Tag Archives: gender

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.  http://www.theartofjapan.com/art-detail/?inv=11124034

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.  https://monstrousindustry.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/c9712-oiwa2bhokusai.jpg

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 http://www.kabuki21.com/nanboku4.php.

[iv] http://www.kabuki21.com/nakamuraza.php#jul1825

[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 http://yokai.com/onryou/, where you can also find an article about Michizane. For a story about Taira-clan onryō, see https://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/10/07/heike-ichizoku-no-onryo-the-vengeful-ghosts-of-the-heike-clan/

[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 http://yokai.com/yuurei/. 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.

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] http://www.bustle.com/articles/115512-8-ways-men-dont-realize-they-are-subtly-shaming-women?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=owned&utm_campaign=bustle. 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.

Pots, Cats and Lilies, but Nothing Changes?

Japanese Lesbian/Transgender Identities in Contemporary Media.

The anime and manga community will probably be familiar with the term okama (literally, kettle), variously translated as ‘transvestite’ or ‘Drag Queen’, which is commonly applied to (effeminately) gay characters, especially in a cross-dressing context. mr.2_3Bentham/Bon Curry from Oda Eiichiro’s One Piece may turn being okama into a martial art,  but he is still an example for the ridicule transpeople often face. Also, in the Japanese gay community there is an ongoing debate about the offensiveness of the term okama because it transports associations not only of a passive sexual role but also of prostitution.[i] Possibly even less known fact: there is a corresponding term for female-to-male cross-dressers, onabe (literally, flat pot), which was obviously coined in response to the male equivalent. Yet, onabe are not simply female okama; and not just because there aren’t as many flamboyant 2D-examples.[ii]

The (Internationally?) Ghosted Lesbian

Japan’s relatively lenient approach to male-to-male homosexuality, in specific contexts at least, has been discussed previously.[iii] By contrast, hardly anything has been said, or indeed can be said, about the history of women’s non-normative sexualities, in Japan or elsewhere.[iv] In the West, this has been due to the (Victorian) assumption that women are not supposed to even have a sexuality in the first place, and the complete disregard of any possibility of female-to-female sexuality. This has produced what Terry Castle so pointedly termed the ‘Apparitional Lesbian’: non-heterosexual female experience is ghostly, not-quite-real, because lesbian desire fundamentally challenges the patriarchal hegemony.[v] It would of cause be condescending and essentialist to assume that the same principles structured a society as vastly different as that of Japan, but there is a basic similarity – the patriarchal society (Buddhist and Confucianist rather than Victorian Christian, in the case of Japan), which needs to deny deviant sexualities and gender identities to maintain itself. This allows for the assumption, I believe, that female sexuality outside strict lines of necessity (dynastic procreation) was obstructed and condemned in a similar fashion in Japan, and that (especially non-heterosexual) female desire was similarly ghosted. Indeed, there are but a few hints, as Mark McLelland describes in his interesting, though necessarily sketchy, history of female cross-dressing in Japan.[vi]

Therefore, my sources mostly consider only the time period from the 1960s to the present. I am going to take an even narrower focus and try to find some narrative depictions I can mention, and perhaps venture to say a thing or two about their recipients, because that is what I, as a literary scholar, am interested in and feel competent to deal with. So, which images of lesbians and transpeople can one come across in Japanese media?

Imitation and parody: Cross-dressers

A first sign of lesbian visibility, Lez Bars (again a reaction to male Gay Bars) began to open in Tokyo the 1960s. Mainstream magazines covered this trend and their clientele;[vii] allegedly, this consisted of both curious heterosexuals, and two types of lesbian women. In an imitation of heterosexual gender roles (as McLelland points out), there was supposed to be a male role player, called tachi (this term can be linked to the leading actors in (all 1789male) kabuki or (all-female) Takarazuka (see an example on the right), or to the idea of a sword-bearer, or simple to the ‘standing’, i.e. up, partner), and a feminine role player, called neko (literally, cat).[viii] In addition, there is also rezu, the abbreviation of the transliterated English ‘lesbian’), but it is often associated with the porn industry.[ix] Neko were seen as the more subversive type, both because they seemed like ‘normal women’ and because they were deemed especially lustful.[x] While tachi simply associated a masculine lesbian woman, there were also onabe: waiters and bartenders who dressed as and acted like men,([xi]) and were therefore more acceptable, especially if they looked down on ‘carnal’ neko.[xii] This is no doubt an expression of general misogyny – tachi and onabe at aspired something ‘better’ by being more masculine; and this binary idea of masculinity entails misogyny.[xiii] In a backlash against this, the 80s women’s liberation movement was very critical of the tachi/neko image, to the extent of excluding cross-dressing women.[xiv] There are so many kinds of small-mindedness… Especially if you consider Judith Butler’s theories, which suggest that the enactment of traditional gender roles by people not qualified, i.e. masculine acts performed by biological women, and vice versa – actually deconstruct the gender binary.[xv]

In the more well-known and more popular world of the gay bars, MtF transvestite entertainers were known as gei boi or ‘sister boys’, leading to the term ‘brother girls’ for their lesbian counterparts, though those never achieved comparable popularity. And the entertainment factor complicates the picture. BUcB_NICIAAQ3RbLike the women throughout history who cross-dressed for the sake of travel safety or employment, how far were and are cross-dressed bartenders actually lesbians or transgender people? Have they been looking for work outside the gender binary, or are they simply trying to make a living?

