Masculinity is defined as the characteristic of alpha males, including the behavior typical of men. Since anime constitutes a major part of the popular culture in Japan, it can be a good tool in measuring the traits of masculinity in Japan. Furthermore, more often than not, its contents are reflections of reality in the Japanese society.
This essay will identify the traits of masculinity present in anime, as well as, masculinity present in the Japanese society, thus providing a room for comparison between masculinity in anime and masculinity in the Japanese society. On top of that, this essay will touch on the western influences in some anime.
Table of Contents
Masculinity in Anime
In anime, masculinity is also known to be closely linked to the Bushido spirit of the samurais, which embodies qualities such as bravery, loyalty, politeness, simplicity, truthfulness, self-sacrifice and obedience to one’s lord. On top of that, we also see other traits of masculinity, which are highlighted through the behavior and attitudes of anime characters. This wide range of masculine characteristics include self-sacrifice, perseverance, inability to express one’s emotion, duty and career mindedness, decisiveness, sense of responsibility, and roughness.
Self-sacrifice is one of the most important masculine traits in anime. It reflects not only bravery, determination and courage, but also one’s sense of selflessness. This is really important for a country such as Japan because it promotes the notion that one has to prioritize societal needs before individual needs. Self-sacrifice also reflects the notion of making sacrifices and fighting for one’s country. This notion is highlighted and reinforced during the World War II, during which, the Japanese government indoctrinated the idea of self-sacrifice in the soldiers to encourage them to fight for their country and emphasized the need to have a sense of responsibility (which is also a masculine trait) and the importance of fulfilling one’s duty to his nation.
Self-sacrifice is evident in a scene from Bare Foot Gen, in which a boy who joined the army is being celebrated and hailed as a hero. Another example can be found In Naruto, in the character of the Hokage, the village leader, who sacrificed himself by using a forbidden jutsu to stop the invasion of the village by the evil protagonist, Orochimaru. Even though the Hokage knew that he would perish if he used the jutsu, he nonetheless used it in order to protect his village, hence depicting the notion of self-sacrifice.
Interestingly, the idea of being able to deal with problems through tenacity is well received in the Japanese society and it is highly considered as a masculine trait. Such men are viewed as braver, stronger, better able to endure hardships and persevere even when the ending seems bleak and uncertain. They are known to be seemingly more dependable and less likely to give up. Essentially, a man with a higher endurance level when times are hard is viewed to be more masculine.
This trait is also often observed in anime with striving as a theme, such as in Prince of Tennis. No matter how strong their opponents were, instead of lamenting on their seemingly inferior skills, the characters often fought on with all their might to reach their goals. An example can be found in the scene where Sengoku and his opponent fought so hard to the extent that both collapsed due to sheer exhaustion and excessive loss of stamina. They gave their all, surpassed their physical limit and were unwilling to give up in their attempts to win.
The trait perseverance is also evident in Aishiteruze Baby, through the character of the protagonist, Kippei. Kippei is burden with the huge responsibility of looking after his abandoned cousin, Yuzuyu. He struggled throughout and he even almost lost the girl he loved. In his struggle, he grew up and became a man. His character went through a change and he was no longer the childish playboy that he used to be anymore. This hints towards the importance of perseverance in a man’s masculinity, as it helps a boy become a man.
Hidden emotion and self-control
Self control refers to the ability in “keeping one’s cool” and not get too carried away when dealing with a problematic situation. It also refers to one’s ability to perceive the situation rationally and deal with any problems objectively. Conflicts always occur in our daily lives. Since men are traditionally known to be the leaders of the families, it is deemed necessary for them to be in full control their emotions and not be carried away with any situations. Hence, self-control is an important trait in masculinity.
For example, in a scene from GTO, one of Onizuka’s student, Miyabi, was attempting to assault a member of the school board, who was involved in the death of her best friend. Onizuka arrived just in time to stop her. Although he himself was against the cruel behavior of the member of the school board, he did not act according to his feelings. He was able to think rationally and eventually prevented Miyabi from committing a crime.
