Welcome to Anime Rants, one and all. This is a rather daunting topic. Most likely, I can’t write about it very eloquently, nor cover all the important points that come to mind. Still, here is the best I can do at present for a discussion about LGBT+ representation in anime. Some related issues and facts will be touched on as well.
I’ve been aware for many years that anime fails to present LGBT characters positively or realistically. I thought of writing posts about it before, but always pushed it away to work on something else. The subject came to my attention again this month. In a certain Discord server, I decided to feature an LGBT+ anime character for every day of June by showing them as profile pictures and discussing them with others. It didn’t take long to realize the difficulty of finding thirty such characters who I can present on good conscience. Anime is full of poor representation, as we shall see in a few examples to come.
Examples of Poor Representation
Let’s start with transgender characters who are portrayed rather terribly. Transgender women in anime are sometimes called Okamas (which is basically a slur, much like queer used to be until lately). In general, they are shown with “comically” over-the-top masculine features and large or tall body types. This kind of caricature is almost exclusively used for transgender characters who are harmless but only have value as “joke characters.” The transgender women in Gintama are examples of this. The problem is that the anime are showing stereotypes and suggesting that transgender characters can’t be taken seriously.
There are also cases where a trans character is given a far worse role, putting negative and harmful associations into viewers’ heads. One recent example is Tsumugi Aozora from Asobi Asobase (2018). Since she attends a private girls’ school in Japan, the implication is that she is “lying” to everyone by not revealing her assigned sex at birth. Aozora is treated as mysterious, dangerous, and creepy– almost not quite human– as she gracefully thwarts others’ attempts to see her genitals. (Because this would “prove” that she was “a boy.”) The attitude is one of dark humor, but it still vilifies the character and presents other problems as well.
Some fans of Yu Yu Hakusho (1992-1995) respect Miyuki as a transgender woman. But everything surrounding this character was frankly so awful that I dropped this show and don’t plan to pick it up again. In Miyuki’s first scene, she is not only beaten to a pulp by the main character, but also sexually assaulted first to ascertain what was in her pants. The problem here isn’t with the way the character is written, but rather the way she is treated by the rest of the cast and the overall attitude of the anime. On a related note, many characters who were AMAB but dress femininely are treated badly. “Crossdressers,” as they are sometimes called, are definitely frowned on in anime.
Are you angry yet? Well if not, then you will be once I address some of the problematic examples of gay men. For starters, let’s take a look at Akihiko Usami from Junjou Romantica (2008). He is a walking piece of shit who casually rapes his partner more than once. Rich and privileged, he is driven by selfishness. One of the major problems with yaoi is that the “seme” character (the dominating one of the couple) sexually harasses the “uke” (the submissive one), if not literally committing rape. Usami is just one of many examples. When this awful trope is so common, it’s impossible to argue that gay men aren’t being portrayed as deplorable people.
This post isn’t going to focus on the many problems with shounen ai and yaoi. However, it’s worth saying, for those who don’t know, that these genres are not even supposed to be representations of LGBT+ couples. They are, instead, made to satisfy women and girls with the fetish of seeing men together in this very specific, sexual sub-dom kind of relationship. It’s the same or worse when it comes to Yuri/ shoujo ai. This is content for men who fetishize seeing females together, and especially females depicted as high school age or younger.
My point with that tangent was not that we can’t criticize yaoi/yuri just because they aren’t supposed to be fair representations. We can absolutely still criticize them and in many cases we should. My point was that it’s pathetic that we have this many gay and lesbian characters in anime, and the vast majority of them are horrible. What’s going on here? Why are things like this in anime? To understand, we should take a look at Japanese culture and LGBT+ history there.
Queer Rights in Japan
While Japan is considered progressive among Asian countries, it’s also known for being homophobic, transphobic, and otherwise oppressive toward LGBT people. Among the countries of G7, Japan is solitary in its refusal to recognize same-sex marriages (1). Transgender people can only legally change their gender when certain unreasonable requirements are met– including sterilization– and even this much is a victory (2). If anime and drama shows are any indication, then social and casual homophobia and transphobia are worse in Japan than in the US. Though, to be fair, that depends on the city and state immensely.
All that being said, things are getting better in Japan. Homosexuality has been documented in many places throughout Japanese history. The major religions of the country are not normally antagonistic toward LGBT. What’s more, a recent survey found that 68% of Japanese citizens believe society should accept homosexuality (3). There was also a case this year wherein a district court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to deny same-sex marriage (4). Bit by bit, improvement is happening in Japan. But they are far from being at the point where LGBT+ characters are represented well in media.
Now it should make a bit more sense why there are so many issues with LGBT+ characters in anime. On a related note, most of the characters widely considered LGBT+ don’t verbally confirm this. That’s because the language we know in the queer communities here is not commonly recognized or talked about in Japanese culture. For example, it’s obvious that Kino from Kino’s Journey (2003) is nonbinary, but the character never refers to themselves as such. The creators of these anime series can’t describe their characters with the appropriate terms, either, without risking backlash. Or the creators may not even be aware that they have presented an LGBT+ identity in their story.
Examples of Good Representation
Before we go further, let’s look at a few examples of good representation of LGBT+ characters in anime. I don’t want anyone to think that anime is irredeemable. The existence of positive and realistic representation is important to the later question of whether anime can be enjoyed on good conscience. I chose three examples: a non-binary character, a gay male character, and an asexual female character. Let’s take a look.
