To begin a research paper about gender stereotypes in anime, it is vital to first explain what anime actually is. Anime, the short form of the Japanese word animēshon, is a signifier for animated TV shows and movies made in Japan. Over the last half century anime has garnered widespread popularity across the globe (Yu, 2015). While there were some ground-breaking shows that created the first inroads into western culture—AstroBoy (1963), Speed Racer (1967) and later Akira (1989), it was really the 1990s where anime took of as a medium for entertainment, with cultural exports from Japan reaching $12.5 billion in sales annually (Yu, 2015). Since then, anime has dominated the genre of animation: in 1992 and 1993, 58% of the animated films in the world were made in Japan; in 2003 “one third of the worlds media market was made up of anime related products” (Yu, 2015). The period from 1990-2010 is known as the Golden Age for anime and the lasting effects of those successes have carried anime completely into the global mainstream.
As of today, large anime sections appear on all major streaming services in the West and anime movies are being shown in theatres around the world, and with that popularity comes tremendous influence. On the home front, anime has been reflecting and shaping Japanese culture since 1910 (Yu, 2015). Though it may not be overt, anime has widespread influence on the society watching it. Evident in newer generations in China, Yu states in her thesis on gender perceptions in China and Japan that “their communication styles and the words they use have changed.” For example, she found a Japanese word for “maid” yielded millions more results in google searches than the original word (Yu, 2015). Such a linguistic effect may seem innocuous and inconsequential, but many anime reflect gender stereotypes latent in Japanese society. Though there is a great deal of variety in the shows, these negative portrayals do exist, and do they actually influence people’s perception? That is the question this paper seeks to answer. I will begin with a historical overview of the treatment of women in Japan society, then of their portrayal in anime culminating in a focused analysis of Wakako zake, a food anime pioneering feminist ideals. Finally, I will finish with a review of a scientific study that has sought to answer these questions.
Historical Overview of Women Treatment in Japan:
Poor is the most favourable word to describe the treatment of women in Japan. Although there have been fluctuations, over the long history of Japan, women’s roles in society were generally circumscribed by Chinese values and Confucianism. This conception partly stems from the philosophical idea that the female or yin is dark, weak and passive, while the male yang is bright, strong, and active (Yu, 2015). Though I am painting in broad strokes, women were made to be obedient, following the orders of their male counterparts and living like an accessory. In the advent of the Meiji restoration and the integration of western culture into Japanese society, women were able to somewhat alleviate their oppression. I will begin at this important historical breakpoint. The Meiji period spanned from 1868-1912 and saw the swiftest period of industrialization that the world has ever known. The emperor sought to adopt western science and culture while maintaining Eastern values. The influx of products and new technologies fostered a capitalist mentality that developed through the turn of the century. The influence of capitalism and European literature facilitated the ideologies of liberalism and feminism, although female empowerment did not become a large part of Meiji liberalism (Yu, 2015).
It was not until World War II and the post-war period when women’s rights became a central focus of Japanese society (Yu, 2015). The total war effort that was undertaken by Japan saw women heavily integrated into the workforce. After Japan’s defeat and subsequent occupation by the United States, the constitution of Japan was remade. The new constitution guaranteed equality between the sexes, freedom to choose a spouse, and equality of the sexes in marital relations. However, these changes only mitigated parts of the problem and many gender inequalities remain for women. 44.2% of employed women are part-time workers which is exorbitantly higher than the 11.7% of employed men. Similarly, an exceedingly few number of women obtain senior positions in large firms in Japan (Statistics Bureau of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 2019). Women are fighting a constant battle between marriage and career, which has become a very salient gender issue in the 21st century. This is reflected in the statistic that 59% of Japanese women in their late 20s and 20% of Japanese women in their 30s are not married (Statistics Bureau of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 2019). Due to the traditional notions of marriage as a necessity for women’s social and individual fulfillment, single woman are looked down upon heavily in Japanese society. They are referred to by several dehumanizing, derogatory terms, “urenokori (‘left unsold’), parasaito singuru (‘parasite single’), and makeinu (‘loser dog’, as opposed to a ‘winner’ who is a married mother)” (Yu, 2015). These terms underscore that the substance of gender stereotypes have persisted in Japanese society, even with the massive strides being made for women’s rights.
