Gender and Gender Relations in Manga and Anime

Manga and Anime, as inviting and open as they may seem, are at heart the products of Japan's culture. Despite its technological advancement, Japan somehow manages to retain much of its historical character, in addition to blending in the overwhelming influences of the West. The Japanese treatment of gender and gender relations has taken many turns over the last millennium, and manga and anime reflect those changes. Still, at the core of the culture lies certain fundamental beliefs that are proving difficult to change.

Recently, too, there is growing controversy over gender roles in Japan. An American friend recently complained bitterly over the pervasiveness of sadistic, (heterosexual) male-oriented Japanese pornography in Japan. She says that the message that women are sexual objects has become almost epidemic in Japanese culture, and that male chauvenism is everywhere. Many career women in Japan seem to be so disgusted with things that they refuse to marry. And too many men are expected to sacrifice themselves to their jobs, to the point of having no family involvement. When a man retires, he sometimes becomes trapped in a family he doesn't know, with nothing to do, and he tends to die soon after from his sudden lack of purpose.

I am not an expert in this topic; however, maybe I can provide some insight into Japanese culture and its reflection in manga, as well as some recent trends in manga. I am writing, by the way, from the point of view that individuality is more important than one's gender --- and hence to stereotype genders and to force people to conform to those stereotypes is not a good thing. I personally think we'd all be better off if each of us picked up the stereotypical strengths of both genders, if, say, men were more nurturing and women were more likely to speak and be heard.

Historical and Modern Attitudes

Historically, like almost every culture on the planet, Japan has tended toward idealizing male dominance and female submissiveness. However, women have not been invisible, especially in Japan's early years. Some of Japan's greatest literary figures were women, such as the novelist Lady Murasaki, who lived about a thousand years ago. Some of Japan's earliest rulers were empresses. However, when Japan became war-oriented and feudal, women quickly became second-class citizens. Most women were treated as they have been treated throughout history: as merchandise, or servants, and as heir-producing machines. This is not to say men were free from societal chains; men in Japan are expected to conform to societal expectations, too, and males were expected to devote themselves to their tasks with great diligence and hard work.

Unlike in the West, however, some women, not just men, were trained as samurai and ninja, and they fought with the long, halberd-like naginata. Supposedly, for a woman to touch a sword was a dishonor to the sword; conversely, it was (up until recently) considered disgraceful for a man to use a naginata, a "woman's weapon." Women samurai were not given the "honorable" and less pleasant way of committing suicide by cutting open the abdomen; they were given, instead, the "easy" way out --- cutting their own throats.

Still, that some women were trained for combat at all is an insight into the Japanese attitude toward women. Women, though second-class, are important assets to a family. Like any culture, most men and women come to care for each other, and a man heard deprecating women at the pub might be willing to risk his life for his wife. And that is one of the characteristic quirks of Japanese culture.

The macho ideal of a strong, cool male fits the Japanese ideal very closely. At home, some Japanese men tend to order their wives about. They have a tendency to speak gruffly, and use the wife's first name. "Kyoko, the tea!" or "Mayuko, please get me more coffee." Wives, meanwhile, are generally expected to refer to their husbands with the polite form of "you," or "anata," and they are expected to use more polite phrases and to obey their husbands. An interesting exception to this, however, are many families with children. Some parents take to calling each other as "Mama" or "Papa" (or "okaasan" and "otousan"); hence, not only do the children refer to their mother as "mama" or "okaasan," but so does the father (and vice versa). "Let's ask mama when she gets home," the husband might say. "Papa, is this your wallet?" the wife might say. This is extended further once the parents become grandparents, and they start calling each other "grandfather" or "grandmother," just as the newest generation does.

At work, though, it is reported that women are the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Many college-educated women simply aren't hired, even if they're qualified. There is still an expectation that a married woman will quit her job to stay at home. Sexual harassment, though technically illegal, is apparently common at the workplace, and both men and women are expected to regard it as normal.

In society in general, naked women are plastered here and there --- from subways to the TV set (yes, even prime time TV). As one American family in Japan put it, "At first the kids would stare at the TV set [because of the prevalence of female nudity], but after a while, they got used to it." Pornographic bookstores are pretty common, and business men are frequently seen reading pornographic books openly, in public. Much of the recent pornography, reports a friend, is based on sadistic themes.

