Kizuna Ai: How Her Sexist Usage Offended Women in Japan

Kizuna Ai: How Her Sexist Usage Offended Women in Japan

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Kizuna Ai
Is anime "The New Orientalism"? How a Twitter controversy over Kizuna Ai had Japanese women questioning how the media depicts them.

There may be more focus on women’s rights in Japan than at any other time in the country’s history. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, dual-income households are now the norm. More women are working than ever.

Indeed, promoting working women is now government policy. The Abe government will soon hike the country’s consumption tax to 10% in order to fund social initiatives. Among the changes: free child care for working parents.

But old attitudes die hard. Women in Japan still bear the brunt of housework at home, for example.

Worse yet, many women face open discrimination at their workplaces simply due to their gender. Take for example Tokyo Medical University, which skewed the scores of female applicants downward in order to keep them out.

It turns out that was only the tip of the iceberg. Two more schools also knee-capped women’s scores – and Japan’s Ministry of Culture says that there are more revelations to come. Twitter discussions from women in the industry have further made it clear that the discrimination continues well into their medical careers. Some even leave due to the discrimination.

So it’s no surprise that Japanese women would take a harder look, not just at their workplace environments, but how they’re portrayed in the broader culture. And when a female lawyer took NHK to task for its promotional use of a virtual YouTuber, it kicked off a firestorm of controversy that has led some to question whether the manga and anime world’s Culture of Cute is doing Japanese women a disservice.

Table of Contents


The incredible diversity of manga and anime

Manga and anime culture has been an intense subject of debate in both Japanese and Western feminist circles for some time. The subculture’s emphasis on kawaisa (可愛さ; cuteness) has birthed an industry where sexualized depictions of young, waif-like girls are commonplace.

The popularity of anime and manga outside of Japan – and the government’s reliance on it as a cultural export – means such depictions are not merely an in-country phenomenon. For better or worse, the face of manga and anime doubles as the outward face of Japan.

This isn’t to demonize manga or anime in any way. Both art forms are extremely diverse fields. Creators often have license to tell a broader range of stories than seen in similar art forms in the West. Popular manga series in Japan range from epic fantasies to historical dramas to comics about food and Japanese sake.

Anime has its fair share of giant robots and girls with guns (or tanks). But it’s also given us shows like Sazae-san. The “slice of life” show focuses on a traditional Japanese family. It holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest-running animated series.

With a broadcast history exceeding 45 years, Sazae-san is the world’s longest-running anime. It demonstrates the diversity of anime as an artistic genre.

Indeed, one could argue that shows like Sazae-san are more representative of anime than, say, Demon Slayer or My Hero Academia. Sazae-san and similar shows like Chibi Maruko-chan and Detective Conan dominate television ratings for animation within the country.

But it’s still undeniable that many women in manga and anime, just as in Western comics, are sexualized to an extreme. As more and more private companies and government agencies rely on such characters to promote Japan’s image both at home and abroad, that’s causing some controversy.

The Kizuna AI (キズナアイ) Controversy

A good example is Kizuna Ai (キズナアイ), a virtual reality YouTube star.

Like her singing counterpart, Hatsune Miku, Kizuna-Ai doesn’t exist outside of the digital realm. Even her name is designed to maximize cute appeal – a conjunction of “kizuna” (絆), or “bond”, and “ai”, which in this context can be read as both “love” and as the abbreviation for “Artificial Intelligence”. Known simply as Ai, the 3D-rendered star’s videos are subtitled in a number of foreign languages, which has helped grow her popularity outside of Japan.


来る自動運転時代に向けて、AIである私も運転の知識を学習しておかないとなーって思ってたわけなんですけどね・・・ これ、本当に出題されるんですか? クイズじゃないですよね!? ——————————————————————————- チャンネル登録よろしくお願いします(o・v・o)♪  …

One of Ai’s most popular videos, in which she carps about the difficulty of the driving exam.

Ai’s popularity has led to the use of her image in a number of promotional tie-ups. Recently, NHK employed the figure in a series of videos on its site explaining the achievements of this year’s Nobel Prize winners. That grabbed the attention of lawyer Oota Keiko, who vented on her Twitter about NHK’s crass attempt to interest students in science with an anime babe.

