A Survey of Lesbianism and Mental Instability in Yuri

August 28th, 2017

We’ve looked at Yuri’s roots in lesbian social movements and Japanese girls’ literature, but there’s an aspect of our history we haven’t addressed.  Today we’re going to take a look at some series in which lesbianism is linked, either directly or indirectly, with an unstable mental state. There will be spoilers ahead, but mostly for 40 year-old series, so I don’t feel bad. Thanks to my wife and Erin Subramanian for their contributions to this essay!

I. Introduction

When Japan was opened to the west, the Japanese people adopted and adapted western fashion and technology quickly. The Japanese government, having found themselves thrust on the world stage, sent young people around the world to learn the science, technology and culture of countries with which they would now be dealing. (Not always with appropriate preparation, but some of those students returned to make significant contributions to Japanese education and culture, notably Yamakawa Sutematsu and Nagai Shige, the subjects of Janice P. Nimura’s book Daughters of the Samurai. 2016, New York: W.W. Norton.)

By the 1920s, Sigmund Freud was writing obsessively about human sexual development. His writings on the pathology of homosexuality strongly affected Japanese theories of psychiatry, as they did psychiatry in other countries. For Freud, female homosexuality was a pathological manifestation of masculinity, which he discussed in detail in a paper “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” (Freud, S. (1920). “A Case of Homosexuality in a Woman”. The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 1974, New York: Hogarth Press.and was always the fault of the father, although his own daughter, Anna Freud, was herself, quite probably a lesbian. This idea was adopted by psychiatrists around the world and has been remarkably resistant to change. It was the basis upon which homosexuality was made a criminal behavior and entered into Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders in the USA, and the International Statistical Classification of Disease and Related Health Problems used in Japan.

The shift from folklore to science in Japan was fast and furious. Japanese schools adopted western curricula, dress and customs, while scientists and medical professionals caught up with current western knowledge. Psychology and psychiatry bloomed and quickly pushed folk beliefs to the perimeter of life. A good example of the flattening of folk belief from worldview into concepts such as sublimation and projection can be found in Kyogoku Natsukhiko’s Kyogokudo novels, which are set in the mid-20th century and follow “atheist onmyouji,” Akihiko “Kyogokudo” Chūzenji. In The Summer of the Ubume, (姑獲鳥の夏1994, Tokyo: Kodansha. Translated into English in 2009, New York: Vertical. ), the erudite protagonist has cause to launch into dense, extended monologues on the emotional and psychological void caused by overturning of folk knowledge – which is accessible to everyone – and replacing it with scientific knowledge – which is accessible only to the few who are able to study it. In these murder mysteries, modern psychology is intertwined with and used to explain youkai lore. The second of Kyogoku’s books, Moryou no Hako (魍魎の匣, 1995, Tokyo: Kodansha.) a lesbian relationship between two high school girls become mixed up with the plot of a serial killer who is the “goblin” of the title. (This novel was made into an anime series in 2008 with animation by Madhouse, in which the Kyogukodo character is free to expound his theories of religion, philosophy and psychology.)

In Western literature of the 20th century, lesbians were portrayed as emotionally unstable, predatory, unhealthily obsessed by sex, and violent. An entire genre of literature that we now call Lesbian Pulp Fiction was based around this idea that attraction to another woman was a descent into madness and violence, ending in death or prison. The back cover of Intimate Story of a Lesbian, (1965, New York: Imperial.) “as told to Doris Hanson” says,

“Lesbianism,” she told Miss Hanson, “at first repulsed me. But, like a disease, it grew to possess me, completely”… “Brought out” by a jealous, domineering woman executive, Maria was sponsored in a career….[which led her into] a world of sexual excess…. Maria’s intimate story of life in the hidden society of women without men may horrify and shock….It could only have been written by one who lived and became….


This kind of hyperbolic language shifted as the century wore on.  The “Third Sex,” used as a term for homosexuality from movies and books in the mid-20th century, stuck around through the 1970s, when lesbians stood up politically and refused to be shoved back into the closet. (In fact, the phrase “come out of the closet” as a gay rights slogan was coined by Lesbian Pulp author Artemis Smith.)  

Homosexuality was famously removed from the 7th editon of the DSM-II by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 (1974, American Psychiatric Association.) In Japan , the classification of homosexuality as a disease lasted a few decades longer. “… “homosexuality” was removed by the World Health Organization from the list of “mental disorders” in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th revision published in 1993 (which was adopted by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare the following year).” (Japan: Human Rights in Law and Discrimination against LGBT People in Japan, 2017 Amnesty International.) By 1995, homosexuality was no longer considered a disease in Japan, but it’s taken a few more decades for manga artists to notice.

The idea that lesbianism is a pathology, as posited by Freud, lingers in popular media where lesbianism also functions as a fetish for readers. Manga and anime are pop culture media, but frequently published and produced to fit within socially conservative framework (whether to sell to the widest possible market or to cater to a specific demographic or just to protect one’s own industry from government intrusion,) which means that these 20th century associations linger on well into the 21st century. “Everyone knows” that lesbians are predatory, or emotionally unstable, although it’s been shown that with the simple addition of laws that put gay relationships on a more stable footing, suicide and depression decrease


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2. Survey of Emotionally Unstable Lesbians in Yuri, 1938-2017

Over-intense emotional desire is portrayed as negative in girl’s literature as early as the 1930’s. In Kawabara Yasunari and Nakazato Tsuneko’s Otome no Minato, (乙女の港, 1938, Tokyo: Jitsugyo no Nihonsha.) Kastuko desires to be Michiko’s onee-sama to the point of breaking her up with Youko. It takes a crisis in which Youko is Katsuko’s savior to get her to back off.  This behavior is reflected fully in the relationships in 1957 manga Sakura no Namiki, (さくら並木) by Takahashi Makoto. (2006, Tokyo: Shogakukan Creative.)

