[Discourse] Catherine, Trans Identities, and Representation in Japan

In early 2011, ATLUS released Catherine. Months before the release of this unique puzzler, advertisements showed the series would revolve around the complicated topics of commitment, marriage, love, sex, and the relationship between men and women. In late 2017, ATLUS announced they would be re-releasing Catherine with a new addition to the cast.

Her name is Rin. She’s a new love interest for the main character, Vincent, and the website heavily suggests her story will be one deeply tied into trans identities. From the color scheme of her design, which seems heavily sampled from the colors of the transgender pride flag, and the button on the website for Catherine Full Body, which includes a combined male/female symbol, it would seem fair to make this assumption.

Little is known about the character, but already the public has ATLUS under deep, and well-deserved, scrutiny. While Catherine attempted to tackle mature themes, the game’s content and that of other ATLUS titles has left LGBT+ fans wary. In the past, ATLUS has done little in the way of proper LGBT+ representation in their titles—ranging from homophobia in their most recent title, Persona 5, dating back at least as far as transphobia in Persona 3, and including the original release of Catherine in 2011.

Full body shot of Rin sitting on the ground with a tiny Vincent on top of her head

These are important things to note and critique, but there is an additional element many players forget. While its basic themes are universal in nature, the presentation and dialogue of the characters in Catherine (as well as other titles headed by director Katsura Hashino, who’s become quite infamous among fans for his distasteful portrayals of minorities) is deeply Japanese. Despite the Western “flavor” of the almost six-year-old puzzler, the themes of these games are intrinsically Japanese and the reflection of Japanese ideologies are deeply written into the narrative.

For those unfamiliar with Catherine, the majority of the game takes place while protagonist Vincent sleeps. He is transported to a dreamscape where men who cannot escape their fears or guilt mysteriously perish in the real world. It can be seen as an allegory for outrunning the source of our dishonesties, as Vincent is confronted with his duplicitousness and cowardice at every turn—be it running from the commitment of settling down with his long-time girlfriend, Katherine, or his inability to accept the responsibility of potentially becoming a father. Depending on dialogue choices made by the player, Vincent can achieve happy endings in a variety of ways, including settling down, dating succubus Catherine, or being single.

The conversations Vincent has with Orlando, Johnny, and Toby are about marriage, love, commitment, and infidelity, but their framing is through Japanese ideals. It is through their dialogues and shared sentiments that their characters resonate as Japanese, whether it’s Johnny’s talk of inheriting his father’s business and the Japanese ideal of loving one and only one woman; Vincent’s reliance on getting married to better reflect his character at work; and so forth. This is true when looking at minor characters as well.

And this is where the character of Erica comes into focus.

A close-up of Erica's face

Erica is a trans waitress at the Stray Sheep, the local haunt for Vincent and his trio of friends. She’s often part of conversations and serves as either a voice of reason or the only point of morality for the group as the story progresses. Unlike the rest of the cast Vincent interacts with, she values honesty, which is surprising given her treatment in the game during one event in particular.

On night six, Erica is encountered in this dreamscape after having sex with one of Vincent’s friends, Toby. When talking to her character model, which has taken the form of a sheep, she expresses distress at her inability to have children. While this is considered highly transphobic by the global audience, as it is seen as outing Erica to the audience as not being a “real” woman, this plays into something deeply Japanese and reflects a set of outdated laws set in place by the government.

As a trans woman, Erica is unable to have children, just like all Japanese citizens who have transitioned. Unlike in the West, Japan requires the sterilization of those who agree to transition. That being said, having children is deeply tied into the idea of what it means to be a woman in Japan. Women are encouraged to get married and have children at a certain age, and this heavily plays into the perception their peers will have about their character as a citizen as well. Remaining unmarried or without children can make you seem untrustworthy, making it impossible to form relationships with colleagues or get promotions at your workplace.

Erica at Vincent's wedding, holding out the bouquet to an uncomfortable looking Toby

This plays into both the heavily gendered roles still present within Japan and further excludes trans identities from the norm. If one cannot adhere to what it means to be a “woman” or a “man” by traditional Japanese standards, such as following these cultural expectations about marriage or children, it’s almost impossible to be viewed as acceptable or part of the norm. This in itself is highly damaging, as Japanese society values conformity over individuality and views belonging to a sexual minority as either a choice or a sickness.

When Vincent, Orlando, and Johnny don’t speak about Erica in a way that suggest her identity as a trans woman, or during the conversation about the night she and Toby had sex, she is viewed as a traditionally attractive woman by those unaware of her identity as a trans woman. She appears to follow the conventions of what it means to be an attractive woman and gets ogled by the patrons of the bar, thus reinforcing gender conformity on those who wish to transition.

Only by passing is she accepted as a woman, and even then her inability to have children makes her seem “less” than her cisgender peers due to the social acceptance and pressures to start a family placed upon Japanese women. The game does provide some measure of commentary on this subject that seems intentional, but it can also be viewed as somewhat accidental. Catherine’s narrative does in some ways attempt to discuss the attraction and relationships between men and women, but the narrative has a tendency to contradict itself.

Vincent and Orlando talking at a sushi bar. Caption: Variety's the spice of life. You need more!

This is especially true when looking at the dialogue between Vincent, Orlando, and Johnny about Erica when she and Toby are not present. Their knowledge of her identity pre-operation make them uncomfortable (shown through their aggressive banter with her versus other female characters) and they (and possibly the writers) try to portray Erica as dishonest for not disclosing her identity to Toby.

