A Look at Gender Expectations in Japanese Society

Japanese Gender RolesGender roles are often something we don’t think about. We are socialized as guys and gals to behave in certain ways and often don’t realize it. Our media reflects these mores. Anime, like any other medium, reflects the expectations society has for its members. Aspects of anime, such as a girl cooking a bento for her favorite guy or guys acting pure and innocent, are a reflection of gender roles and expectations in Japanese society.

Gender roles are defined by culture more than physical differences between men and women. Certainly, women are pigeonholed into child bearing because guys physically cannot. However, child rearing roles are a product of culture.  Japanese and Chinese cultures tend to value different roles than we do in the West. For example, independence is not considered a desirable trait for a man in China ( Sugihara, 2000).

Let us briefly trace the development of Japanese gender roles before looking into the roles found in modern Japan.

Confucian JapanGeisha Black and White Photo

Japan was a fairly equitable matriarchal society until Confucian ideas immigrated from China. These ideas defined Japanese society up until the end of World War II. The integration of Confucian hierarchical structures where men were dominate shifted gender roles into a patriarchal system.  Both men and women shared expectations under the Confucian system: loyalty and courage. Men were expected to be loyal to their lords; women were to be loyal to their family and husband. Interestingly, women could own and inherit property and family position in feudal Japan. They were expected to control the household budget and household decisions to allow men to serve their lord.  During the feudal era, men were expected to be well rounded. Unlike their “macho” European counterparts, samurai were expected to be learned in literature and the arts ( Sugihara and Katusarada, 2002).

World War II and Shifting Roles

Japanese Women World War IIWorld War II marked a shift in thinking about gender roles. The Japanese government tapped into loyalty and courage to encourage the war effort. The war also sharply divided gender roles, much to the detriment of women.  Women’s patriotic duty was to have children. They were encouraged by propaganda to be married to the nation. Magazines portrayed women as managers of the nation’s household. Although many women worked munition factories.

Poor women were drafted by the Japanese government to sexually service military men. Known as “comfort women,” these women worked in an assembly line-like environment. Soldiers referred to these women as “hygienic public bathrooms” or even as “semen toilets.” Officers had access to professional prostitutes. Men were expected to use these services. It was believed that guys who abstained from sex for too long fought poorly (Mclelland, 2010).

Women who stayed at home, unlike their brothers, sons, and husbands, were expected to remain chaste. They sent their men “comfort dolls.” Unlike the comfort girls, these dolls, made from cloth and buttons, reminded military men of home. They were thought to have protective properties.

KamikazeGuys were forced to fight under distorted samurai ideals to the point of suicide. These ideals took the ideas of brotherly love and used them to make men fight to the point of suicidal charges and general waste of life. Kamikazes are a result of this distortion. Loyalty to Imperial Japan and courage were also fuel for the bloody violence.  The film, Letters from Iwa Jima is a good illustration of these views.

I recommend watching this film if you are interested in seeing how traditional morals can be distorted to encourage violence.

Modern Japan and Traditional Roles

Post WWII Occupation abruptly changed the gender roles of Japan. Discrimination based on gender was forbidden by the Japanese Constitution.  American attitudes about public displays of affection, American fashion and values changed attitudes of men and women toward each other and traditional roles. WWII essentially ended the social feudal system (Mclelland, 2010). Modern Japanese gender roles took on an odd mix of American views and traditional views during this time.

Modern Japanese gender roles revolve around their vertical society where someone’s identity is a part of their group identity. That is why honorifics are an important part of the language. They help define how a person relates or belongs to another person or group. Senpai-kohai (senior-junior) relationships are how people are ranked in companies and schools. This structure is more important than gender defined roles.  Traits like leadership that don’t interfere with this vertical social structure are encouraged (Yamaguchi, 2000).

Loyalty and harmony continue to be emphasized in modern Japan. Loyalty is particularly focused on one’s company with Japan’s life-long employment system.  Women still control the household, household budget, and household decisions, allowing men to devote themselves to their work.  This is changing as more women start careers. Both genders are also delaying marriage. The stigma of being single is fading for both genders, most of all for women.

