Construction of gendered identities within the school environment


As I have pointed out in previous posts, anime provides a dream world where the audience can escape from their everyday lives in a world of fantasy. Some anime may take the fantasy element literally, with series set in magical worlds, or in futuristic science fiction settings or dystopian landscapes, but others present a more subtle form of escapism, one where the escape is into the everyday. This everyday is often highly idealised and romanticised, and predominantly takes place in or around school grounds. One of the central themes that most recent anime share (at least those series set in or around school) is the position of school in the central characters lives, and how comparatively little importance is placed upon formal education and all that it encompasses. Instead, the school grounds become important as a space where ‘family’ relationships are created and reshaped.

The dream world that school centric anime creates also demonstrates how frail, or brittle the states ideal family is, and how family is more a process of the social and cultural space that you inhabit, rather than a specific fixed entity that can be easily defined. Released from daily formalities that regulate social life, the liminal space of school found in anime encourages the deconstruction of societies conventions and structural elements ‘into cultural units which may then be reconstructed in novel ways’. School centric anime reveals the disjointed realities of the everyday in Japan, creating a dreamlike space that allows for the restructuring of the self, and new expressions of social relationships and ideals.

This restructuring of the self alongside new expressions of social relationships and ideals allows anime to engage with the tensions of Japanese society, suggesting that there are marked differences between official discourses surrounding education, family, and gender, and the internal discourses of individuals. If school in anime represents the liminal space between childhood and adulthood, a place where fantasies and dreams can be realised, it also becomes the space for creating, maintaining, and exploring gender identities. As with the concept of family, its representations and use in anime can differ dramatically from the state’s ideal, suggesting a malleability that allows ‘family’ as an idea to exist in multiple different situations. In a similar fashion, the concepts of gender are seen as malleable, with official gender identities jostling for space with new expressions of identity and power.


LeBlanc (2011) agues that the matrix of social expectations and life conditions conspire to place most Japanese men and women on a highly ordered, sex-differentiated life track. The highly gendered nature of Japanese society is not the result of ‘backwardness’, or insufficient exposure to western ‘enlightenment’, or lack of self-consciousness about gender constraints in their society. Rather, gendering in social, economic, and political institutions persists even while the specific content of these gendered roles is debated and refashioned by a public and political system arguably hyper-conscious of both the social meaning of gender difference, and the imagined Western practice of gender equality against which Japan will be putatively ‘measured’. School acts as a moralising space, emphasising the qualities of ‘the ideal citizen’; it acts as a gate-keeper, where those in positions of influence try to safeguard what is considered basic and inalienable in Japanese culture and morality.

The construction of gendered identities is related to the construction of cultural identities in contemporary Japan, with the school as a space where culture and tradition combine in the creation and maintenance of gendered identities and expectations. These roles in anime may at first appear to be very rigid, with female characters portrayed in an idealised, and often fetishised manner. In contemporary Japanese society, girls with their seemingly ‘still-amorphous identities seem to embody the potential for unfetted change and excitement’ that is far less available to Japanese males, and even females, who are caught in the network of demanding workforce responsibilities. Furthermore, in the broader media world, the Shoujo (lit. little female) is typically linked with consumption, either as a body consumed by males whose dreams seem to revolve around nonthreatening school girls, or as consuming subjects themselves. Modern Japanese society has also waged a vivid and conscious discourse on women, with the issue of how women should or should not behave rarely left either to chance, or to individual choice.

The ‘Japanese Family’ continues to exert significant authority in the creation of gender roles, reinforcing the generalisation that women are the ones with the responsibility for domestic and child rearing roles. This model now firmly established, is supported by generous in-company welfare and seniority-based wages that are available predominantly in the large companies. The proper role of women, defined from the Meiji period by the educational ideal of ‘good wife, wise mother’ (Ryousai Kenbo), is clearly opposed to the role of men, who are regarded as models for action and rational enlightenment. The idea of the ‘housewife’ that is central to the modern family has been accepted without much resistance. Such gender stereotyping fits with a society that advertises itself as homogenous and group focussed, a place where individuality cannot thrive, a place where gender roles are fixed and immutable. Such homogeneity is often missing from the dreamscape of anime, and instead of fixed gender roles and identities we are met with a multiplicity of attitudes, identities, and spaces within which characters can explore their own individuality.


