Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Japan's drastic shift towards acceptance of homosexuality -- Part I

-- Or, do not underestimate the combined power of popular culture and history.

I was looking at Pew polls the other day -- it's a wonderful repository of research on global attitudes, the best place to look when you want to know what a country is actually thinking, rather than what its politicians and celebrities are thinking. It shows the ripples of trending ideas moving through the culture-sphere, and it tells us where we might be heading.

I was looking at the , and I discovered this interesting shift of opinion in Japan's acceptance of homosexuality. The table is here, see for yourself:

If you notice, Japan experienced a phenomenal jump between the above-50s and those below that age in acceptance of homosexuality. Those above 50 gave 39% acceptance, while the immediate younger age group from 30-49 gave 71%. The youngest gave a predictable 83% Yes to accepting homosexuality, which in accordance with growth in acceptance across the world. Compare across other nations, there seem to be a huge change about half a century ago, that caused its people to swing towards accepting homosexuality.

The data is collected via phone calls in Japan, so I would hope that the confounding effect of how willing people are to speaking out would be diminished.

Another possible explanation is the influence of American presence after the war, looking at the jump in South Korea, but Japan has outdone both S. Korea and US in homosexuality acceptance, and China remain low so there's no "East Asian" unity on this effect.

So why on earth the phenomenal acceptance of homosexuality that put Japan on par with the more liberal end of the world opinion spectrum?

One interesting phenomena isn't worth a blog post -- two phenomena connected in a interesting way is.

So here is the other bit: the remaking of Sailor Moon.

I watched it as a child, dubbed and edited, years and years before I realized the wonder of watching anime in its unedited and japanese-original glory. Japanese voice caters are an entire league above their counterparts in another country. It's like having freshly squeezed orange juice after growing up drinking saccharine orange soda. (However, the new generation of voice actors/actresses who can rely on good looks to sell aren't as good as their predecessors, who made their names based purely on the ingenuity of their vocal cords)

I knew this was coming from the buzz in the anime-watching community, but the whole thing hit me in a very different way when I saw an article on , the least likely place I thought I'd find information about an upcoming remake of a childhood classic. I am with the writer in that us who watched Sailor Moon outside of Japan probably got a very adjusted version, but the point is not this.

The point is, it may come as a shock if you don't know what the anime industry is about, but the overt LGBT presence put Sailor Moon right smack in the middle of what mainstream mean for anime, even anime made explicitly for children (more on that later). I once thought Sailor Moon was a lone exception and hence so widely watched. Now I realize it's been sitting snugly with all its siblings, Saint Seiya to mention another, filled to brim with same-sex romance, gallant boyish girls, delicate effeminate boys, and flamboyant middle-aged drag queens that's the demographic staple of Japanese anime. To put simply, stereotypical anime has a lot of non-straight folks, and in a lot of them, neither the plot nor other characters seem to give a damn.

Even when there is plot exploration, it's to show how devastatingly tempting and delicious the same-sex love is. The watchers are taken for granted to side, of course, with the characters irresistibly entangled in this "forbidden affair", and cheer for them in their struggle to be together. There is a huge celebration of homosexual love as one that is unbound by social obligations and carnal desires (irony on this later), and hence entirely pure and innocent. Quite often but not always, the plot will throw in a twist in the form of marriage obligations, and cast heterosexual sex as filthy and derogatory for the protagonist, to further drive the nail home. And all of that is very substantial in anime, particularly in romance genre and particularly in popular anime.

In conventional narrative, the hero has a damsel in distress and a sidekick to help him. In anime world, the hero tries to save the maiden and ends up also falling for his sidekick.

The Gundam series and the Code Geass series are two popular franchise that fits exactly with this plot line, and the fans are religiously devoted to who they think the protagonist should bed -- his girl-crush or his better-than-best friend.

Another anime which defines modern anime subculture - Neon Genesis Evangelion gave us our heart-breaking Nagisa Kaworu, who goes all homoerotic on his clueless love interest, and is so dedicated he dies for him every time. The Japanese have elevated him to national popularity, and no one seem bothered by the gay-ness of it all.

Then there's the recent sensation, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which is true to the tradition of magic-girl shows, and hence entirely filled with girl-on-girl sparks enough to incinerate a forest. If that's not in-your-face enough, the recent movie has the protagonist (I'm assuming Homura is playing lead here) declaring her love for the girl of her life out loud for the whole world to hear. There is no talk about the legitimacy of lesbian love, there is much debate about who is the top, and speculations about how much girl-on-girl orgy will be needed to save the world.

I digress, but if you look beyond the mainstream anime, the examples are even more rampant. Of course there are the usual lesbian-for-male-audience material and the gays-for-female-audience material, but between that and the strictly-pure-and-platonic-only stuff, there's a whole healthy spectrum which mainly features non-straight gender identity and non-heterosexual relationship as an accepted part of the world-view.

Wikipedia tells me that anime as we know emerged first in the 1960s, and by 1980s we start to have the anime series which defined the genre. However, sexual diversity, chiefly homosexuality started as two separate romance genres in manga (yaoi=boys' love, yuri=girls' love) in the 1970s, and gradually moved into anime.

Put the maths together, 1970s was over 40 years ago, and in the survey, those born 49 years ago would have grown up in a society that created genres which epitomize homosexual romance as the 'purest' type of love possible. They would spend their teenage and adult years watching and reading mainstream anime and manga where homosexuality increasingly becomes a normal occurrence.

A friend of mine in Japan who is out to everyone in school and to his friends comments that Japan isn't homophobic; many people are just a bit intimidated by their own lack of experience and don't know how to socialize correctly with a homosexual person, just like how they are "scared" of foreigners and all sorts of people who's not typical. I wonder if this is really true, given the high acceptance rate.

To return to my initial query -- I suspect that what we see in Japan is a result of rolling back the Western sense of propriety Japan had right up to the War, returning to the sort of societal acceptance of sexual diversity that historic Japan is well-known for.

And what I was trying to say with Sailor Moon and the anime-industry is this -- the whole process is probably helped along massively by the blooming anime industry which presents a world-view where sexual diversity (homosexuality, bisexuality, gender fluidity, transsexuality etc) is the norm.

I'll continue with Part II on the historic bits, how that material gets regularly recycled in anime, how the shift that started in historical lore and moved into manga then into anime is now moving into the film and entertainment industry, and a bit of what things are like in Japan now.
Full Post

No comments:

Post a Comment