Gender and Fetishism in Japanese Otaku Culture
von Miyuki Hashimoto

A Cross-Media Analysis of Shōjo in the Sekaikei and Survivekei


In recent decades, the otaku culture has become one of the most influential Japanese cultures both within and outside of Japan. This culture has actually existed for half a century and has built up a rich diversity. Its media include anime, manga, computer games, light novels (a style of Japanese novel targeting primarily a young audience) and many more. It also takes in many genres, such as shōnen manga (boys’ manga), shōjo manga (girls’ manga), yaoi (a genre which features male homosexual love stories created by women for women) and lolicon (a genre focusing on the attraction to young or prepubescent girls). These media and genres were developed in the years when they were demanded by the audience. In doing so, they are a reflection of the respective times in contemporary history. 

Miyadai Shinji, a Japanese sociologist, claims that sometime around 1996 all Japanese people became a kind of otaku, and calls this phenomenon “total otaku-ization” (Miyadai, 2011, p. 249). Okada Toshio, a co-founder and former president of the production company Gainax, appreciates the great creativity of the otaku culture and considers that it is only in it that Japan is the center of a field of culture (Okada, 1997, p.7). Since the 1990s, the otaku culture has also been admired in the USA. American journalist Douglas McGray emphasizes the importance of Japan’s cultural influence over the world and calls it a “cultural superpower”. Cultural offers, by which he means, are pop music, fashion, consumer electronics and of course also anime (McGray, 2002, p.44). Another American journalist, Roland Kelts, believes that many Americans find in anime a vision of the future, a fresh way of telling stories and interpreting the world (Kelts, 2006, p.7). Susan J. Napier, an American researcher of Japanese studies, notes that intellectually sophisticated anime were appearing by the 1990s, and thereafter, Western researchers began to research anime (Napier, 2000, p.18). All these statements indicate that the otaku culture is now recognized on a global scale. 

One of the anime works, which Napier calls “sophisticated”, is Shin Seiki Evangerion [Neon Genesis Evangelion], which appeared in 1995 and became a representative work of the otaku culture. Saitō Tamaki, a Japanese psychiatrist and critic, maintains that among all cultural fields in Japan no other work has more power and capacity for “mobilization” than this work. Saitō uses the term “mobilization” with regard to the work’s impact on both the economy and discourses about culture and society (Saito, 2008, p. 11). The tremendous success of Neon Genesis Evangelion triggered the production of a series of similar works, which are called sekaikei (world type).[1] This became a successful genre of stories about fighting girls who must save the world nearly alone and boys who are only watching and narrating those struggles. After several years, however, a countermovement to sekaikei occurred. It was called survivekei (survival type), telling about survival fights by both girls and boys. Since the beginning of the 2000s, this has also become a popular genre. 

Most interesting here are the different characteristics of shōjo (girls) in each of these genres. In sekaikei, they accept their destiny to fight in order to save the world almost single-handedly and love the powerless male characters and lend them a certain importance. These girls thus take on the role of protectors, which is typically occupied by male characters in traditional works of popular culture. In survivekei, girls carry the same fate as boys and they fight in order to merely survive. We may expect here that survivekei girls need more self-empowerment and a greater degree of gender equality. In the last decade, there is also the further proliferation of survivekei in the international popular culture scene.

My thesis is that there probably exist significant differences of girls’ features in the sekaikei and survivekei, which relate to gender questions and fetishism in the respective times. How can these differences be found in the representative works analyzed in this paper? How can these differences be interpreted with regard to gender and fetishism? This paper aims to discuss these questions, and tries to understand which meanings the sekaikei and survivekei have in the contemporary popular culture.

Sekaikei, Survivekei and their relationships to the social background in Japan

Neon Genesis Evangelion was first broadcast in 1995. In that year, there were two serious incidents in Japan: the great Hanshin earthquake and the Tokyo subway sarin attack. These incidents deeply affected the Japanese nation and made it apparent that formerly relevant rules, values and norms in Japanese society no longer applied: serious social paradigm ruptures had occurred. Since then, the apocalyptic imagination has again become popular (Tanaka, 2014, p. 55). However, the trigger of these social changes was rather the Japanese economic crisis. By late 1991, Japanese asset prices began to fall, and by early 1992, officially collapsed, and the Japanese economy experienced a recession. This economic situation made people feel unsafe. Uno Tsunehiro, a Japanese critic, notes that hope for success, prosperity and a meaningful life was lost for the Japanese, and a regressive attitude became widespread. People did not want to make active decisions, in order to avoid making mistakes, which would make their situation worse. This kind of zeitgeist could be called the hikikomori (social withdrawal) attitude. Ikari Shinji, the teenaged main character of Neon Genesis Evangelion, exhibits exactly this attitude: he is resigned and refuses to fight against the enemy (Uno, 2008, pp.15-21). This made it possible for this anime to gain the sympathy of people who are normally not otaku, and therefore this anime became enormously successful and a cultural icon of the age (Maejima, 2010, p.33).