If we look to narrative art, girls cross-dressing as boys have appeared a lot in the romantic genre, from Shakespeare to Rose of Versailles. Speaking of shōjo (‘for girls’) manga, depending on where you pinpoint the beginning of the genre, its very first heroine, Tezuka’s Ribon Knight, was a cross-dresser.[xvi] Sadly, cross-dressing (in romantic comedies and elsewhere) tends to be ultimately contained in a heteronormative ending. Even in the funnily deconstructive Ouran High School Host Club. Also, whereas the entertainer/bartender MtF transperson has appeared in popular media – tumblr_inline_mt1ai2qu3h1qz4rgpI think, for example, of the brilliant Eriko in Yoshimoto Banana’s Kitchen, or ‘Ranka’, the transgender father of the protagonist in the abovementioned Ouran – the reverse seems less popular to me.  I can think of a few examples of FtM transpeople, such as the librarian Oshima in Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore, or (argueably) the cross-dressing and duelling protagonist of Revolutionary Girl Utena, but not of any character who would fit the onabe bill. By contrast, depictions of carnal lesbians are still around, I’m afraid, and not just in the hentai corner. For example, there is Chizuru, a minor chchizuruaracter from Bleach. Here she is, doing what many of the male audience members might dream about doing, and thereby she demonstrates one important function of negative images of women: to represent man’s sinful urges and carry the blame for them. Also, of cause,, in Chizuru’s case, as in Betham’s above, the non-normative identity is essentially played for laughs, not accepted as a genuine alternative lifestyle.

Fantastic Lilies and Hammered-In Nails – Fiction and Reality

Previously, I mentioned shōjo manga and romance. Fans of the genre might be familiar with the term yuri (literally, lily) for female homosexuality. This metaphor actually gained currency in the same context; to be precise, in the personal ads columns of Boys’ Love Magazines directed at girl readers. James Welker argues that BL manga help girls to form concepts of sexuality, and since the protagonists are often quite androgynous, the stories can also be read as lesbian. Moreover, while the stories are about boys, the featured articles in the magazines he analyses deal with lesbian themes, and the personal ads are also lesbian.[xvii] The personal ad column of gay magazines being labelled bara tsûshin, ‘rose communication’, so the lesbian equivalentMaria-sama_ga_Miteru_light_novel_volume_1t came to be called yuri, ‘lily’,[xviii] and this grew to be a genre name.  Lily imagery can thus function as allusion or pun, as in the platonic yuri narrative of Maria-sama ga miteru (Maria Watches Over Us). Much like the male equivalent BL/yaoi, yuri can cater to many audiences and include anything from romantic friendship to sweet homosexual romance to various degrees of porn. One thing it hardly ever includes, though, is an actual depiction of homosexual life experience.

Therefore, the sheer amount of homosexual and trans characters in romance and comedy fiction should not be misread as a sign of broad social acceptance for deviant sexuality in Japan. Social pressure to stay closeted is strong, so that most queers cannot come out even to friends and family for fear of being rejected and isolated.[xix] Heterosexual marriage and childbirth are seen as conditions for full adulthood, for both genders; thus, while homosexuality is not illegal, homosexual individuals and couples cannot expect legal protection either. The lack of court cases about discrimination is probably based on this fear to stand out in a society which, as the proverb says, ‘hammers in every nail which sticks out’.[xx] Similarly, Japan’s educational system is hampered by heterosexist bias, as Sugiura describes students complaining about the lack of information regarding homosexuality and gender issues.[xxi] As with other personal and social problems, keeping face seems to be most important – whatever you do in your private time, or feel in your heart, do not let it disturb public complacency. Be it families, schools, or companies, it is commonly pretended – to the extent that it is believed – that non-heterosexuals do not exist. Thus, insulting jokes are made without hesitation, and the majority of Japanese believe homosexuality to be ‘wrong’.[xxii]

A man inside? The re-enforcement of the gender binary

Queer individuals themselves suffer from this internalized prejudice. An autobiographic essay on FtM transgender experience, for example, reads: “I learned the term “gender identity disorder” (sei dôistsusei shôgai) [from TV shows], but I couldn’t face such reports head on, as I felt that I couldn’t be one of those freaks (hentai).’[xxiii]

An example of this internalized homophobia is the treatment of the LastFriends-RukaMichiru6queer character Ruka in the television drama Last Friends. It becomes apparent at the end of the first episode that Ruka is in love with her childhood friend Michiru, who also holds her dear. However, both Ruka’s family and Michiru herself are disgusted by the idea of Ruka having sexual feelings for another girl. Ruka’s family hopes for her to eventually lead a traditional life (the keyword here is ‘bride’), despite her dislike of feminine dress and behaviour, and her masculine profession (she is a motorcross biker). Her protective actions toward Michiru are read as masculine by her friends, somewhat jokingly, but still as a transgression of her gender role.

This transgression is contained, however, by the fact that Ruka is not portrayed as a tachi lesbian or onabe. Instead, she seeks consultation for gender identity disorder and wishes for sex reassignment surgery – in other words, she is ultimately designated a transsexual in the small-minded way Japanese law acknowledges transpeople [xxiv] – as a heterosexual man in a woman’s body, so to speak. This gives an aura of righteousness to her formerly transgressive actions: she may act and dress in a masculine fashion and desire Michiru, because she is ‘actually’, psychologically, a man, and men are entitled to do so.

Such a view is not only blatantly misogynistic and homophobic. It also depicts transgender feelings and actions as sick and portrays trans people as ‘victims of nature’, who must be treated medically in order to fit back into the precious binary sex/gender role system.[xxv] Various transgender phenomena are subsumed under the label of ‘gender identity disorder’,[xxvi] for there is no need to consider the individual wishes, needs and sufferings of a person if you can just stick a label onto them, or, even better, if you can use surgery to ‘fix’ them and have them return to a normative life. Also, if it is the person who is ‘sick’, then society itself does not have to change to accept gender variants. And sadly, this is how the drama ends: The transgressive, progressive elements of the series dissolve as Ruka decides not to come out at a press conference. Whether she continues to live as a woman or seeks surgery to live as a man, at this point everybody’s face is saved, the heterosexual matrix is preserved, and nothing changes.