Hanasaku Iroha presents a different perspective on ‘family’ and gender roles available to Japanese women, demonstrating that the reified stereotypes are far from universal. The central characters mother (Satsuki), and grandmother (Sui) are women who are not confined by ‘the housewife’ role, and instead represent the ultimate authority of the series. They are not subject to what Kimoto (2003) calls the ‘caste’ system of Japanese employment that discriminates against the housewife archetype, representing a significant obstacle to any women who wish to have a family and career. Neither are the characters confined to the role of short-term employment, used as a cheap means of adjusting the excess labour force, suggesting instead the possibility to have a full-time career without the myriad restraints that affect many other working women in Japan.

This freedom comes at the cost to the characters family relationships, and the creation of seemingly unbreakable barriers points to the problems still facing working women in Japan. Instead, Ohana, and her friends Nako, and Minko represent the possibilities and options open to women in Japan as they strive to achieve their own goals, while simultaneously refusing to conform to the roles originally set out for them. They may occasionally dream of getting married, or having a romantic relationship, but such dreams never become their goal or purpose in life, and remain the dreams of teenage girls. Instead, their lives revolve around their work at Kissuiso, and as the series progresses we see their goals slowly take shape, with Ohana aiming to make the Ryoukan (Traditional Japanese Inn) successful, Minko aiming to become a chef, and Nako eventually overcoming her shyness and becoming a swimming instructor.

The female characters of Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo follow a similar path, with Nanami, Misaki and Mashiro focussing on their chosen careers, rather than conforming to the housewife stereotype . Although Misaki dreams of marrying her childhood friend Jin, it is not her only goal in life, but one of many dreams that she has. In all of these cases, while romance and marriage are frequently mentioned, they do not limit the choices available to these characters. They challenge employment practices that regard women as ‘housewife’ employees who are working to supplement family finances, presenting a more complex picture of employment, and attitudes towards gender roles and identities in Japan. That such characters are high school students, existing in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood is essential, as they inhabit a space where the social norms of society are taught and reinforced. By rejecting the reductive depiction of women in Japanese society, and choosing their own paths in life, they demonstrate the complexities of female gender identities, whilst also presenting the possibility that romance and marriage do not need to lead to a dead end, and can instead be one element in a multifaceted life.


The liminal space of the school club engenders a reorganising of existing social norms, allowing for the creation of numerous gender identities which conform to social ideals while simultaneously questioning them. Nibutani in Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai initially appears as the ideal female, she is beautiful, intelligent, athletic, and a member of the cheerleading team, while also remaining reserved and never threatening the status quo. But in private she becomes an abrasive individual, making fun of others and becoming significantly more authoritative. Her public persona is a façade designed to make her school life easier, but she also complains about the amount of effort needed to maintain it. The character of Nibutani simultaneously suggesting an ideal woman, and a more authoritative, abrasive figure reinforces the complexities of female gender identities in anime and broader Japanese society.

The childlike innocence of Rikka (another central character), while conforming to the shoujo ideal is more mannerism than reality, and has become a part of her ‘Chuunibyou’ personality in order to escape from the harsh realities of life. Her idiosyncrasies, and those of the other female characters in Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai create disorder and represent a break from conventional Japanese lifestyle that ‘emphasises efficiency, order and harmony…and makes no effort to respect lifestyles (ikakata) which stray from the norm’. The creation of gender identity in school centric anime questions stereotypes, and rather than emphasising convention, privileges choice by giving characters the space within which they can explore a multitude of gender identities and roles.

While anime may be predominantly focussed on female characters, the presence of central male characters and the gender identities that they inhabit are no less important. Japanese masculinity, once identified with samurai ethics and codes of honour, is now synonymous with the Japanese ‘salaryman’. This ‘salaryman doxa’  is predominantly a white-collar worker in large corporations. He was, and still is the main driving force of the economy and the chief taxpayer of the state. Constructing gender identities around the ‘salaryman’ stereotype is as restrictive as the ‘housewife’, leaving little room for manoeuvre or change. The social institution of school reinforces attitudes of men (‘otoko’) as the ‘pillar of the household’, and male characters in anime are expected to be strong, dependable, and ‘manly’.


