Sexual Harassment in anime – Comedy, Carnivalesque, and Socially Constructed


Sexual Harassment or more broadly comedy involving sex jokes, references and general ‘dirty humor’, is something that is hardly unique to anime, or Japanese television, and appears in a wide variety of media around the world. Sex jokes and general dirty humor adds an element of the carnivalesque to many series, helping to break up the action or drama by injecting an element of madness into the plot. There is also a certain ‘Bacchic’ quality to such jokes, with characters in anime finding themselves in situations that would get anyone in the real world sent to jail. While most people will not necessarily want to do exactly what these characters do, there is something in their actions that many people may wish for. The idea that you could potentially do something as audacious as many anime characters, wondering perhaps what it would be like, although not necessarily wishing to actually do it knowing the consequences.What is interesting however is how the ideas of sexual harassment, and sex jokes fit into broader ideas to do with the place of men and women in Japanese society, along with the attitudes towards broader sexual harassment. While such incidents in anime tend to be used for comic purposes, there are far darker elements in certain series, and there appears to be a connection between the attitudes surrounding sexual harassment n Japanese society and how it and its after effects are portrayed in anime. This also links back to idea surrounding broader culturally and socially constructed notions of women’s place in Japanese society, along with ideas to do with conflict that perhaps problematise the whole idea of sexual harassment.

Women within corporations tend to be given the clerical tasks and services such as answering telephones, serving tea and emptying ashtrays, and doing secretarial work for company supervisors, we see similar tasks taken on by women and girls in schools and universities, although they do differ due to the different situation and social context of the work. Women within the company perform the housekeeping chores of the office, continuing the traditional notion of a woman’s place within society, only this time within the workplace itself, the are the companies housewives. While this is a more general aspect of the continued element of inequality that women can face in Japanese society, along with other societies around the world, it does however feed into notions of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Sexual harassment has been, and continues to be wide spread within Japanese work places, but as Huen (2007) argues ‘it was not considered sexual discrimination per se’, instead sexual harassment was viewed purely as a private matter between individuals (Huen, 2007:812). The question is therefore, how this relates to anime, and how it links in with the discourse surrounding the private nature of sexual harassment in Japanese society. In part we can view such ideas in the reactions of characters that accuse and are accused of sexual harassment, they may make a big fuss about it, and yet, there are no consequences. A male character may accidentally grope a female character resulting in being punched or kicked, yet no further action is taken, and the matter appears to viewed as one that involves on these two particular characters, not everyone else. Of course, such acts are often used for comedic purposes, adding an element of the carnivalesque to a series by throwing in these aspects of slapstick comedy. The effect is clear and often incredibly funny, yet it is also quite clear that these acts, despite the apparent disgust in society surrounding such things never results in anything other than a good kicking.

Series such as High School DxD often have male characters who are self confessed perverts, thinking about the female body, and objectifying it in some respects. Hyoudo Issei is quite happy in his outlook on life, wishing to create his own harem and perfectly willing to admit to this. The female characters around him partly view him as a curiosity, with characters such as Koneko opening disgusted by some of his behavior, and constantly berating him as a pervert. He is however, viewed and treated with loving care, especially from Rias, and his antics and perverted nature are tolerated as part of his character. He might be publicly viewed as being disgusting, but nothing is ever done about it, and in reality, his actions are tolerated.

Japanese law until the late 1990s did not explicitly forbid sexual harassment and the term itself had no legal definition. Huen (2007) explains that until the late 1980s, the concept of sexual harassment was so foreign to Japan, that the English words were borrowed to produce the Japanese term ‘sekuhara’ (Huen, 2007:811). The concept of sexual harassment has wider implications when taking into account Japanese culture and how it has impacted upon people’s everyday lives. Japanese society places a great deal of importance on maintaining harmony within personal relationships as well as business dealings and other social interactions. Kazue (2004) points out that:

Working in groups and fostering non-confrontational relationships are essential to creating a functioning harmonious environment. Individuals tend therefore to avoid confrontation and conform to social norms (Kazue, 2004:12-13)

Japanese culture, in essence, promotes conformity with ‘passive social norms and avoids confrontation with others’ (Huen, 2007:813). With this focus on harmony and homogeneity within not only the work place but also broader society have significant implications for women. The emphasis on this group ethos rather than the individual makes it significantly harder for women to not only confront someone over a case of sexual harassment, but also impacts upon the search for great equality within a society that stresses a notion of social cohesion (Yu, 2002). It is this hegemonic notion of the group over the individual, along with the naturalization of not only sexual harassment but also certain important inequalities within Japanese society that makes it so difficult and problematic for women to push the boundaries.