The consequence of these judgements is that women who have gone on to higher education are much less likely to get married. This is a form of rebellion against discrimination in the workplace, family, and traditional conceptions of femininity (Yu, 2015). As many scholars point out, one of the reasons for this choice is because many of these women have an aversion to the unequal household burdens in marriage and in childcare placed upon them by their husbands (Yu, 2015). However, many women in Japanese society who make low wages, as illustrated by the statistic above, see marriage as their only way out (Yu, 2015). In turn this relationship forces women to focus more on the household. This is the reason why countless women are unable to balance work and family responsibilities, and why many stop working altogether when they get married or have children. This has created a population of women who remain single to avoid the tremendous effort of being a Japanese wife and mother. Wakakozake, the anime to be analyzed later, is the story of these women and how they interact with the world.
Female Portrayals in Shōnen and Seinen Genres:
There are clear gender stereotypes in Japanese society that seep into anime, particularity in the shōnen genre. Though mainly aimed at boys (as “shōnen” literally means boy), this genre is filled with compelling narratives, action, and attractive characters that make it appealing to almost anyone. It is easily the most popular genre of anime and manga in the world (Yu, 2015). The typical examples of shōnen anime are high octane and action stories with male protagonists. These stories are basically all the same, following the development of the male main character, both externally with skills or abilities, and intrinsically with maturation, self belief, honor, and friendship (Yu, 2015). Women in these anime are mainly depicted as mothers or sisters or sometimes girlfriends, all with tertiary roles that are generally unimportant (Yu, 2015). It is crucial to look into the different subgenres of shōnen in order to fully understand women’s portrayals in a variety of different situations.
Action and adventure is the most popular genre out of all shōnen subgenres. It is the foundation of shōnen and contains juggernauts like Dragon Ball, Fist of the North Star, Yu Yu Hakusho, One Piece, Hunter x Hunter, Naruto, and Bleach. The subgenre is so large, in fact, that there are several internal genres within it: historical anime like Rurōuni Kenshin, Gin Tama, and Samurai Champloo, horror anime like Death Note and Parasyte, and mystery or detective anime like Detective Conan. Sports of all types are also very popular in the shōnen genre, basketball anime like Slam Dunk and Kuroko no Basket, soccer anime like Captain Tsubasa and tennis anime like The Prince of Tennis (Yu, 2015). Martial arts anime is especially popular with Ashita no Jō, Baki the Grappler, and Hajime no Ippo running for decades. Across all of these subgenres women’s roles range mainly from side character to love interest. None of these anime feature women as a main character and many of these series have highly sexualized caricatures of women with completely unrealistic bodies. These anime foster many of the gender stereotypes in Japanese society, and worse yet, the characters become major objects of sexual desire, thought of more as accessories than humans. (Yu, 2015).
Tied to shōnen is the more adult genre known as seinen which refers to young men’s manga and anime (Yu, 2015). This genre is known for darker, more negative stories with graphic violence, sex, and nudity. Anime like Elfen Lied, Darker than Black, Black Lagoon, and Hellsing Ultimate are suitable examples. While these anime basically continue the same portrayal of Women as shōnen, the integration of graphic sex, sexual violence, and nudity add a notable amount of sadism to their depiction (Yu, 2015). Arguably the most popular subgenre of seinen is harem anime. This is basically a story with a main protagonist being pursued by multiple female characters. The male protagonist traditionally has some sort of social or emotional defect, like being shy, or getting a nosebleed whenever they see a woman, or being a pervert (Yu, 2015). Prominent examples are Ah! My Goddess, Tenchi Muyō, Video Girl Ai, High School DxD, and Rosario Vampire (Yu, 2015). Harem is a crucial subgenre for understanding how women are depicted in anime because of its structure of multiple female love interests. Generally in these shows each woman will exemplify a different aspect of the abstract “ideal” woman, there will be a “motherly character, the innocent virginal character, the powerful aggressive character, and the smart and wise character” (Yu, 2015), though in most cases all of them will be hypersexualised.
These women make up the “ideal” female in the minds of the viewers (Yu, 2015). Within this genre there will be countless situations that place these women in compromising positions. This has come to be known as “Fan Service”, which refers to a studio intentionally creating sexual situations for the audience’s pleasure. A defining example of the gender stereotypes at work in the shōnen and seinen genres is the constant fight for mainstream shows to create the “Best Girl”: the most attractive, most likeable, and most ideal women in a given season of anime. This furthers the stereotypes already present in Japanese culture by creating a “standard” depiction of women that is a caricature of reality.