Closely related to the issue of self-control is one’s tendency to hide certain emotions which are deemed as unmanly, for example, crying. These characters are usually known to be less expressive of his thoughts, emotions and feelings. For instance, in some animes, even when a man is in need of help, he will not ask for any assistance, especially not in front of the girl he likes because he believes it will only make him seem incapable, weak and vulnerable. The character Echizhen Ryoma of Prince of Tennis aptly fits this example.
However, there are exceptions. In the situation where there is any form of injustice, the masculine males are known to speak up and express his anger, hence displaying his bravery for standing up against the majority.
Just like self-sacrifice, career and duty mindedness are evident traits in Japanese, it promotes conformity and loyalty to the state, a notion that is tied to the Bushido spirit. The notion of conformity is also present in the Japanese’s collectivist culture, which discourages individualism. An example of career/duty mindedness can be found in Naruto and Bleach.
In Naruto, Shikamaru, who was never close to Sasuke, was ordered to lead a team of five to rescue the latter. However, his intention to save Sasuke had nothing to do with friendship but was purely due to the fact that Sasuke was then still a ninja of the Konoha Village.
In Bleach, Kuchiki Byakuya had to witness the execution of his dear sister, Rukia. Since he had made a vow before his parents’ tomb not to ever break the law again, he was sandwiched between saving his beloved sister and sticking to his vow. Eventually, he chose the latter. This is an example of how one had to betray his own family member in order to fulfill his duty.
Decisiveness lies in the ability to make decisions. In Japan, traditional leadership positions were filled by men, and thus decisiveness is considered to be an important aspect of masculinity.
Unlike the ‘Yaoi’ genre, in which we had to agonizingly witness men who are unable to make up their mind, decisiveness can even be observed in the ‘shoujo’ genre anime, such as Aishiteruze Baby. In that anime, Kippei decides to care of Yuzuyu. As described in perseverance section, he did not give up even though he almost loses Kokoro, the girl he loves.
Moreover, those who have read the GTO manga will realize that the reason why Onizuka wants to become a teacher is because he was dumped by a girl for her plain looking, middle-aged teacher. Despite his inglorious beginnings as a teacher, Onizuka sticks to the decision he has made and eventually becomes the Great Teacher Onizuka.
Roughness in a guy accentuates his masculinity, this can be seen from the way he carries himself. For example, if he sits with his legs crossed, or speaks with a soft tone, he will be associated with feminine traits. Since there is a difference in the way male and female carried themselves, this has become one of the traits expected of a man.
In Ranma ½, we will be able to see that although Ranma transformed into a girl from time to time, he was able to preserve his “roughness”. For example, even when he was in his girl form, he did not sit with his legs crossed and used male speech such as ‘boku’ instead of ‘watashi’ when he addressed himself. In accordance to the correct usage of the Japanese language, if a female addresses herself with ‘boku’ she will be deemed as rude. Therefore, we could say that the way to determine masculinity is not only from the characters that a man had, but also from the way he carries himself.
Extremes of masculinity in anime
Extremes of masculinity are also present in anime. There is the alpha-males category and there is also the type of male characters depicted in ‘Yaoi’ anime. Essentially, both depict the opposite extreme ends of masculinity.
An example of an alpha male in anime would be the character Shigure Takimi in Samurai X. He is the typical “man of few words”, who does not openly display his emotions to others, a trait that is often seen in extremely masculine characters. Shigure also gives the impression that he is capable of protecting himself and his loved ones. In one of the scenes, he protected Toki from the western sailors. In another scene, when Toki asked him where he was headed, he replied that it was none of her business and that he will only be back late. From that, we can infer that he prefers not to indulge others on the details of his private life and although he is protective over her, he nonetheless behaves in a distant manner towards her.
Shigure’s aim in life is to seek revenge for the death of Toki’s brother, Gentatsu, and to overthrow the Meiji government which he believes to be corrupted. The drive to fulfill his duties and his duty-mindedness attitude reinforce the sense of masculinity in him. His firmness, decisiveness and leadership abilities can also be seen from the way he leads the group of men into the revolution. Although he claims responsibility for the death of Gentatsu, due to a mistake in judgment he made which resulted in Gentatsu’s death, his decisiveness is evident from the way he gave up the fight with Battousai when he realized that what Gentatsu would have wanted was not revenge but for Toki to be happy.