Possessive jealousy is as far as these relationships go until Yamagishi Ryhoko’s 1973 manga, Shiroi Heya no Futari (白い部屋のふたり, 1971, Tokyo: Shueisha.) In this story, which I consider to be the first Yuri manga, Simone is presented to us as high strung, violent, and tempestuous. Having been abandoned by uncaring family, her mental instability is associated with her passionate nature and presented as part of a whole. Simone falls in love with Resine because she is unstable and emotional and is, we are meant to understand, looking for affection anywhere she can find it.

This theme is repeated again in Maya no Sourestu (摩耶の葬列, 1972, Tokyo: Shueisha.) by Ichijou Yukari in 1972. In this story, Reina is spoiled, but neglected by her father, and Maya is part of  a family whose history is filled with lies and desire for revenge on Resine’s family. Even should they find a way out of this labyrinth, it turns out that they are half sisters. One must die so the other may marry a man she cannot love. Put a pin in this story, we’ll come back to it.

In Riyoko Ikeda’s 1975 work, Oniisama e  (おにいさまへ, 1975, Tokyo: Shueisha.)  Rei, known as Saint-Juste, is emotionally abused by her beautiful and influential half-sister, Fukiko. Fukiko’s emotional abuse occasionally turns physical, and Rei takes to drugs for solace or anesthesia. Her conflicted feelings about Fukiko  are surfaced when the protagonist Nanako becomes involved. Fukiko attempts to manipulate Nanako, but is unsuccessful, which gives Rei the emotional wherewithal to reject Fukiko. Ultimately, Rei turns her attention to Nanako and, we might expect, recovery and health, but is killed in a tragic and pointless accident. This is a key work, not only because the anime is a masterwork in and of itself, but because Rei turns away from a wholly unhealthy relationship with her exceptional half-sister towards the wholesome influence of the protagonist and is seeking a healthier friendship (or, maybe, even, romance) with her before her death.

In 1978 manga Claudine…!  (クローディーヌ…!, 1978, Tokyo: Shueisha.) by Riyoko Ikeda, we are presented with the “case” of Claudine, a woman who dresses as a man and falls in love with women. This manga can with completely validity be read as a story of a transgender man or of a masculine lesbian. Because Ikeda’s portrayal is not as fully formed as we in the 21st century might desire, Claudine’s expressed wish to be a man, can be accepted at face value or also mean that they wish the privilege of a man, that is to love women and wear men’s clothes. In either case, Claudine’s story is told to us as a “case” from the perspective of their psychiatrist who is treating Claudine for depression and suicidal thoughts.  When Claudine has, yet again, been abandoned by a lover who wants a more “normal” life, Claudine commits suicide. This story is forward-thinking in the sense that the psychiatrist suggests that Claudine was not the sick one here, but that society is at fault.

Applause (アプローズ) (1981-2, Tokyo: Shueisha) by Ariyoshi Kyouko is an epic story which traces the relationship of two young women, Shara and Junaque from a private girl’s school in Belgium to Broadway in New York City. In the beginning arc it is Junaque who admits her feelings of love and desire to Shara, but is rejected. Junaque, consumed by rejection and fear of her “inverted” nature, marries a man she cannot love, and dives into an increasingly troubled life as an alcoholic and emotionally unstable adult. Shara meets Junaque (now called Shelle) once again as an adult and their affair starts right back up. Unlike Shelle, however, Shara is unwilling to hide her love, causing the two of them to have a tempestuous on-again-off-again affair that ultimately ends ambiguously, with either their death or escape, depending on the reader’s need.

By 1993, Fujimura Mari presents another example of the emotional instability that accompanies a lesbian relationship  in Futtemo Haretemo (降っても晴れっても) (1993, Tokyo: Shueisha). Nagi and Hiro are two classmates who develop a deep, almost obsessive, definitely possessive, attraction between them. Nagi and Hiro’s relationship is dysfunctional and they often act in ways that are harmful to themselves and the other. Suicide and violence are a palpable presence in this story, linked directly with the relationship. At the end they are presented as happy and whole when they meet after years, having married men and moved on with their lives. This was a low point in presentation of lesbian love in shoujo manga, inextricably linking mental unwellness and lesbian desire, which could be “fixed” by heterosexuality.

In Haruno Nanae’s Pieta  (ピエタ) (2000, Tokyo: Shueisha.) Rio is presented to us as a troubled teen, threatening to commit suicide. Her father and step-mother claim to have no idea why she’s like this, but readers can see that she’s the victim of vicious emotional abuse by her step-mother and disinterest by a neglectful father. Her psychiatrist worries that her family’s influence will impede her mental health. Sahoko, a classmate, who was herself troubled, and Rio develop a relationship that ultimately brings healing to both of them. With the help of their psychiatrists, who function as surrogate parents, they move in together. The romantic relationship between Rio and Sahoko is not presented as the cause of their mental instability nor because of it, but as the thing that helps them find wholeness and stability. This was not the first Yuri romance to have a happy ending, but it was a sea change in the presentation of mental unwellness linked with lesbianism. Here, being lesbian is what heals, rather than what hurts.