Such an extraordinary success of Neon Genesis Evangelion resulted in a popular genre called sekaikei, as mentioned above. This includes not just anime and manga, but also the light novels (a style of Japanese novel with illustrations, primarily targeting middle- and high-school students) and regular novels.[2] The term sekaikei was created in 2002 by Prenier, the administrator of the website Prenier Bookmark (qtd. in Maejima, 2010, pp. 27-28), and refers to a category or genre in which the self-centered male main character relays a story about the crisis of the world (sekai) and the relationship with his girlfriend (Kasai, 2005, pp. 148-149). A line at the beginning of the short anime Hoshi no Koe (Voices of a Distant Star, 2002) by Shinkai Makoto, one of the major sekaikei works, summarizes what is meant as sekai in this genre: 

„There is a word: sekai. Until I was a pupil at middle-school, I had vaguely considered sekai to be approximately the maximum range of my cellphone.“[3]

Thus, sekaikei is based on the perception of Japanese youth about the limited area of life or their limited imagination in which abstraction and narcissism prevail, as Genkai Shōsetsu Kenkyūkai (the Study Group of Border Area Novels) claim in their book Sekai wa Sonzai shinai [The world does not exist] (Genkai Shōsetsu Kenkyūkai, 2009, p. 6). As Azuma Hiroki, a Japanese researcher and critic, comments, Japanese youth tend to focus on their family and love relationships and on apocalyptic catastrophe in the world or universe, but rarely on society or the wider community outside their close relationships (qtd. in Tanaka, 2014, p. 54).

Even though sekaikei may be a culture limited by the imagination of Japanese youth, it is also significant because it has been widely discussed in Japanese subculture discourse in recent years. Influential critics and researchers, such as Azuma Hiroki, Saitō Tamaki and Miyadai Shinji deal with this topic extensively. They regard it as an embodiment of the spirit of the otaku culture and also of the general zeitgeist since the middle of the 1990s (Azuma, 2016; Saitō, 2008; Miyadai 2011). 

While sekaikei certainly retains its significance for the history of Japanese subculture, since the beginning of 2000 there has been a new development. Uno calls this survivekei, and defines it as a group of works depicting survival struggles based on the postmodern worldview since the 2000s (Uno, 2008, p. 19). Uno maintains that it was the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the restructuring of the Japanese cabinet by then-prime minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001‒2006) as well as the resulting social inequality, which made the Japanese feel it is necessary to act now (Uno, 2008, p. 18). Otherwise precarious working conditions will threat their existence. This kind of social change forms the background of survivekei. According to Uno, the most characteristic survivekei work is Desu Nōto [Death Note] (manga 2003‒2006, anime 2006‒2007), and the decision-making behavior of Yagami Light, the main character, is the most typical attitude for this type of work (Uno, 2008,P. 22). In other words, Light is a self-determining subject.

In this way, there are parallels between the sekaikei and survivekei, and the respective social background in Japan. In the later part of this paper, I will discuss how the feature of female characters (shōjo) is described in the respective time and concerning gender and fetishism.

Shōjo in the Sekaikei and Survivekei, Gender and Fetishism

Before I start analyzing shōjo in the sekaikei and survivekei, this section will concern itself with concepts of shōjo, gender and fetishism at the theoretical level.

At first I will deal with shōjo. According to Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary, shōjo means young (little) girl and maiden (Masuda, 1974). Shōjo is thus a young female who has the image of a virgin, and might be immature and in need of protection. In this respect, shōjo is not a totally independent person.

Frenchy Lunning, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal Mechademia, remarks that “shōjo is a culture of an abject femininity” (Lunning, 2011, p. 6). Lunning mentions that abjection indicates a position of extreme wretchedness, a low profile and groveling misery that has pushed itself inward and sideways, encouraging a denial of its presence and an impulse to hide the offending aspect from view. Lunning also refers to Julia Kristeva’s characterization of abjection as a thrusting aside of “otherness” (Lunning, 2011, p. 6). In other words, shōjo is forced to subordinate her surrounding, and therefore lose her autonomy. Shōjo is thus not a self-determining subject, but someone who is determined by external forces. In this sense, shōjo could be the opposite of the aim of feminism. Could this assumption be applied to cases of shōjo in the sekaikei and survivekei? Do they also have a tendency of abjection and difficulty in addressing self-empowerment? These are certainly important questions for this paper, which will be examined more closely in the next section. 

At this point, I would like to discuss shōjo in sekaikei. Uno Tsunehiro claims that sekaikei manifests otaku’s indecisiveness. Otaku lose their sense of “self” due to their dependence on the maternal qualities of heroines, while watching sekaikei works. In doing so, they stop thinking about their own choices (Uno, 2008, p. 86). Uno’s claim is based on the fact that almost all sekaikei heroines are fighting girls who protect the helpless male main characters and save the world. According to Uno, a shōjo in sekaikei fiction is someone who totally and unconditionally accepts otaku like a mother. With this confidence, otaku can “possess” these girls (Uno, 2008, p. 87). “Possess” in this case means that these girls are objects over whom otaku can have total control in their fantasies, and therefore feel safe with. This point will be discussed in more detail in the following section while analyzing fetishism of shōjo in the sekaikei and survivekei works.

