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Manga and Gender-fluidity: How manga challenges the western idea of gender

I have never considered myself an otaku, and I’m far from an expert on Japanese history or literature, or language. However, as far back as I can remember, I’ve always felt an urge to learn about different kinds of people and customs–both inside and outside the borders of our melting-pot of a country. I’m not sure if this started because of a specific experience. What I do know is that my thirst for culture only increased once I realized that it was my fate to be an only child. By second grade, I was spending several hours a day “traveling” and entertaining myself by reading stories. Stories in which characters were forced to confront non-Western themes as they looked for answers to their dilemmas–for example, the balance of yin and yang elements–seemed particularly meaningful.

The exotic folk tales and art of East Asia must have struck a special chord. I didn’t channel this excitement by poring over volumes of manga (Japanese comics books) like Inuyasha or One Piece, as many of my classmates did; my parents had a hard time wrapping their heads around “that Japanese stuff,” so not much of it came my way. Still, I was enthusiastic about what I did have access: a smattering of dubbed anime ranging from Pokemon to the artistic films of Hayao Miyazaki. My attachment to the written word and Western picture books never seemed at odds with these alternative visual narratives. So, while, I didn’t know it at the time, the seed for an interest in manga had been planted.

“Stories in which characters were forced to confront non-Western themes as they looked for answers to their dilemmas–for example, the balance of yin and yang elements–seemed particularly meaningful.”

via wikimedia

via wikimedia

Eventually, I found myself in college, trying to decide what minor would best complement my English major. International Area Studies seemed like a natural fit, thanks to course offerings like Women and Society in a Global Context, although I never anticipated being able to explore some of the large-scale ideas I was learning about through a fun medium. At this point, I hadn’t kept up with anything other than Miyazaki’s filmography, and I felt clueless about Japanese pop culture. My two best friends from high school, both lifelong anime and “J-music” fans, had made some efforts to pique my interest, but I remained indifferent. That changed when I moved in with my college buddy, Emily.

As odd as it sounds, I think back fondly on the finals crunch that spring. We were so desperate to distract ourselves one afternoon that we ordered cheap Chinese (which was still too expensive) instead of walking to the Hans. I stared ruefully at our notebooks piled on the living room floor.

“Are you ready for your first ‘real’ anime experience?” Emily asked slyly, after a while. “We might as well take a break.”

“I guess,” I mumbled, ready to be assaulted by high-pitched voices, flying hearts, and doe-eyed pandas, as Emily plopped down on the couch and pulled up Netflix.

My friend had picked just the right story to hook me in, as it turns out. The seed had finally sprouted. We spent the rest of that week feverishly working on papers and working in shifts at the library, just so we could watch another episode together. After we’d finished the show, Emily lent me my first manga, showing me what it meant to read “backwards” by following dialogue from right to left, and panels from top to bottom. Bit by bit, I started to take an interest in other series, complete with late-night Googling sessions on the Shinto religion, ramen noodles, and other random topics. Despite the truth of some stereotypes, I was surprised at the range of personalities and roles when it came to the female characters.

None of this was directly related to my IAS coursework, but I felt like I was moving in the right direction. I wanted to have a better understanding of a culture that could produce dozens of stories to export (format intact) into Western countries, with surprisingly positive reception. As international performance artist Joanna Dudley puts it, “Without censorship, or the oppressive label of children’s entertainment, manga artists were free to develop stories in whatever genre they pleased, until manga covered as wide a range of topics and styles as written fiction.”

how to read a traditional manga panel via wikipedia

how to read a traditional manga panel via wikipedia

I did have questions as I began perusing manga. Honorifics baffled me, for one thing; I had to learn that Japanese speakers indicate respect or affection with specific terms (i.e. senpai for an older schoolmate), as well as suffixes attached to names (Tohru-kun for a greeting between friends). It also took me a while to get used to sidebars explaining puns or jokes that didn’t translate smoothly into English. How much of the dialogue was muddled, I began to wonder? After all, we never really think about the context of everyday life until we’re outsiders. Do English translators need to study Japanese history to do a good job? What challenges do they typically run into when preparing manga? Most of these questions remained unvoiced, but they floated around in my brain from time to time.

