Observation Deck

Japan’s Trans-Friendly Comic Book Revolution

From <i>Wandering Son</i> to boys’ love, how manga is helping straight-laced Japan come to terms with LGBT rights.

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Wandering Son, a well-loved manga, or Japanese comic, tells the story of close friends Shuichi, “a boy who wants to be a girl,” and Yoshino, “a girl who wants to be a boy.” The teens struggle with the usual ups and downs of adolescence, but also with Japan’s unflinching gender norms. The pair, for instance, are frustrated by their school’s dress code. When Yoshino steals a stiff-collared, dark-gray boy’s uniform from her older brother and wears it to class, her schoolmates praise how “cool” she looks. But when Shuichi wears Yoshino’s compulsory, girlish sailor suit, his teachers send him to the nurse’s office and then home to change. (The manga uses female pronouns for Yoshino and male for Shuichi, a choice reflected here.)

Manga, which command more than $5 billion in annual sales in Japan and are gaining traction abroad, have long presented gender-bending characters: heroic tomboys, villainous cross-dressers, and princesses disguised as princes. But Wandering Son broke new ground. Originally published in the 25,000-circulation Comic Beam magazine from 2002 to 2013, adapted into a TV series in 2011, and read by more than 1 million people in book form, the comic offers a sympathetic look at modern-day young people who grapple with gender identity in a deeply conservative society. Other manga have followed suit, introducing more authentic transgender characters.

If these series’ popularity is any indicator, readers are signaling some level of acceptance at a time when Japan, well behind many of its peers, is slowly moving into a new phase of reckoning with LGBT rights. Although national law still labels them as suffering from “gender identity disorder,” since 2003 the country has allowed people who undergo reassignment surgery (decriminalized in the late 1990s) to legally change their gender on passports and other ID cards. And just this April — echoing the preoccupations of Wandering Son’s characters — the Japanese Education Ministry issued a broad set of protections for transgender students, including the right to choose a male or female school uniform and locker room.

Manga have not caused these changes. But the genre’s recent attention to trans characters is connecting an isolated community to mainstream culture — and vice versa — at a pivotal social moment.

In a country persistently hidebound about gender roles, Japanese arts and letters have reflected a fascination with gender fluidity for centuries. In the anonymously composed 12th-century novel The Changelings, a brother and sister, each disguised as the opposite gender, arrive at court and conduct a diversity of love affairs. Rigidly gender-segregated Japanese theater — all-male Noh and Kabuki dramas, and the all-female Takarazuka Revue — has been, by necessity, a dragged-up art form.

Manga (and its animated cousin, anime) have carried on this tradition. Until recently, however, gender mutability was usually a plot device, something included to titillate or amuse readers. Characters changed gender for external, usually temporary reasons: A character splashed with enchanted water, for instance, would later turn into the opposite sex. The newly inhabited identity was opportunistic, and secondary.

This isn’t to say manga haven’t been thoughtful on matters of gender and sexuality. A subgenre now known as yaoi, or boys’ love, has been around since the 1970s and focuses on romantic and sexual relationships between male characters. Although criticized by some for offering gauzy depictions of homosexuality, yaoi authors have included more serious story lines, including one on HIV/AIDS as early as 1985. A category of manga called yuri has occasionally given similar treatment to female characters. As it happens, both genres target female readers, and Matt Thorn, a manga scholar at Kyoto Seika University and the English translator of Wandering Son, thinks that when it comes to Japanese women’s more accepting attitude toward LGBT rights — in comparison to their male counterparts’ — “a lot … has to do with manga.” (According to a 2014 survey by Kyodo News, Japanese women support same-sex marriage at higher rates than Japanese men.)

When first released, Wandering Son was at the forefront of a new wave of manga that has departed from long-standing literary artifices used to deal with gender fluidity. Instead of being treated metaphorically, magically, or as part of a sexy plot twist, Yoshino’s and Shuichi’s gender exploration when puberty hits is dealt with relatively realistically. Consequently, the collected series was a featured book at Tokyo Rainbow Week in 2014. Among transgender readers in Japan, Thorn says, “a lot of transwomen … saw themselves in Shuichi.”

Other subsequent works dealing with trans themes in a more true-to-life way include IS, a 2003-2009 manga series and 2011 live-action TV drama about an intersex high school student who is bullied. Based on true stories, the show was popular among Japan’s frequently closeted trans community, according to research by gender scholar Sonja Dale at Sophia University in Tokyo. Smells Like Green Spirit, which ran from 2011 to 2013, features two gender-fluid protagonists who face disdain and sexual assault. And Bokura No Hentai, an ongoing series that started in 2012, features junior-high-age boys who cross-dress, including one who wears a girl’s uniform to school and another who dresses as his dead sister.

To be sure, manga alone can’t destigmatize a long-marginalized community. Kumiko Saito, a scholar of Japanese culture at Bowling Green State University, notes the social understanding in Japan that teens are often allowed to experiment with gender identity — until adulthood: “You never see LGBT people accepted in actual business settings.” Indeed, people who identify as transgender are often ghettoized in jobs such as hostessing at trans bars; a majority have faced workplace discrimination, according to a 2014 poll by Nijiiro Diversity, an LGBT rights nonprofit organization. Japanese law continues to pathologize trans people and offers no legal recourse for job discrimination.

Still, the opportunity to see their lives mirrored more closely in pop culture is a revolutionary shift. “When we think about the effect on LGBT folks growing up who have access to this media,” says James Welker, a history professor at Kanagawa University, “at least young people can see that they aren’t alone. And surely that gives them some hope.”

According to Thorn, herself transgender, the idea that “you can have a totally normal life and just be trans” is only starting to exist in Japan: “People are fine with the cross-dressing person on television, but when their own daughter or son says, ‘Oh, I’m not this gender’ — they’re like, ‘Whoa. Don’t go crazy now.’” Sympathetic manga, in ways large or small, may be helping readers to see that adolescent revelation as utterly sane.

A version of this article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Foreign Policy under the title “Serial Dissent.”

Illustration by Edmon de Haro

Britt Peterson is a contributing editor and columnist for Washingtonian magazine, as well as a freelancer for the New York Times Book Review, Slate, and Elle. Previously, she was an editor at Foreign Policy, where she oversaw the magazine’s culture section.

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