As I've said of men before, often they are expected to spend most of their waking hours at work, or on business-related entertainment outings. He feels he must shoulder the entire burden of financially supporting the household, and for this, he needs to sacrifice himself to his job. Children sometimes grow up without knowing their fathers, and sometimes the mother will admit she prefers not having her husband around, because he gets in the way. A recent trend has more and more women putting off marriage or even not marrying at all.

Of course, not all is this bad! There are brilliant and capable women in various professions, from government to science; and there are men who are wonderful fathers, loved by their children and wives. One person has reported that there is very little open discrimination left in many professional fields.

So much for the background on Japanese gender relations. Yes, much of it sounds fairly dismal. But how are gender relations depicted in the manga and anime?

Gender Relationships in Manga and Anime

One should of course realize that there are exceptions to every rule, and that Japanese manga, like English literature, runs the gamut from one end to the other. For the purpose of this section, I will be mostly concentrating on mainstream youth-oriented works, not as much on the adult-male oriented manga (much of which is clearly meant to be pornographic). Even with the youth-oriented works, one should remember these things:

  1. many manga are targeted at either girls or boys, and can be classified as either girls' or boys' comics. Generally, though not always, boys' comics are told from a male perspective, and vice versa. Also, girls' comics tend to focus on human relationships more than the boys' comics; the latter focus more on competition or contests of will (such as a detective struggling to close a case). Lastly, girls' comics tend to have artwork that is dreamier and softer, while boys' comics tend to be brasher and flashier.
  2. Japanese manga for young people tend to be far more intricate, human, philosophical, and mature than American comics. Responsibility and the consequences of one's actions are taught at all levels; so is the essentially humanity of even one's enemies (usually). Conversely, the increased maturity level also means that nudity and sexual themes are present in comics meant for grade schoolers.
The theme of "men ought to be stronger than women" is a pervading theme that can sum up a lot of gender relations in manga and anime. The idea is that women, no matter how strong or independent they are, are actually looking for someone who they can depend on and who will protect them. (Next time you're reading manga stories set in modern Japan, count the number of times Our Hero rescues the heroine from unwanted advances from other men, or the number of times a heroine faints from walking around in the rain while sick).

Here are some categories that I've created. I believe they represent a large proportion of young people's comics.

  • I should mention the growing pervasiveness of sexual themes in manga --- all types of manga. This has seemingly gotten worse in recent years. Female nudity is everywhere in manga and anime, even children's manga, and it's expected (almost encouraged) that boys will drool at and try to look at naked girls. Male nudity is also quite common --- but usually not in a sexual setting --- and, in amusing contrast to the boys, it's often expected that girls will run shrieking from the sight (though not always). Recently, with the introduction of Western comics (you know, skin-tight costumes), physical exaggeration is more prevalent than ever before --- women with voluptuous figures, men with ridiculously huge muscles. And as a side note, some manga have a subtle fascination with homosexuality. Finally, though, to help straighten the record: as much as some manga depict women in sexually-tinged embarrassing situations, some also depict men in such situations, too. The Japanese are far more open about nudity and sex than, say, Americans, and so feel free to poke a lot more humor at it --- and not all the humor is degrading to women.

  • One last thing that must be pointed out is that frequently the male is kept in line by the female character (i.e., prevented from getting too "fresh") in a very physical way. Frequently, in the more humorous manga, the female characters must beat the male characters into a pulp to stop unwanted advances. While pretty funny to read (the injuries are exaggerated and never treated as "real"), one must keep in mind that the average flesh-and-blood Japanese high school girl does not have this option at her disposal. One must further keep in mind that the reverse form of violence (men beating up women) is not treated in the same humorous way, and is rarely an option for comic-book men who are hounded by over-eager women.

    Anyway, back to the question of gender relations in manga....

    As you can see, there is quite a range these days. If we took the "average" of the attitude to relationships (at least in young people's manga, not in adult-oriented stuff), I think that the average attitude would come out to be male-chauvenistic, but a lot less so than twenty years ago, and possibly less so than Japanese society itself. As much as there are stereotypical manga where girls are weak and wilting or perhaps just lust objects, there are newer manga where girls are equal partners, or sometimes even "ahead" of the guys. This is interesting, because the rest of Japanese society does not appear to be quite as enlightened. Perhaps manga-writers are a vanguard of society, paving the way for the masses. I think, upon further reflection, that the key is in the individual writers and what they want to create. Some writers (as in any field) want to lead society in new and better directions; some writers care only about money and in generating more sales; and there is a whole mixture in between.

