Category Archives: Social Customs

Dating, gestures, communal baths. Japanese culture has its own set of social customs and expectations.

Sex in Anime and Manga

Sex is one of the most powerful and controversial words in the United States. People blush and giggle. People wince. It is a taboo subject that sells everything from cars to dollies. Sex is a sin, and it is an obsession in American society. All of this influences how sex is perceived by American manga and anime fans. Japanese aesthetics, sexuality, and gender ideas may seem unnatural to us with our “universal” concepts of sexuality and gender (Comog, 2005). However, our views of sexuality and gender are far from universal. They come from our culture. Anime and manga provides a safe way to explore different sexual perspectives. As you can tell, this discussion isn’t safe for work.

American culture associates sexuality with identity. Traditional Japanese society doesn’t wrap identity and sexuality in the same way. Manga and anime inherited this tradition. For example, in traditional Japanese culture men could have homosexual interests. However, this didn’t override their duty to have a wife and raise a family. Homosexuality was just a small part of who they were instead of being one of the defining pillars of their identity. See this article for references and more information. In the United States, sexuality is a defining part of a person’s identity. Anime and manga explore different sexual ideas because it is only a small part of a character’s identity. Sailor Moon, for an example, contains lesbians, transgender characters (female to male), and cross-dressing characters. However, the story doesn’t play up these proclivities as defining identity markers. They are just a part of the character’s overall personality. This ties back to tradition. Homosexuality was a small part of being a samurai. Likewise, transgender and cross-dressing played a part in kabuki. Kabuki began as an all-female production–women would dress as men–until the Tokugawa government stepped in. The government stipulated kabuki had to be all-male because it was “safer for the viewers and the performers alike.” This meant males would play female roles. Many of these men became sex symbols for samurai men with their blurred homosexual and heterosexual interests (Darlington, 2010). The gender-bending stories we see in manga trace to this tradition.

While Japan doesn’t make sexuality the defining part of a person’s character, it is a factor. It put it simply, Japanese tradition views sex as a part of normal life (Comog, 2005).

Japanese Obscenity Laws and Censorship

Tradition has limits, however. As Japan westernized, it adopted some of the West’s ideas of obscenity. Article 175 of the Criminal Code makes the sale and distribution of obscene material a criminal act. Yet, Japan has a constitutional provision for the freedom of expression. This creates similar tension to what we see in the United States. On one hand, you have the desire for uncensored expression of ideas and views. On the other hand, you have the desire to not see material you consider damaging or offensive.

Japan also has a constitutional principle of public welfare, which includes sexuality morality, as defined by the Supreme Court in two cases from 1957 and 1969. The cases defined public welfare as an idea “shared by an average person of good sense, a sense of modesty and shame.” Sex in Japanese culture, though normal, is considered a private affair. This view, coupled with the definition of public welfare meant obscenity became defined by the artistic merit of a work compared to its level of intended sexual stimulation. Basically, if a manga didn’t intend to sexually arouse someone with a beautifully drawn page, it was safe. But if the artwork fully intended to make you horny, it was smut. In other words, the regulation settled on forbidding explicit portrayals of adult genitals and pubic hair. The side effect was the rise of sexual metaphors–tentacles being the most famous. However, throughout the 1990s, the law allowed nonexplicit, nonsexual depictions of adult genitals (Zanghellini, 2009).

Nothing in the law concerns itself with underage nudity. This led to an over-representation of children or child-like characters in manga and anime. Erotic genres used this as a loophole and adapted the kawaii designs of girl’s comics. Many of these stories are essentially child-porn by American standards. The characters may be adults or of legal age, but they certainly don’t look that way.

In the 1950s and 1960s, female artists took over the girl’s comic genre from male artists. Their new, cute designs and more diverse storylines introduced an association with beauty and cuteness with morality. Protagonists were beautiful and cute. Villains were not (Zanghellini, 2009). Erotic genres took these designs to circumvent censorship. The side effect was the development of the lolita.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government passed a law in 2010 that obligated businesses and residents to recognize materials depicting sexual acts of minors as harmful. The regulation stated such materials prevent children from developing a healthy attitude toward sex. Yukari Fujimoto, a professor of girls manga and gender at Meiji University in Tokyo, claims the opposite. She claims the censorship of sexual material hurts children and teens. It bars them from stories that help them cope with their desires and the realities of sex. She claims exposure to sexual material at an early age reduces the chance of committing sexual crimes. She thinks children should gradually learn about sex and censoring manga would prevent this (Fukada, 2010).

The Benefits of Sex in Manga and Anime

Fujimoto’s argument brings us to the benefits of sexuality as seen in manga and anime. The debates surrounding censorship center on harm. Advocates of censorship desire to control exposure of sexual imagery because they see it as harmful. On the opposite side are those like Fujimoto and those who make profit from the sale of sexual content.

The growth of manga and anime here in the States makes this debate important. From 2002-2004, North American manga sales grew from an estimated $60 million to $135 million. Sales peaked in 2007 at $210 million (Brienza, 2014). Even with sales declining, manga remains an important part of the American social fabric. As a small town librarian, I see steady interest in manga, and I see hesitation. Some libraries have banned manga, anime, and books about manga in the past:

A parent of a 16-year-old son was offended by sex scenes in a history called Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, by Paul Gravett. Under pressure, the California library pulled the book. The Chair of the Board of Supervisors stated the library must do more to “protect children from inappropriate books and other materials” (Oder, 2006).

Manga still has association with porn because of its different sexual perspective. Outside of hentai, sex in manga differs from American porn. In many cases, manga’s sexuality is “powerful, vivid, and deeply emotional.” Because Japan lacks “the Eurocentric Christian notion of sex as polluting or dangerous, most manga present sex as physically and emotionally desirable for men and especially for women. (Comog, 2005).” American culture feeds men the idea that they need to be dominating and stoic. Sex is something to be enjoyed because it feels good and because it is “manly”. Manga shows how the emotional aspects of sex isn’t just for women. Powerful moments of tenderness and an openness to emotional connection are masculine. They are more masculine than the usual “male” narrative of dominance and control.

Whereas American porn reduces people to their genitals, many manga and anime stories focus on the exchange of emotion between characters. Again, I am leaving hentai out of this. Part of the appeal of porn is its taboo, dangerous nature. What is forbidden by law or religion becomes desirable. Christianity, for that matter, recognizes this in the book of Genesis. Sex in manga teaches the beauty of deep relationships, and how sex can enhance that connection.

In the 1980s, ladies comics targeting 25-30 year olds gained popularity. These comics presented women’s desires and alternative role models for adult women who were most often housewives. Early ladies comics showed sex as positive and women who enjoyed it. They focused on the female point of view which helped women accept the reality of their sexuality. However, the stories featured post-marriage problems and the darker side of sex. Amane Kazumi’s Shelter deals with a mother who is beaten by her husband. After the death of one of their daughters in an accident, the husband’s violence escalates. The wife and her eldest daughter escape to a shelter for battered women. The story follows her recovery and how she regains her confidence and independence (Ogi, 2003).