Furthermore, the desire for acceptance, as from a mother, indicates that otaku have a sense of amae for the shōjo in sekaikei. Amae is a famous concept introduced by Japanese academic and psychoanalyst Doi Takeo for understanding the psychological structure of the Japanese. The prototype of amae is a dependency based on love, such as that which an infant enjoys with its mother (Doi, 1980, p. 13). Doi defines amae as an innate desire of individuals to be loved and taken care of. He also considers that amae can be seen everywhere in Japanese society and therefore is essential for understanding the Japanese mindset (Doi, 1980, p.1-22). This theory was first published at the beginning of the 1970s and is therefore almost half a century old, although Uno claims that otaku still have such a desire.

The aspect of the relationship between otaku and their mothers appears to still be important for this topic. Saitō Tamaki interprets beautiful warrior girls (sentō bishōjo) from the otaku culture in connection with mothers, and describes them as “a phallic mother.” In the sense of psychoanalysis, a phallic mother symbolizes omnipotence (Saitō, 2003, P. 14). Omnipotence is the quality of having unlimited power in the manner of a god. If a person fantasizes about having this, it is a sign of narcissism. As mentioned above, Uno claims that otaku take possession of sekaikei girls while enjoying these works (Uno, 2008, p. 87). This can be understood as follows: while sekaikei girls love helpless boys, otaku identify with these boys in their fantasies. In doing so, otaku are loved by these omnipotent girls and can therefore “possess” them. Then they can be a part of the omnipotence of these girls, or even more, they can feel that they themselves are omnipotent. Therefore, otaku can enjoy a narcissistic pleasure by watching the works of sekaikei. This could explain the psychological structure of otaku.

Now, I will discuss fetishism by making reference to psychoanalytic theories. In 1958, Jacques Lacan wrote:

„The whole problem of perversions consists in viewing how the child—in his relationship with his mother, a relationship established in the course of the analysis, not because of his dependence on her for his survival but of her love, that is a dependence on the desire of her desire—identifies with the imaginary object of this desire, which the mother herself symbolizes by the phallus. The phallocentrism produced by this dialectic is the only thing to be taken into account here.“ (Lacan, 1958, P. 84)

Lacan is arguing here that dependence on a mother because of her love—in other words, amae—has to do with perversion, to which fetishism also belongs, because the imaginary object of the mother’s desire could be understood as a fetish object. Sigmund Freud defines a fetish as a substitute for the phallus of the mother, which boys believe in (Freud, 2003, p. 330). Robert C. Bak, an American psychoanalyst, emphasizes that the pregenital fixation is essential for fetishists, and they favor the maintenance of the mother-child unity (Bak, 1953, p. 84). Thus, fetishism consists of pregenital fixation and a close relationship with the mother, while the imaginary object of the mother’s desire, symbolized by the phallus, plays an important role. Considering the otaku culture, I would like to interpret this as follows: otaku may have pregenital fixation and depend on the love of their mothers, in other words, they have amae towards their mothers. Otaku also identify with the imaginary object—beautiful warrior girls, or a phallic mother. This could both constitute a fetish and be considered an imaginary phallus. 

A leading French psychoanalyst, Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, writes on fetishism and a genital sexuality as follows:

„The fetish represents the anal phallus in so far as it comes to occupy the place of the genital penis, and excludes it from the sexual scene, and from the psyche in general.“ (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1988, p. 82)

According to Chasseguet-Smirgel, fetishism is a substitution for a genital sexuality, and genitals are also excluded from the psyche of fetishists in general. In other words, fetishists avoid genital sexuality, i.e. a love-relationship with a real person, and need an imaginary phallus as a substitution: a fetish. 

Why do otaku need a fetish? Honda Tōru, a Japanese critic and self-described otaku, offers an answer to this question and mentions that otaku are renai neet (someone who has given up a love-relationship) (Honda, 2005, pp. 31-32) – namely the properties of otaku deviate from the system of “love-capitalism.” Honda claims that many Japanese women who are themselves not otaku want to have a love relationship with men who possess the so-called sankō (three highs): a high (university) education, a high income, and taller than average height (Honda, 2005, p. 9).[4] Honda calls it “love-capitalism”, because this is a love relationship from an economical point of view. Many otaku are not sankō men and therefore tend to have difficulties in being involved in love relationships and with genital sexuality. This could be one reason why otaku need a substitute for such relationships and find it in the otaku culture and in fetishes such as sentō bishōjo.

Another explanation why otaku prefer a fetish would lie in the creativity of fetishism. Referring to this, Chasseguet-Smirgel remarks as follows:

„The pervert’s aim, from my point of view, is to disavow his father’s (genital) capacities and to accomplish a (magic) transformation of reality by delving into the undifferentiated anal-sadistic dimension. Having idealized it, he proclaims its superiority over the father’s genital universe.“ (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1988, p. 78)

Chasseguet-Smirgel here argues that fetishists idealize their fetish in order to assert its superiority over the genital universe, and in doing so, justify their love for a fetish. Freud also considers this aspect with idealization important for understanding fetishism and wrote on this point in a letter:

„The fetish develops as follows: it is the result of a special mode of repression that could be described as a partial repression: one part of the complex is repressed, another part, as compensation, is idealized…“ (qtd. in Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1988, p. 99)

This could explain why otaku often show great creativity through the otaku culture, since they idealize and justify their fetish world.

A Cross-Media Analysis of Shōjo in the Sekaikei and Survivekei

This section turns to an analysis of shōjo in the sekaikei and survivekei to examine the conclusion of the previous section. 