Shōjo, the Genre for Women:
Shōjo is the genre that is geared toward women, as the term shōjo means girl. Its original purpose was to target the market of girls that was being left behind by the shōnen and seinen genres (Yu, 2015). Almost all of the protagonists are women, but the pool of artists that created shōjo manga and anime for most its existence have been men (Yu, 2015). While these male artists have fostered the genre, making strides for the depictions of women in anime, they have nonetheless brought countless stereotypes to shōjo. The main crutch of shōjo anime is many of the female protagonists in the genre are only fulfilled when they have received the love of their ideal man (Yu, 2015). This reflects similar patterns in shōnen anime. While shōnen is action based, shōjo is generally about love, friendship, and human relations (Yu, 2015). However, through the 1960s and 1970s many women artists grew in popularity, developing the genre significantly. Thus, after over a half century, subgenres have emerged.
The traditional mode of shōjo is high school love dramas with female protagonists. These series attempt to depict women as independent, kind, caring, and interesting but many of them suffer from the crutch of beautification for their characters to be liked. The classic knight in shining armour fallacy is also present, where the girl seeks to be recognized by an ultra attractive male character. Josei, another subgenre, is basically the opposite of seinen, featuring reverse harems to compare with harem anime, classic examples are Fruits Basket, Ouran High School Host Club, and The Wallflower (Yu, 2015). Josei is written for young teenage girls and features more mature stories of realistic romance and real life, rarely depicting fantasy or science fiction. Two subgenres worthy of special explanation are magic girl (mahō shōjo) and boy’s love (BL, yaoi or shōnen-ai) (Yu, 2015). Magic girl anime began with classics like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, though these shows suffered from the traditional gender stereotypical romance (Yu, 2015). As the magic girl subgenre developed, there was a paradigm shift which created more stories solely around female characters. Recently, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Strike Witches, and My-HiME have expanded the genre into a larger scope, with many of these anime falling into the category of yuri or girl’s love (Yu, 2015).
Along with yuri, there is also the subgenre of boy’s love and romantic relationships between two male characters. This genre is especially popular among women as many of these shows contain “beautiful boys” (bishōnen) who are extremely attractive and androgynous; examples of this are Zetsuai 1989, Gravitation, and Ai no Kusabi (Yu, 2015).
These depictions of a multitude of sexual orientations mirror the feminist rebellion against traditional Japanese gender norms. While there are stereotypical depictions of women latent in the shōjo genre, it has become a place of reprieve from the rigidity of Japanese society (Yu, 2015). Susan Napier (2001) argues that while certain genres of anime support traditional gender roles and reinforce them, others can indicate and exemplify changes in them. Anime is a medium with a fair share of problematic imagery, but that is not the only imagery present and popular in the medium. Highly popular and widely acclaimed anime, like Wakako zake, portray positive depictions of women that influence the greater landscape of anime for the better (Yu, 2015).
Analysis of Wakako zake:
As has been illustrated above, the majority of mainstream stories in anime feature stereotypical portrayals of female characters. Food anime is no exception, with many reflecting the typical tropes found in shōnen. Shows like Toriko and Food Wars feature male protagonists in competitions or adventuring for special ingredients as they seek to improve in some abstract way (Lome, 2014). The series’ generally use food as a medium for action and, like many shōnen anime, hyper sexualize their female characters. The opposite of these food anime are the josei- style human dramas like, Drops of God, Antique Bakery, and Ristorante Paradiso. The majority of the conflict in these series come from emotion and human relationships, similar to many melodramas in josei manga and anime. These anime subvert many gender norms though: Ristorante Paradiso is written by a woman and contains many strong female characters, and Antique Bakery features many queer characters and their narratives. Unfortunately, these series are not the norm with the vast majority centering on the male perspective. Thus, food anime also supports gendered ideas and contains countless sexist portrayals of women (Lome, 2014).
