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Gender Issues in Japanese Anime and Manga

I've got this idea to write about Japan's popular culture for  some times. Firstly, I love Japan's popular culture such as anime and manga.Japan's anime and manga are so popular around the world, transcending nations, age, sex and gender. I read Japan's  manga from the age of 10 (may be), until now. I watched Japan's anime also for years.

One thing that really makes me wonder is about the depiction of gender in those popular culture product. Before furthering the discussion, it is important to say that i follow Ann Oakley's argumentation to differ sex and gender. Sex is naturally determined, while gender is socioculturally constructed. Thus, to speak of male and female is to speak of sex. While to speak of masculine and feminine is to speak of gender. In doing gender (attributing gender characteristics in body), people are for so long stereotyped by the existing binary relation. It means that male should develop masculine traits to be called as a real man. Consequently, female should appeal to femininity if she wants to be referred as real woman. Heterosexuality is also inherent as the consequences of embracing certain gender attribute. However, this stereotype seems not appeal to Japan's popular culture products i.e. manga and anime.

To mention some are, Sailor Uranus and Neptune in Sailormoon, Yukito and Touya in Cardcaptor Sakura, Mr. 2 and its fellow okama (okama is the Japanese term for gay male,, and some Bleach character, like Zabimaru and then Captain Soifon and Youroichi. These characters are both in anime and manga version. They are watched by Japanese, adult and children. One thing that triggers me to know more about gender relation depictions in Japan is that these anime and manga are all very famous. When a product is popular, it means that the product reflects the beliefs and values of the society that produces it (as argued by many popular culture scholars, like John Storey, Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause).

Let me start doing content analysis from Sailor Uranus and Neptune in Sailormoon.

Hikaru (Sailor Uranus) and Michiru (Sailor Neptune) holding hands 
Above is the picture of Sailor Neptune (blue hair) and Sailor Uranus (Yellow hair). Look at how Neptune look at her couple. She looks at her in a very soft gaze. Her gaze shows compassion and love. Then look at their palms. They hold each other's hand tightly to show close relationship. In addition, the bright white high key lighting background adds the romantic atmosphere of the couple, and also to say that their relationship is pure.Their feelings for each other is based on purity. This frame suggests an existing relation between them. The author of Sailormoon also never states explicitly about their sexual orientation.

Then, let us move to Zabimaru, the zanpakouto or sword of Renji Abarai, a character in Bleach, anime series.

Above is the picture of zabimaru, the green figure. Physically, the figure is female, indicated by the breast she has. However, is she really woman? Take a look at the pose of the hands. Then take a look at the way she kicks her enemy. In eastern culture, that is the pose of a man. Woman will tend to close their inner thigh than open it widely. Women are usually described as occupying less space since occupying more space belongs to masculinity that symbolizes more power. To evoke my curiosity more is her voice. Try to watch the short anime version below:

She has a deep voice that really resembles male's voice. She may be a tomboy girl, but is she? or is she a transgender? Well clearly, zabimaru does not explicitly suggest her (let's say so since her physical appearance) gender preference.

Still from the same series, Bleach, there is other thing that leaves me in curiosity. That is on the figure of Soifon and Yuroichi.

Soifon is the girl having the white skin, while Yuroichi is the black girl. Yuroichi was Soifon's former captain. Thus, soifon admires her so much. However, soifon is often depicted blushing when she meets Yuroichi. It is true that Soifon admires her, but the blushing face shows something else. When soifon is near Yuroichi, she suddenly looses her cool. She suddenly acts carelessly. It is like meeting someone whom you love. It is also quite often that the anime version depicts scene that builds up our thoughts wondering to question soifon and yuroichi's relationship.

For example is the frame on your right. Soifon's face is blushing, avoiding to look at Yuroichi. While Yuroichi herself seems not care, Soifon looses her cool. What happen when females take a bath together? I believe they will act as usual. But what happen when you take a bath with a person you love? Think it by your self :P

So far, i have shown you female - female relationship. Then what about male - male relationship? yes, you are right. They also can be found in Japanese anime and manga.

