Recently, Miu Suzaki and Ryuichi Kihara from Team Japan from the 2018 Pyeongchang Games performed to a music piece from the hit anime “Yuri!!! On Ice.”
The performance inspired mass media attention, evoking joy from thousands of fans of the show. The anime features a unique story, focusing a character named Yuuri Katsuki, a talented figure skater and his journey to the Grand Prix final with his skating coach and internally acclaimed athlete, Viktor Nikiforov.
The anime is also praised for featuring a prominent same-sex relationship between Yuuri and Viktor. While it is incredible that an anime like this could have received such international recognition, it also brings up the fascination of anime as it relates to LGBTQ + representation.
Often, what comes to mind when considering queer content in Japan are Yaoi and Yuri.
Yaoi, known as the Boys’ Love genre, focuses on the romantic/ homoerotic relationships between male characters, while Yuri focuses on those between female characters.
While both genres are popular in Japan, Yaoi and Yuri, especially the former, are often criticized for fetishizing same-sex relationships. Often created by straights creators for straight audiences, yaoi and yuri often embody heterocentric ideas, asserting one partner in a relationship as the dominant “masculine” partner and the other as the more passive “feminine” partner.
Within this are the commonly known terms such as Semê, referring to the “top” position in a sexual relationship, the more active and sexually aggressive partner, and Ukê, the “bottom” position, a passive and delicate partner.
Within both Japanese and American society, these genres have been criticized for failing to depict the reality of queer Japanese culture, often mimicking heteronormative gender roles as well as ignoring the realities of homophobia.
However, it would be impossible to solely judge queer content in Japanese media coming from a Western-biased perspective. Western and Eastern media, in regards to LGBTQ+ culture, manifest in unique ways, not always matching up with each other.
Michel DeSol and Haruku Shinazaki, authors of Edges of the Rainbow, a book documenting contemporary queer culture in Japan, wrote in an interview for GeeksOut discussing the differences between Japanese and U.S. queer culture.
“The most important are legal, even as civil partnerships are legal in some districts of Tokyo and some cities in Japan, marriage is still not legal, also for anti-discrimination legislation such as for housing and adoption. But also, cultural and historical, as Japan does not have a Judeo-Christian moral legacy in regards to sexuality and pleasure.”
In various ways Japan has created media that has shown to be extremely progressive in terms of LGBTQ+ representation.
Sailor Moon, a favorite among millennials, famous for girl power featuring an all-female team who fights the forces of evil, was also famous for one of anime’s most iconic lesbian couples, Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune.
Anime based on the works of manga artist Takako Shimura, such as Wandering Son and Aoi Hana, was famous for depicting openly transgender and lesbian characters.
“Yuri!!! On Ice” is considered a revolutionary piece of media, portraying a queer couple in ways both progressive for the West and the East.
While queer narratives from any culture can come with problematic themes and tropes, the existence of potent, nuanced queer stories from Japanese anime cannot be ignored in regards to LGBTQ + culture.