It’s pretty obvious if you anything about know me: I really like idols and cute girls. But I also love darkness, with series like Black Butler or Elfen Lied being some of my personal favorites. So naturally, I was drawn to Zombie Land Saga and its undead idols.
Besides its hilarity, I was very impressed with the shows on multiple levels- poignant satire, solid animation, and decent songs. But I was really blown away by Episode 8, when it was revealed that Lily is a trans girl (male to female/MTF). This episode and Lily’s reveal caused quite a stir in the anime community. But personally, I couldn’t be happier about the episode.
I am very openly queer, but there’s one thing I don’t always mention – my fiance is transgender. They’re actually female to male (FTM), which is the opposite of Lily, but either way, this episode really hit home for me. In this post, I am going to talk about the importance of Lily being trans and explore what it’s like being trans in Japan.
The Importance of Lily
Over time, we’ve seen more LGBT representation in anime, and there are actually some manga like The Boy Was A Bride that show transgender characters. But the topic of actual trans characters in Japanese animated shows has been more or less nonexistent.
There are some trans-like characters I can think of, such as Nuriko from Fushigi Yuugi. However, there was a reason he dressed as a woman – it wasn’t because he was trans or had distress about his body. There are also many characters that fall somewhere on the border of gender, like (a personal favorite of mine) Hideyoshi from Baka and Test. Or Ranma from Ranma 1/2. These characters and their gender-fluidity are usually used for comedy, and their shows never really address the actual topic of being transgender. However, according to Kat Callahan (2019), a transgender teacher who teaches in Japan, androgynous characters in anime serve a deeper purpose. She says that many of these characters are “comedic enough to avoid social scrutiny yet identifiable by those who are really looking.”
Callahan also stated that these characters are a nod to gender-bending characters and people from Japan’s past. Androgyny actually has a long history in Japan. Some examples are the wakashu from the Heian era (794 to 1185 AD). The wakashu were young men who were “sexually ambiguous” and often dressed similarly to women. They were considered attractive to both men and women at the time. Another example is how “cross-dressing was widespread in kabuki, which [made] it difficult to differentiate between men and women” during performances and in art (Voon, 2017). There are also “stories about women who dressed as warriors” (Robertson, 2017).
Therefore, androgynous characters or individuals are nothing new in Japanese culture – though modern Japan is very binary. These gender-bending characters aren’t just intended for laughs – they carry their own social commentary and history. But unfortunately, many people in the English-speaking anime community have misinterpreted these characters.
Since there are so many anime characters that cross the line of gender, the concept of “traps” has emerged among English-speaking anime fans. In English, an anime “trap” is basically a character who looks like a certain sex, but really isn’t (a guy that looks like a girl). Most of the time, I don’t think people mean any harm when they use the term “trap,” but it can be taken as an insult. Transgender people – or anyone who doesn’t follow standard gender roles – aren’t trying trick or trap people. They have a psychological need to dress/act like their true gender or identity.
Lily from Zombie Land Saga is not a trap. She is one of the very first openly transgender anime characters. Thanks to Kat Callahan, I recently found out about Wandering Son, which is an anime from 2011 that depicts two transgender characters. Jon Spencer also mentioned an anime to me called Back Street Girls, but after looking it, I saw the characters are forced to transition… so I personally don’t think they really count as being transgender. But I will check out the show some time anyway~ Thank Jon!
Altogether, trans anime characters are very rare, but Lily is definitely transgender. I can tell just from being in a relationship with a trans person, but even without that, all of the signs are there.
Lily’s Symptoms of Gender Dysphoria
According to Psychology Today (2018), transgender people experience a phenomenon called Gender dysphoria, which “is defined by strong, persistent feelings of identification with the opposite gender and discomfort with one’s own assigned sex that results in significant distress or impairment. People with gender dysphoria desire to live as members of the opposite sex and often dress and use mannerisms associated with the other gender.”
The amount of gender dysphoria can vary between people, but Lily seems to experience it to a high degree.
Lily was assigned male at birth and her birth name was Masao, which is very masculine. But she hates being called “Masao” by her father. Even as a zombie, she still seems to dislike that name. During her first life and her afterlife, Lily dressed as a girl and acted very feminine. We also see her disdain for her biological male sex.
