The role of female characters in anime – does it create or maintain inequality?
April 24, 2012 22 Comments
This is a more in-depth look at ideas of womens inequality in Japanese society in relation to anime, partly based on my own research and studies. Also, this is a partial argument, the post is a condensed version of a longer article that I have recently written, and unfortunately I have left out a lot of material in order to make it work as a blog post. I will likely add more posts over time looking at other aspects of this topic.
There has been a significant amount of discussion on ideas surrounding whether or not anime is inherently sexist with its portrayals of female characters along with the whole notion of ecchi and fanservice. In general I don’t believe that anime is inherently sexist, however, this post will not be looking at this, rather it seeks to explore ideas of women’s inequality in Japanese society and how this relates to female characters in anime. Women in Japan either socially or in employment do not have true equality. We see this in social terms with reference to ideas of a woman’s place in society, associated with domestic work, cleaning, cooking, childcare and generally looking after the household.
Men, on the other hand, are traditionally viewed as the ‘bread winners’ who work long hours to keep the household going (Brinton, 1993). This attitude is not unique to Japan, but we see similar attitudes in Britain, America and many other countries. The proper role of women, which has been defined during Meiji period by the slogan ‘good wife, wise mother’ (ryosai kenbo), and is set in opposition to that of men, who are regarded as models for action and rational enlightenment (Goldstein-Gidoni, 1999; Uno, 1993). Female anime characters are often portrayed as weaker, whereas the male characters do the heavy lifting and general ‘manly’ jobs (there are of course exceptions). This representation of the sexes and the clear differentiations of their places in society is still strong and, while there has been equality legislation been introduced, such ideas continue to play a very influential role in how women and viewed and portrayed in Japanese society.
Now, with regards to anime, we see many (although not all) female characters portrayed as being excellent at domestic chores, with ideas that men are incapable of making their own lunches, whereas having a girl/woman bring you a handmade Bento box is a sign of deep affection. High school anime are the series where you are most likely to see such characters, and while there are variations, it is most common to see the female characters in domestic roles. Although there are variations on this, such as mecha series like Infinite Stratos where the female characters are the strongest, and yet such series still retain the notion that these characters should still be good at domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning. We often see in anime female characters that are not good at cooking however, with such characteristics being portrayed as negative, which often leads to these characters attempting to learn how to cook.
While women experience many inequalities in Japan, there have been significant inroads made in terms of employment, training, education and wages earned. Japanese women are ‘the most highly educated women in the world’, with a significant number of them attending university (Renshaw, 1999). By the late 90s there were over 300,000 (Renshaw, 1999:4) women in managerial roles, ranging from multi-national corporations to the civil service and governmental jobs (Kimito, 2003; Lo, 1990). There are a significant number of series with all female casts, or female characters in positions of considerable power, yet they are almost an anomaly, where the women become almost too masculine to be truly women.
Characters such as Yakushiji Ryoko, Najika Kisaragi and Mina Tepes however, demonstrate the ability of women to be in positions of power, and are more powerful and successful than many men; however, the amount of power and influence that these characters posses largely depends on the anime, setting and individual character. Such characters, and in particular those from all female casts nevertheless remain interesting since the exhibit the ability of women to maintain positions of considerable power without conforming to the social and cultural norms of Japanese society. Although, they still retain an element of femininity, with all characters being incredibly beautiful and sexy, and often within an implicit understanding of how to use such qualities to their advantage.
Okano (2009) suggests, a popular portrayal of Japanese women is that of ‘victims’, subordinated in a patriarchal society where women have, and continue to be, oppressed by ‘social and cultural norms’ and ‘institutions that deprive them of the pursuit of their aspirations’ (Okano, 2009:5). We are told that they face a significant number of barriers to recruitment, and find it far more difficult than men to find employment in desirable companies. And yet, in anime we continue to see many strong female characters that are far more forceful than the male leads, along with having strong ideals and personalities.
Women in Japanese society are denied high-paying jobs because of a significant number of practices with further institutionalizes discrimination against women. These practices naturalize the notion of women as housewives and domestic units. Under this system only men were expected to maintain long-term employment, and therefore their time intensive training made sense to the company. Women mostly perform routine tasks and sometimes served as ‘flowers of the workplace’ (shokuba no hana), there to brighten up the environment for male workers (Weathers, 2001:201).
We further see this in regards to the highest achievers in anime, where they are considered perfect, not only because of their achievements, but also because they are beautiful, and are good at domestic chores – the super woman of the workplace. These characters may often be very intelligent, and with the right training would be capable of achieving great things, and yet for many, their only wish for the future is to be a wife and be there to care for their future husband once he finishes work. It is the romanticized notion of a women’s place in Japanese society, and very often, even those women who are working (Takahashi Maya from Amagami SS for example) still dream of marrying and ‘settling down’.