Touya (left) and Yukito (right)
Well, to start, let me introduce you to Touya and Yukito from the card captor sakura series. On your left is a frame from Card Captor Sakura anime series. Look at the way Touya (the black-haired guy) and Yuki (the white-haired guy) is depicted. They are depicted in a very close proximity, indicating close relationship. As in the very first frame of Neptune and Uranus, the eye contact also shows a special relationship. They look at each other in ways that do not suggest hatred or even a so so relationship. They exchange something else. 

It is true that yukito is the alter version of an entity namely Yue (a figure resemble an angel that is said to have no gender, but depicted as having male characteristics). Angel itself is said to have no sex, asexual. But still, Yue as an embodiment of angel chooses the form of male, that layman will perceive it as a real man. Then his relationship with Touya is of course fueled with homosexuality issues.

Yue, the form resembles an angel
One important thing is that when the anime is subbed to US, the relationship of Yukito and Touya / Yue is minimalized. It may be caused by the issue of homosexuality is not favorable in US. You can only watch their very close relationship in the manga version.

Well, let us make the time line. Sailormoon is popular in the 1990s. Card Captor Sakura is also popular in late 90s and early 00s. While bleach is popular in 00s. The three resembles three different era. But based on what I perceived, Bleach has more contents suggesting blurred gender characters and blurred same-sex relationship. Why these contents are very accessible to Japanese? What about their children? Won't parents be worried about this blurred sexually suggestive content? I've got these questions and I think I become very stupid to ask that. Those questions arise because I was not raised in Japanese society. Gender issues, moreover transgender and homosexuality is not favorable area to discuss in Indonesian society. But what about in Japanese society?

A popular culture product must reflect the zeitgeist (the spirit of an era) of the society that produces it. It should also reflect society's values and beliefs. The depiction of homosexuality (both including lesbian and gay) and transgender in Japanese popular culture indeed reflects Japanese tolerance toward those marginalized people. Wikipedia states that homosexuality was seen as the purest manifestation of love in ancient japan ("Homosexuality in Japan", n.d.). Nowadays, gay men tend to be transgender and thus they are called okama (drag queen). And many of them can be found in One Piece serials:

On the left (Mr. TWo)  and the right (Iva) are pictures of okama (cross dressing, male who wears female clothes). They are also referred to be gay male. The depiction of these characters in Japanese manga and anime clearly shows how Japan's society view these people. Tracing back to the previous characters, none of them are bad guys. they are seen as the good guys (although they become enemy some times, but in the end, they become the main character's friend).  It shows that Japanese society does not matter homosexuality issues overwhelmingly as in Western countries, where homophobia still exists. These characters are always helpful to the main characters. It shows that the main characters (who are heterosexual characters) do not care about their homosexuality, although not explicitly expressed.

In an interesting article, entitled "Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Japan", McLelland states that usually the depiction of homosexuality in media is very much dependent on the target audience (2000). For girls, the depiction of gay male who are depicted as cute and understanding guys is more preferable because girls consider them as the "ideal man". Girls find the idealized version of how boys / men should be in the characters such as Yukito and Touya. While for boys audience, the depiction of okama, or transgender, is more preferable. and they usually  serve as humorous characters, those who can make you laugh as Mr. Two and Iva from One Piece suggest.

One last concluding statement is that homosexuality and transgender issue is not a taboo thing to discuss in Japan's society. They may be still marginalized but it is not a taboo thing to discuss this issue. Japan's society is also more open about this issue, more than Western society.


Homosexuality in Japan. (n.d). Retrieved from:

McLelland, M. (2000). Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan. Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context. Issue 3. Retrieved from:


  1. It tickles me that Kazuya Minekura's works are always about bishounens. While Saiyuki series is rather clear about Brotherhood issue (I think, compared to the other works), Wild Adapter, Bus Gamer, and that masterpiece Stigma clearly confuse me about the characters relationship. Homosexuality? Brotherhood? Just strangers with some 'clicks'???

    Naaah, forget it. The author is female so it is a bit self-explanatory why she constructs her characters like that.


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