Another interesting character in Samurai X would be the protagonist himself, Kenshin. Kenshin is not the typical stereotyped as masculine character, he is sometimes portrayed as very silly and easily-bullied. In one of the scenes, he is sent to buy tofu by Kaoru, and at the start he almost gets lost and is reprimanded by Yahiko, a young boy. However, he was once an assassin in the past and he used to take on very typical masculine characteristics, as depicted at the start of the movie. When something crops up, he tends to revert back to his masculine persona of the past.
For instance, on hearing that Shigure was in trouble, Kenshin rushes to the scene to try and solve the problem. He also makes a promise to Toki to bring Shigure back to her. Kenshin carries his dark past with him with much guilt and is willing to take the responsibility for the murders he committed. Interestingly, when he “transforms” into his masculine self, he becomes very decisive and less emotional. The contrast between the masculine behaviour that he takes on at some points and his present occasional silly self may possibly hint towards the disparity between our stereotyped perception of extreme masculinity and the actual male masculinity in reality.
An example of the other extreme end of masculinity would be the characters of a ‘Yaoi’ anime entitled Boku no Harassment. These characters, although males, distinctively differ from the characters in Samurai X. The anime depicts Mochizuki, an average salary man, who works in a computer firm. Apparently, Mochizuki caught the eye of his boss, Honma, who blatantly makes advances towards him. Although Mochizuki appears to be uncomfortable at how quickly Honma attempts to make progress in their relationship, he nonetheless complies with Honma’s initiations in order to please him.
Soon enough, Mochizuki repeatedly became Honma’s play thing and is always at his beck and call. In contrary to the stereotypical masculine characters, this reflects on how these men are “softer” and more easily swayed. Mochizuki is “taken” repeatedly by various people, he feels uncomfortable each time. But, unlike other masculine males, he is nonetheless too weak to stand up for what he believes in. He is so weak-minded that he is usually taken advantage of by nearly anyone who meets him.
While he is being used and abused by everyone, the one person who truly cares about him is another coworker named Fujita. Even though he is aware of Fujita’s care and concern, Mochizuki usually ends up back in Honma’s hands, much to Fujita’s despair. Mochizuki’s lack of determination to refuse Honma also shows his lack of masculine traits such as decisiveness and perseverance.
Masculinity in Japanese society
Hegemonic masculinity in Japanese society
Hegemonic masculinity is the traditional, dominant view of masculinity accepted in the Japanese society today. In Japan, the figure of a ‘salaryman’ can be viewed as a representation of the stereotypical Japanese men because, traditionally, the man’s role is that of the breadwinner and the sole financial provider in the family. Hence, a Japanese man’s position in society lies in his workplace, while the woman’s role is confined to the home.
In the workplace, Japanese men are expected to be competent. This is a competitive component of hegemonic masculinity. They are also expected to have control over self and others, including the women and children in their life. They are not expected to seek help publicly and the traditional Japanese men do not consult their loved ones when they encounter problems in their lives. Instead, they will consult elders or the ‘mamasans’ at hostess bars, or solve the problems by themselves. In these aspects, the portrayal of men in anime can be said to be reflective of the men in the Japanese society, in that they possess a sense of self-control and career-mindedness.
Masculinity in contemporary Japan
In contemporary Japan, it had been observed that a different type of masculinity is arising, due to the men’s childhood experiences, governmental schemes and changes in gender roles. Although the ‘salaryman’ still represent the dominant view of masculinity, variations to masculinity are evident in Japan today.
One of the factors which contribute to the evolutions of masculinity in Japan is the men’s childhood experiences. Due to their feelings of resentment towards their fathers for being a draconian and disciplinarian figure in their lives, they see the imperfections of hegemonic masculinity and hence, aim to be different from their fathers.
The government’s schemes are also ensuring the increase of Japanese fathers’ involvement in child-caring activities. Driven by the country’s declining birth rate and the increase in involvement of Japanese women in the workforce today, the government has stepped in to promote greater paternal involvement in parenting and domestic affairs. This evolution of gender roles can be seen as moving away from the hegemonic masculinity. The men’s place is no longer just the work place, but also at home.