Web 2.0 – A New Hope?

Many of my sources express hope that the internet will enable more visibility and connection of the queer community, and McLelland states that with the ‘gay boom’ in the media in the 90s, ‘Japan developed a gay culture […] and that both gei (gay) and rezubian (lesbian) are now commonly deployed as identity categories by Japanese homosexual men and women.’[xxvii] Perhaps fiction still has to catch up to fact in this case. Hopefully. In any case, I’ll be more than happy to read and watch such narratives.

Links and References:

[i] Lunsing, Wim, ‘The Politics of Okama and Onabe: Uses and Abuses of Terminology Regarding Homosexuality and Transgender’, in Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities in Japan, ed. by Mark J. McLelland and Romit Dasgupta (London, New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 81–95, p. 81.

[ii] For the treatment of transgender identity in Anime, see http://www.dailydot.com/geek/transgender-characters-anime-boston. For a non-exhaustive list of anime’s MtF trans characters, see http://transetheralbrimwylf.tumblr.com/post/48181242428/canonically-trans-characters-in-anime.

[iii] For the widespread acceptance of male-male sexuality in Japan until the Meiji Restauration, see http://www.tofugu.com/2015/09/30/gay-samurai

[iv] As Chris mentioned in this post on homosexuality in Japan, http://www.japanpowered.com/?s=homosexuality

[v] I recommend you read the introduction of: Castle, Terry, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), especially p. 2-5.

[vi] McLelland, Mark J., Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), pp. 116-8.

[vii] This is the topic of Sugiuras article ‘Lesbian Discourses’, to which I refer below.

[viii] McLelland makes this connection, Queer Japan, pp. 118-9.

[ix] Lunsing, ‘Politics of Okama’, p. 90; McLelland, Queer Japan, p. 122.

[x] Sugiura Ikuko, ‘Lesbian Discourses in Mainstream Magazines of Post-War Japan: Is Onabe Distinct from Rezubian?’, in “Lesbians” In East Asia: Diversity, Identities and Resistance, ed. by Diana Khor and Saori Kamano (Binghamton: Harrington Park, 2006), pp. 127–44, p. 131.

[xi] 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. 164. Lunsing points that the term is defined differently by every individual, but always carries associations of female homosexuality, cross-dressing, and transsexuality in varying degrees: ‘Politics of Okama’, p. 89.

[xii] Suguiura, ‘Lesbian Discourses’, pp. 132-3.

[xiii] See also Lunsing, ‘Politics of Okama’, p. 90.

[xiv] Sugiura, ‘Lesbian Discourses’, p. 134.

[xv] I recommend pp. 172-80 of Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999). It is not exactly bedtime reading, but understandable, at least the second or third time one tries.

[xvi] Aoyama Tomoko, ‘Transgendering Shôjo Shôsetsu: Girls’ Intertext/sex-uality’, in Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities in Japan, ed. by Mark J. McLelland and Romit Dasgupta (London, New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 49–64, p. 53.

[xvii] Welker, James, ‘Lilies of the Margin: Beautiful Boys and Queer Female Identites in Japan’, in AsiaPacifiQueer: Rethinking Genders and Sexualities, ed. by Fran Martin (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), pp. 46–66, pp. 47-9, p. 51.

[xviii] Welker, ‘Lilies’, p. 52.

[xix] For instance, Hara Minako writes that “[f]ear of parental disapproval is a primary obstacle stopping lesbians from coming out”. ‘Lesbians and Sexual Self-Determination’, in Voices from the Japanese Women’s Movement, ed. by AMPO (Japan Asia Quarterly Review) (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), pp. 129–32, p. 130.

[xx] Lunsing, ‘Politics of Okama’, p. 83.

[xxi] Sugiura, ‘Increasing’, p. 171.

[xxii] Sugiura, ‘Increasing’, pp. 169-72.

[xxiii] Takafumi Fujio, ‘How I Became an FTM Transgender Gay’, in Queer Voices from Japan: First Person Narratives from Japan’s Sexual Minorities, ed. by Mark J. McLelland, Katsuhiko Suganuma and James Welker (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007), pp. 289–94, p. 292. See also Hara, ‘Lesbians and Sexual Self-Determination’, p. 131.

[xxiv] For the legal and political situation of transgender people in Japan, especially regarding sex reassignment surgery and koseki (family register) registration, see McDermott, Nicola, ‘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 and others (Zurich: Lit Verlag, 2013), 3, pp. 177–226.

[xxv] Lusing, ‘Politics of Okama’, p. 89; my argumentation is of cause also based on Butler’s concepts (see note xiv)

[xxvi] Sugiura, ‘Lesbian Discourses’, pp. 140-2.

[xxvii] McLelland, Queer Japan, p. 189.

Homosexuality in Japan

Japanese history is well known for celebrating homosexuality. Well, what we in the West call homosexuality.  During the feudal era, homosexuality wasn’t an identity as it is today. The celebration of male love changed with many other aspects of their society during the Meiji Reformation.  Like the protections single mothers and women enjoyed, homosexuality declined as Japan pushed to break out of the Tokugawa isolation and westernize.

Homosexuality in Feudal Japan

Photography by Wilhelm Burger 1869 near Yokohama Japan

Photography by Wilhelm Burger 1869 near Yokohama Japan

During the Tokugawa Era, which lasted from 1603 to 1868, homosexuality was a part of being a samurai.  Buddhist monasteries embraced it, and male brothels associated with Kabuki theaters flourished. Male homosexuality was thought to be useful for teaching young men virtue, honesty, and an appreciation for beauty. During this time, particularly in the samurai class, relationships with women were devalued. They were only necessary for the continued existence of the household (Furnham & Saito, 2009).  Men who were attracted to women were thought to also be attracted to young boys and female impersonators (McLellend, 2000b). Homosexuality among men was a normal characteristic of being samurai. Men who loved other men were still expected  to have wives and families. Homosexuality wasn’t the binary it is now. It was only a small aspect of a person’s character and responsibilities.