Then, several months ago, I had a serious conversation that renewed my inquisitive streak, taking it in a different direction. Things started out innocently enough. I was in my kitchen with my roommate, Anna, as we vocalized a tangent that took us from body image issues to Western views on masculinity. Girl-power was on the rise as we let off steam. Before I knew it, Anna put down her mug of tea and declared that she was bisexual. There was a brief pause, but we resumed our discussion. Anna took the reigns, daring to voice some of her opinions on sexuality.

“Despite the truth of some stereotypes, I was surprised at the range of personalities and roles when it came to the female characters.”

Eventually, she said, “I kinda wonder if getting into anime in middle school made me more…flexible…about gender.” This throw-away resulted in a lively, if somewhat unrelated, discussion on fashion and representation of gender. Anna’s comparison between standards of male beauty in Japan and America was certainly interesting.

A few weeks before this incident, Anna had introduced me to a popular series called Soul Eater. The setting could be described as a combination of high school drama, Hogwarts, and Gothic parody with a plot revolving around Shinto shinigami, or soul reapers. Coincidentally, as Anna mentioned after coming out, one of the most important characters had stirred up a gender debate among fans. This was Crona, who had always been referred to as a “he” in the subtitled anime and presented as male at various points in the manga. Crona didn’t seem out of place regarding character design. Pink hair, a cleric-like robe that could be mistaken for a dress, and girlish hips would, by no means, disqualify him as male. True, he had been voiced by female actors in both the subbed and dubbed animes–criteria readers use to justify opinions–but this could have been done for cutesy effect. Such treatment had already been given to characters like the infamous Ash Ketchum of Pokemon.

overlordnim via deviantart

overlordnim via deviantart

As I dug deeper into the controversy, I found a detailed blog post that shed some light on the complexities. The blogger, who goes by Maria Novella, begins her argument by saying, “In the Japanese manga and anime, Crona’s gender is NEVER specified. In Japanese, it is common to use non-gender-specific pronouns to refer to humans, whereas in English, generally only ‘he’ and ‘she’ are appropriate.” Novella goes on to assert, “In the FUNimation dub of the anime and the Yen Press translation of the manga, Crona is referred to as a ‘he’ for lack of a better alternative.” In short, presenting a genuine representation of a character in translation can be tough.

It took a moment for this to sink in. If you think about, our perceptions of appearance and conduct are intricately tied to our notions of sexuality and gender. These can change over time, but to some extent, heteronormative ideals have already been drilled into most Americans. Until now I had been thinking of Crona as an insecure male suffering from a domineering mother. But, as I confirmed for myself, creator Atsushi Okubo remained evasive about this question in several interviews. Would thinking of Crona as gender-neutral, or perhaps even inter-sex, change my interpretation of the series? If so, how? I realized that I wasn’t alone in my confusion. A relevant article from the Daily Dot was centered around a similar debate, this one concerning Zoë Hange, a major character from the cross-cultural hit Attack on Titan.

Obviously, the structure of the author’s original language should influence how publishers approach a medium, whether it’s a short story, political cartoon, or–yes–a manga. Still, this is easier said than done. As a creative person I’ve always enjoyed seeing how people put things together, and in a sense, translating a manga is like rewriting it. Thus, I followed up my discovery about Crona with some more casual research. I quickly gathered that unlike many Indo-European languages with gendered nouns, Japanese possesses a certain ambiguity.

“Would thinking of Crona as gender-neutral, or perhaps even inter-sex, change my interpretation of the series?”

Many sites provided a clear explanation for concepts like honorifics, but I had a harder time finding a source that could break down the nuances of pronouns. Even Emily’s Japanese textbook seemed to be written for linguists. Finally, I came across a site designed by Kim Allen, an American fluent in Japanese. As Allen explains, “instead of substituting pronouns for nouns, Japanese mostly eliminates words from the sentence to avoid repeating them. This seems vague and confusing at first, until you learn enough Japanese to realize that other words in the sentence…have fine shades of meaning that make the sentence perfectly clear.”

