It’s often difficult for teenagers to get the information that they need from the state, but alternative fantasy literature is leading the way in positive representation
Imagine you’re flipping through a comic book when you suddenly come across a character you haven’t seen before and, for the first time in your life, you see yourself reflected openly in a public space. While it might sound crazy, for many young LGBT people in Japan the only images they have of people they identify with are the stylised ones they see staring back at them from the black and white pages of manga comics. But why?
Japanese youth can find themselves seriously lacking in accessible information on LGBT issues, so they turn to alternative, escapist, fantasy literature to enter a world where queer people exist openly. Both manga and its animated version, anime, are places where transgressive behaviour is allowed or lauded and they’ve long been places where gay love stories are portrayed. Both Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, perhaps two of the most well-known and best-loved manga series ever feature gay individuals – in fact, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Moon are probably the most famous animated lesbian couple out there.
The value of LGBT characters in manga has been highlighted in a number of recent Human Rights Watch reports explaining how kids are having to turn to manga because they’ve been let down by the state and by schools, which haven’t really, until very recently, acknowledged the reality of LGBT kids in the classroom. In Japanese schools, as in wider society, high levels of conformity are expected from young people and children who are different can be deemed ‘damaging’ to group harmony, in fact one of the HRW reports was called “The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered Down”. Bullying, isolation and misunderstanding are endemic in schools, leading to alarmingly high levels of self-harm and suicide amongst LGBT youth – around 30 percent of LGBT kids contemplate suicide.
To put it bluntly, neither Japanese schools nor the country’s wider society acknowledge LGBT issues, a silence that forces children to seek information from other sources. We spoke with Mika Yakushi, a trans man who runs the non-profit Tokyo-based LGBT support group ReBit, to talk about the situation for LGBT kids in Japan. Yakushi explained that the degree of ambiguity and lack of information surrounding LGBT issues is extreme.
“A lot of the information online said stuff like ‘you will die at the age of 30 if you take hormones’ or that I wouldn’t be able to live and work in Japan as a trans man,” he says. For young people, even if they find a site that doesn’t tell scare stories, it’s mostly the medical side of being LGBT that’s addressed rather than the daily challenges. This means that Japanese kids have to look elsewhere for queer role models. Unfortunately, the portrayal of LGBT characters on Japanese TV isn’t positive and instead they’re often made figures of fun and derided. “There are a lot of gay and trans people on TV shows in Japan, but they're often laughed at,” says Yakushi. “A lot of kids see that every day and they think they can behave in the same way towards LGBT kids.”
In the pages of manga comics you can be anything you like – a superhero, a master villain, a supernatural being. It’s an imaginary world where gender and sexuality are often very fluid and so many LGBT kids are turning to the pages of comics books for a sympathetic portrayal of queer characters In an interview with the HRW, Aiko from Osaka describes how important coming across a trans character in a manga book at 17 was for coming to terms with being transgender herself. “Before reading that comic book, I thought that I was different and I tried to hide it,” she explains, “but once I read the comic book I started to think it’s OK to be different and it completely changed how I thought about myself”.
“A lot of the information online said stuff like ‘you will die at the age of 30 if you take hormones’ or that I wouldn’t be able to live and work in Japan as a trans man” – Mika Yakushi
In fact, there are whole manga genres that depict same-sex relationships, yaoi or ‘boys love’ and yuri or ‘girls’ love’, which are extremely popular. Two really popular examples of this are Ten Count, a yaoi manga which tells the story of a gay relationship between Shirotani and his counsellor Riku, and Citrus, a yuri comic which follows the evolving relationship between Mei and Yuzu… who also happen to be stepsisters. Both are pretty typical of their genres, following plot lines that are set in fantasy worlds and characters who take on really specific, fetishised, sexualised roles – think pretty, queer boys and girls exploring the physical side of same-sex relationships via the medium of illustrated porn, which can often be extremely graphic and hardcore – especially in the case of yaoi.