What about lesbians? I couldn’t find information about lesbianism during the Tokugawa period. Japan was, and still is, a male-oriented society. Women had roles they were expected to play.  I am certain many samurai and peasant wives were also lesbians.  Like same-sex male relationships, women’s relationships were not to interfere with their duties to the family. The heart of Japanese womanhood is to be a good wife and mother.  Marriage was the defining characteristic of adulthood for men and women. Even in modern Japan, singles are not considered full adults (Chalmers, 2002).

Anyway, during the Meiji Restoration homosexuality’s prominence declined.  Homosexuality remains acceptable in modern Japan as long as it isn’t flaunted.  It is simply not spoken about (Furnham & Saito, 2009;  Nakagawa, 2010).  Despite this acceptance, exclusive homosexuality is seen as something to fear and despise. Unlike the United States, this fear doesn’t come from religion. After all, Buddhist monks practiced same-sex relationships. Exclusive homosexuality is despised because it breaks gender expectations and social roles demanded by a culture that centers on family.

Discrimination in Modern Japan

ukiyo-3-suzuki_harunobu-geese_descending_on_the_koto_bridges__kotoji_rakugan-1769-1600x686Although the samurai class embraced same-sex relationships, it didn’t interfere with a man’s responsibilities to head a family and have children.  In modern Japan, marriage is still seen as establishing a household rather than a romantic relationship. Because of this, many Japanese gay men willingly marry women and do not see it as a contradiction to their sexual preference. In fact, Japanese media lauds gay men as perfect marriage partners for women because gay men are considered to be more feminine and sympathetic to women’s subordinate social position (McLellend, 2000a).  Many Japanese homosexuals hide their orientation in order to avoid disappointing or troubling their friends and family (Furnham & Saito, 2009). Remember, Japanese society and identity revolves around the family. The family comes first, above the desires of the individual. Well, this is the ideal anyway.

Openly gay people risk social discrimination despite Japan lacking laws against the orientation. Families have been known to disown gays and lesbians because of the dishonor they bring to the family and their inability to continue the lineage (Furnham & Saito, 2009).

Lesbians, in particular, face discrimination.   Women who are not satisfied with marriage and childbearing are often seen as lacking and less than a real woman. Lesbians and unmarried gay men are not seen as adults. Lesbians experience intense pressure to appear heterosexual and interested in men (Chalmers, 2002). They also lack the historical precedents that gay men enjoy. To ice the cake, parents are thought to be the reason why a girl is a lesbian. Her sexual orientation is seen as a parental failure that can and should be corrected (Nakagawa, 2010).

samurai-womenLike in the United States, Japan has slang words used to refer to gay men and lesbians. Okama refers to the butt and used to refer to gay men. Obviously, this term is suggestive of anal sex which is considered the definitive sexual act engaged by gay men. Okama is also used to refer to transgender men. Homosexual men are stereotyped in a similar way as in the US. They are seen as feminine and promiscuous.  Lesbians are called onabe and seen as the opposite of okama. Onabe are stereotyped as being masculine in dress and behavior. They understand themselves as a man, only without a penis (McLelland, 2000b; Furnham & Saito, 2009).

Same-sex Marriage

Same-sex marriage steps closer toward acceptance. Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward became the first locale to recognize same-sex partnerships as the equivalent of marriage, guaranteeing the identical rights married couples enjoy.  However, the ordinance isn’t legally binding (Associated Press, 2015).  Japan’s constitution prohibits same-sex marriage in Article 24 (Newswire, 2015):

Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.

Boy’s Love and Yuri

Boy’s Love stories also called BL or YAOI are some manga fan’s first exposure to Japanese ideas of homosexuality.

Only the ideas found in BL are wrong.

Shinjo Mayu ShitaumiBoy’s Love is not considered gay literature. The genre, better known by its acronym YAOI ( ochinashi, iminashi – translates to “no point, no meaning”), are stories that emphasize sex scenes between bishonen, beautiful boys, rather than focusing on romantic plot development. Written by female authors for female readers, the stories do not reflect the struggles and view points of Japanese homosexuals. Rather, the stories are fantasies of what homosexual love means. The characters are androgynous and behave in a feminine manner (McLelland, 2000a).

Likewise, yuri does not represent lesbian identity. Yuri focuses on sexual encounters between beautiful girls. Written by men for men, they explore male fantasies of lesbianism rather than actual lesbian relationships. Of course, in both genres there are certain to be a few stories that touch on homosexual people’s concerns and challenges.

Japanese Homosexual Identity

Like many touchy subjects Japanese culture slips around, homosexuality lacks the hard boundaries it has in Western culture.  There isn’t a strong sense of identity attached to sexual orientation. Gay men willingly marry and have children without seeing the act as a contradiction of their identity. It is simply their duty as a Japanese man, regardless of whether or not he is attracted to women. Likewise, lesbians are expected to marry and have children. Many do just that. Their attraction toward the same sex isn’t the defining part of their personality.  Of course, this is all just generalization based on surveys and other research. Such private, personal matters always have exceptions. It can be difficult for those of us in the West to understand how sexual orientation can play a small role in a person’s sense of identity. However, we live in a culture that values the individual. Whereas in Japan and other Asian cultures identity is focused on the family and family history.  The individual is just another part of a large tree; a part that is pressured to continue the lineage and not dishonor it.

