Dee, Vrai, and Alex talk about the edutainment comedy manga Sex Ed 120% and its tackling of subjects like consent, gender identity, and abortion.
Note: This episode was recorded as one extra-long block and split in two during editing. Listen to the first part here.
Date Recorded: May 22, 2022
Hosts: Dee, Vrai, Alex
0:00:27 Sex ed in Japan
0:12:24 The importance of Sex Ed 120%
0:15:52 Portrayals of various sexual orientations
0:19:00 Sexual terminology in Japan
0:24:21 Portrayals of abortion in media
0:26:26 Abortion and prophylaxis in Japan (and elsewhere)
0:32:43 Tsuji’s characterization
0:37:35 Nakazawa as questioning
0:42:22 Education vs action
0:44:54 Final thoughts
PETER: Hello and welcome to Chatty AF: The Anime Feminist Podcast. I’m Peter Fobian, the podcast editor, and this is Part 2 of our double-sized Sex Ed 120% podcast. So give the first half a listen if you haven’t, and I’ll hand things over to Dee, Alex, and Vrai.
DEE: So, circling back to the overarching, central conflict of the series, which is that Tsuji wants to teach outside the textbook and then kind of gets told she can’t, and so she winds up really having these… It seems like she’s having… Some of these conversations take place in their health class, because you see some of the other girls, but some of them take place after school. She almost starts a sex ed club, almost, with the three girls and then eventually Moriya’s girlfriend, and it follows all of their different school happenings going forward.
But there is sort of that central thing at the beginning where she comes in hard and then shows up in the second chapter, like, “Yeah, they’re making me teach from the textbook now. So, let’s just talk about our changing bodies or whatever.”
DEE: So, I did kind of want to spend some time talking about this series in context, because I figure folks at home might not be fully up to date on what sex ed looks like in Japan. I mean, just to start us off, the series is very clearly well-researched and pretty much everything I found meshes with what you see in the series, but it doesn’t necessarily go deep into the history. So I thought maybe we could talk about that for a little bit if y’all are cool with it.
ALEX: Go ahead. It’s about the education. We are here to learn.
DEE: That’s right! This is also a sex ed class in its own way.
So, my sources are multitude and I am not going to try to cite all of them on this podcast because that would be “Five minutes later” kind of deal. But just what was my solid overview starting point that I jumped off from was a Nippon article, so Nippon.com. It was called “Misplaced Modesty Hampers Sex Education in Japan’s Schools” and it was from 2019. That was my starting point. I spiraled out into some other places, so everything I say in the next little bit might not exactly be in that article, but that was where I started from. So, we’ll just cite that one to start.
So, a very brief overview of the history of sex ed in Japan. Up until the 1990s, it was pretty much slow progression. There was very much this focus on purity education post–World War II, you know, heteronormative, wholesome thought: “Sex equals reproduction” and “It’s your family duty” and all that.
But then from the ‘60s and on and gradually over the decades into the ‘90s, there was a push to bring in more physical elements, talking about genitalia development and functions and all that kind of stuff, and then a more comprehensive approach, so, social aspects, gender roles, things like that; consent, assault, those sorts of topics. So, up until the 1990s, sex ed in Japan was more or less on par with where it needed to be in comparison to the rest of the world. So, obviously not perfect, but giving people a decent, full picture of what was going on.
And then we get to 2003. Enter Koga Toshiaki, a Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member. Everybody, boo this man.
DEE: Thank you. So what happened was, there was a special support school in Tokyo, the Nanao School. So, effectively like a special ed school, so, for kids with mental disabilities.
[Correction: “Intellectual disabilities” would be the more accurate and accepted term these days. Dee apologizes for the mistake.]
My understanding is it went up through high school. The teachers there got together with the parents and tried to figure out… because—shock and awe—a lot of kids, as they start to get older, they start to become interested in sexuality. So, they got together with the parents and tried to figure out ways that they could explain and teach the kids about safe sex and contraception and pregnancy and all that stuff. So they come up with a system that involves little puppets and songs, and apparently the people within the district itself were pretty happy with this.
This Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member, Koga Toshiaki—boo this man.
DEE: Thank you, thank you, thank you. He walked in, saw this, said it was completely inappropriate. “How dare they? This is not what these kids should be taught.” And there was this huge backlash, a bunch of teachers lost their jobs, the principal was demoted.
The faculty and the parents fought back against it, took the case to court. As with a lot of court cases, it took forever. But they actually did win the case in 2013—that what they were doing was appropriate to the kids’ levels, and it didn’t necessarily match the national guidelines, but it was necessary for… it worked for them, right? So they won the case.
But as is the case with a lot of paper terrorism, the fact that this happened at all scared the hell out of teachers and school boards across the country, and sex ed really started to stagnate after that and it never really recovered.
So, the resulting curriculum from this is the Ministry of… So, they’re called M-E-X-T, so “mext.” It’s the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Social… It’s a really long name, but it’s the ministry of education in Japan. They set some national guidelines that local boards of education could adjust. So, somewhat similar to the US in terms of there’s some localization flexibility there. And also, teachers don’t technically have to teach everything. They can skip over stuff if they don’t feel comfortable about it, which is another conversation.