On top of that, a decade long Japanese recession that lasted from 1989 to 1990 shook the age-old belief that as long as a Japanese man work hard and remain loyal to the company, he is assured that his needs for the rest of his life will be taken care of. However, during the recession, many Japanese men who slogged for the companies were laid off in order to cut the companies’ costs. This caused much resentment in the Japanese men and although most continued to work hard in the hope for success, they had a reorganization of priorities.
Change in gender roles
The variation of masculinity in Japanese society today is also due to the evident male identity crises. Due to modernization, changes in gender roles occur and Japanese women are increasingly involved in the workforce. Hence, the men are expected to participate in the household. Japanese men who are not keeping up with this evolution of gender roles are left confused regarding where their roles lie in the family. They also lose the status of the sole financial provider of the family and some men are clearly deterred by the thought of participating in the domestic affairs.
Variations of masculinity can be observed through sports, increasing consumption of cosmetics for men, the salarymen’s ikagai, men’s need for motherly love due to stressful working conditions, as well as, the increased of men’s involvement in child-rearing.
In the sports arena in Japan, sport such as judo, tennis and baseball are regarded as ‘masculine’ activities. Essentially, certain masculine traits such as self-sacrifice and perseverance are observed through sports. Hence, we can justify that the portrayal of masculinity in Japanese anime are reflective of the Japanese society. Studies have also shown that some Japanese men who are not interested in sports usually feel inferior to other men. Interestingly, in order to make-up for the lack of interests in ‘manly’ activities, they become more involved in parenting when they become fathers.
Increased consumption of men’s cosmetics
The increased in consumption of men’s cosmetics is one phenomenon that deeply hints towards the evolution of men in Japan. In the past, Japanese men were evaluated primarily on the basis of character, social standing, earning capacity, lineage and other social criteria. Today, they are more concerned with their status as objects of aesthetic and sexual appraisal. Some Japanese men today suffer from inferiority complex, believing that they are not attractive to the opposite sex, which is partly due to the increasing number of Japanese women who are not interested in getting married since the late 1990s. Progressively, more Japanese men are becoming more conscious of their looks and are transforming themselves from masculine figures to more feminine ones. This increased awareness in aesthetic value in men is highlighted in anime through the way male characters are sometimes drawn as beautiful men.
Ikagai: work for one’s family and organization
The figure of salaryman is most suitable in representing the hegemonic masculinity in Japan. As a Japanese salaryman’s, his ikagai is his work for one’s company or organization. Ikagai refers to what makes life worth living. Although the figure of a salaryman has always been viewed as elitist, in reality, salarymen are usually exploited by the company. Seeking career success would mean one has to work a lot harder through service overtime, which is working overtime without pay, and tanshin funin, which is moving away from family to work at another company’s branch.
The expectation of men’s ability to resolve their problems
Due to the stressful and demanding working conditions and the high social expectations, the men are usually driven to nightclubs in search of hostesses. For Japanese men, motherly love is a safe haven from their stressful working life and it helps maintain their psychological well-being. Hence, these hostesses act as ‘mother substitutes’. In anime, such as Rojin Z and My Dear Marie, we see the male characters attaining the idealized motherly love that Japanese men seek. However, reality is even harder for the men because women are no longer satisfied with playing the mother figure to their husbands and are increasingly seeking greater independence and freedom. Hence, Japanese men’s dream of attaining motherly love is viewed as an unrequited fantasy in Japan today.
Increased parental involvement
The traditional Japanese men are strong believers in leaving matters of the home to their wives, which includes taking care of the children. Hence, the increased involvement in child-caring for some Japanese men can be seen as a reconfiguration of hegemonic masculinity. To some Japanese men, a father fulfills his responsibility only when he is involved in taking care of his child. Others want to provide a diverse environment for the child to grow up in, to have both a mother and father figure to look up to. Some are resentful of their authoritarian fathers in the past. Increased involvement of Japanese women in the workforce also leads to the husbands’ greater involvement in taking care of their children.
