Queer Identity in Manga

Or, lack thereof.

Not that that is always the case; it merely tends to be.

I must be honest and confess that I dislike the term ‘queer’. I understand that there’s been a reclamation effort for it that has been successful to the extent that the academic discipline is known as ‘queer theory’, but I still find the word to be grating and unpleasant. I really offer no alternatives to it, though, that have much… well, stickiness. Which is to say, I’ll opt for ‘LGBT identity’ but that itself is fairly clunky-sounding and is hardly desirable as a term to enter general discourse. So, seems like despite my own qualms, I’m not offering any true alternatives. As usual, it is easier to complain than it is to come up with solutions to those complaints.

And you notice that I don’t use ‘LGBT identity’ as the phrase in my post’s title. Ah well.

I went with an image from Aoi Hana for this post as it is one of very, very few manga that has a character who actually claims or names an LGBT identity. It is also one of the very few prominent yuri/BL/trans manga in which a character possesses an LGBT identity. I’ve run up against a few more recently (having bought half a ton of BL recently), but they aren’t terribly well-known and I don’t ever see them becoming well-known (titles like ‘No One Loves Me’ kind of make it hard for something to become at all popular, honestly, even if the volume itself was a legitimately good read). The fact is, manga generally shies away from putting a name to someone’s actions, as it is easier to not commit than it is to commit. Readers of yuri and BL also are themselves often resistant to having a character specifically identified as LGBT, whether out of homophobia or some strange high-mindedness about the nature of love or even out of their own sexual desires and fantasies (a quick glance at the market for girl-on-girl pornography is ample evidence for this latter bit). Those who wish for the characters to embrace an identity are generally willing to put up with it, and number smaller, apparently, than those who are in favor of the practice, so it all continues.

I have severely mixed feelings about the entire approach. And I am going to attempt to explain it all in this post, although I will caution that this may be a bit of a meandering/wandering discussion. For the first time ever, I am using notes to do a post; I’ve NEVER done this before. However, my ‘notes’ are still more a barebones listing of items to hit upon as opposed to a true set of notes. So I will forewarn you that this could loop around and zig-zag a bit. At the very least, however, I do hope it makes for an intriguing read.

Firstly, I do not find a lack of LGBT identity to be necessarily problematic. In fact, I enjoy the ambiguity and the lack of need on the part of characters to define themselves strictly. However, there are definite limits to this – I really, truly despise works in which characters make declarations of “I’m not gay/lesbian!” despite their engagement in homosexual love or desire and the whole thing isn’t played as the character in question being in denial. Denial is one thing, and is actually kind of natural when dealing with characters who have no previous experience with homosexual feelings. And it also isn’t wholly unbelievable either – with most cultures so oriented toward life behaviors tied to heterosexuality (get married, have children), there are individuals in real life who only have light dawn upon them when they are well-advanced into adulthood. Denial is only the most natural of reactions.

So – denial in and of itself isn’t troublesome. Its when the denial is emphatic and is seemingly fully supported by the narrative – that, no! This guy isn’t really gay! This woman isn’t really gay! Its just this one time! Even if it is true love and happily ever after, etc.!

Quite frankly, it comes across as stridently homophobic. It also can play as an argument for the notion that a person can ‘convert’ someone to homosexuality (and, therefore, that it is possible to convert out of it), as these stories a good amount of the time also involve sexual coercion and assault. Well, would you look at that – he just managed to get his dick up that other’s one’s ass! Now all the other one wants is his dick! He turned him gay, huh? Or, at the very least, he made him want only him and no one else.

So: pretending that your characters aren’t “really” gay despite their actions throughout your entire narrative? Obnoxious.

Then there are the stories where it just isn’t defined at all. No one says they aren’t gay, no one says that they are. This is actually a decently common trope in manga that do no fall under the headings of BL or yuri, and it is understandable that this matter of identity isn’t addressed in most of them as the characters tend to be supporting characters, not main characters. Of course, this raises the question of why LGBT characters cannot, apparently, be main characters, but that is a whole other kettle of fish, so I’ll leave that one alone.

I’ve heard complaints about shoujo’s resistance to putting a name to characters who have homosexual behaviors and feelings. I can understand the frustration about it… yet I actually don’t mind it when this happens, honestly. In fact… I actually kind of like it. Because with this, then, the thing that is important is that they love a particular person, not that the particular person is a man or a woman or a girl or a boy. Its actually a fairly lovely concept, in that sense: it seems to suggest that you could strip away everything about the person save their soul, and they would still be loved by this other character.

