CW: discussion of queer-phobia
Note: This is an edited version of a previous post. In that post the style of my writing in recounting certain violent episodes from my youth, my efforts to capture how I felt in the moment, as an unwitting agent in reinforcing the marginalization of queer identity, was very graphic, and some folks were unable to read past a certain point, so I’ve edited those parts out.
It’s no secret that Kyoto Animation’s adaptation of the Clannad visual novel is generally considered one of the most heartwarming anime ever made. It tugs at heartstrings in a variety of ways, like through its portrayals of the beauty of a family persevering through turmoil, of childhood trauma and the struggle to process it and of the miracle of life. The romance at its heart is often praised as being one of the best in anime, with Tomoya and Nagisa appearing in countless lists of top ten anime couples. The core theme of Clannad is that family is paramount. Clannad believes that families must always stick together no matter what. Clannad has a lot to say about what it means to become an adult, the value of blue-collar work, the difficulties of parenthood and many other things. Clannad also has a bit to say about queer sexuality.
The issue of queer rights in Japan has become more prominent in recent years. Fear of queer sexuality is common in Japan, as it is in the United States. Naturally, this increased presence in political discourse has caused the most reactionary voices in Japanese politics to cry out in outrage. Mio Sugita, a parliament member belonging to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, wields one of these voices. She recently appeared on television and recounted being asked whether queer problems have a place in Japanese education, saying that she thought it was “definitely unnecessary.” When told that the suicide rate among homosexual children is six times higher than among children in general, she laughed and articulated her belief that teachers in Japanese schools have more pressing concerns. Despite knowing that she is on the far right, has fringe views and has been condemned by politicians on both sides, watching this clip still sent a chill down my spine.
In my opinion, whenever a big fuss is made over one reactionary openly expressing their hate, the number of people that share that view is always more than the media backlash would suggest. What I’m saying is that Japan, like the United States, has a great deal of progress to make in queer civil rights and acceptance of queer sexuality. My impression of the clip of Mio Sugita on television is that her attitude towards queer people is one of dismissal. Dismissive attitudes are focal point in the system by which hatred is reinforced and passed between generations in Japan.
And now, a little bit about me.
When I was entering middle school, I was frequently the subject of gay-related name-calling. In one particular incident at Summer camp, I responded with violence. The eleven-year-old me was exhilarated at the feeling of power in being able to use force to punish the ringleader of the kids bullying me.
Outside of fighting a few times with my little sister, who I thought was out to get me, I had never demonstrated any violent behavior. This incident, during the summer before I started middle school, was only the second. In both cases, I became violent in response to gay-related name calling and got away with it because I lied and said the other kid had hit me first. The adults in charge never believed the other kids’ stories. They couldn’t fathom the thought of me being violent. None of my behavior up until that point had suggested that such a thing would even be possible.
When I was once again the subject of gay-related name-calling during the following school year I responded in the same way. Again, the feeling of having power over the one tormenting me was thrilling.
When his parents called the school, I pulled the same bullshit but ended up having to serve a detention anyway. With those incidents, I learned that I’m the kind of person that bottles shit in and then snaps, seemingly without warning. These memories were my first experiences with the concept of queer sexuality. The idea had filled me with so much fear and anxiety. I don’t look back fondly on these memories. It was petty and pathetic. It was also traumatic for me to witness myself cause such violence. Though I suppressed these feelings at the time, I became constantly aware and afraid of the potential I had for hurting other people. That stuck with me through high school.
I ended up placing into the highest track for the next year, and there was a lot less name-calling from there on out.
As an adolescent male, there was no graver punishment than being branded as gay. That’s what it feels like when name-calling comes from bullies, or people you perceive to be superior to you, it feels like a punishment. The only thing that could bring me to challenge that authority was my intense fear that people would think I really was gay. Due to traumatic experiences I had when I was in second grade, experiences I’ll perhaps dive into another time, I came to associate bullies with authority. It wasn’t a healthy perception to have, but it’s pretty insightful when used as a lens to explore gay-related name-calling and bullying of queer students in Japan, where teachers sometimes join in on the bullying. We’ll come back to that.