The expectations of fulfilling pre-defined gender roles are present throughout anime like Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai and Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo, expectations that are mirrored in the aspirations of characters like Yuuta (Chuunibyou), and Sorata (Sakurasou). Their gender roles and identities are, however, as complex as those inhabited by many female characters; on the one hand they aspire to the ‘salaryman’ masculinity, while on the other they inhabit more ‘motherly’ roles, and take care of other characters. While Nibutani has the authoritative role in Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai, Yuuta has a more motherly role as the character that keeps the group together and helps in the socialisation of Rikka in place of her blood relations.

Yuuta deals with the antics of Rikka and Dekomori as if they were small children by indulging in their fantasies up to a point, and then reinforcing social and cultural boundaries. Rather than ‘the pillar of the household’, Yuuta appears to follow the principle of ‘wakaraseru’, by being in tune with the feelings and behaviour of the ‘children’ – Dekomori Sanae, Rikka Takanashi, and to a lesser extent, Tsuyuri Kumin – and paying attention in particular to the socialisation of Rikka.

Sorata’s gender identity is similarly complex, as he aspires once again to the ‘salaryman’ masculinity, but inhabits a space in-between masculinity and femininity. Sorata’s aim is to become a computer game designer, and like most anime characters, become a ‘good’ member of society through hard work, thus becoming a dependable ‘man’. This is juxtaposed with the realities of his daily life in Sakurasou, and his duty to look after Mashiro who lacks any common sense and who cannot look after herself. Sorata therefore takes on the domestic tasks commonly associated with the ‘housewife’, including cooking, making sure Mashiro is dressed and has everything she needs for school, and even washing her clothes. His ‘domestic goddess’ (or in this case ‘domestic god’) role is seemingly at odds with the ‘salaryman’ fantasy that he aspires to, and yet exists alongside his other work as another part of whom he is.


Modern fantasies of masculine mobility have a powerful appeal to ‘salarymen’ – men whose lifestyles are generally static and desk-bound, who inhabit a world removed from physicality, where the permanent is valued over the temporary, and brainwork over bodywork. Lifetime employment with a single employer and a steady home life with a wife and two children are still the socially sanctioned ideals for Japanese men, even if the Heisei recession has made this increasingly difficult to attain. Characters like Yuuta and Sorata represent the possibility that men can inhabit more complex gender identities that still conform to the salaryman ideal, while simultaneously contesting it. They present an alternative to social homogeneity, suggesting that it is possible to inhabit a gender identity that doesn’t automatically conform to the ‘salaryman’ stereotype.

Characters in school focussed anime inhabit a liminal space within which they can explore numerous different identities, thus demonstrating the heterogeneity inherent but hidden, in Japanese society. The state ideologies surrounding gender roles and divisions create a reified picture of a society with rigid boundaries and distinct borders between male and female roles. Such a view ignores the ethnoscapes of society, where apparently stable boundaries shift and where established attitudes towards gender do not reflect the lived realities of everyday life. This is not to say that there are no relatively stable gender identities, indeed, the dominant ideologies of the ‘housewife’, and the ‘salaryman’, continue to exert a strong grip on the Japanese imagination.

Characters in series like Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo, Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai, and Hanasaku Iroha express their admiration for such ideals, demonstrating the power inherent in such socially constructed and codified roles. The dreams of the ‘salaryman’ and the ‘housewife’ are broken up by the realities of gender relations and the complex web that they weave. Realities and fantasies existing side-by-side in the world of anime, suggesting that while the dominant ideologies continue to hold firm, they exist as a surface layer, hiding a myriad of different ideal and identities beneath the mask of homogeneity. Anime provides a glimpse beneath the surface, and the dream worlds that it creates allow the strands of gender roles to interweave, creating a complex tapestry that reinforces social norms, whilst simultaneously contesting them.


