It's fair to say that there is more focus on women's rights in Japan than at any other time in the country's history. As in other developed countries, economic necessity has made it easier for women to break out of their traditionally ordained roles as homemakers, and to force careers in the workplace. Indeed, promoting working women is now official government policy: the Abe government is set to push a hike of the country's consumption tax to 10% in order to fund bold social initiatives, including free child care for working parents.
But old attitudes die hard. Many women face open discrimination at their workplaces simply due to their gender. This hit the headlines recently when it came out that Tokyo Medical University was skewing the scores of female applicants downwards in order to keep them out. It turns out that was only the tip of the iceberg: two more schools have been caught in the act of knee-capping women's scores - and Japan's Ministry of Culture is on the record this week stating that there are more revelations to come. Discussions of the issue on Twitter from women in the industry has further made it clear that the discrimination continues well into their medical careers, with many feeling forced out due to discrimination.
Third Japan medical school suspected of having discriminated against applicants: sources | The Japan Times
In this atmosphere, it's not surprising that Japanese women would take a harder look, not just at their workplace environments, but how they're portrayed in the broader culture. And when a female lawyer took NHK to task for its promotional use of a virtual YouTuber, it kicked off a firestorm of controversy that has led some to question whether the manga and anime world's Culture of Cute is doing Japanese women a disservice.
The Kizuna AI (キズナアイ) Controversy
Manga and anime culture has been an intense subject of debate in both Japanese and Western feminist circles for some time now. The subculture's emphasis on kawaisa (可愛さ; cuteness) has birthed an industry where sexualized depictions of young, waif-like girls is commonplace. The popularity of anime and manga outside of Japan - and the government's reliance on it as a cultural export - means such depictions are not merely an in-country phenomenon. For better or worse, the face of manga and anime doubles as the outward face of Japan.
This isn't to demonize manga or anime in any way. Both art forms are extremely diverse fields whose creators often have license to tell a broader range of stories than is often seen in similar art forms in the West. Popular manga series in Japan range from epic fantasies to historical dramas to comics about food and Japanese sake. And while anime has its fair share of giant robots and girls with guns (or tanks), it also gave birth to shows like Sazae-san - a "slice of life" showing focusing on a traditional Japanese family that holds the Guiness World Record for the world's longest-running animated series.
But it's still undeniable that many women in manga and anime, just as in Western comics, are sexualized to an extreme. That's leading to controversy, as more and more private companies and government agencies rely on such characters to promote Japan's image both at home and abroad.
A good example is Kizuna Ai (キズナアイ), a virtual reality YouTube star. Like her singing counterpart, Hatsune Miku, Kizuna-Ai doesn't exist outside of the digital realm. Even her name is designed to maximize cute appeal - a conjunction of "kinuza" (絆), or "bond", and "ai", which in this context can be read as both "love" and as the abbreviation for "Artificial Intelligence". Known simply as Ai, the 3D-rendered star's videos are subtitled in a number of foreign languages, which has helped grow her popularity outside of Japan.
Ai's popularity has led to the use of her image in a number of promotional tie-ups. Recently, NHK employed the figure in a series of videos on its site explaining the achievements of this year's Nobel Prize winners. That grabbed the attention of lawyer Oota Keiko, who vented on her Twitter about NHK's crass attempt to interest students in science with an anime babe.
NHK's Nobel Prize commentary site using this illustration makes me doubt my senses. The sexuality of women's bodies is often emphasized in this society, and used as an eye-catching gimmick, but NHK, of all places, should cut it out. I've written that there are few female award winners on this site, but I don't get the motivation here.
Oota's tweet - which has been re-tweeted over 1,600 times - sparked a firestorm of controversy. Many people agreed with Oota, while other commentators argued that there wasn't anything particularly "sexualized" about Ai's appearance.
Chida Yuuki, a professor of sociology at Musashi University, argued that Ai's appearance was the least of her problems. Ai's contribution to these instructional videos isn't substantive, she argues. It's limited to "aitzuchi" (相槌) - i.e. to simple back-channeling words of confirmation like "Yeah","umm..", "I see", etc.
The job apportioned to Kizuna Ai on this NHK site is fundamentally aitduchi. That's the part that's typically been allocated to women. In a sense, you can say it's a return to assigning gender roles.