It is therefore possible to see how and why notions of sexual harassment are often left to one side in anime, such hegemonic forces help to create the notion that harmony is more important that conflict. So, we see characters beaten up, and yet the status quo is maintained, with such characters being allowed back into the group in full knowledge that their actions, while often leading to a beating, do not in fact produce any stronger, more damaging consequences. This can be most obvious in anime set in and around schools as they are spaces for education and socialization, the focus for harmony (wa) and hegemony therefore has significant implications for Japanese women, along with the female characters that we see in high school settings.

From childhood, Japanese women are told to follow their peers and ‘go with the flow’ (Huen, 2007:813). The emphasis found in anime and broader Japanese society on group ethos rather than individualism makes it difficult for women to speak up about their sufferings related to sexual harassment and other forms of gender discrimination (Kazue, 2004:12).

In fact, it is often perceived as impolite to express ones individual wishes and feelings within a group, especially for women. Individuals who have been harmed or subject to sexual harassment are often under tremendous societal pressure to maintain the social order; and ‘failure to uphold social harmony brings shame and embarrassment’ (Huen, 2007:813). Victims of sexual harassment in the work place, and other areas of society and therefore, often dissuaded from making their claims public for fear that airing their grievances will incur disharmony (Efron, 1999; Shimonda, 2002).

Of course, that is not to say that such actions cannot be funny and entertaining, as shown in series such as Sora no Otoshimono that help to demonstrate the comic potential in the perverse and canrvalesque. Sakurai Tomoki is the epitome of anime pervertedness, a character so wrapped up in his own perverse delusions that they can appear to gain a life of their own. His obsession with women’s lingerie, along with women’s bodies is second to none within anime, and what’s more he is perfectly comfortable with this, flaunting his attitudes and ideas at every opportunity.

In the series, he is viewed as an enemy to all women in a sense, and frequently beaten up (on one occasion he appears in a sushi bar with a light bulb stuck up his bum), but, his actions continue, and while he almost continuously gets beaten up, it is as if his perverted characteristics are in some way accepted. As a character, his actions can be immensely funny, seeing things such as the (now infamous) flock of flying panties created due to his desires and the power of Icarus, clearly demonstrate how ideas to do with sexual harassment can be given a carnivalesque twist that would have made Bacchus proud. There is also an element of Schadenfreude in watching the antics of Tomoki, knowing that he is about to be almost obliterated for the sake of comic entertainment.

Many other anime series however involve similar elements of slapstick comedy, along with sexual harassment and perverted characters. In Japanese companies, and in the case of anime, schools, both employers and employees (students and teachers) try hard to maintain good relations with each other. Outings, banquets, and overnight trips such as the classic onsen/ryokan school trip, or perhaps a larger school outing are often used for the purpose of development wa (harmony). However, it is not uncommon that sexual harassment occurs during such occasions, such as the classic idea of boys trying to sneak a peak at the girl’s bath. As Huen (2007) argues, in ordinary office settings sexual jokes are often perceived as a means to create harmony in the office (Huen, 2007:813).

And as sexual harassment behaviors are justified in the name of developing wa, it is difficult for women to refuse unwelcome advances – or even voice grievances (Huen, 2007:813). And, because group harmony is so important in Japanese society, those women who openly complain about workplace sexual harassment are seen as disruptors, and are very often forced to resign or are fired (Kazue, 2004:12).

There are however, anime series that invert these notions of work place harassment, where we have the women harassing and the men being harassed. Maji de Watashi koi ni Shinasai and Isekai no Seikishi Monogatari are both series that involve large female casts, and have female characters involved in harassing the object of their desires. In both cases the harassment is almost identical to that found in more traditional scenarios in anime, yet the change in gender roles gives it an interesting change to normal series (Kazue, 2002:12).

We have characters such as Mexiah who are incredibly aggressive in her advances, opening flirting with the main character Kenichi, as well as other female students in the series. There is a decadent quality to Isekai no Seikishi Monogatari and in particular Mexiah with the majority of the cast being female and opening chasing after Kenichi for his genes. Similarly, the major sexual harassment in Maji de Watashi koi ni Shinasai comes from the female characters. And while it mirrors that of more traditional anime series, the switching of roles helps to demonstrate that sexual harassment is not a simple case of women being the objects of men’s advances, but can be the other way around.