JAPAN Sumo Wrestling

There are a few key ideas about gender that persist (Yamaguchi, 2000):

  • Men should work outside the home
  • Genders should be brought up differently
  • Women are more suited to household work and child rearing than men.
  • Full time housewives are valuable to society because of their family raising role.

As you can see, these persistent gender ideas have roots in feudal Japan. The roles also work within the vertical social structure of senior-junior relations. Generally, traits associated with individualism like assertiveness, independence, and self-reliance are poorly regarded by the Japanese compared to conformity, being affectionate, and having leadership abilities. Again, the typical American ideal of the “macho” alpha male is frowned upon in Japanese society. Guys are expected to be well rounded in art, music, literature, and more just like in feudal Japan (Sughara, 2002).

Japanese society has a pair of key concepts that explains the sometimes strange contradictions us Westerners see: tatemae and honne. Tatemae is who one is supposed to be. It is a set of morals people agree upon, such as being loyal or devoted to work. Honne is who someone actually is: the personal opinion and who the person is in reality. The gender roles and traits I’ve outlines fall under the concept of tatemae. The way people really live in Japan, women having careers and men staying at home, are honne (Yamaguchi, 2000).

Anime’s Portrayal of Tradition and Modern

Sexy Anime Girl

You can see these traits and roles in anime. Girls in anime make a huge deal out of making lunch for their favorite guy because it is a wifely thing. At the same time, the ideal male character is rather feminine to our Western eyes and is able to cook well. Cooking well shows how the character is well rounded and able to support the woman should she have a career of her own. The misogyny you see with women being …hornier…than the guys is a product of the “comfort girls” of the past and freedom from the constraints traditional society had on women. Some of this shift in sexuality is a backlash from when guys were expected to be highly sexual.

In many anime series, parents are largely absent. Often they are away at work. This is a reflection on the expectation of men (and increasingly women) to be loyally devoted to their workplace. It is also easier to have comedic antics without serious adults around! When parents are around, you mostly see the mom at home with the father almost always away. Again, the traditional idea of women running the household so the man can work. Sometimes you see the roles reversed; in those cases the stay-at-home dad is quirky and weird. This is an illustration of how odd this is to the norm. Although these dads tend to also be modern.

Anime likes to play with the concepts of tatamae and honne. The stay-at-home dad is one illustration of this. Out in public he is often put-together, but at home he is quirky and weird.

A Few Oddities

There are a few small oddities with Japanese gender roles. Sweets are considered unmanly. In order to make sweets manly, some bakeries have taken to making huge portion sizes so guys can feel less feminine about having a sweet tooth. This is an anime trope that is only partially true.  Women are thought to like more elaborate and sweeter desserts than men.

Gender roles are more fluid than people think. They are a product of culture and period. Gender roles are mostly a consensus. Rarely are they honne. Gender roles are slowly changing, particularly for women. It is becoming acceptable for both guys and girls to be single for longer. Girls are able to have careers, and guys are becoming stay-at-home fathers. These changes are reflected in anime and other media. In any case, there is very little difference between gender role expectations with guys and girls. The traditional foundation laid in the feudal era will remain, but it will also become more flexible.

It should be interesting to see how this flexibility will be reflected in anime.


Mclelland, Mark (2010). “Kissing is a symbol of democracy!” Dating, Democracy, and Romance in Occupied Japan 1945-1952. Journal of the History of Sexuality. 19[3] p 508-535.

Sugihara, Yoko and Katsurada, Emiko (1999). Gender Differences in Gender-Role Perceptions Among Japanese College Students. Sex Roles. 41. p. 775-786.

Sugihara, Yoko and Katsurada, Emiko (2000). Gender-Role Personality Traits in Japanese Culture. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 24 p 309-318.

Sugihara, Yoko and Katsurada, Emiko (2002). Gender Role Development in Japanese Culture: Diminishing Gender Role Differences in Contemporary Society. Sex Roles. 47. p. 443-452.

TV Tropes. Real Men Hate Sugar. Retrieved from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RealMenHateSugar.

Yamaguchi, Kazuo (2000). Married Women’s Gender-Role Attitudes and Social Stratification. International Journal of Sociology. 30[2] p. 52-89.


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