Homosexuality, Manga, and the Land of the Rising Sun

by Ellen Pilot

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I know it might be presumptuous, but I believe that most Western anime viewers really don’t know much, if anything, about Japanese people and culture besides what is presented to them in anime and manga. Sure, it’s easy enough to look up why Japanese people write wishes on pieces of paper and hang them on trees for Tanabata, or what a tree leaf standing up in a cup signifies, but does anime and manga really give the average Western otaku an informed and accurate picture of Japan?

National Coming Out week was this month in America. It is easy to understand why a week of awareness for gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons are needed in the States. There is a lot of negative stigma that these individuals have to deal with, even on a daily basis. Being inspired by the week’s significance, I had a conversation with a gay acquaintance last week about tolerance. He enjoys anime, and he told me that he would rather live in Japan than the US, since he believes that he would be accepted there. It is true that there are no wide held beliefs that the Japanese have against homosexuals to invoke the intense negative reaction that they do in the United States, but Japan is also not a place that fully accepts gay people.

First, I think one needs to ask, why do American otaku think that Japan is accepting of homosexuals? If it’s because of the popularity of yaoi and yuri, I’d like to ask why do people think that type of media is produced and consumed in Japan? Well, I’m here to tell you that yaoi and yuri, on the whole at least, are not made for the sake of making any type of political statement. Before I begin, I want to say that I know more about Japanese yaoi fans than yuri fans, mostly because more has been written about them. So, my lack of in-depth analysis of yuri has nothing to with personal basis.

I also want to point out that the term “yaoi” does have different connotations in America than they do in Japan. In Japan, it refers to male homosexual porn with no plot that features characters from outside sources, verse in America where it’s a blanket term meaning stories that feature a gay romance. For this article, I’m going to use the term “shounen-ai” here after to refer to romances with gay men. Also for the sake of symmetry, I will refer to romances with gay women as “shojo-ai”.

While shonen-ai might not carry the weight of a political statement, it can be viewed as an outlet for the frustrations that Japanese women feel about gender roles in their society. Japan is a patriarchal society, and women’s most important societal role is to become mothers, run their households, and be their children’s primary teachers for how to live and function in society. Make no mistake however, Japanese mothers hold control over the domestic sphere and can command a lot power from that position. That being said, the list of life options for Japanese women is still short. When a woman has a child, if she has a job, society tells her she is supposed to quit it to then come back later to work part time when her children are older. Some women, at least, believe that because of the expectations that society places on them, their relationships with men are not equal.

Hagio Moto, an influential shonen-ai mangaka, said that she wrote unions between two men because it’s an “equal, pure union.” It could be inferred from this that Japanese women have a longing for equality in relationships but believe that this can’t be achieved between two people of different sexes. And since ideas that challenge the social rules of Japanese society are slow to gain popularity or even mass attention, since social harmony for the good of the collective whole is paramount in Japan, women read shonen-ai to be able to experience equality. It’s possible that women can enjoy shojo-ai for the same reason. Yuri was first targeted to female readers, with the stories being produced by women mangaka like Nobuko Yoshiya, Ryoko Yamagishi, and Riyoko Ikeda.

Japanese men seem to read and watch yuri to enjoy explicit context. Yuri targeted towards men focuses more on comedy or fanservice. Great amounts of violence are also incorporated into shojo-ai stories aimed at men more often than those aimed at women, example being Devil Lady by Go Nagai. Male aimed shojo-ai media with softer content utilizes moe elements and bishojo aesthetics. Shonen-ai stories made by and for gay men are called bara, but men who read shonen-ai material outside that sub-category have not been written about as much. These male fans are called fudanshi, which means rotten boy. The term fundanshi is related to the term fujoshi, which means rotten girl. These terms clearly do not paint a positive picture of people who read shonen-ai.

To understand why the Japanese have adverse social reactions to media depicting gays, one doesn’t have to understand any of Japan’s religions, but instead the importance that’s placed on the family in relation to the self. Many of the nation’s long-standing social norms have their roots in the agrarian society that Japan originated from. Fertility was always a major concern, not only because fertile land was needed to make food, but also because fertile post-pubescent people were needed to have a lot of children. Damnation of permanent homosexual relationships stems from the simple fact that two people of the same sex cannot have a child together. The lack of children in a family is highly significant to the older generations because it signifies the true death of a family.

This is why stories of gay love are far more likely to end in tears than deliver a happily ever after. The characters are caught between public propriety and personal passion, making them figures of great tragedy. Duty always must be served before desire; this type of cultural backdrop only makes for a more intense depiction of a relationship. But it’s still merely that, a depiction. Most shonen-ai and shojo-ai stories are not supposed to be genuine. An actual gay couple would have to confront social disapproval and fight for their relationship to be able to build a life together. This would significantly damage the fantasy, since the Japanese are taught from birth to avoid and prevent confrontation, even if it comes at great personal cost.

The fantasy is also ruined by reality since a gay couple in the real world has to deal with the ups and downs that any couple does. The couples in shojo-ai and shonen-ai also go through their ups and downs, but there are very stereotypical “problems” that couples in the genre go through. Also, if a couple grows old together, and then the characters have to change and they would no longer be the ideal heroines and heroes of shonen-ai and shojo-ai. They would no longer be the attractive sophisticated older woman, the charmingly naïve high school girl, the school idol, the charmingly ditzy high school boy, the gruff bad boy, or the emotionally wounded pretty boy.

The affection for romances between two people for the same sex can be understood on another level when one considers the significance that cherry blossoms have in Japanese culture. Like a sakura blossom, these affairs flower in prefect beauty. These unions are a relationship between equals and a match of love only, being far removed from the harsh reality of duty. Also like the sakura blossom, they are doomed to a fate of quickly withering and dying. They last only a short time, fueled by the bright, intense fire knowing it’s forbidden to last. As in author Ian Buruma, which in his book Behind the mask: On sexual demons, sacred mothers, transvestites, gangsters, drifters and other Japanese cultural heroes quotes from the eighteenth-century text Hagakure concerning samurai ethics, “love attaints its highest and noblest form when it carries its secret to the grave.” So it’s only in death that these men and women are supposed to find fulfillment with the true object of their affection.

To our foreign eyes the Japanese don’t explicitly discriminate against gay people but they are far from truly accepting of them. I think that too many Western otaku elevate Japan as being this prefect place to live that is free of all the issues that they have to confront every day in their own countries. Japan is not a prefect, magical place. It’s a country that has as many social problems as every other nation in the world. And one some of those problems have to do with how gay people are only marginally tolerated in the land of the rising sun.

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Author: Ellen Pilot

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  • Daniel

    Indeed, most US-American otaku are blind and have no notions of the social reality and issues that Japan has. They think that the country is perfect, and think they can understand the culture just by reading manga/watching anime. Poor guys/gals, they don’t see the types of social pressure that Japanese society places on their people. Maybe you could write an article on social pressure/teenage suicides in Japan?

    Great article, keep it up!

  • ParaParaJMo
  • Khrisma Soliven

    it’s a very interesting article, i was blown away by your analysis. i’m glad i cam across this article!

    i’m an otaku and i’m working on a research paper right now, and this article is exactly what i needed. But of course, I would quote you with proper citation. I just want to know if you could share some of your credentials? Or state some sources you used on this article.
    I don’t want to let go of using your article for my research paper
    This would be really, really, really helpful,.
    Many thanks!

    Thank you so much! :3