In Episode 8, during a flash back, Lily gets extremely upset when she sees leg hair growing. At that point, she was still a child and was starting the first stages of puberty. But Lily vehemently declared she didn’t want to grow up, since it would mean becoming less feminine. But the final blow was when Lily saw facial hair. She was already physically and mentally exhausted because she was being overworked as a child actress. When she saw that facial hair, it threatened to completely dissolve her identity as a girl. She became so distraught that she died of shock.
Now, most trans people won’t instantly die when they see something that conflicts with their gender identity… but they will become distressed or depressed over it. In just the few moments we see in the episode, Lily exhibited multiple symptoms of gender dysphoria. And her reactions reminded me so much of my fiance that there is really no doubt in my mind that she is trans. You can see even more evidence explained in this video. (I also agree with her view on traps).
So, you might be wondering if Lily is a child, how does she know that she is transgender? It’s later revealed that Lily is 12-years-old, which isn’t that young. In fact, the number of transgender children as young as 4-years-old, especially in the United States and the UK, has increased greatly over the past few years, as acceptance has become more widespread (NBC News, 2017). So, Lily knowing she was transgender at 12 is perfectly believable.
Opinions of Transgender People in Japan
While many English-speaking fans (not all but many) have been accepting of Lily’s gender identity, I had to ask myself: would Japanese society accept her?
I have come across a confusing mixed bag of answers. Through my research on Japanese culture, I’ve learned that Japanese society stresses conformity and believes group harmony is more important than one’s individual needs (Schmid, 2012). In Lynzee Loveridge’s LGBT piece on ANN (2018), Loveridge explains that many LGBTQ citizens still face discrimination because of these views. They are seen as strange or outcasts – other times, people may not take LGBT relationships seriously. In the article, Fuyumi Yamamoto, a Japanese LGBT activist, explained that “In Japan, ‘difference’ is often hard to see. There are many who believe it is shameful to show ‘difference.’ There’s a famous proverb, ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,’ and that climate, that culture persists to this day.”
However, Kat Callahan (2019) says that many transitioned transgender people in Japan don’t share the fact they’re trans and remain “stealth.” She explains that many want their gender re-categorized… and they then never really want to talk about it again. “There are also an awful lot of people who see it as a private medical condition to be dealt with, and then you move on. No different from any other medical procedure.” So, many Japanese trans people may not get any reaction at all (good or bad) since others don’t know they are trans.
What about people who are open about it or don’t fit into the gender binary? “I’d say you’d probably get a very different set of experiences from non-binary folks who are openly non-binary presenting,” Callahan says. Again, this is because modern Japanese society doesn’t do well with ambiguity or difference.
Even if many stay stealth (whether it’s their own personal preference or fear of fitting in), there are Japanese people who are open about being transgender. In an interview called “Being Transgender in Japan,” the Asian Boss YouTube channel interviewed two openly FTM Japanese citizens. They actually have their own channel where they talk about being FTM. In the interview video, both Eito and Kanata shared their experiences in Japan.
When asked how Japanese society feels about transgender people, Eito explained that many people in Japan are not educated about the topic and have never met a transgender person before. He said that they usually treat you like a celebrity and say things like “I thought that only happened on TV.” So, in his experience, their reactions aren’t necessarily bad – they are just ignorant when it comes to the topic.
Overall, I would say that reactions to trans people probably depend on a person’s individual opinions, just like with many other controversial topics. Some people will understand, some won’t, and some will be in between.
In Zombie Land Saga, Lily’s friends had good reactions overall. They were surprised and had some questions, but in the end, they respected Lily and didn’t treat her like an alien or something. Saki did laugh at Lily’s original name, but Saki was just being Saki. She didn’t mean any harm. And when it came down to it, Saki defended Lily.
And perhaps their reactions represent the current attitudes of young people in Japan. In the Asian Boss interview (2018), Kanata explained that younger people in Japan are usually more open and understanding when it comes to being transgender. Many of them have been exposed to the idea through their friends or other means. Both Kanata and Eito were confident about this new generation and think that Japan will be a more accepting place in the future. Callahan reiterates this point: “there is a large divide in age group for most things political in Japan, and with [people over 65] controlling much of the political life of the country. Laws and policies have not caught up with the actual consensus. Unfortunately young people don’t vote in high enough numbers” (2019).
Still, Eito and Kanata agreed that the Japanese education system should do more to educate students not just on LGBT issues but other important issues as well. They explained that, culturally, Japanese people don’t like sharing their thoughts and opinions. Because of this, Eito and Kanata felt that safe spaces should be created (whether at school or elsewhere), so people can talk about and learn about these types of issues.
