Dee, Alex, and Cy discuss asexual and aromantic coded characters and several new manga with explicit ace and/or aro leads.
Date Recorded: February 1, 2022
Hosts: Dee, Alex, Cy
0:02:14 Ace/Aro 101
0:10:05 Conflation with frigidity/prudishness/trauma
0:12:18 Linguistic differences between Japanese and English
0:15:50 Koisenu Futari and recognition and evolution of terminology
0:19:52 Ace coding in anime and manga
0:28:30 Favorite ace/aro coded characters
0:42:10 Our Dreams at Dusk and Sex Ed 120%
0:49:50 I Want to be a Wall
DEE: Hello and welcome to Chatty AF: The Anime Feminist Podcast. I’m Dee, one of the managing editors at AniFem. You can find all my writings on my blog The Josei Next Door, and you can also hang out with me on Twitter and Tumblr and kind of Mastodon @joseinextdoor. And I am joined today by my fellow AniFem staffers: Cy and Doctor Alex.
CY: Ooh, fancy!
ALEX: [Laughs] Not officially graduated yet, but I will take it! I will absolutely take it. Hi, everyone. I’m Alex. I’m one of the contributions [editors] here at AniFem, and in my other life I do research on queer representation in young adult fiction. And I’m on Twitter, sporadically, as TheAfictionado.
CY: And hi, everyone, I’m Cy, and I think this is the first time I’m saying that on a podcast recording, and it feels very good.
DEE: Oh, that’s exciting!
CY: It’s really exciting! I am also an editor here at Anime Feminist, as well as a light novel editor and a visual novel editor for Japanese-to-English media. Yeah.
DEE: So fancy! I love it. You guys have such exciting intros. I need to up my game.
DEE: So, today, we are looking at asexual and aromantic representation in Japanese media! Which is a mouthful to say, so expect me to use the shorthands “ace” and “aro” for pretty much the entirety of this episode.
We’ve actually toyed with doing this episode for literal years. Alex and Cy, I don’t think you guys were even on the staff the first time it got pitched in group. But we kept deferring it because I’d be like, “Okay, so then we’ll get to the part of the episode where we talk about canon representation and it’ll just be crickets for 15 minutes. That sounds fun.” So we kind of just kept pushing it back, pushing it back.
But happily, the past few years have seen some honest-to-goodness explicit ace and aro characters in Japanese media, especially manga, so we can finally have this chat. Huzzah and hooray.
DEE: That having been said, while ace/aro visibility has, I would say, significantly increased in recent years, it’s still fairly underrepresented and misunderstood as part of the big, colorful queer umbrella. So, we figured we’d start this episode by taking some time to give everyone a little 101 lesson, touch briefly on the variety of subcategories that make up the ace/aro spectrum.
And this part I will be turning over to my research pals. Alex, do you want to kick us off here?
ALEX: Sure thing. So, as much as they are under the big queer umbrella as you said, “asexual” and “aromantic” are umbrella terms in and of themselves. They encapsulate a lot of different experiences and identification. But if we’re probing for a broad definition, people usually land on “experiences little to no sexual attraction” for asexuality and likewise “experiences little to no romantic attraction” for aromanticism.
Now, how do we define romantic attraction and sexual attraction exactly? That is an excellent question. That is one for the philosophers and the queer theorists and one we would spend probably the whole podcast untangling if we were to get into it. This is one of those things that it kind of… An important thing to remember about these labels is that they can sort of mean something different to each person. You know, if I say, “Hey, I am ace,” that may embody totally different for me than it does to the next person. And I think that is one of the really beautiful things about it.
Both of these identities… they exist on a spectrum. There are many (I guess you could call them) micro-identities up and down that spectrum, should you want a more specific name for what you’re feeling, for example: demisexual or graysexual or anything else along that. There’s a whole wiki full of them that we could pop a link in the show notes for, if you’re interested.
Most importantly, as well, asexuality and aromanticism aren’t the same thing, and they don’t always go together either. Sometimes they do, of course, but it’s never good to assume that a person who is ace is automatically also aro, or vice versa.
We also go for, again, that broad definition “little to no attraction” because it lets you cover a lot of bases and leaves room for nuance. As we may discuss as we get into some of our fictional examples later, some asexual people are really yucked out by sex, even conceptually. To be more official, you might call that being sex-repulsed. But some are still interested, just not quite to the level that’s expected from a heteronormative society. That’s kind of the important clincher there.
And of course, one of the things you gotta remember is that your sexual attraction, your sexual activity, and your actual libido are all different, often interconnected but different things. So, for example, maybe you get horny but you’re not horny for anyone [chuckles], which is a little crass, but I think that explains how some people do experience their aceness.
Another thing to touch on at this early stage, while we’re nerding out these nuances, is that this idea of sexual attraction or romantic attraction… Again, how exactly you might define them personally may be very different, but they’re an important thing to bring up because a lot of aro/ace theory and discussion stems from positioning these as separate but interlocking things. This is sometimes called the split-attraction model.
To use one of our fictional character examples that we’re going to come back to later, you may be romantically attracted to people regardless of their gender; you might think, “Ooh, I might…” You might get a crush on them, you want to date them, but you might not feel sexually attracted to anyone. So we might call that being biromantic asexual. Or in the reverse, if you find yourself sexually attracted to people of all shapes and sizes but you don’t tend to fall in love or get crushes or crave that romantic experience with anyone, you might call yourself aromantic bisexual or pansexual or whatever you feel best describes you.
Again, these are spectrums and they’re umbrella terms that are meant to capture a lot of possibility. They’re not about nailing down the specifics and really putting yourself in the perfect little box. They’re there to provide a variety of language to draw from when you’re conceptualizing your identity and expressing how you experience these things differently to, again, what the hetero norm of society expects.
Now, I identify as ace but not as aro, and while these overlap… They are happy neighbors in terms of queer identity, but they aren’t the same thing.
So, that’s kind of the basic rundown of what being ace is and the way things work. But for an aro perspective, I would love to hand over to you, Cy.
CY: Yeah, so, I am someone who identifies as aromantic. I have pretty much my entire life; I just didn’t have the words for it. And kind of like what you said, Alex, I think aromanticism and asexuality get conflated. And this is something that I feel is quite common when people talk about it, but they are really distinct and I think that’s really important.
