru who had previously rejected Ruka’s love for her, now describes their relationship as transcending established categories: Family, Friends, Husband and Wife, Lovers. We, who are none of these things, believe in moving forward as far as we can, treasuring the fragile happiness of the child. If that isn’t a radical alternative to traditional Japanese family and gender models, I don’t know what is.

The additional special episode is mostly rehashing the series, but it also makes clear that Ruka is still in a transitional stage a year later and has not simply sorted her/himself back into society as a normative man. That would be, however, what the Japanese criteria for Gender Identity Disorder describe. As portrayed in the series, the diagnosis of this condition is necessary for sex reassignment surgery,[i] which Ruka had clearly desired during the middle part of the series. I still cannot decide if keeping Ruka ambiguous is a progressive statement for a more fluid view of gender, or a move by the producers to avoid having him portrayed as an actual transman.

Be that as it may, the impact of the series’ progressive view on gender and family seems to have been comparatively small. I couldn’t find any magazine articles discussing this aspect, and Japanese acquaintances also remembered it more for its treatment of domestic violence (main character Michiru is treated savagely by her boyfriend Sōsuke) then for the gender issues discussed. However, in this interview (Japanese, no subtitles), Last Friends is positively mentioned as an example of TV acting as ‘education’, informing the public about the existence of lesbians and MTF-transgender people. As the gender researcher Mitsuhashi Junko (at least I think that’s how her name is read) points out, ‘the worst discrimination is if something is thought to not exist’.[ii] So, Last Friends plays an important role in making non-heteronormative gender visible – even if it is unclear about the position of Ruka as lesbian, FTM trans, or non-binary trans. By contrast, Wandering Son makes very clear what identity issue the protagonists face.

The troubles of transgender teenagers – Wandering Son

Hōrō Musuko (Wandering Son) is a 2011 anime, broadcast on Friday nights at Fuji TV. Adapting parts of Shimura Takako’s manga, in eleven episodes it portrays a group of middle school students struggling with first love, peer pressure, and gender expectations. The two main characters, Nitori Shūichi, assigned male at birth, and Takatsuki Yoshino, assigned female, both identify as the ‘opposite’ gender. The series shows Nitori’s struggles as she is rejected and insulted by her sister for putting on the sister’s frilly dress.

Wandering Son, Horo Musuko, trans characters Nitori and Takatsuki

Nitori Shuuichi and Takatsuki Yoshino, the transgender ‘couple’.

Kimochi warui, the phrase that haunts Nitori in the following sequence, can mean anything from merely ‘uncomfortable’ to ‘revolting’ or ‘disgusting’ and is therefore a good example of the gut reaction many Japanese used to have to non-heteronormative gender expression. According to Sugiura Ikuko, 62% of the male and 51% of the female participants in a 2000 survey thought homosexuality was ‘wrong‘. This might have changed in the one and a half decades since then, however, and in Hōrō Musuko, the reactions are more mixed. One the one hand, Nitori has supportive friends besides Takatsuki, and even her father understands her, to some degree. On the other hand, her sister Maho struggles and often fails to understand Nitori. Maho represents the clash between an entrenched traditional, gender-normative worldview, which is appaled by transgressors such as Nitori, and genuine sisterly love for her sibling. For example, she tries to apologize by giving one of her fried shrimps to Nitori at dinner, yet gets irritated quite easily again at Nitoris next ‚offense‘. No doubt this is partially due to Maho’s fear of the social consequences, not only for Nitori but (mostly) for herself. She does not want to be linked to a transgressor and share the blame and bullying that is to be expected once Nitori comes out.

In the climactic sequence where Nitori finally comes out by going to school dressed as a girl, the inherent misogyny of Japanese (and western) society is demonstrated. Girls wearing boy’s uniforms to school, like Takatsuki and Chi-chan, are considered cool, but when Nitori arrives in a skirt and wig, she is taken to the infirmary, her parents are called, and she is bullied by her classmates for some time afterward. Masculinity is prestigious, so girls aspiring to it are (to some degree) acceptable. But femininity is designated low-status, so a boy wanting to be a girl is considered sick (hence infirmary) and a delinquent (hence calling the parents). ‘In [western] culture, one of the most common and severe ways one can insult a man is to tell him that he’s acting like a girl — that he’s weak, emotional, prissy, or feminine. […] Too often, men are told that their worth depends on how well they can conform to masculine ideals, and that stereotypically “feminine” behaviors therefore devalue them.’ [iii] Japanese culture works in a similar way, it seems.