Manga allows people to explore stories, different sexualities, and different cultural perspectives. Gender-bending stories allow people to escape rigid social roles and imagine what it is like to experience life from the opposite gender’s view. Manga allows readers to explore alternative sexual identities and controversial issues about sex without feeling threatened or exploited.

Yaoi, BL, Yuri, and Dojinshi

Yaoi, BL, Yuri, and dojinshi are unique aspects of manga. Yaoi, BL (Boy’s Love), and yuri began as dojinshi, or self-published comics. Better known as fan-fiction, they became genres in their own right. Each tell alternative relationship stories and provide alternative views of sexuality. Yaoi and BL are written by female artists for female readers. BL focuses on the relationships between bishonen, or beautiful boys. While yaoi features explicit relationships between men. Yaoi is an acronym for the Japanese “Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi.” – “No build-up, no foreclosure, and no meaning.” It is also a backronym–a deliberately formed acronym that fancifully explains the origins of the acronym: “Yamete! Oshiri ga itai!” — “Stop! My ass hurts!” (Zanghellini, 2009).

Yaoi may feature homosexual relationships, but it isn’t aimed at males. Manga of that type are called bara. Japanese homosexual men dislike yaoi because of its unrealistic relationships (Zanghellini, 2009). When yaoi and BL appeared in the 1970s, it shook the male-dominated world of manga. It appeared just as kawaii designs and women began to take over shojo. Yaoi raised eyebrows with its explicit sexuality. BL flew under the censorship radar of the time because of its underage characters. Bishonen are basically the male version of Lolita.

Because of the gender roles of the time, young women were better able to to imagine idealized strong, independent characters if they are male. Manga like Sailor Moon would later change this, but yaoi and BL remained popular among female readers. Despite its content and initial resistance by male mangaka, yaoi was more acceptable than yuri. Yuri, literally translates to ‘lily’, deals with love between girls, which is a taboo subject. While we know women Japanese history, particularly in the Edo period, had sex and relationships with each other, it is not something discussed. Yaoi fell within accepted samurai practices. The most famous yuri manga, Revolutionary Girl Utena broke ground by placing a female character in the role of a male. Utena doesn’t want to be male. Rather she seeks to embody the virtues male characters typically embody: courage, strength, and compassion. The story completely flips the traditional narrative. Utena along with Sailor Moon and other stories, including yaoi, changed the narrative of female sexuality and gender role. They break the Judaeo-Christian narrative that dominates American culture.

The Male Side of Manga Sexuality

Most studies focus on the benefits of manga reading for women and girls. Manga allows Japanese girls to break from their rigid gender roles. It allows American girls to explore taboo sexualities and different cultural perspectives. However, men see many benefits as well. As I mentioned previously, manga allows boys and men to safely explore feelings of affection, tenderness, and other emotions typically reserved for women. Masculinity in America and in Japan is one dimensional. Society expects men to be go-getters, controllers, and sexual conquerors. Some of the issues in American society concerning homosexual men centers on the idea of sexual conquest. Men are expected to go out and “get” women. Gay men defy this cultural norm. They are seen as being “got” rather than “getting.”

Gender-bending stories such as Ranma 1/2 use comedy to explore the different dimension of masculinity. In the story, a boy becomes a girl whenever he is splashed with cold water. Comedy stories like Ranma 1/2 stimulates the imagination and helps male readers consider other possibilities for manhood.

Manga also breaks the equation American romance has: sex = love, love = sex.  Newitz (1995) writes:

Anime offer to the post-sexual revolution generation stories which suggest that young men and women do not need to have sex in order to experience love.

Look at many shonen stories. Male characters often fall in love with female characters, but they never get down to banging like they would in American television. When they finally do, such as in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, it is off camera, and the story clearly shows the consequences: children. Pregnancy and children are a reoccurring theme in manga sexuality. Fatherhood is lauded, unlike in many–perhaps most–American stories. Goku is a dad. Even the goofiest fathers are still active in the lives of their children. This provides an example for male readers of an alternative to the “dead-beat” dad issue found throughout the United States: fathers who have little or nothing to do with their children. It also contrasts against the Japanese salaryman who is never home because of their work schedules.

Manga provides escapism, titillation, and–most importantly–a different perspective. Sex is a part of the human experience. It is wrapped up in identity, morality, and taboo. Sex will continue to spark controversy and provide a means to explore different culture and gender perspectives.


Brienza, C. (2014). Sociological Perspectives on Japanese Manga in America. Sociology Compass. 8 (5) 468-477.

Comog, M. (2005). Non-Western Sexuality Comes to the US: A Crash Course in Manga and Anime for Sexologists. Contemporary Sexuality. 39 (3). 1-6.

Darlington, T. & S. Cooper (2010) The Power of Truth: Gender and Sexuality in Manga. Manga in Depth. 157-172.

Fukada, T. (2010) Child sex in ‘manga’ – art or obscenity?: Graphic but healthy, free speech.  The Japan Times

MacWilliams, M. (2008). Japanese Visual Culture 40-42.

Newitz, A. (1995) Magical Girls and Atomic Bomb Sperm: Japanese Animation in America. Film Quarterly. 49 (1). 2-15.

Oder, N. (2006). Manga history pulled from PL. Library Journal, (9). 14.

Ogi, F. (2003). Female Subjectivity and Shoujo (Girls)Manga (Japanese Comics):Shoujo in Ladies’ Comics and Young Ladies’ Comics. Journal Of Popular Culture, 36(4), 780.

Zanghellini A. (2009). ‘Boys love’ in anime and manga: Japanese subcultural product and its end users. Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 23(3) 279-294.

Zanghellini, A. (2009). Underage Sex and Romance in Japanese Homoerotic Manga in Anime. Social & Legal Studies. 18 (2). 159-177.

Musings VII: On Monkeys in Japanese Culture.

Story: Three in the Morning, Four in the Evening.

In the times of the Song Dynasty[i] in China lived a man they called Sokō, which means monkey trainer. He loved monkeys and reared a whole horde of them at his house. Sokō understood the monkey’s minds quite well, and likewise the monkeys understood their master. He even reduced the number of inhabitants in his household in order to fulfill the monkeys’ wishes. But nevertheless, soon the food was almost gone.

Sokō was about to ration the food, but he feared the monkeys would not obey him. Thus he deceived them. First he said: “I will feed you chestnuts; three now, in the morning, and four when night comes. That may be enough.” Now the horde rose outraged, so quickly he said: “I will feed you chestnuts, four now, in the morning, and three when night comes. That may be enough.” So all the monkeys threw themselves happily at his feet.[ii]

The baffling monkey

monkeys arashiyama park family

Japanese macaques in Arashiyama Monkey Park, Kyôto. Picture taken by me.