WebMD curiously describes aromanticism as having “little or no romantic attraction to others” but also notes that, obviously, people who are aromantic may experience sexual attraction and may also experience romantic attraction. You can kind of break this down into aromantic asexuals versus aromantic sexuals. I, myself, happen to be someone who is an aromantic asexual, and I kind of fall across the spectrum.
You can also break this down— You can break aromanticism down into many different kinds of points on a spectrum. You’ve got demiromantic, lithromantic, you’ve got gray aromantic. You’ve got one that I can’t really pronounce. And y’all, I tried so hard, but we’re gonna see if I can pronounce it right now: [quoiromantic]. That sounds good. Shout out to my [quoiromantic] people. And you’ve got cupioromantic.
And all of these range from demiromantic being someone who might form romantic feelings after a significant bond or a really strong emotional foundation, ranging up to people who are cupioromantic, who might be people who are aromantic but want a romantic relationship. You’ve got a range of people who… they might want a romantic relationship, but when that is realized, the feeling kind of dissipates.
And all of these kind of blend together in something that society tends to identify as being prudish or immature. But it’s really important to understand that aromantic people aren’t that. They’re not prudish or immature. Aromanticism is just another form of experience in the world, and it’s another form of experiencing romance or, for some people, the lack thereof.
One thing that’s often conflated with aromanticism, as well, is being cold or robotic and there being this distance, because we all live in societies that are very romance oriented. Romance is often… In a binary society, that is the best thing a cis feminine person or a cis woman can do. That’s kind of the peak.
And aromanticism kind of, in and of itself, refutes that by its existence but also explores a wider range of intimacy that can range from queerplatonic relationships to cohabitation to raising a child together in a relationship where you’re best friends but maybe you love the other person on a platonic level or a filial level but not a romantic level.
Much like asexuality, it’s just a spectrum. And I think it’s one that is still struggling in society to be understood on a wider level because society kind of… romance is kind of the peak. I am someone who is 30 and I have no desire to be married, and I am still told, you know, “You’ll find the one.” And that’s kind of a common refute with aromanticism, is “You’ll find the one.” I don’t want to find the one. I like myself, and I’m happy like that. And I think a lot of aromantic people would also agree. So, yeah, that’s your little aromanticism 101. [Chuckles]
ALEX: And yeah, good, too, to note some of those stigmas and specific things, which I feel like we’ll get back to as we go further along.
DEE: And to be fair, some ace and aro people probably are immature and prudish, but it’s not because they’re ace and aro. Anyone can be immature and prudish. Anyone!
ALEX: [Obscured by crosstalk]
CY: I’m just gonna say, sexuality doesn’t mean you have a good personality. [Chuckles]
DEE: Extremely true. But you definitely get that conflation of, like you said, the image of the cold figure or the idea that it’s the same as being sex-negative.
CY: I think another thing that’s really important to add for both is that people often perceive asexuality and aromanticism as reactionary things that are triggered by trauma. And you can be an asexual person— And I’ll just speak for myself in this example. I’m an asexual person that has a history of sexual assault. I am not asexual because I have a history of sexual assault. I’m asexual because I’m asexual. I would be asexual if I had a perfectly mundane life.
And for some people, asexuality might be a factor of a response to trauma. But that is a case-by-case basis, and one of the things you can’t do with aromanticism or asexuality is conflate someone’s past history with why they are or why they identify as something. And that goes for the entire spectrum of identity.
ALEX: I was gonna say, in the same way you can’t make assumptions about people’s background for any sexuality they have. You know, saying, “Oh, you’re obviously ace because this thing happened to you” is… You know, it’s the same kind of poisonous as saying, “Oh, well, you’re obviously gay because this happened to you.” You know? It’s all shared.
CY: The slippery slope to start assuming that someone is something because of an inciting incident from your perspective, right? I’m ace because I’m cool. [Chuckles]
DEE: Aces! Like the best character on an anime sports team, aces are cool.
ALEX: Every team needs an ace.
DEE: I wanted, real quick, to talk a little bit about the linguistic differences in Japanese versus English, which I… You know, folks at home, if you have a detailed understanding of this, please do correct me if I flub something here.
But something that you will come across in manga frequently… I say “frequently.” There’s not that many stories with ace characters. But a lot of the time in manga when you come across [it], they will refer to asexuality and it kind of gets conflated as asexuality and aromanticism, and it’s definitely something I’ve noticed a couple of times. One of the reasons for that is some linguistic differences between, so I did sort of want to highlight that before we go forward.
So, for a while, “asexual” typically meant aromantic asexual. And when I say “asexual,” I mean the English borrow word, like “eisekushuaru” [a transliteration of “asexual”], would be “aromantic asexual” in Japanese.
There were Japanese terms, but they don’t seem to be in use very much. They were “museiai” and “hiseiai.” But they don’t seem like they get used very often. So, it seems like for the most part, the English borrow words have been the ones that have taken the forefront.
And then for a while, the term “nonsekushuaru” [a transliteration of “nonsexual”] was used to mean someone who was romantic asexual.
And there was no term, from what I could tell…! Our poor allosexual aromantics. There was no term for that. And I don’t want to forget about y’all. Nobody on this call is allosexual romantic—wait, sorry, the other way around—aromantic allosexual. But I don’t want to forget about y’all. Y’all are also valid.
DEE: But I couldn’t really find any Japanese terms for that. It was just aromantic asexual and romantic asexual. From what I’ve seen in newer writings from 2020 forward, it does seem like the term “nonsexual” is falling out of usage and they’re starting to use “asexual” and “aromantic” in ways that are similar to the way they’re being used in the U.S.
Cy, I know you lived in Japan for a few years. I don’t know if you encountered this language at all while you were there.
CY: Yeah! So, it’s interesting because while I lived in Japan, I did encounter “asexual,” and I would say from a Western perspective “asexual” and “aromantic” at the time when I lived in Japan (so, 2016 to 2020) were, from my point of view, very conflated. It’s kind of interesting because we’ve seen the same thing happening with “X-gender” being used in English parlance, which is I think “X-gender” gets conflated with androgyny, whereas in Japan “X-gender” would be more, from my perspective, equated to being agender.
