Could Japanese cartoons teach your child sex ed?
Japanese anime leaves Disney in the dust when it comes to tackling serious subjects. But can both family-friendly and teen-aimed anime actually help young people with social skills and life lessons around sex, love and relationships?
We were fascinated to discuss the overlap of sex ed and anime with Joanna Pekacka, an animation and visual effects student at the University of Lincoln. She interwove some of our comments into her February 2020 dissertation entitled How Japanese Anime Can Support Cognitive And Psychosocial Development By Exploring Mature Themes And How Censoring Adolescents Can Hinder Them From Learning Important Life Lessons/Social Skills.
In the Acknowledgements she wrote: To the lovely ladies at Outspoken Sex Ed. Their work helps so many people, and I hope that, if even a little, my theories and questions will have inspired them to consider my views and love for anime as worthy of using to support the already amazing work they do
Here we talk to Joanna about anime, parents and sex ed (the quotes in italics are from her dissertation)…
1) WHAT ANIME TAUGHT ME
In the West childhood is viewed as a time where you’re waiting to grow up and have independence. In Japan childhood is a time of freedom and self-exploration.
The Slice of Life anime genre, otherwise known as naturalism, commonly follows the lives of ordinary characters, usually students, through unordinary set of events. Characters have to wind through difficult challenges whilst managing their academic and social lives. The romance genre is popular as well, often based in a school environment.
Anime gave me the confidence and understanding that sex and the human body are nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. That is something I wish I’d been shown growing up
At age 5 or 6 children are able to understand things – but when I was young my questions got shot down or ignored. In my Polish Christian family there was never any openness or information around sex or relationships.
I grew up very shy. Until I discovered anime online at age 15, I didn’t enjoy talking to people. Through anime I was introduced to awkward situations. I saw that if you sounded stupid you could brush it off; I saw that others were introverted too. It made me more comfortable in my own skin seeing people from different backgrounds getting on in school. Everyone comes to maturity in their own time – but what if I’d been introduced to anime sooner and I’d socialised sooner?
The first anime I saw was quite sexual: it was students stuck in a high school fighting a zombie apocalypse and trying to figure out their relationship status. I thought: “What if someone walks in?!” but it was enjoyable – a mix of humour, nudity, relationships, how people were feeling.
Anime is incredible to look at – the backgrounds, the use of colour, the texture. Even if I couldn’t follow the story I got inspiration.
“We are in favour of resources that appeal to and speak to young people creatively, aesthetically and emotionally as long as they convey accurate factual information. Anime is the perfect medium for expressing hard truths in a bold and aesthetic way” – Outspoken director Leah Jewett
2) IS ANIME INAPPROPRIATE?
Anime can give adolescents the introduction to mature themes needed for them to be able to start asking questions that will develop their cognitive and psychosocial development and give them an active role in their teaching.
What sets anime aside is the unpredictability that is often missing in Western animation. Instead of the traditional “happily ever after”, anime can be used as a tool to show adolescents that sometimes things don’t work out. Death, abandonment, solitude, illnesses, being misunderstood – anime can help adolescents get through complex emotions and help them understand these occurrences so that they can deal with them in the future.
Anime portrays raw emotions, such as when the characters break down or console one another during tough times. It shows children that they can come back from those lows
Parents should be encouraged to talk about sex as openly as possible – and if they aren’t comfortable, can’t talk about their emotions or don’t explain things in a way that makes sense to a child, anime can be a great additional tool.
Some aspects of sexuality don’t have to be explicit or raunchy. In The Pet Girl Of Sakurasou a character’s shirt gets wet and you can see her bra – which is something you might see at age 13 while changing for PE at school. It can be jolting for a child to see something they “shouldn’t” see. But open a magazine and there’s a woman in underwear doing an ad for milk – kids will see that and have questions even if they don’t ask them.
It’s a mistake to think of all anime as being unacceptable or taboo. Anime has had a reputation of being inappropriate, intense, sexualised, violent or scary for children because of the anime that adults in the West watch. It’s true that Japan is more open to topics of sex and matureness and censorship is more lenient. Though the Japanese never developed the “just for kids” perception of animation, lots of their animated films are made for teens and pre-teens. Gentle family-friendly options are available. In January Netflix released 21 Studio Ghibli masterpieces – some are lighter, child-orientated and relatable, and about love, family and discovering yourself.
If parents are not comfortable with anime but their kids are interested, they should research anime films (which tend to be a “safer” option for younger children) and shows (which tend to have more mature content). They should look up the blurbs and age ratings, go onto forums and discussions, and then either suggest one to their child or watch it together.