Horo Musuko Yuki Wandering son transwoman

Yuki in her usual style…

As I mentioned above, Nitori and Takatsuki are supported by a circle of (to varying degrees) accepting friends. Takatsuki (and later Nitori too) also consult the adult transwoman Yuki as a confidante and mentor. Yuki lives with a male partner and is feminine in voice and appearance, yet introduces herself as ‘okama’ (derogatory term for an effeminate male homosexual) to a classmate of Nitori.  This suggests she has not fully transitioned or (perhaps like Ruka in Last Friends?) that she rejects the heteronormative view of transpeople as someone you operate and then slot back into society as a ‘normal’ man or woman.

Yuki Yoshida Hiroyuki Horo Musuko wandering son transwoman

…and in her old suit

For example, when Nitori and Takatsuki’s school stages a gender-swap play, Yuki goes so far as to go ‘double-drag’, wearing her last remaining masculine attire, a formal suit, and introducing herself with her full (masculine) name to the students she meets. Yuki’s feminine performance and her (in this moment) masculine appearance cause confusion, and her partner criticizes her for that. Yet she mostly receives the same response Chi-chan and Takatsuki get for wearing boys’ uniforms: The feminine person in (prestigious) masculine dress is admired as cool. In this case, however, the person was actually male to begin with. This reveals how ridiculous societal judgements and gender-biased expectations are in the first place.

Coda: The Future Starts Now

While Last Friends opens up the possibility of a non-heteronormative family and implicitly (whether intentional or not) rejects binary concepts of gender and sexuality, Wandering Son exposes the emotional cost of gender stereotypes to both transpeople and their families, as well as the arbitrariness of gender-based value judgements. As such, the series has attracted attention among western audiences (boasting eight video reviews on youtube and a 4.6 out of 5 rating on Crunchyroll, for example). In Japan, it was broadcast late at night, though. The implication is, probably, that Hōrō Musuko is a programme not intended for children, which is sad, since it bears the potential to alert people to harmful gender stereotypes at a young age.


Nevertheless, the existence of anime and TV-dramas featuring non-normative characters makes these issues visible which have long been silenced in Japanese society. Perhaps we are entering an age of more open discussion, leading to eventual change? Let’s hope for a future where queer families are as normal as the one in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Vivid – but without the sexism featured in that series, as I pointed out previously.

Notes and References:

[i] Nicola McDermott, ‘Resistance and Assimiliation: Medical and Legal Transgender Identities in Japan’, in Manga Girl Seeks Herbivore Boy: Studying Japanese Gender at Cambridge, ed. by Brigitte Steger et al (Zurich: Lit Verlag, 2013), 3, pp. 177–226.

[ii] See also Ikuko Sugiura, ‘Increasing Lesbian Visibility’, in Transforming Japan: How Feminism and Diversity are Making a Difference, ed. by Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow (New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2011), pp. 164–76, p. 172.

[iii] I know I read more about this somewhere else, but sadly, I didn’t make a note of it at that time, so now I can’t give you the source.

Gender Expectations of Edo Period Japan


The Edo period made Japan Japan. This long segment of peace shaped Japanese gender expectations and continues to influence them today. Japan was once a matriarchal society. The influx of Confucian ideas from China around the 15th century eroded the ability of women to hold power. Confucian ideas stressed hierarchy, male dominance, integrity, and righteousness. Women became subservient (Sugihara 2000). Japan divided along class lines that became distinct during the Edo period: the ruling class, townsman class, and the peasant class. Each class had tiers within it. Samurai increased in rank all the way up to the shogun. However, even the lowest samurai remained higher in social standing than the highest peasant. The walls between the classes could be shattered with work, but most of the time people moved downward through the classes. Samurai became farmers more often that farmers became samurai (Platt, 2000). Each class had its own gender expectations.