弁護士 太田啓子 「これからの男の子たちへ」(大月書店) on Twitter: “NHKノーベル賞解説サイトでこのイラストを使う感覚を疑う。女性の体はしばしばこの社会では性的に強調した描写されアイキャッチの具にされるがよりによってNHKのサイトでやめて。このサイトで女性受賞者は少ないの?とか書いてるけどこれじゃ理由わかんないんだろう / Twitter”


NHK’s Nobel Prize commentary site using this illustration makes me doubt my senses. The sexuality of women’s bodies is often emphasized in this society, and used as an eye-catching gimmick, but NHK, of all places, should cut it out. I’ve written that there are few female award winners on this site, but I don’t get the motivation here.

Oota’s tweet – which has been re-tweeted over 1,600 times – sparked a firestorm of controversy. Many people agreed with Oota, while other commentators argued that there wasn’t anything particularly “sexualized” about Ai’s appearance.

Chida Yuuki, a professor of sociology at Musashi University, argued that Ai’s appearance was the least of her problems. Ai’s contribution to these instructional videos isn’t substantive, she argues. It’s limited to “aitzuchi” (相槌) – i.e. to simple back-channeling words of confirmation like “Yeah”,”umm..”, “I see”, etc.


The job apportioned to Kizuna Ai on this NHK site is fundamentally aitduchi. That’s the part that’s typically been allocated to women. In a sense, you can say it’s a return to assigning gender roles.

Are Anime Girls The New “Orientalism”?

One commentator went even further than Professor Chida. Writing for Gendai Media, Saeki Junko, a professor of comparative culture at Doshisha University in Kyoto, notes that characters like Ai are currently Japan’s primary cultural export. She compares this to the way that, in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the West’s mental image of Japanese women was the geisha – a mysterious-seeming figure who fascinated Western artists, but whose pale, frail beauty also fed into a myth of a Strong West holding power over a Weak East.

Professor Saeki argues this “Orientalism” never disappeared – it’s just changed form:




But on the other hand, this way of thinking that objectifies women as the object of the sexual gaze, and through their frail existence puts them in a lower position than Westerners, is a construction of “Orientalism”, or of the Strong West versus the Weak East, and it can’t be gleefully cast off.

Even modern women working as real geishas probably feel uneasy about being purposefully being sexualized as “geishas”.

The export of “cute” women as drawn in popular culture being exported abroad could be connected to this stereotype of Japanese women as immature and sexualized. In other words, there’s a danger of it becoming the 21st century’s “Orientalism”.

Ai and Researcher Suji Masashiro
Ai faces off with a researcher, Suji Masahiro, who explains some of the science behind one of the recent Nobel Prize awards. With Japanese scientist Honju Tasuku winning a Nobel this year in Medicine, Japan’s impressive slate of Nobel Prize winners has once again become a hot news topic, and a point of national pride. However, some are questioning the way in which NHK Broadcasting chose to get its younger viewers up to speed.

Professor Saeki makes clear she has nothing fundamentally against anime or idol culture. The issue, she argues, isn’t whether people like to look at depictions of pretty women. “That’s one’s right, and it’s a fact that it bears economic fruit.” The issue, she argues, is the ensuing power relationship. In other words, the perpetuation of the stereotype of “the man who teaches” and “the woman who learns”.

In this, Professor Saeki is echoing Professor Chida’s point. By putting Ai into a position where she’s nothing but the “aizuchi girl”. This, says Professor Saeki, is just repeating a set societal pattern.


I can see the points of both sides on this topic. On the one hand, anime and manga culture as a worldwide movement isn’t going away anytime soon. And there’s nothing fundamentally problematic about either art form, each of which evolves over time.

On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that the sexualized depiction of women in manga and anime hasn’t gotten more brazen over the years. Indeed, several posts on Oota’s Twitter feed submitted by other Twitter users contain shots of outright pornography visible from the street in Akihabara, the moe heart of Tokyo.

I think Professor Chida is right that the issue with Kizuna Ai is less about sexualization and more about the repetition of cultural patterns – i.e., the depiction of women as always being under men. With more and more Japanese women becoming incensed at their treatment in the workplace, it’s natural that they would look begin to take a more jaundiced eye toward how women and girls are depicted in popular media.

I don’t think moe culture will change fundamentally. But I can see more of it confined to the subculture itself, and less in the general public eye, as the women’s rights movement in Japan continues to grow.

The Hatsune Miku Affair: Husband “Cheats” on His Wife with Virtual Idol


ノーベル賞のNHK解説に「キズナアイ」は適役なのか? ネットで炎上中【追記あり】. Yahoo! Japan

炎上した「キズナアイ」問題…日本文化が描いてきた女性像から考える. Gendai Media

Third Japan medical school suspected of having discriminated against applicants: sources. Japan Times

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy