Male Homosexuality in American Comic Books and Japanese Manga

The depiction of homosexuality has seen a notable rise in popular media in the last couple of years . In America, there has never been as strong a presence in the media of homosexual people as there has been in the last 5 years. This has been reflected in the comic book world, where a handful of characters have popped up over the last ten years in relatively positive roles. It is, however, surprising to see that in its Japanese counterpart, manga, homosexuality has been seen in main stream comics since the 70s. The treatment of homosexuality in this popular media not only reveals a number of differences in the culture surrounding comic books in each culture, but also that of the larger culture.

Taking a look at each culture’s way of talking about same-sex attraction can be very illuminating. While the American term is very clinical (in fact, the term “homosexuality” is a clinical term spawned when it was considered to be a form of mental disorder), the Japanese have more ambiguity with their references. While during the Tokugawa period, there existed a code of behavior for male-male sexual interaction in the form of the nanshoku code, the vocabulary associated with the code refers to sexual roles or styles rather than personal identity or something more akin to the modern concept of sexuality. The term “gay” does exists as a loan word in the phrase “geiboi,” but that denotes a cross-dressing male hustler rather then a male that identifies as homosexual in the modern sense. While the word danshoku-ka was termed after the war to denote male homosexuals, the main term used currently is okama, which literally mean ‘pot’ but in context, translates more closely to the English slang term of ‘queen.’ However, the term okama also implies cross-dressing and effeminacy, something that most colloquial American slang does not do.

The most striking difference between the two countries in terms of comic books and manga is audience and popularity. American comics, for the most part, are targeted at a very small audience. The main group that looks at comics in America consists of males between the ages of 18 and 29. In Japan, the manga industry holds 38% of all published matter and as such, has many marketable audiences under its wing. With the larger market, there's also a larger variance in acceptable storyline. Popular American comics, for the most part, remain strongly entrenched in the "superhero" genre. Oddly, the main audience for manga featuring homosexuality, the so called “shounen-ai” genre, are mostly young (high-school aged and a little older) females. According to McLelland, Japanese women have “long been avid consumers of popular entertainment that would seem to disrupt sexual and gender boundaries…”, citing the all female theatre group, Takarazuka, and its all female audience as an example. There is no real analogue in American culture for this phenomenon in terms of Tarakazuka or shounen-ai. He points out that in Confucian Japan women’s sexuality has long been tied up with reproduction and the family system and this has made it difficult to represent women romantically involved with men as their partners and equals.

The audience here holds the key to understanding many of the differences between the two cultures. While the role of females in both countries have progressed towards equality steadily through the years, Japanese women are still held more strongly by societal norms, by concepts such as wakimae (or social norms…to which people are expected to behave in order to appropriate in the society they live). In her essay, Hideko Nornes Abe cites Ide in her definition of what a woman is in Japanese society: To be a woman in Japan is to cognitively recognize that there is a category of gender in which one should define herself as a human being whose role is a complementary existence to man. By supporting art forms that defy “sexual and gender boundaries,” as McLelland says, Japanese women break boundaries and explore possibilities in a safe way. Homosexuals represent a group of people that are the ultimate “other” group, as males attracted to males. By placing their stories in terms of homosexuals, they explore hon’ne while keeping up a form of tatemae to uphold wakimae. In the few manga featuring homosexuals that have been translated to English, women are noticeably absent from many of the stories. In Maki Kazumi and Yukine Honami’s manga, Desire, there aren’t any female characters at all. Similarly, in Shuri Shiozu’s series, Eerie Queerie!, there is also an apparent absence of main female characters. Any females that appear are minor characters that do not appear in more than one or two issues or background characters who never even get a name. While the readers can empathize with the characters, they are clearly soto, or outside in a social and gender based way.