The House System

At the center of Edo period gender roles stood the ie or house. This organization system originated in Confucian China. Men headed the house, and women changed their names to that of her husband. Her social status was dependent on her husband. Before the house system, women were able to keep their names and own property (Sugihara, 2000).  At first, the house system appears constraining for women, and for samurai women it was. However, the system gave women control of the business within the house. Men controlled the business outside the house. The Confucian ideal between the genders is best described by a book called the Onna Daigaku, or Greater Learning for Women: “men pursue their duties without, while women govern within.” Men were not to speak of what belongs in the house and women were not to speak of what belongs outside. The ideal of the Edo period was for men and women to form a harmonious union. Through this union, the house prospered. This idea replaced the Chinese Confucian idea that husbands and wives were to be distinct and separate (Sekiguchi, 2010). Confucianism stressed the preeminence of men over women, stating: “A woman is to obey her father as daughter, her husband as wife, and her son as aged mother.”(Walthall, 1984) This view reflected in the laws of the period. Women did not legally exist. In practice, these ideas were mostly limited to the samurai class.

Heads of households were expected to protect and nurture the family name and the business of the house. This extended to all three classes. The house was more important than any single member. The gender expectations of each class centers around this idea, but how they went about nurturing the house defined gender roles for each class.

Gender Expectations for the Samurai Class

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47d9-c600-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wSamurai had a problem during the Edo period. War was abolished. The entire class centered around being warriors. Even samurai women were expected to fight and die. Both men and women shared the same ideals of loyal, courage, and honor. Samurai women were expected to govern the household, continue her husband’s line, and protect the family’s honor. If that required death, she would slit her own throat faster than a man could lay open his stomach. Only during the Edo period little of this was actually necessary. Samurai women were left to continuing her family’s line and governing the household. During the Edo period, it become rare for many samurai women to leave the home (Tanimura, 2011). Samurai girls learned what was needed to govern the household, including reading, writing, and how to play the koto, a 13 string zither. A lady playing the koto was considered the ideal of modesty and elegance.However, they were forbidden to learn the shamisen. The 1847 version of Onna Chohoki, another female instruction book, speaks negatively of the instrument (Tanimura, 2011):

Its tone sounds so lecherous that it is not regarded as a musical instrument. It is a tool for courtesans. You should definitely not learn to play the shamisen. However, you should learn the names of its parts.

Samurai women were expected to be strong and endure in addition to being educated and subservient. Despite these trends, when the Edo period ended samurai women remembered their history from when they held power and fought.

The Onna Daigaku summarized the role samurai women played in the house:

A woman must be intent on the duties of her household, and must not weary of weaving, sewing, and spinning…, nor must she feed her eyes and ears with kabuki, kouta, and joruri.

Samurai men, as heads of the household, had the obligation to continue their lineage and carry the business of their family. Most importantly, they carried the honor of their family. Men were expected to be well-trained in military arts and literature. In the old days, samurai would gain honor through bravery and decisive action on the battlefield. They would return with the heads of those they killed in battle, and through this they gained honor. Yes, samurai were head hunters. Without war, Edo period samurai culture shifted from bravery and decisive action  on the battlefield to finding ways to show their bravery and decisiveness in other ways. Shame —haji–played a key role in the identity of samurai men. The class defined itself as the class that would risk their lives to defend their good name. Shame differed from how we understand it. While it was a feeling, shame was also a combination of inner principles and societal views of a samurai. As heads of household, shame could spread from samurai men to the rest of the family. Samurai honor lacked a set guide for shame. Instead, samurai men decided when and if his honor needed defense. Autonomy was important for samurai men, even as it was denied samurai women. The practice of seppuku, or ritualized suicide, was the final act of autonomy a samurai could commit (Ikegami, 2003). The accusation of cowardice made the blackest stain on a samurai’s honor.

Confucian scholar Muro Kyuso (1658-1734) defined the samurai’s moral code as principled autonomy:

The disciplined and rightful attitude of the samurai should include the following: not to speak falsehood; not to work for selfish gain; to keep the mind straightforward and honest; simplicity in external appearance; to maintain a disciplined and courteous bearing, neither flattering one’s superiors nor being arrogant toward one’s juniors; to keep promises unfailingly; and not to ignore another in hardship. . .

Samurai not only had to worry about their reputation, but the lord they served as well. Their actions could disgrace their lord. Many samurai served their lords out in rural fortresses where they oversaw and protected the surrounded villages. Samurai were not allowed to own businesses. They had to work as administrators as befitting their social standing. Samurai were paper pushers in the Edo period. In return, samurai received stipends according to their rank.