Western Influence of Masculinity in Japan Anime
There are also hints of western influence on masculinity in Japanese anime. This is done through a) the western-oriented portrayal of Japanese men in some anime, and b) the increase in independent women taking up more “masculine” roles in anime, hence, playing down on exclusivity of the male masculinity.
The western-oriented portrayal of masculine Japanese men
Western influence can be seen through the physical portrayal of Japanese men in anime. In general, Japanese men are of a typical Asian built that is relatively smaller than that of the men in the west. In some anime, however, we see existence of ridiculously muscular, western-looking Japanese men. This is evident in Great Teacher Onizuka (GTO) in the character of Eikichi Onizuka and in Street Fighter and Samurai X, all of which clearly depict an influx of muscular, big built portrayal of Japanese men, which are unrealistic and not reflective of the typical size of Japanese men. It is also known that the Japanese have a tendency to reject their history and traditions in favour of a Western ideal.3 These western influences in anime reflects the general Japanese aspiration for Western traits or the “de-Japanization” of the Japanese people, as a result of the “ethnic self-denial” that has surfaced in the Japanese society ever since Meiji era, and especially since the end of World War II.
On top of that, there is also a rise in the portrayal of assertive, individualistic males in anime, essentially characteristics that go against the conformist, collectivist culture in Japan. Such attitudes are evident in Salarymen Kintaro, through the character of Yajima Kintaro, a man with a rebellious personality. In the anime, Kintaro goes against the proper code of conduct for a Japanese salaryman in the company by blatantly doing things according to his own beliefs and standard, even if it goes against the norm. For instance, he is daring enough to travel in the same lift with a senior employee, an action that goes against the norm by standards of the common salaryman in the company. Out of respect or fear for the seniors in the company, junior employers avoid being in the same area as seniors. Kintaro’s attitude depicts a drift away from the Japanese conservative attitudes, adopting the western ideology of a non-conformist, liberal and individualistic attitude.
The masculinity of men played down
In our traditional patriarchal society, men are usually known to take up the more dominant role in the gendered power structure. However, with the rise of western individualism and liberal societies, societies today are becoming increasingly egalitarian. The line between society’s perceptions of male masculinity and female femininity is increasingly blurred. Women, nowadays, are known to possess what were traditionally deemed as masculine traits, such as dominance and independence. Interestingly, this is evident even in the collectivist and conservative culture in Japan, where gender roles are rather rigid. This notion is commonly expressed in anime.
While anime partly operates in accordance to the dominant ideology the way Disney animation does, it is clearly capable of subverting the dominant notions. As quoted in an online academic article, “…many [American] young women …are beginning to reconsider the advantages of building all-female establishments rather than fighting it out day after day in power structures that remain basically patriarchal. …they are intrigued by the possibilities of the all-woman groups that they see in anime” (Levi 1996: 124).4 Hence, this clearly hints towards the evidence of reversals of the traditional notions of patriarchy in anime. Indeed, such notions are clearly evident in Princess Mononoke and Bubblegum Crisis. More importantly, such notions often lead to the subtle downplay of the men’s masculinity in anime, which was traditionally reinforced through their dominance and superiority over women.
In Princess Mononoke, we see a reversal of gender roles in Iron Town. Essentially, the town is headed by a headstrong Queen, Lady Eboshi, who leads a group of men into the forest. The town consists of a group of independent wives who possess dominance over their husbands. The husbands are portrayed as the useless and weaker of the two sexes. Lady Eboshi trained the group of wives to protect themselves and the town, and more importantly, she also indoctrinates the idea in the women that the men are not dependable. This unmistakably plays down the traditional beliefs of men, who are often the stronger sex with the instinct to protect their family. There is also Princess Mononoke, also known as San, who is portrayed as a headstrong girl, fighting for the forest. In the story, she was brought up by a wise female wolf, Moro, and goes against Lady Eboshi and her team. The two opposing forces were both headed by determined, headstrong females. In fact, apart from Ashitaka, the masculine, heroic male protagonist, the movie is basically predominated by female lead characters with masculine traits.