There is one thing which bugs me about monkeys in Japan: the paradoxical way they are portrayed. In some stories, like the Chinese one above, monkeys are stupid and easily led by those smarter than they are. In other contexts, such as the Chinese zodiac, the monkey is characterized as clever. There are tales of lustful ape deities who demand human sacrifice, and at the same time, monkeys are believed to exorcise evil influences. There are even gods whose avatar and messenger is a monkey.  And lastly, monkeys can be funny. So, what does the monkey signify?


Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney postulates: “the monkey has sensitively expressed the changing notion of the self and other in Japanese culture; thus, by tracing the meanings of the monkey, we are able to trace the transformations of the Japanese structure of thought.”[iii] That may seem farfetched, but let’s run with it for the moment, and consider the aspects.

Monkey context: Hanuman and Sun Wukong


Hanuman India ape god

Hanuman. Source

The Japanese word saru (猿), usually translated as ‘monkey’, may be as specific an animal as the Japanese macaque,[iv] or be used as a vague catch-it-all term for monkeys. Being the only monkey indigenous to Japan, Japanese macaques inhabit forested mountains everywhere on the Archipelago except Hokkaido.[v] Half-domesticated monkeys close to human dwellings and wild ones in deeper recesses of the mountains may have behaved quite differently and contributed to the ambiguous image. In addition, tales and images of other monkey and ape species came to Japan via India and China.


In media, “the monkey is portrayed initially as foolish, vain, and mischievous [but he] learns valuable lessons along the way, makes changes, and eventually gains redemption”.[vi]

An early example of this is the Hindu deity Hanuman, who initially was stupid enough to interpret the sun as a fruit he could eat, and vain enough to attempt to grab it. In addition, he liked playing tricks on people. Thus he was punished, made to forget his powers until reminded of them. Only when he redeemed himself through good deeds he was forgiven and his powers restored.[vii]


Likewise, the ancient Chinese epic Journey to the West tells of Sun Wukong (Son Gokū), “a mischievous demigod obsessed with desires”[viii] who even aspires to the throne of heaven. Like Hanuman, he is punished and does good deeds until he reaches redemption. An interesting detail: “Sun Wukong is always clothed and depicted in clearly anthropomorphic poses.”[ix] Why might that be?

The monkey as metaphor

Sun Wukong Son Goku monkey deity rabbit

Sun Wukong as depicted by woodblock artist Yoshitoshi, 1889. Source

Let’s return Japanese macaques for a moment. They live in hordes and thus are social creatures, which makes them “an apt metaphor for humans”[x], especially in the rather group-based society of Japan. If one reads the tale of Sun Wukong in a similar fashion, “each stage of [the m]onkey‘s mythological journey may serve as an elaborate allegory for the evolution of the human mind.”[xi] In this vein, the monkey as a symbol was taken up by Buddhism.

To reach enlightenment, one has to overcome earthly desires. The state of confusion and greed associated with the unenlightened mind is called shin’en 心猿, “monkey mind”.[xii] Thus the stupid, greedy, vain monkey represents a stage humans need to leave behind in their journey to enlightenment. In the stories of ancient China, one encounters “the legendary ape figure characterized by animal instincts and portrayed as an abductor of women and a lustful creature”[xiii] – a sort of ancient Chinese King Kong, perhaps? Sun Wukong also had his lustful moments early in his career, for example allowing a female demon to charm him just out of sexual curiosity.[xiv]

However, the monkey cannot be simply read as a metaphor for human weakness and earthly desires. Remember the ending of the stories about divine monkeys, Hanuman and Sun Wukong? They did not stop being monkeys as their character changed. So, there must be more to this image.

Japan: monkeys as gods and divine messengers

As a result of the various influences on Japanese culture, the image of the monkey in Japan is multi-faceted. Although there are some tales of evil monkey deities who demand virgin girls as human sacrifice, mostly the image is a positive one. Monkeys serve as messengers and intermediaries between Shintō gods and humanity.[xv] The Shintō god of Mt. Hiei, Sanō, for example, has a monkey as both messenger and avatar.

Kyoto imperial palace kimon northeast corner

The non-corner of Kyôto Imperial Palace, sarugatsuji. Source

Moreover, since saru 猿is also a homonym for 去る, which means ‘to expell‘, it came to be believed that monkeys could drive out evil influences. This can be seen in conjunction with Chinese geomancy (Feng Shui) in the layout of the old imperial palace in Kyōto. Like the city itself, the palace is built according to the cardinal directions, which means one of ist corners faces Northeast. Northeast, however, was believed to be kimon 鬼門, the ‚demon gate‘, the direction from where evil influences could enter.[xvi] Thus, the circumference wall of the palace grounds was indented at the northeast corner. (SO there is no actual kimon. In addition, under its eaves was placed a statue of a monkey holding a Shintō staff used for purification rituals, to ward off evil influences. Hence it is called sarugatsuji 猿が辻 (the monkey’s crossing).

The same idea of purification and healing, in addition to their reputation as lustful, probably caused the association of monkeys with fertility, defense against smallpox, and safe childbirth. Also, monkeys are considered protectors of horses, and carved images of monkeys are sometimes found around old stables, the most prominent example being the Three Monkeys (Don’t See, Don’t Hear, Don’t Speak) at Toshōgu Shrine[xvii] in Nikko.[xviii] Later these Three Monkeys came to be associated with the Kōshin belief.

Monkeys as scapegoats: The migawari-zaru of Nara

Scape-apes ;).

Scape-apes ;). Source

According to the Chinese calendar, the 57th day in a 60-day cycle and the same year in a 60-year calendar, Kōshin 庚申, was particularly ominous. In Kōshin nights, three worms living in a person’s body would ascend to heaven while the person slept, and report on their sins. One possible countermeasure was to simply stay awake that night, also known as kōshin machi: the Kōshin wake. Alternatively, the people of Nara identified the god being reported to as Kōshin-san, whose messenger was a monkey. Therefore, if they tied little monkey-shaped charms to the eaves of their houses before Kōshin nights, they were safe: “the monkey (Koushin’s messenger) is punished instead.”[xix] Again the monkey represents humans as fallible, sinful beings, while at the same time playing an angelic role as divine messenger. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

Comic monkeys

Last semester in my early modern Japanese class, we translated a couple of stories from the Seisuishō 醒睡笑, a collection of humourous tales compiled by monk Anrakuan Sakuden in the early 17th century. It was the way the monkey appeared as a symbol in these funny stories which finally gave me the clue to a possible common denominator of the monkey images in Japanese culture. So, I will give you my translation of the two stories I worked on and my idea what may be the baseline of monkey symbolism in Japan.

Story: If monkey faces resemble the lord

Once lived a lord with an unusually emaciated body and dark skin. He called his most trusted retainer to him, told him to sit opposite his lord, and asked: “I have heard that everyone says my face looks like that of a monkey. Say, is this true or a lie?”