The work referenced in this post:

Gill, T. (2003), When pillars evaporate: structuring masculinity on the Japanese margins, in J. E. Robertson and N. Suzuki (eds), Men and Masculinity in contemporary Japan: dislocating the salaryman doxa, RoutledgeCurzon; London, 144-161.

Goldstein-Gidoni, O. (1999), Kimono and the Construction of Gendered and cultural Identities, Ethnology, 38(4), 351-470.

Hidaka, T. (2010), Salaryman Masculinity: The Continuity of and change in the Hegemonic Masculinity in Japan, Brill; Leiden.

Kelsky, K. (1996), ‘Flirting with the Foreign: Interracial Sex in Japan’s ‘International’ Age’, In R. Wilson and W. Dissanayake (eds), Global/Local, Duke University Press; NC.

Kimoto, K. (2003), Gender and Japanese Management, Trans Pacific Press; Melbourne.

Kinsella, S. (2006), Minstrelized girls: male performers and Japan’s Lolita complex, Japan Forum, 18(1), 65-87.

LeBlanc, R.M. (2011), the politics of gender in Japan, in V. L. Bestor and T. C. Bestor, with A. Yamagata (eds), Routledge Handbook of Japanese Culture and Society, Routledge; Oxon, 116-128.

Mikanagi, Y. (1998), Japan’s gender-biased social security policy, Japan Forum, 10(2), 181-196.

Miller, L. (2011), Cute Masquerade and the Pimping of Japan, International Journal of Japanese Sociology, 20, 18-29.

Muramatsu, Y. (2002), Gender Construction Through Interactions Between the Media and Audience in Japan, International Journal of Japanese Sociology, 11, 72-86.

Napier, S. J. (2005), Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, Palgrave Macmillian; New York.

Okano, K. H. (2009), School Culture, in Y. Sugimoto (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture, Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, 92-112.

Okano, K. H. (2009), Young women in Japan, Transitions to Adulthood, Routledge; London.

Pharr, S. J. (1998), ‘Moralism’ and the Gender Gap: Judgements of Political Ethics in Japan, Political Psychology, 19(1), 211-236.

Renshaw, J. R. (1999), kimono in the Boardroom, The Invisible Evolution of Japanese Women Managers, Oxford University Press; Oxford.

Robertson, J. E. and Suzuki, N. (2003), ‘Introduction’, in J. E. Robertson and N. Suzuki (eds), Men and Masculinity in contemporary Japan: dislocating the salaryman doxa, RoutledgeCurzon; London, 1-19.

Shizuko, K. (2013), Ryosai Kenbo: The Educational Ideal of ‘Good Wife, Wise Mother’ in Modern Japan, Brill; Leiden.

Streetharan, C. S. (2004), Students, sarariiman (pl), and Seniors: Japanese Men’s Use of ‘Manly’ Speech Register, Language in Society, 33(1), 81-107.

Turner, E. (1985), On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience, University of Arizona Press; Tuscon.

Rowe, S. (2008), Modern Sports: Liminal ritual or Liminoid Leisure?, in G. St John (ed), Victor Turner and Contemporary Cultural Performance, Berghahn Books; New York, 127-148.

Uno, S. K. (1993), The Death of Good Wife, Wise Mother, in A. Gordon (ed), Postwar Japan as History, University of California Press; Berkeley, 293-321.

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

2 Responses to Construction of gendered identities within the school environment

  1. Cytrus says:

    Also reminds me of GJ-bu. The main character, Kyolo, finds himself surrounded by a group of girls in a slackers club. However, because of his calm and motherly personality, he never once ends up in the situations of a traditional “harem lead”, but rather keeps crossing the lines between a teenage boy, a caretaker, and “one of the girls”.

    • illogicalzen says:

      There are quite a few examples of this in anime, where the main female and male characters do not conform to specific gender stereotypes. In terms of Kyolo, we do see him occasionally take on a very masculine persona, when he becomes very forceful and ‘manly’, but it is more an act than reality and he quickly returns to calm and motherly personality that we are familiar with. I find it interesting that a significant number of lead male characters do not conform to the ideal of the ‘salaryman’, and yet occasionally exhibit those elements of masculinity, although they tend to remain an act, rather than an intrinsic part of their personality.

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