There are deep-rooted social and cultural ideas surrounding the role of women in Japanese society that create and re-create inequalities within the work force, and more generally within society itself. When young women graduates took to the streets of Tokyo in 1994 to protest against the discrimination of major corporations and companies, we saw a shocked society. Japanese people, including young men and women were shocked by the demonstrations and were worried about protestors ‘un-Japanese’ behavior, viewing it to have ruined their chances of being hired by any company (Renshaw, 1999:19). This example demonstrates how women are expected to conform to cultural norms and avoid confrontation, nowhere is there any thought of their reason for protesting, rather people immediately jump to the assumption that they are going against their own society and are therefore dangerous.

Because Japanese culture emphasizes conformity and fails to acknowledge gender equality, the social and emotional costs of instituting a lawsuit often far outweigh the potential benefits for a Japanese woman alleging sexual harassment (Huen, 2007:814; Efron, 1999). In anime terms, the idea of causing a confrontation due to ongoing sexual harassment is therefore inadvisable and potentially detrimental to the characters future prospects.

Notions of sexual harassment and humor involving sex jokes are an interesting and complicated issue in anime. One that helps to further demonstrate the impact of socially and culturally constructed notions of women’s place in Japanese society, while also demonstrating how such ideas can be used for comic effect. This does not mean that it is right and completely tolerated with numerous grassroots organizations in Japan having started in the past two decades in order to combat these issues and help raise awareness of the ongoing problem of sexual harassment in Japanese society (Huen, 2007).

While there is clearly an issue to do with notions of the private, along with maintaining this hegemonic calm within Japanese society, it is also equally important not to over generalize such issues when it comes to anime, and broader popular culture.

The canvialesque qualities of sex jokes and references cannot be overestimated, and will usually result in excellent humor, that can, and often is, enjoyed by all. These ideas are interesting and important to explore with regards to anime precisely because of these culturally and socially embedded notions of sexual harassment as a private matter in Japanese society. There is also an aspect of Schadenfreude when it comes to such series, with the main male protagonists getting beaten up on a regular basis for comic effect. It is this combination of factors that makes these ideas and elements of anime funny, while at the same time have a more serious element that perhaps needs to be acknowledged, although doing so does not necessarily detract from the enjoyment of a particular series. It is, however, still necessary to explore such issues since the impact of these culturally and socially embedded notions and attitudes towards sexual harassment in Japanese society are evident in how anime series deal with similar issues.

Bibliography:

Efron, M. J. (1999), The Transnational Application of Sexual Harassment Laws: A Cultural Barrier in Japan, University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Economic Law, Vol 20, pp. 133-177.

Huen, Y. W. P. 2007, Sexual Harassment in Japan: A Review of combating Measures Taken, Asian Survey, Vol 47(5) pp. 811-827.

Iwao, S. 1993, The Japanese Woman: Traditional Image and Changing Reality, The Free Press/Macmillan; New York.

Kazue, M. (2004), ‘Sexual Harassment and Empowerment of women in Japan.’ NIASnytt (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies newsletter) 1 (March 2004), pp. 12-13).

Kimito, K. 2003, translated by Teresa Castelvetere, 2005, Gender and Japanese Management, Trans Pacific Press; Melbourne

Renshaw, J. R. 1999, Kimono in the Boardroom, Oxford University Press; Oxford.

Shimoda, T. G. (2002), Japan’s New Equal Employment Opportunity Law: Combating Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, Transnational Lawyer, Vol 16, pp. 215-247.

About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

15 Responses to Sexual Harassment in anime – Comedy, Carnivalesque, and Socially Constructed

  1. Yumeka says:

    Great post! You touched on pretty much everything on the subject so I don’t have much to add. I will say that a lot of the sexual harassment humor I’ve seen in anime (I don’t watch extremely ecchi titles but I have seen plenty with an amount of fan service) is accidental – the guy ends up groping the girl’s breast or whatever by accident, which is where the humor comes from. He’s hapless but otherwise portrayed as a decent guy’s who’s kind to the girls he meets, and even if they smack him around for it, they don’t take any further action against him because it wasn’t on purpose (and of course, it’s meant to be a comedic thing that doesn’t totally reflect real life). But when you have a male character who’s portrayed as a slimy pervert who isn’t kind to the women he meets and totally objectifies them, he’s usually not shown in a positive light, at least not in the anime I’ve seen.