The Problems of World View

It is difficult for those of us who are heterosexual to understand the social pressures transgender and homosexual people face. This becomes even more difficult when culture differences add further complications. Despite Westernization, Japan still remains a culture different from that of the United States and other Western societies. Applying our understanding to their viewpoints and unique cultural identity is a disservice, but at the same time we can only understand based on what we know. Basically, what I am trying to say is this: we  must have care when thinking about Japanese homosexuality and not view it from our own cultural lens. There are similarities and differences between the challenges homosexual people face in Japan and other countries.  It becomes even harder to understand and explain these challenges when you have a world view that isn’t discriminated against, such as mine as a white, heterosexual American male.

In any case,  it is important to understand that yaoi and yuri do not represent Japanese homosexual relationships. On the same note, hentai doesn’t represent Japanese heterosexual relationships. You can go ahead and smack your forehead and shout duh! But the messages we consume help form that worldview I talked about. We must remember not to allow media to shape our views without our knowledge.


Associated Press. (2015). Tokyo Ward 1st in Japan to Recognize Same Sex Marriage. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/03/31/world/asia/ap-as-japan-same-sex-marriage.html?_r=0

Chalmers, S (2002). Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan. Psychology Press.

Furnham, A., & Saito, K. (2009). A Cross-Cultural Study of Attitudes Toward and Beliefs About, Male Homosexuality. Journal Of Homosexuality, 56(3), 299-318. doi:10.1080/00918360902728525

McLelland, M. (2000a). Is there a Japanese ‘gay identity’?. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 2(4), 459-472. doi:10.1080/13691050050174459

McLelland, M. (2000b) Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan. Intersections: Gender, History, and Culture in the Asian Context. 3. http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue3/mclelland2.html

Nakagawa, Ularam (2010). Japan’s Lesbians Still Scared to Come Out. CNN. http://travel.cnn.com/tokyo/life/lesbians-in-Japan-struggle-to-build-their-own-community-814836

Newswire (2015) Abe Lays Down Constitutional Barrier to Gay Marriage in Japan.

Musings II: Magical Girls, or, Empowerment VS Sexism

Magical Girls puzzle me; they make me feel intrigued and desperate at the same time. That is not just because of my, admittedly, relatively limited experience with shōjo (‘[for] girls’) anime genres – until recently, I preferred adventure fantasy, which is sadly, but undoubtedly, shōnen (‘[for] boys’) material of the most popular order. No, Magical Girls confuse my sense of feminism and empowerment because I have experienced some as assertive, active, self-reliant girls, who are nevertheless trapped in the a spiderweb of the male gaze, where they are stripped (quite literally) of their agency and self-reliance and turned them into consumable sex objects. Voyeuristic cinematography contradicts narrative content.

I am going to explore this paradox dualism in the context I noticed it, the anime Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Vivid, which is the fourth anime series in the Nanoha franchise.[i]  Rather than Nanoha herself, who is an adult and military officer by now, the show focuses on Nanoha’s adopted daughter Vivio and her friends. They are Magical Girls for sport and practice Strike Arts (a system of magical martial arts) with enthusiasm. Thus the series constitutes a crossover between the genres of Magical Girl and Sports anime, portraying the life and hobbies of school children in a world of both advanced technology and magic. Through the sport, Vivio befriends the mysterious streetfighter Einhart Stratos: like her a young girl linked to a historic era of magical war. They visit a training camp together, and eventually the four girls compete in a tournament.

The series portrays the girls’ interest in martial arts with surprising nonchalance, although it is made clear how sweet and loving and caring Vivio is despite her fierce punches. Vivio01-martial arts0102Their training programmes contain jogging, sprints, sparring, and other activities which could be considered unfeminine, but they are never criticized for it. Indeed, the only slight criticism dealt out in the series is directed at Einhart, who takes fighting rather too seriously and has to learn over time how to relax and have fun. Overall, the girl’s determination to excel as athletes and magicians is received with admiration by parents and other adult figures.

Even more surprising and progressive I find the fact that Vivid portrays a queer family, or at least something that comes very close to it. vivio01-queerfamily01The initial Magical Girl, Nanoha, became close friends, after a few duels, with a fellow Magical Girl named Fate back in series 1. Subsequently they fought together in the magical military, and when they began to take care of Vivio in series 3, they shared the responsibility for her as well, although the relationship with Nanoha is clearly Vivio’s most important social bond. Still, she considers both women her mothers, and no eyebrows are raised at this arrangement; neither among her classmates nor any of the adult cast (which, admittedly, is mostly made up of Nanoha and Fate’s female friends and co-workers). Right to the end of the first episode, I was astonished how progressive this anime seemed to be.[ii]

However, the other side was yet to come. As in (to my knowledge) all Magical Girl anime, the transformation sequences, in which the girls assume their battle costume and/or body, are a central part of the show, and as Vivio transforms into her battle form, feminist viewers are in for a kick to the gut. The camera caressingly sweeps over her behind twice, while her clothing dissolves, piece by piece, until she floats naked in the dark, hugging her magic device to her chest in a cringeworthy close-up. As her body magically matures to adult form and becomes enveloped in a ‘barrier jacket’,  her breasts are featured in two more close-ups.[iii] SHE. IS. NINE. I would find such blatantly sexualizing imagery disturbing in any case, but it is exponentially viler if the victim is a grade-school child. This catering to the lowest impulses in certain male viewers (a ‘taste’ known as lolicon, Lolita complex) was nauseating – and it started me researching. There must have been something I was missing, something to explain this jarring contrast of empowered girls and these most despicable objectification they undergo as they access their power. Well. Here is what I found.