On the other hand, as Allen and other writers have hinted, there is wiggle room that can make meanings blurry. For instance, a number of Japanese pronouns correspond to both “you” and “I,” and these reflect situational qualities that play a much smaller role in English, if they do at all. Among these qualities are the speaker’s assertiveness and “class,” as well as the listener’s class. Pronouns, when they are used, tend to differentiate between males and females of specific ages and ranks, taking into consideration word choice that would match a situation’s formality. (This entry on TV Tropes does a nice job of summarizing.) Unlike in English, personal pronouns can be used somewhat interchangeably between genders. So what does it mean when a character like Crona uses boku to refer to himself–a typical mark of boyhood? Or when the effeminate Hange of Attack on Titan is addressed like a male by military companions?

Another head-scratching element is referred to as “gendered speech.” OxfordWords, a blog counterpart of the famous Dictionart, has a brief but useful entry dedicated to this subject. In short, “gendered speech reflects the speaker’s own gender or that which they wish to associate with…it can also reflect a deliberate attempt to give a feminine or masculine effect.” For example, Japanese women traditionally spoke in a softer tone than their husbands, and they might use a “sentence final” to emphasize their femininity. Wa was a common final to insert after

"Wa" via wikipedia

“Wa” via wikipedia

the last word of the sentence. But, as OxfordWords reminds us, times change and language develops to reflect them: “Recent studies have shown that young women have stopped using feminine speech in favour of more neutral or even masculine language.”

All of these subtleties complicate the process of getting a good grasp on a character, not only as a person, but as a reflection of a manga’s setting and genre. Moreover, a skilled translator might understand the gray area that Japanese readers are familiar with when it comes to gender, but the trick is presenting this to outsiders in a way that most closely resembles what the artist intended.

Overall speech patterns are probably more important in translated comics than in Western comics, especially since the art style is not always indicative of characters’ gender or sexual preference. Anyone familiar with manga can attest to this. June M. Madeley, a professor of Information and Communication Studies at the University of New Brunswick, has even written about this in a number of scholarly articles. In her fascinating Girly Girls and Pretty Boys: Gender and Audience Reception of English-Translated Manga, she describes the feelings of many newbies by acknowledging that “when readers first enter the world of manga it can be a bewildering experience.” Madeley elaborates the tendency for male characters to appear weak by our standards, saying that “even shōnen manga [action manga targeted at boys] often contain feminine looking male characters in comparison to the more realistic gekiga art style of seinen [men’s] manga, or to the styles common in North American comics.” Meanwhile, “characters with clearly masculine features are rather uncommon in shōjo [girls’] manga.”

Trying to understand the ins and outs of this is beyond the scope of this article. It is a complex topic. However, readers would do well to keep a few things in mind. As previously mentioned, there are beauty standards for Japanese men that may baffle Westerners. One of them is the look of the bishōhnen, or “beautiful boy.” At least in recent times (since the 1980s), this ideal has existed in the real world as well as in the two-dimensional one. Japanese folks are not bothered by thin, delicate male characters. While you do get used to this after a while, I’m sure many Americans would sympathize with the writer of this New York Times article from 2007, who reported, in a somewhat shocked tone, that “in Japan, it’s the men who want to be skinny and cute.”

Readers must also step away from the mindset that Western feminism is embraced everywhere, while portrayals of female characters at home are getting better all the time. Both suggestions are debatable. Professor Madeley writes, and I agree, that although Japan tends to be “regarded as a culture with very rigid gender roles pre-scribed for males and females…the popular culture, specifically manga, offers tremendous play with and fluidity of gender, sexuality,and gender norms.” This flexibility can be seen in the androgynous subculture of Japanese street fashion, as well as in in the acceptability of could-swing-both-ways character looks in anime/manga.