And so, you see this interesting thing that happens with eisekushuaru [translit. “asexual”] being used to kind of represent two groups under the ace umbrella, which I think can be quite confusing because, from a North American perspective and specifically an American perspective, asexuality and aromanticism are so distinct for me. So, yeah, you’re pretty on it.
DEE: Yeah. And I kind of wonder if the situation right now and the reason it is kind of getting lumped together is because nonsekushuaru [translit. “nonsexual”] started to fall out of usage but “aromantic”… it’s taking a while to get into usage. So, during that transition period, “asexual” just kind of ended up meaning both ace and ace-aro.
So, you’ll often see it used and there can definitely be that moment when you’re reading where you’re like, “Well, don’t forget that these two are different,” that these are unique, separate things and don’t always come together. But it’s just a part of the language, as language is consistently and constantly changing. So, we’ll see if it continues to shift going forward.
CY: Actually, there’s some really great news out of Japan concerning “aromanticism” being used on a wider scale.
DEE: Oh, yeah?
CY: So, in 2022, NHK, which is Japan’s biggest broadcasting network (it’s a huge thing), began airing the TV drama Koisenu Futari, which basically—
DEE: Oh, yeah, I heard about this.
CY: —is like “The Two Aren’t in Love.” And it is a show that focuses on an aromantic female protagonist, an overtly aromantic female protagonist.
So, I am sure that people have started to hear that term, and I would expect in the next few years there to be kind of the delineation that happens with English, of “asexuality” being here, “aromanticism” being here, and understanding the crossover and interplay. I fully expect to see those loanwords becoming much more prominent. And that’s exciting. That’s really great. I love it.
ALEX: Yeah, and it’s important to recognize, too, that even in the English-language context, the discussion around asexuality and aromanticism is, in the grand scheme of history, relatively new, which of course is kind of one of the reasons, among others, that it can be dismissed and discounted, is because its rise in the development of this discourse and these labels sort of coincides with the rise of internet culture.
And so, you get that classic argument that’s like, “Ah! This is just teens making this up on the internet. It’s not real.” Which is, of course, a silly thing to say. That is my professional opinion. [Chuckles]
But yeah, one of the really interesting things is that, yeah, this terminology and the different things that it can mean to different people and in different contexts, it’s in flux and it’s developing. And hey, someone might listen to this podcast in 5 or 10 or 15 years and these terms… The context around them might be totally different because the discussion may have continued to evolve and we may have come up with new words or new developments of these words.
And, you know, it’s never static, so, again, why I’ve gone for such broad divisions and definitions is because it is something that’s flexible, and that is something that I find really interesting and actually really useful about it.
CY: For sure. You know, as we were getting the notes together, I was thinking about my own understanding stemming from a lot of learning through educational blogs on Tumblr and, I will also say, learning through queerascat, who… They are a person living in Japan— At least as far as I remember when I interacted with them, they’re a person living in Japan, a Black person living in Japan who identifies as maverique, which is specifically a Black-coded gender identity but also one of the spectrum, and I remember learning a lot about asexuality and aromanticism from them, as well as Tumblr.
And at that time, when I was learning, demisexuality and graysexualities were kind of conflated. And so, there’s been this separation that I’ve seen. So, yeah, it is always moving. And I think that’s kind of the great thing about sexuality: these terms move and flux.
DEE: The language is changing, people are becoming more aware of this and trying to figure out where the divisions are and how to explain, like, “This is my experience of these different feelings and these relationships.” And so, it can be a little overwhelming, I think, but it’s very exciting to see because, I mean, ten years ago I was basically just learning the word “asexual,” and now you get online and there’s so many resources and there’s comic characters, there’s characters in my shows who identify under these terms, and it’s very heartening to see. But for quite a while there—
Oh, also, I didn’t say this. You guys very elegantly laced in your identities while you were doing the 101 stuff and I didn’t mention at all. I am ace. I am not aro. I don’t like talking about myself, so we’re gonna move on!
ALEX: [Laughs] That’s okay! We can frame this nicely in fiction and then hide behind that. [Chuckles]
DEE: Yeah. Yeah, I’ll talk characters all day. Let’s do it. Yeah.
So, the first thing I wanted to talk about, before we get into some of the more recent canonical, explicit representations, is that for a long time, if you wanted to find your ace/aro rep in fiction, you had to find it in coding.
And I would say that anime and manga is, despite having a reputation for being extremely horny, which it can be… I also think it can be a really easy place to find ace/aro rep because there’s a lot of series where romantic relationships or sex don’t necessarily come up.
You have a lot of nebulous, intimate relationships that don’t necessarily have labels, or characters aren’t smooching on screen, so you can kind of… I mean, for the same reason that you get a lot of people shipping characters in romantic relationships in these series, you can kind of see, maybe, the relationship you are looking for, that you maybe don’t see on, let’s say, American television for teens, which is often very focused on sex and romance.
CY: [crosstalk] Very horny.
DEE: Yeah. [Chuckles]
ALEX: Oh, boy.
CY: So horny!
DEE: And so, I wanted to kind of talk about, like, is that something that… Do you feel like that’s maybe something that drew you guys to anime and manga, was that ability to find those relationships that were lauded as being equally as important as a romantic relationship amongst characters?
CY: I’m of two minds. Like, I would love to say yes. But I think for me, realistically, growing up in a society where romance is the thing you do, I don’t know if I consciously recognized that that’s why I liked certain characters or that’s what drew me to anime and manga.
I would say now, yeah, for sure. I love being able to find characters that I can kind of vibe with because I can see the aceness and the aroness. But I think, growing up, what drew me was just I liked series where romance wasn’t the focus. And thankfully, there’s so many! But there’s also a lot that’s not, right? And so, it is kind of a difficult one. But I think now, for sure, that’s a draw.
ALEX: I think you’ve written about this before, Dee. So, this is not to steal your thunder; this is to draw on your own grown ideas.
As you say, there’s a lot of horny romcoms out there, for sure. But likewise, I think I’ve found, or at least I sort of remember picking up on this when I was, for example, a teenager watching anime: is, a lot of the way that romance is constructed in a lot of anime is often kind of slow burn and, I don’t know, there’s often a lot of emphasis placed on, like, [Gasps] “We touched hands!” or [Gasps] an indirect kiss, really putting intimacy on quite a high [Gasps] “That’s really exciting!” and “Oh my God,” as opposed to taking it as something for granted. And maybe that’s not necessarily the ace coding of those characters, but something about that kind of spoke to me!