    I must say this: I do not think there is anything wrong with women who choose to play a supportive, devoted role of cheerleader and comforter to their men and children. Plus, I do not necessarily think sex is a bad thing. However, I think that women should have as much opportunity and encouragement to work and learn and discover as men do --- I believe there are many intelligent and capable women out there who have unique talents to contribute in ways other than cheerleading or housekeeping or child-rearing --- and that for this to happen on a larger scale, stereotypes must be overcome. Moreover, there needs to be the knowledge in both genders of what is possible, and what the fruits of understanding each other can be. And perhaps a good number of manga-writers agree with me.

    Finally, here is a new note, spurred by a recent discussion with a person in Japan. She informs me that, while girls' comics are eager to show the heroine as the victim who endures classroom or peer or even parental harassment and abuse, boys' comics rarely present the hero in this kind of situation, even if minor male characters may be presented thus (this observation is also true from my experience, though Doraemon is a notable exception). She notes that boys endure just as much if not more peer abuse as girls endure, and that many more commit suicide (sometimes naming their tormentors in their suicide notes). I would suggest that comics must re-examine their treatment of both females and males. (The recent ads and articles in some of the boys' weeklies, encouraging those being picked on to hang in there, are useful but are simply not enough.) If there is one thing comics can provide, it is the solace of finding someone like yourself in the pages: but if one cannot find that easily, or if, even worse, you are told in those pages that you are a societal failure, then the pains of life can become seemingly unendurable.

    To close, let's take a closer look at a popular boys' comic that was written by a woman: Ranma 1/2. Takahashi Rumiko, the author, has admitted she tailored the comics for an audience of boys, so it tends to include macho elements and the theme of "manly" vs. "feminine." Yet, even in such a stereotypically framework, it manages to produce an interesting team....

    In Ranma 1/2, Akane at first starts out quite fiesty and independent, and says to Ranma (who is teasing her about her lack of femininity), "If I accidentally fall in love, maybe I'll become more feminine!" As the series progresses, Akane starts to fall in love with Ranma, and does, indeed, become more "feminine" and also more passive. We see her practicing fighting less, and we see Ranma practicing more. Akane takes up the victim role of waiting for Ranma to rescue her. Part of this, it seems, is to make Ranma prove that he loves her. (In Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura series, Lum would make herself bait in order to watch Moroboshi come rescue her --- proof to her that he did love her). However, unlike a truly helpless heroine, over and over Akane must come to Ranma's rescue after he has come to hers. Without Akane's help, Ranma would have lost many of his battles, as much as he hates to admit it. Akane is a key part of a team; either person could not possibly succeed alone. (Interestingly, though, this partnership is down-played in the TV shows; it only truly shines through in Takahashi's original stories).

    Even in some of the more stereotyped manga, there is some partnership and friendship between the sexes. And isn't partnership --- mutual respect, caring for each other, helping each other --- the most important thing in any relationship?

    A note on gender swapping: Perhaps the earliest manga of gender-bender theme was Tezuka ("Father of modern manga") Osamu's girls' comic Ribbon No Kishi (a.k.a. Princess Knight in the West), dating originally from 1953 and revised and re-run years later. Another famous example would be Ikeda Riyoko's Berusaiyuu No Bara or Rose of Versailles, hailing from the early 1970s. The 1990s saw several notable boys' manga with gender-swapping themes, including Ranma 1/2, Love, and even the men's comic Noside. Finally, a particular early-2000 issue of Hana To Yume girls' comics shows, of eleven story-based comics in the issue, an astounding four (36%) where the heroine actively regularly pretends to be or is mistaken for a boy (e.g., Hanazakari No Kimi-tachi Eh and Tokyo Crazy Paradise), and at least two where the heroine has some traditionally masculine behaviors that she's trying to be rid of (e.g., O-Hoshi-sama Ni Onegai!). While the central theme may still be love romance in many of these, can there be any doubt that young Japanese society is aware of gender issues?

    Text copyright 1997, 2000 by Eri Izawa

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