It’s not all good – a lot of manga series often using gender confusion as plot point but usually not in a positive or true to life way. For example, often gender change is shown as a magical, mystical transformation – not a practical one. And here’s the rub – depictions of queer characters are so clearly fantasy that they don’t serve as positive or useful role models for kids. “Boys’ love manga are fantasy. Most LGBT kids know that and they don’t go to those manga comics to get information,” Yakushi states emphatically. But there is a shift beginning to take place and a number of manga comics have started to buck the trend of totally fantastical representations of LGBT people by portraying them in a far more realistic way and with queer characters as the protagonists rather than as side-plots.
Wandering Son, first released in 2002, broke new ground in a country where trans people are still labelled as suffering from a mental illness in the form of Gender Identity Disorder. The series tells the story of two children on the brink of puberty who don’t identify with the genders they were given at birth – Shuichi is a boy who “wants to be a girl” and Yoshino is a girl who “wants to be a boy” as they deal with the everyday trials and tribulations of becoming teenagers as well as coming up against society’s uncompromising views on gender identity. Wandering Son portrays the problems of the two children in a totally different way to many other mangas – they are the main focus of the story and are presented with empathy and as genuine people – rather than as mystical or humorous characters. It was also one of the first mangas to discuss transgenderism and the difficulties trans kids come up against in schools in a practical way, for example addressing the very basic question of which school uniform a trans child should wear. Wandering Son was massively popular and tops lists again and again as a manga that sends a positive message about LGBT people.
Bokura no Hentai, released in 2012, follows three kids in junior high – Marika, a trans girl and Yui and Parou who are both cross-dressing boys, after they meet on a cross-dressing website and then become friends in real life. The series differs from classic manga portrayals of trans characters in a number of ways. It’s one of the only mangas to draw a distinction between cross-dressing and dressing for the gender you identify with and each character’s story is given individual weight, rather than presented in a clichéd way – for instance the two boys both have different reasons for cross-dressing, which are explored and explained. Unlike many other manga comics Bokura no Hentai looks at the darker side of being trans – sexual abuse, harassment, difficult relationships, bullying and attempted assaults are all touched on. If you check on manga forums, this title comes up again and again as a forward-thinking series with a positive message. Others such as Smells Like Green Spirit, Ouran High School Host Club and Otoko Demo Onna Demo Nai Sei also deal with issues such as intersexuality, the challenges that gay kids face and gender fluidity.
There’s no denying the enormous popularity of manga – an industry valued at $5 billion in annual Japanese sales. The fact that it’s read widely at every level of Japanese society and that people have respect for their manga heroes makes it a really effective vehicle for delivering positive messages and giving LGBT issues substance and respect. In fact, manga and anime provide such accessible media for young people to explore an alternative world free of society’s prejudices that the Human Rights Watch has created its own manga series. Released this June, the stories are based directly on testimony from students and reflect the experiences of real people – not fictitious characters. The stories address things like the ignorance of teachers regarding LGBT issues and the bullying and isolation that LGBT kids face. The HRW series was illustrated by Taiji Utagawa, a gay cartoonist, and aims to give both LGBT and straight kids a truthful account of what it’s like to be a queer student in Japan.
The changes that are taking place in manga’s portrayal of LGBT characters seem to be a reflection of a general shift in Japanese society’s attitudes to the queer community. While social and cultural attitudes might seem to be evolving at a glacier-like pace, the last few years have seen a number of very real, groundbreaking changes for LGBT people in Japan. For example, in March 2015, Shibuya ward, a district of Tokyo, became the first municipality in Japan to recognise same-sex partnerships and increasing numbers of LGBT friendly spaces are springing up across Japan. Alongside this, popular media outlets are starting to talk more positively about LGBT issues, helping to further the changes in society’s perceptions of queer people, explains Yakushi. While the more true-to-life, LGBT friendly manga books might not yet be widespread as of yet, they represent a shift in paradigm and (hopefully) a starting point for a new future.