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Same-sex relationships have been legal in Japan since 1880, long before the West decriminalised them, but the repressed national character of the country has led to a rather paradoxical treatment of LGBTQ+ characters in media. For this essay, LGBTQ+ will refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other non-cisgender or not-heterosexual identities, which may be shortened to “queer” where appropriate. My thesis is that the anime, comics and games industry is both more accepting of same-sex relationships and non-cisgender characters than its Western counterpart, but also suffers from a lack of progress in its representation over the last two decades and “has yet to grow beyond […] motifs” (The Artifice). In contrast, while Western companies initially erased queer characters in its localisations, social progress has led to society becoming more accepting of these themes, to the point where LGBTQ+ characters are now arguably better represented in Western pop culture than in Japanese media; Japan has merely had “a gradual softening of traditional prejudice toward gays in Japan” (Osaki) rather than the sharp turning point Western countries have experienced. Mostly focusing on anime but with some games case studies, I will begin by exploring the main features of queer representation in Japanese media as I perceive them, which are: an acceptance of queer relationships even in media marketed to children; deliberately portraying a relationship between two same-sex characters in an ambiguous manner (often known as “ship-teasing” or “ship-baiting”); characters who do not easily conform to ideas of the gender binary; and instances of problematic representation. I will then consider these within a globalised framework and look at how localisation can cause issues for representation, and conclude that the progressive attitude to queer people in Japan has stagnated.
To begin, I would like to consider some representation of same-sex pairings in mainstream media. (I am deliberately not talking about the yaoi or yuri sub-genres of ACG here, due to space constraints.) Firstly we have the case of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune in the popular franchise Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, or Sailor Moon. Sailor Moon started as a manga series in 1992, spawned a TV show that lasted for 200 episodes, and has most recently been revived as Sailor Moon Crystal. Since they were first introduced, Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune have been a lesbian couple who happen to also be part of the Sailor Scout team. This encountered no problems, and the Japanese manga and anime series have all depicted their relationship as a couple. Another example of same-sex attraction comes from Cardcaptor Sakura, known in the West as Cardcaptors and another seminal example of a Magical Girl publication. It is created by CLAMP who are well known for their sympathetic portrayal of gay characters in mainstream media, and Cardcaptors features the canon gay pairing of Yukito and Touya, as well as Tomoyo’s precocious lesbian crush on Sakura which mirrors her mother’s unreciprocated crush on Sakura’s mother. The reason these two properties are important is due to how localisations treated them, which I will come on to in the second part of this essay: namely, they were picked up to be localised and shown in the West as children’s television shows. Also from the 1990s, Revolutionary Girl Utena (Shoujo Kakumei Utena) was released as a manga in 1996 with the anime first broadcast in 1997 and spanning three seasons. In the anime, Utena is a ‘princely’ character, wearing a male uniform to be more like her idolised prince, and saving Anthy the Rose Bride from various evildoers, and their relationship is made explicitly romantic in the 1999 movie Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie (known in Japan as Shoujo Kakumei Utena Aderesensu Mokushiroku) which received a fairly faithful localisation in English-speaking countries in 2001.
In more recent years, same-sex couples have been canonically included in a variety of media. Ryuko and Mako from Kill La Kill are implied to have romantic feelings towards each other through the whole series and go on a “date” (deeto) in the final episode, described using the same word as typically heterosexual dates to cement the romantic nature of it, as well as sharing a kiss before the last battle. Strike Witches is a mixed-media project encompassing animated series, manga, light novels and a movie, and features a same-sex pairing of Sanya and Elia (complete with their own song, “Sweet Duet”). Finally in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the driving force of the plot is Homura’s intense love for and need to save Madoka, to the point where it becomes possessive and toxic: Madoka solves with by rewriting the laws of the universe and transcending into a divine existence. The third film, Rebellion, features Homura fighting to free Madoka from her meta-existence, eventually sacrificing her own humanity in order to do so. Despite this, especially for same-sex couples, it is very rarely explicitly stated that characters are in love, leading to a lot of debate over the canonical status of their relationships. For lesbian relationships specifically, many people try argue that these are really just examples of close female friendships, a phenomenon which exists to erase female sexuality by effectively denying it could exist with a man to be the object of it.