Gender Expectations of the Townsman Class

12645216_1019550614772013_4424802824108759450_nWhile samurai couldn’t legally own businesses, Edo period towns teemed with commerce. The long peace allowed intricate trade networks to develop between villages and towns. Over time, the townsman class, which composed of merchants, artisans, and other people who served the needs of the urban samurai, gained power and wealth. The townsman class had their own gender expectations were differed from the samurai. The importance of the household remained the same, but the application of the principles differed, particularly for women. The townsman class made up around 6-7% of the total population of Japan during the Edo period (Tanimura, 2011). Townsman class women were industrious and worked to direct their own future. Many worked alongside their husbands and fathers to improve the family business. Most even went to school.

Private school systems thrived during the Edo period. Called terakoya, some scholars estimate as many as 86% of children who lived in the city of Edo went to these schools. The schools were ran by priests, Confucian scholars, doctors, merchants, and female teachers. They lacked tuition, and parents could pay teachers in goods, such as produce or rice cakes. Girls and boys started school around 6 years old and left after 3-4 years. Literacy was so widespread in the cities–and in the countryside as we will see–that European visitors to Japan at the end of the Edo period were shocked. The ability to read was more widespread than in England and Europe at the time (Tanimura, 2011).

The Onna Shikimoku, yet another girl’s teaching book, states:

The girls of the townsman class will become the wives of merchants, and so they are encouraged to be literate to help with their family business. . . People who cannot write are called illiterate. These people have eyes, but they are like the blind.

Women were expected to help men. Townsman class men, unlike their samurai brethren, relied on their women to help carry the burden of the house. Unlike samurai men, townsmen didn’t worry about honor as much as the reputation of their business. Men were expected to know how to read, write, do arithmetic, and understand ethics. Many men paid for extra education for their daughters. In addition to private schools, they sent their daughters to classes to learn how to play the shamisen.  Despite the public disdain samurai had for the instrument, it became popular behind closed doors. It also appeared in theatrical art forms like kabuki. Girls who mastered the instrument had a chance to move across the line between the samurai and townsmen classes. Poor townsmen girls dreamed about becoming concubines for high ranked samurai. It was a common fairy tale told in cities and rural villages (Tanimura, 2011). Becoming a mistress to a samurai brought a family wealth and social status. Talented townsman class girls became maids and ladies-in-waiting for samurai families. This let her learn the customs and tastes, and styles of samurai women. In turn, her family could use this knowledge to better the family business and their own social standing among other townsman families.

The Miyako Fuzoku Kagami,published in 1681 states (Tanimura, 2011):

In cities, if parents have daughters with good looks, they send those daughters out to the provinces, and put them in service with country lords. There are a good number of people who originally came from low class families, but became rich through their daughters’ service. If such parents have a girl with sophisticated beauty, they place great hopes in her. In order to have her support the family, they raise her carefully and have her become literate and learn calligraphy or take shamisen lessons. Or, if they think that it might be valuable for her future, they send her to street performers to learn dancing.

Townsman class men taught their sons the family trade and worked to provide for their families. Their relationships with their wives and daughters was more equitable than the samurai class. The peasant class shared this in common with their urban counterparts.

Gender Expectations of the Peasant Class

12931044_1055742431152831_6226667208404208230_nThe word “peasant” has the danger of creating misunderstandings. Peasants in Edo period Japan were not the serfs of the European feudal ages. The shogunate implemented many agriculture reforms that were designed to encourage peasant families to be independent. Improved irrigation and other agricultural practices gave peasants more resources to put toward recreation and the arts. Peasant farms ran similar to urban family businesses. Peasants could visit religious shrines and cities. They wrote poetry, acted in kabuki, and practiced sword fighting. Like the townsman class, women were expected to help on the family farm. Peasant women often dominated male members of the household (Walthall, 1984). The typical peasant family considered of 5-7 people: the married couple that made the core of the family, 2-3 children, and perhaps grandparents. The social ideal for peasant families was independence. Each household was expected to survive without outside help. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t cooperation between neighbors. Rather, families took pride in their ability to run a successful farming business. Men and women dreamed about earning wealth and honor. Unlike the townsman class, this dream didn’t involve breaking the class boundaries. The dream of wealth and honor remained on the farm, its continuation and the continuation of the family.  The fear of losing everything remained real (Katsumi, 1989).