Susan Napier addresses the problem of sexualisation in her (highly recommended) study Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. She describes shōjo, girl characters in Japanese media, as ‘characterized by a supposedly innocent eroticism based on sexual immaturity.’[iv] While such pandering to the shadier corners of the otaku  (obsessive [usually male] fan of anime and video games) demographic seems most unsavoury to me, a bit of research into Magical Girl transformation sequences on youtube convinced me that it is also something of a genre tradition, featured in varying degrees in these series, even if they seem primarily designed to entice preteen girls into buying merchandise,[v] rather than being made mainly for otaku (the initial broadcast time gives a hint about the intended audience – for example, the summary episode 12.5 of Vivid ran between ten at night and four in the morning, according to the website).[vi]

The global tendency to show women as sexual objects was described as the concept of the ‘male gaze’ by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. She explains these patterns of objectification in western mainstream movies in reference to Sigmund Freud’s theories, with special focus on a) the concept of scopophilia or “pleasure in looking” at an image/character, and b) the process of identification with an image/character.[vii] Although the female form evokes desire, it also reminds the viewer unpleasantly of castration anxiety,[viii] Mulvey argues. I wonder if part of the Magical Girls’ objectification is a kind or reassuring reverse of this – powerful, self-reliant girls seem threatening, so they are displayed de-humanized as a ‘fetish object’ for an erotic gaze,[ix] in order to numb the feeling of threat they may evoke. In addition, Mulvey observes how the spectacle of the female body ruptures the narrative,[x] and indeed, the transformation sequences clearly occur outside the normal space and time of the story, in a timeless void; the action pauses to accommodate the show. This strategy also casts the viewing male as the one controlling time and narrative development.[xi]

However, Mulvey’s analysis is based on western cultural production and as such only applicable to Japanese material with certain restrictions. Anne Allison notes this in her analysis of the set-up, fetishistic display of female bodies even in anime and manga actually aimed at children, which she links to a discourse of passive spectatorship and control of both self and other: ‘the positioning of males to be masterful viewers but passive and consuming actors’.[xii] Therefore, such depictions of women serve as titillation for adult men and as an education about their later roles for children.[xiii] The Magical Girls’ transformation sequences can thus function as reassurance to male viewers that women will eventually stay put in their place as sexual objects – even if they wield magical power in their adolescence – and as an instruction for girls to conform as they mature. Fittingly, Susan Napier defines shōjo – the Japanese girl character – as ‘liminal identity between child and adult’[xiv], a special existence where transgressions are possible, as long as the traditional female identity is resumed with adulthood. The Magical Girl genre additionally places this temporary freedom in a fantastic setting,[xv] which further emphasizes the unattainability of real-life, lasting power and equality for women. Kumiko Saito notes how in early Magical Girl series, ‘the magical freedom of adolescence’ seems to be a prelude to ‘the gendered stage of marriage and motherhood’ – in other words, freedom is possible only outside restrictive gender roles, to which the early Magical Girls return at the end.[xvi]

In the Nanoha franchise however, magic – and the power and freedom from gender role restrictions associated with it – is permanent, as demonstrated by adult magical girls like Nanoha and Fate, and their shared parenting of Vivio. In addition, the military provides career opportunities not just for magicians but, to some extent, for regular women as well: they crew spaceships, work as technicians or fly helicopters, and even those who serve as administrators or personal secretaries are depicted as competent and dedicated to their profession, not as women only working to find a husband to settle down with.

Kumiko Saito traces the unholy union of children’s show and erotic ‘fanservice’ to the 1980s, where tropes of action and science fiction became incorporated in the genre – indeed, the extended transformation sequences of Magical Girls seem related to the mechanical device-setup sequences from shōnen anime.[xvii] Thus, she also locates the introduction of the objectifying male gaze (using the exact term) in this period, which alleviates the anxiety potentially generated by gender-bending plot elements, in the same way the fantastic setting downplays female agency.[xviii] In concurrence with Saito’s observations, a union of sexual and mechanical fetishism is very clear in the first three series of the Nanoha franchise, where the transformation sequences combine the above-mentioned sexualized scenes with shots of the Magical Girls’ staffs assembling.[xix] (Vivid is a different case because the main characters are either fist-fighters or use small melee weapons). The same fetishizing fragmentation is applied both to the girl’s body and to her mechanical weapon. This genre convention is not only ‘one of the most effective ways to show the details of the toy’ or costume most Magical Girl anime want their child audience to buy; it is also described by Mulvey as a means to turn a (woman’s) body into ‘a perfect product’, commodifying her.[xx] This process sanitizes the castration anxiety evoked by the female body because it ‘is fetishized into a phallic substitute, thereby turning the male’s attention away from the lack in her body and toward the fetish that is made of her body.’[xxi] The double substitution of body-as-fetish and weapon-as-fetish, I would argue, amounts to an overcompensation – along the lines of  “If Magical Girls need that much: magic, transformation and weaponry, to be badass, than surely we have nothing to fear from normal women”. Female objectification and fetishism alleviates men’s own fear of their powerlessness in society.[xxii]

As Allison also points out, the limited (western) view of power Mulvey’s theory is based on – powerful viewer vs disempowered object of the gaze – fails to take into account both the passive role of the spectator and the power of active female sexuality, non-heterosexual lifestyles, and ‘forms of power, influence and authority that real women and real mothers in society exert.’[xxiii] Both the first and the latter two are present in the world of Vivid. However, the almost exclusively female society depicted in the series – also a common feature of Magical Girl shows creating ‘a pseudo-lesbian community in which girls enjoy a carefree everyday life’[xxiv] – can be understood either as a positive statement, that women are self-sufficient and in no need of men, or as a relegation of female independence to a utopia, as something only possible when men are removed from the picture. In addition, it creates a virtual harem for the otaku audience to choose the type of girl they prefer. Without interference by male characters, they can dream of having unlimited access to any and all of the girls on display. And there we go again with this oscillation between progressive and regressive facets which makes Magical Girl anime such a puzzling subject for me.