But there are very specific guidelines about what you can teach at each level, and that’s a lot of the time where schools will get into trouble: is because they’ll be like, “You shouldn’t be teaching about sexual intercourse until high school,” and the teacher’s like, “Yeah, but some of our junior high kids are having it, so what do we want to do about that?” So, you run into that.
Most of the textbooks are outdated and very conservative. One of my favorite pages is… it’s body models about: as your body grows, how it changes. Y’all, every model on this page is fully clothed.
ALEX: All right, okay.
DEE: So, wrap your head around the people in T-shirts and pants and it being like, “This is how your body changes.” “It like, looks taller, I guess? I guess the masculine model has some stubble on its face. I don’t know what I’m looking at here.”
And there will be a lot of lifestyle scenarios in them that tended to promote the breadwinner husband/housewife gender norms. Pretty obviously, the queer spectrum was completely ignored.
And then one of the big issues is conversations about consent and what even constitutes sexual assault are just avoided, just not talked about. So, there’s a big issue with people not necessarily even knowing… the idea that sexual assault has to be violent, and it doesn’t. So, you run across issues with that along the way.
Teachers are also given very little, if any, professional development. So, you run into a lot of situations where the teachers are either not comfortable teaching the material or they just don’t know enough to feel like they can really help their students.
And I read a really interesting survey from 2021, so this has held through to today. And they only interviewed like five teachers, so obviously, we can’t really generalize this to every teacher in Japan. But they did talk about how they wished there was more professional development because there were things they felt like the textbooks didn’t cover that they wanted to know more about. And one of the big ones that a few of them mentioned was sexuality and gender. So, clearly this is becoming a conversation within the schools that the teachers want to help their kids with, and they don’t have the resources because the guidelines at the national and district levels—or “ward levels” is probably the appropriate word in Japan—just are not there.
The argument for this—for why sex ed should be limited—is kind of the same one we hear in the States: is that if you teach sex, it will promote sex among the students. The quote is “waking the sleeping child,” which also actually shows up in My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, where she jokes like, “Yeah, they don’t want to wake the sleeping child, but that child is already awake.” And a lot of what I’m saying probably sounds extremely familiar to folks in the U.S., especially if you grew up in a more conservative community.
Surprise Pikachu Face, y’all! It doesn’t work. In 2015–2016—that was the the most recent study I could find—there’s been a rise in STDs, a rise in teens’ pregnancies and abortions, and a general lack of awareness about the HPV vaccine. Again, Surprise Pikachu Face that not teaching about sex didn’t stop people from having it. It just stopped them from having it responsibly.
And then one more story about Toshiaki Koga. Boo this man.
ALEX and VRAI: Boo!
DEE: Thank you. 2018, this asshole shows up again. So we went from 2003 to 2018. Like a bad penny, here he is again in my research.
The Adachi Ward in Tokyo was teaching about sex, contraception, pregnancy, and abortion to junior high school seniors—so ninth graders, basically. This is not supposed to be taught until high school. Here’s a great quote from one of the articles I read: “It was permissible to discuss present prevention of STDs, but you could not discuss intercourse, birth control, or abortion.” So we can talk about STDs, but not what causes or can prevent them.
So, Toshiaki makes a big stink about them teaching this too early for it to be appropriate for students. The ward’s reasoning for this was that they polled their students and 44% of them said it was okay to have sex in high school. So, they were like, “We need to educate them before they get to high school, so they have the tools in their toolbox to responsibly have sex in high school.”
I also feel like I have to bring this up: Adachi is one of the poorest wards in Tokyo. So it is high-risk, and the school’s goal was to help their students and promote safe sex because things like teen pregnancies are one of the reasons why poverty can continue to cycle forward into future generations. I like to point this out because you will notice that this absolute asshole Toshiaki—boo this man!—
DEE: Thank you. … went after a special needs school and one of the poorest schools in the city. So, he is intentionally going after at-risk, marginalized students, and that exceptionally pisses me off—the schools that are maybe perhaps least-equipped to fight back.
And the Board of Education on this one agreed with him and said that if you need to teach it earlier, then it should be done on an individual basis, [sarcastically] because that sounds like a great plan.
So that is where it has continued to be. In 2019, Kyodo News reported that in a poll, 40% of students said sex ed classes were useless.
DEE: They mostly got their information from websites and then friends and then social media.
Some of the guidelines have been revised slightly in recent years. There’s also been a push from some teachers in certain districts like Tokyo to have some changes in the curriculum. But as far as I can tell and based on the information within Sex Ed 120%—which, again, was published in 2020 and 2021—doesn’t sound like there’s been any major changes since then. So that’s how things are going there.
Again, not to make it sound like I’m a smug Westerner snubbing my nose at Japan. A lot of that sounds a lot like stuff in the U.S., so…
VRAI: [Chuckles] This all sounds very familiar.
