Japan has a ways to go in terms of LGBTQ+ rights—but its media reflects a wide range of progressive stories, shedding subtlety over time

Being trans in Japan is complicated. Despite a recent survey that showed that 87 percent of citizens want strengthened national LGBTQ+ rights, the government has been slow to reflect this sentiment. The growing pressure—though not yet affecting national law—is a sign of changing times for a culture that tends to avoid rocking the boat.

Despite the lag in legal action, manga and anime have soared ahead in terms of trans representation, particularly in comparison to other Japanese media. After all, manga that challenged gender norms existed as early as the 1960s: Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight features a cross-dressing noblewoman as its strong-willed protagonist, showing clear fluidity in gender roles. It wouldn’t be until 1978 that a manga would find commercial success with an explicitly transgender protagonist. That was Claudine (1978) by Riyoko Ikeda, which follows Claude de Montesse, a Frenchman born into a woman’s body. The explicit nature of Claude’s male identity was incredibly progressive, even today. But it can’t shake off the reality of its time period.

Claudine was also a tale of abject tragedy. Despite Claude’s charm and wit, he’s unable to change his fate—being unloved by the person he falls for. His love interest is a cis woman who rejects Claude because she still sees him as a woman; his story ends with suicide, painting a rather grim picture of the trans experience. The manga’s popularity proved that this story, despite its dark end, captivated Japanese readers. It was so successful, in fact, that it was reprinted through the 2000s, finding even more acclaim in Western countries as the art form went global.

Not all early trans protagonists met such tragic fates: Hisashi Eguchi’s Stop!! Hibari-Kun! (1981) follows Hibari Ozora, the daughter of a Yakuza boss, who was assigned male at birth. Hibari’s family treats her as a man, viewing her expressive femininity as a “perversion,” or a joke at her expense. At this point, you’re probably steeling yourself for an insensitive portrayal of trans women—but that’s not the case at all. Hibari herself is never treated as the butt of a joke. If anything, the way that other characters react to her existence makes it clear that they are the ones the audience is meant to laugh at. As a trans character, Hibari is unconventional because of how outwardly happy and drama-free her life is, despite the world misunderstanding her.

Eguchi has a fondness for the character of Hibari that goes deeper than surface-level pride for his work. In truth, she represented the artist’s inner world, inked onto paper. To quote Eguchi himself: “The ideal girl for me is the one I would have wanted to become if I was born a girl. It is not the girl I would dream of dating. It is really the frustration of not being born as a girl which fuels my drawings.”

Manga was an outlet for Eguchi to challenge the gender roles so firmly established by Japan. Even though, at the time, the government did not embrace the concept, trans identities already existed among many people—whether or not they were voiced. Eguchi, in his own way, was championing trans expression, even if society didn’t fully understand it at the time.

“The ideal girl for me is the one I would have wanted to become if I was born a girl. It is not the girl I would dream of dating. It is really the frustration of not being born as a girl which fuels my drawings.”

Speaking of gender envy, Ranma ½ (1987) is one of the most iconic gender-subversive anime of all time. With a simple splash of water, men could turn into women, and vice versa. Artist Rumiko Takahashi didn’t just challenge gender norms with this classic—she kicked them out to the curb. Although protagonist Ranma first sees the water as a “curse,” much preferring his original form, he eventually realizes that his identity isn’t tied to what his body looks like. Whether a handsome young man or a busty, redheaded girl, Ranma is indisputably Ranma. Having lived through the trials of the women of his time, he comes to understand how ridiculous stereotypical gender roles are.

Not all gender-subversive depictions were so progressive. Yoshihiro Togashi, the creator of Hunter x Hunter (1998), created the controversial character of Miyuki in YuYu Hakusho (1990). His harsh and transmedicalist portrayal showcases how distasteful ’90s queer humor could be, citing Miyuki’s penis as a sign of “half-assing being a woman and a man.” But Togashi’s later work, Level E (1995), was more accepting of its respective trans character, Mikihisa. His story is hauntingly human, and deeply sympathetic to the pain that trans men go through in their daily lives. Alien queens and heady sci-fi concepts aside, there’s no denying that Togashi developed a better understanding of the trans experience in the five years between these works. This evolution is indicative of how quickly times were changing. Old conceptions were being phased out. Trans people existed—in real life and in art—and they wanted to be seen and heard. They just needed the right spotlight: one that would prioritize humanity over spectacle.

In 2003, a law passed that would allow trans individuals to change their gender marker on legal documents. However, it came with the requirements of undergoing sex reassignment surgery and sterilization, as well as diagnosis with a mental disorder. Trans individuals could only be recognized at a tremendous cost. They would be seen as mentally-ill, with no right to bear children.

That same year, Satoshi Kon exposed the reality of marginalized groups in Japan with the character of Hana from Tokyo Godfathers (2003). Hana is a homeless, middle-aged woman, suffering from severe health issues. She’s also a caring den mother, who defends her loved ones with her life. Kon harshly portrays Japan’s tendency to ignore fringe members of society, criticizing the government for its lack of care. But despite his heartfelt portrayal of Hana, the real world wasn’t as understanding. She was largely referred to as a drag queen, rather than a trans woman, during the film’s promotion; she was also voiced by a cis male actor—it would take nearly two decades for an actual trans woman to take on her role.