And some schools are already starting to do this. Education on LGBT issues has already started to become more prominent in Japan. In fact, the junior high school that Kat Callahan attended had a poster in the counselor’s office that explains LGBT to students:
And below is a poster at another school promoting a seminar for teachers about LGBT students:
And I’ve heard of some other progress in schools. For example, some schools are being more flexible with school uniforms so LGBT students can wear the uniform they prefer.
This is a great start. If information on LGBT becomes more widespread in Japan, more people in Japan can become familiar and educated on the topic. Actually, both Eito and Kanata said they figured out they were transgender thanks to a show they saw. They never say the name, but I believe that show was Kinpachi-sensei. This long-running show dealt with many important issues over the years, including being transgender. Justin Ellis from Japan Visitor claims that the episode about transgender people helped spread awareness about the issue all over Japan.
In Ellis’ piece, he quotes Tokyo assemblywoman Aya Kamikawa who explained “Before the series appeared, people believed that being [transgender] was just an arbitrary choice the person made.. But they learnt from the program that it wasn’t a voluntary thing to want to change sex. Transgender people in Japan changed from being freaks to a topic of human rights.” And as mentioned earlier, there are some other signs that Japan is slowly becoming more accepting.
As awareness spreads, more and more people will come to accept transgender people. But I think more TV and anime programs with trans awareness need to exist in Japan. I believe that Lily can help spread that awareness to even more people in Japan and other countries. Lily is treated with respect and is never shown as a freak or just an extra piece of comedy. The fact her friends accepted her is extremely important. It shows how people should react. Yes, it’s natural to be surprised or even shocked at first, but in the end, it’s the person on the inside that counts. I hope everyone in Japan (and the world) can get to this point one day.
Transitioning in Japan
The next thing I wanted to explore was this – would Lily have been able to get hormone treatments or transition while living in Japan? The answer is yes, but it’s very complicated. In July 2004, the Gender Identity Disorder (GID) Law came into effect in Japan (Ellis). This allows anyone who is diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder to transition as long they are 20 years-old, though the age will change to 18 in 2022 (BBC, 2018).
Even if you have parental consent, children under 20 cannot physically transition or change their name. But you can get accommodations for using the restroom or getting the correct uniform, among other things (Kallahan, 2019). So, if she got consent from her father, Lily would have been able to get accommodations, but she would have needed to wait until she was an adult to change her name and fully transition.
Here is a basic run-down of the process in Japan if you are a Japanese national and of age. You need to see a psychiatrist, so you can get diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, which is known as seidoitsu-seishogai in Japanese. (The Japanese diagnosis of GID is different from the previous Western diagnosis of the same name – though the Western version is now called Gender Dysphoria.)
Once you are diagnosed in Japan, you get hormone therapy for at least one year. From there, you earn a certificate, go to court, and get permission for surgery. Apparently reassignment surgery does exist in Japan, but few hospitals offer it, and it’s very expensive. Apparently, many transgender Japanese citizens get their surgery in Thailand, where the procedure is more readily available and cheaper (Asian Boss, 2018).
Other than the Thailand part, it doesn’t sound too different from the process in the USA. But there is a huge catch, and that catch is Gender Identity Disorder. This term (at least in Japan) was was created by Dr. Jun Koh, a doctor who specializes in supporting transgender patients. He knew how the Japanese legal system worked and knew that transgender people couldn’t get what they wanted unless they had a medical reason that was recognized by the government. So, Koh helped pass the GID law, but it has brought many positive results and consequences.
Of course, it’s great that people can now transition. However, transgender historian Junko Mitsuhashi says the GID diagnosis has negative implications. She believes that labeling GID as a disease implies that transgender people are not well or normal. She states that people may think “it is medicine’s role to bring these people to a normal, or ‘healthy’ state of alignment through treatment… Such a thought could be expected from ignorant and close-minded doctors who believe they are elites within society” (Buzzfeed, 2016).
But at the same time, some people see the GID diagnosis as a safety net. Kat Callahan (2019) explains that “In some ways a GID diagnosis is like… a disability placard.” Because trans people in Japan are diagnosed with a medical condition, other people tend to treat them well. Without the diagnosis, trans people are afraid they might be seen as weird or that the accommodations may stop. “It is understandable why many trans people in Japan are afraid that society will feel it is no longer bound to accommodate [their needs] if there is no medical condition which compels them socially to do so,” says Callahan (2019).