The retainer listened attentively and said: “I am honoured by your trust, my lord, to be asked this question. But who would dare say such a thing? No, people only say that the faces of monkeys resemble your own.“

When the lord heard this, he said “Well spoken. Then it must be as you say“, without the slightest indignation. In such cases, when a lord completely misunderstands their brazen words, the common people tend to say “The Lord has big ears [like a monkey]!”: He hears everything, but does nothing.

Interpretation: The monkey as Self and Other

baby monkey glasses face funny

Yes, my lord? Source

As a reason for the negative aspects of the monkey’s image, Ohnuki-Tierney suggests a form of Othering. “[S]eeing a disconcerting likeness between themselves and the monkey, the Japanese also attempt to create distance by projecting their negative side onto the monkey and turning it into a scapegoat, a laughable animal who in vain imitates humans.”[xx] In other words, it is once again human weakness, hubris, and stupidity which the monkey represents. This becomes clear in the story above, where the lord is only ‘aping’ (sarumane 猿真似 in Japanese) a ruler’s style, without understanding the situation. He does not just resemble a monkey outwardly; his stupidity and self-deluding vanity recall the characters of Hanuman and Sun Wukong before their transformation.

Already in the Man’yōshū, an ancient collection of Japanese poetry, monkeys represent ugliness.[xxi] But more than ugly, a stupid leader is dangerous for his subjects as well, as another Chinese fable featuring monkeys, 井中撈月, details. In this story, the chief monkey decides to try and grab the moon reflected in a still pool. Following his orders, the monkeys grab each others tails and form a chain from the tree branch toward the water surface, until the bough breaks under their weight and they all drown.

The stupid, ugly lord failing in his job is a comical character because he is such an average human being. The general populace can recognize such a character as one of themselves, and laugh about the familiarity – despite the hint of danger an incapable lord brings. In contrast, the next story is set in a Buddhist temple, quite removed from the life of common people.

Story: A monkey-like acolyte climbs a tree

One day, the poet Sōchō visited Kasadera temple. As he was strolling on the temple grounds, he saw a chigo, a boy acolyte, dexterously climb into a treetop. He composed the opening verse of a poem:

             The acolyte climbs

            up the tree as skillfully

            as a monkey’s child

The acolyte answered with a closing verse:

            Since a useless monk draws near

            to bark at him in fury.

Interpretation: The boy’s ambiguous monkey mind

As I mentioned above, in order to reach Buddhist enlightenment, it is necessary to overcome the restless, greedy thoughts which characterize the ‘monkey mind‘. It is fitting, then, to compare a young acolyte to a monkey, even more so if he climbs a tree to escape his studies. However, the acolyte’s answer displays the cleverness characteristic of the Taoist zodiac sign of the monkey.[xxii]

dog monkey idiom japanese

“Like Dogs and Monkeys”. Source

In his verse, the acolyte takes up the comparison of himself to a monkey, but turns it around. By casting the pursuing priest as a dog, he alludes to the saying “a relationship like dogs and monkeys” (ken’en no naka, 犬猿の仲), thus portraying himself as the clever monkey who solves a problem with intellect (hiding), whereas the wild dog (the priest) can only resort to violence (shouting at him).

The monkey as trickster

Such a twist in the meaning of an image between the first and the second verse was a typical feature of linked-verse poetry. Therefore, the acolyte shows off not only his wit but his learning. However, here he falls back into the trap of monkey vanity, the flaw of young Hanuman and Sun Wukong. Arrogantly he dares to pitch a verse to an actual poet while he is a mere novice, and looks down on the very monks he learned his skill from, by comparing them to dogs. So, is he clever or is he stupid and vain? Well, both, of course.

The acolyte is overestimating his own ability; he tries to act and appear very clever but fails, as the lord in the previous story did. Firstly, hiding in a tree is not of much use if you engage in clearly audible poetry contests. Secondly, by making up his clever verse, the acolyte accidentally admits to running away from his studies and/or evading punishment. In this way, he fits Ohnuki-Tierneys definition of the monkey “as a trickster, […] who uses his wits in an attempt to outsmart others”, in order “to achieve beyond [his] capacity [or] ascribed status”.[xxiii] But ultimately, as the lord above, this ‘aping’ of his betters has to fail.

Conclusion: the monkey as human

So, back to the categorization of the story as comedy. The acolyte’s reply is funny, but why? It is because the punchline is based on the ambiguity of the monkey image, which the acolyte uses to turn its meaning around. Humor is usually based on either an unexpected, surprising turn, or the recognition of ourselves. The acolyte’s answer is such a surprising turn, and in his attempt to evade an unpleasant situation, as well as in his desire to show off his skill, we can recognize ourselves.

monkey mobile phone bath hot spring

No whatsapping in the bath, please. Source

Thus, the monkey as a symbol is ambiguous because it represents humans. The Indian and Chinese monkey deities first display human weakness, then repent and redeem themselves to a level of greatness or sainthood which is the other end of the spectrum of human ability. The Japanese monkey symbolism has absorbed these stories as well as indigenous myths of monkey gods and divine messengers and created a deeply ambiguous image. This image, in turn, is very appropriate for comic use because of its ambiguity. Be it an ugly, stupid lord unfit for rule, or a self-important acolyte skilled in poetry, what we laugh about in these stories is the humanity of its protagonists. And the monkey is the symbol for this multi-faceted humanity.

Notes and References


[ii] The Chinese story朝三暮四, read in premodern Japanese and translated by me. A different version, with historical commentary, can be found here

[iii]Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. The Monkey as Mirror. Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual. Princeton UP, 1987, p.74.


[v] „Saru“ in Nihon Hyakka Daijiten日本百科大辞典, Tōkyō, 1919. Vol.3, p.945-6.

[vi] Schumacher, Mark. „Monkey in Japan“, in A to Z Photo Dictionary: Japanese Buddhist Statuary. Gods, Goddesses, Shinto Kami, Creatures and Demons. Available online via, last access 22.08.2016, 13:22; p.2.

[vii] „Monkey in Japan“, p.2.

[viii] Wang, Jing. The Story of Stone. Intertextuality, Ancient Chinese Stone Lore, and the Stone Symbolism in Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin, and Journey to the West. Durham & London: Duke UP, 1992, p.224.

[ix] Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. Chinese Art. A Guide to Motifs and Imagery. Tōkyō, Rutland, Singapore: Tuttle, 2008, p.137.

[x] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.24.

[xi] Wang 1992, p.241.

[xii] “Monkey in Japan”, p.2.

[xiii] Wang 1992, p.222.

[xiv] Wang 1992, p.225-7.

[xv] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.6

[xvi] „Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xvii] For tourist info, see

[xviii] „Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xix] Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xx] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.6.

[xxi] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.53.

[xxii] Welch 2008, p.137; „The Monkey“., last access 24.08.2016, 11:36.

[xxiii] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.54, 58

Musings VI: On the ghost of O’iwa, and why she’s still scary.

