Women’s Roles in Anime: The Reflection of Japanese Society
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Published: Fri, 27 Apr 2018
What do the portrayals of women in Japanese animation reveal about the role of women in Japanese society today? The role of women in Japanese culture is an important topic amongst when discussing contemporary Japan. While it is important to consider traditional methods of analysis that come from statistics and surveys, you also need to look at how popular culture defines the modern Japanese woman. Japanese animation can provide a tool to analysis of the role of women in Japanese society. Through looking at women and they are portrayed in Japanese animation over the decade, we can begin to see the role of women in contemporary Japanese society. The purpose of this discussion is to determine a connection between Japanese animation (a form of popular culture) and the role of women (whether this role is shifting or remaining conservative) in contemporary Japanese society.
In order to understand the link between Japanese animation and society, it is important to consider the meaning of these terms and how they relate to each other. Martinez defines popular culture as the “culture of the masses”; which does apply to the Japanese culture. Nevertheless, other opinions raise the point to how ‘popular culture’ is a problematic term when translating it into the Japanese context. According to Hidetoshi Kato, a Japanese scholar, the term ‘popular culture’ as taishu bunka; translates into “mass culture”. However, Martinez’s definition is a middle of the road definition for the terms offered by Kato. In addition, Martinez defines the anthropology of popular culture as “the study of the interaction between the apparently separate realms of the material and the symbolic”. Other anthropologist such as Roger Buckley agrees with Martinez, stating that popular culture should “tell us something about contemporary Japanese behavior”.
The images presented by Japanese animation including its related cousin, manga, or Japanese comics have helped shape the identity of modern Japanese women. Japanese animation, or anime, is useful when studying the role of women in society. Popular culture serves to reflect and instigate change in Japanese society, by observing the changes and themes in anime, these trends are identifiable. Popular culture also helps one to understand the dynamics of Japanese society and culture. While the behaviors identified are not’ Japanese’, such as conformity, loyalty and deference8, there are certain subtle undertones that make themes and characters that make them Japanese. Lastly, Japanese animation industry caters for both sexes across a wide age group. This is important, because unlike the animation industry in the United States whereupon children’s programming is largely aimed at young boys. Japanese animation makes it possible to gain an insight into the role of women in society because both sexes’ views are represented. This provides a foundation for observing how the role of women in Japanese society can be studied through examining their role in Japanese animation.
Japanese animation is interesting to study when observing the roles of gender because of the way it written for diverse tastes and it differs from Western animation. Anime has often been described as edgy, provocative, and documentary-like; these industry buzzwords describe anime as a different expression of animation, when it is not. In reality, the Japanese have embraced animation as an expression that goes beyond the standard set by Disney. Anime includes animation catered for all age groups. Anime content ranges from superb works to trashy soap operas or pornography; however, they play an important role in Japan’s popular culture by providing a legacy of past ideals.
Respected writer Frederik Schodt has split the anime available into two distinct halves as defined by the gender,
- “Boys’ comic [shonen] anime carefully balance suspense with humor, dramatic stories of sports, adventure, ghosts, science fiction, and school life.
- Girls’ comic anime [shojo] also strive for balance but are distinguished by their tales of idealized love.”
Given the range to choose from, it is important to analyze a number of sources to see how anime reflects the position of women in Japanese society, but to examine them with an open mind. Reaction to anime has been filled with distaste. Film critics have both embraced and criticized Japanese animation. Mamorum Oshii’s theatrical adaption of Shirow Masamune’s ‘Ghost in the Shell’, regarded as a movie that questions what it is that makes us human by many, has been lauded as “a spectacular-looking Japanese animated film, but… like so many of its kind, involves a confusing narrative and peculiar metaphysics that reduce interest”16. To avoid generalizations it is important to look at works from a several genres to how anime portrays Japanese women in society.
To observe the role of women as portrayed in anime with a female-specific target audience, Komodo no Omocha (1996) will be used to analyzed. To see how women are being represented in anime that is targeted at a male demographic, Dragon Ball Z (199?) will form the basis of analysis. Finally, a recent work from Japan’s most respected and successful animation studio today, Studio Ghibli, will be
analyzed – Mononoke Hime (1997). The importance of studying Studio Ghibli’s work is to see how women are portrayed by an animation studio whose works reach a very wide audience, that typically cross the gender and age boundaries. While this analysis will not prove to be the final answer, it will prove an interesting investigation when considering what images of femininity have been projected onto Japanese society over the past decade.
Kodomo no Omocha was a popular series that aired on Japanese television in the mid 1990 is, compared to many shojo anime, Kodomo no Omocha is radical, though it is by far not the only one. The story is a comedy fused with typical shojo elements – love interests, and pretty artwork. The female lead is a young girl named Sana, who lives with her eccentric, but loving, mother and Rei, her personal manager. Unlike other female characters that will be analyzed, Sana is loud, outspoken and is not intimidated by anyone. She is works hard to do her best at her job (she is a famous star of a children’s TV program), friends and family. While she exhibits traditionally female qualities, she is not the stereotypical wholly subservient female character. Even though she is only a child, she stresses the importance of her job. Her mother is another strong female role within the anime. She is intelligent, in control and the men are more likely to be subservient to her than anything else is. Other females in the show lean towards conservative Japan, such as when Sana’s female teacher cries and runs to another male teacher for assistance whenever the class acts up. The male characters are traditionally empowered, though like many a shojo anime, have soft sides to their personalities. The depiction of the two main female characters, Sana and her mother, offer an insight into the modern Japanese woman as having the capacity to be strong, yet gentle and compassionate.