And even— [Chuckles] Okay, so, at the risk of maybe being a cliché, I often find myself also relating to characters who, often in comedic situations, kind of forget that sex exists and sort of just miss an innuendo or miss the connotations of a situation. I’m thinking specifically of— I think it’s the second volume of the Kase-san and… books. Which, to be clear, I’m not necessarily reading those characters as ace. I think that series makes it quite frank and quite refreshingly clear they are very attracted to each other, as we’ve had someone write about for the site.
CY: [crosstalk] Oh, yeah.
DEE: [crosstalk] Oh, absolutely. Yes.
ALEX: But there’s a bit, I think, in volume 2 where Yamada invites her girlfriend over and she’s like, “Oh, great! We’ll hang out and my parents aren’t going to be home!” And she’s planning a cake and them hanging out in her room, having tea. Her girl Kase, girlfriend, is like, “Oh my God, her parents aren’t gonna be home! Does that mean…? Does that mean…? Does that mean?” and just turns up and is kind of awkward-anxious about it, and then eventually is able to communicate that to Yamada, and Yamada goes, “Oh! Wha—? Oh, I didn’t even think! Oh my God!” and is completely, like, so embarrassed. And they have a good laugh about it.
But I just remember reading that, being like, “That happened to me!” [Laughs] That’s real! It’s too real right now!” [Laughs]
CY: That scene really— That really actually accents the kind of relatability factor that I think is necessary in coding, because I remember reading that and being like, “Oh! Oh, other people do this! Other people forget about sex.” Other people were just like, “Oh, I’m stoked to have someone come over because I’ma try this cake!” And they just mean cake. The cake is not a euphemism.
DEE: I wasn’t thinking about kissing at all! Kissing this delicious cake maybe.
DEE: [Chuckles] Yeah. Yeah, so, no, I agree. I have written about this, so I’ll plug it in the show notes. But that sense of… the culmination of the relationship is: “I like you.” “I like you, too.” “Let’s hold hands, and maybe we’ll kiss once and it’ll be really chaste, and then the end credits will happen.” And I was like, “What a perfect relationship.”
DEE: And so, I definitely enjoyed that in a lot of media and a lot of anime and in so many of the action series where there’s a relationship but it’s not the focus; there’s also all these super important familial or friendship bonds and your brothers-in-arms.
And again, there’s a lot of shipping in here—and don’t get me wrong, I also shipped on occasion. But that level of all these different relationships made it feel like you weren’t being forced to fall in love. It felt like there were a lot of options, which was nice.
I mean, obviously, I don’t want to stand here being like, “Oh, such great representation!” because obviously, this was pure coding, and most of it… I shouldn’t say “most of it”… at least some of it was not intentional. And I think you do run into that issue sometimes with some of these shows where there’s no sex, like the characters are functionally ten. Younger maybe? You know what I mean?
ALEX: Yeah. So you would hope! [Chuckles]
DEE: No, I mean the characters are high schoolers but they’re acting like they’re much… like the complete unawareness of sexuality, period, I think can be something that— There’s this very fine line there, right? Because on the one hand, especially with shows where it’s overwhelmingly a female cast, as much as I enjoy watching those intimate relationships play out, there is also that element of treating women, and especially cis women, as sexless beings. Right?
So, it’s that careful line there where, as much as I think that can have a great appeal to people, there is also that element of “Well, we also need stories that discuss sexuality and then have characters within those casts who are uninterested,” so that we’re not just painting an unrealistic picture of existence, I guess!
CY: Exactly, because I think one of the things when it comes to asexuality is, like, asexuality can be represented via the lens of sex; it’s how you engage with talking about it. Like, there are people who are asexual that are sex-repulsed; there are people who are asexual that routinely engage in having sex for whatever personal reason. And I do agree.
I think sometimes when you have a cast of all girls and they’re just like the most chaste lilies in the garden, that feels kind of infantilizing.
DEE: None of them even know what sex is. They’re all pretty sure that babies are delivered via stork. Right?
CY: Yeah. Like you go to the cabbage patch and pick a child. It’s just not good.
DEE: And “infantilizing” is the word. Yes, thank you. Yeah, I was looking for that and couldn’t find it earlier. But yeah, so you really do have to be careful of that line and be willing to acknowledge that while also enjoying the stories for what they are.
CY: Because, for as much as I don’t like a society that pushes sex and romance as the end-all-be-all, I don’t think it’s fair to also say the best way to live is “be chaste until you meet the one.” Nah! Nah! Some people don’t want to do that. [Chuckles] Some people don’t want to do that. Throw that out. Throw it in the garbage.
DEE: Yeah. No, absolutely. Again, it is important not to conflate asexuality or aromanticism with being a prude, like that kind of puritanical idea of “sex is bad.” That’s not the goal here. If you don’t enjoy that in your media, hey, that’s 100% fine. But that doesn’t mean it is inherently a bad thing in media.
But I did want to ask you guys (I thought this would be fun) some of your favorite or more resonant ace- and/or aro-coded characters in media, like characters who you went… it just vibed for you, and it wasn’t explicit in narrative, but you were like, “This person. This person. Yeah, they’re on my level.”
CY: Ooh, okay! You want to go first, Dr. Alex?
ALEX: [Laughs] That’s a really good question. I’ve been trying to think. Again, there have been a lot of situations where I’ve been able to, like I said, sort of read my own experiences into characters, but I really struggled, weirdly enough, to come up with a character that I would headcanon or really resonated with me as ace.
I did see some— Actually, oh, my God, I think this was you again, Dee! [Laughs] The source of all my good ideas in this section! Nozaki of Nozaki-kun, I think you or at least general fandom discussion of rep that was like, “I think it’d be really funny if he was aro-ace, because that would be one of the many ironies of the series, is that this romance author does not experience romantic attraction!” And I was like, that would be extremely funny. And also, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.
So, let me log that one, which, again, is in the context of a romcom, which is kind of interesting that I keep coming back to that. But I don’t know. Again, the irony value of characters in a romcom being any kind of aro-ace is kind of delightful to me. [Chuckles]
CY: I like that. So, the first example that pops into mind for me is a video game character, actually. And it is Setsu from the game Gnosia, who also gets some rep for being a genderqueer character, which, like, we stan. And within the game, you do have romance with them, but it’s very clearly a sexless romance. There’s a passionate love and bond, but sex is just not something that’s on the table. And I actually really respect that.