Even among the samurai farming was considered honorable. Not as honorable as being a samurai but still honorable. The peasant class took pride in their role and referred to themselves as honorable peasants, onbyakusho. Samurai were seen as protectors, and the townsman class seen as serving the samurai.

Men and women had different labor roles. For example. weaving and papermaking–both lucrative trades–were done by women. Men gathered firewood and made charcoal–less lucrative trades than weaving and papermaking. Peasant women, like townsman class women worked in public (Katsumi. 1989).

The peasant class was also fairly educated and literate. Leading families in villages were expected to be literate. Head families had the responsibility to collect taxes and carry out the written orders of the samurai class. The shogunate encouraged the peasant class to learn practical writing, reading, and math skills. By the end of the Edo period, most heads of peasant households could read (Katsumi, 1980). Some of the leading families were once samurai. Some samurai families willingly bought farms and converted to the peasant class (Platt, 2000). This brought a taste for samurai style and arts to rural villages.

The Roles of Children

Across each of the three social classes, children were expected to master the skills of their station. Samurai children mastered martial arts, literature, administration, and the warrior code. Townsman class children went to school for reading, writing, mathematics, and learned the family trade. Talented girls had the opportunity to enter the world of the samurai if they worked hard. Boys were mostly locked in their station. But they did have the option of becoming monks and religious leaders. Peasant children lived on the farm and learned the various side businesses like weaving and charcoal making that supplemented the household. Many also learned writing, reading, and mathematics.

The Division Among the Classes

We focused on the division between the classes but families also vied within classes for social status. Village heads were the top of the peasant class. The indentured laborer sat on the bottom. The concubine for a high ranked samurai sat at the top of the townsman class. Beggars sat at the bottom. The Shogun capped the samurai class, and the lowest ranked samurai were relegated to doing meaningless administrative busywork or becoming ronin, or samurai without masters.

Divorce in the Edo Period

At times, one person or the other couldn’t carry the burden of the family. Dowries dictated the rank of a samurai woman’s marriage in the middle of the Edo period. Divorces among the samurai could only happen with the permission of the domain’s lord. Townsman and peasant classes allowed men to write a short letter of divorce to his wife. If she accepted it, the divorce was complete. These letters were about three lines (Cornell, 1990):

 To my wife. It is my pleasure to divorce you.

There is no objection to your marrying anyone whomsoever.

Witness my hand, this day and month

Men who married without issuing this letter and having it accepted were banished. Women could issue letters of divorce as well (Tadashi, 2003).

What is Missing with Gender Expectation Discussions

10636845_1002800429780365_6951032470458221506_oWhenever we discuss gender expectations like this, we can only speak in generalities. Not all samurai women were shut ins. Likewise not all peasant families were egalitarian. There is a human element we lose when we discuss history. History often distills complex lives into lists and dates. Samurai men loved their children, including their daughters. Many samurai men loved their wives, and many wives loved their husbands. From our modern, Western perspective we find it deplorable how women were treated, but we also forget that such rigid structures hurt men too. Some samurai fathers certainly wanted to spend more time at home with their children but were unable to do so. Gender expectations came out of the reality of the times they developed.  Dividing roles based on gender was a practical matter–from the perspective of the time. Women could produce children and the strain was hard on their bodies. Medical care was limited to traditional techniques. The risk of dying in childbirth remained high. The role of raising children was more important than many of the roles men held. This is particularly true under the ie system and its focus on continuing the lineage.  In the Edo period, women were expected to be subservient but not weak. Weak women could not run a demanding household or manage business affairs. Women were expected to be strong pillars for the family. Men were expected to improve the family’s reputation out in society.  The family rested on the shoulders of husband and wife. Both had a share of the weight.

Some people lived outside the expected gender roles, such as geisha and actors. Geisha could be their own business, and the life offered women a level of independence unknown to the other classes. Actors shared the pleasure districts with geisha or traveled to villages in troupes. Some actors and geisha became celebrities. Their fame allowed them to cross the boundaries between all of the classes. Kabuki was one of the few areas where all three classes mingled, much to the distress of the shogunate. Each of the classes of the Edo period had their own view of how to continue and improve the household. Each class wanted the best life possible for their children and grandchildren.


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