Japanese Manga, Asian American Women

My secret obsession is reading manga, a pastime few of my family and friends truly know. I would say I am in the category of otaku, but my own denial of the act suppresses a full fledge embracement of a subculture I have grown to love. I especially enjoy reading about strong, independent and intelligent heroines. This makes many manga difficult to get through. The famous Naruto series details the scrappy young kid’s archetypal quest to gain his peers approval. Despite its popularity, the manga’s often dependent and weak heroine tropes hold similarities to the submissive Asian American stereotype. Yet the prevalence of the manga in Western society and the construction of these female characters perpetuate and to some extent deconstruct Asian American femininity. Through manga, we can begin to understand how globalization of graphic representations also serve as modes to scrutinize the race, gender and sexuality of Asian American women.

The manga has many female characters, but the more prominent of who have characteristics that make them dependent on their male counterparts. This reliance on the stronger, decisive male figurehead parallels the expectations of Asian American women in media to be subservient to dominant males. Sakura is the lead female character who accompanies the main character during all his escapades, and yet her appearances are numbered. Throughout the series she is infatuated with Naruto’s rival who hardly acknowledges her. (Naruto, Ch 181, 469) The few times she is given a chance to stand up for herself, she is inevitably aided by another stronger male character (Naruto, Ch 55, 308). The use of her weakness to showcase masculine strength is reflective of representations of Asian Asian women humble to the dominance of the white, heterosexual man (pg. 50, Asian American Sexual Politics).  Another prominent female character, Hinata, also expresses her love interest for the male lead, Naruto. She is shy and quiet by nature, and at first strikingly similar to the embodiment of the Asian American Lotus Blossom (Lecture 5, 9/28/16).  The fact that as two leading heroines, these women are characterized by their persistent love is telling of their sexualized portrayal. This can be seen in parallel to the over-sexualization of Asian American women as a role model lover who will do anything to appease her man so two are these women shown constantly fawning after male leads (Naruto, Ch 437). This translates to an image of obedience and  a”softness and inherent femininity” often depicted in American media representations (20011, Slaying the dragon). While the manga is Japanese, the female constructions as interpreted by Western Culture hold many similarities to the submissive Asian American woman construct. The continued success of the manga hints to the Western subscription of these ideals.

While consistent weaker heroine portrayals in manga influence the Asian American stereotype, the character development has attempted to create a new discourse for the female characters of the series. Points of character development improve the previous dependency and dominant feeble image produced. Hinata’s weak nature evolves the first time she speaks out, defends herself and protects those she cares for the strength of which (Naruto, Ch 78, 437) While Sakura has always been outspoken and strong-willed and the determination to follow her dreams (Naruto, Ch 53, 253, 459).  The complexities of these two leading female characters help deconstruct the binary roles of Asian American woman. Taking responsibility for her action and fighting to be seen as an equal, Sakura serves to dismantle previous submissive notions about the Asian American woman (Naruto, Ch 459, 631) The multiplicities and agency of these females helps alleviate the Asian American monolith, particularly the weak and dependent woman.

And yet, the more subordinate qualities of the female stereotypes are more salient. The physical representation of the characters are modeled after the Western idealized features and as such produce characters with larger eyes and different colored hair. Sakura herself has green eyes adding to the Americanization of Asian women. As their “Asian-ness” is denied, their gender is more so. Even in the few instances of the female character exploring their agency, the ultimate power lies in the male characters. (Naruto, Ch 484)  While the end of the series seems to bring out the independence of the characters, there is still an understanding that the women will never fully be seen as equals in combat. Sakura and Hinata, though, portrayed as strong ninjas take on diminutive housewife roles (Naruto, Ch 700). This depiction serves to encourage the essentialist construct of an Asian American woman’s subservient role to men.

Overall, the manga Naruto does portray some strong-willed and independent female characters, but their representation is filled with submissive flaws that mirror the obedient Asian American womanhood representation seen in other media. As a Japanese comic, manga is very much influenced by Japanese cultural values which do not integrate as perfectly in the US as they are depicted in manga. However, the globalization of manga, particularly Naruto, sees the gender representations part of the larger discourse of Asian American women and men. I believe manga and other Asian American graphic novels have the potential of leading ways in deconstructing  Asian american stereotypes of race, gender and sexuality.


Manga = Japanese comic

Otaku = connotation as geek



One Comment Add yours

  1. Ying says:

    I also found Kishimoto’s depiction of Hinata and Sakura’s physical attributes to be reflective of the Asian/Asian-American feminine ideal, culminating in how they are paired up with the male protagonists at the end. Naruto, who is an iconic shounen manga hero – pure, simple, well-intentioned, is paired with Hinata, who remains arguably remains passive until the end, unable to transcend her “weak nature”: as you mention, in the last chapter of the series, Hinata plays the housewife to Naruto’s role as esteemed leader. Conversely, Sakura, who undergoes empowering character development, transgressing stereotypical characteristics as a helpless heroine (no longer ascribed to typical Asian-American femininity), ends up with Sasuke, who, for most of the series, is cast as deviant and, through the discrimination against his clan, outcast. Their relationship ends on a less idyllic note, with Sakura left managing what is essentially a single-parent household while Sasuke roams the lands with his own priorities. His obsession with gaining power parallels the masculine reliance on violence as an outlet for Asian-American men, as discussed with the chapter 5 Chou reading. If Kishimoto developed her story more, I believe he could have presented a deconstruction of Asian-American femininity.

    However, ultimately, these two couples Naruto/Hinata and Sasuke/Sakura, by the physical appearances Kishimoto chooses for each, represents typical romantic relationships as limited by racial inequalities driven by white hegemony (“Romance” presentation). Hinata, with her straight black hair and quiet nature finds true love in Naruto with his blond hair and blue eyes, and Sakura, with her Americanised appearance of green eyes and pink hair, ends up with Sasuke, a highly intelligent man always in more traditional Japanese vestments, who remains, for most of the series, emotionally stunted and uninterested in women. Through this romantic development, Kishimoto perpetuates idealised masculinities and femininities and their importance in the maintenance of the stable nuclear family unit, reflecting the globalisation of Westernised gender and sexuality, which I think is an interesting integration of American values within this Japanese artform.


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