Dragon Ball Z offers an interesting insight into the portrayal of women in anime aimed at a male demographic. The reason this is an interesting series to look at is its popularity and the way it portrays gender roles. Women are portrayed in few roles in this anime. The female roles are dismally backwards. Dragon Ball Z has portrayed the role of women as subservient/secondary at their core. It has pointed out that fundamental beliefs about gender roles are difficult to change in any society, including Japan’s, The show is very male-centric, emphasizing strength, discipline and hard work as the key to being successful in the world. On the other hand, this is a martial arts anime, so this should not be a surprising aspect. One of the women who appear regularly is the protagonists’ female friend Bulma, an intelligent scientist. Bulma is a gifted inventor and often creates something that will aid her group of friends in whatever plight they are in. Bulma is portrayed as a confident, intelligent woman who, while not of equal status, remains an important part of the team. However, when she is put in a position of danger, she falls into the ‘damsel in distress’ stereotype all too common in male-orientated anime. She is rescued one way or another, but is often the least of the group’s priorities – she is often rescued as an after-thought, as opposed to being a genuine critical concern. This is a good example of what Eri Izawa determines as the “Unequal Relationship” genre, where women are second to men in a world dominated by patriarchy.
Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata founded studio Ghibli in 1985. The importance with studying work by Studio Ghibli is because their productions (which are theatrical) have such widespread appeal in Japanese society. A large number of Japan’s populace sees the stories that are created here. The films cross the divides of age and gender.
The movie that is I am looking at is Mononoke Hime. It grossed approximately US$150 million at the box office, beaten only by Titanic. In Mononoke Hime, the story centers on three principle characters – San, the Wolf Princess, Lady Eboshi and prince Ashitaka, the ‘pillar’ between which these two women are placed. One of interesting strengths of this film is the way in which the opposing characters, San and Lady Eboshi, are portrayed. Both are strong, powerful women, sure of themselves and their world. Lady Eboshi is a superlative example of the new woman of Japan. She is in charge of a profitable ironworks that employs people regarded as beneath society (prostitutes and lepers), leading by compassion, returning dignity and purpose to their lives. San is the other extreme; she lives in the forest of the Deer God, raised by the great wolf gods who dwell there. San is a strong female character who follows a more ‘natural’ way of life; as opposed to the entrepreneurial mindset of Lady Eboshi, San is dedicated to preserving the forest and the creatures that dwell within. Miyazaki is portraying the capacity of women to be strong, competent and successful. San represents the capacity of women to be strong in the dwelling of the traditional while Lady Eboshi is an example of how women can be successful and entrepreneurial in the face of modernization.
From three examples, it is easy to see these reflections on the role of women are present in contemporary Japanese society. Martinez admits that it is difficult to discover what the true role of Japanese women in Japanese society are in a perceived country “where men are still dominant… [and] Japanese women are held to be gentle, submissive and beautiful”. Historically, Japanese women’s suffrage was achieved in 1945 and it is noted that while Japanese women may be able to find jobs, it is far more difficult to find careers, even today. However, public opinion is changing. There is clear that the role of women in Japan is no longer the traditional housewife/mother. Surveys by the Prime Minister’s Office in 1987 and 1995 show a shift in public opinion of women, while in 1987 over 50% of the men surveyed agreed with the traditional role of women in Japan, by 1995 the percentage had dropped to 33%. The state of Japanese animation over the past decade reveals a relative parallel between the content of Japanese animation and these results.
The role of women in anime such as Kodomo no Omocha gives girls a role model unlike the traditionally submissive, quiet woman in the face of Sana’s eccentric, enthusiastic nature that is rewarded by success. Studio Ghibli’s films have portrayed women as equal, confident and able to take charge in their lives. Anime aimed at boys retain the portrayal of women as ‘bystanders’, whether it be the token ‘damsel in distress’ or cheerleader. However, that is changing; Japanese animation aimed at the boys has begun to portray women beyond this traditional stereotype. Several productions such as Ranma 1/2 and Love Hina offered a cast of characters that serve to put women on equal ground as men in some cases, though there is still the re-enforcement of traditional gender roles.
Japanese animation is an established form of pop culture. It is consumed by both sexes and across all age groups, and offers a series of representations of women. While it has become apparent through observing trends in Japanese animation and contemporary Japanese society is an apparent shift, however, it is important to identify that the traditional role of women will probably always manifest itself in pop culture. This is because the traditional role of women is an option, just as choosing a career or being entrepreneurial are choices. What is encouraging to see is that those choices are being represented, either directly or indirectly, in anime. It speaks well for the future of Japanese society as alternative roles of women are being portrayed for both sexes in the ‘culture of the masses’.
- Martinez, D.P. (1998). The Worlds of Japanese popular culture: gender, shifting boundaries [UK, Cambridge UP, p. 3].
- Hidetoshi, K. (1989). Some Thoughts on Japanese popular culture. Richard Gid Powers
- Hidetoshi, K. (1989). Handbook of Japanese popular culture. Greenwood Press.
- Buckley, R. (1990). Japan today. Cambridge: UP.
- Schodt, F.L. (1983). Manga! manga! the world of japanese comics. USA: Kodansha.
- Izawa, E. (2001). Japanese manga and animation: gender relations in manga and anime. Retrieved from http://www.uncc.edu/~medmoto/3209/anime/gender.html (abridged)
- Robertson, J. (1998). Takarazuka: sexual politics and popular culture in modern japan. University of California.
- Dimensions of Japanese society: gender, margins and mainstream. Great Britain: Macmillan Press Ltd.
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