The Season of Horrors

It may seem strange at first that summer is the prime time for ghost stories in Japan. We tend to associate summer with pleasant things… but imagine you’re living in early modern Japan.

You have no iced drinks, no electric fans, no convenient water taps. There’s basically no way to keep cool at night. So you lie awake, too hot to sleep, too hot to breathe, and listen to the buzzing of mosquitoes just outside the net around your futon. The next day you drag yourself to work again, through streets flaring with sunlight. It hurts your eyes and gives you a headache. Things go bad fast, and they smell. The next night brings no cool either, the air remains thick and stale and sticky like old sweat, and the mosquitoes are still buzzing… I wouldn‘t be surprised if I started seeing things after a while.

Also, if someone tells you a good ghost story and you get that shudder down the spine, wouldn’t that be refreshing at a time like this? It would possibly work as “a psychological form of air conditioning“.[i] Finally, in August you have O-Bon, the week-long festival of the Dead. So, a number of summer customs related to the scary and supernatural has arisen. For example, there is hyakumonogatari kaidankai, a meeting to tell one hundred ghost stories in a room with a hundred lighted candles. For every story told, the group extinguishes one candle, and when the last flame dies, it is said, a monster will appear.[ii]  Also, the theatres and later cinemas of Japan traditionally offer horror stories in their summer programme, and that’s where O’iwa enters the picture.

The Birth of O’iwa

In 1755, the man who would later be known as playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV was born in Edo as son of a dyer. Aged 25, he married the daughter of Tsuruya Nanboku III, but it took him another 20 years to write a successfull play. He then excelled at mixing well-known plots and settings with new elements, creating new types of characters and sharply observing the lives of the lower-class townspeople.[iii] His best-known work only premiered in 1825, four years before his death: Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan (The ghost-story of Yotsuya on the Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Road)). Onoe Kigurorō III and Ichikawa Danjurō VII, two of the most famous actors of the day, played the lead roles.[iv]

Oiwa O'iwa Iemon yotsuya kaidan ukiyoe

O‘iwa (Kikugoro III) and Iemon (Danjurō VII), as painted by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1836.

The plot of Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan

The play is set in the same sekai (“world“: the historic situation and characters used) as Chūshingura, the story of the 47 rōnin, and was often staged alongside it. Iemon, a good-looking young samurai, has murdered the father of the woman he desired in order to be with her. However, his lord has to commit suicide (this is the Chūshingura plot) and Iemon loses his position.

Forced to eke out a living as a paper umbrella maker, he grows tired of his sickly wife and child. Meanwhile, the daughter of a rich neighbor falls for Iemon. She sends a ‚medicine‘, actually a deadly poison, to O’iwa, so she could marry Iemon. But O’iwa survives, becoming horribly disfigured in the process. This prompts Iemon to leave her, and she dies, vowing revenge.[v] Iemon kills his thieving servant Kohei and nails the two corpses to a door which he throws into the river, to make it appear like a lover’s double suicide.

But O’iwa and Kohei return from their wet grave to haunt the murderer. They appear at Iemon’s wedding night, causing him to slay his bride and new father-in-law. Later, while fishing, he catches the very same door with the two corpses on it. The two ghosts keep appearing and accusing him, eventually driving him mad. In the last act, O’iwa breaks out of a burning paper lantern, an iconic scene often depicted in woodblock prints. Only when Iemon is finally slain, the ghosts are satisfied.

This story has been adapted and cited many times since then, in plays, prints, stories, movies, and anime. Even the ghost of Sadako in Ringu has some features of O’iwa.[vi] What made her scary then and still scary now?

The three horrors of O‘iwa.


The female body itself is threatening to the patriarchal mindset. “Ancient worldviews frequently equated the female with the impure, often with evil itself. Given that her body was the site of

discharges and emissions, of miraculous change and transformations, she has been suspect of harboring all that is dangerous and threatening.“[vii] Childbirth and menstruation were stigmatized as polluting, which made women threatening to male ‘purity‘ – even outside the role of the seductress.

Mother and Monster


Oiwa O'iwa hair blood ukiyoe

O’iwa’s bloody hair loss.Source

O’iwa has given birth shortly before the beginning of the second act and as such is affected by this pollution. The disfiguration of her face by the poison might be a visualisation of the disgust Iemon feels towards her. In addition, her last day is a bloody nightmare.  As an effect of the poison, her hair falls out in bloody clumps. When Iemon tears the mosquito net out of her hands, he ripps off her fingernails. Finally, she dies by the sword. These events not only make her more and more polluted; they are also already part of her transformation into a monstrous ghost.


Remember, O‘iwa has just experienced all the transformations of pregnancy. Now her body transforms again, and in this state of in-between-ness, she dies. That may be one reason for her dangerousness as a ghost: “In most religions, the passage from one stage of life into the following one is seen as dangerous and demands support in the form of rites of passage. If such protective measures are lacking and a person dies during the transformation, this yields an enormous potential of threat for the community of the living.“[viii] O‘iwa dies in transformation. This makes her more powerful as a ghost, and thus scarier.



O’iwa is meek and obedient as long as she is ignorant of Iemon’s deeds. However, his betrayal of her ignites a fury so strong she returns again and again to haunt him. She is now in control, he is her victim: an inversion of the social order. As a kizewamono (‚naturalistic‘ play), Yotsuya Kaidan portrays the social problems and societal fears of its time. One of those is the decline of the feudal caste system and the fear of social unrest, when those who are meant to obey rebel against their „betters“ for being treated badly – as O’iwa does against Iemon.

Fourty years after Yotsuya Kaidan premiered, the samurai of Satsuma and Chōshū would rise against the Tokugawa government. Thus they ignited a civil war which led to the opening of Japan in the Meiji restoration of 1868. Yet, the seeds of this upheavel were already growing at the time of Yotsuya Kaidan. Enough perhaps to transfer the fear of power being turned upside down from a level of gender to a political level.

…and gender

Besides being potential political commentary, O’iwa shows the limits of a woman’s abilities to gain justice.  “One of the chief ways in which women who have been trampled on become empowered is to turn into vengeful spirits after they have died.“[ix] She has to transform to become a monster and vengeful ghost, in order to gain power over Iemon. In life, she was at his mercy, caught within the confines of society and her role as woman and wife. She can only escape them through monstrosity and death.

At the same time, the woman exacting revenge on her deceitful, murderous husband is basically a conservative morality tale. In addition, it is not O’iwa but her sister’s fiancé, a male character, who actually kills Iemon. Thus in the end, societal norms and morals are reinforced, and the fear of social upheaval and female empowerment is banished.


One of the Japanese words for monster/spirit/uncanny being is bakemono or obake, literally „changing thing“. This allows the conclusion that transformation itself is a key element in Japanese concepts of horror, and especially ghost stories. When it comes to female ‚changing creaturues‘, „[i]n almost every instance, the mutation from benign, subservient female, into something ‚else‘/Other is motivated by a violent act of betrayal and murder“.[x] This exactly fits the situation of O’iwa, who transforms from obidient human wife into something terrible and Other. In her haunting of Iemon, she assumes a male position of power, another factor in the fear of rebellion and gender role reversal I discussed above.