I also want to double down with Nozaki, yeah. [Chuckles] Yeah. Yeah, I think that’d be great if Nozaki-kun was aro and ace! That would be so great!
DEE: What a twist for the final volume.
ALEX: What a twist for the final volume. I would feel so bad for the main girl. Is her name Sakura?
DEE: Yep. Sakura Chiyo, yeah.
ALEX: Yeah. But also…
CY: But maybe it’s a learning experience for her.
ALEX: Maybe it’s a learning experience! [Chuckles]
DEE: I mean, how many of us are gonna marry our high school crushes anyway?
ALEX: Yeah, true. [Laughs]
DEE: So, it’ll be fine.
ALEX: You mentioned there’s also a genderqueer character, as well, Cy. I mean, shoutout, while we’re here, to Land of the Lustrous, where sex and romance are just not a factor of what’s going on.
CY: You can’t have sex and lust when you keep getting shattered.
DEE: [Chuckles] Yeah, I was gonna say, they’re also rocks. And again, one of those areas [with] coding where it’s like, you know, reading the coding but also understanding [it’s] maybe not explicit representation because of the issues with inhuman characters. But no, you can definitely vibe with the relationships in that one for sure, for sure.
ALEX: Yeah. That’s interesting… Which, I won’t spend too much time on this because you touched on it before actually, Cy, earlier, that idea of asexual and aromantic people as cold and robotic.
If you want a fun citation, Julie Sondra Decker… in her book, The Invisible Orientation, she talks about the aliens-and-robots problem where a lot of the characters… she’s speaking in the context of English-language media, of course, but a lot of the characters who have kind of been famously read and adopted as aro and/or ace are often aliens or robots. So, they’re like, “Ah, I haven’t been programmed with romantic attraction. Beep-boop,” or like, “This doesn’t exist on my planet,” which is interesting and kind of complicated because there is a lot there to love and, again, to see yourself in these characters. But it’s the repetition of them always being inhuman, or most commonly being inhuman, for a certain time of history that creates that issue.
CY: Well, and I think of none other than… if we want an unfortunate example [of] ace and aro rep, I think of none other than Kyubey, who is—
ALEX: [Laughs] That’s not what I [obscured by crosstalk]!
CY: [crosstalk] Yeah! Yeah! You didn’t expect that, did ya?
DEE: I did not see that coming.
CY: [Chuckles] But yeah, that was the first time, kind of, I think, subconsciously, where I was like, “Oh, this character just exists here, and they’re kinda like me.” Because growing up in college, I had a lot of feelings of feeling like a robot, and I was called quite prudish. And that is why I think I did what other people… you know, what you’re supposed to do, and certain steps in relationships, because I was afraid of being a robot and a prude.
And I remember having this kind of numbing realization of “Oh, I’m kind of like Kyubey, this character that’s completely sexless; has no drive for anything but logic.”
ALEX: That’s— I’m so sorry that’s where you felt seen! [Laughs]
DEE: [crosstalk] Yeah, I’m sorry! Yeah!
CY: It really messed me up. I was like, “Oh, no! I’m gonna start harvesting souls!”
CY: Yeah, but that is a character that I think of when you think of the robots and aliens, this character that’s very mechanical. And if we want to go to Western media, I think Sheldon from Big Bang Theory is often one that’s used. Which, I’m sorry to aces and aros: we don’t deserve that.
CY: But he often gets used for asexual and aromantic relationships, and you see this kind of repetition, like you said, of characters being robotic or alien or foreign in some way to what we associate as humanity. And yeah, Kyubey is one that stands out as, uh, bad! A bad version of that, that made me feel very bad.
ALEX: Ah, man. And yeah, if it’s a human character, like you say, the trope of them being very cold and logical and “Aw, they just hate people, so obviously they—” I mean, I won’t go too much into that. I will put a sneaky plug for a journal paper that I wrote in 2019, where I talk more about this.
ALEX: So I’ll pop a—
ALEX: And I talk about a couple of young adult novels that kind of subvert that and have very human ace protagonists. But yep, that’s a tangent for your reading pleasure, dear viewer. We’ll pop that in the show notes.
DEE: Yeah, because it comes to that idea of “You can’t feel love” and this idea that love always means romantic love, and that sucks!
CY: It sucks because so many other kinds of love that are just as valuable!
DEE: Exactly! And there’s so many of them in anime and manga, which is something I adore.
CY: Hot take. Hot take: there’s some forms of love that are more important than romantic love. [Chuckles]
DEE: Or at least— I mean, I don’t think we should have a hierarchy, but equally important, absolutely.
CY: Yeah. Yeah, okay, equally important. And I will say that is partially my own personal feeling with my own engagement with aromanticism, and I think it’s partially because having romantic love forced as the most important, it does forgo these other really powerful forms of love that are necessary. So, equal. Equal.
DEE: [crosstalk] No, that has always frustrated me deeply, to the point where I’ve tried to scrub the phrase “just friends” from my vocabulary because I think that “just” is very diminutive of the very strong relationships I have with my friend-family. And yeah, I also hate that idea and try to push back on that, so I feel you, absolutely.
Sorry, I think you were gonna ask me a question before I jumped in on the convo.
CY: I was gonna ask what character you think is good coding.
DEE: Coding-wise? Oh, I have a whole-ass list.
CY: Oh, give it to me! [Chuckles]
DEE: It was funny. I was putting it together, and I realized, other than Myne from Ascendance of a Bookworm—the main character of the light novel series—other than her, all of my main ones are guys.
And I think that’s because— Well, and here’s why. And here’s why I think that is, is because in fiction there is an expectation that— And in fairness, pretty much all of the ones I’m going to be talking about are ace-coded, not necessarily aro-coded, although a few of them… debatable. And that’s because, you know, I’m looking for myself when I’m reading these codings. And I’ll try to make sure that I specify as I’m talking about this.
