You know the difference between 内 and 僕 and 私, but how much do you know about the history of gender in manga? Here’s a brief overview from a nonbinary writer and certified weeb.
The state of LGBTQIA+ issues in Japan may strike some westerners as confusing, especially those with a tendency toward black-and-white thinking. Japan is not a country with a long history of queer and trans persecution; far from it, in fact. But it’s also not a queer paradise.
According to a June 2008 article in FOCUS, the newsletter of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center:
Japanese culture and the major religions in Japan do not have a history of hostility towards LGBT people. Japan is not usually described as “homophobic” (or anti-gay/homosexual). “Pre-modern” Japan (till mid-19th century) has a history of tolerance towards same-sex sexual conduct and relationships (mainly between males).
Today, same-sex marriage is illegal in Japan, despite 68% of the population supporting legal protections for queer folks. Transgender citizens can change their legal sex, but — according to Reuters — only if they “undergo sterilisation surgery and are diagnosed with a mental disorder” first.
These policies seem counterintuitive, given the country’s historical acceptance of same-sex relationships. They don’t appear to jive with Japan’s record on gender equality, either. As of 2019, Japan ranked 19th on the Gender Inequality Index: an initiative from the United Nations Development Programme that offers “a composite metric of gender inequality using three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment and the labour market.” (The U.S., with a score nearly twice as poor as Japan’s, ranked 46th.)
So, where does this leave gender in manga? Are Japanese comics progressive or conservative with regard to LGBTQIA+ rights?
A note on the spelling: I have used the o-macron (ō) to represent the “oo” (おお) and “ou” (おう) sounds in Japanese words in most cases. Exceptions include authors whose transliterated names specifically forgo the o-macron.
Anime and Manga Are Heavily Gendered
Most anime and manga are divided into broad categories according to the age and gender of their target audience. These are:
- Joji-muke, for little girls
- Shōjo, for girls and young women
- Josei, for adult women*
- Kodomo, for little boys
- Shōnen, for boys and young men
- Seinen, for adult men*
The manga I’ll be talking about here are mostly shōjo and shōnen. Each section of this article focuses primarily on one series from that time period. I’ve included some additional reading recommendations for further explorations of gender in manga at the end of each section.
* Note: josei and seinen manga include ecchi and hentai intended for their respective audiences
Princess Knight follows Sapphire, the Princess of Silverland, who — thanks to a prank carried out by Tink, an inexperienced angel — was born with both a blue boy’s heart and a red girl’s heart. Her father needs a male heir to prevent an evil duke from putting his son on the throne, and complications from the pregnancy have left Sapphire’s mother unable to have more children. So the king and queen pass their newborn daughter off as a boy.
Meanwhile, God scolds Tink for his prank, insisting that having two different hearts will confuse the child. Allegedly, a person with two hearts won’t know what gender they’re supposed to be. God instructs Tink to retrieve the blue heart if the baby is born female. Interestingly, he doesn’t give any instructions for removing the red heart if the baby is a boy — implying boys are allowed to have girls’ hearts, but not the other way around.
In the world of Princess Knight, the gender of a person’s soul doesn’t affect their physical sex characteristics, but it may determine their proficiency with certain activities. Sapphire’s blue heart is credited for her dueling skills, for example, but the doctor who delivers her is chastised for insinuating that girls can’t be leaders.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn, then, that Sapphire’s gender identity is difficult to pin down. Throughout the series, she yearns to shed her princely identity and marry a prince of her own. She relishes the moments when circumstances allow her to “masquerade” as a girl.
So she’s a girl disguised as a boy, right? Not exactly.
Sapphire’s entire personality changes depending on whether she’s wearing masculine or feminine clothing. Both personas are presented as genuine identities, however. In fact, when Tink comes to take her blue heart away, Sapphire refuses to give it up.
Now, it’s entirely possible that this is a fake-it-’til-you-make-it scenario. Although she knows she’s a princess, Sapphire has been raised as a prince. She carries the weight of all the kingdom’s expectations for an heir. Keeping up her parents’ ruse is the only way to keep the duke — who is constantly trying to out her as a girl — out of power.
But there’s a lot of queer coding happening in this series, much more than I can address in this article. This, combined with all the gender hijinks in play, makes Princess Knight anything but a simple girl-disguised-as-boy story. As we’ll soon see, later manga aren’t really interested in clearing up this nebulous concept of gender.
While training his martial arts skills with his father at a field of cursed springs in China, Ranma fell into the Spring of Drowned Girl, dooming him to turn into a girl upon contact with cold water. His father fell into the Spring of Drowned Panda. Various other characters stumbled into the Springs of Drowned Piglet, Cat, Duck, and — my personal favorite — Yeti Holding an Eel and Crane While Riding an Ox.
Now, “cold water” includes everything from swimming pools to koi ponds to heavy rain. Getting hit with hot water — there are a lot of tea kettle and bathtub gags in this series — will change him back into a boy. (As one arc shows, how hot or cold the water feels to Ranma is what allows the transformation to take place, but let’s keep things simple, shall we?)
Unlike Sapphire, Ranma doesn’t have an authentic persona for each of his bodies. Although he often puts on an über-feminine act to con unsuspecting boys into spending money on him or get himself out of trouble with the ladies, he’s very clearly a cis man. He doesn’t instinctively hide his breasts in girl form, and he often forgets exactly which body he’s in.