In the end, though, I want to read the story positively. By relegating males to the voyeuristic audience, the series transports the message that girls can fight, not for a male teacher, father or love interest, but for themselves, to reach a sense of fulfilment or to prove themselves – the same reasons which motivate the shônen heroes I usually engage with. Like women in our still sexist society, the girls are subjected to a sexualizing gaze, which violates their personhood even if they are unaware of it, but they struggle on nevertheless. In my opinion, any viewer decent enough to recognize them as full characters is bound to recognize their sexist treatment as injustice because of the contrast to how they are portrayed and act in the remainder of the show. I have voiced my horror at the child-abusive imagery above and now I want to focus on the fact that gendered characteristics and gendered genre conventions are mixed and disrupted, which leaves room for hope. Where the child-woman as ‘Battling Beauty at once fulfils the criteria for the [male audience]’s desires and [becomes] a figure that promises to liberate femininity’ from the very restrictions of gender which distort her portrayal,[xxv] there is potential for positive change, I believe. And on this hopeful note, I would like to end my musings on Magical Girls, at least for the time being.

Notes and References:

[i] This anime is an irregular Magical Girl show due to its strong borrowing from ‘male’ genres and its pitch to an adult audience, as evidenced by its late-night broadcast schedule. This was already very well explained here: http://www.animenation.net/blog/2012/03/23/ask-john-what-exactly-makes-lyrical-nanoha-more-adult-oriented.

[ii] For those interested in gender-bending and cross-gendered characters in the context of shôjo, I recommend Kotani, Mari, ‘Metamorphosis of the Japanese Girl: The Girl, the Hyper-Girl, and the Battling Beauty’ in Mechademia, 1, 2006, 162-169, and the Saito article (see note 5)

[iii] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTiwaZ9VLrI, from 0:30 onwards, if you have the stomach.

[iv] Napier, Susan J., Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, New York, Palgrave, 2005 (updated edition), 148.

[v] Saito, Kumiko, ‘Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society’, Journal of Asian Studies, 73.1, 2014, 143-164, 144.

[vi] http://nanoha-vivid.tv/news/index_cat.html?cat=Onair

[vii] Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Visual and Other Pleasures, Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1989, 14-16.

[viii] Mulvey, 19.

[ix] Mulvey, 21.

[x] Mulvey, 19.

[xi] Mulvey, 20.

[xii] Allision, Anne, ‘A Male Gaze in Japanese Children’s Cartoons, or, Are Naked Female Bodies Always Sexual?’, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 2000, 31, 32-33, emphasis mine.

[xiii] Allison, 33, 47-48.

[xiv] Napier, 148.

[xv] Also mentioned by Saito, 143.

[xvi] Saito, 148. She goes on to discuss how in the 1990s, domestic concerns even invade the magical experiences of the Magical Girl, 157.

[xvii] See also Saito, 152.

[xviii] Saito, 145. She refers to critic Saito Tamaki for the claim that ‘anime and manga are produced and consumed within an imagined autonomous world of representations detached from what we generally recognize as reality’, 146.

[xix] Those of Nanoha and Fate come with moving, transforming parts and contain a revolver cylinder or a machine gun magazine from series 2 onwards; for an extreme example of the double fetish, see their dual transformation sequence from the movie version of series 2 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFuYTiUDxl0 .

[xx] Mulvey, 22.

[xxi] Allison, 38.

[xxii] Allison, 39.

[xxiii] Allison, 39.

[xxiv] Saito, 159.

[xxv] Kotani, in relation to Revolutionary Girl Utena and Sailor Moon, 168.

Gender Roles of Men in Japanese Society

Japanese-men-groupMany trees have died to research the effects of Japan’s patriarchal society on women. I also did my part by killing digital trees. Surprisingly, not as much research has been done on men. Patriarchal societies may appear to be a man’s paradise, but these societies place a heavy burden on men, perhaps even heavier than on women.

Many people get upset about female gender roles and the submissive nature of those roles. However, we rarely consider the opposite side. Being the head of the household and forced to wield authority over women and other people lower in the social order can be a problem for some men. Of course, many men (and women for that matter) enjoy lording over others. But what of those men who do not fit into the social role? What exactly is the social role of men in Japanese society?

Enter Confucius

You may be surprised to learn that Japan used to be a matriarchal society. That is, until Confucianism landed on Japan’s shores (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2000). The arrival of China’s long-beard philosophy  — hey, that is how many view it, as an old man with a long beard — marked the beginning of women’s subordination to men and forcing men into authoritative roles.

rural-japanConfucianism focuses on order. Everything has its place. The household, called ie in Japanese, is the basic building block of society. Confucianism view men as aggressive, independent, dominate, competitive, confident, and analytical. All of which are needed to head a household and manage the family’s estate. Men must be leaders, risk-takers, decision makers, and profoundly loyal to his lord and emperor. During the Tokugawa period, Confucian structure was encouraged by the Shogun. (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2000; Slote & De Vos, 1998). In addition to this, men were required to cultivate themselves through intellectual activity, self denial, and discipline. Even the lower classes were expected to practice self denial and discipline.

In the samurai class, men were expected to be accomplished in literature and the arts in addition to being strong warriors (Brown, 2012; Sugihara & Katsurada, 2002).  This was all a part of Bushido, the warrior’s ethic. Bushido forms the foundation for Japanese male identity from the feudal era up to the end of World War II. One of the key ideas of the ethic is selfless loyalty and dedication to the emperor. These ideas led to the kamikaze and other suicidal practices martial men were expected to do. Seppuku also comes to mind.