As the representative works of sekaikei, I will analyze, besides Neon Genesis Evangelion, Saishū Heiki Kanojo [She, the Ultimate Weapon] (manga 2000‒2001, anime 2002) by Takahashi Shin and Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu [Iriya’s Sky, Summer of the UFOs] (light novel 2001‒2003, anime 2005) by Akiyama Mizuhito. The novels of Murakami Haruki could also be regarded as sekaikei by several researchers and critics, because his works have a similar narrative structure (Hirai, 2010, pp. 112‒137). The novel 1Q84 Books 1-3 (Murakami, 2009-2010) is perhaps the most typical example in this regard, and therefore this paper will analyze this work compared to the major anime sekaikei works cited above. The light novel Ōru Yū Nīdo Izu Kiru [All You Need Is Kill] (2004) by Sakurai Hiroshi will also be treated. This work is considered a sekaikei work, because it has the typical narrative structure for sekaikei and the plot is based on a time loop, a usual characteristic of the genre (Maejima, 2010, pp. 151‒154).[5]

The representative works of survivekei include Death Note, Sōdo Āto Onrain [Sword Art Online] (light novel 2009, anime 2012) by Kawahara Reki, Shingeki no Kyojin [Attack on Titan] (manga 2009–, anime 2013, second season 2017) by Isayama Hajime, and Batoru Rowaiaru [Battle Royale] (novel 1999, film 2000) by Takami Kōshun.

In order to analyze the narrative features of shōjo in sekaikei and survivekei as a global trend, the following two American films will also be considered: Edge of Tomorrow (film 2014) as an American counterpart of Ōru Yū Nīdo Izu Kiru [All You Need is Kill] (sekaikei),[6] and The Hunger Games (novel: trilogy 2008‒2010, film: tetralogy 2012‒2015) by Suzanne Collins, as an American counterpart of Batoru Rowaiaru [Battle Royale] (survivekei).

All of these cross-media works show evident features of the respective genres, and I therefore believe that they are suitable for analyzing and finding the meaning of shōjo in the sekaikei and survivekei.

At first, I will begin by analyzing abjection. In this regard, Chise, the female main character of She, the Ultimate Weapon is definitely the most interesting figure.

She, the Ultimate Weapon is a wartime love story. This is a representative sekaikei work, because this story shows particularly clearly the typical narrative structure for the sekaikei. Chise is an average high school girl, but soon turns into the ultimate weapon for specifically military purposes without knowing why this has happened to her. Just before this, she has started dating a classmate, Shūji, the male main character and the narrator of this story. In the first episode, Shūji monologizes: 

“Chise is cute, but slow, and timid, and small, and clumsy, too. Her grades aren’t so good, except in history. Which isn’t much use in the real world anyway. And she knows it. …She doesn’t really fit in.“[7]

Thus, at the beginning, Shūji seems to have been thinking of Chise as inferior. Indeed, Chise herself behaves submissively towards Shūji. For example, she is always saying “I’m sorry”[8] to Shūji, even though it is not necessary. Shūji tells her to “Stop saying ‘sorry’”,[9] but she merely responds with “I’m sorry,” showing her nonassertive character and abject attitude. When Chise is waiting for a battle to begin in a war camp in a later episode, she is talking with her fellow soldiers about Shūji. A soldier asks why she loves him, and she answers that it is because he is the only one who will still scold her, even though she has become the ultimate weapon, and this means that Shūji cares about her. On the other hand, we can see here that she accepts that he is the dominant one in their relationship and she is not an equal partner. This also indicates Chise’s abjection.

The other work in which I see another example of abjection is Death Note, a work that Uno called typical survivekei. For Uno, what is characteristic for survivekei is a decisive attitude (Uno, 2008, pp. 20‒22), and Yagami Light, the main character of Death Note, is an ultimately decisive personality, as mentioned above.

Light is an intelligent high school student who is very proud of his ability and ready to act for his ideals. One day, Light finds a “death note”—a notebook with which he can kill anyone whose name he writes while thinking about the person’s face—and decides to create a crimeless utopia by killing serious criminals and his opponents. There are two important women around him. One is Misa, who is a cute young girl and the owner of another death note. The other is Kiyomi, a beautiful intelligent colleague at Light’s university who later becomes a TV presenter and helps carry out Light’s plan in the media. Both of them fall in love with Light and promise to support him in order to win his love. When Misa and Light get to know each other, Light is unsure about her until she says: 

“I don’t mind if I just am used by you!”[10]

When he responds positively Misa says:

“Thank you! I’ll try my hardest to make you love me.”[11]

Kiyomi is also devoted to Light. When she realizes that he is the Kira who is famous in the media for killing serious criminals for idealistic reasons, she tells him:

“You’re the only man I ever adored and respected in my life…”[12]

However, when Kiyomi becomes a problem for Light, he kills her. Misa remains alive, but Light commands her to sacrifice half of her life span in order to gain the power to identify the names of his opponents. Thus, Light loves neither woman, and merely uses them both. Although these young women devote and abject themselves to him, they are just pawns in Light’s murderous game. As we see, Light lost his humanity after getting the death note, and for him other people were never valuable in their capacity as humans, but only objects. This could be interpreted as a kind of fetishism, because he regards these girls not as human, but merely as objects with which to achieve his objective.