It also suggests that the story is taking place in a world where it wouldn’t matter what the gender of one’s object of affections was. These characters don’t seem to have any issue with the fact that they have a crush on or are in love with someone who is the same gender as they are. The characters around the character in question also themselves don’t generally show any consternation over the fact that their friend/sibling/classmate/co-worker/etc. is interested in someone of the same gender. If there is any consternation present, it’ll be over something unrelated to the gender – the other character is interested in the character, or the other character can’t believe the character is hanging all over so-and-so again.

Now, this isn’t always the case, I’ll admit that. Often, if anything, the LGBT-behaving character is in place simply for the purposes of humor. But when the character isn’t merely for the sake of laughter, its sort of like a fairy tale being constructed. Look – a world in which no one cares about who one loves. Isn’t it a sight to behold?

I’ll admit it: I’m being far too kind about these manga. I doubt that there was any intent to do such a thing when the authors set out to do their stories. But the end result is one where a person can read it that way if they wish to, regardless of what the author was thinking as they crafted everything.

And then we finally reach those few manga that actually have character who open their mouths and say “I’m gay/lesbian.” or have women who open their mouths and say “I like women.” or men who open their mouths and say “I like men.”. There really aren’t very many of these, since BL and yuri are not aimed at LGBT audiences. There are manga that are, but they are very niche and so there aren’t very many of them out there. They are also generally not classed in with yuri or BL. Manga featuring transgendered characters that are specifically about the trans characters are even fewer in number. Traps were a bit trendy for a few years, but let’s face it: traps are mainly a trope for humor or titillation. It is rare to see a trap get humane treatment in manga.

There are BL and yuri titles which do possess characters who identify themselves as LGBT. The aforementioned Aoi Hana and No One Loves Me (Yugi Yamada) both do. If I recall correctly, Octave does, too. FAKE, Hourou Musuko, Rooftop Scenery, Honki ja Nee kara, and Laugh Under the Sun all do, too. And Yamada’s Close the Last Door has a man who starts off claiming to be straight despite his longtime crush on his former kouhai and an affair with a man he meets at the kouhai’s wedding, but admits by the close of the first volume that he probably is gay. But these are honestly the only ones I can remember off the top of my head that had such characters in them, and I’ve read well in excess of five hundred different titles, at least half of which (and probably more) have been in the BL or yuri categories.

So LGBT identity in manga is rare, even if homosexual or bisexual or trans behavior is not. I did say before that I actually like the manga wherein the matter of identity is ambiguous at best, and that is true. However, it is also important to have characters who do embrace an LGBT identity because we do not live in a world where it doesn’t matter. It does, unfortunately, regardless of whether I think it should matter or not. And because it does matter to the world at large, it then matters to have characters who do identify as LGBT. It is hard for an LGBT kid in most places in this world; one of the few places to turn is often literature. Perhaps it sounds crazy, but reading about an LGBT character chips away at the loneliness that can fester for an LGBT youth, particularly those who do not feel that they are in a community or a family where they will be accepted. The characters may be fictitious, but they can be the first indication that one is not alone – after all, if someone out there is writing about LGBT characters, doesn’t it stand to reason that people like that actually do exist?

But, come on – doesn’t everyone nowadays know that LGBT people are real?

There is a difference between knowing and knowing, as absurd as that may sound. The former is more abstract; I know that the Sahara is sandy and that Afghanistan is dangerous. The latter is concrete; I know that snow is cold and that leaves change colors when the autumn comes. It might seem odd to seek concrete facts in fiction, but the act of reading a book is also an act of believing – one becomes so invested in fiction because the author makes it all real for the reader. Given that, an LGBT fictional character is real to the LGBT teen who is reading it. It is from here that the world may open.

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27 Responses to Queer Identity in Manga

  1. Invitan says:

    Hope you don’t mind me de-lurking and commenting (first time) on your page.

    Your discussion is interesting, and I agree with you that there’s a severe lack of characters defining themselves as LGBT. However, I believe it’s more of a culture thing than any kind of homophobia. I’ve read somewhere that the Japanese society is more like a whole community of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ – they don’t really care if you are queer or not, and they don’t base their judgment of you on your sexuality. To them, homosexuality is something that you ‘do’, not something that you ‘are’, and virtually none of the people possess homophobia. It’s probably due to their historical root where homosexuality not only existed freely but was even revered.