When Sun Publishing first put out Yuri Shimai (百合姉妹 2003, Tokyo: Sun Publishing) magazine, the first Yuri-focused manga magazine in 2003, they included works from classic and well-known Yuri manga artists, including Kita Konno, creator of Himitsu no Kaidan (秘密の階段. 1995, Tokyo: Kaiseisha.)  Her stories for Yuri Shimai and it’s successor Yuri Hime, (百合姫 2005-present, Tokyo: Ichisjinsha.) , now published monthly as Comic Yuri Hime  (コミック百合姫), tended to focus on incestuous and abusive relationships. “Under the Rose”, later reprinted in Yuri Hime Selection, (百合姫Selection, 2007, Tokyo: Ichijinsha.) was a good (bad) example of the kind of automatic integration of lesbianism with all the unhealthy things possible.

In 2004, the surprisingly influential Kannazuki no Miko (神無月の巫女, 2004, Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten.) debuted. In every version of Kaishaku’s series, accomplished, classical Japanese beauty, Chikane is conflicted from the beginning between her fate as a lunar priestess and her affection and desire for her partner, solar priestess Himeko. In the anime, her emotional instability is directly linked to her physical desire for Himeko, while in the manga, Chikane rapes Himeko to, ostensibly, make Himeko not trust her. In both cases, it’s her desire for Himeko that causes the emotional conflict. 

At the same time, (not an accidental happenstance, as the Yuri-ish and genre-defining Light Novel series Maria-sama ga Miteru (マリア様がみてる) had increased interest once more in stories of girls in private schools, and the new Yuri manga magazines and anthologies were using that setting compulsively) the anime  Mai HiME (舞-HiME, 2004-5, Tokyo Sunrise.) was hitting the airwaves. In this series, Fujino Shizuru is shown to be obsessed with Kuga Natsuki. She’s not hiding her desire, but is also unable to come out and express herself. When she can no longer control herself and comes to Natsuki late at night, kissing, possibly assaulting, her, Shizuru is interrupted by fellow HiME. Shizuru completely loses her grip on sanity and is, clearly, shown to be an example of the pathology of lesbian desire.)

Honorable mention needs to go here to Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (魔法少女リリカルなのは 2004, Tokyo, Geneon.),  the anime (and later, manga,) franchise that also began in 2004. In this ongoing narrative, the emotionally and physically abused Fate Testarossa, is rescued by Takamachi Nanoha. Fate and Nanoha remain friends during Fate’s incarceration, and, when she is released, they move in together. The two create an alternate family that grows in every subsequent series. Both Fate and Nanoha adopt children who have been rejected by their families. They are seen to share a bed, and once again we are given to believe that their relationship is the thing that is the most stable part of their lives.

Yet, at the same time, we’re presented with Yaya from Strawberry Panic! (ストロベリー・パニック!, 2003-2007, Tokyo: Mediaworks.) who is the first 21st century example we have of a character said to have been “neglected by her father” as both a stand-in for abuse, as her behavior maps to a sexually abused child, and also directly stated to be the cause of her lesbianism.  Yaya’s behavior is highly sexualized, possessive, obsessive and she borders on the edge of mental breakdown until her “love” for Hikari is subsumed in her desire to see Hikari’s relationship with Amane realized. The series supplies Yaya with a potential partner in a younger student but, notably, a student that has shown us a strong will and personality, so we may be confident that, if something develops, it will be consensual, thus indicating that Yaya has herself been made whole and functional.

In 2007, Nakamura Kiyo (writing as Nakamura Ching,) took a completely different tack with GUNJO (羣青, 2007-2012, Tokyo: Shogakukan), a true-crime-like story of a woman who had been overtly sexually abused by her father and husband, and the lesbian who killed the husband for her. In contrast to the traditional narrative elements in which the abuse (or “neglect”) are related to the lesbianism, the lesbian in this series walks away from a functional, happy life to help the abused and neglected school acquaintance. “Lesbian-san” (the characters are not named through most of the series) is not the abused person, but neither is she emotionally stable, as she and the overtly emotionally unstable “Megane-san” are on the run after a murder “Lesbian-san” has committed. 

By 2010, Lesbianism was much more rarely linked directly with mental instability. In Ebon Fumi’s Blue Friend (ブルーフレンド 2010-12, Tokyo: Shueisha.)  the premise begins with a well-worn trope of an emotionally troubled girl befriended by a popular girl, and the possessive, unhealthy relationship between them, exacerbated by bullying at school. This relationship is something the two girls manage to shift from unhealthy and manipulative to a healthy friendship that is positive for both of them. Once again, we see a way through the instability to healing. After 7 years of a Yuri-focused manga magazine, readers were starting to see a more general shift in the narrative of the mentally unstable lesbian.