It seems there are no other noticeable signs of abjection on the part of female main characters either in sekaikei or survivekei among the analyzed works; on the contrary, there are many characters found which are the opposite of abject and are indeed empowered. Also in sekaikei we can find several self-empowered characters. For example, the schoolgirl Mikako, the main female character of Voices of a Distant Star, which is a major sekaikei work as mentioned above, decides by herself to join the U.N. Space Army to fight in a war against aliens. For this purpose, she even gives up her plan to attend a high school together with her boy friend. She is thus not an abject person, but a self-determined subject. 

In survivekei, there are many self-empowered characters, as expected. Mikasa, the female main character of Attack on Titan, may be one of the best examples. Attack on Titan is about the struggle of humans against cannibal Titans, a matter of life and death.

Mikasa is an adopted sister of Eren, the male main character. Her own family is killed by human kidnappers when she is a child. When he finds Mikasa, Eren, who is then also a child, kills two of the kidnappers but is beaten and choked by a third man, and Mikasa must fight by herself. While being choked, Eren says:

“Fight! You gotta fight! Lose, and you die. Win, and you survive. If you don’t fight, you can’t win!”[13]

Confronting this crucial situation, Mikasa realizes the world has always been cruel and she has to fight. In a monologue she says:

“At that moment, I remembered that I had seen the scene time and again. It had been lying before my eyes. I pretended as if I had never seen anything like it. But yes, it is really that the world is full of cruelty. When I realized it, I stopped trembling. Since then, I can control everything myself. I think that I can do everything I wish. Fight!”[14]

This is the moment of her emancipation. After this incident, Mikasa becomes a self-determining decision maker, and even stronger than Eren. [15]

However, Eren continues to play an important role in her life, because he has become her new family, and she has always wanted to protect him.

Another survivekei heroine is Asuna in Sword Art Online.

Asuna is also a strong, independent and even dominant girl. Once she says to Kirito, the male main character:

“I, Asuna, vice commander of the Knights of the Blood Oath, will oversee this operation. You will obey my orders.”[16]

Also, when they fall in love[17] and Kirito is worried about Asuna’s security, she says:

“I’m not going to die, because I’m the one who will protect you.”[18]

Thus, it is certainly important for both these female survivekei characters that they can protect their boyfriends, even though they themselves are in life-threating situations.

Moreover, all analyzed works of sekaikei have this aspect of protection, which is a very interesting point. The hope to protect a boy is the greatest and only motivation for the sekaikei girls to fight.

In Iriya’s Sky, Summer of the UFOs, this is even the basis of the story. When Iriya, the female main character, loses all of her friends and comrades in war, she also loses her fighting spirit. Then the army looks for a new motivation for Iriya. This is called the Koinu Keikaku (the puppy-dog project). The puppy-dog is of course Asaba, with whom Iriya has fallen in love. It is only because Iriya wants to protect Asaba that she can continue to fight.

The aspect of protection can be found also in the case of Katniss Everdeen, the female main character of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the American counterpart of the survivekei.

Katniss wants to protect Peeta Mellark, the male main character. The plot of The Hunger Games concerns cruel gladiator battles by twenty-four young boys and girls between twelve and eighteen years old who have been randomly selected from twelve districts. They are forced by the totalitarian regime Panem to fight until only one is left alive. Peeta is a kind and sensible boy, but much weaker than Katniss. This echoes Eren in Attack on Titan, who is strong-willed, but weaker than Mikasa.

What does it mean that in these stories girls are stronger than boys and take on the role of protector, which is typically associated with males in traditional popular culture? Regarding the action heroine Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (2001), played by Angelina Jolie, American author Mark Cohen mentions that the character’s appearance and eroticism awaken male fans’ protective instinct (qtd. in Duthel, 2012, p. 72). German psychologist Oscar Holzberg explains that this protective instinct gives male fans the opportunity to play a hero in their fantasy and it helps to overcome their fear of powerful and emancipated women (qtd. in Duthel, 2012, p. 72). Uno, as mentioned above, claims that a shōjo in sekaikei is someone who totally accepts otaku like a mother, and otaku can possess these girls. Indeed, female protective attitude can easily be associated with a maternal quality. Seen in this way, we can understand that male protagonists or audiences (otaku) might have an amae feeling toward such a shōjo. 

The abovementioned interpretations are certainly from a male perspective and explain that female heroines are only accepted by male fans if they are regarded as fetish objects, such as sexual objects or objects of possessiveness due to a maternal quality. Laura Mulvey, a British feminist film theorist, argues in her famous essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema” that pleasure in looking a film has been split between active/male and passive/female and, therefore, the cinematic gaze is a masculine look (Mulvey, 1975, p. 11). This theory is from 1975, but only in October 2017, the Me Too movement revealed how oppressive the film industry in Hollywood and the rest of the world are towards women. 