    One of the few titles whose characters identify themselves as LGBT that surface in my mind is Koisuru Boukun. Wonder if you have read it. Yoshinaga Fumi also draws some BL titles that portray realistic gay relationship.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I actually own a few of Yoshinaga’s manga; I can even see Laugh Under the Sun and Don’t Say Any More, Darling from where I’m sitting =) For English language releases of BL, though, I think I prefer Yugi Yamada slightly.
      I’m not wholly convinced that Japanese society is largely non-homophobic. For one, its one thing to have characters not comment on it, but there is a fairly sizable amount of characters loudly proclaiming that they are not gay, often with “gay” being defined in a very negative manner within the frame of the story, bizarrely/ironically enough considering the storyline’s content. Its just a little too prevalent for me to be convinced that it is merely incidental.
      Now, I’m not saying that Japan is necessarily non-friendly to LGBT stuff. I’m just saying I don’t really think its hyper-tolerant/accepting, either. Homoerotic relationships amongst samurai were fairly acceptable… but only if the guys were also getting married and helping their family lines endure.

  2. Ryan A says:

    No, I agree. Aoi Hana was great btw; really adored that last year (actually top pick for me).

    As for this know vs know, it’s primarily fact-based vs experience-based (or maybe intuition, gut instinct) imo. Fact of the matter is 96.7% of people aren’t going to know simply by reading facts or absorbing them through second-hand experiences; they have to witness and understand it personally. It’s fairly abstract because experiences happen in many ways, but it only takes one epiphany to move from factual knowledge to “understanding” (or at least a spark towards understanding).

    Complex.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Sorry, your comment got eaten up by my spam blocker and I didn’t notice it until a few days later.
      I find there to be something truly beautiful in that moment when understanding first begins. You did a better job of differentiating between the two versions of ‘know’ I was speaking of.

  3. Caddy C says:

    I like the posts you identify as “meandering” the most out of your posts, which is funny because you seem to regard that label as negative. :)

    The previous commenter mentioned Fumi Yoshinaga, and when trying to think of characters that freely identify as LGBT the first one I thought of was Ono from Antique Bakery. Not that Antique Bakery is a realistic portrayal of … well, anything, but it is nice to have a gay man dealing with gay culture in Japan no matter how unrealistically it may be drawn.

    I think it is problematic that LGBT characters in manga don’t self-identify or become identified as LGBT. I think part of the reason is not only that yury/BL is not aimed at an LGBT audience but also that labeling is a huge deal in anime/manga culture – think of the many categories and genres and sub-genres that manga gets shoved into! It seems that there is a category for everything – it’s not just “moe” but a certain type of moe, etc. So if you want to appeal to a broad audience to get more sales, you’re going to avoid labeling your characters as gay to avoid labeling your manga as “LBGT interest” or something similar.

    That’s just my idea, anyway.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Damn, I kind of want some gay moe now… >_>
      I think you are right with wanting avoid ID’ing LGBT characters, as the biggest buyers of BL and yuri are folks who read the material for titillation and have zero interest in anything outside the realm of pure fantasy – e.g. lesbian ’til graduation high school girls or a hot guy who just happens to have fallen madly in love with a guy this time.
      Like I said, I’m not necessarily bothered by a lack of identity in and of itself. I can’t say it enough: there is something kind of beautiful about what seems a fairy tale world for it to *NOT* matter within the story’s world that the person happens to have fallen for someone of the same sex.
      And yet! Identity is still of import… and I’d rather see some more titles contain matters of identity than there are currently. I don’t want to see the more ambiguous ones vanish; I’d just to see it balanced out better.
      It isn’t exactly that I view my ‘meandering’ as a negative. I just feel it is necessary to warn readers as I feel like it can be a bit of a frustrating reading experience. It did end up being more coherent than I had figured it would be, though.

      • Caddy C says:

        I get the fantasy of living in a world where it doesn’t matter who you fall in love with, gender-wise. It’s nice to dream :)

        I think a variation on that theme is present in a lot of heterosexual stories as well – like the stories in which two people from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds fall in love, or people from different races/ethnicities fall in love, etc.

