Queerness is Not a Gimmick: A Look at Persona 4’s Failed Representation, and How Persona 5 Can Fix it

After seven years of spin-offs and rereleases, the next numbered title of the Persona series is upon us. And boy, does it look exciting. The (very deliberate) homages to Lupin III are quite appealing to yours truly, but let’s not downplay the allure of the shaken-up combat and socializing system or stylish animation courtesy of Production I.G., either. Perhaps most intriguing is a statement from the director, Katsura Hashino, during one of the earliest interviews for the game.

“[A lot of people today are] stuck between a rock and a hard place, emotionally speaking: on the one hand, they might not be keen on living by the same rules and values that defined previous generations, while still lacking the will to go out and actually break those barriers down themselves. That dark side of society is a central pillar to the game we want to make with Persona 5.

Sounds great, right? The Persona series, and the franchise from which it was born, have more or less carved out a reputation as pushing against the traditional mindsets and chosen subject matter of the JRPG. Which is true, and the series remains a breath of fresh air in many regards. Nonetheless, reading about a game that purports to be about breaking free from old values leaves me with one eyebrow firmly raised for one reason: the director’s last outing, Persona 4, shot itself in the foot with nearly every “progressive” theme it attempted to tackle.

yeah sure okay
At least we’ll always have Troy Baker

The Case of Kanji Tatsumi

In the lead up to P4’s released, you couldn’t walk for tripping over articles about the game’s brave, unique decision to have an openly gay party member. And at first, the game seemed to live up to that hopeful premise. Kanji’s dungeon centers around his fear of being associated with the stereotypical image of queerness (incorporating both the “okama” stereotype with his shadow’s speech patterns and the “Hard Gay” muscle man in his Shadow’s lackeys), and while the resolution of his boss fight isn’t a direct affirmation of his sexuality, nor is it a rejection – whether he’s interested in men or women (or both! That’s a thing!), Kanji’s fears stem from being rejected for not conforming to social norms. And given that many queer teenagers take a long time after that “aha” moment to feel out where exactly their feelings falls, from months to well into adulthood, there’s a certain recognizable quality to that narrative decision. Even if it then became too often used as an excuse to write off the character’s struggles as a one-off “gay panic” situation by a concerningly large portion of the fanbase.

I’d be impressed if not for literally every handling of it after this

The trouble comes when Kanji becomes a regular party member. Were the subject of Kanji’s sexuality to become backgrounded, a subject for his personal subplot, that would be understandable to a degree – he’s clearly in a stage of still figuring things out, and to make those discussions the purview of his one-on-one friendship with the Protagonist rather than to the group as a whole would make a fair amount of character sense (it doesn’t do that, incidentally – while Kanji’s crafting hobbies feature prominently, his issues of attraction are only very, very briefly – and obliquely – mentioned in the very last scene of his social link).

So the only way we’re left with to read Kanji’s struggles among the main group is through Yosuke’s homophobic humor – scattered throughout, with by far the most prominent example being the school camping trip. And while there are the occasional dialogue options that allow the Protagonist to side with Kanji against Yosuke’s teasing, they ultimately feel like a moot point: the camping scene, for example, always proceeds the same way no matter whether the player makes the Protagonist side with Yosuke or Kanji, and choosing the Kanji supportive dialogue has exactly zero long term effect on Yosuke’s attitudes or behavior (at least Kanji mentions being able to change Rise’s mind in his MAX social link dialogue).

P4 Project Leader Yu Namba famously said that there is no “official answer” and that players should decide for themselves, emphasizing that the importance of Kanji’s story is that his cry to be accepted should be what’s applicable across the spectrum of gamers – while he might not mean to imply so, it certain carries the implication that that theme would be less understandable to a wide variety of gamers were Kanji overtly queer, following on the false notion that a consumer of media cannot identify with experiences different from their own lives.

It all feels, ultimately, like lip service: the desire to obliquely nod at the possibility of a non-straight character to rope a queer audience without spooking the heterosexual player base, to play out that emotional gutpunch of a cry for acceptance while still getting to have a supposedly sympathetic character (the Protagonist’s best friend!) spout off a host of the stereotypes Kanji wanted to get away from with no consequence (the status of this lip service further reveals its flimsiness in how much head-on homophobic humor made its way into P4’s anime adaptation, with not just Yosuke but Yu expressing veiled disgust and distrust toward Kanji). In effect, it pretends to give Kanji the agency to overcome his fear of becoming a two dimensional stereotype who exists primarily for ‘normal’ people to laugh at – a phenomenon pointed out by trangender politician and activist Aya Kamikawa, and tied to the Othering of queer individuals in Japanese society – and then plays directly into that mentality as soon as it no longer knows how to incorporate Kanji’s sexuality into the story in an honest or empathetic way.