An onryō…

But also, O‘iwa is the first woman in a line of revenging ghosts (onryō), who wreak havoc among the living for an injustice suffered before or in the manner of their deaths. As such, she has become so iconic that she overshadows her male predecessors such as Sugawara no Michizane (now deified as Tenman Tenjin, God of Learning) or the Taira warriors.[xi]

Carmen Blacker describes onryō as follows: “Most dangerous of all, however, are those ghosts whose death was violent, lonely or untoward. Men who died in battle or disgrace, who were murdered, or who met their end with rage or resentment in their hearts, will become at once onryô or angry spirits, who require for their appeasement measures a good deal stronger than the ordinary everyday obsequies.“[xii] A sudden or violent death, in contrast to a death of old age or disease, leaves the departed soul with some remaining energy. This is even more volatile if the soul harbours resentment, e.g. for their killer.[xiii] Nanboku cleary alludes to this type of ghost in his construction of O’iwa and her postmortal empowerment. She dies poisoned, betrayed, disfigured and furious – the ‘best‘ conditions to become an onryō.

… or another other scary creature?

However, male onryō usually caused disasters and plagues rather than appearing in human form to the object of their grudge. O’iwa‘s appearance refers to the classical shape of the female yūrei. (Long disshevelled hair, often white burial robes and the triangular headpiece assoicated with them, etc…).[xiv] In addition, she appears as corpse on the door, as a rat (her zodiac sign) or a lantern monster, further adding the category of yōkai/bakemono to her repertoire. The tangible person undergoes a series of painful transformations and turns into an unstable avanging ghost – ethereal in ist substance and mutable in its form. Woman, ghost, rat, lantern; onryō, yūrei, yōkai: O’iwa invokes the fear of all that is intangible and beyond our understanding.

The Burning Lantern

Oiwa O'iwa lantern ghost monster chochin obake hokusai ukiyoe

Monster Lantern O’iwa, as depicted by Katsushika Hokusai, early 1830s.

One of the features which brougth Kabuki ist popular appeal are keren, stage tricks which made stunning transformations of scenery and character possible in front of the live audience. Yotsuya Kaidan features a numer of keren, but one of the most iconic is chôchin nuke. In this scene in the drama’s last act, O’iwa appears in, or through, a burning paper lantern. For this, a slightly enlarged lanters is set aflame on stage, and the actor playing O’iwa emerges from it. He “slides through the burned-out aperture from behind the scenes, his timing in perfect accord with the man who does the burning”.[xv] As with other keren, finely tuned teamwork is essential to produce a credible illusion of the incredible and fantastic. In contrast, artists only needed colour and paper for their fantastic image.

Hokusai’s O’iwa

While a number of depictions of the chōchin nuke scene and other kabuki ghost scenes exist, Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) print is unique in that is is not a portrait of a specific actor. Ukiyo-e of kabuki characters were usually a kind of early modern movie poster, something you hung up on your wall because of the star actor you were a fan of, who was captured at the hight of his art in a striking pose. In contrast, Hokusai does not show an actor and his O’iwa does not emerge from the lantern. Instead, she is the lantern, and this completely changes the direction of the image.[xvi]

To this end, Hokusai merges the character of O’iwa with an only mildly scary yōkai, the chōchin obake or monster lantern. Chōchin obake are a subclass of tsukumogami (monsters born from objects wither discarded thoughtlesslly, or used for more than 100 years), ad are usually depicted with a mouthlike parting in the middle or lower, a rolling tongue and (usually) one eye. As such, they are more funny than threatening, but still good for a jump scare. Chōchin O’iwa, therefore, is an image full of allusions, some more playful, some rather scary.

Oiwa O'iwa lantern ghost monster chochin obake hozuki reitetsu

O’iwa the Monster Lantern, as seen in ‘Hôzuki no Reitetsu’.

Interestingly, O’iwa‘s depiction as monster lantern did not transform the category, as it did with onryō. Monster lanterns stayed the same, and the ‘monster lantern version‘ instead became a subordinate image for O’iwa.

Modern Representations: Ayakashi and beyond

I already mentioned the influce O’iwa has had on modern female ghosts such as Sadako.

Moreover, she appears in the anime Hōzuki no Reitetsu (2014) as the monster lantern. Even if she did not introduce herself, she is clearly recognizable by the eye swollen shut, the yūrei-style hair and generally non-comical features which set her apart from the usual chōchin obake. Most striking, however, I found the adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan in anime form in Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (2006), which features rats and doppelgangers and of cause the scene where O’iwa emerges from the lantern, and there’s nothing funny about that.

What made, and still makes, O’iwa scary, I think, are the feelings she evokes in us. Against her we are powerless, helpless, on many levels at once. Most of us have at some point done someone a wrong and can imagine Iemon’s guilt. We feel his fear, understand his flights, cover-ups and denials – all that while being aware what a despicable human being he is. In contrast, O’iwa in her onryō state is utterly alien. You can never be sure in what shape or manner she will appear next; it could be anyone, anything, anywhere.  She destabilizes categories, perception and thus reality itself and drives you mad. And you cannot reason with her, reach her, or forcibly stop her. You are completely at her mercy, and she has none for you. What could be more horrifying?

Notes and References:

[i] Anderson & Ritchie, as quoted in Elisabeth Scherer: Spuk der Frauenseele. Weibliche Geister im japanischen Film und ihre kulturhistorischen Ursprünge. Bielefeld: transcript, 2011, 98.

[ii] If you like Japanese monsters as much as I do, check out the amazing website named for this event.

[iii] Shirane Haruo (ed): Early Modern Japanese Literature. An Anthology, 1600-1900. New York: Columbia UP., 2002, 844. See also


[v] The exact circumstances of her death vary between different summaries of the story. Sometimes she commits suicide, cutting her throat. Sometimes Iemon kills her, but in the only version I had access to, Mark Oshima’s translation of acts 2 and 3 for Shirane 2002, while grappling with Iemon over the objects (such as her bedding and mosquito net), he intends to sell in order to make her leave him, she accidentally falls into the Kohei’s sword, which had remained stuck in a pillar from an earlier fight.

[vi] An interesting article on this topic: Valerie Wee: „Patriarcy and the Horror of the Monstrous Feminine. A Comparative Study of Ringu and The Ring“. In: Feminist Media Studies 11 (2), 2011, 151–165.

[vii] Rebecca Copeland: „Mythical Bad Girls: The Corpse, the Crone, and the Snake.“ In: Laura Miller und Jan Bardsley (eds): Bad Girls of Japan. Houndmills, Balsingstoke, Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 14–31, 17-18.

[viii] Scherer 2011:50-51, my translation.