      • adaywithoutme says:

        Y’know, I never really thought about that aspect within heterosexual romance stories. Which sounds terribly silly now that I realize it; it should have been blindingly obvious, honestly. I suppose maybe it is due to the fact that I am uncomfortable with the frequent use of the poor lady, rich dude dynamic, or just flat-out with the other power structures in play with a heterosexual couple.
        This may, in turn, also explain why I enjoy BL and yuri as much as I do. They’re both men or bother women, so if one does end up being the more aggressive partner I don’t feel the same discomfort I do with that in heterosexual romances.

  4. j says:

    Just a random lurker here, delurking to say: I think Yoshinaga Fumi’s What Did You Eat Yesterday?/Kinou nani tabeta? is one of the best portrayals of homosexuality in manga. The couple identify as gay, and the vicissitudes of life – including those that have to do with being gay in modern Japan – are dealt with in a non-heavy-handed manner. Plus, lots of awesome food and cooking description.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Hmm, I’ll have to check it out, it sounds pretty good. I like Fufu, which it sounds similar to, although with a lesbian couple and without the focus on food. Thanks for the recommendation.

      • tina says:

        I was going to recommend the same title. ^^ Kinou Nani Tabeta is pretty refreshing, for a manga; for one thing the gay couple being featured are in their forties, and are quite down-to-earth. It’s a nice break from all the teen-oriented manga out there, LGBT or otherwise. Not to mention each chapter features a menu of Japanese home-cooking (always a plus for someone who loves watching other people cook ^^; ) though the story goes way beyond just a collection of home recipes. It’s a light, enjoyable read, especially if you like slice-of-life stories about ordinary people. (Which is remarkable for me, since I generally don’t like those, but I loved this manga.)

  5. Hmm… coming up on twenty years old soon is Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon. Zoicite and Kunzite were a couple – and Sailor Uranus (Haruka Tenoh) and Sailor Neptune (Michiru Kaioh) were a couple. And they all acted like it was just the most normal thing in the world. (Sort of a main goal of the LGBT community.) They weren’t 2-D characters played for laughs or ridicule or stereotyping. Not too shabby for a kids’ show.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Goodness, sorry, I somehow managed to not notice this comment.
      I actually did a post about this a bit of time back, arguing that Sailor Moon was fairly revolutionary in terms of its depiction of sexuality (although the manga much more so, which I don’t think I really addressed in said post). No one gets all fussy over Haruka and Michiru, for instance, and Makoto doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that she developed a crush on Haruka when she thought he was a guy. They were seriously ahead of their time.

  6. kaei says:

    I’m coming to this post rather late, but I just want to say that I agree with your comments 100% – that the constant lack of LGBT labeling in manga, while not completely terrible (and even might have some merit from story-telling perspective), is rather obnoxious. I would go so far as to call it discriminatory, and then I’m going to broadly and rudely make a blanket statement and accuse Japanese society of being homophobic. I honestly love many parts of Japan – the country, the culture, the people – with all my heart, but it’s hard to ignore its negative sides – it’s not just homophobia that Japan is guilty of today – Japan is all kinds of discriminatory, and it’s all institutionalised. Sexism, racism, xenophobia, to name a few; burakumin and Koreans are still marginalised in society today, and its treatment of women in the workplace is still pretty archaic.

    Anyway, tl;dr, but, point being, 1) Japan is discriminatory in general 2) manga creators, catering to such a Japanese audience, intentionally or unintentionally build discrimination into their works. Of course, if you look outside the mainstream, you’ll find some noteworthy respectable titles like the one you mentioned, but by definition being outside the mainstream they’re few and far between, and it will probably be years before it becomes pervasive enough for my liking.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I would tend to agree with you that Japan isn’t really all that queer-friendly – I think its a lot better than many places, but I also don’t think its all flowers and sunshine. The current political climate in Tokyo in particular lends credence to this view on the whole thing, as the governor of Tokyo has said more than once that he thinks that LGBT people have DNA deformities or are mentally unsound and has seen little backlash in response for those statements. If anything, right now I think Japan is sliding backwards as it faces a rotten economy and a rapidly crashing population.
      Bara does a much better job with putting a name on things than BL does, as it is actually aimed at a gay readership. Yuri is a bit foggier on this point. Magazines like Mist which catered to lesbians in the 90’s did carry lesbian manga, but a lot of these unfortunately went under at the end of that decade and the beginning of the 2000’s. I think there is also a lack of differentiation between yuri-for-lesbians and yuri-for-everyone-else, which denies the shorthand differentiation which bara and BL have.