However, feminism has existed since the 19th century. Therefore, it is certainly possible to interpret this protective behavior from a female point of view as follows: these girls have the role of protector because the cultural hegemony about gender role has changed. Namely, in a time when the international situation has changed with many critical problems such as terrorist attacks, financial crises and climate change, people’s needs have also changed. It is no longer enough to depend only on the power of men: now we need more female power (or girl power) and a gender order other than phallocentrism. In this regard, we could see sekaikei, which gives absolute power to girls, as a movement against phallocentrism.

Incidentally, The Hunger Games has been criticized for its similarities to Battle Royale by Takami Kōshun, which was completed in 1996, published in 1999, and adapted into a film in 2000.

This was a Japanese first-generation survivekei work. The action of Battle Royale takes place in a fictional police-state version of Japan. A junior high school class is selected at random for a gladiator game and forty-two students of this class are forced to fight until only one student remains alive. In this way, the plot is very similar to The Hunger Games. Also, in Battle Royale there is a couple, Shūya and Noriko. But unlike The Hunger Games, in Battle Royale the male main character Shūya is definitely the protector of Noriko, who is very feminine in an old-fashioned way. About ten years elapsed between the publications of the two works, and in the meantime female gender roles had changed. In any case, both films were commercially enormously successful, and this shows that survivekei is actually in demand in the current international popular culture scene.

I also want to discuss here another work, All You Need is Kill, which is of international importance because of an American film adaption called Edge of Tomorrow starring two major stars, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.

This work is about a war against hostile aliens who can control time in order to achieve victory. As mentioned above, this work actually belongs to the sekaikei genre because of the story and the time loop element, but its heroine Rita Vrataski is typical of survivekei. Rita is an American girl who is a master sergeant and has been with the army for three years. She is tough and very skilled at fighting; by chance, she acquires the ability to enter a time loop, which proves crucial for victory. When she is nineteen years old, she meets Kiriya Keiji, a young Japanese soldier, who also has the ability to enter a time loop. After they have fought together for a while and get to know each other better, Rita realizes that if she and Keiji stay alive, they can no longer escape the time loop, because their brains have already become like those of the aliens, and will continue to occupy the time loop forever if they remain together. This means that one of them needs to die in order to end the war and achieve victory for humanity. Hence, Rita starts to fight Keiji, eventually losing and dying.

In the American version, Rita is also tough and skilled at fighting, but she has already lost the ability to be in a time loop by the time that she gets know Cage (the American counterpart of Keiji) and has had to rely on Cage’s ability. Therefore, in the American version, the only key person for the victory is Cage, while in the Japanese version Rita is the one who recognizes the situation and decides on her fate and that of the human race. In both versions, at the end of the story Rita dies, but in Edge of Tomorrow, after Cage destroys the Omega, the aliens’ hive mind and the organism that causes the time loop, both Cage and Rita can live again thanks to the final time loop. In the Japanese version, on the other hand, Rita does not live and the end is more tragic. The key point here is that in the Japanese version Rita plays a more assertive role, while the American version is narrated according to more traditional gender roles. This example also shows that Japanese sekaikei stories might be a leading force against phallocentrism. 

At this point I wish to analyze fetishism in connection with sekaikei. In order to do so, I return to the example of Chise in She, the Ultimate Weapon. When Chise undergoes surgery that turns her into the ultimate weapon, she cannot even make this decision herself: it is done without her consent. Of course, she is not happy about it; when Shūji first sees her after the transformation she says:

“I’m sorry, Shūji. I’ve turned into this sort of body.”[19]

This could be regarded as an extreme example of abjection, because she gives another the power over her own body. She is not a self-determining subject, but someone who is determined by outside forces. The key point here is that she is seriously stigmatized in this process. Afterwards, she has the feeling that she is no longer intact as a human or a girl, and she suffers tremendously from this feeling. Therefore, she needs to be loved by Shūji in order to recover the feeling of being human and a girl. Thus, Chise is actually the one who needs more amae towards Shūji in this story. But for viewers (for otaku), on the one hand, as the ultimate weapon, she is an omnipotent girl, and on the other hand a stigmatized girl with a damaged body that otaku can easily fantasize about possessing. 

Uno writes about the attitude of otaku who enjoy the bishōjo game (pretty girl game)[20] AIR as follows:

„The first part of this work is designed for a patriarchal desire of players (otaku) to have sex with a girl who is weaker than himself, because she is idiotic and has a terminal illness. In doing so, they want to possess such a character.“ (Uno, 2008, pp. 204‒205)

Uno penetrates the psyche of otaku who play this game and complains about their macho[21] mentality. Here again we see that Uno uses the word “possess” for the interpretation of girls in the otaku culture and makes it apparent that otaku also see the girls in this bishōjo game not as independent persons, but just fetish objects, the same psychological structure as with the sekaikei girls. We can also see that in the eyes of otaku, a character who has a defect or an abnormality is no longer an intact human—just as in the case of Chise. This makes these girls “substandard” and therefore makes it possible to see them as fetish objects. Sigmund Freud argued that fetishism is an easily accessible form of sexual satisfaction (Freud, 2003, p. 331). This easiness and comfort must be an important factor for otaku in their loving these girls. Thus, stigmatized Chise could be regarded as a perfectly desirable fetish object for otaku.

