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LGBTQA Rep in Japanese Anime & Games Is Misunderstood By Fans

There is a significant push in western fandoms for LGBTQA representation. Many fans can be forgiven in assuming, however, that this push is only from western fandoms. It is a common occurrence, after all, to hear an American, Canadian, or British anime fan bemoan the lack of LGBTQA representation in anime, in some form or another. So when these fans, exhausted of hearing anime being criticized, hear about, say, a trans character in a mainstream anime, they'd be fast to assume, "Oh, there's some mistake with the translation. The west is forcing diversity into my anime." These fans, tired of hearing Americans tell the Japanese what to do, know for a fact that Japan is less concerned with the plights of the gays than America.

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Except...these fans are wrong. Such was the case with the anime Zombieland Saga, when one of the core characters, Lily Hoshikawa, came out as trans. Fans all over the internet thought, "Oh, the American translators changed the text." But they hadn't. And this keeps happening.

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The simple truth is a lot of western fans, either deliberately or accidentally, don't understand that many Japanese creators are actively among those arguing for more LGBTQA representation in anime. And understanding these misconceptions is the first step to better understanding the role queer people play in anime.

The Perspective

Many western fans have convinced themselves that Japan doesn't care about queer people. This ignores the growing LGBTQA-liberation movements in Japan and the increasing support for same-sex marriage, especially among the youth. This is also ignoring the long history of same-sex relationships in the pre-Meiji Era of Japan.

No, many western fans believe that Japan doesn't take the concerns of the LGBTQA community seriously. Japan, historically, is a homogeneous country. It has often produced racially insensitive material over the years. Mr. Popo from Dragon Ball looks like a black-face caricature. Japanese creators are less familiar with the historical and social discourse surrounding American racial stereotypes, and so incorporate iconography that, to them, seems innocent enough. It causes offense to us because the imagery they're appropriating is racist, but oftentimes they got it from us.

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Many Japanese people have expressed homophobic opinions. Sugita Mio, a member of the Japanese House of Representatives, caught a lot of attention in both the west and east in 2015 when she appeared in a viral Youtube video. Sugita argued the LGBT community in Japan received "too much support" from the government, going on to laugh at the high suicide rate of LGBTQA Japanese children.

News from Japan rarely reaches most western people. Few people update themselves on the current social climate of a country they don't live in if it doesn't directly affect their livelihood. Ergo, comments like this that are so controversial carry a lot of weight in the west and east. If you saw Sugita's comment, you might assume this is the mainstream opinion in Japan, that Japan is apathetic toward queer people. And this opinion, if you're only familiar with certain Japanese anime, will be reinforced by Japan's media. This, of course, ignores that American political figures also often make homophobic comments and LGBTQA people also rarely appear in Western media.

The truth is that, while Japan isn't the most socially progressive country, there is a huge demographic of individuals who create work featuring queer characters.

Queer Literature in Japan

The history of queer fiction in Japan is often filled with problematic and curious aspects. Most people are familiar with the words "yuri" and "yaoi" manga, though the latter is preferably referred to as "boys love" manga today (or BL for short). Yuri stories are romances centered around two girls, usually schoolgirls, while BL is focused on men in same-sex relationships. Both genres are defined by vastly different tropes and cliches but are definitely early examples of Japanese stories focused on same-sex relationships -- long before western audiences ever demanded more diversity in their fiction.

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The origins of yuri manga -- manga focusing on romantic relationships between women -- date back to the early 20th century. Novelist Yoshiya Nobuko's seminal novel, Yaneura no Nishojo, established numerous tropes that yuri manga would later emulate. Manga historian Erica Friedman explained the origins of yaoi and yuri as such:

Yuri manga developed organically along with BL. During the same period of time Takaemiya Keiko and Moto Hagio were drawing Song of the Wind and Trees and Heart of Thomas, Yamgishi Ryouko was creating what I consider the earliest yuri manga, Shiroi Heya no Futari (Our White Room)which established that main “yuri couple” tropes we spoke of earlier.

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These early BL and yuri manga first came out in the mid-1970s. While yuri's readership was primarily divided between men and women with women writing most of the early stories, early BL stories were written by and for women. This changed over time, as more queer men wrote BL stories, such as manga-ka Aoi Kujou and Haiji Sakura.

These Aren't Obscure Titles

It can be easy to dismiss these as obscure titles. To this day, yuri and yaoi anime are niche by nature. However, there are several mainstream anime that are highly referenced and well-watched that feature queer characters that aspire to push the limits and offer positive representation.

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Arguably, the most noteworthy yuri manga of the 70s was The Rose of Versailles, written and illustrated by Riyoko Ikeda. The historical fiction manga proved successful enough that anime and manga years later are still alluding to it. Revolutionary Girl Utena is arguably the most notable anime that pays tribute to The Rose of Versailles.

Regardless, anime and manga featuring queer characters have remained popular over the years. The 80s manga Banana Fish was recently adapted into an anime with very few changes being made to its plot. Despite being written decades before being adapted, the Banana Fish anime still feels ahead of its time. Anime like Yuri on Ice and Zombieland Saga feature very LGBTQA characters front and center. These prove that not only are anime creators interested in creating queer anime, but they're actively making some of the most widely watched anime around.

The Complexities of Sexuality and Gender

Arguably, the most noteworthy anime to western fans to feature tons of LGBTQA representation early on was Sailor Moon. This is an anime so ahead of its time that American censors famously tried to hide the LGBTQA themes. Villains Zoicite and Kunzite, two men in a loving relationship, were censored by DiC Entertainment, who localized Sailor Moon for western audiences. Distributor Cloverway famously re-wrote Sailor Moon S's script so Haruka Tenoh and Michiru Kaiou weren't same-sex lovers, but rather just...cousins.

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However, Sailor Moon's anime held back much of the queer themes in Sailor Moon's manga. Naoko Takeuchi, Sailor Moon's creator, incorporated a lot of queer identities in the manga in unsubtle ways. Usagi Tsukino (Sailor Moon) expresses crushes on all genders, while Rei Hino (Sailor Mars) is canonically asexual. And the Sailor Starlights, depending on the medium, are either women who change gender into men or women who disguise themselves as men (and one of them, Seiya, develops a relationship with Usagi).

But most surprising in a modern context is Haruka Tenoh (Sailor Uranus). In the anime, Haruka is clearly a woman -- but in the manga, this is not the case. Haruka identifies as neither male nor female. Thus, Haruka is nonbinary. This isn't something that can be chalked up to a mistaken translation, either. In every English translation (even the ones that called Usagi "Bunny"), Haruka always admits that she isn't male or female. This made it into Sailor Moon Crystal, as well.

When people say Japan doesn't care about LGBTQA people, one has to ask...are these people even watching anime?

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