Why did I snap in each of those incidents? What was so gravely offensive about being called gay that would lead me to become so violent? Why was gay such a potent insult? It often has little to nothing to do with sexuality, but at the same time, it has everything to do with sexuality. In 2007, when I was in sixth grade, I was playing with Bionicles while all the other kids were out playing sports or playing video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. The only video games I played were Pokémon, Lego Star Wars and Lego Indiana Jones. Naturally, I never had anything to contribute when guys would stroll into class in the morning, raving about their heroism and exploits on the battlefield. I was too busy thinking about Bionicle’s expansive and complex lore. In addition, I have ADHD, so I’ve always been very impulsive. That combined with anxiety, tied to those traumatic experiences I mentioned, made me socially incompetent compared to most of my classmates. If life was a masculinity competition, I was losing, and that’s why I was labeled as gay. It had nothing to do with my sexuality. Well, maybe I was also particularly sensitive to it because there was a period of a couple weeks that year when I seriously questioned my sexuality. Anyways, being branded as gay has more to do with failing to conform to gender roles than it does with actually being gay.
They called me gay because I wasn’t manly enough.
Thoughts along the lines of, “there’s nothing wrong with being gay” never occurred to me, and if somebody said such a thing to me, I don’t think it would have made me feel any better. John Clark knew that being gay was a bad thing. That misinformation didn’t come from my home; it came from my peers. I entered middle school and the regime of masculinity sorted all males my age between ‘gay’ and ‘not gay.’ The kids that conformed to gender roles naturally were on top. The kids that were designated gay could only remove that label by conforming to the behavior of the kids designated as ‘not gay.’
Adolescent males also throw around ‘gay’ while messing around with their friends. The difference is in the delivery. When it’s from a friend and in a lighthearted manner, it doesn’t feel like bullying. It’s not being used to dismiss that person’s very existence. That doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful. Even I engaged in playful gay-related name calling with my friends, though I quit relatively early. One day, in February of my first year of middle school, my friend and I were messing around in the auditorium before play practice and calling each other gay. The only other people there were the director and the set manager, an incredibly muscular high school sophomore named Steve. To me, he was the pinnacle of masculinity. He was a very easily irritated person, and I was always afraid that he would bully me. He also wore pajamas almost exclusively, which I thought was awesome. The director, Andy, excused himself to go to the bathroom. When he left, Steve walked over, grabbed my friend and I each by the collar, and told us that he never wanted to hear us call each other or anybody else gay in a demeaning way ever again. He told us that Andy was openly gay and asked us how we thought it must feel for him to hear us throwing around homosexuality as an insult. He said it was like we were stepping all over Andy. My friend was scared shitless in the moment, but he didn’t really adjust his behavior after that, except for when he was around Steve. I never called anybody gay again… I think. That moment stuck with me, and I often thought about it even after the name-calling had ended in my second year.
I had never questioned the idea that homosexuality is wrong and weird back then. It wouldn’t have mattered to me, what mattered to me then was the fact that those that branded me as gay thought it was wrong and weird. The possibility that there could be people that thought otherwise never occurred to me. All of my negative feelings toward homosexuality were rooted in my resentment for being labeled gay and being dismissed and put down for it. The wakeup from Steve call is something that I’ll always be grateful for because it laid the foundation for me to eventually realize that there’s nothing inherently wrong or bad about being gay. I’d never thought about how there were real people who were really gay and it was the first time that somebody other than my parents said that it was wrong to call to weaponize homosexuality as a tool for putting other people down. It was my first experience that challenged all the misinformation regarding homosexuality that was washing over me each and every day in class. On top of that, it came from the guy that I thought was the pinnacle of masculinity. I think it helped prevent me from getting totally lost in the hatred and fear that my experiences with gay related name-calling carried with them.