But there is an expectation among girls in society, but also that gets into media, that they not necessarily be interested in sex. So, I think that even though there are a ton of shoujo heroines who I could very easily read as asexual, my brain doesn’t want to do that because my brain acknowledges like, “Well, no, socially they’re supposed to— These are what heroines are, is that they’re supposed to be like this.” And so, it’s that ol’ one-two punch of sexism and queerphobia.
So, yeah. So, when I was putting this list together, I was like, “You know, I know there are girl characters”—and I did want to give a shoutout to Myne from Ascendance of a Bookworm. I have lovingly described Ascendance of a Bookworm as the epic story of two asexual nerds whose hobby projects keep getting interrupted by politics.
CY: Oh my God.
DEE: And I think that is extremely apt because both Myne and Ferdinand are like— There’s characters in the story who fall in love, and there’s little crushes and romances that are in the margins of the story. But Myne and Ferdinand have zero interest. They just want to do their hobby projects. Myne wants books. Ferdi wants research. Please stop forcing them to get married for political reasons.
CY: I genuinely love that. [Laughs]
DEE: So, I do love that for them.
And then, I won’t talk about this too much here because I have written about this and talked about it on other podcasts. But Sunakawa Makoto from My Love Story is, I think, a very good ace-aro rep character. He is Takeo’s BFF and explicitly has conversations in the story about, like, “It’s not like I’m opposed to falling in love, but it’s just never happened for me,” and goes on dates with some nice girls. It’s just like, “None of this is clicking for me.”
And he ends the story single. I thought for sure they’d do a postscript where he went to college and found the one. Nope. Single, all the way through! Very excited for Suna. So, Suna is canon ace, and you can pry that one from my cold, dead hands. [Chuckles]
I’ve also talked about the protagonist (who has many names, but we’ll call him Bon) from Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, one of my all-time favorite anime. I read him as asexual biromantic, because he has very intimate relationships with both a man and a woman in the show, but any time… and the story does touch on sex, and he is deeply uncomfortable with it every single time it happens. So, I vibe extremely hard with him as well.
I like to say the entire cast of Pandora Hearts is asexual because it is, once again, a lot of characters in nebulous relationships with really passionate feelings about each other saying those passionate feelings very loudly, but nobody ever says “love” or kisses. So, read those however you want. Everyone should read Pandora Hearts, by the way. It’s a big, beautiful mess.
And then I get… Here, guys. Somebody set a timer. I get 60 seconds to talk about Pokémon. Okay?
DEE: 60 seconds.
CY: Okay, I am counting.
DEE: The cool thing— Maybe… I might need two minutes. Okay.
DEE: A cool thing about Pokémon—
CY: [crosstalk] No, you said 60 seconds!
DEE: I know! A cool thing about Pokémon is that, because so much of the cast is very young and the show does not really do explicit romances, there’s a lot of coding involved. But there’s still… Pretty much every character under 15, there’s a lot of coding as to whether or not they have a crush on somebody, and none of it’s explicit, and they did that because they’re kids, which is fine. Kids should be kids. Figure your stuff out, kids.
Older characters typically will have some kind of crush or romantic entanglement at some point in the story…
CY: 30 seconds.
DEE: … except for my two boys. My dapper son Cilan from Black and White is ace-aro. I am absolutely positive of that. He has so many hobbies and he will tell you all about them and he has absolutely zero interest in romance at any point. And my second one is James from Team Rocket. Yes, I am prepared to die on this hill. James is ace. Thank you. My time is up.
CY: Oh, wow! You still have like 10 seconds! I’m so proud of you! [Chuckles]
DEE: I’m proud of me, too! Good job, team: I kept my Pokémon chatter to a bare minimum.
ALEX: We gotta get you a Patreon bonus episode where you’re just free to talk about Pokémon. We gotta do that if we haven’t already.
CY: We gotta.
DEE: Mm-hm. Yeah, I can then outline for you how after a thousand episodes I am absolutely dead convinced that James is asexual!
CY: You know what? I stand with you on that one.
DEE: Thank you! Thank you!
DEE: Thousand-plus episodes. I’m just saying. Okay.
ALEX: [crosstalk] That’s a lot of evidence.
DEE: But that having been said, you guys have any other coding? I rambled for a bit there because I had those in my catalog.
ALEX: You came with a list prepared. I think— [Chuckles]
CY: I was gonna say, you were ready!
DEE: I really liked…!
DEE: Yeah. I’ve been blogging for a while, so ace coding is something I’ve kind of had in my brain for a bit here.
CY: I love it, though.
ALEX: And I love that. The more discussions around this, the more the world opens up. And actually I do love that so many of them are boys because, I mean, at least in terms of the contexts that I’m most familiar with, you tend to see, more commonly, female ace characters, and male ace protagonists are less common. So, I don’t know, that’s neat to me. I dig that.
CY: Mm, I do, too. And I like it, too, because it kind of subverts this expectation [that] men (in this context, I mean cis men) will grow out of it and they’ll do the deed eventually and become “a real man”! When, like, that’s so tired. It’s 2023.
DEE: Yeah, there’s a different layer of pressure on men to be sexual, right? Like outwardly, openly, aggressively sometimes, because toxic masculinity is a hell of a drug—which we’ll be talking about with one of these series in our final category here.
We wanted to spend some time on some representations of characters who are explicitly and canonically asexual and aromantic. Obviously, we’re not going to be able to touch on everything. So, folks, whatever we’ve missed, just tell us in the comments, recommend stuff to us. It’ll be great.
We’re focusing on manga, and we’re going to hit up a few titles here. This will be probably one-part recommendation, one-part discussion. And truthfully, we could probably spend a whole ‘nother episode on some of these series!
CY: For sure.
DEE: Which we actually have done with two of them, so let’s go ahead and start with these two and just kind of direct people to other podcasts. We did a whole episode on Our Dreams at Dusk and we did two episodes on Sex Ed 120%. Both of them feature characters who are asexual aromantic. However, Cy, you weren’t on either of those episodes, so I am kind of curious—
CY: I wasn’t.
DEE: So, Our Dreams at Dusk, the ace-aro character is Someone-san, who is also X-gender. (I want to make sure I use their terminology, not ours.) Which, you’re gonna see that as a trend in this, is that there are a lot of ace/aro characters who are also fuzzy on gender. And gosh, I think that could be another entire podcast.
ALEX: Oh my gosh, it could.