In 2011, we see a slightly different version again of the link between obsessive affection/desire and emotional instability in Puella Magi Madoka Magica (魔法少女まどか☆マギカ, 2011, Tokyo. Shaft.) In the serialized TV anime, we meet Homura after many repeated cycles of existence, in which her one desire is to save Madoka. This obsession with the other girl has warped her (as has her repeated failure to save Madoka.) Nonetheless, Madoka is able to break past Homura’s emotional armor and remind her why she’s doing this. Their mutual affection allows Madoka to break out of the cycle. This is rewritten in a subsequent movie, in which Homura’s obsession continues to affect her negatively until she becomes the thing Madoka must fight. Her sacrifice is the only way to end the continuing cycle…suicide is still the only way out for the obsessed lesbian.

As the Yuri market has developed, and series more generally showed functional, happy lesbian relationships both in shoujo-manga fantasy spaces, such as Shirosawa Marimo’s  Nobara no Mori no Otome-tachi(野ばらの森の乙女たち 2010-11, Tokyo: Kodansha.) or GIRL FRIENDS by Morinaga Milk (ガールフレンズ 2006-2010, Tokyo: Futabsaha) and in more real world-settings, such as Sweet Blue Flowers by Shimura Takako (青い花 2004-13, Tokyo: Ohta Publishing) or Nishi Uko’s very adult, very realistic, Collectors (コレクターズ 103-16, Tokyo: Hakusensha.), this use of “neglect” as cipher for abuse will come back as a plot complication. 

In 2012, Saburouta began serializing Citrus (シトラス  2012, Tokyo: Ichijinsha.) a story about two sisters by marriage who find themselves physically attracted to one another.  Mei, who reflects the classic Japanese beauty, and Yuzu, who represents the outgoing popular girl, gavotte around one another (and in and out of other complicated and often emotionally manipulative) relationships. Mei’s behavior, like Yaya’s, is much more consistent with a survivor of sexual abuse, but once again, we are told it’s because her father “neglected” her. We can be forgiven in this case for remembering the Freudian pathologizing of lesbianism as being the fault of the father. We equally remember Maya of Maya no Souretsu, whose desire for the “neglected” daughter of a man she loathed drove her to suicide.

We must end here with a mention of Kodama Naoko’s NTR: Netsuzou Trap (捏造トラップ 2014-present, Tokyo: Ichijinsha.) While the characters aren’t explicitly described as suffering abuse or “neglect,” it becomes apparent even to a casual reader or viewer, that Hotaru’s behavior can be traced back to abuse.  Kat Callahan of Anime Now says, “the series seems to deal with a very important issue: the cycle of abuse, and specifically, sexual abuse.”

Everything old is new again…and we’re still stuck with this ugly idea that women are lesbians because they were “neglected” by their father and that this neglect causes not only lesbianism, but manipulative, unhealthily obsessive pathological lesbianism.

Freud would be so pleased.

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49 Responses

  1. Very educational, if depressing, read. The flow was really good, too: as soon as I read “this use of “neglect” as cipher for abuse” I thought “Ooohhh, that sheds a lot more light on why Citrus is problematic, doesn’t it.” Which, of course, was the very next paragraph.

    • Thank you so much. I worked very hard to create a readable flow for it. That is indeed exactly why Citrus is problematic.

    • Space Sheep says:

      ‘Neglect’ doesn’t have to be a stand-in for abuse… it is a form of abuse. Some say it’s the most profound form. Like what happened to Sawachika Eri from School Rumble.
      Yes, Freud was a creep… talking about things like ‘penis envy’, something was definitely wrong with his head.
      Next, incest is not necessarily ‘unhealthy’ or w/e. It’s like any more ther relationship.
      Dismissing Yaya’s feelings for Hikari as “love” (with quote marks) is wrong. Her vicarious obsession with HikarixAmane doesn’t subsume anything, because this obsession is the unheqlthy and self-destructive thing, by going against her real feelings.
      Also, do try to remember Chikane’s motivation was *to save Himeko’s life*.

  2. Will says:

    A really great analysis! It’s rather depressing how the trope of a lesbian needing to have an “excuse” for being that way was until relatively recently (of course not just in Japanese fiction since obviously a lot of the same tropes were in Western pop culture as well).

    • Thanks. It’s important to see that, even without Christian morality imposed on the culture, Japan pathologized lesbianism. The country took a different path there, but LGBTQ folks are still under that burden.

  3. Cryssoberyl says:

    Thanks for this retrospective. Our opinions disagree on some points, but this was certainly a walk down memory lane for me. It’s amazing how much “yuri history” there is now; I count myself a very fortunate person to have arrived on the metaphorical scene in the late 90s, and been able to bear witness to the flowering of the modern yuri era. The story is still being written – hopefully forever more.

    As for Japan’s attitudes about and depictions of lesbians, maybe I’m wrong, but I feel a lot of progress has been made in the last 20 years, especially for a culture that so values homogeneity and tradition. The amazing thing about this kind of positive change is that it can only take a few bold and courageous examples to redirect the flow of popular depictions in a healthier direction. Once more, let us honor Haruka and Michiru for being one of these – as, I feel, is Nanoha as well.

    Although now that I think about it, I’m surprised you didn’t bring up Utena. Anthy’s story is certainly at least partly about growing beyond and leaving behind both a history of abuse and a currently abusive relationship for a healthier emotional state, though of course the situation is so much more complex and multilayered than that makes it sound. (Maybe you didn’t feel it was sufficiently overtly “lesbian”, in the series at least, to merit including here.)