First we have Zoe Hange from Attack on Titan (2013). This character presents in a predominantly female way and is referred to as “she” in the English dub. However, the manga and original Japanese voice-acting use gender-neutral terms to refer to Hange. The manga never reveals details about Hange’s sex or gender identity. Author Hajime Isayama reportedly refused to give clarification, and asked that the anime stick to using gender-neutral pronouns. Hange’s identity is left up to interpretation, and fans who are familiar with the gender spectrum consider the character non-binary or gender-queer. Zoe is eccentric and enthusiastic, craving knowledge and proving to be a responsible leader when needed. I absolutely adore this character.
The next example is Akihito Kaji from the anime Given (2019). He is a member of a small band. Though he is single during the anime, Kaji openly states he has had encounters/ relationships with other men. Fans agree that he is bisexual if not exclusively gay. My favorite part in Given is when the young protagonist, Ritsuka, reveals to Kaji that he is in love with another boy. In response, Kaji gives support and advice. Importantly, in the context of traditionally homophobic Japan, Kaji asserts there is nothing wrong with being gay or bisexual. I hold this LGBT+ character in high esteem in the anime world.
Last of all, consider Yuu Koito from Bloom Into You (2018). She is an unusual character who falls on the asexual spectrum. She’s never been interested in either romance or sexual exploration. Her friend Nanami asks her out and Yuu reluctantly agrees to give it a try. Their interactions as a couple reinforce the idea that Yuu is asexual and aromantic. Still, she grows attached to Nanami, and isn’t completely repulsed by physical or emotional intimacy. While I can’t empathize with Yuu, I respect her a lot as an asexual female anime character. She is another example showing that commendable representation of LGBT+ characters does exist in anime.
The Real Question
Let’s review what we covered so far. The LGBT+ community is not being represented positively or realistically in anime. The relevant issues include stereotypes, joke characters, morally reprehensible characters, and the fetishizing of same sex relations in yuri and yaoi. This is a reflection of a culture still largely homophobic. So then we come to the most important question for our purposes as anime fans and LGBT+ people or allies. Can we appreciate anime on good conscience even though it has poor representation? I believe the answer is “yes,” but it’s a nuanced “yes,” and there are several important points to be made. Allow me to explain.
A precedent, however poor, is a potential starting point for positive change and growth. It is also a potential starting point for further decline into negativity. So only time will tell what direction anime takes. Japan is slowly moving toward progressiveness as activist groups continue fighting for equal rights and social acceptance. The trend is also showing in anime. The LGBT+ representations are becoming less problematic, as seen in anime like Given, Bloom Into You, and Attack on Titan. Assuming the positive trends will continue, we only need to be supportive and vocal about the anime with good representation, while pointing out the harm in the misrepresentations that will also continue (but hopefully become less common). We can enjoy and publicly celebrate the series that positively depict well-written LGBT+ characters.
What I’ve just outlined isn’t the strongest argument possible. However, it’s the most sensible course of action I can currently think of for those who enjoy anime. It may be that the trend reverses and our support of anime was a mistake. I can’t deny the danger. Beyond that, the answer is not “yes” for everyone in every situation. I respect people who reject anime on the grounds that is harmful to the LGBT+ community at the current time. These people would be far more productive with encouraging LGBT+ acceptance in the media produced by their own countries. Meanwhile, those of us who love anime should continue supporting the worthy series and pointing out the flaws in problematic ones. This is what I meant by a nuanced “yes.”
It (almost) goes without saying that one can enjoy anime without even giving a thought to this issue. Anime is ultimately nothing more than, well, anime. The media we consume doesn’t necessarily reflect our values, nor does it have to be a platform for progressiveness. In other words, I think it’s alright if you just want to watch anime without putting further thought into the representation issue. However, I personally hold a bit more respect for the position of investment in these matters. I’m an advocate and this tends to carry over even into anime for me; that certainly won’t be the case for everyone.
It’s also worth saying that the problems I’ve laid out might not be significant issues for everyone in the LGBT+ community. For example, perhaps a gay man enjoyed Junjou Romantica. You can enjoy fiction without approving of everything in it. I tend to take things very seriously, but not everyone watches anime to “take it seriously.” I think that’s alright too. Naturally, I still wish to have people share my view and help me create an environment that encourages positive representation. But to each their own. The larger and more important point is that we need to advocate for ourselves and our fellows in the LGBT+ community in our everyday lives.
I feel like there are several points I skipped over too quickly or simply forgot. So if something related to this topic comes to mind, please share it in the comments. I encourage discussion. As usual, I’m extremely grateful to my readers. Thank you so much for reading! Have a great rest of Pride Month!
1) McCurry, Justin (30 October 2020). “Japan’s ‘love hotels’ accused of anti-gay discrimination”. The Guardian.
2) Jackman, Josh (24 January 2019). “Japan’s Supreme Court rules transgender people still have to get sterilised · PinkNews”. http://www.pinknews.co.uk.
3) “The Global Divide on Homosexuality Persists”. Pew Research Center. 25 June 2020.
4) “Japan court finds same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional”. BBC News. 17 March 2021.