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  8. Compassionate Sadist says:

    “However, there are definite limits to this – I really, truly despise works in which characters make declarations of “I’m not gay/lesbian!” despite their engagement in homosexual love or desire and the whole thing isn’t played as the character in question being in denial.”

    THIS.
    Honestly, I would love yaoi/yuri a million times more if the characters actually admitted they were gay/struggling with their sexuality. Not this whole “If It’s You It’s Okay” crap.

    Why can’t there be more BL manga like Kano Miyamoto’s works, in which the characters identify as LGBT and/or admit they are confused about their orientation? Why can’t we have yuri that deal with lesbianism realistically? And as much as I love “comedic” traps, why can’t we have more manga that portrays crossdressing and transgenders in a serious light, like Hourou Musuko?

    It’s not like I read these genres expecting realism. I’m a fan of the fluffy, fantasy stuff. But I’m VERY pleased when I do come across down-to-earth portrayals of LGBT identity. As an LGBT teen, I’d appreciate it if anime/manga attempted to be less…polarizing, if you know what I mean.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Wow, sorry, I completely missed seeing this comment until now.
      There are so, so few manga out there that have trans characters who aren’t punchlines. Other than Hourou Musuko, I can only think of two, and one of them I can’t recall the title of. One of the story arcs from the Mermaid Line manga, ‘Ayumi and Aika’, is about a woman whose boyfriend turns out to be trans, and its handled well. I suppose strictly speaking it is yuri, although I think its more a matter of the protagonist deciding gender doesn’t matter. Could be up for criticism for lacking a lesbian identity, but I would say that it would be unfair to be negative about it over that, since the larger message is that one should do what makes them be happy and be who they are. Not entirely sure I’m making my argument well; maybe I should simply say its the sort of thing one reads and then feels some warm-fuzzies about?
      If you haven’t already read it, Aoi Hana would probably make you pretty happy. Shimura’s work in general tends to be very LGBT-friendly (she has written heterosexual stuff, too). Hiyori Otsu has some solid work. And, despite the moe-looking faces, Milk Morinaga’s Girl Friends and Kuchibiru Tameiki Sakurairo are both quite good (too bad Secret Recipe is so tepid thus far).

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  11. Dan says:

    This really is a late comment, but it felt strange to tack this onto an unrelated post, just for the sake of a feeling of currency… In any case, I got halfway through this particular manga “New York New York” by Marimo Ragawa, and thought of this particular post. So, I thought I’d leave a link to the series [It's 7 (long) chapters total], on the off-chance you thought it interesting.

    Pretty much all of the characters affirm their sexuality (be it straight, gay, bisexual, etc), and there’s a chapter that covers reactions (good, bad and otherwise) to one of the main characters coming out. Though, I admit, at times I really want to smack a particular character around at times for… irrational decisions.

    I’ve been reading it off of animea.net ( http://manga.animea.net/new-york-new-york.html ), but it’s probably on other sites for viewing/download.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I will definitely be checking this out. Its so exciting to read stuff wherein LGBT issues are handled more realistically! I’ll also confess I’m motivated in part to read it, too, though, because of the chance it takes place in New York and the fact that I find it amusing to see Japanese depictions of America XD

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  15. katrina says:

    Hi, I wandered here somehow and liked this post. The problem you identified is present in slash fanfiction as well. Even though the entire genre is about boys loving boys (it’s by far the most popular theme over f/f), the characters rarely face homophobia or even say the word “gay.” This also goes for RPS (real person slash) in worlds where they obviously would face persecution.

    Sometimes when LGBT politics are indeed mentioned, they’re treated in a very simplistic way. One fic I read in the kpop genre was about a main character being trans, and her father was not accepting of her gender identity. In the end, her boyfriend comforted her and there was a happily-ever-after ending. Homophobia is treated in a similar way (bad but it is handily defeated, usually in a romantic plotline). This makes me think that these stories are fulfilling a wider function of being escapist fantasies for many people. I think this is why most fic is written by women (largely) and then gay men. Interestingly, when fics cover homophobia or transphobia, they sometimes tend to be labeled “angst.”

    I’ve actually wondered about the politics and reasonings of slash fanfiction for quite awhile as a feminist, LGBT ally and 12-year reader of fic … so this was an interesting post for me. Thanks for the discussion!

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