    • I thought about adding Anthy, but the article was not about abuse and lesbianism, but mental instability. It has always seemed to me that Anthy was the most sane person at Ohtori.

  4. Maverynthia says:

    I think it should be mentioned with the influx of Western culture, yuri also shifted from being aimed at women to being aimed at men. I want to say it was around the 2000s but I’m not exactly sure. Using Nanoha (a spin-off of an eroge) and Madoka as example, the girls in them are ‘damaged’ for the purpose of the perceived ‘oniisan’ (older brother) to want to protect and ‘fix’ them.
    So it’s shifted into a voyeurism for men who want to fix girls from how it was in the 70s/80s where it was aimed at women and was part of a ‘complex plot’. Basically, ‘good girls don’t become this’ is what I’m getting from the way it’s portrayed.
    It’s a definite tonal and audience shift that has creeped it’s way into media.
    Probably should be mentioned that Freud turned out to be a fraud and that he spun the accounts of his patients abuse at the hands of Freud’s colleagues (their fathers) against them and twisted it into what we see today. Thanks Japan for not getting the memo that all of that Freud stuff was a pile of garbage.

    • Except where it wasn’t. The 2004 crop of anime was most male-focused, but almost everything else mentioned, was shoujo or josei. So that doesn’t quite fly. Kita Konno’s abusive incestuous lesbian sisters, for instance are by and for women. It’s what she likes to write. Once we pass 2010, the distinction becomes meaningless. with Yuri Hime and other Yuri magazines, Yuri is created for Yuri fans, not for women or men.

      • Cryssoberyl says:

        And with that, let me also thank you Erica, for vocally and consistently exploding the “yuri’s made for men now people!” myth that is constantly bandied about by people – usually male themselves – with more self-righteousness than actual knowledge of Japan’s yuri culture and fanbase.

        No, sorry. Women also enjoy kinky, tropey stuff, and believe it or not, it’s possible to enjoy a spectrum of yuri works without falling into people’s glibly rehashed fan stereotypes. I personally enjoy both thoughtful, tasteful, true-to-life accounts of lesbian experiences AND cheerfully unambitious fluff/erotica at times.

        Please let this bit of agenda-driven misinformation die. Your “tonal and audience shift” is a figment of your imagination, conjured by erroneous ideas about what you think female creators and readers want/like, and seeking an answer to the question, “why isn’t yuri more like what I think it should be, instead of what it is”. For a lot of women, yuri is exactly what it should be – because they made it that way.

        (Sorry to get on my soap box Erica, but this one’s a severe pet peeve of mine. Hope you’ll forgive the rant.)

        • Not need to apologize, you’re welcome to rant. It’s lazy thinking that ignores the reality of the manga market.

          At Flamecon I was showing the Kase-san animation clip. It has unrepentant service, but the audience of LGBTQ people and friends laughed understanding that it’s not just showing Kase-san’s bra under a wet shirt – it was showing Yamada awakening to feelings she had never considered because of that. It’s bog-standard industry service, but also not, because it serves a purpose in the story. Those of us who had been there got it. And the people who want service get their service. It serves more than one function. And publishing is not run by 4 years olds who need things to be a dichotomy. Either/or is not an option in a sales environment.

    • Zefiris says:

      I am not quite sure that western culture had ANY specific impact on yuri created by Japanese people in the 2000s.

      I sure don’t see any proof or even hint of such an influence. In fact, a lot of the 2000s ~for guys~ anime actually *actively contradict your theory*.

      One of those, the above mentioned Kannazuki no Miko, sure has a fairly unhinged lesbian character that does really terrible things. And there’s bad fanservice, including underwear shots, shower angsting, and naked hugs in space.
      And yet the series is not about “fixing” anyone, nor about some onii-san coming to the rescue. Quite the opposite, romantically, the male self insert does explicitely, both in story and by word-of-author, *not* get the girl, and what saved one girl from self inflicted damnation was the love from another.

      I really can’t think of any example of the story trend you’re identifying. The yuri manga I buy and read is completely and utterly devoid of this.

      Literally the only oniisan character in yuri I can think of is from Oniisama e, a manga from the 80s with an anime from 1991. Did this trend die before it existed?

      • > I am not quite sure that western culture had ANY specific impact on yuri created by Japanese people in the 2000s.

        Nor do I make that argument. I point out an effect of 20th century cultural shift that creates a specific circumstance that is later used as a trope.

        Are you asking me about the oniisan character? It’s entirely irrelevant to the issue of the mental unstable lesbian.

        The Yuri manga you read *now* is devoid of mentally unstable lesbians because many creators, readers and fans have shifted the industry.

  5. Bruce P. says:

    This is an outstanding article, informative and excellently crafted. Thanks for your work on it.

  6. Sara Auttenberg says:

    I sure wish psychoanalysis fell out of use in popular culture when it fell out of use as a major scientific approach to psychology. It’s contributed so many dangerous misunderstandings of human psychology and so little of actual scientific value.

    It’d be nice to see more respectful, well researched portrayals of mentally ill lesbian characters instead of hollywood mental illness used as a tool to explain away a character’s sexuality and/or portray being gay as dangerous, too. Then again, that’s hard enough to find in Western media, so…

    • In the grander scheme of things 100 years isn’t that long. Psychoanalysis is falling out of treatment guidelines for actual mental disorders, so we’re getting there.