[ix] Samuel L. Leiter, as quoted in Richard J. Hand: „Aesthetics of Cruelty. Traditional Japanese Theatre and the Horror Film“. In: Jay McRoy (ed): Japanese Horror Cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005, S. 18–28, 24.

[x] Wee 2011:154.

[xi] For a definition of onryō, see, where you can also find an article about Michizane. For a story about Taira-clan onryō, see

[xii] Carmen Blacker: The Catalpa Bow. A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan. London: Allen & Unwin, 1975, 48.

[xiii] Scherer 2011:40-41

[xiv] For a first look, see There are whole books on the different types of yūrei… This one, for instance.

[xv] Samuel L. Leiter: „Keren. Spectacle and Trickery in Kabuki Acting“. In: Educational Theatre Journal 28 (2), 1976, S. 173–188, 188.

[xvi] Scherer 2011:112, 114.

The Anime Watcher’s Tea

pouring green teaLet me share a secret with you. I love tea. One of the greatest pleasures is reading (or writing or watching anime) with a cup of tea at hand. I’ve been known to spend a chunk on imported teas. But even the humble filter teabag available at the local grocery store can help you get in touch with thousands of years of tea history.

I will spare you a long history of tea. Thick books have been dedicated to tea and its influence on history. But a short summary is still in order. The leaf has inspired painters, writers, poets, warriors, despots, Victorians, saints, and many others. Tea came from the forests of southern China. It is an evergreen tree that can live to be over 2,000 years old. Although, most tea comes from trees cultivated to look like bushes. There are 380 varieties of tea (Fisher, 2010). These varieties helped tea’s popularity spread.  Tea traveled from China to Japan and Europe.  Although most think tea arrived in Europe during the Colonel period, it arrived far earlier.  The earliest appearance of tea in European writing comes from an Arab merchant in 879 (Okakura, 1906).

True tea comes from the tea tree. Herbal teas like chamomile and rooibos are not true teas. Of course, I still enjoy them and call them tea.

Tea in Anime and Japanese Culture

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others. The average Westerner, in his sleek complacency, will see in the tea ceremony but another instance of the thousand and one oddities which constitute the quaintness and childishness of the East to him.

Okakura, The Book of Tea 1906

When we think of tea, we think of China and Japan. Of the two, Japan is perhaps more famous as a tea nation because of its tea ceremony and the teahouses geisha entertain. Like many aspects of Japanese culture, Chinese practices were taken and adapted into something quite different. Tea is a prominent detail in anime as well. Rarely does tea become a focus, but it is offered to characters to calm them, cool them, warm them up, and other treatments. Despite having caffeine, tea is relaxing. It does cool during the summer (iced or hot oddly enough), and I love tea during cold winters.


Tea is great for socializing and relaxing.

The tea anime characters offer is matcha. Matcha is a Japanese style of tea that grinds the leaves into a powder. Mix with hot water and enjoy. To be honest, I prefer the Chinese style of brewing tea: using loose leaves. I tend to make swamp water with matcha. Speaking of water, it is the most important part of tea. Chlorinated water makes terrible tea. So does hard water. Filtered or good spring water make the best tea. The best, most expensive tea will taste terrible with heavily chlorinated tap-water.

Types of Tea

Tea comes in a few families: white, green, oolong, and black. But how can a single tree make 380 types of tea? The time tea is picked, the amount of light the tree receives before being picked, and even location impacts the flavor of tea. Oxidation shifts the flavor as well. Oxidation makes iron rust and apples turn brown. As tea oxidizes, it changes from green to black. Flavor becomes earthier and richer. White teas have delicate flavors because they are made from new leaves and dried without aging (oxidizing). Silver Needle is a wonderful white tea, but it can taste like barely flavored warm water to many people. People who favor strong flavors may not be able to taste white tea.

Green Tea

green-teaGreen tea involves aging mature tea leaves, but green tea isn’t aged as long as black or oolong. The different varieties come from when they are picked and how they are aged. For example, one of my favorites is Jasmine Green Tea. This tea is aged in rooms that contain jasmine flowers. The tea absorbs the scent and flavor of the flowers. The jasmine scent and flavor relaxes like few other teas can. The aging method complete shifts the flavor of tea. The shape of the tea leaves also impacts the flavor. For example gunpowder tea, which looks like old fashioned black gunpowder pellets has a different flavor than flat-leaf tea. The amount of surface area the leaf has changes how the water absorbs the flavor. Gunpowder slowly unrolls as it heats, allowing the flavor to gradually flow into the water.

You do not boil water when you make white or green teas. It makes them bitter.  Steep these teas for about 2 minutes in water that is just a few minutes from boiling. The easiest way to know when is to heat the water in an open pot. When you see bubbles form on the bottom of the pot, its time for tea!

Black,Oolong, and Red Tea

Chinese oolong tea

Chinese oolong tea

Black and oolong teas are rich teas. Some types are more like coffee than tea. I like to sweeten these teas with honey, but sugar will work too. Some, like Indian Chai, need to be sweetened and mixed with milk. Indian Chai takes black tea and mixes it with spices like black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and other goodies. I didn’t like chai with milk, but you should give it a try. Black teas require boiling water and longer steeps than green tea. About 3-5 minutes.

African Rooibos Tea

African Rooibos Tea

You won’t see this tea (it’s not a true tea) in anime, but rooibos needs a little attention. Rooibos comes from a shrub in Africa. When steeped, it turns the water a deep red, similar to the red rose tea creates. It has a flowery flavor that goes well with honey. Like other herbal teas, you can boil the water. Rooibos (pronounced roy-boss) requires long steeps of 5-10 minutes.

Tea Sets and other Tips

You don’t have to have a Japanese tea set to enjoy a cuppa. You can buy single-serve strainers for loose leaf teas. They come in various styles. If you are making green or black tea, you can usually get two cups out of one strainer-full of leaves. White teas are too delicate for more than one cup. Green teas can be made into iced tea during hot summer months. Pro tip: fresh mint from the garden makes excellent black or green iced tea.

Tea grows bitter with long steeps or boiling water. If you like bitter flavors, boil the water and steep for a longer time. I like some green teas on the bitter side. Luckily, you can cut bitter flavors with sugar or honey. I prefer honey.

Speaking of honey, honey comes in many types including orange blossom and the common American clover honey. Each will change the flavor of tea. Sometimes for the better, other times the flavors will compete. Honey can completely overpower white tea. Luckily, white tea has natural sweetness. Experiment and find what works best for you. Just know many tea-lovers think adding sugar or honey to tea is sacrilegious.  I am not one of those. After all, I am an American with a sweet-tooth. But don’t sweeten a tea without tasting it without sweetener. Artificial flavors and the proliferation of sugar has ruined our sense of taste. Natural flavors tend to be subtle, and this is especially true with tea. Many teas have flowery or sweet after-taste that sweeteners mask. Many of us will have to retrain our tastebuds to notice these subtle flavors.