Besides characters who obviously experience same-sex attraction, queer representation in ACG often involves characters who do not conform to a specific gender. Haruhi in Ouran High School Host Club becomes involved with an all-male club called the “Host Club” and thus has to cross-dress in order to maintain her façade. Here, the trope exists to deconstruct clichés in romance manga, but Haruhi herself states: “I don’t really care if you guys recognize me as a boy or a girl. In my opinion it’s more important for a person to be recognized for who they are, rather than what sex they are” (Episode 1), leading many to debate whether or not Haruhi identifies as female. This is somewhat ruined in the manga, as the distant epilogue shows Haruhi in traditionally feminine attire with long hair, but the anime follows a slightly different canon and so could be read as portraying her as gender-fluid, non-binary or as having no gender. Another character with unclear gender identity is Rui from Gatchaman Crowds, who was male assigned at birth but frequently wears female clothing and wigs. It is ambiguous in the first season whether this is a disguise, cross-dressing or an expression of a variable gender identity, but the acceptance of the other characters leads the audience to also accept Rui as they are, without questioning their gender presentation.
Next, I want to examine the phenomenon of “ship-teasing” whereby two characters are written in such a way to deliberately invoke discussions regarding the nature of their relationship. While many fans will create non-canon pairings for fan-fiction or fan-art, ship-teasing encourages this through making relationships vague enough to be interpreted however fans desire while offering no canonical comment on the veracity of it. This is very common in all-male or all-female properties, such as the swimming anime Free! featuring only boys, or the musical animes K-On! (Keion!) which features no male characters, and Sound! Euphonium (Hibike! Euphonium) whose male characters are secondary. The homoeroticism often varies by episode; for example, Episode 8 of Sound! Euphonium features the main character Kumiko and her friend Reina hiking up a shrine, calling each other “attractive” and essentially having a date, while Episode 10 reveals that Reina is in love with the male music teacher. Many fans see this as ship-teasing, due to such factors as the close proximity in which Reina and Kumiko are often drawn, the deliberately romantic language they use to describe each other (like “attractive” or “hot”), and the ending credits featuring Reina and Kumiko tied together by a red string of fate like that thought to connect lovers in Chinese traditional media. Ship-teasing is very prevalent in ACG as it allows companies to provide titillation and speculation without having to include canon homosexuality; however, it is also a very damaging and dated practise as it implies same-sex relationships exist purely to excite or amuse fans, and are not as valid as heterosexual couplings. It re-iterates the idea of heterosexuality as a compulsory norm, while same-sex attractions are played for laughs, brushed aside entirely or explained away as stereotypically gendered behaviour.
This fascination with gender stereotyping and interactions leads to many franchises where “sex-changing” becomes a core mechanic. As the main character’s consciousness remains the same while their bodies change, these gender-flipped characters are arguably representations of transgender people, albeit presented comically and in order to examine gendered behavior rather than to explore the plight of transgender people. Mahou Shoujo Ore features a protagonist whose Magical Girl transformation sequence entails becoming a muscular man, while Ore to Hero to Mahou Shoujo is the other side of the coin, featuring a grown man becoming a teenage magical girl. Ore, Twintail Ni Narimasu also heavily relies on the perceived comedy value of a teenage boy transforming into a girl, but these representations are often problematic because of the way male-to-female characters are presented. Laughing at the awkwardness of a male-bodied person in a dress can be a variety of transmisogyny, or the belief that transgender women are not really female. This is very pervasive and thus very damaging, as it normalizes the idea that certain people can be mocked for their gender identity.