It is not enough to simply acknowledge that characters outside the well-marketed “normal” spectrum exist, if their existence is then used to undermine the legitimacy of who they are and to prop up cheap jokes or to reinforce the preferable nature of so-called “normality” [as a final bit of eyebrow raising, Kanji has ditched his hair dye and punk outfits in the Epilogue of P4: The Golden, on the one hand a discarding of his affectations of toughness but on the other hand an acquiescence toward “normalcy” in a society where queer culture is often necessarily defined by a visual rejection of the extremely restricted heteronormative cultural narrative (a phenomenon discussed in depth by Japanese queer theorist Noriaki Fushimi)]. But let’s build on that “use the Other to reinforce the norm” idea, shall we?

fuck you tho
As we head into this section, a question:
Is this enough cultural context for you, TvTropes?

Naoto and Japan’s Trans Culture

There is no point in asking the question “Is Naoto Shirogane Trans?” It’s easy to answer in plainest terms from the base text, and that framing of the issue allows legitimate concerns about the game’s writing to be written off as poor interpretive ability. Ask the question “Why isn’t Naoto Shirogane Trans?” and a far more interesting discussion arises.

Naoto’s story is a meeting point of the “boy detective” trope and the ever-popular “character disguises their gender to accomplish X” storyline. It would be simple enough as a reveal, if Naoto’s reasons for presenting as male were strictly utilitarian; however, unlike many “revealed crossdresser” characters, Naoto’s main concerns aren’t in not being allowed to do her job at all, and she doesn’t happily revert back to a traditionally feminine means of dressing once the reveal is over with.

Instead, Naoto’s character is defined by how ill-fit she feels as an ascribed woman in society, given her traditionally masculine interests and choice of career, and fears that she will be shunted to the side and given a lesser degree of respect as a female detective. And she’s not just uncomfortable with her identity, but with her body itself: she refuses to wear revealing clothing during the school pageant, is painstakingly uncomfortable at the doctor’s office and the hot springs, and even in her formal wear (when she is not working or connected to her work) prefers ‘masculine’ and modest clothing. Given all of that, it isn’t hard to see why those who aren’t strictly cis (whether binary-trans or nonbinary) strongly identified with Naoto.

But unlike Kanji, whose resolution is coy on how he’ll define his future romantic relationships, the game unequivocally shuts down a reading of Naoto as trans with one line: “I am a woman.” Rather than tie Naoto’s major character revelation into the knowledge that her abilities supercede how society sees her, that she is a detective and a person first and a gender second, the dialogue hammers home that Naoto has ‘come to her senses’ that her ‘true’ self is the body she was born with (and in turn, how society defines that body).

And that would be concerning and disappointing enough, if the game didn’t also play around with explicit trans iconography with Naoto’s shadow. Every party member’s Shadow is presented as an extreme warping of the character’s core issue is: Yukiko doesn’t ‘really’ want to be a helpless princess, Rise doesn’t ‘really’ want to be an exotic dancer, Teddy isn’t ‘really’ hollow and emotionless, and so on. And up against those clear exaggerations the writers put something that many young people strive for, that they feel is their only option to reconcile how they feel and how they are perceived (a fact that was agonizingly illustrated in American media not long ago), and paint it explicitly as the wrong choice.

There are those who call it ‘disrespectful’ to Naoto’s character to continue interpreting her as Trans following her big speech, which is about as fallacious as it gets. Naoto has no independent will to her choices. Naoto is a puppet of coding whose modes of thought are entirely dictated by the people who wrote her. She has no feelings to be hurt. What’s disrespectful is to use the imagery of a struggle faced by an already marginalized group of young people for shock value, and then to vilify that imagery in the name of propping up the accepted societal image of physical sex and gender identity, particularly in a game that is a) explicitly exploring coming-of-age themes and b) about being brave enough to face and accept the things one hides from ‘acceptable’ society.

I can point you to at least one 18 year old kid who took it pretty damn hard at the time, and I cannot imagine what it might have felt like for a Japanese teenager receiving the same message without even the distance of a different culture. [EDIT: I am aware that Naoto’s story is meant to slant in a feminist direction, given the very small percentage of women in Japan’s police force; that, however, does not excuse the co-opting of trans narrative elements specifically as a supposed horrific outcome, nor how Naoto is fetishized later as a woman–which quite undoes the feminist aspirations.]

So it is insensitively handled usage (if we are being kind) of trans identity. This tends to then be waved away with the argument that Japanese culture is different from Western culture, and that there isn’t the same conception of trans identtiy that there is in the West. While this is on the surface true (cultures on opposite ends of the world are different, you say?) it is also heavily disingenuous and giving ATLUS a pass it doesn’t deserve on the issue. It’s true that legal recognition and protection of trans individuals in Japan is a very recent thing – the first transitional surgery performed there was as recent as 1998 (and applicability for that surgery even now is classified as a ‘disorder’ for ease of medical documentation); the 2004 law allowing Japanese citizens to change their gender status on legal documents and family registers only applies to single, childless individuals who have submitted to being sterilized; and it was as recently as 2013 that a child born to a trans man and his wife via artificial insemination was ‘legitimately’ theirs – but the cultural change is more than present.

Putting aside for another the long shoujo tradition of characters who bend presentation while still expressing on some level heteronormative desire and traits (a la Oscar from Rose of Versailles), and a longstanding cultural image blurring male homosexuality and femme presentation (not unlike America in the 40s and 50s), sensitive portrayals of trans characters have increasingly found key places in Japanese pop culture: the well-regarded manga Wandering Son, which saw its characters grappling with the societal challenges of trans identity, ran for more than a decade; the long-running and well known Japanese drama Kinpachi-sensei featured a male transgender character back in 2001; Tiger & Bunny managed to respectfully portray a recurring character’s identity falling outside the gender binary altogether in its 2012 movie The Rising; even Nintendo, the most cautious and ‘family oriented’ of the modern videogame companies, vowed to be more thoughtful and inclusive in its future games in the wake of the Tomodachi Life debacle (you’re behind Nintendo, ATLUS, really?). It’s not a wealth of cultural narratives, but it’s certainly enough to demand that a group of videogame writers, in choosing to take on the subject, would have a number of well-written fictional narratives to turn to for inspiration even before the extremely necessary research that should precede the portrayal of a culture of point of view the writer is unfamiliar with – especially if that subgroup is portrayed rarely or often dismissed in the cultural narrative (for example, say, if they were facing a future of constant medical and legal battles in order to have their identity recognized). To fall into this trap in a place where teenagers should have had identifiable characters to look to is a plain disregard of the potency that stories wield.

humiliation is classy right
See, it’s funny because she structured her entire life around avoiding this sort of situation, and now it’s happening!

Then again, Naoto is a character for whom the writers seem to have little regard: even taking her story as strictly that of a young woman chafing against institutionalized sexism and reading her discomfort with her body as a distaste for being objectified, subsequent rereleases and spinoffs had no problem cheerfully giving her character uncharacteristically revealing costumes or posing her for cheesecake shots (because if you make her look hideously uncomfortable, it’s not technically out of character and definitely not creepy). So perhaps I’m giving them too much credit.

and you
Expunged love confession goes here

Yosuke’s Disappearing Romance

In the midst of all this appropriating of potential queerness only for it to be re-channeled into Total Normalcy After All, we have Yosuke. Like Banky in Chasing Amy, he is a veritable fount of homophobic discomfort while simultaneously harboring some pretty intense totally-platonic-no-really feelings for the Protagonist. The script for his Social Link in the finished game contains heavy homoerotic elements (indicating that you’re not interested in any of the girls will make Yosuke “feel happy,” and his final speech delineates the Protagonist as uniquely special from Yosuke’s family and friends), and retains an event flag (a special option dependent on previous dialogue choices) – something used uniquely as a branch to separate platonic/romantic routes with female party members and not part of any of the other male social links. That the event itself is a hug (highly uncommon outside intimate relationships, particularly between two male friends, and even among Western audiences the around-the-waist hug is a pretty forward action) puts the relationship further into pseudo-romance territory without ever crossing blithely in.