DEE: Yeah, so this is a global problem in various nations—I’m sure not just our two. But it’s a lot of similar issues in terms of thinking that teaching abstinence-only or avoiding the subject… To me, the biggest difference I saw was, it feels like a lot of American schools, it’s very sex-negative. Like you get—maybe you get a little bit more information, but it’s all kind of geared towards terrifying you. I do think there’s more talk about consent and what assault is and who you should talk to if you’ve been inappropriately approached or what-have-you. Whereas in Japan there does seem to be an issue of just nobody talks about it. It’s just totally silent.
One of the quotes I… Okay, I do want to end on one more quote and then we can get into the manga. This is from the 2021 survey “Teaching sexuality education to secondary students in Japan”: “In Tokyo City schools, for example, teachers do not teach the names of sexual organs, talk about sexual intercourse, or introduce the subject of condoms. Furthermore, there is one school in which not even menstruation is taught because teachers are afraid of being criticized.”
So, it’s that paper terrorism, again, where these court cases that don’t hold up… Maybe they get shot down, but by the time they do, the damage has been done. And you definitely see that in U.S. school districts as well. Some more recent examples would be: the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in Florida, where you’re not supposed to be able to talk about queer relationships at all in schools, [or] a lot of the recent complaints in cases about critical race theory. Where basically none of this really holds water, but if you flood the district with enough complaints and court cases, they get scared and just stop teaching it because they can’t afford to fight all these cases. It’s not great!
So, Sex Ed 120%, if it feels like a breath of fresh air for English-speaking readers, it also probably, almost certainly felt that way for Japanese readers as well. The series is doing something that I would call “important,” maybe imperfectly at times, but it is going hard on topics that are ignored in schools and saying, “Hey, we should teach this. This is important. These teenagers, these are topics that they are aware of and have questions about and we need to make sure they get the correct information.” So that’s where Sex Ed 120% is coming from.
ALEX: And I think it has a great rebellious spirit to it, that it’s in that social context. It’s just fun but edutainment, but it’s like, oh my gosh, no, this is a very… It is all of that, but it is also genuinely a very transgressive text in a lot of ways, which makes it all the more ironic that it’s being wrapped in plastic and shelved away, at least at U.S. bookstores, because that info needs to get out there: it’s obviously scaring people!
VRAI: I affectionately term this series the perfected Azumanga Daioh because the girls very much remind me and there’s no creepy teacher. And also the teachers are dating just like we always secretly knew—I always secretly knew in my heart—that Miss Yukari was dating her girlfriend.
ALEX: Yeah, like we’ve sort of said before, it doesn’t have much in the way of plot, but what does end up tying it together is this, I thought, quite sweet and surprisingly nuanced and sort of complicated… yeah, the whole throughline about Tsuji. Suddenly, she’s the one getting advice from her students and they’re encouraging her to come out as bi and live her authentic self and go for it and ask the school nurse out, which is cute.
But also, yeah, I find it interesting as well that it doesn’t just have them running off into the sunset together at the end. They have a mature conversation together as adults where, being like, “I don’t know if this is going to work. I don’t want to ruin a professional relationship. I don’t know if that’s how I identify. I’ve been thinking about it.” But the ending of it and that sort of relationship arc was another interesting sort of refreshing detail to me, because it could have been easy to just be like, “And the teachers are dating! Curtain falls. Everybody, go home. Remember to use a dental dam.”
ALEX: But I don’t know, it added that extra little bit of refreshing nuance.
VRAI: The conversation where Tsuji talks about being bi is another one of my favorite moments in the series, because she’s so confident about “Well, yes, I’ve mainly dated women in my life, but I know because I just know, and you wouldn’t question this if it were a gay or a straight person.” It’s nice.
DEE: I think one of the series’s strengths, as hard as it goes—well, and we absolutely have to talk about the way it handles pregnancy and abortion and contraceptions and things on this episode. But I think in terms of the way it talks about and handles sexuality and sexual orientation is exceptionally good. Of the things it does well, I think that’s very high on the list, because you do get a pretty wide variety of people, which allows them to have these different discussions.
So, Tsuji is bi and so Tsuji is able to talk about the exclusion that folks in the bi community face from other members of the queer community. And she has that conversation about, like, “Yeah, people think I’m a fake bisexual because I’ve never actually dated a man, but I have been attracted to men so I know I’m bi.”
And I have a lot of bi friends who are in the same situation, where maybe they just didn’t date a lot growing up and they ended up… I have some some girl friends who ended up marrying guys but they’re like, “But I am bisexual. I am attracted to women. If something were to happen in this relationship… which, I’m very happy with this man, but I could absolutely see myself dating a woman. That is 100% on the table.” And having awkward conversations with their families like, “Oh, so does that mean you’re breaking up with your boyfriend?” “No, that’s not what that means!”