In comparison, the role of gay men is typically reversed in American comics. Outside of independent titles that target smaller, specific audiences usually part of a particular subculture, gay men are usually regulated to supporting and minor roles. The most well known gay character currently, Northstar, featured within the pages of X-men, is currently in a “support” type position within the team. The only notable exceptions were villain characters. Unlike Japanese females, American male comic book readers have no reason to consider the characters in their comic as soto. As most comic books feature white young adult males, the white young adult males who read it are usually encouraged to place themselves within the character’s place. Although uchi and soto do not translate perfectly culturally, having a main character that is “other” would probably break the empathy that draws American comic book’s main audience. This would explain the failure of some of series that have gay men in more active roles. The X-Statix title, related to the more popular X-Men., featured three gay characters in its 26 issue run. Two died before the last issue. Bloke, a large pink mutant and one of the original members, was killed in the first mission, lasting two issues. Phat, another gay member of the same team, managed to last through most of the series before he jumped on a bomb to save his teammates. The comic Young Superheroes in Love, printed by DC, also featured two characters that begin a relationship; however the series was canceled before the relationship ever developed fully. While manga in Japan began depicting homosexuals in the 70s, comics in America have only started popularly displaying them in the 80s.

In both cultures, gay men find the depictions of homosexuals in these mediums unsatisfying. In the case of Japanese manga, Gay men tend not to identify with the beautiful youths in women’s manga. The depiction of gay men is more often then not androgynous. American males in a vaguely similar manner find that the characterization and use of homosexuals in American comics dissatisfying. There’s often no depiction of them being gay besides displaying female attributes or simply saying they are. To quote one gay fan on an online forum:

… I would like to see gay characters at least make an attempt at dating other guys. There’s nothing more annoying then a token gay character that doesn’t actually like men. They’re either depicted as femmy stereotypes (more so in movies than comics) or asexual eunuchs who use the term “gay” to shock the conservatives reading the comics.
Another American fan, replying to the same topic said this:
I don’t wanna to see the stereotype thing. It’s overdone, and though I might be the living embodiment of the gay stereotype, not all of us are. Show them to be like everybody else. Depict them like Nightwing. Depict them like Flash. Depict them like Kyle Rayner.
The overall feeling between homosexuals in both cultures is that the depictions of homosexuality in comics and manga do not accurately display the attitudes, feelings, and other attributes of actual gay men.

Overall, the use of male homosexuals in comics and manga do not seem to depict the actuality of gay males in the respective countries. While in America, it is used in ways to seem more politically correct or accepting, the depictions tend to alienate gay audiences. Equally, the androgynous beauty of the gay males in main stream female manga alienates Japanese gay males. In manga, however, the use of homosexuality seems to be due to cultural repression of female sexuality in Japanese culture. Feminist Ueno Chisuko, as quoted by McLelland, says that “neither men nor women are sleeping with the opposite sex, they are sleeping with a system” and despite the personal dynamics which “operate in individual relationships, ‘the system’ always works to disadvantages women." Sarah Schulman explains that “images of male homosexuality are the only picture Japanese Women have of men loving someone else as an equal. It is the kind of love we want to have."

Works Cited

  • Abe, Hideko Nornes. “From Stereotype to Context: The Study of Japanese Women’s Speech.” Feminist Studies. Vol. 21, no. 3: p. 647-674
  • Gotoh, Shinobu and Shoko Takaku. Passion Vol. 1. Canada: Digital Manga Publishing, 2004
  • Ide, Sachiko. “On the Notion of Wakimae: Toward an Inegrated Framework of Lingusitic Politenes. In (ed.) Takeuchi Michiko. Kotoba no Mozaiku. 1992, p. 298-305
  • McLelland, Mark. “Why are Japanese Girls Comics Full of Boys Bonking?”. Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media.
  • McLelland, Mark. “Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan.” Intersections.
  • The quotes from the forums come from

Works Consulted

  • “Give it to Me, Baby!: Are Alternative Lifestyles in Comics More Prevalent than Ever?” Just Comics and More: The Caribbean’s Only Monthly Comic Magazine.
  • Makino, Seiichi. “Uchi and Soto as Cultural and Linguistic Metaphors.” In (ed). Ray. T. Donahue. Exploring Japaneseness. Westport: Ablex Publishing.
  • Thomas, David. “Men in Tights.” The Times. August 23, 2002.