Basically, men were expected to run the show and earn the family’s wealth. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a lot to shoulder. The local lord also expected men to serve him in war. Even the peasant class had the risk of being conscripted as an ashigaru.


Photo of samurai, Kusakabe Kimbei c. 1880

As you may remember from the article about women’s gender roles, women were also expected to be loyal to their husbands and the Japanese state. However, their loyalty was not quite as demanding as what was expected of men. Particularly during WW2, the imperial government of Japan demanded total sacrifice from Japanese men. Although it is dramatized, I recommend you watch Letter of Iwo Jima to get an idea of what some Japanese soldiers may have experienced.

Men in Modern Japan

As I mentioned, bushido drove expectations of manhood in World War II.  Beyond loyalty, the patriarchal system enshrined gender roles as a sacred duty. People in power were morally superior and deserved their higher status because of it (Slote & De Vos. 1998). Anyone who spoke against these compartment roles spoke out against the sacred. Society pressures men to conform to expectations just as much as it does women. Men are expected to shoulder authority, even when he would rather share it with his wife. Men who would like to spend more time with children cannot. Being a stay-at-home dad isn’t something “real” men do. American men wrestle with this as well. I have friends who dreamed of being stay-at-home fathers, but society’s expectations frowned upon them doing “women’s work”.

The roles can be summarized in three points:

  • The father (or CEO) must be obeyed.
  • Defer to those who are older.
  • Serve the emperor (or company).

These ideas go beyond what we in the West would consider service. Loyalty involves more than obeying orders and heeding advice. It involves anticipating what benefits the superior. Loyalty means being proactive. Being proactive is one reason why some Japanese men have died on the job.  Another factor is the idea that men must be wholly dedicated to their work.

Bae (2010) conducted a study about gender role division. Japanese men who believed a man must be devoted to work and women to the household reported higher life satisfaction when that was the case. They also reported lower satisfaction when wives were forced (or wanted) to work.  Egalitarian-minded men reported the opposite, higher life satisfaction when the wife also worked and lower when she did not. However, both types of men wrestled with feelings of inadequacy about his ability to provide for the family when the wife worked. Men’s social role of being the devoted breadwinner remains a burden.

Senpai-kohai Relationships

Japanese-menJapanese men have a tight social world to navigate. Obeying superiors becomes a complicated web. Surprisingly, women are not as aware of senpai-kohai relationships as men (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2002).

So what exactly is a senpai-kohai relationship?

It is a social structure based on the ideas of loyalty and obedience we already examined. A senpai is someone who is more experienced and therefore higher in the social order. A kohai is someone who is subordinate to the senpai. It is loosely similar to the master-apprentice system. The senpai‘s orders and opinions are absolute and must be obeyed. A senpai’s social standing is enhanced by the number of kohai he has. The kohai benefits from the senpai‘s connections. Kohai receive jobs, positions, and even emotional support from the senpai.

There are times when the roles are reversed. For example, Takashi is the senpai to Shin at work. However, Shin is a senior member at a country club Takashi wants to join. At work, Shin would defer to Takashi. At the country club, Takashi would defer to Shin. Depending on their relationship, honorifics they use to refer to each other may change based on the different social situations.

Senpai-kohai relationships are among the most important and lasting of relationships between Japanese men. Because of the nature of these relationships, and corporate culture’s emphasis on teamwork, Japanese men are expected to balance traditional masculine traits (decision making, competitiveness, and others) with feminine traits such as kindness and sensitivity (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2000)

The Changing Man

Since the feminist movement of the 1960s, Japanese men see a slight loosening in their expected role in society. Some of the stereotypes are not as prominent because of the new demands of the corporate world. However, Japanese men still lack the freedom many Western men enjoy. Japanese men are still expected to found households and be loyal to their company. Duel income households are becoming more common out of necessity (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2000). Because of this, men must shoulder more of the household duties. The added stress of doing “woman’s work” strains his social role and demands he devote less time to his corporate work.

Japanese gender roles are changing. Male gender roles change more slowly than women’s roles, creating tension between the genders (Bae, 2010).

felice_beatos_japan_places_people_2_2Men’s gender roles are just as constraining as female roles. They constrain differently. Many men do not want to be sole head of the household. I am one of them. Men do not want to spend every waking hour working. Most want to embrace long ignored sides of masculinity: the nurturing and mentoring sides, the soft strength of sensitivity. However, Japanese society –and American society for that matter–have a one dimensional view of men. Feudal Japanese society encourages men to cultivate themselves in the arts and literature, but even this still had an eye toward improving how a man may serve. So-called feminine traits like care-giving and sensitivity are not on the list. Sadly, the sensitive side of men offers the most strength. Grass withstands winds that shatter oaks.

Gradually, the social demands on Japanese men are changing. Whether or not the change is for the better depends on who you ask. Like so many aspects of Japan, old ideas co-exist with new. Traditional gender roles for men and women might yet find a way to co-exist with new, negotiated gender roles.


Bae, J. (2010). Gender Role Division in Japan and Korea: The Relationship between Realities and Attitudes. Journal Of Political Science & Sociology, (13), 71-85.

Brown, R. (2012). Yasuoka Masahiro’s ‘New Discourse on Bushido Philosophy’: Cultivating the Samurai Spirit and Men of Character for Imperial Japan. Social Science Japan Journal. 16 (1). 107-129.

Slote, W. & De Vos, G. (1998). A Japanese Legacy of Confucian Thought. Confucians and the Family. Ebook.

Sugihara, Y. & Katsurada, E. (2000). Gender-role Personality Traits in Japanese Culture. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 24. 309-318.

Sugihara, Y. & Katsurada, E. (2002). Gender Role Development in Japanese Culture: Diminishing Gender Role Differences in a Contemporary Society. Sex Roles. 47. 443-452.