We can also interpret other girls from sekaikei in the same way. For example, Ayanami Rei, a female main character in Neon Genesis Evangelion and the origin of this type of fetish character, is a fourteen-year-old girl and pilot of an Evangelion (a kind of fighting robot). She is enigmatic and appears apathetic and somewhat cold, atypical for her age. This makes her appear to be a kind of robot. She is also introverted, but after meeting Shinji, a male main character and another fourteen-year-old Evangelion pilot, she gradually opens up her mind to him. Toward the end of the story, the secret about Rei has been revealed and the viewers (otaku) know that she is a hybrid clone of Lilith, the forebear of the human race, and Yui, the mother of Shinji. Because of this secret and the exposed truth, she can be regarded by otaku as a kind of mother and someone different from a normal human, and therefore abnormal. In this way, Rei became the first fetish figure. This has made her incredibly desirable for otaku and the most popular female character ever in the history of anime.

Iriya Kana, the female main character of Iriya’s Sky, another representative sekaikei work, is in some ways a combination of Rei and Chise. She is enigmatic and appears apathetic and somewhat cold, atypical for her young age, like Rei. At the same time, she is also similar to Chise, because of her broken body as a pilot of the special fighter jet. However, Iriya is much ruder than Chise—for example, once she says to a classmate “You bother me. Go away!”[22] This episode qualifies her as not abject, but also contributes to her appearing asocial or abnormal. Thus, these female characters are definitely fetish objects, born under the influence of Rei Ayanami.

Also in 1Q84 by Murakami Haruki, there is a very similar character to Rei. Fuka Eri, a seventeen-year-old girl who has dyslexia, Savant syndrome, and spiritual abilities like those of a shaman, appears mysterious and looks like a kind of robot, just as in the case of Rei. Saitō Tamaki also sees this similarity between Rei and Eri, writing humorously:

“After making a ‘diagnosis’ of Fuka Eri = Ayanami Rei, I could just hear that the recitation of Heike Monogatari [The Tale of the Heike][23] by Eri sounds like the voice of Hayashibara Megumi (the voice actor for Rei Ayanami).“ (Saitō, 2010, p. 64)

However, it does not seem that Murakami is influenced by Evangelion, as he himself maintains he does not know anime. Rather, he started to write sekaikei-style stories long before Evangelion. Murakami’s first such work was perhaps Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, written in 1985. The title already indicates that this work focuses on this topic. Moreover, there are female characters who have abnormal physical or mental traits in nearly all Murakami’s works. This indicates Murakami’s fetishism. We can already observe this tendency in Murakami’s first novel, Kaze no uta o kike [Hear the Wind Sing], in which a girl without a little finger plays an important role. Thus, Murakami is a pioneer of the genre, although at that time he still considered that Japanese society was stable,[24] and therefore the background situation was different from the era of other sekaikei works. 

Murakami first realized the change by which Japanese society is no longer stable when the great Hanshin earthquake and Tokyo subway sarin attack happened in 1995. After this, Murakami had the impression that Japan was falling into chaos. This was shocking for Murakami and he accordingly changed the subject of his stories from how an individual can resist the stable Japanese society alone to how people can reach “a soft landing” in such a confused society. “A soft landing” is for Murakami an indefinable term. It is antithetical to a hard landing such as, for example, nationalism or fundamentalism. Murakami believes that authors should present a possibility for a soft landing with their stories in order to fill the vacuum left by the breakdown of the market economy (Murakami, 2010, pp. 10‒11). Thus, it is possible to understand that sekaikei is a kind of soft landing. Interestingly, it appears that it is inevitable to have such a fetish character like Eri in order to create the soft landing stories. In confusing times, some people might need fetishism for psychological security.

In the survivekei works, which are analyzed in this paper, there are no significant signs of fetishism of girls.[25] In a fight for survival there is seemingly no place for fetishism. Rather, girls in this genre are described in more human terms with regard to their power of will. Most of the girls in survivekei have the tendency to be self-determining subjects, and this is of course the decisive criterion for not being a fetish object. They must also fight like boys in order to survive. In this extreme environment, gender roles can apparently no longer be kept separate.


Sekaikei was a significant genre after the critical incidents in 1995 in Japan, and since the beginning of the 2000s, survivekei has become popular. On the one hand, girls in sekaikei are omnipotent fighters who protect helpless boys and the rest of the world. These girls take on the role of protectors that used to be occupied by boys in traditional works of popular culture. This genre could therefore be considered a kind of vanguard against phallocentrism. In survivekei, we see further proliferation of this kind in the international popular culture scene, as in the case of The Hunger Games.

On the other hand, we have seen that there is a contrary tendency, mostly in sekaikei, in which girls are regarded as a fetish object by male protagonists or by viewers (otaku), because of stigmas such as a damaged body, the exploitation of love or amae due to a maternal quality. I have also discussed the case of fetishism in Murakami Haruki’s 1Q84, and a fetish girl appears to be infallible for sekaikei. This may be due to still-existing phallocentrism. However, fetishism contributes to the psychological security in a confused society, and therefore the desire for amae and narcissism on the part of otaku (and other audiences as well) could be fulfilled in this way. The problem here is that these girls cannot be self-determining subjects, and are inhuman as fetish objects. I argue that with regard to abjection, there is a link with fetishism. Both in sekaikei and survivekei we find examples of abjection, and in those cases the shōjo is not a subject, but rather someone who is determined by outside forces, and a fetish object. 