Though the character is popular among Japanese audiences despite her identity as a trans woman, the inherent transphobia written into Erica’s character is reflective of Japanese society, as conformity is part of the social constructs within the country itself. Erica is the product of misinformation about lifestyles that were not visible, and still remain somewhat invisible, in a conservative society.

The usage of her dead-name in the game’s manual, for example, is reflective of how unmarried trans women and trans men are currently unable to change the name on their birth certificate and registration without the permission of both parents, or through marriage (note: recent legal changes in some prefectures now allow individuals to change their name on the family register if they’ve been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder and prove that they’re regularly living under their chosen name). The treatment of Erica’s identity by her peers within the game reflects the transphobia and sexism hugely present both in Japanese media, including from the writers themselves.

Vincent covering his mouth and looking panicked at a phone call during tea with Katherine

While Japan has recently introduced LGBT+ curriculum, most steps towards education remain highly performative due to the conservative nature of modern Japanese society. Tolerance of these lifestyles is usually reserved for the rich or those with a large amount of influence. As it stands, being trans is still synonymous with being “ill,” as there is no proper language within Japan to discuss this identity. Those who wish to transition must be diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, and those who wish to pursue surgery must be in a position where they can afford it —which includes very few.

There is a large stigma behind being transgender within Japan, as it is hugely misunderstood within the country itself. However, there are those who identify as trans that don’t mind this association with illness and even prefer it to the alternative. Many transgender individuals within Japan believe that if Gender Identity Disorder was no longer a viable diagnosis, the process for transitioning would also disappear, meaning that those who are transgender would no longer be able to properly transition. As it stands, there has been no suggestion of this law changing despite some consideration, but it’s a very real fear within Japan.

While Japan’s general view on trans rights swings the way of conservatism, there is some progress being made in other sectors. Recently there have been instances in which all-girls’ schools in Japan have begun to accept trans women into their schools, and there have been a few schools that are working to reconsider their stance on gendered school uniforms. More notably, more and more Japanese youth online have started to become open about their gender identities or their more progressive thoughts on the subject, which leaves hope for a more inclusive future.

Vincent having a drunken conversation in a booth with Catherine

Outside of larger and more “progressive” areas within the country, such as Shinjuku, there remains a lack of awareness. The LGBT+ personalities that do exist in the mainstream media often perpetuate negative stereotypes, which contributes to further misinformation.

Criticism of these negative portrayals of LGBT+ relationships or peoples is met with an attitude referred to as mendokusai (“it’s troublesome”). This attitude involves being seen as a “killjoy” or a “pain in the ass” and is not restricted to workplace vernacular among the Japanese. Participating in “minor” bigoted or homophobic behavior is widely accepted or excused through this cultural view, which makes change or progression a slow crawl.

This is very different from the West in some respects, where creators have begun to take accountability for transphobic or homophobic portrayals within popular media. At the same time, there are also groups within the West who believe those harmed by homophobic or transphobic media are too sensitive; these groups often try to use the conservative aspect of Japanese narratives to their advantage, without fully comprehending what they’re consuming. Overall, though, there has been a ripple of change within Western media by more responsible creators to make media more inclusive and diverse.

A pinup style promo of Catherine lying stretched out on the ground

In Japan, however, this is more difficult. Because of social attitudes like mendokusai, many creators or publishers of popular media in Japan rarely take the minorities within their target demographic into consideration. For this reason, it can be dangerous for Western audiences to spin Japanese-made media in favor of Western ideals without a fuller or more complete understanding of the media they’re digesting.

What could be deemed as a positive portrayal of minorities by Western audiences through “reclamation” or, on the other hand, dismissed as “not being important to Japanese audiences,” could in fact be harmful to said minority groups (such as transgender or LGBT+ individuals) within Japan or other East Asian countries. This can also lead to the spread of misinformation regarding concepts that may not be widely prevalent or understood to said Western audiences.

Not only that, but it rings exclusionary to the people these narratives are made for—that is, native Japanese people (who are not a monolith, but have a variety of identities and viewpoints) or those who are Japanese and live outside of Japan. Outside of “soft marketing” that came into consideration due to post World War II climates, Japanese media is made first and foremost for Japanese audiences.

When these identities or portrayals are taken out of context, the original message is either deliberately ignored or goes misunderstood. While this does not exclude Japanese media from international criticism, it is something to take into strong consideration when making observations.

Erica smiling and tapping her hand against her chin

That said, it goes without question that the character of Erica is deeply rooted in a transphobia that reflects both past and current attitudes towards transgender people within Japan. This is why it’s hugely important to look at media through the lens of the culture where it was created. Catherine, along with any other piece of popular media from Japan, is no exception. Without a clear or critical understanding of social constructs within the country itself, the media may be misunderstood, or the intent of the creator may be overlooked. While I’m not saying that Westerners can’t find joy, comfort, or meaning in Japanese media, I believe it’s deeply important to take cultural context into consideration when criticizing a piece of media.

While there is media that is inclusive or made for LGBT+ audiences, they’re usually not mainstream and go widely unrecognized, with few exceptions, such as Wandering Son or My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness. As a transgender Japanese person, I believe that, due to the social constructs of Japanese society, it will be quite some time before we see a larger pool of proper or decent representation of LGBT+ peoples within mainstream Japanese media that is honest or has good intent.


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