DEE: But then, you also have Maria and Aikawa, who are lesbians. They are pretty open about… only interested in women, full stop. And then you also have Kashiwa, who is… It would have been nice to get one more ace character because it’s nice to have characters who are ace and aromantic and then characters who are not. I like that variety. But it’s nice to see a series that is so much about sex and sexuality be like, “Yeah, but also, that’s not what everybody’s into. Some people just want to cuddle their cats and read up on biology.”
And I like to think that Kashiwa’s the secret hero of the story. Tsuji is the protagonist, but Kashiwa’s the hero because she’s so focused on, like, “I want to make sure that everyone in the school…” She’s so accepting of everybody immediately, which is really sweet. And then the culmination of the story is the biology club putting on this big presentation about sexuality and gender, specifically because she wants everyone in the school to feel comfortable and accepted and like they have a place here.
And I thought that was a really sweet touchstone to end the series on, and especially having it come from an ace character, where the series does talk about ace exclusion but also bi and ace exclusion within the queer community.
So, Kashiwa was a nice girl. The “kitty” bits at the beginning are hilarious, by the way.
VRAI: So good.
ALEX: My one nitpick is that they talk about asexuality but not aromanticism, and those are not always necessarily the same thing.
VRAI: Well, in my experience, that’s a little bit of a cultural difference where in—
ALEX: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that’s fair enough. They began to discuss her as this character who was not really interested in sex in the beginning, and that was enough for me initially. I was like, “Fantastic. That’s amazing.” But then it’d use the word “asexuality” and had the flag and talked about ace exclusion and different expectations. I was like, “Oh my God, this is so much more than I…” You know? I would have been happy with the one little sandwich they handed me in the first volume. By volume 3, I had this buffet in front of me. [Chuckles]
DEE: It was really nice, yeah. And the moment where she talks about “people telling me I’m just immature…” They all kind of talk like, “Oh, you’re just confused. It’s just a phase.” And she’s like, “Yeah, people tell me, oh, I’m just immature.”
And I’m like, “Yeah, I remember those conversations.” I didn’t have the word “ace” in my memory at the time, but I remember that.
ALEX: I didn’t learn about any of that stuff till I was in my early 20s, maybe. And I liked as well that she has that conversation with one or both of the girlfriends, where they’re like, “Yeah, we get the same stuff, a version of it. People will tell you, ‘Oh, don’t worry! You’ll find a nice boy and you’ll change your mind.’” People tell the lesbians that as much as they tell the asexuals. They had that solidarity established.
DEE: Yeah, despite— I mean, the series addresses… it acknowledges some of the exclusions and prejudices within the queer community. Which, I always love that. Our Dreams at Dusk does that as well, and I think that adds a level of nuance that makes it feel like the story was maybe written in sort of an Own Voices. Not that it 100% has to, but… you know.
I think there’s always that overarching conversation about liberation and acceptance, but then there are also these more interior conversations that need to happen within the community. And so I like it when series do touch on that. But I also love that it acknowledges that, but we don’t actually see that with any of the characters, right? They’re all very much like: solidarity. They find different things to bond on.
Even Matsuda, who says pretty early on, “I like boys, but I’m not really interested in dating right now,” even she has some moments where she’s like, “Oh, okay, I can totally understand where you’re coming from.” There’s not that sense of “Ooh, that’s weird” or anything. Even Nakazawa at the end, when Tsuji confesses [and] is like “I’m bi, by the way. I have a crush on you,” she’s not horrified. She’s just kind of curious. She’s like, “Can I ask you some questions about that?” And Tsuji’s like, “Yeah, go for it.”
So, throughout the series, it acknowledges those wider issues, but the story itself exists in a very warm and welcoming world, which is really nice to see.
ALEX: Yeah, it strikes a nice balance between addressing realities you might come across but also giving these characters and the people who might identify with them permission to romanticize their experiences as well.
DEE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, and I did— Just to swing back real quick, because we talked about it and then moved very quickly past it… For folks who may not be aware, the term “asexual” in Japan often is used as an umbrella term for asexuality and aromanticism. You will still see… I mean, recently we started to get some manga about ace characters, which is terrific. You will still see some characters who are ace but maybe not aromantic. I don’t think I’ve ever run into a series that, like, a character was explicitly aromantic but not asexual.
ALEX: Hm. That’s a less common combo certainly, and across all media.
DEE: Yeah, definitely.
ALEX: To add to our list of citations, the blog Coherent Cats recently, time of recording, put out a big sort of master list of new series with asexual characters in it, including talking about this one we’re talking about. So, hey, check that one out if you are interested in more resources.
DEE: Good plug. But because of that, because the term does tend to be used as sort of an umbrella in Japan, the character coming out as asexual in this, there might have been an understanding from audience members that it meant both. It can mean both. It can be sort of an and/or. There’s some fuzziness there.
And that’s with various terminology as well. X-gender can be genderqueer, bigender, agender… It’s got sort of a big umbrella, too, as far as nonbinary identity goes.