In the summer before I went into seventh grade, I really got into Avatar. There’s an episode of Avatar in which Katara describes Aang as being, “more in touch with his feminine side than most guys.” I was immediately able to identify with that sentiment, and even through college, I often used it to describe myself when it would be relevant to conversation. Even more influential than that was watching Zuko grow and change over the course of the series. Zuko started out as the villain, chasing his father’s approval. As the series progressed, Zuko grew softer and warmer as he struggled with which side he was going to take. Zuko, at the end of the series, was much less concerned with masculinity than he was at the beginning. That growth stuck with me so much that the one thing I most associate with growing up is growing out of the obsession with masculinity that grips most adolescent boys. Breaking that obsession with masculinity is, in my opinion, the key to combatting homophobia.
The strongest fuel for homophobia is lack of information. That’s the key to how homophobia gets passed between generations, and the only way to ameliorate that is through education. Most people don’t understand queer sexuality. I think this is far more common than people not wanting to understand queer sexuality, though there are many people that feel that way. To them, queer sexuality is a source of fear, something to be driven away. However, it is precisely because people don’t understand queer sexuality that they fear it. Those folks that fear queer sexuality don’t want others to understand it either and spread misinformation, even through education. The lack of any positive or accurate information means that the misinformation is likely to spread, take root and remain unchallenged. The kids grow up knowing only that misinformation, and, unless they research on their own, they never will understand queer sexuality, so it will remain for them something to be feared. And why would kids research queer sexuality if they believe they’ve learned, formally or informally, everything they need to know about it?
Not all folks that don’t understand queer sexuality are overwhelmed by fear and the hatred that it sows but that doesn’t mean those people will see the value of understanding queer sexuality. Activism and visibility for queer folks are the only cures to this system. The truth needs to overwrite the misinformation. The lesson, which I think can be drawn from the anecdotes I’ve shared, is that a few positive experiences with something could potentially drown out the darkness cast by countless past negative experiences with that thing. Those experiences changed me for the better. They saved me from potentially living the rest of my life in fear of queer sexuality. The best way to prompt people to question the misinformation they were fed and seek the truth, is advocacy for understanding. As time progresses, it will hopefully become impossible for the queer community to be ignored. I would say the United States has seen this come to fruition to an extent over the past 15 years, at least in urban areas. The internet is a vital source of information and means for maximizing visibility as well. This is precisely why queer issues have been discussed more openly in recent years.
Everything I’ve written so far has come research and reflections prompted by my most recent watch of Clannad. Clannad indulges itself in four ‘jokes’ that treat queer sexuality as a punchline in its first season. The first time I watched Clannad, when I wasn’t thinking critically, just mindlessly consuming, I laughed out loud to all four of these jokes. With each rewatch of Clannad, I’ve become more and more perturbed by these ‘jokes.’ I’m going to use the research and anecdotes I’ve provided to contextualize Clannad’s jokes that target queer sexuality and explore the implications of each of them.
Clannad’s first major gay joke is in the second episode. Tomoya is speaking with Ryou Fujibayashi, the class representative, who has a crush on him. Her sister Kyou, who also has a crush on Tomoya, mowed him down with her bike on her way to school that day. Tomoya starts to complain to Ryou, but Kyou, who’s in another class, comes in, cuts Tomoya off as he’s saying “bike” and pulls him out into the hallway. She tells him that it’s forbidden to ride a bike to school and she doesn’t want anybody to know because she doesn’t want to get in trouble. Tomoya walks back to his seat and, as if to continue what he had been saying before getting hauled off, he stands up and announces, “Kyou Fujibayashi is bi.” That’s the joke. Confusion and shock follows, and Kyou drags Tomoya back into the hallway.