CY: Someone-san, in North American terminology, is just like me: a triple-A. That’s right: agender, asexual, and aromantic! [Chuckles] I’ve been holding that in this entire time!
DEE: Triple-A! Love it.
CY: Yeah. And so, Someone-san is actually really a character that started the process of me realizing that I was agender. They kind of planted that seed of X-gender because Our Dreams at Dusk was coming out while I was in Japan, and so, I read it while I was abroad, and I was just like, “Oh, wow! I really vibe with this character who’s asexual and aromantic and… Oh.” [Chuckles]
And so, I think they’re a really good representation of this beautiful kind of gray area that can occur when sexuality and gender as a whole kind of combine. I really like Someone-san. I think they’re really ephemeral in this really particular way that gender often feels to me. Yeah, two thumbs up. Two asexual and aromantic thumbs up. [Chuckles]
DEE: I’m glad you— Yeah. My one thing with Someone-san is because there’s very little of the story that is told from their perspective, they’re one of those characters where I kind of wish we had one more volume because I think getting more about them would have been good.
CY: [crosstalk] Yeah! It would’ve.
DEE: Because our protagonist, he sort of sees them as very mysterious and can’t quite figure them out, and they kind of enjoy that. You get the sense that they kind of like being a little bit enigmatic. No, it’s very fun to me, too, but I could see there being some critiques of that. But I also love it for Kamatani, the mangaka, who is also a triple-A.
DEE: And them kind of writing themselves into the series.
CY: I think if I did have to critique Someone-san, it is the ephemerality, because it kind of makes them feel like they’re not quite human, and I wrote about this, actually, recently, when I talked about legally changing my name and publicly coming out, via talking about it through AniFem.
And one of the things I really struggled with was the fact that I kind of felt unreal about completely divorcing myself from gender, and I think that’s the risk with Someone-san, is that the asexuality is great, the aromanticism is great, but there’s a risk of making it feel— And even though the author themselves is X-gender, as well, there’s a risk of… I fear that Someone-san is a little too not-there, even though that’s kind of the point and, like you said, they kind of like playing with that.
It does kind of bring this almost fantasy, fey-like kind of aura that… You know, agender people exist. Chances are we all know someone who’s agender; they just haven’t told us because that’s none of our business. [Chuckles] And, you know, it’s that kind of thing, yeah.
DEE: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and I think there’s even a moment in… It’s been a couple years since I’ve read the manga, but I think there’s even a moment where the main character is like, “Oh, so you’re like this because you’re asexual agender.” And Someone-san laughs and is like, “No, I’m like this because I’m me. Do not take this to be like all people who experience sex and romance and gender the way I do are exactly like me.” And so, I did appreciate the series having that element of it, as well.
CY: I do, too.
ALEX: I don’t know what you’re talking about. As soon as I came out as nonbinary, I gained the ability to float out of windows…
CY: Really? They need to upgrade me.
ALEX: … and talk to teens and give them sage advice. Isn’t that something we can all…? [Chuckles]
DEE: Alex, can you pass on the… whatever that trick was? Maybe it’s just the air in Australia. I don’t know.
ALEX: [Laughs] It’s true. [Obscured by crosstalk]
DEE: Let’s go to Australia.
ALEX: It’s more buoyant here. It’s more… [Chuckles]
DEE: You’re closer to Japan, so I don’t know, maybe that’s just a thing on that side of the world.
CY: I will say in regards to Kashiwa from Sex Ed 120%, because I also wasn’t on that episode, I think she’s great! I see so much of my teenage self in her, which may or may not be good!
DEE: No, Kashiwa’s the stealth protagonist of Sex Ed 120%, so I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.
CY: I love this child so much. They’re great. [Laughs] My favorite teenager to ever be in a manga. It’s great.
DEE: She’s very fun. Yeah. I love how sex-positive she is while having no interest in it. Right? I think she does a good job of bucking that stereotype.
CY: Yeah, and she’s very comfortable with who she is. She’s very unbothered. She’s just like, “Here’s some animal facts. Here you go. Here’s a pamphlet,” and is just completely… She’s herself, and I really respect that.
I really hope a teenager gets their hands on this manga and actually sees that you can know a truth about yourself at that age. I think that’s really good.
DEE: Yeah. Yeah, she is so comfortable in her skin. And God bless her for it! [Chuckles]
DEE: When do I get to feel that comfortable in my skin? How do I become a Kashiwa?
CY: Well, I would say you might need to start— [Chuckles] I was gonna say you need to start talking about animal genitalia more often, but I don’t know if that’s a good solution.
DEE: [crosstalk] I just need to get really, really into biology.
DEE: That’s the answer.
CY: [crosstalk] Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
DEE: Yeah. Yeah, no, I think Kashiwa’s a very nice bit of… You know, I always hesitate to talk about good versus bad rep, and the deeper we get down this list, I think the more we’re gonna want to push back against those labels, because I like characters who feel like humans. I think that’s very important, and I think sometimes when you talk about “good” representation, you’re talking about scrubbing all imperfections from a human so that they aren’t really people anymore. And I think there is something to be said for having idyllic fiction, but I also think that those more grounded, messy portrayals are vitally important.
So, it’s nice to have Kashiwa, who is really a very chill character, who, like I said, I describe as the stealth protag because she’s the one who kind of comes up with the big project that wraps up the series and is very focused on making sure that everybody feels comfortable and accepted and willing to—
DEE: Yeah, yeah, included, exactly.
CY: Yeah, so, speaking of characters that may or may not be perceived as… that we might have to push back against the good versus bad, let’s talk about I Want to Be a Wall.
DEE: [crosstalk] Oh, a big ball of mess? Yeah, let’s talk about I Want to Be a Wall. Let’s talk about the mess that is Yuriko, who I do like very much. But…
CY: I think both of you know, because that is the manga that I used for the impetus of talking about my name change and talking subsequentially about gender and sexuality, so I have strong feelings! [Chuckles]
I like Yuriko a lot because I see a lot of my 20s in her, being really into boys’ love, which is kind of also what helped me discuss sexuality, but also just trying to be myself within a society that really wants and expects certain things out of you. I like her a lot. I think she’s a very, very human example. Kind of like Kashiwa, I think she’s a really human example. But I’m really curious to know what you two feel.