ALEX: Yeah. It was certainly not a criticism of the story. Again, from the perspective that I have, it’s the one thing I might have changed, but understanding, of course, it’s amazing that it’s there. And umbrella terms are great. I love ‘em. They’re very useful. Yeah, it’s inviting people under that umbrella. It’s saying, “Hey, it’s nice under here. Come check it out if you’re interested,” which is, again, fantastic.
Again, if you’re reading this and this is the first time you have come across this concept, I think it would be mind-blowing, and I think it introduces this in a very naturalized and a very nurturing kind of way that is so important, no matter how you identify. [Chuckles] So, I think that’s one of the main things that really pleasantly surprised me about the series, along with, of course, its frankness with all the reproductive stuff, which I believe we’re gonna get into.
DEE: Yeah. Tsuji looking dead at the camera and saying that “Reproductive rights are your human right” and “People, you might have complicated feelings about it, but you don’t need to feel guilty about it at all,” and shaking her students was so nice.
I was going to ask y’all this, because I can’t think… I can think of a couple, some manga and anime, that have touched… where abortion has maybe come up and maybe has been presented somewhat neutrally. But most of the time, it’s presented pretty negatively and I can’t think of a scenario where it was presented as explicitly “this is an okay thing to do” as this series… Is that something you’ve ever come across before?
VRAI: Not that’s coming to mind. Honestly, I’ve got a fairly short list of American media, even, that are positive about that.
DEE: [crosstalk] Also yes.
VRAI: Which, shoutout to Shrill, the sadly canceled-too-soon show, for having the character get an abortion and being okay with it in the first episode.
DEE: First episode, wow. Yeah. It took a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a couple of seasons, but they also did an arc about it as well that was very much like, “Yeah, no, that was the right decision for this person in this moment.” I appreciate it when it shows up, but it’s very rare.
ALEX: Yeah, I can’t think… There’s maybe a fantasy series I can think of has a very sort of abstract, metaphorical possible abortion kind of thing going on. But in terms of actual realism, I can’t think of any examples that I’ve come across for sure.
VRAI: And to be fair, I’m mostly a fan of classic shoujo, so that seems like the most likely place where it would be talked about, is shoujo or contemporary josei.
DEE: Yeah. No, that’s true. It comes up in Nana and is relatively neutral. I don’t want to give too many spoilers. She decides not to terminate the pregnancy, so I can’t necessarily describe it as a series where it happens and it is depicted as an okay thing to have happened, but it’s not necessarily presented as like “Oh, what a terrible thing. How dare you?” kind of thing, either. It’s very neutral in its presentation.
But otherwise, I couldn’t think of any other examples that were worth mentioning. So I was really impressed with that chapter.
I was also kind of horrified to learn more specifics about the way abortion works in Japan. Did y’all have that, as well: the cost and then legal requirements after the first trimester?
ALEX: Yeah, all of that was… I mean, it made me feel a bit guilty as well because I realized I don’t actually know that much about how it works where I’m from, aside from… My one mini-brush with it was having to get a morning-after pill once, which was fine and simple but expensive for the time. But otherwise, I don’t know. If someone asked me for help or for resources, I would have to really do a lot of research.
It has kind of inspired me to be like, I need to get across this sort of stuff and make sure that it’s information that is accessible, because it’s such a practical thing that should be destigmatized, and you should just have that information on hand and be able to just go do it.
So, yeah, that chapter was fascinating. And yeah, learning about the expense, and I think “if you’re under 18 needing parental permission”—was that as well, or am I mixing that with something else?
VRAI: Correct me if I’m wrong, Dee. I think that’s certainly true in the U.S.
DEE: Parental permission? It depends.
VRAI: Like everything.
DEE: Yeah, it’s very state-by-state. And I didn’t spend quite as much time on abortion laws for this one as I did just overarching sex ed, history type stuff, so I can’t give you more specifics beyond “it depends.”
ALEX: We can reasonably assume, based on your previous research, that it’s not something that’s widely known and widely taught.
DEE: Oh no, this is 100% true. And I mean, part of the reason we’re having this podcast is the fight for reproductive rights is ongoing here, and there are a lot of places where it’s functionally illegal, even if it’s not technically illegal, because they’ve just figured out ways to shut down as many clinics as they possibly can or limit it to the first trimester only or, God, sometimes even the first six weeks or something absurd like that. So, yeah, it depends on the state.
Some states, it’s pretty straightforward. There’s probably a clinic nearby and you go and it’s done, basically. And then other states, it is not that simple and, I would imagine, quite expensive in some places as well.
So, cost was a thing that popped up a few times in this where I definitely kind of marked that as a note of “Oh, so this is prohibitive towards people.” It’s not necessarily covered under health insurance. Which, you know, Japan does have public health insurance that covers, not 100%, but a decent chunk of medical expenses. But apparently, these procedures are not covered within it, which is kind of fucked up. Especially, like you said, the morning-after pill being expensive was frustrating to me, because that’s such a simple and straightforward thing and should just be readily available.