“My children, aged 2 and 5, are big fans of My Neighbor Totoro, which deals sensitively and calmly with difficult and adult themes. I believe children can handle overinformation: they are used to filtering out what is too complicated or filing it away for the future. So I can see anime working with sex and relationships. I would see more harm in exposing young people to nothing at all on the basis that they would find out from other less helpful sources (like their friends and pornography). It’s much less natural for a child to deal with silence and censorship – because children are curious” – Outspoken director Sophie Manning
3) IS ANIME A GOOD SEX ED TEACHER?
Many anime shows tackle serious and mature themes and daily issues that adolescents may experience. With the risks that are associated with sexual activities when there is a lack of proper formal education, anime should not be considered a bad source of information.
In The Pet Girl of Sakurasou there are scenes of nudity and sexual innuendos, however there are also life lessons that could be useful for a child to learn, such as working hard or relying on friends and family to cope.
Just because an anime includes some sexual themes does not automatically make it damaging to a young audience. Seeing mature content could spark conversations and make them interested enough to learn about the health risks associated with sexual relationships.
Anime can be used as a transitional tool when adolescents are ready to start exploring more mature storylines. And like Misaki in The Pet Girl of Sakurasou, a lot of adolescents are more than keen to learn and have fun with it: “This is just another part of being young! Let’s climb the staircase to adulthood!” Misaki has figured out what she wants: an adult relationship: “I want to kiss him. I want to walk hand in hand with him. I want him to hold me. But I don’t know how to make it happen. How does everyone else manage it?”
With anime you can slowly introduce young people to more mature topics. Unlike Disney films, anime shows kids how to deal with situations, shows the struggle and gives them a sense of what to expect, how to feel and what can be done – often the answer is being close to family and friends and relying on others to get you through.
Anime can make you laugh at situations that look daunting, like it’s the end of the world, and create a lot of fun, something you can deal with and have a laugh about.
4) PARENTS VS SCHOOL VS ANIME
If parents were to solely make decisions on what their children can watch based on whether an animation has mature themes in it, they could be harming their children by stopping them from learning important life lessons and social skills.
Anime might not have the resources to teach children about the complexities of sex and relationships in the way that a teacher or a parent could, but teachers and parents can lack the ability to explain some things in a way an adolescent can understand, making anime in this sense a more fun and informal way of understanding certain mature topics.
Curiosity is something that should be encouraged, not shrouded in shame and mystery.
In school children will learn the facts, from parents they’ll learn alternative opinions, and from anime they’ll learn how to feel about this information and how to process it
Anime can be taken seriously sociologically in terms of Freud’s concept of children’s development. Children have some form of sexuality as soon as they’re born, he said.
Parents need to take the time to understand their children and know their needs. Rather than see faults in themselves, a lot of the time parents blame bad things happening on something else, like what their child is watching, rather than: “I didn’t teach them properly.”
When I was growing up I was taught that sex is something to think about when you’re an adult rather than learn about early on. For children to understand sex, it should be introduced slowly and surely.
FAMILY-FRIENDLY AND TEEN-AIMED ANIME – RECOMMENDED BY JOANNA PEKACKA
Wolf Children Coping with the death of a parent/spouse, personality changes through growth and puberty, sibling quarrels, parental struggle of empty-nest syndrome
My Neighbor Totoro Facing your fears, struggling with a parent stuck in hospital care, importance of expressing emotions, the value of family and friendships
A Silent Voice Dealing with suicidal thoughts/intentions, bullying, living with a disability, school-life struggles
Arrietty Living with an illness from a young age, losing your home (escaping destruction from an unstoppable force)
Ponyo Rebelling against overbearing parents, being brave, coping with a parent working away from home or having a dangerous job
Toradora! School crushes, falling in love, parental abandonment and neglect, living with a dependent parent
Your Lie In April Living with a deadly disease, coping with the death of a friend, mental anguish of growing up with a strict parent
Rascal Does Not Dream Of Bunny Girl Senpai Representation of symptoms of puberty through physicality (eg cruel words cause real injuries, feeling invisible renders you invisible)
Interviews With Monster Girls School-life struggles, crushes, learning about what makes you different and teaching yourself to accept it (I think it’s a really interesting take on disability)
Given Gay relationship/crush, struggling to express emotions, coping with the loss of a loved one through suicide
Kotoura-san (sexual content) Bullying, not fitting in, making friends, school-life struggles, parental abandonment / neglect, learning to love yourself even with faults, forgiveness
The Pet Girl Of Sakurasou (sexual content) First sexual attraction, anxieties / embarrassment over sexual feelings, comparing yourself to others, following your dreams, jealousy, empathy
The Hentai Prince And The Stony Cat (sexual content) Sexual attraction, death of parents and growing up without them, single-parent depiction, being honest with loved ones
Kill La Kill (sexual content) Strong female protagonist, body confidence, working hard, death of a parent, importance of family & friends over money, female relationships, supportiveness