This is the most simple of Tomoya’s gay jokes. Unlike the others, it’s not meticulously crafted, because it happened in the moment. In reaction to Okazaki’s announcement, many students wonder aloud what “bi” means. The confusion here is actually reflective of the lack of specific information about queer sexuality in Japanese schools. One of the students in the class reacts by saying, “you mean like male and female,” to which another student responds, “she does seem very masculine.” This absurd piece of misinformation, which might sound right to somebody that doesn’t understand queer sexuality, is never refuted by the show. It’s left uncorrected. Clannad actively participates in spreading misinformation about queer sexuality.
Clannad is also making light of the very serious issue of queer students being outed against their will. In Japan, in recent years, increased prominence of queer issues and representation on the internet and in media has caused more Japanese youth to begin to question their identity. Kids explore the more remote corners of the internet or stumble upon manga like Girlfriends, or anime like Flip Flappers, Love Live and Gatchaman Crowds. They meet other folks or see characters with whom they identify, characters that are endearing yet don’t fit into the artificial boxes of male and female, into which society tries to stuff anyone and everyone. In the stories they read, they find shared experiences, similar in nature to the way I found reflections of myself in Aang and Zuko. With this trend, more and more queer Japanese students are approaching teachers and coming out to them for various reasons. Examples of these sorts of exchanges include a young transgender woman requesting to wear the uniform assigned to girls, or to change in the girls’ locker room, or to sleep with the girls on the class trip.
Unfortunately, most teachers in Japan have no training in helping queer students and have only cursory knowledge regarding queer issues and experiences. Much of this knowledge is likely informed by harmful stereotypes. Even formal education in queer related issues is problematic, because in Japan, being transgender is still considered a mental illness. As a result, most Japanese teachers are unequipped to assist their queer students. This lack of queer-related training for educators causes a variety of problems, the most prominent of which are the cases in which a teacher outs a queer student to their classmates and/or their parents against their wishes. This isn’t always malicious. It is the natural result of a lack of education and a proliferation of misinformation. What is malicious is Mio Sugita’s assertion that educating students in queer matters is a waste of time. Luckily, the system is changing. More people in the Japanese government are pushing for queer rights and the education ministry sent a notice last year to all teachers that outing their students can cause depression and suicide.
In the United States there is an infamous example of a student being outed by his peers. Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, took his own life after his roommate secretly livestreamed an intimate evening between Clementi and another male student via iChat. Dealing with the suicide of a classmate or somebody else at your school can be a traumatic experience. It happened a few times when I was in high school and at Notre Dame. The entire campus is shaken, even those that don’t know the deceased student. Though it doesn’t seem as though Kyou is actually bisexual, Tomoya’s cruel joke makes light of the act of outing somebody against their will, and all the baggage attached to the subject.
The second gay joke is much more calculated by Tomoya and is only possible because the writers crafted it. It wouldn’t have gone nearly as far if it only depended upon the natural outcome of Tomoya’s setup. Tomoya and Sunohara are helping Nagisa recruit members for the drama club, so Tomoya directs Sunohara to tell Ryou to come to the roof of the school because there is somebody waiting there that wants to confess their love. This is particularly cruel on Tomoya’s part because Ryou has a crush on Tomoya. Since Ryou knows that Sunohara is Tomoya’s “best friend,” she was likely led to believe that the one waiting on the roof to confess their feelings was Tomoya. If nothing else, she at least got her hopes up.
When Ryou reaches the roof, she’s shocked to learn that the one who wants to talk to her is a girl, Nagisa. Naturally, the charade would end shortly after Nagisa began speaking to Ryou, but the writers overreach and deliberately make Nagisa’s lines vague and misleading. The joke becomes artificial. After a lot of misleading build up, Nagisa asks Ryou to join the drama club, at which point Kyou comes out onto the roof, having been eavesdropping.
This scene mocks a very delicate type of situation, one in which somebody comes out of the closet to the person they are confessing without knowing how that person will react. The writers even have Nagisa say, “I’ve been troubled by it, but I decided to be brave,” mocking the immense courage required for Queer students to come out and confess to somebody who likely won’t even be attracted to them.