But yeah, it was one of those things where we need series like these… well, we need schools to teach it, but we need series like these in every country so you can get also the specifics of how it works, so you have that information going in.
And then, obviously, I think the main push in this series is… Because Tsuji has that quick backstory chapter where she’s in high school and she thinks one the other girls in school is ostracized because she has an abortion, which turns out to not be the case. But she has that thought of “Man, if we’d known each other beforehand, I could have taught her so many cool things about contraception!”
DEE: So there’s very much a push in the story of “If you get pregnant and you do not want to be pregnant, here is how you can get an abortion, and that is okay. But ideally, you don’t have to deal with that, so here’s all these ways to make sure that you’re having safe sex and you have whatever contraception you need.” Like that extensive chapter on the pill and IUDs and everything in between, which I also thought was really nice to have such a detailed explanation of birth control as well.
ALEX: Yeah, for sure. And even… I… Some of that was a little bit familiar, not necessarily from school, but certainly conversations I’ve had with my mom and other women in my family. They’re like, “Hey, you can take the pill and you can use it to skip your period if you want,” because I was like, “What?! Is that allowed? Do I get in trouble?” They’re like, “No, just don’t take the sugar pills and you can go on holiday and you don’t have to worry about going swimming and stuff.” I was like, “Aw! That rules!” So, not even as a contraceptive, just for the quality of life, things like that are super important to get that info across.
DEE: Yeah, I mean, I am continuously not sexually active and I’ve been on birth control off and on because I get really bad cramps and birth control can help with that. So, I think I got on the pill pretty much as soon as you could because I was the “I need to go home for the day” level of cramps when I was in early high school. So, pretty much as soon as I could get on the pill, I got on it and it was like, “Yeah, I’m not having sex. I just need this for other medical purposes.” So, yeah, like you said, there’s other uses for it that it’s helpful for people to be aware of.
ALEX: But also, if you want to have it because you want to be able to have sex safe without worrying about it, that is also fantastic.
DEE: It’s also great for that. “And here are some things you should know about it,” like “Make sure you take it every day because of this, that, and the other” type stuff. The series covers all that really well.
VRAI: Everyone I knew in high school who was on birth control was definitely on it because of cramps and for no other reasons.
DEE: And I am well aware that that was often used as an excuse to get your parents to sign off on it. I don’t think my mom would have necessarily cared. But I actually wasn’t! [Chuckles] It’s like that joke about “Oh, I only read Playboy for the articles.” No, I actually was that person! [Assumes a plaintive voice] I know it’s usually a lie, but it’s not this time. I swear.
ALEX: I mean, it’s just a classic thing. It’s like, yeah, why not both? It doesn’t actually matter why you’re on it, as long as you can… Give it to ‘em. [Chuckles] Make it accessible and don’t ask for the reason. It doesn’t matter. It’s their business. [Chuckles]
DEE: Exactly. I was gonna say, “How about ‘none of your business’? How about that?”
[Amused] This is a thing a podcast host should always say: “What’s next?”
No, is there a particular topic…? Like I said, this series is a grab bag. We could go chapter by chapter talking about it. But was there any subject in particular you wanted to make sure we touched on?
We might want to spend a little bit of time on Tsuji as a teacher and a human with personal boundaries, because I was not so sure about her at the start of the series. Vrai, it sounds like you weren’t either.
VRAI: Yeah, I guess we should maybe go into that in a little more depth since we touched it at the very beginning. Like I said, after literally the first two or three chapters, I think the series really evened itself out in terms of both her backing off of invading other people’s boundaries and what they do or aren’t comfortable talking about, and also with Nakazawa drawing a hard line.
But yeah, those first two chapters, where it’s just “hilarious” groping because she’s just so darn enthused—and I was really worried that the series was going to use that as an excuse because “Oh, she’s just overzealous, which makes it okay that she’s fondling another character,” but it really doesn’t.
ALEX: I guess this says something about what I have come to perhaps expect and the low bar I have for anime comedies that I was just like, “Oh yeah. That’s just what’s happening.” That kind of sucks but I wouldn’t have thought to complain about it necessarily! Until it improved and I was like, “Oh, okay. Yeah, we don’t have to be like this. That’s right.” [Chuckles] Which is, you know…
DEE: We can be better, manga and anime. We don’t have to use sexual harassment for comedy.
ALEX: It’s that classic gag, right? A character will say something and someone else will be like, “That’s sexual harassment!” and comedically slap them or something. And they’ll be like, “Oh, okay, I won’t do it again.” That’s often there as a joke in a lot of… It’s a trope that we’ll all find familiar.
So when that showed up, I was like, “Oh yeah.” And then I was like, “Oh, wait, no. They’re being serious about this. That was an invasive question to ask your 16-year-old students, and she’s not going to do it again. Oh! Okay. Cool.” [Chuckles]
DEE: Yeah, yeah, I do appreciate that she learns. And during the chapter about the pickup artist, she kind of has that conversation with Nakazawa, like, “Oh, God, am I doing the same thing? Do I make you as uncomfortable as these guys?” And Nakazawa’s like, “I know you’re not objectifying me. It’s sort of flirting, but there’s some sincerity behind it. And I know you genuinely care about me as a person, so I will let you know when you cross the line, but overall, it doesn’t really bother me.”