However, unlike the assumption of Lunning, the shōjo culture in sekaikei and survivekei is not solely that of abject femininity, but is variable. Some of the shōjo in sekaikei and most of the shōjo in survivekei are self-determining subjects. Therefore, these attitudes on the part of the shōjo could be the solution to the problem of fetishism. They are also usually described in more human terms. In the harsher reality, such as is always present in survivekei, it seems that we need more self-empowerment and gender equality for both sexes. 

In recent years, political, economical and climatic situations have become harder. Such a precarious situation made the tendency for survivekei even stronger, because it made clear the fact that we cannot survive if we hesitate to act. Under difficult circumstances, we could (must) overcome our amae, narcissism and fetishistic tendencies and be self-determining and find more humanity.



[1] Sekai is the Japanese word of “world” and –kei means “type”

[2] For example, Maijō Ōtarō, who is a Japanese novelist and the winner of prestigious awards, such as Mephisto Prize and Mishima Yukio Prize, is also counted as an author of sekaikei stories (Maejima, 2010, pp. 4-5).

[3] Sekai tte iu kotoba ga aru. Sekai tte iu no wa keitai no denpa ga todoku basho nan da tte bakuzen to omotte ita (00:24).

[4] According to a survey in the summer of 2015 by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, conducted among more than 5000 unmarried Japanese men and women, one third of men and women between thirty and thirty-four years of age are virgins. Seventy percent of the men and sixty percent of the women are single and one third have no interest in having any relationship. Futoshi Ishii, the head of the institute, explains this outcome: “There is a huge gap between the ideal conception and reality about the other sex (Steffen).”

[5] However, I consider the heroine of this work, Rita Vrataski, to be rather typical for survivekei. In 2014 this novel was adapted as the American film, Edge of Tomorrow starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, and received many positive reviews.

[6] „Ōru Yū Nīdo Izu Kiru” is the original story of „Edge of Tomorrow”.

[7] “Chise wa kawaii. Da ga noroi. Chibi da shi, ki ga yowaishi, omake ni dojikko de, seiseki mo chū no ge. Sekaishi dake ga muimi ni ii kedo, sore ga ikite iku no ni nan no purasu ni mo naranai koto o Chise jishin mo yoku shitte iru…Nan da ka zettai bukiyō-na yatsu da to omou.” She, The Ultimate Weapon, anime, episode 1 (02:33).

[8] “Gomen nasai.” She, The Ultimate Weapon, anime, for example, episode 1 (04:06).

[9] “Gomen nasai tte iu na yo.” She, The Ultimate Weapon, anime, episode 1 (12:57).

[10] “Watashi wa anata ni riyō sareru dake de mo ii no!” Death Note, anime episode 13 (19:24).

[11] “Arigatō! Suki ni natte moraeru yō ganbaru.” Death Note, anime episode 13 (21:01).

[12] “Anata wa watashi no jinsei no naka de watashi ga mitome, sonkei dekita yuiitsu no dansei.” Death Note, anime episode 32 (20:34).

[13] “Tatakae! Tatakau n da yo! Katanakya shinu. Kateba ikiru. Tatakawanakereba katenai.” Attack on Titan, anime episode 6 (17:33).

[14] “Sono toki omoidashita. Kono koukei ha ima made ni nando mo nando mo mite kita. Itu datte me ni haitte ita. Demo minakatta koto ni shite ita. Sou da. Kono sekai ha zankoku nan da. Sono shunkan karada no furue ga tomatta. Sono toki kara watashi ha jibun o kanpekini shihai dekita. Nan de mo dekiru to omotta. Tatakae!” Attack on Titan, anime episode 6 (17:56)

[15] Eren will himself become a Titan later, and stronger than Mikasa.

[16] „Konkai no sakusen wa, watashi, Ketsumei-Kishidan fukudanchō no Asuna ga shiki o toru koto ni natte imasu. Watashi no iu koto ni wa shitagatte moraimasu.” Sword Art Online, anime episode 5 (00:49).

[17] Kirito later becomes Asuna’s husband.

[18] “Watashi wa shinanai yo. Datte watashi wa kimi o mamoru hou da mon.” Sword Art Online, anime episode 10 (07: 48).

[19] Gomen nasai, Shū-chan. Atashi konna karada ni nacchatta.” She, The Ultimate Weapon, anime episode 1 (21:18).

[20] Bishōjo games are a type of Japanese video game centered on interactions with attractive girls (bishōjo) in anime style, and a subgenre of dating simulations targeted towards otaku.

[21] Here Uno uses the word “macho”. However I believe that the word “macho” could be replaced with “fetishistic” in this context.

[22] “Urusai. Acchi ike!” Iriya’s Sky, Summer of the UFOs, episode 1 (11:24)

[23] Heike Monogatari is a Japanese literary classic compiled long before 1330, concerning the struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans at the end of the twelfth century in the Genpei War (1180‒1185).

[24] Murakami himself uses here the word “solid” instead of “stable” (Murakami “Tamashii no Soft Landing no tameni- For the soft landing of our spirit” 14).

[25] Except for the cases of Misa and Kiyomi by Death Note. Misa and Kiyomi are actually not fighting to survive.


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