When Ryou says that she didn’t expect it to be a girl, Sunohara chimes in saying, “Sex doesn’t matter, the important thing is the heart.” This is a good sentiment, but coming from Sunohara and in the context of the joke, it comes across as mocking homosexuality. Sunohara’s characterization, especially at this point in the story, is such that nothing he says is meant to be taken seriously. He exists to suck so that Tomoya can look good in comparison. He is presented as a character that ought to be dismissed and this extends everything he does and says. Clannad’s attitude toward Sunohara’s declaration is just as dismissive as Mio Sugita was in her interview.
The third joke, which seems to target transgender and genderqueer people, is probably the most intricate and calculated of Tomoya’s queer focused jokes. For this joke, Tomoya once again takes advantage of Ryou’s submissiveness and her feelings for him to craft his hateful prank. When Fuuko zones out in the hallway, Tomoya tells Ryou say to Fuuko, “I’m Okazaki, I’ve become a girl,” when she comes to. Tomoya further instructs to her say, “it comes off sometimes” if Fuuko asks what happened and, “for the time being” in response to any other inquiry from Fuuko.
After hearing from Ryou that “it comes off sometimes,” Fuuko asks whether “it” might come and attach itself to her. This is yet another artificial joke. Fuuko’s questions and responses were designed by the writers to have maximum comedic effect without any regard for how realistic it would be for anybody to say such things. I admit, the idea of a little cartoon penis running around in red sneakers and randomly attaching and detaching itself from various individuals is a bit humorous, but the fact that the writers thought it reasonable to believe that the audience would buy into this is yet another testament to the void of information and pervasive misinformation about queer sexuality in Japanese schools.
Fuuko’s immediate concern that the wild penis in red sneakers might pose a threat to her, her gender and her sexuality is a testament to the disposition uninformed Japanese students have toward queer sexuality. All of these jokes treat queer sexuality as something alien, and this joke also portrays it as a source of fear from Fuuko’s point of view.
The final joke targeting queer sexuality focuses on Sunohara. Many Clannad fans, including myself, have theorized that Sunohara might be gay and Kyo-Ani’s adaptation seems to put some effort into portraying Sunohara in a manner which does not rule out this possibility. If Sunohara is gay, then this joke would be the only one in Clannad which directly targets a queer character.
After the end of Kotomi’s arc, Tomoya and the various women he has assembled in his harem all decide to join the drama club, giving Nagisa the number of members she needs to officially reestablish the club. The last thing they need is a club advisor. In the time in which the drama club had been dissolved, the former drama club adviser became the adviser to the choir club. The choir club was formed by Rie Nishina as a means for her to continue pursuing her passion for music after sustaining permanent injuries to her hand in a tragic accident which made it impossible for her to play the violin. Sunohara devises a dumbass plan to show the members of the choir club that they shouldn’t let handicaps hold them back, hoping to somehow convince them to surrender their adviser, the one true good boy, Koumura-sensei. This was something they did not need to be shown at all and was incredibly insensitive on the part of Sunohara because it just reminded Nishina of the fact that she can never play violin the way she used to because of the injury to her hand. Sunohara’s plan was to demonstrate their ability to overcome handicaps by having the drama club play the basketball team three on three. Tomoya had been on the basketball team and was forced to quit due to permanent damage to his shoulder, a consequence of domestic violence. Tomoya wants to avoid basketball, so he turns down Sunohara. Sunohara persists, constantly chasing after Tomoya and trying to convince him to get on board with his incomprehensibly idiotic plan.
With Sunohara on his heels, Tomoya, at the end of the school day, grabs Nagisa and runs away. When Nagisa asks him what Sunohara is chasing him for, Tomoya tells her that Sunohara actually likes him. I’d like to note that, if that is true, which is a point of fervent debate, it would be another example of this show making light of the issue of queer students being outed against their will.