As I have been noting, many of these portrayals of queer characters are problematic. The relationship between Sanya and Elia in Strike Witches suffers from the male gaze whereby they wear minimal clothing and interact romantically in part to titillate a male audience. A recent interaction from the new Fire Emblem If game, which has yet to be officially translated into English, also displays this intolerance towards lesbianism, as Soleil’s romance conversations with the protagonist involve her being ‘cured’ of her same-sex attraction, thereby making lesbians seem like an acceptable target for heterosexual male attention as they can be made to like men. Besides same-sex relationships being written to excite fans, sometimes Japanese media instead uses negative stereotypes. An all-girl high school in Ouran High School Host Club called Lobelia Academy features a lesbian trio who are distinctly antagonistic, including kidnapping Haruhi to “steal” (Episode 19) her first kiss, perpetuating ideas of lesbianism as unnatural or evil – which is especially out of place in the show, considering its cheerful acceptance of male homosexuality and Haruhi’s father’s bisexuality and current job as a transvestite host.
As well as these instances of same-sex relationships, the depiction of transgender characters comes up against many obstacles. In Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, one of the datable characters is a female assigned at birth but male-presenting character, Naoto. While this has the potential to be very progressive, the game treats Naoto’s gender identity as an obstacle to be cleared, making “no distinction between gender and sex” (Brice); indeed, when romancing Naoto, the player’s choices completely determine his gender, and “the gameplay mechanics encourage the player to nudge Naoto towards becoming a woman.” This implies transgender identities are the result of choice rather than an internal facet of being, and – even worse – should change themselves to fit into their partner’s sexuality, denying their own individuality. This combines transphobia with homophobia, as potentially encouraging Naoto to present as male could make players (probably straight, probably male) feel uncomfortable with their sexuality. Transgender characters are rare enough in media, but for their potential to be wasted with damaging tropes is reflective of larger cultural problems.
These issues are also present in the globalisation of media, due to the way the West is also wary of gender and sexual minority representation. Some of this can be explained by different cultural stances towards LGBTQ+ relationships, and how acceptance in the West has progressed while it has remained fairly static in Japan. In the 1990s, television was wary to show queer relationships in anime as they were often aired as children’s cartoons, so many relationships were erased. To return to some of my earlier examples, Sailor Moon’s Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune had their relationship changing into “cousins” in the dubbed localisation. However, as the scene composition of many shots was not changed, this led to the unfortunate subtext that the two women were cousins who were dating, which is presumably less appropriate than merely a same-sex relationship. Additionally, the eponymous character often had her lines complimenting the other Sailors edited out in localisation: despite being in a canonically heterosexual relationship, any hints that Sailor Moon may be bisexual or even bi-romantic were removed.
The fifth and final season of the Sailor Moon anime was broadcast from 1996 to 1997, but did not receive an official foreign dub till Viz Media announced that they were redubbing the whole series in 2014, 18 years later. Part of the reason for the fifth season’s lack of export was that it featured the Sailor Starlights, magical girls who usually appeared as male idol singers, and one of whom developed romantic feelings for the titular Sailor Moon. Another property to have undergone this queer erasure is Cardcaptor Sakura: Tomoyo’s crush on Sakura is completely edited out, and as a result Tomoyo’s character is very two-dimensional. The relationship between Touya and Yukito is also left out of the original dub, which aired in 2000 in the West. This lack of localisation now seems strange, when animes such as Lesbian Bear Storm (Yurikuma Arashi) are receiving official dubs, which goes to show how much attitudes in the West have changed while remaining relatively static in Japan. These delayed accurate localisations also demonstrate something of a perception shift in the West: anime has gone from being serialised on children’s television to instead being marketed to older audiences, like teenagers and young adults, meaning that there are fewer problems with showing queer characters
However, retaining original features can be impossible due to different age rating systems in Japan and in the West. The franchise Harvest Moon is a very popular farming simulation game which features a large dating simulation section, where you are able to romance villagers and eventually marry them. In the 2005 release Harvest Moon DS Cute, you play as a female character who can romance a number of different bachelors, as she is the opposite-gender counterpart of the original Harvest Moon DS game. However, four female villagers who were available to marry in the original game were able to be wooed in Cute, which could eventually result in “best friend” status and a female moving into the player’s house; the two women could even find and raise a child together. However, this feature was removed in the Western localisations of this game, probably due to the different age rating boards: same-sex content would have pushed the game out of its family friendly ‘E for Everyone’ rating. Despite the fact this game came out 10 years ago, none of the subsequent releases have tried to reinstall same-sex relationships – and this is also regardless of the fact that Japan has no legal recognition of same-sex relationships, while between 2005 and 2015 many countries in the EU and North America have legalised same-sex marriage of partnerships. Also regarding age ratings, the fairly inoffensive Ouran High School Host Club was released on DVD in the UK with a 15 age rating, presumably due to the numerous homosexual references as well as the central premise of cross-dressing: however, the show did not contain any sexual situations, violence even strong language as would be expected in Western releases with a 15 age rating, demonstrating a bias towards romantic behaviour viewed as different from the norm.
With that said, there have been other franchises which have made some form of progress in queer representation without fear of age ratings. The Fire Emblem games, which are story-driven turn-based tactical role-playing games, always feature a large cast of diverse and obtainable characters. Previously, the only overtly queer character was Heather, a minor thief from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (released in 2007) who, while having a line about joining for all the “pretty girls” removed from localisation, still compliments every female character she interacts with, even in the English language versions of the game. Unfortunately Heather is not a plot-relevant character and unlike many of the important characters, who have the option of heterosexual paired endings which often detail their successful marriages, Heather cannot have a paired ending. However in Fire Emblem If, released in 2015, same-sex support conversations have become part of the dialogue for both male and female protagonists. There are serious flaws with this: for example, there is one available same-sex marriage option each for the male and female protagonist, and each of these only appears in one of the game’s two main storylines, as well as the aforementioned attempt to cure Soleil’s lesbianism. While for many this seems like tokenism, especially given that the highest level for same-sex relationships is “A+” rather than the “S” for heterosexual couples, it still represents a step forward by Ninetendo, a notoriously family-friendly company. Seeing what survives the localisation will be interesting, but given that the announcement of same-sex support conversations seemed to generate a lot of positive media attention, it is unlikely to be entirely erased even for the sake of a lower age rating.
Other times, localisations can be affected by the power of the fan community. For example, Love Live! School Idol Festival is a smartphone game which features minor homoeroticism in the original Japanese text. One female character has had her dialogue changed from the original Japanese, “I like looking at cute girls,” to, “I like looking at cute things.” Another character had her line “I don’t mind, even if we’re both girls,” changed to, “I don’t think it’s scandalous for a boy and a girl to hang out,” (Reyna, Nerdspan) which implicitly changes the gender of the featureless player character. However, the fan backlash against the changes was so strong that in June 2015 the developer, KLab, changed the text to restore the original light lesbianism. These minor acts of erasure count as micro-aggressions towards to the LGBTQ+ community by tacitly denying their existence: the support of the fans in this case shows how pressure from consumers, combined with the cultural move towards celebrating queer relationships (especially in the wake of the American Supreme Court legalising same-sex marriage) manifests itself in company policy.
In closing, then, we can consider the presence of same-sex relationships and queer or gender non-conforming characters has been a part of Japanese popular culture for a long time, being accepted in Japan long before it was portrayed with similar sympathy in the West. However, globalisation has made the world smaller, so while Japanese properties are being sent to the West, American and European media are also proliferating in Japan. From these many case studies, I hope to have demonstrated that the West’s treatment of queer characters has become more progressive, while Japan’s has stagnated and remained static. Unless major steps are taken in raising the profile of same-sex relationships and gender variant individuals within Japan and removing the stigma surrounding them, mainstream Japanese anime, comics and games are unlikely to become more ground-breaking and may soon be overtaken by their Western counterparts.
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