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
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:
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).
- 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.
- 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.
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
- The Unequal Relationship: Women as Cheerleaders and
Damsels-in-Distress. Most 1970's manga and a good percentage of
modern comics depict the old stereotypes: the women tend to be shy and
weak, meek and humble; the men tend to be strong, gruff, and "cool."
They tend to stay this way, though the female does tend to become
stronger mentally, though usually not to the point of becoming equal
to the male. This theme runs through both girls' and boys' comics.
- In boys' comics, girls are routinely depicted as
damsels-in-distress who otherwise act as the male character's
cheerleaders. Sometimes, in the case of the 1970's stereotypical
action team in which one out of five members was female, the woman was
routinely the one who screwed up in battle. Examples of this are
anime like GoLion ("Voltron") or Cyborg 009 or the
Ultraman series. A great number of modern manga follow this
trend as well. Even the 80's City Hunter played heavily on
the unequal strengths of Ryo and Kaori; Kaori, though a decent
partner, usually wound up as bait. The older Black Angels also
had women who were competent, but not nearly as much as the men. In many
other manga, the girls sit in the bleachers cheering on their
boyfriends as the latter play bastketball, or soccer, or baseball, or
battle giant monsters, demons, or whatever. She often will sacrifice
her own goals and activities to help out her favorite male, and of
course she dreams of marrying him, staying at home, and doing the
laundry. He, meanwhile, dreams of winning the ball game and
sacrifices the time he could have spent with her on practicing
instead. (Speaking of sacrifice, in a scene from a Gundam movie, a
mother opts to send her son over her daughter to safety --- because
it's assumed boys are warriors and hence more valuable). In the best
manga of this variety, however, the male gains strength from her
caring, gains strength from his own love for her, and wins his battle
as much for himself as for her.
- In girls' comics, both old and to some extent recent, our
heroine's mind is often full of devotion and trepidition about her
chosen male. It's sometimes highly annoying to read a comic book
where page after page depicts a girl whose mind is completely filled
with her adoration and respect (and worship!) of a guy she likes, her
fear of approaching him, her wondering what he thinks of her,
wondering what she can do for him, thinking she's worthless, comparing
herself to other girls, and so on. Alas, this is a typical
romance-oriented girls' comic theme, though modern heroines seem
(thankfully) less neurotic. It is often assumed that boys are
more stable, more reliable, more intelligent, stronger, and more
capable than the main-character girls. The males tend to assume this
as well, and take up the role of leaders and teachers. Examples of
this story are too numerous to list, but one particularly insiduous
one is the 1970s-era Aim for the Ace --- in which the entire
manga, even though it's about a woman tennis player, philosophizes on
the inherent weakness of women, and how men must train women to be
strong like men. The main character, the tennis player, spends much
of her time apologizing to male characters and blushing a lot. In the
better examples of this type of manga, though, we get to see the
heroine develop enough courage to stand by her man in a difficult
situation, and frequently it is her gentle love that saves him from
harm. In a mixed-gender team, her role is definitely one of (anxious)
support, a direct parallel of the boys' comics message. (In my
opinion, this really wouldn't be so bad, if only the heroines would
stop being quite so insecure and low in self-esteem).
- Should I bother mentioning certain (not all) men's comics? The
hero tends to be a defender of women, but the series often focus so
much on sex-crazed male "bad guys" and their behaviors (as well as on
certain female body parts) that one begins to think the author has
more in common with the bad guys than the hero. I won't even mention
the comics where the "hero" is a rapist.
- Adjusting Relationships: Bringing the Woman Down. These have a
more natural balance and more realistic male and female characters;
however, the male often has to help the the woman reach a more
"normal" state --- usually by helping her become weaker and/or gentler
(and/or dependent). In the case of Maison Ikkoku, Godai was
expected to be able to support Kyoko so that she could quit her job
and depend on him, and in the case of 3X3 Eyes, Yakumo needs to
help Pai until she can become human, lose all her powers, and "live
like a normal human girl." (Moreover, though at first Pai is more
powerful, Yakumo slowly becomes stronger than she). This theme crops
up in book 2 of Chojin Locke, in which Locke berates the
psychic woman he's fighting and demands to know why she doesn't stop
living like a tool and start living as "a human --- a woman!" Later,
in the movie version of the story, the warrior-woman is mentally
"corrected" by the government to become just another fashion-conscious
woman. Other examples: The eldest of the Cat's Eye thief
sisters loses her memory of what she is, and it's supposedly "better
for her" that way. In fact, there is a general tendency to have strong female characters
forget who they are. In Kimagure Orange Road, our hero
wins Madoka's respect when he snatches a cigarette from her and tells
her that if she smokes, she "won't be able to have a healthy baby."
In Chojin Locke again, a young man who once had to be saved by
the princess by the end of the book is saving the princess (who has
inexplicably become quite a wimp). In one adult manga, the hero
observes that women concentrating in the officeplace look ugly, while
men in the officeplace look good and handsome. Where do women look
their best? In the bedroom. The message seems to be that women ought
to become a societally accepted notion of "a woman"; otherwise,
they're unnatural in some way; men should help them reach that state.
Men should be their protectors and the breadwinners, as well as their
leaders and teachers. (Ranma 1/2 falls under this category to
an extent, but I'll be discussing it more below).
- The Stable, Equal Relationship: Yes, there seem to be some of
these, too. Some of the more recent girls' comics seem especially to
be picking up on this theme. Usually (not always) the male is assumed
to be stronger, but the female is often smarter (at least
academically) and/or more stable. There's a balance here, and both
sides have a respect for the other, personally and sometimes
professionally. Usually (not always) the male is the main character
and the woman is a sidekick, but still, one can sense the mutual
respect. Wow. Even if the woman is a housewife, one can see that she
doesn't automatically worship her husband; she can use her own brain,
and she does. Both use their talents, and both know the other's
faults. There isn't a delusional, ideal stereotype blinding them
about each other. As a note, I do include in this category
some manga that have the double message of women as competent
people and also as sex objects. However, if the female character, no
matter what her supposed role in society is, solves most of her
problems with sex, or if there is an overbearing emphasis on body
parts, then I must conclude that the author's primary view of the
character is as a sex object.
- The Initially Unequal Relationship: Super Women Who Bring the
Male Up. A recent style of manga and anime introduces the "Super
Woman" notion, though it could be said the earliest "super woman" was
Oscar, of Rose of Versailles, from 1974. Main character
heroines such as Mikami (Ghost Sweeper Mikami), Gally
(Gunnm) and Natsuki (Natsuki Crisis) are of this type,
stronger and smarter than everyone else around them, including their
love interests. And, unlike some other manga, they are not ashamed to
be better, and they fight hard to stay sharp and competent. The male
doesn't strive to change/lower the woman, but instead strives to raise
himself to her level. (It doesn't help that sometimes the male is
slightly unstable in some way --- usually a tad dense, a bit lacking
in self-discipline, a bit unreliable, or sometimes overly sex-crazed).
The trend is for the heroine to remain independent and aloof until the
male character gets enough of a "grip" to improve himself until he is
worthy of her. The end result of this type seems to be a more equal
partnership --- though it's notable that, at the very end of the series,
Gally loses her powers and Mikami may be far surpassed by her apprentice.
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
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
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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