The subject of the joke is Sunohara, but the purpose of it is to freak out Nagisa. Nagisa’s reaction is the substance of the comedy this joke is creating. Nagisa’s response to this is framed for maximum comedic effect. Nagisa’s immediate reaction feels a lot more like horror than shock. She becomes frantic and restless. In his explanation, Tomoya leans fully into the show’s portrayal of Sunohara as being totally pathetic, saying, “Lately I haven’t paid much attention to him and it’s made him so lonely that he’s carrying on like that.” Nagisa tells Tomoya that he should consider Sunohara’s feelings seriously. That’s a wonderful thing for Nagisa to say, but unfortunately, the writers made that part of her reaction because it is supposed to be funny. The worst part of Tomoya’s relationship with Nagisa is the dismissive attitude he sometimes has towards her when she becomes assertive. Nagisa herself doesn’t seem too confident in what she is saying.
When Sunohara catches up and reaches for Tomoya’s sleeve, Nagisa grabs his arm and tells him to stop. She then lies and says that Tomoya is her boyfriend, hoping that she can “protect” him from Sunohara.
When Sunohara’s sister later overhears Nagisa mentioning it, Nagisa clarifies that Tomoya and Sunohara aren’t lovers and that Sunohara is just “forcing himself” on Tomoya. Nagisa adds that she thinks that “love comes in different forms for different people.” This is a wonderful sentiment. Unfortunately, it is undermined by the fact that this is all a part of one big joke. When Nagisa asks Tomoya to say something to comfort Sunohara’s sister, he directly undermines and dismisses any sincerity of Nagisa’s words by saying, “this is too much fun, I’m just gonna sit back and watch.”
For Nagisa, Tomoya’s deception recontextualizes Sunohara’s behavior as harassment, reinforcing various stereotypes in Japan regarding gay men. In my opinion, the second most prominent way in which homophobia manifests in straight cisgender men is in the fear of gay men pursuing them, and I think this “joke” plays upon the fear that many straight men have of receiving unwanted sexual advances from gay men. In addition, Sunohara’s thorough characterization as a connoisseur of sexual harassment and depravity matches harmful stereotypes associated with gay men. Ultimately, the drama club does follow through with Sunohara’s plan, and it works. Sunohara’s suggestion of this plan seems to be intended to be a redeeming moment for Sunohara, an opportunity for him to not be the literal worst. Tomoya turns Sunohara into the bad guy by telling Nagisa that he is gay.
So, what does it all mean? Well, if you are going to opt to adopt the dismissive attitude of the people that allow homophobia to fester, you’ll tell me that it means nothing because they’re just jokes. If you’re not in the mood to take the attitude of oppressors, you’ll realize that, either intentionally or unintentionally, Clannad essentially contains anti- queer propaganda. At first, that might seem like a radical jump, but there are four of these jokes in the first season of Clannad. Two of them span across two scenes and one even carries over from one episode to another. Three of them are very intricately crafted. All of them treat queer sexuality as a punchline and between them, they cover quite a variety of different manifestations of queer sexuality. The worst moment in all of these jokes is after Sunohara runs away during the fourth joke. Tomoya and Nagisa are both blushing and Tomoya tells Nagisa that it made him happy when she said he was her boyfriend. This moment establishes Clannad as a story where heterosexuality reigns supreme by putting down queerness. Clannad is not wholesome. The warmth and fuzziness of Clannad disguises a disturbing preoccupation with demonizing and dismissing queer sexuality.
Here, to cleanse your soul after having to read so much about my past and about Clannad. That was some fucked up shit.
For subtitles, I’ve seen a few different versions of fansub, but here I’m using Sentai’s subtitles for reference.
If you’re interested in all the technical stuff regarding LGBTQ+ students in Japan, or even if you aren’t, I suggest you read this report by Human Rights Watch. This is where I pulled my information from.