When the series begins, Ranma and his dad, Genma, have just returned to Japan after training in China. The two of them are kind of on the run from Mrs. Saotome, who made her husband promise to commit seppuku if their son didn’t turn out to be manly. Which…you can see where the antics are headed when she finally tracks them down, right?
Anyway, the two Saotome men call on Genma’s old friend Soun Tendo, who has three daughters. Genma and Soun have long had an agreement that their children will marry; it’s just a matter of deciding which Tendo girl will tie the knot. Akane Tendo’s older sisters volunteer her for the job because she hates men. What better husband could she find, then, than a boy who can become a girl at a moment’s notice?
As we soon find out, however, Akane isn’t the only fiancée Ranma has. Including Akane, he has three at the start of the series and acquires another two shortly after it begins. They are:
- Ukyo Kuonji, an okonomiyaki chef and martial artist, who disguised herself as a boy after Ranma — accidentally — broke her heart. To his credit, Ranma didn’t know they were engaged at the time; he didn’t even know she was a girl. Father of the Year Genma promised his son’s hand in marriage to her instead of paying his tab at her father’s food cart…which he later stole.
- Shampoo, a Chinese Amazon who vowed to kill Ranma after he majorly offended her while in his girl form. While trying to get to Girl!Ranma, Shampoo loses a fight to Boy!Ranma. According to Amazon tradition, that means they have to get married, whether he likes it or not.
- Kodachi Kuno, a martial artist from a rival school, who falls in love with Ranma after he saves her from a fall. She’s trying to win his heart when she runs into Girl!Ranma, whom she mistakes for Boy!Ranma’s lover…and subsequently vows to kill.
- Finally, there’s Tatewaki Kuno, Kodachi’s dramatic himbo of a brother. The inverse of his sister, Kuno falls in love with Girl!Ranma and has major beef with Boy!Ranma for coming between them.
Obviously, Ranma can’t marry all his fiancées — or, for that matter, his fiancé. Lucky for him, most of the people he’s supposed to marry are either crushing hard on someone else or being actively pursued by a suitor. This leads to further hijinks and petty jealousies, as these tertiary characters are often completely unaware of Ranma’s curse. (And many of them have their own encounters with the cursed springs to reckon with.)
In many ways, Ranma ½ is a product of its time. There’s a lot of what strikes me, a white reader with no connection to Chinese culture, as potentially Sinophobic. Some characters use transphobic insults to refer to Ranma, and many insinuate that he can’t be a “real man” as long as he is cursed.
Despite those flaws, Takahashi’s manga plays with gender in fascinating ways. The dynamics of marriage, courtship, and friendship are incredibly important to Ranma ½ as a whole because Ranma’s relationship with every other character is determined almost completely by which body he’s in at the time. And although he’s — rightfully — pissed at Genma for getting him cursed, Ranma doesn’t show any sign of gender dysphoria over his transformation. By keeping Ranma grounded in his identity as a cis man, the author opens the series up to explore other, more nuanced interactions in greater depth.
The Post-Millennium Heisei and Reiwa Eras
In manga, as in wider society, LGBTQ+ representation has changed drastically in the last 25 years or so. We’re seeing a lot more nonbinary and openly trans characters. They’re getting stories that aren’t tied directly to their gender and expression. And, most importantly, LGBTQ+ rep in manga continues to evolve today!
Rather than talking about the latest gender explorations in manga here, I’d like to discuss an older series. This manga ran for more than eight years in the aughts. It spawned an anime series and two films — one animated, one live-action. Its focus on an ostensibly agender character may have opened the doors for other mangaka to depict characters outside the binary.
I’m talking, of course, about Ouran High School Host Club.
Bisco Hatori’s series centers on Haruhi Fujioka: a shy, androgynous student attending an elite academy on scholarship. Haruhi accidentally breaks an expensive vase belonging to the school’s host club: an on-campus tearoom where female students pay to spend time with their attractive male peers.
Unable to pay the club back, Haruhi — who wears a masculine school uniform — becomes a host. She doesn’t reveal her gender to them because it doesn’t matter all that much to her. Today, we’d probably label her character as agender or gender apathetic.
Despite her androgyny, most of her fellow hosts clock her as a girl pretty quickly, except for himbo club leader Tamaki Suoh, who takes…a while. Most people in the school believe she’s a boy, including her host club clients — of which there are many — and Haruhi uses masculine first-person pronouns to maintain her male appearance.
What makes Ouran High School Host Club so interesting is Haruhi isn’t there to teach her fellow hosts anything about gender. They already know what girls like; that’s literally their job! The boys help Haruhi “disguise” herself as a girl on more than one occasion, but this isn’t The Wallflower. The hosts aren’t a bunch of fashionable young men teaming up to feminize an ugly duckling.
Because neither Haruhi nor the rest of the hosts care what gender she is, Hatori’s free to explore class relations throughout the series. The boys don’t reduce differences between themselves and their new friend to matters of sex. Instead, they blame the fact that she’s working class and they aren’t.
Rather than shame Haruhi for being poor or make themselves out to be superior due to their wealth, the hosts make a continued, concerted effort to understand the differences in their socioeconomic classes. Are they usually fumbling the ball? Yes. But are they trying their best to understand their new buddy? Also yes.
Ouran High School Host Club is far from perfect, but it was one of the first series to openly allow its protagonist to eschew gender. Haruhi’s gender apathy just is — it’s not a central plot point for the other characters to puzzle out. And, unlike Sapphire and Ranma, Haruhi’s gender expression isn’t dependent on some supernatural force. For all these reasons, I can’t let a discussion of gender in manga end without including this series.