“Trans people existed—in real life and in art—and they wanted to be seen and heard. They just needed the right spotlight, one that would prioritize humanity over spectacle.”

By this point, no manga or anime had adequately covered one often joked-about scenario—what happens when a cis male character finds out that the girl they’re dating is trans. Lovely Complex (2007) dealt with the issue in an unprecedentedly sensitive way: Seiko Kotobuki is the girliest of girls in her high school. The series’s main character, Otani, even dates her briefly. When he finds out that she’s trans, he’s shocked. Instead of leaving the scene as a “gender reveal” gag, as so many other anime and manga have done, Otani gets over his shock—but admits he only sees Seiko as a friend now.

Seiko understands. But from that point on, all the other characters refer to her as a girl without question. The show even tackles dysphoria, with one episode’s storyline focusing on Seiko’s voice cracking, leading her to take up her dead name again, and start presenting as more masculine. Her friends are so taken aback that they hold an intervention, and tell her that who she is inside matters more than what she looks and sounds like. Seiko is one of the most positive portrayals of a transgender Japanese character to-date. Her story does not end in tragedy like Claude de Montesse’s; she is not shamed by her family like Hibari; she isn’t destitute like Hana. Seiko’s gender identity is an aspect of her character, rather than its defining feature.

Acceptance of trans characters as “cute” was becoming more common within the anime fandom. While this descriptor was certainly better than the near-total bigotry of before, it turned out to be a double-edged sword. Fetishization became a rising problem in regards to MTF representation; trans characters were seen not as people, but as sex objects. Across anime, the inherent sexualization of women has always been a problem—but this was a different story altogether. Plenty of strong, cis heroines existed, but the same could not be said for their trans counterparts. This was a devolution: “Fuel for porn” or “butt of a joke” wasn’t much of a choice at all.

The character of Luka from Steins;Gate (2011) is an unfortunate example of this problem. Their androgyny is often exploited for comedic effect, invasively interrogated by the rest of the cast via non-consensual groping. Luka exists as a walking punchline, a “forbidden fruit” for the main character, Okabe, to test his sexuality against. The fetishization of Luka’s androgyny—understanding it as an “exotic quality,” rather than an intrinsic part of their identity—reflects a broader issue in trans media: the invalidation of gender nonconforming characters, under the guise of “acceptance.”

Anime and manga’s recent history reflects a diversity of stories—a turn for the better. The Bride Was a Boy (2016) is an autobiographical work that details the author’s (alias Chii) life, from childhood to her transition in her early adult years. It provides deep insight into the expectations inherent to living as a trans woman in the conformist culture of Japan—particularly speaking to how hard it is for a trans woman to find a partner who is both accepting of her, and willing to start a relationship.

“Her story does not end in tragedy like Claude de Montesse’s; she is not shamed by her family like Hibari; she isn’t destitute like Hana. Seiko’s gender identity is an aspect of her character, rather than its defining feature.”

In terms of anime, one of the most popular recent trans characters is Lily Hoshikawa from Zombie Land Saga (2018). Says Shigeru Murakoshi, the series’s composition writer: “Lily was born a boy. None of that matters to the members. Of course, everyone has their unique background and personality… Everyone readily accepts whatever differences [the other] might have.”

While MTF characters are quite prominent in manga nowadays, FTM representation remains exceptionally rare. The same sentiment exists in modern Japanese society. Even renowned works such as Wandering Son have received criticism for their handling of the FTM experience—where it’s treated as a “phase,” instead of a legitimate identity. That’s why recent works, such as To Strip The Flesh, Fire Punch, and Stars Align are so important.

The anime and manga communities house many bigots, and it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to change their minds—or phase them out. These individuals will listen to creators blatantly say that the characters they created are trans, and still try to spin it as a testament to Western influence ruining Japanese media. At the same time, today, the trans community has more allies than ever. Anime and manga are more open to showing transfolk as real characters. Gone are the days when writers had to be subtle with their support.

Anime and manga aren’t just massive industries within Japan. They’re global phenomenons, spotlighting stories that influence innumerable fans of the medium. This industry transcends borders, thanks to its propensity for universal stories. And young people make up over 75 percent of its market share. This demographic’s exposure to positive portrayals of trans characters is a huge win for visibility. My trans friends (aliases NightShade and Sapphire) are a testament to that fact: They found themselves through anime and manga. As regulars of the online community for years, they’ve watched support for their community grow. States NightShade, “I hope to see more respect for trans characters, and for anime and manga to treat them as more than their body and trans identity.”

Sapphire goes on: “I would say that my identity definitely relates to what attracts me to anime, particularly the stories that involve characters grappling with elements of their mental health or identity.”

These experiences are just a fraction of the sentiments shared by thousands of trans anime fans. Although the industry has fumbled in the past, it’s certainly changing for the better. After all, fiction is just a reflection of reality.