      To be honest, if I had a psychiatrist or psychologist who insisted on psychoanalysis, I would assume they were a perv.

  7. Trosbie says:

    This is a well-written article, but I disagree with a few points.

    Firstly, the portrayal of “mentally unstable” lesbians is never the issue. There are plenty of stories with unhinged straight people, but nobody claims or would even think that they are “straight” because of some same-gendered abusive-related event.

    There is such a thing as viewing/reading a piece of entertainment, and coming to a very logical conclusion, that this doesn’t apply to an entire demographic or even beyond entertainment.

    I think we should acknowledge the fact that due to how heterocentric society is, there will be people just simply fishing for an excuse to vilify lesbians (or gays). Even if one magically deletes all “mentally unstable” lesbian portrayals, this won’t change until the deeper fundamental thinking is altered.

    Which brings me to the next point. And that is the demographic of the audience, which the article touched on. Negative portrayals are really largely created/aimed towards a wider het/fetish audience. In order words, is it any surprise that they wind up being “mentally unstable”?

    The het/fetish audience is never interested in “genuine” Yuri/Lesbian romances. They are okay/maybe okay with lesbian themes as long as it’s within certain boundaries, and especially portrayed as an “exotic” piece. They do not want to see anything equivalent to “genuine” or “healthy”, because they think two women should not be together in the first place.

    And they won’t change their minds, because unlike the ignorant/impressionable, this is deliberate.

    On the other hand, a truly great (and obvious) key is for people to get on in, and create content that is positive and/or what you want to see. The article mentions that the lesbian social movements in Japan helped kick-started Yuri manga. Is there then, a regular Yuri/Lesbian romance (including non-anime/manga works) “industry” (for at least 10 years) that creators completely create what they want on a regular basis, without any care at all to aim anything at the het/fetish audience?

    If not, then it’d be interesting to take a look at the reasons why. Now, if someone says it’s a culture/govermental issue, I feel, it’s really a bit of a cop-out.

    Because, while it’s popular to talk about homophobia in Japan, what most don’t know is that the vast non-western (minus Taiwan) world has it far worse then them.

    Yet, in one or two of these countries, they have their own Yuri/Lesbian romance “industry” on-going for 10 years+ now where content is released on a regular basis. While they certainly aren’t the same as western content (style-wise), they are the total domain of the creators, and not for the benefit/of no care at all to the het/fetish audience. Thus, these “mentally unstable/abuse portrayals resulting in lesbianism” vastly do not exist right from the start.

    To sum it up, a vast variety is better than a zero-sum approach. A lot of critics like to act as if only Lesbian mainstream created shows matter enough to be slammed (or praised), while other content are just handwaved away (no matter what they do), as they aren’t seen by enough eyeballs. It’s pretty intellectually dishonest, but it’s way too common a thinking.

    • Your points aren’t so much “disagreements” as they are merely differing opinion on what you might have included had you written this. This is not an article about homophobia in Japan, but a list of examples of a single stereotype. I encourage you to write the article you would have preferred to read, since this was not an essay on homophobia in Japan in the past or present.

      • Trosbie says:

        Except that I was talking about the reasons behind the “mentally unstable” stereotype. If the fundamentals aren’t changed, you will either be writing the same article 10 years from now, or they will still persist.

        I also feel that if there are enough positive portrayals, negative ones won’t have that much impact either.

        However, I might be mistaken, and that this article isn’t actually meant to be critical about the “mentally unstable” stereotype, but rather just poking fun at it, like what many do. If so, I apologize (I certainly need to improve my sense of humor!).

      • Trosbie says:

        I forgot to add that I’m also surprised that you think homophobia in Japan (or elsewhere) has nothing to do with the creation of the “mentally unstable” stereotype (since you made it clear, that any talk of homophobia has “nothing to do with the article”). Because that is how the article itself seems to be framed. If not, then what is your consensus for the underlying causes?

        • I strongly suggest that if you’d like to see an article on how homophobia in Japan affects this specific trope then I encourage you to write it. I wrote a very specific article that does not touch upon the valid issues you bring up because they are not what the article was about. It was – quite specifically – a survey of series that provided examples of a trope. I look forward to reading your article on the why and how the trope developed and how current homophobia is related. Have a very pleasant day.

  8. Verso Sciolto says:

    Trosbie, I don’t know if you’ve read “Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan” nor do I know how Sharon Chalmers’ book/study has been received by Okazu readers and contributors in general. Posting about her work here may sound like an appeal to authority among people whose own lives already provide enough reference points and authority of their own to know that portrayals in media such as manga do matter. It is an issue how women attracted to women are portrayed. Other issues exist but this is certainly one of them. A quote from one of the Japanese women Chalmers spoke to always comes to mind whenever psychoanalysis, psychiatric and medical literature etc are mentioned and I like to share this brief glimpse from Mayumi’s experiences whenever representation in manga or anime comes up. Slightly abbreviated quote, from page 25:

    “When I started to wonder whether or not I was a lesbian, I started to read books on psychology and psychiatry to do with lesbians. I also found out a bit by reading manga [comics] written for junior and senior high school girls.”

    Based on “Mayumi’s experience alone it is already possible to address your first sentence since she confirms that the association of lesbians with mental instability is an issue. Whether those portrayals are themselves rooted in something else too can be examined as well, as Erica invited you to do, but the reality is that people who may not have had many other places to turn to, form(ed) a self image based on the way the medical establishment portrayed women attracted to women and manga played a role in at least one woman’s search for information – manga played a role in the shaping of her self-perception. It is very much relevant to know that other voices emerged alongside the images of mental illness in such portrayals.

    Someone, somewhere will be helped by the compilation of the list in Erica’s essay too. Helped by the positive, stereotype breaking stories, mentioned therein, imo. I know that you acknowledge that and “never the issue” may be too strong a sentence to begin your list of points. It should also be clear that this latest essay sits within a larger body of work on Okazu. 15 years worth of writing in which you’ll probably find some of your points addressed. Always more room for further exploration but your comment seems to me slightly unfair since the author of the essay you address has written quite a lot and -on this site especially- didn’t need to introduce all the other issues faced by women exploring their identity before adding this essay about one aspect to her body of work…

    Not sure if what I just wrote needed to be said after Erica’s own response to your comment. Hope I’m not sounding too defensive of someone quite capable of defending herself – defense may already be too strong a word for what I’m doing since it assumes certain behaviour on your part – but there it is, and here we are…

    In closing and not the reason I came here today – lighter note meant as a slight distraction – under an illuminating survey. The Kase-san series will have more animation coming out in 2018 and before that there is “Himawari to Kase-san” the second instalment in the “Yamada to Kase-san” continuation manga. Alongside.

    • Cryssoberyl says:

      A great book and a favorite of mine, although it’s important to note that, having been released 15 years ago now (2002), it is perhaps somewhat past its ability to speak with currency to the issues and mindsets of women-loving women in present day Japan – though still an excellent and invaluable resource for its time, especially for those of use on the outside seeking to look in.

      • I’m not sure it’s irrelevant for being only 15 yrs old. People are assigned The Third Sex in college courses, but I take your point. As we all know there is no such thing as a “lesbian community” when it comes to issues of life as a lesbian…there are only individual experiences. ^_^

    • Excellent news Verso!

      It’s pretty common for folks who aren’t familiar with Okazu to read an essay here and point out that it didn’t cover something tangential. ^_^

    • Trosbie says:

      Verso, thank you for your long and insightful reply to me! I do appreciate it! Allow me to address some of your points.

      What I feel is that, it is equally important (if not more so) to look at the cause of “mental instability”/negative portrayals. Because these portrayals don’t magically happen out of thin air. In other words, it’s not the portrayals themselves are the problem, but why people choose to create these portrayals.

      As I’ve outlined, main causes are homophobia/heterocentricity and an audience who actually wants to see these portrayals as entertainment.

      For homophobia/heterocentricity, there are definitely solutions, although it’s not something that happens overnight. Thankfully, great progress has been made, where science and society has now debunked a lot of myths regarding being lesbian or gay.

      For the audience issue, short of mass censorship, you can’t really stop people from wanting to purposely view something a certain way, even when they have been told otherwise. So, a very good counter to it, is to create many other different products and have them easily accessible.

      Which is why I asked if Japan has such an “industry” (including non anime/manga and/or non commercial-aimed anime/manga) , where there is a regular production of goods. People that are simply creating Yuri/lesbian art and entertainment (largely fiction) for the genuinity of it, and not keyly for mass-market sales, for example.

      I took a look at Yuricon’s articles/essays, and while they are excellent, do not touch on this particular subject. They are mainly analysis, critic and official views on the mainstream anime/manga market (Yuri) as a whole, and also includes important non-fiction real-life Japanese lesbian voices (that while it’s important, but as you can see, it’s not the subject either).

      Japan’s key anime/manga market (including Yuri) is a very highly targeted, mass-marketed business market. Anyone (regardless of gender or orientation) who wants to do business with it, has to go with that approach.

      Let me try to explain what I mean, using the non-western “industry” I was talking about earlier. In a simple break-down, there are 3 levels of entertainment there.

      1st level –
      Very mainstreamed produced Movies, TV shows, Books, Manga.
      Any lesbian or Lesbian-esque characters are 90% always negatively portrayed. Mental instability, lesbian conversion..etc.. what have you not.

      2nd level –
      Produced Books, Manga & Games (wider appeal)
      Now we are getting Yuri on it’s own here. They range from light-hearted to darker stuff. Light-hearted stuff is very welcome from everyone, including lesbian fans. However, due to the wider appeal, Yuri here is exclusively limited to Seishun settings, characters and escapism fantasy. Personally, I love these settings too. But if you want anything more, you won’t find it here. There are also the same negative portrayals from the 1st level, in some of the darker items.

      3rd level –
      Original Novels, other types of shows, some manga, anime/manga artistry/shots (Yuri aimed exclusively)
      These are adult Yuri/Lesbian Action, Fantasy, Drama & Sci-fi works, with the same equivalency to Het TV dramas, except the leads are women and they are romantically involved with women. The focus is on exploration of all kinds of romances between women. There are also seishun works, but they account for less than 50%. It’s also female dominated, with women accounting 80% or more of all creators, and lesbian/bisexual a grand majority. Since they are not aimed for a wider audience, normal things happen, like overcoming homophobia in contemporary stories and the women leads getting married + U-haul comedy. While there are challenging themes, I’ve yet to see someone being gay because of some abuse or hurt by men/fathers. And I can’t really yell at some of the most challenging of themes as stereotypes, due to how much other stuff plain isn’t. All works are also very accessible through major internet platforms.

      I hope you can understand it better now! Although it’s not part of the topic, I would actually really love to know if Japan has such an “industry”, and be introduced entertainment works from it. Or if there isn’t, some articles on the issue as to why.

      Perhaps, my point it’s not much use constantly talking about how something is bad, if we don’t look at the underlying reasons. As, what happens is, it will come up again. And we should acknowledge secondary markets. I see a lot of critics who act like, only what is made by 20th century Fox & HBO matters. You show them other great presentations as an alternative, the response is along the lines of “It ain’t as hot as Glee!” or some sort.

      • Verso Sciolto says:

        Dating Sharon Chalmers’ book (2002) would have improved my comment and diversion might have been a better word than distraction as well but changes like that might just have been window dressing.

        Trosbie, you too wrote another long comment and I feel like I have to acknowledge that I read your post but I’m back here to let you know I’m going to leave it at that, as well.

  9. Zefiris says:

    I’m in two minds about this one.

    On the one hand, I really dislike the trope as such. I’ve heard similar accusations IRL, directed at friends or myself. It’s a trope that should perish.

    On the other hand, a lot of the characters in the list are also compelling, often because of their psychological troubles. Murcielago’s Kuroko probably falls right into this, in a way, Gunjo’s “lesbian-san” most certainly does, Kannazuki’s Chikane definitely does. For me, anyway.

    I suppose that the raw energy these characters usually display is quite a hook. As is them wrestling with a sense of self, and the validity of their feelings.

    Perhaps what I really want is the emotion these characters are displaying to be kept, in intensity – but not in cause. Certainly no need to add neglectful fathers, if I’m concerned, Freude can sod off.

    [But then, a lot of this topic is something I’m in two minds about. Mai Hime and Kannazuki no Miko supposedly are very male targeted, and yet I mostly see female fans of these – the latter especially. People still cosplay the main couple at conventions over here in Europe, even this year. Weird how that ended up working out.]

    • Zefiris says:

      That said (and I should have added this to the previous post) it was a great article – even if it described something we probably ought to be past now.

      Thank you for writing it!

    • The issue is not “male-focused” or not. The series were created as seinen series. Then manga ran in seinen magazines. That defines the tropes and is not subject to debate.

      • Zefiris says:

        It wasn’t meant to debate it. Apologies!

        • It’s a very common misunderstanding. People debate the tropes as if they indicate the genre. That is not true. (Just as some commenters have discussed the seinen stories here and completely ignored that the trope was well established in shoujo as well.) Demographic genre is indicate by the magazine the series runs in, full stop. Mai HiME manga, for instance ran in Champion Red, which is a clear indication that characters were meant to be seen as pandering to fetishes in an adult male audience.

  10. Jye Nicolson says:

    Great post, thank you very much for writing it and I hope to see more like it.

    A survey like this is really valuable for contextualising the works we consume. I’m sure there’s a lot of us, like myself, who have some awareness of the strands but haven’t really assembled them. This helps us bring a more nuanced understanding to the next works we read, and reflect on those that have informed our experience so far. Thanks!

    • Thank you for reading it. That is exactly what I hope to accomplish. This is isn’t meant as “criticism” as such, just noting the continuum of themes. I’m still a comparative lit student after all these years. ^_^

  11. asaewrjoiua says:

    In Mai-hime the execs forced Shizuru to be a Psycho because they did not think lesbians would sell.

  12. Well if she hadn’t passed CR 2000 then I would have decided
    it was a survey of the worst 20th Century manga interpretation of Lesbianism. That would be Ok as Freud
    covered up a lot of real not imagined sexual abuse in his
    work, catering to the people who paid the bills and did the who did harm.

    But Sasameki Koto translated as Whispered Words
    doth refute thee. Manga and Anime. Brava!

    If you haven’t read it along with a lot of other 21st Century yuri then you are missing the Lesbian written
    realistic manga. About a couple trying to find an appropriate donor to have baby by/with and other themes
    that are closer to reality.


    • There’s nothing to refute – there’s no thesis here. The manga I mention do show mental instability. Others do not. There is an entire category on the Comic Essays here on Okazu. You’ll see I have been reviewing books like that for sometime.

      Some folks seem to be having a really hard time understanding that this was a look at some books that showed a specific stereotype. I’m pretty clear that things have changed and are continuing to do so. This was not a discussion of homophobia, nor a insistence that all manga ever supports this stereotype, nor was it as Muda-kun so aptly puts it, “Not real-life lesbians as (or as represented as) pathology/ pathologized. Not about similar pathologizing traditions in lurid North American pulp magazines, not about lesbian activism in Japan and not about how to brew your own farm sake”.

  13. Phantom says:

    Pardon the super late reply.

    I had no idea Freud tried to make his daughter look inferior. Didn’t know he was the main reason that LGBT issues have been rampant for centuries.
    Holy mother of Hel, psychoanalysis seems to be there to pretend people are figurative machines that have to work one specific way.

    As an asexual, I hate his work.

    I’ll be showing this to a friend, so she can see how these stereotypes started coming up in anime.

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