(JP) Link: Is Kizunai Ai the Right Choice for NHK's Nobel Prize Commentary Site? The Internet Storm Rages (With Postscript)
ノーベル賞のNHK解説に「キズナアイ」は適役なのか？ ネットで炎上中【追記あり】（千田有紀） - Yahoo!ニュース
Are Anime Girls The New "Orientalism"?
One commentator went even further than Professor Chida. Writing for Gendai Media, Saeki Junko, a professor of comparative culture at Doshisha University in Kyoto, notes that characters like Ai are currently Japan's primary cultural export. She compares this to the way that, in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the West's mental image of Japanese women was the geisha - a mysterious-seeming figure who fascinated Western artists, but whose pale, frail beauty also fed into a myth of a Strong West holding power over a Weak East.
Professor Saeki argues this "Orientalism" never disappeared - it's just changed form:
But on the other hand, this way of thinking that objectifies women as the object of the sexual gaze, and through their frail existence puts them in a lower position than Westerners, is a construction of "Orientalism", or of the Strong West versus the Weak East, and it can't be gleefully cast off.
Even modern women working as real geishas probably feel uneasy about being purposefully being sexualized as "geishas".
The export of "cute" women as drawn in popular culture being exported abroad could be connected to this stereotype of Japanese women as immature and sexualized. In other words, there's a danger of it becoming the 21st century's "Orientalism".
(JP) Link: The "Kizuna Ai" Blow-Up...Thinking About the Representation of Women in Japanese Culture
Why Cute Characters Aren't the New Orientalism - A Contrary View
Professor Saeki makes clear she has nothing fundamentally against anime or idol culture. The issue, she argues, isn't whether people like to look at depictions of pretty women. "That's one's right, and it's a fact that it bears economic fruit." The issue, she argues, is the ensuing power relationship - the perpetuation of the stereotype of "the man who teaches" and "the woman who learns".
In this, Professor Saeki is echoing professor Chida's point. By putting Ai into a position where she's nothing but the "aitduchi girl". This, says Professor Saeki, is just repeating a set societal pattern.
Not everyone agrees with Professor Saeki's take, however. Writing for Blogos, programmer Koshian pushes back on Professor Saeki's thesis. His argument hinges around the concept of "moe" (萌え), or deep feeling for a specific character in an anime or manga. The push for characters who would inspire Moe, argues Koshian, came from shoujo manga (少女) - i.e., manga (written and illustrated primarily by women) that target women and young girls. Springboarding off of the Disney stylizations pioneered by the God of Manga, Tezuka Osamu, these authors explicitly created characters who resembled Western dolls.
Morever, Koshian argues, the move toward "kawaii heroines" wasn't a result of some sort of perversion, but a reaction against the realist style of used by authors such as Ikegamki Ryouichi, which reflected the serious, more politicized tone of Japan's youth at the time. Once Japan began to move out of this phase, people began to turn to attractive heroines - and they rendered them in the style employed by shojo authors. As a result, the depictions of people in anime and manga became more Western and more stylized.
(JP) Link: Why "Moe" Art Won't Become the New Orientalism
This, argues Koshian, is exactly how anime and manga gained international appeal:
Defining racial features were discarded, and we find more drawings which people from different countries could think of as people of their own country. It may be this elimination of the feeling of foreign-ness is behind titles such as Captain Tsubasa and Saint Seiya gaining international popularity.
As a result, moe culture is no longer just a Japanese phenomenon, but a worldwide artistic and cultural movement.
I can see the points of both sides on this topic. On the one hand, anime and manga culture as a worldwide movement isn't going away anytime soon. And there's nothing fundamentally problematic about either art form - which, as Koshian aptly points out, has evolved (and continues to evolve) over time.
On the other hand, it's hard to deny that the sexualized depiction of women in manga and anime hasn't gotten more brazen over the years. Indeed, several posts on Oota's Twitter feed submitted by other Twitter users contain shots of outright pornography visible from the street in Akihabara, the moe heart of Tokyo.
I think Professor Chida is right that the issue with Kizuna Ai is less about sexualization and more about the repetition of cultural patterns - i.e., the depiction of women as always being under men. With more and more Japanese women becoming incensed at their treatment in the workplace, it's natural that they would look begin to take a more jaundiced eye toward how women and girls are depicted in popular media. While I don't see moe culture changing fundamentally, I can imagine its more egregious excesses will begin to be curtailed as the women's rights movement in Japan continues to grow.
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.