ALEX: I was sort of… I’ve only read the first volume of this, to be fair, which I did enjoy, but I was—
DEE: That was actually— I was gonna ask. Cy, have you read both volumes 1 and 2?
CY: I have.
DEE: Okay, me too. Well, I mean, we’re not going to spoil anything for you, Alex.
ALEX: I’m sure there’s not anything super world-shaking that happens in volume 2. It feels like a fairly slow burn.
Anyway, her whole shtick of her basically shipping her husband with his best friend in real life… that… eh, that icked me out a little bit, I will say. But when it actually kind of peeled back from the slapstick comedy of that, I found it really fascinating, actually, that bit where she’s talking about why she likes BL so much as opposed to…
I think someone asks her, “Oh, why don’t you read yuri or M/F stuff?” And she goes, “Well, if they’re both men, then I can’t relate to them anyway. And so, seeing them together in a sexual situation is nothing I’m going to relate to in the first place, so I’m not going to feel alienated by it,” in the same way that she might feel alienated if there was a female protagonist in there somewhere and she didn’t relate to them.
Which I hadn’t thought of in those terms before but I found really fascinating and, yeah, it really added some great grounding to her whole… I don’t want to say “gimmick,” but at times it feels a bit… the running gag, I guess, of her being a BL fangirl to the point where it impacts her IRL relationships, that nice thread of nuance to why it was meaningful to her.
DEE: Yeah, I feel like it started with the joke of “she’s a BL fangirl and she’s living with a gay guy who has an unrequited crush” and then very quickly the series went, “This isn’t really a joke series, though.”
DEE: “We’re gonna actually dig into them as people and what their relationship will look like now that they’re in this marriage that looks a lot more like what an arranged marriage from like 100 years ago would look like.” You know what I mean? Or even further back than that, at this point.
And I find this series very, very fascinating. I think it does a very good job of humanizing both Yuriko and Gakurouta, who… we won’t spend a ton of time on him, just because this is the ace episode. The voyeuristic element early on, I agree with you, I absolutely do not care for. I think it is a problem.
CY: It is the weakest part of the manga, for sure.
DEE: I do appreciate that it doesn’t really push on it very hard, and honestly, after the first chapter or two, it kind of drops it almost completely! It becomes less about her, again, almost fetishizing her… I keep wanting to call him “her roommate.”
DEE: Her husband.
CY: I mean, what is a husband if not a roommate, right?
DEE: I mean, you’re not wrong. But it stops being that and more being her genuinely supporting him and sympathizing with this unrequited crush he has. So I like that about it.
The second volume goes more into using fiction to understand each other, which I think is interesting. And again, Alex, no spoilers, but kind of talking about how Yuriko enjoys fiction with romance in it and sex, even though she is neither romantic nor sexual, and part of that being an interest in understanding other people and just empathy in terms of being excited and happy for the people around you having relationships, even if those aren’t the kinds of relationships you personally want or experience. So, I liked that element of it, as well.
I enjoy I Want to Be a Wall. Are you guys as terrified as me as [to] how the series is going to end?
CY: Little bit! Little bit.
DEE: Because I don’t know how it ends happily for both of them!
CY: I’m a little bit. But I’m going to… I believe, as the Zoomers say, I’m going to trust the process.
DEE: Yeah. I think that’s fair. Alex, how about you?
ALEX: [crosstalk] Is that something the Zoomers say, though? [Chuckles]
CY: It’s something I see on TikTok a lot! [Chuckles] I don’t know if that’s what they say.
ALEX: I don’t know how it’s going to end. This is one of those ones that could kind of go on for 100 volumes, just slow-burn describing their weird platonic married life. Or it could be just kind of quickly wrapped up. I really have no idea. And so, I’m just kind of open and just waiting to see, really, and hoping that it’s a happy resolution for both of them.
I don’t imagine that they will have the power within them to, you know, change society and make their kind of fake marriage less necessary. But I kind of hope that, I don’t know, they will be able to find some form of happiness outside of that structure that they felt that they’ve had to hide in. I don’t know. I’m genuinely really curious, and I’m just gonna let it wash over me and see what happens.
DEE: Yeah. I’m sort of prepared to be devastated, because you get to the end of the first volume and they’ve hit this point where they’re starting to develop this very much “partnership of equals” where they’re taking care of chores, they’re starting to develop an emotional closeness, and learning about each other. And this continues into the second volume, although I, again, won’t get into details.
And I’m watching it like, “This is kind of my ideal relationship.” But it’s not fair to him. I feel like Yuriko’s— Because Gakurouta does want a romantic… I assume he is both— Like, we know he’s gay. I assume he is both homosexual and homoromantic. The series doesn’t make that distinction with him, but that seems to be the case. He desires that relationship. And so, there’s definitely that part of me that’s like, Yuriko’s getting, maybe, the better end of this bargain, and I would like him to find a relationship that is also the relationship that he wants.
So, I have a lot of conflicted feelings about it, because I’m worried that either he’s going to end the series resigned to pining forever, or he’s going to find somebody and then Yuriko will be alone, and then I will be sad for her!
CY: You know what? Maybe this is a chance. Listen to me, Japan. This is a chance for making it poly!
CY: Because I feel like in a dream world, that would be the best option, right? That Gakurouta’s able to manifest and have the relationship he wants as a gay man and Yuriko just gets to kick it. I want that for her. I want her to just be vibing.
ALEX: [crosstalk] So you reckon it could be like, “Oh, this is my husband’s boyfriend.”
CY: Yeah, I want her to just be vibing and thriving. But I really don’t know how it’s going to end, and there is a small pebble of anxiety within me of “Oh, I don’t know what’s gonna happen!” [Chuckles] We’ll find out at the [obscured by crosstalk].
DEE: Maybe Yuriko would be fine living by herself. I’m getting the sense that she genuinely enjoys having this partnership, so that’s where my concern comes in. But maybe she would be totally okay if he ended up going off on his own or with someone else and she was by herself. But I don’t know. We’ll see.
CY: [crosstalk] Time will tell.
DEE: But yeah, no, Yuriko’s an imperfect character and I love that for her. We’ll be meeting more imperfect characters as we continue down this list.
DEE: Hey there, AniFam! We got so excited talking about ace/aro representation in Japanese media that we ran super long. So this episode is going to be split into two parts. We hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard so far.
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