    • illogicalzen says:

      Very true, I like those kinds of series, at least for occasional viewing, if not all the time. It’s not that I find such ecchi humour bad or wrong, what interests me is how these particular scenes or settings, such as the onsen, have real life equivalents. To me, anime reflects Japanese society, not perfectly, but there are elements there, and I want to explore them in more detail. Like ideas surrounding sexual harassment, I find them interesting, especially when you look at how they are used in anime, it doesn’t stop me enjoying the anime though, and very often it is quite clear that what has happened was used for comic effect (and I am likely laughing at it).

  2. just1pommop says:

    very nice post, and i laughed at every picture, could you give me the names of the anime you got them from?

  3. Pingback: Anti-Social Geniuses Reference Resource Mondays « Organization Anti-Social Geniuses

  4. Jazz says:

    Great article! I often find myself uncomfortable watching female anime characters displaying such low self esteem as shown to be normal. I fear for the future generations of impressionable young Japanese girls thinking themselves to be ‘defective’ in some way if having a desire to be independent and opinionated.

    Also reagarding your article I especially found interesting the way you described the relationship between two Japanese people as a ‘private’ matter between them -and only them- whereas we in the west tend to judge and get into other peoples business, confronting strangers on their behaviours if they don’t conform to our own.

    Each way has it’s pros and cons. Not sure which is better.

    • illogicalzen says:

      In general Japanese society does not necessarily encourage or reward individualistic thinking patterns (this is a vast generalisation of course and the actually picture is far more complicated and nuanced) so this is not merely a case of women finding it hard. Also it is important not to assume or even to suggest that Japanese women are in anyway oppressed, far from it. My interest lies in how common ideas within society, many of which are not unique to Japanese society work their way into anime and its portrayal of ‘normal’ life. In this case you also have to realise that a large number of anime series, and especially the High School anime are the ideal and are therefore not representative of reality, although they do have specific elements that are similar to wat happens in a normal school.

      I dont think either way is better, they are different, however, the private nature of sexual harassment can be incredibly damaging to women in the work place and broader society, although trends do suggest that this is also slowly changing. The attitude that particularly sexual harassment is a private matter is likely to partly come from the Confucian attitudes and ideals that much of Japanese society works by. You do not make a big deal out of such a matter because to do so would be to upset the group and therefore the workplace harmony, thus causing trouble for everyone around you.

      Overal this is an interesting and difficult issue to discuss properly in a blog post, and in fact this post is a drastically edited version of a larger piece that I have been working on. In any case, while it is necessary to talk about such issues it is also important not to voer-generalise, since you run the risk of denying women in Japan or other countries agency and the ability to make their own informed choices about their lives. The discussion is however still very important.

  5. I wonder…why hasn’t Japanese society evolved like the Western ones? I mean once the old Continent was highly dependent on agriculture and similar ethics existed. What was that broke the silence and lead to change?

    Great post and quite big bibliography. If you’ve read all these books then I bow to you.

    • illogicalzen says:

      Not sure how this bares any relevance to my post, but the answer is simple, its because it is Japan and not the west, different countries and regions develop along different paths.

      • sorry, I was referring to feminism and women’s rights, but I didn’t make it clear.

        • illogicalzen says:

          The answer is still obvious in a way – different countries and regions develop along different paths, besides, there are no countries that have true gender equality. In the case of Japan, we have to look at Sakoku (鎖国?, “locked country”), Japans foreign relations policy under which no foreigner could enter nor could any Japanese leave the country on penalty of death. The policy was enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate under Tokugawa Iemitsu through a number of edicts and policies from 1633–39 and remained in effect until 1853 with the arrival of the Black Ships of Commodore Matthew Perry and the forcible opening of Japan to Western trade. It was still illegal to leave Japan until the Meiji Restoration (1868). And then we think about the speed with which Japan went from a medieval society to an industrial one, with two specific periods of immense growth and change. But even this doesn’t really cover it, partly because specific elements in society are hard to explain and are created through numerous factors and aspects of society and culture. Simply put, like all societies, it is complicated.

  6. Matthew Vett says:

    Awesome post! Thanks for writing it. It’s great to see something like this analyzed.

  7. Pingback: Otona Joshi no Anime Time & the state of women in Japan | the beautiful world

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