Wakako zake challenges these depictions through a solitary exploration of food and drink told through an unmarried, working female main character (Lome, 2014). Created by Chie Shinkyū in 2011, the series received wide critical acclaim. It has since been adapted into a short one-season anime and a live action drama with four seasons. The focus of the story is Murasaki Wakako, aged 26, who works at a large company and lives in Tokyo. Her work is seemingly unimportant, consisting mainly of menial labour as she works the regular 9-5 hours. The story generally picks up after work as she weaves through the crowded Tokyo streets to find dinner and along drinks with it. What is most important about her expeditions are that they are generally solo (Lome, 2014). She enjoys her food and alcohol alone, with her trademark “pshuuu” of satisfaction only for herself. This runs counter to the traditional roles of women in Japanese society, as many young women are tools of their families. Wakako zake subverts the historical female subservience and obedience by having Wakako freely enjoy her meals to the fullest by herself, often overindulging on alcohol and food without ever receiving judgement (Lome, 2014).
Unlike the shōnen style food anime dominating the genre, Wakako zake has no real driving conflict or character arc. However, this does not mean it is unable to deal with complex cultural and social issues (Lome, 2014). As the creator has argued in several interviews, Wakako zake is a medium to encourage women to go out and enjoy eating and drinking alone. She created Wakako in the hope that her story might empower women to enter the world and not compromise their passions. When Wakako goes out to dinner she not only is following her passions, she is also gaining perspective about her daily life (Lome, 2014). In many episodes Wakako has had a challenging day at work; she uses her meal to reflect on the issues of the day and get past them either by escaping into her meal or by gaining a new perspective on the issue after a few glasses of sake. The majority of the dialogue in the show is her own internal discussion about what she is eating, what the best parings of her food and drinks should be, and most importantly how the food tastes (Lome, 2014). In these moments what she is going to eat and drink becomes greater than the strife of her everyday life. The only issue is her level of satisfaction with her choices, though, she knows herself pretty well and always ends her meal with a satisfied “pshuuu” (Lome, 2014). Wakako is no expert in the world of food, nor is she a chef, in fact, she cannot really cook at all which is why she goes out to dinner so often. This inability to cook is central to the series’ critique of Japanese society, this woman is not defined by her culinary or house-making abilities. Another critique is found in the art form: Wakako is intentionally drawn to be neither extremely attractive nor unattractive, with a neutral depiction the anime and manga are able to focus on her internal conversations. The series does not fetishize her enjoyment of food, Wakako is always portrayed with neutral framing and gaze. All of these aspects combine to create a series focused on introspection and
emotion, seeing beneath the skin and into the person (Lome, 2014).
Fig 3. The classic “pshuuu”, Wakakozake (2015)
Romance is another way Wakakozake challenges traditional gender norms. Wakako actually has a boyfriend named Hiroki but he is never seen (Lome, 2014). Even more interestingly, Wakako is not troubled by being unable to be with him. This is exemplified in the episode “Drinking at Home,” in which Wakako easily forgoes a meeting with Hiroki in order to enjoy an Italian feast at home. A point of hilarity in the episode is when she puts her cellphone in the fridge to avoid his texts. Within the episode, Wakako indulges in a couple bottles of wine and beautifully tasty Italian appetizers, forgetting all about Hiroki’s messages (Lome, 2014). Her general apathy toward her romantic partner is also mirrored in her work. Wakako does not exhibit any professional ambition nor does the show speak much about what her work actually is, only that she is an office worker. Romance and work are central aspects of any person but they do not matter to Wakako, she is enthralled by her passion for food and drink with everything else falling to the wayside. (Lome, 2014)
The series also does not contain a single antagonist, though a man who ate his salmon skin with rice was quite the annoyance. While Wakako interacts with other people from time to time throughout the series, none of the people she talks to judge or antagonize her. They are always either passive viewers of her meal or interested in her passions (Lome, 2014). The series does a superb job of humanizing Wakako, as we get to see some of her insecurities in an episode where she eats in an upscale Spanish restaurant. She initially is shy and subdued, yet she is eventually enthralled by all of the amazing cuisine the restaurant has to offer. From her interactions with her friends and coworkers, the series also contains moments of support and triumph (Lome, 2014). She is able to share her passion with her friends as they indulge in a meal featuring endless pints of beer and okonomiyaki. As Jordan Lome (2014) argues, Wakakozake “portrays an open-minded world and balances the everyday anxieties of a young professional with the everyday joys of experiencing the small pleasures that make life worth it to explore.” Returning to the historical context for this piece, we have learned that single unmarried women in their late twenties are heavily stereotyped and discriminated against by their families and in their workplaces. Wakako zake is a reprieve from these inequalities showing the vigor and passion these women have outside of their traditional roles as worker and wife. Transcending traditional gender norms, the series portrays a woman who does not need such things, not a husband, not money, not advancement, not even family. All she needs is a delicious meal at the end of the day (Lome, 2014).