Women are usually expected to quit work by their mid- to late twenties, before they can start to earn ‘significant seniority-based pay increases (Weathers, 2001:201). Weathers (2001) further points out that, women re-entering the workforce (Yu, 2005) after marriage, tend to work as low-paid part-timers (pato) rather than as regular employees, which alienates them from promotion, benefits and creates an ‘age-based division of labor (Weathers, 2001:201)’. Pressures for greater equality for women in the Japanese labor market have only gained credibility during the mid to late 90s, and while there is more equality, it still remains quite common on the part of officials and employers to justify the system of working men and nonworking housewives as rational and efficient (Long, 1996; Pharr, 1998:217).
There are numerous female characters in anime that partly conform to the social and cultural norms of society, while maintaining a sense of their own independence, striving for their own goals and aspirations (Edwards, 1988). The classic example from anime is the female protagonist (usually in a high school anime) getting a job as a waitress in a café – very often involving dressing as a maid, thus conforming to certain stereotypes of women’s place in society – while the male characters tend to either get jobs in companies, or perhaps help out with manual labor, and general ‘manly’ tasks.
With the difficulties in finding full time, permanent work, there has also been an increasing concern in Japan that many women are spending far too much time working. In anime such as Hanasaku Iroha we see the power firmly in the hands of the women who run Kissuiso, with the women in that series fully devoted to their work and their careers. Ohana, Nako and Minko are almost oblivious to notions of love and romance, and while they may recognize their existence, they also take a backseat to their jobs.
Sui Shijima and her daughter Satsuki Matsumea (Ohana’s mother) are seen as forsaking their families in the pursuit of their careers, and in Sasuki’s case there is also her inability to care for herself and cook, skills that are considered essential for any women in Japan (and arguably the wider world). The socially and culturally imbedded notions of a women’s role in Japanese society make it significantly more difficult to have a family while maintaining their career. And while we see numerous anime with working women who have families, there is a certain detached quality to them, like they have not devoted themselves properly to the household.
Japanese women however do have agency and have the ability to make their own decisions, to ignore this would be to essentialise the place of women in Japanese society. Women will choose to get a job because it offers a greater sense of independence, and is often the first chance many Japanese women have to live by themselves. Tsukasa in Amagami SS for example talks about wanting to go to university with Junichi and we know that she eventually marries him, yet she also says that she will not lower her standards, and that if Junichi does not get the right grades then she will go university without him. While she does in a sense conform to classic ideas of women in Japan by eventually marrying her high school sweetheart, there is also an implicit understanding that she has her own ambitions and aspirations for life, and that no matter how much she may love Junichi, it will not get in the way of her dreams.
These decisions are consciously made in contrast with their ‘immediate circumstances, social conditions and the workings and constraints of society’ (Okano, 2009:274)’. Japanese women therefore exhibit agency in their own decisions, these decisions are however, made within a specific framework and set of social and cultural constraints (Ogasawara, 1998). This is further demonstrated through anime character choices, and while many female characters do remain within the constraints of these social and cultural norms, they are nevertheless making a conscious choice, they are exhibiting agency as a character. These problems have been further complicated by social images employed throughout the 60s through to the present day (although perhaps less so now than earlier periods) of women’s ‘natural place’ being the home. Working was considered to be secondary to taking care of the home, in fact marriage has often been described as ‘eikyu shushoku’ (lifelong employment) (Iwao, 1993:156).
Rias Gemory is a fascinating character in this respect, she demonstrates agency in her decisions, refusing to accept her marriage to Raizer, even going so far as to initiate a fight in order to try and cancel the engagement. However, she is incapable of truly absolving the engagement due to the need for her to marry and produce an heir, thereby maintaining the household, something that is considered immensely important in Japan (Kondo, 1990). While she relies on Issei to help her out of a tough spot, and shows her love for him, she nevertheless remains an immensely strong female character, and there is no doubt that Rias is far superior in strength and character to Issei, regardless of her feelings for him.
It is however important not to over-generalize the notion that women will be housewives. There are now far more single women since many women marry late or stay single due to their jobs or simply not wishing to marry. We are seeing a significant number of ‘career women’, who climb up the ranks within companies, along with a greater number who do not want children and reject this notion of the Japanese family. Unfortunately the model of the classic Japanese family and the roll of women within society has become so strong, and so naturalized that women are essentially automatically perceived to be housewives with little say over their carrier and their future.
But, although many women are clearly deciding on their own future and what they wish to do with it, there is still a great deal in inequality, not only within the Japanese labor market, but also within society itself. Women are still very often pushed into the lower status bracket of part-time employment, the jobs that are often available to them often also of a lower status, and most importantly of all, the wage gap between men and women is immensely significant and is in fact the biggest among the developed nations (Kimiko, 2003:19).
Anime therefore not inherently unequal or sexist, rather it reflects the socially and culturally rooted values of the society within which it is created. Many female characters in anime conform to the stereotypes of women’s place in society, usually taking care of domestic chores while the male leads can take on the role of the salary man just getting home from a long day at work. But, it is also equally important not to overgeneralise, and recognize that there are a significant number of anime with strong willed female characters who refuse to conform, and instead push in order to obtain their own dreams and goals. So, while women do not have true equality in Japanese society, something that is mirrored in womens roles in anime, they are not subordinate, and continue to exhibit agency and an ability to choose their own future.
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