A creator’s art style is far from a perfect aid when making decisions about how to interpret a character. Since manga is essentially a visual medium, style must be taken into consideration, but utilizing context clues in addition to examining speech and appearance can be a good tactic. Yet, nothing is simple about behavioral cues, so making out characters’ actions can still tie into the uncertainties of language. I can think of two examples, both from one of the biggest overseas successes of the early 2000s, Fruits Basket. Most of the male characters engage in at least mildly questionable behavior at some point, but I’ll quickly discuss two of these young men, Haru and Ayame.

“Readers must also step away from the mindset that Western feminism is embraced everywhere, while portrayals of female characters at home are getting better all the time. “

Haru is the cousin of one of the three main characters, Yuki (also male), and he’s not shy about showing physical affection. When he makes an appearance in Chapter 13, he greets Yuki after not seeing him for several years by taking hold of his chin, looking into his eyes, and muttering, ”Don’t just stand there, Yuki. Today, I will make you mine.” Yuki shrugs off the incident with embarrassment. Having encountered this type of behavior before, he dismisses his cousin’s words by saying that he is worse than a girl who’s been making unwelcome visits. Later in the chapter, Haru explains to Tohru, the second main character, “My first love was actually Yuki.” Paying no mind to Tohru’s startled face, he continues, “Well, I like Kyo too, but to me, Yuki is a very special person.”

jawavs via Flickr

jawavs via Flickr

Now, the Japanese have multiple ways of expressing love, some common in everyday speech and some held to greater levels of romantic significance. Phrasing this type of discussion in English is a delicate matter. After all, publishers have to determine what ratings to assign manga, similar to video games. Based on the reactions of other characters, I’ve always assumed the writer meant to imply the possibility of bisexual affection. as Haru ends up with a female character. Still, he could just be messing with Yuki’s shy nature.

Ayame is an older character. He, too, ends up with a female but sustains a flirtatious relationship with a long-time male buddy, Shigure. When he bursts onto the scene in Chapter 21, he asks, “During the time I wasn’t here, did you see anyone else?” Shigure reciprocates the coy look with a witty response. In their future encounters, Ayame also throws around words like “love” and “affection” pretty casually, usually with suggestive body language. These scenes annoy most of the other characters without alarming them, but Ayame’s language appears suspicious and even disturbing to fellow males Yuki and Kyo (the third main character). It’s hard to decide whether Ayame is a big joker, or a potential lover who has to make a decision.

As you can see, manga publishers must deal with the limits of the English language on a regular basis. Researching this subject has been a rewarding experience, but it has also made me aware of the difficulties of translating stories told in a highly structured, nuanced language. I find myself admiring translators on one hand, but questioning the sharpness of their proficiently on the other. Making Japanese portrayals of gender–and everything associated with it–fit into Western conceptions of language and sexuality must involve difficult choices. But the sincerity and diversity of manga, no matter how dramatic or silly, speaks for itself. It is a medium that demonstrates more openness towards gender and gender roles than mainstream American media can boast.

I have taken to heart some comments that Professor Ellen Barry made on the abstract for her student’s thesis, Gender and Sexuality in Shoujo Manga: Undoing Heteronormative Expectations in ‘Utena,’ ‘Pet Shop of Horrors,’ and ‘Angel Sanctuary’: “dislocating shoujo manga titles from their Japanese context, which constructs gender and sexuality in ways that are different from how gender and sexuality are constructed within the United States…suggests that English translations of Japanese manga titles provide rich grounds for rethinking gender and sexuality.” Figuring out whether characters insinuate relationships that run counter to traditional male/female pairings, and presenting them honestly if they do, will continue to be a struggle for publishers. But things can become less complicated. It would help keep the integrity of foreign works intact if the English language adopted a polite, gender-neutral set of singular and plural personal pronouns. Rather than complaining that verbs like “tweet” or “twerk” are significant threats, modern linguists should wake up to our need to accommodate an expanding understanding of gender. In the meantime, I’m glad that people like Anna can take comfort in manga’s practice of manipulating language to promote cool, diverse characters.

Isabella Fidanza

Isabella tends to be a little too ambitious and a little too talkative, but she means well and enjoys making people laugh. While she’s always been interested in publishing, she’s also enamored with history and museum settings. She sympathizes with sassy sidekick characters, and thrives on making friends from different cultures.


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