What You Watch is What You Think:
To return to the question at the beginning of this paper, does anime influence people? We turn to a study on the perceptions of sex stereotyping in anime in Japan and the US, which “examined the cognitive and effective responses of Japanese and American participants to the depiction of gender” in the popular anime Dragon Ball Z (Bresnahan, Inoue, & Kagawa, 2006). It was found that all Japanese participants and US males showed agreement with sex stereotyping in the depictions of the characters (Bresnahan et al. 2006). Males showed greater liking for the male characters and thought they were good role models (Bresnahan et al. 2006). Along with this, male and female participants showed more approval and liking for the lead male character regardless of country (Bresnahan et al. 2006). This was the case even though the lead male character was generally depicted as thoughtless and irresponsible (Bresnahan et al. 2006). Just as well, the participants did not show any sympathy for the problems it caused the lead female character (Bresnahan et al. 2006). The researchers note that this study adds to a large amount of literature, which suggest that viewing sexist media frequently causes increased negative effects for viewers (Bresnahan et al. 2006). It can validate previously existing gender stereotypes or have a negative effect on expectations or behaviours for men and women. They state that “media images sanctioning sexist gender ideology of male power and privilege and female subordination and eroticism suggest that women are less capable and competitive compared to men, and that this asymmetrical stereotype of power, ability, and privilege is an acceptable norm for how gendered social relationships should be conducted” (Bresnahan et al. 2006). This study’s findings that participants perceived masculine traits as more desirable suggests that the exposure to similar tropes in other anime reinforce the beliefs of male privilege and female inferiority (Bresnahan et al. 2006). What is worse is that Dragon Ball Z is only the tip of the iceberg, as illustrated in my genre deconstructions of shōnen, seinin, and shōjo. There are countless other anime depictions that are starker examples of gender stereotypes, hyper sexualization, and discrimination. These results suggest that “ethnocultural stereotypes pervade Japan in both overt and covert ways, rooting sexist ideologies in the norms of society” (Bresnahan et al. 2006) and that through viewing them in anime these ideologies can influence other cultures as well. Finally, it should be noted that while I have focused on anime, this study suggests that other media in other cultures can also promote stereotypes embedded in their own societies.
The progression of the paper began with an explanation of anime as a medium: one of the most popular entertainment mediums in the world, reaching billions of viewers. Born in Japan, anime has been watched for over a century, cyclically reinforcing Japanese values on society. Then, we looked at history, finding that women have been consistently undermined and discriminated against in Japan. Gender stereotypes are both overt and covert in Japanese culture and women are generally forced into the roles of wife and mother, unable to achieve a healthy work-life balance. At home, many women are in completely unequal relationships in regard to housework and childrearing. As such, a new class of highly educated, single women have emerged that do not take husbands for fear of these burdens. This gender inequality is mirrored in anime with negative, sexist portrayals of women as the norm. We learned how shōnen and seinen, as well as the subgenre of harem, are all perpetuators of this problem. Even in the genre geared towards women, shōjo, there are countless anime that further these stereotypes. However, the analysis of Wakako zake found that it stood apart as a counterculture feminist anime, depicting a strong single, working woman. This anime serves to empower women to interact with the world in new ways. It also subverts stereotypes levied against the group of women discussed earlier. The study we looked at scientifically proves that watching sexist portrayals creates unequal perceptions about women. It shows how a typical shōnen anime like Dragon Ball Z reinforces latent false beliefs about male privilege and superiority. These thoughts can lead to changes in expectations of women and negative beliefs about them. But anime like Wakako zake can change that. By watching anime that depict positive images of women, it has the opposite effect, opening minds and changing perspectives. Returning to the question in the introduction does anime influence the perception of gender and the role of women? The answer is yes, but how does it? The answer is it depends. It depends on the anime that you watch. Though Japanese society has been making strides for gender equality, these trends in anime will continue to reinforce gender stereotypes that will negatively influence the perception of women. While this paper is not meant as a PSA, it does indicate that watching positive portrayals of women can change gender stereotypes. Since this is the case, I will do my part by watching Wakako eat and drink and when I am finished, I will also give a “pshuuuu” of satisfaction. For in doing so, I am improving my own perception of women in the world. If you watch anime, watch Wakako zake and its contemporaries, it can change your mind.
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