And so, as the series says, sex ed is an ongoing process that you will continue to educate yourself into adulthood. And so, Tsuji learning and growing from that, I think, was good.
As a child of teachers, I definitely had some moments in the early chapters where I was like, “This is unprofessional. Tsuji, I appreciate you. I appreciate you wanting to educate your students on this, and it’s really very cool that you brought both condoms and dental dams, because that is not a thing that would have happened when I was in school. But you can’t ask your students these kinds of personal questions or, just completely unprompted, explain to them that, yeah, you totally masturbate!”
There is a private and public boundary that Tsuji crosses, and honestly, even at the end, when she’s telling them about her specific love life… Obviously, I think teachers should be able to, in passing, mention their partner, their spouse, their girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever, and be open about their sexuality in school in terms of “Yeah, I’m bi” or that kind of identity label. But there’s a certain unprofessionalism to be like, “Yeah, so, hey, guys, I really like this girl. Should I ask her out? Here’s our entire situation.” It’s like, “No. They’re your students. Don’t do that, Tsuji.”
And obviously, they’re very sweet and understanding students, and, as Sex Ed 120% would remind me, this is fiction, not reality, and there is a difference between the two. It having that line throughout it probably helps.
But yeah, I think as overall the characters grow… Do you guys think Tsuji and Nakazawa date and get together at the end, or do you think they end up going back to being friends?
VRAI: I want them to make it, though.
ALEX: I don’t know. Like I said, I kind of like how ambiguous it leaves. That felt like a nice drop of realism among the whole big happy ending, “Go get ‘em, teach!” kind of finale.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s odd to think of them running off into the sunset and getting married. But I’d like to think that they tried it out and they were successful. I don’t know. See how it goes, you know?
VRAI: Again, I am a little bit sublimating, being “This is all of my Miss Yukari and Nyamo…”
DEE: You were connecting it to Azumanga Daioh and you’re like, “Yes! It’s finally canon.”
VRAI: [Laughs] Yes.
But really, I think one of the only things we haven’t touched on yet a little bit is the bit of Nakazawa’s character arc where her main struggle is that she sort of feels these heteronormative expectations on her as she nears 30 and like, “Well, I should be getting married and having a kid,” and she just never thought about whether that’s what she wanted. And I like that it’s kind of a deft touch on that.
So, maybe they don’t work out long term, but I really like the slow growth of their relationship, and I feel like it is warm and positive and believable in how they slowly grow closer and share interests and like doing stuff together. It’s nice.
DEE: Yeah, I think, you know, sometimes when you talk about the queer umbrella, “questioning” is sometimes… is considered one of the… And so, it was cool to see a character who actually was that, questioning, like, “I’m not sure if I want to have a romantic relationship with a woman, but I do like you. So we can try this out and I can see if it works.” You know, that sort of openness to be like, “Well, I mean, I definitely like you as a person, so maybe we can hang out and go on dates, and we’ll sort of see where it goes from there,” was nice to see.
And you know, Vrai, now that you say that, I’m realizing that there is a… Like we were talking about, Tsuji has kind of an undercurrent of her growing and learning throughout the story. I think you get a sense of who Nakazawa is and that sense of her feeling trapped throughout the story as well. Because the lessons where she’s more likely to chime in or get sort of passionate tend to be about heteronormative expectations. She gets more involved in the conversations about consent and assault, and they have that whole conversation at the beach about pickup artists.
And so, I think that when you get that moment at the end where she’s like, “Yeah, I just always figured in my late 20s I’d get married. That was the path set out before me. That was always going to be my path, and I just never thought about what other roads there might be for me,” I think you can see that in her character as something she was frustrated about without maybe acknowledging it, with her frustrations with gender norms and especially more “how women are treated in society” sort of topics.
So, it’s a slow burn and sort of a subtle undercurrent with her character, but Tsuji coming to a moment at the end where she feels comfortable coming out with these personal, emotional feelings and then Nakazawa feeling comfortable trying a different path than the one that has been prescribed—the heteronormative expectations for her—they both make it to good stopping points in their journey. And so it kind of makes sense for them to be able to move forward from here and whatever that relationship ends up being.
But yeah, no, Vrai, you said that and I was like, oh yeah! I guess that is something that we’ve sort of seen with Nakazawa really from the start, and it just sort of becomes explicit at the end.
ALEX: And it makes a nice contrast as well that the one established relationship in the beginning is the two lesbians. You have a spectrum, then, of relationships between women. And there’s something to be said for how, you know, the kids have it figured out. The kids are the future, and maybe it’s the adults who are still learning. And I don’t know, something that’s kind of fun.
DEE: Yeah, the generational gap and how the younger generation is more open to queerness, both in terms of sexuality and gender. And so, yeah, having those characters from the start. But even they still have concerns about coming out and they talk about feeling like they can’t talk about their crushes at summer camps and things like that.
