“The Terminology, History, and Current Trends of Japan’s Girlish-Looking Guys”
Anime has often incorporated characters with seemingly opposite or ambiguous genders, especially in current trends. “Otokonoko” is a specific type of feminine-looking boy that is becoming more and more sought after. Opposite what would be “dansou”, or girls dressing as boys. Characters like Hime from Himegoto, Hideyoshi from Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu, and Chihiro from Dangan Ronpa are all pretty boys who, for various reasons, dress as girls.
Where Did We Get the Word ‘Otokonoko’?
The “otokonoko” we are describing here shares the same pronunciation (and is, in fact, a play on words) of 男の子 (otoko no ko) which simply means boy. The kanji for the ‘ko’ at the end of the latter signifies a child while the kanji for ‘ko’ at the end of otokonoko (男の娘) signifies a daughter/girl.
Otokonoko is a little different from other crossdressing terms because an otokonoko can just be a pretty looking boy that doesn’t try to look like a girl, he just naturally does. Perhaps he uses his feminine looks to make money or he feels less pressure to be manly by appearing female. It’s less of an inherent tie to femininity or indication of sexuality or gender and more of a circumstance that manifests in many ways.
Japanese language doesn’t have as many commonly understood, definitive terms for gender expression vs sexual attraction, so common terms may overlap somewhat. Otokonoko, for example, differ from “okama” (another type of character that appears commonly in anime) in that okama are decidedly, purposefully feminine (like crossdressers) while otokonoko do not need to try and may not even want to be perceived as feminine.
When Did Use of ‘Otokonoko’ First Appear?
Rather than needing a new word for human boys/men who wear women’s clothing, the use of otokonoko with the kanji for girl became popular with anime fans on the internet to describe cute feminine male characters. Oftentimes, these characters were made to add humor and their male gender is the punchline for guys falling for their pretty looks and sometimes they are just to add a little variety to harem-style hentai.
Online tags for otokonoko became popular not just in Japan but also in the West, with the English term ‘trap’ coming into use for these anime characters. Liking otokonoko is not an indication of homo/bisexuality in male fans nor of any desire to dress like a girl themselves. In fact, otokonoko were originally in works aimed at straight men! Previously, males dressing in women’s clothing were just referred to as “josou” and opposite that, females dressing in men’s clothing were referred to as “dansou”. Neither of these accounted for transgender identities and are more in reference to changing how others will perceive them for some goal rather than gender expression.
Current Trends in Regards to Otokonoko
The popularity of otokonoko has been a double-edged sword. While there is, even today, a prevalent notion that a man must fiercely protect his perceived masculinity and straightness, liking otokonoko is somewhat of a loophole. Especially as the nature of otokonoko is that they can’t help appearing feminine, it can’t be helped if straight men like otokonoko.
There’s also a history of it being more acceptable for men to dress as women or act as if they’re attracted to other men if it’s done for humor. Even if there is some eroticism associated with the character, it can be forgiven as there’s a sense of ‘it can’t be helped’ rather than ‘maybe I’m attracted to some guys.’ This notion is manifested in the word ‘trap’ used in America, a rather dramatic word for the sake of humor reflecting the idea that otherwise straight men may find themselves attracted to males unknowingly. In a way, it does allow a bit more leniency for men’s self-expression.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to fictional characters. There are real people who choose to appear feminine to better support themselves, because doing so aids in their gender expression, or simply because they want to. There are entire clubs, maid cafes, and bars where the appeal is that there are boys or men dressed as women for a consumer’s enjoyment. The focus is often more on the customer’s happiness than on making a statement about freedom of expression, but often these are the only places that people can feel safe and not only respected but wanted. Because gender roles are so strict, most expression outside of that is limited to nightlife and entertainment work.
Comedy, novelty, and sincere expression are often intermingled in nightlife entertainment in a way that can sort of obscure what someone is going for. While it may make things difficult to understand things readily, it does allow a sort of blanket of comradery. People’s hobbies, sexuality, and gender aren’t immediately known and this inability to quickly and concisely categorize people should in effect make it harder to judge any particular group. People can exist in a space and it doesn’t mean anything definitive about them other than they are to some extent tolerant and open-minded.
Anime Examples of Otokonoko
In anime, characters with increasing relevance to the story are appearing. While still very much masturbation-fodder and comedic relief, some characters have real importance that humanizes them. An example of an otokonoko made entirely for fun is Hime from Himegoto. He’s a very pretty boy that debt-collectors wish to force to crossdress to pay off his parents’ debts but is saved by a student council who forces him to crossdress for their enjoyment. Much of the comedy stems from Hime being forced to wear things he doesn’t want to and girls being the ones to make unwanted advances on him.
An example of an otokonoko meant to move the audience instead of just making them laugh would be Gasper from High school DxD New. His cuteness is overwhelming and his fondness for the girls’ school uniform might seem silly, but he still has his pride as a man. He likes pretty things and to present himself thusly but being cute doesn’t mean he’s weak! He’s fiercely protective of his friends and will tear their enemies to ribbons. An example of otokonoko as a fetish would be Sou and Shuuji from Otokonoko Delivery. This hentai focuses on a young high school student who works at an otokonoko-themed club to please older men. Sou gets another classmate in on it and the two dress up in girly clothing and enjoy sex and money as a result.
As the rise of the popularity of otokonoko in anime for light-hearted, pervy fun spread from Japan to America, so did the use of the term ‘trap’. While many people who latched onto this word argue that it’s just about fictional male characters and doesn’t hurt anyone, the connotations of the word have real-life applications. The nature of someone being a ‘trap’, especially to straight men, is to imply there is 1) an intention to deceive and 2) that a man loses something or is wrong for being attracted to someone with male genitalia. This idea is still alive today in most American states where someone can claim momentary insanity that lead to them attacking or killing someone upon learning a person is gay or transgender.
In order to create safer, more tolerant spaces for all users/anime fans, website Reddit recently banned the word trap as it relates to characters in /animememes. While this did make it slightly harder for some users to find certain memes or post a small number of memes, some users became so enraged that they hurled insults, issued death threats, and even SWATted (calling in fake emergencies) Reddit moderators. Users were very divided on the legitimacy of this ban bringing up respect for people’s lives and free speech. This huge, dangerous blowout resulted in the whole thread being taken down. Before it was, however, there was a consensus that “otokonoko” was an acceptable term.
Otokonoko characters are often very diverse and visually appealing and regardless of their role in the anime, make for a fuller cast. Some cosplayers and online personalities have also adopted the term otokonoko to describe themselves to stand out in a sea of beautiful female talents. While it’s all good fun, it’s important to also consider them for what they are instead of writing them all off as being comedic or gimmicky. If you have an otokonok❤ who has stolen your heart, please list them in the comments!