In Bubblegum Crisis, the protagonists are the Knight Sabers, a mysterious group of vigilante, clad in nifty-looking body amour to fight crimes. The Knight Sabers consists of four women— Sylia, Priss, Linna and Nene, all portrayed as female heroes. The story also portrays females occupying the commanding positions and male existence is almost completely non-existence. This hints a subversion of female representation and a reversal of power relations and gender stereotypes. It is vital to note that these female heroes nonetheless maintain their sense of femininity despite engaging in masculine activities.
From these anime, we see the merging of “feminine” and “masculine” traits in characters. While they possess masculine traits, they nonetheless maintain their sense of femininity, as seen in BGC, in which the female heroes exhibit their masculine traits and at the same time, wear suits that accentuate their female features. Thus we see the incorporation of selected masculine and feminine traits into ones own sexuality in the embodiment of female heroism.
Unlike Princess Mononoke and Bubblegum Crisis, Porco Rosso, Bleach and Kiki’s Delivery Service do not really play down the masculinity of men to such a great extent. Instead, these animes focuses on the less dominant masculine characteristics that are evident in female characters in these animes.
In Porco Rosso, the teen heroine, Fio, is portrayed as a gifted engineer cum mechanic, a non-traditional female occupation. She can be tomboyish but she still maintains her sense of femininity through her mannerisms. Although she doesn’t engage in fights and wars like the women of Princess Mononoke and Bubblegum Crisis, Fio is a hardy, industrious, headstrong and fearless. Interestingly, even the people who built Porco’s plane were females; though building a plane is conventionally considered a masculine job. The all-female group is headed by designer and engineer, Fio. Hence, in this anime, we see a traditionally masculine activity dominated and successfully taken over by the female characters.
Just like the portrayal of Fio, Bleach and Kiki’s Delivery Service also depict the characterization of females with masculine traits. In Bleach, the female character, Rukia, is portrayed as decisive, assertive, determined and confident, especially when she was officiated into the role of a shinigami. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki rescues a boy, hinting at a reversal of gender roles. These female characters do not engage in fights and wars like the women of Princess Mononoke, Bubblegum Crisis. However, they reflect the growth in quality of female characters and pose as positive role models for young female viewers.
However, we also have consider the fact that most of the anime mentioned are works of Miyazaki Hayao, who is widely known as the “west outside the animation circle”5, hence the reason why these anime are seemingly influenced by the west. One may argue that the examples (which are predominantly “Ghibli” movies) henceforth are not representative of all anime and thus it is not fair to say that there is a down-play of men’s masculinity in anime in general. However, on a disclaiming note, we have to also bear in mind that Miyazaki’s films have enjoyed huge box-office and critical success in Japan and that he was also crowned as “anime’s first genuine auteur”.6 Thus, although Miyazaki’s anime may not be representative of masculinity in all Japanese anime, they are nonetheless very influential, and they do, to a certain extent, reflect the Japanese society.
Essentially, there are many variations of masculinity in anime. These variations are influenced by different ideas, beliefs and cultures within the Japanese society itself, as well as, external influences, such that those from the West. The themes and messages underlying the anime hint towards the reality in Japan, a country that is paradoxically embracing the influences of globalization as well as holding on tightly to some of their unique cultures, traditions and beliefs. Indeed, anime symbolizes and reinforces the Japanese consciousness of reality. It is no wonder why mangas and animes have attained such a high status as the popular culture of Japan.
Kenji, Sato. “Media in Asia: More Animated Than Life.” Kyoto Journal, no. 46 (2004): 3-4
Men and masculinities in contemporary Japan: dislocating the salaryman doxa / edited by James E. Roberson and Nobue Suzuki. London; New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.
Patrick Drazen, ‘Bushido: The Way of the Warrior’, Anime Explosion, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley CA 2003 p.108-116
Wikipedia: Hayao Miyazaki. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hayao_Miyazaki (accessed 11 November, 2005)
Yoshida, Kaori. “Evolution of Female Heroes: Carnival Mode of Gender Representation in Anime.” ASPAC, Western Washington University, 2002. http://mcel.pacificu.edu/aspac/papers/scholars/yoshida/yoshida.htm