Tea is one of the simple pleasures in life that improves health and well-being. While it is often a background element in anime, tea reminds us that that anime has a place in tea literature. We could even say tea has inspired the poetry and literature that led to anime. Each cup of tea connects us with Japanese and Chinese culture. We are truly fortunate to enjoy a small part of tea culture and its long history.


Okakura,K. (1906) The Book of Tea.

Fisher, A. (2010). The Way of Tea. Vermont: Tuttle Publishing.

The Three Measures: Contrasting Disney Princess Body Types with Anime Girls

Anime girls get sharp criticism for being unrealistic. Few women can naturally achieve the enormous breasts and narrow waists many anime girls sport. Breasts are fat deposits (sexy thought eh?) so big boobs naturally come with bigger ladies. Silicon and flukes of nature (blessed or cursed depends on perspective) make for exceptions to this rule. But anime isn’t the only medium that has unrealistic and damaging portrayals of how girls should look. Ever check out the bust, waist, and hip measures of a Disney Princess?


Let’s look at Jasmine from Aladdin and  Morgiana from Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic. Notice the tiny feet and ankles of Jasmine compared to Morgiana’s. I didn’t know Arab culture practiced foot binding, did you? Her legs have to be tiny under those billowing pants. Jasmine also lacks a waist compared to Morgiana.  Disney princesses are infamous for their Barbie proportions. Morgiana, on the other hand, has a more natural waist size. Although, it is not completely natural.  Jasmine’s bust size doesn’t match her waist. Someone that thin wouldn’t have much in the way of breasts. Morgiana’s bust better matches her waist size. The exaggerated hour glass is common in anime girl design, but it isn’t as extreme as Disney.

Let’s look at a more extreme pair.


Okay, Leafa from Sword Art Online isn’t that extreme as anime goes. She is busty, but she doesn’t go into the upper limits. I am trying to keep the design comparisons limited to main-stream characters. Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an unusual design for Disney. Disney released the movie through a division to distance itself from the film because of the extreme content of the film. Jessica Rabbit has the same proportions as Jasmine. Again, Disney studios must have a foot binding fetish. Jessica’s feet are tiny. Disney also must have something against women having rib cages. Leafa has probably a larger cup size (or two) compared to Jessica, but Jessica’s bust looks larger against her stick waist. I would guess Jessica’s cup size is around a C in American measurements. Her lack of a rib cage makes this a tough call. Leafa’s is a D-cup at least. Jessica’s legs are twice as long as her upper torso. Leafa has more natural leg proportions. The two character’s sex appeal aim at different audiences. Jessica has something of a prostitute’s glamour to her. Leafa has the whole girl-next-door vibe.  The design fits well with what each character does in their respective stories.

I can continue with some other comparisons, but I think you get the idea. Disney females share the same  body design: one similar to Barbie: unnaturally thin waist, tiny feet, abnormally long legs, large breasts. Anime girls tend to have more naturalistic proportions. This isn’t to say that their waists, busts, and other measurements are realistic. They are not. Anime is notorious for an obsession with large breasts, after all. But they are closer to reality than Disney’s designs.

So Why Does Body Type Matter?

We know this is fantasy so why does body proportion matter?  Well, first it is interesting to see how anime and Disney design has parted. Anime was inspired so heavily by early Disney animation that it could be considered a branch of the Disney style. In the early days of Disney, female characters looked more natural. Snow White has realistic proportions. However, in the early-1990s Disney’s style turn a turn with Jasmine becoming a template for non-white girls. Over time, Disney picked up many of its designs from anime even as anime moved toward a more natural female body type.

snow-whiteThese changes in anime and Disney affect our ideas of beauty.  Beauty is a reinforcing loop. Disney designs started because society found women with small waists and large busts attractive. The designs then reinforced these ideals and made them ever more extreme. Certainly, guys are to blame for this. Men are programmed to seek out the best body types for having children. That means we like big breasts (well, some of us. there is a large group of guys out there that prefer small ones), small waists, and large hips. Big boobs suggest better fat stores for winter. Small waists exaggerate both breast and hip size. And large hips suggest both fat stores for famine and a better pelvis for carrying and birthing children. These assessments are unconscious. It’s not like guys today look at a lady and think, “now she can last through a lean winter!” The norm of small waist and large boobs extends into photographs of models and celebrities. A few erasure swipes in Photoshop shaves off a few inches from the waist. A quick cleavage shadow makes a bust look bigger. All together, this creates an environment where girls feel pressured to appear a certain way (guys feel similar pressures). Many ladies I’ve spoken with have expressed this as an unconscious pressure and a nagging feeling of inadequacy. Disney princesses introduce this feeling during childhood. Advertising solidifies this to sell products that purportedly fix the problem.

I am by no means blaming women with the next statement: if women ostracized men with big breast attraction, the emphasis will decrease. Likewise, if men who favor small-busted women (or women with smaller hips) would speak out, the ideals would change. I am merely stating that both genders have influence over the way we see the body. Yes, it is wrong to view men and women in this way, but it is a part of being human. Railing against this hard-wired tendency does little good. Instead we should focus on making this mechanism healthier. Ideals are formed by consensus. Luckily, the current consensus is changing. There are movements in advertising and media toward more natural female body types. However, there is a backlash against women who are naturally thin and match the current ideals. This backlash, though expected, doesn’t help the situation. It perpetuates continued body-image problems, just in the opposite direction.

The point is, popular culture has some roots in biology and in expectations placed on people by society. Anime girl design and Disney princess design are a result of this and reinforces these ideals.

Male body-image feels similar pressures. I decided to focus on women because it is the largest source of controversy. Men are not as objectified as women in American and Japanese society. Although, this is changing.

Now I have to ask, what would you like your children to watch? What ideals do you want them to have? Disney princesses play passive roles. They mostly wait for the man to save the day. Even the more active ones like Jasmine end up relying in the guy. Granted, anime has the same problem, but at least anime has many stories like Moribito where the female lead characters do not need to rely on men. Despite needing rescued, Rukia from Bleach is also a capable fighter in her own right.

Anime’s designs are better than Disney’s when it comes to body image. Outside of the ridiculous cup sizes (which do have symbolism associated with them), anime has body types that are closer to reality. This alone is important to consider.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy Disney’s animation. Their character designs need work, particularly their female designs. Disney has good moral messages in its movies. However, anime has surpassed Disney in design, characterization, and other areas. Anime character design more appealing than Disney. Disney characters often look like aliens.

The tragedy of Disney female design is the waist. Simply making the waist larger would do much to improve the naturalism. Oh, and don’t forget the foot binding. The feet are too tiny!

The success of movies like Frozen is helping American studios move closer to naturalism. We will never see completely naturalist bodies in either American or Japanese animation. Animation is, after all, about fantasy. But designs with natural proportions will go a long way toward improving female body images and shifting male ideas of female beauty.

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.