But then they do come out and everyone… Again, it’s one of those series that acknowledges that there are some real-world prejudices that maybe don’t exist within the comfy spaces of the comedy series itself, which… It’s nice. It’s nice to have those safe spaces, I think, and that is very much what Tsuji’s class becomes for the kids, I think.
ALEX: Accidentally makes a Queer Alliance Club.
DEE: She kinda does, right? Yeah, it very much is like the school alliance club, culminating in that lovely bio project.
ALEX: Yeah. Because it’s a series that could have just kept going indefinitely as it comes up with new topics to cover, but they wrapped it up nicely, I think. It makes it nice and accessible to purchase. It’s just a little trilogy you can pick up. It’s only three books to tear the plastic wrap off…
ALEX: … in the bookstore when you’re sneaking by.
DEE: I was gonna say, if you go to one of the bookstores Vrai’s been to, the plastic will already be torn off for you. So there you go! Save yourself some time!
ALEX: “Something has happened here.” Touch the ground.
ALEX: Direct action.
DEE: That’s right. Yeah, that was another point that— Sorry. Now that you’ve said that, that is the other final note in the story, right, is: education is good; action actually creates change. Which I thought was an important point for the series to end on with Tsuji going, “Okay, I’ve been teaching my kids all about accepting yourself and sexuality positivity and body positivity and all this good stuff, but I haven’t been able to do that myself and I need to walk the walk a little bit and lead by example.”
And then the kids putting the big bio project together to ripple-effect that out to the rest of the school so that the rest of the school can learn about these things. I thought that was a really nice capstone on it, too, that it was like, obviously, the learning is essential, but then there’s a next step to it, and that’s the step that our characters are in the process of taking. You know, “educate yourself and then volunteer,” I guess.
ALEX: You know, spread the joy. Take what you have learned and bring it to other people who may also need it. That ripple effect.
DEE: Exactly, exactly. So that was another really great point that I was happy it ended on, to kind of, in a way, connect the… “Here’s what we learned today, kids. Now here’s how you can use it,” which I think is an important bridge point for edutainment-style series, series that I would say have a message that they are trying to get out.
VRAI: It’s a nice little series, and I really hope that we get an anime of it because by its nature anime tends to reach so many more people, and I think if you did 10-minute shorts of these, it would be a really good little series.
DEE: I think you could… I mean, again, three volumes? You could very neatly fit this into a cour. So, 12, 13 episodes, probably. I think it would be lovely to see that done. And I would want Yamazaki Mitsue to do it because she’s a terrific director who should direct all the comedies [chuckles]… is my personal opinion there.
All right, guys! Final question that we ask every episode on Chatty AF: is this series feminist or not?
VRAI: [gravely] Don’t lie to the people!
DEE: [Laughs] I’m sorry!
DEE: Everyone, newcomers listening to this, we do not ask that question. That question is reductive. Fiction is complex, and so is feminism. Obviously, this series touches on a lot of feminist themes and, I think, has a lot of progressive ideals at its core. But we do not actually ask that question. It’s a running joke that we do not ask that question, or one of the hosts will groan angrily like Vrai just did.
ALEX: The rituals are intricate. [Chuckles]
DEE: Yeah. If we ask it, it’s usually in jest or to troll somebody else on the call. So, we will not finish up with that question. I will finish up by saying: do you have any final thoughts?
ALEX: Yeah, I think it’s nice. In the same way that “Is this feminist?” is not a yes-or-no question, “Is this good representation?” is not a yes-or-no question as well. So I think, yeah, it has… But I think it’s a pretty good example. Certainly, like I said, the way it was inclusive of queer experiences, including those that are very underrepresented currently in media from all around the world, like, again, bisexuality, asexuality, mentioning that nonbinary exists, that all was a real pleasant surprise to me.
And I felt, yeah, it wasn’t just bullet-pointed. It was through the lens of these characters you really come to be quite fond of, and I think that’s the best way to go about it, you know? So I think, yeah, it’s a really impressive series. It’s a really fun little one.
And I hope that… I only would have known it existed because Vrai mentioned it in, I think, another one of our podcasts. So, you know, yeah, that’s what we gotta do: ripple effect. You gotta spread the word. So hey, I hope this encourages some people to go check it out. I think it has a lot to offer.
DEE: Yeah, that’s right: Vrai enacted the change in our group by telling us about this series. So, perfect.
DEE: Vrai, any final thoughts from you?
VRAI: Not really, this is a good series. Go read it.
DEE: Well, there we go. Yeah, get this into every library you can because teenagers should be reading this series. I think it would be very helpful.
All right, then. I think that’s a great note to end on, guys.
ALEX: Yeah. Sounds good.
DEE: Yeah. Go read Sex Ed 120%. Final answer over here.
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And remember: they may be private parts, but they can also be pride parts!
Thank you, Tsuji-sensei. You’re a gift.