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It seems to me that anime and manga has tropes like "traps" and even characters that change gender quite frequently, especially in comparison to Western series, which seem to have characters more consistently within "the binary." In particular, I'm thinking of shows like Ranma 1/2, Maria Holic, Ouran High School Host Club.

I am under the impression that Japanese culture is quite conservative, so this doesn't make much sense to me. I would expect a conservative culture to create series that aren't so liberal with gender related themes.

Is there a reason for this? Or am I somehow biased? Are there strong counterexamples to my observation?

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    Japanese culture is quite conservative - What is "conservative" to one society is not necessarily conservative to another society. There isn't really any reason to expect Japanese conservatism and, say, Euro-American conservatism to line up on all issues. – senshin Jul 15 '15 at 4:19
  • @senshin good point, well said. – anonymous Jul 15 '15 at 5:52
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    You may find the paper The Politics of Androgyny in Japan: Sexuality and Subversion in the Theater and Beyond to be relevant. It discusses some aspects of gender blurring in Japanese society. I haven't read it all as it's not my cup of tea, and it's not precisely what you're asking about here, but I do think it's related. You can find it online if you do a search for the title. – Torisuda Jul 15 '15 at 7:36
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    As to your last point about counterexamples, some Western media has definitely touched on these themes. Shakespeare, for starters: Twelfth Night is about a woman who disguises herself as a boy, somewhat like Ouran's Haruhi or Mariya Holic's Shizu. But I do think some of the Japanese examples have a particular character to them, not shared by most of the Western examples I can think of, which makes this a worthwhile question to ask. (E.g. I can't think of any Western example that takes things in quite the same direction that Haganai does with Yukimura...) – Torisuda Jul 15 '15 at 7:44
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    Related: anime.stackexchange.com/q/3520/6166. – Peter Raeves Jul 15 '15 at 8:07
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I think Euphoric's answer is just one piece of the puzzle. It's a more direct answer to the question in the title, but, to my mind, not quite complete. I'm not equipped to piece together the whole thing, but I'll try to contribute what I can.

Japanese culture seems to have been fascinated with gender themes all the way back to its very beginning. Shinto mythology apparently features a transgender deity called Ishi Kore Dome no Kami, and some of the creation myths incorporated homosexual themes. Source.

Japanese kabuki theater originally had both male and female actors, but starting in the 1630s, the Tokugawa shogunate banned women from appearing on stage due to the increasingly erotic nature of the plays, so male actors began playing all female roles. (Kabuki, "Transition to yarō-kabuki"). An all-female theater group called the Takarazuka Revue was established in 1913; women play men's roles in their productions, somewhat like the common anime trope of a class putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet or Sleeping Beauty with a boyish-looking girl playing the male lead and a girlish-looking girl playing the female lead. In more modern times, visual kei street fashion often emphasizes an androgynous look for men and women. The Wikipedia page on Bishounen discusses more about both historic and modern aspects of how Japanese culture views androgyny and gender blurring.

So Japanese culture already had a long-established tradition around gender issues. I believe the prevalence of traps and genderbending in anime is a modern expression of this tradition. As Euphoric says, because anime and manga are drawn, they are beyond the bounds of the physical. They don't need to find an actor who's a little androgynous and dress up that actor to accentuate those features. Anime and manga can actually just draw a girl and say it's a boy, or draw a boy and call it a girl.

As to the last point about potential cultural bias, it does seem that Japanese culture deals with these themes in a unique way, though similar themes are not unheard of in the West. The situation with kabuki during the Tokugawa period, where all parts were played by male actors, is similar to the situation in England during Shakespeare's time: female actors, though not officially banned, were highly uncommon. Young boys often played female roles. (Wikipedia, Boy player). This makes Twelfth Night and other plays with cross-dressing a sort of triple-layered metafictional joke: at the time Twelfth Night was first produced, Elizabethan audiences would have seen a boy playing a woman who was in disguise as a boy.

There are also modern Western works where men disguise themselves as women or vice versa, e.g. Mrs. Doubtfire, Ladybugs. (Whatever you think of their quality, they do exist.) In Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602, Jean Grey disguises herself as a boy, as does Arya Stark in George R.R. Martin's A Clash of Kings.

However, I hesitate to call any of these "counterexamples" to the premise of this question. Aside from Shakespeare, the Western works I mentioned don't really use this device to explore gender issues. They might, just a little, in a small way, but mostly, it's just for comedy or for practical reasons, like blending in with an all-male mercenary troupe. Ranma 1/2 is also mostly comedic, but other such anime and manga actually explore gender issues at some depth. Traps like Haganai's Yukimura, Mariya Holic's Mariya, and Otoboku's Mizuho are designed to be attractive to heterosexual male viewers, while also provoking a feeling of confusion or discomfort. That discomfort can be capitalized on for comedy, as it is in Haganai and Mariya Holic, but this method is very different from the way Mrs. Doubtfire creates comedy.

There are highbrow works of literature and film which explore gender issues in the same way that these anime and manga do. But the anime and manga examples are not highbrow; they are relatively popular, and created for normal readers and viewers, not for literary critics. Haganai and Otoboku are even aimed at a young, male audience, not an audience known for its openness to discussing gender issues. It does seem that Japan has a unique tradition around gender issues in fiction, and the modern use of traps and gender-bending in anime and manga is a modern continuation of that tradition.

  • Great answer! This makes me want to work on this concept for a research paper in the future... – anonymous Jul 15 '15 at 23:21
  • @moegamisama Thanks! It's a very interesting topic, and I think it would make for a great research paper. I found papers that focus on visual kei or the theater and mention anime in passing, but none that focus specifically on anime and manga. – Torisuda Jul 15 '15 at 23:27
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    Just to give an example of "draw a girl and say it's a boy" → Yuri na Watashi to Akuma na Kanojo (?), and "draw a boy and call it a girl" → Aoharu x Kikanjuu. – nhahtdh Jul 16 '15 at 5:32
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I believe it is most related to "draw a girl, call it a boy" meme.

First, in anime, manga and others, it is extremely easy to distinguish between males and females; Simply because they have different styles. Also, to audience the attraction to characters is often based on this style and not on actual biology of characters.

In real life, it is often hard to find an androgynous male that would be able to properly pose as a girl, unless lots of effort was put into dress or makeup. But in drawn media, it is extremely easy to just draw a character in girly style and call it a boy. For anyone watching it could be just normal girl and as such, there is still attraction as if it was a girl. The fact that it has a penis is usually only explored in ero-doujinshi. For all purposes, such characters can be regarded as girls with no ill effects.

I have yet to see a "trap" character that would be liked as such while having obviously male styling. Unless it was for fujoshis.

  • in Western media this applies too though, and you don't see much of it (although granted, it is mainly targetted at a young audience and non-binary gender exposure is rare at this age in the West) – Toshinou Kyouko Jul 15 '15 at 7:19
  • I don't think this answer hits all the reasons that "traps" are more common, but it certainly hits what appears to be one of the major ones: the nature of animation as an artistic medium. +1. Looking at other Japanese non-animated media like J-dramas for comparison would probably be a useful next step. – senshin Jul 15 '15 at 17:30
  • Fast forward to Fall 2016, and with all the gender issues occurring in the USA, it is clear the West is not quite ready for mainstream media with more genderbending >.< which is a pity, because it's fun. – NZKshatriya Dec 6 '16 at 6:28

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