So, the actual term or diagnosis of GID has many mixed opinions; it’s subjective depending on who you speak to. But besides its social implications, the GID laws has a major issue – and that is what the laws requires. If you are diagnosed with it, you are REQUIRED to get reassignment surgery. This is a major problem because what if you can’t afford it? Most of the time, Japan’s national healthcare won’t cover the surgery. Though in goods new, the Japanese government announced they may begin to pay for a portion of some trans people’s surgeries (Andersson, 2018).
But my biggest concern is what if you don’t want the surgery? Or what if you are not physically able to get a major procedure? According to Buzzfeed (2016), these people “fall through the cracks” and never really get the proper treatment they want, which is saddening. Forcing the surgery is basically forcing people to be binary and is upholding Japan’s current view on binary gender roles (Taniguchi).
But wait, there’s more. The GID law actually requires transitioning transgender people to be sterilized, meaning they can never have children. In my opinion, this is highly discriminatory – it’s like the government is saying they don’t want any more transgender people being born. Sterilization can also apparently affect your health negatively if you aren’t careful (Human Rights Watch, 2017). And unfortunately, the Japanese Supreme Court just voted in January 2019 to keep the sterilization requirement (Jackman, 2019). This further proves Callahan’s quote from earlier – the government/politicians are older individuals. And they seem to be really stuck in the past.
In retrospect, it’s good that the surgery and sterilization requirements don’t apply to children. It would be very unsafe in my opinion to do a major surgery and sterilization on a young person. But waiting to transition may depress or stress out young children who are transgender. I personally think hormone blockers or treatment would be okay to use on children who are near puberty.
But wait… I also recently learned that to get the treatment, you can’t have children AND you can’t be married. According to Hiroyuki Taniguchi, if someone is already married, they may need to a divorce to change their gender changed or get treatment. This is, for lack of a better phrase, really dumb. What if the couple wants to stay together? Taniguchi also explained that people with children will have to wait until their kids are no longer minors. Again, waiting so long to transition may affect their mental health.
Fortunately, if you are a non-citizen, you can avoid all of the law’s requirements by getting your gender changed in your country of origin (assuming your country allows it). But this only applies to a small group of people and if you were born in Japan, you probably won’t have any choice but to follow the GID law’s procedures (Callahan, 2019).
Because of the requirements and its implications, there are many mixed opinions about the GID law in Japan. Apparently, Koh, the man who coined Gender Identity Disorder, hates the law himself. He believes trans people don’t even need to see doctors. But as I mentioned, he knows how the Japanese system works. He has a committee for Gender Identity Disorder and is working behind the scenes – maybe he can make some adjustments to the unnecessary parts of the law (Buzzfeed, 2016) and hopefully we can see some revisions. But the recent vote on the sterilization requirement makes me a little more pessimistic. It seems will Japan need some new Supreme Court members before that can happen.
In the end, Lily would have been able to get hormone treatment and transition while living in Japan, though it would not have happened until she was an adult. And it seems that she probably would have been accepted by others. But it’s also very possible that she would have also faced discrimination, especially if her fans found out (everyone loves celebrities and scandals >_>).
In weird way, maybe it all worked out for Lily. She will be able to stay feminine forever without ever having to go through hormone therapy or surgery, which can be very difficult. She also doesn’t have to worry about the marriage or no child requirement, though I am not sure how that would work since she is a zombie and forever a minor…
Anyway, Lily ended up with a great groups of friends and a manager that supports her being transgender. AND she gets to be as girly as she wants since the idol group wears very girly, frilly outfits.
Lily will get to enjoy her afterlife fully and in doing so, she can spread awareness about being transgender to viewers all over the world. Zombie Land Saga’s handling of the issue as well as the characters’ reactions set a very good precedent for how trans people should be viewed. As time goes on and Japan becoming more accepting, I hope we get to see more trans and LGBT characters represented in a positive way in anime. There are many interesting discussions about Lily online, like Irina and Crow’s discussion of Episode 8, so if you found this piece interesting, I recommend you go find some of the other amazing discussions out there.
But most importantly, remember to love and respect the adorable Lily!
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Asian Boss. (2018). Being Transgender in Japan. Retrieved from YouTube.
BBC News. (2018, June 13). Coming of age: Why adults in Japan are getting younger. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44465196
Callahan, K. (2019, Jan). Online interview.
Doi, K. and Knight, K. (2017, Nov 29). Japan Forces Sterilization on Transgender People. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/11/29/japan-forces-sterilization-transgender-people
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