Yes, thank you for alerting us to the cultural norms Yosuke

But there is the tricky fact of what that event flag and romantic dialogue might be left over from. Audio files still present on the disc seem to heavily imply that Yosuke was indeed a romance option for the Protagonist, and that this option was cut quite late in the game – late enough that there is English audio of the cut lines as well as the original Japanese. Prominently featured among those lines is the phrase “I like you (suki da).” And while naysayers have argued that the term ‘suki’ is ambiguous, the game’s own precedent involves the phrase ‘suki desu’ being used among the Protagonist’s female romance options…and if the tambour of Yuri Lowenthal’s performance is anything to go by, he was definitely coached on the lines in a romantic context. This is a dramatic case of a missed opportunity, a chance to contextualize Yosuke’s tearing into Kanji as unaddressed self-loathing rather than simple scot-free awfulness (I don’t make that Chasing Amy comparison lightly, you know). And while there is a unique set of questions to be grappled with in a game that would write off or subtly excuse ‘real’ queer issues while allowing a m/m romance divorced almost entirely from those issues, at least it would be some kind of definitive queer content. What we’re left with now is a series of half measures too afraid to fully commit to any kind of true Other – at least, once that gets to stay that way. Ironic, in a game all about facing truths no one wishes to discuss.

Scandalous. Shocking. So on.

ATLUS and Difference, Then and Now

It’s somewhat baffling that all of this has come from a series that, back in the early 00s, had an installment that was believed to be beyond American gamers’ reach forever partly because of the potential for a m/m romance (the other reason was the main party fighting the resurrected ghost of Hitler). Tatsuya and Jun’s bond was a key part of Jun’s character, and the romance option was as no-fuss as it was in line with what had been presented within the narrative.

And while an unnamed ATLUS team member (whose rank and involvement with the project is a total unknown, so let us take an entire tablespoon of salt) referred to the romance option as an attempt to attract fujoshi gamers nobody seems to have bothered telling the game’s main writer this, because he not only supported the romance but pointed to it as the most plausible canon option. One writer is not an entire company mindset, of course, but one is still left to wonder how the take-no-prisoners cult company of the 90s became the studio producing the toothless half measures of P4’s ventures into underrepresented identities and the ultimately gender essentialist Catherine (whose meanspirited jokes at Erika’s expense leave the highest of bitter tastes).

But the question you are no doubt asking is ‘why should they care how their games are perceived?’ Putting aside our previous discussion of how P4 fell down in delivering a narrative for potential gamers in its home country, and beside the fact that when developing for a global market (as ATLUS now unquestionably is, with Persona a full-fledged franchise with weighty recognition outside the older games’ cult statuses) one is no longer developing solely for the tastes of one’s home country but the potential of that global audience, director Hashino himself has voiced a desire to create stories outside that expected norm.

“As an ATLUS game, we try to make games that stand out amongst the crowd, but put in another light, individuality of that sort isn’t always a blessing per se. It can mean diverging from what’s normal, break from the rules, project the image of trouble, especially when applied to people…We might live in a world that’s less than accommodating to a lot of us and hard to live in. But so long as people don’t give up on reaching out to one another, the individuality that shines both at the individual level and from groups as a whole can help us break through that feeling of oppression and walk free. This is a game we really want to walk the walk.

That’s a beautiful sentiment, and I truly hope the upcoming P5 can live up to it. But saying all that means being held to a standard of representing those oppressed groups in a respectful way: it means more than trying on ‘outsider’ hats only to fall back on normalizing them and presenting ‘difference’ as a cute quirk within the limits of societal expectations of gender, sexuality, and self. If it wants to set itself up as a rebel, then it really had be prepared to walk the walk in grappling with tough issues and unpleasant truths, rather than putting on an affectation of edginess for the sake of more sales. And if it can pull off that quality of writing, matched to the series trademark polished gameplay and addictively frustrating difficulty, I think we might have a true modern classic on our hands. They just have to put the work in first.

ADDENDUM, 2017: It did not fix it.

27 replies »

  1. Huh. While I think you raise some valid points here, I do have some issues with your discussion of Naoto in particular.

    The Naoto storyline is VERY EXPLICITLY about more facets of discomfort than simply gender presentation. In Naoto’s persona’s speech, it’s clearly outlined that Naoto’s presentation is entirely about burying her vulnerable side in order to be taken seriously. That’s not just about gender; it’s about age, and her persona outright states that it’s not that she wants to be male, it’s that she wants to be viewed as an adult man, because only adult men have their opinions given full weight in a professional context. I certainly view her as somewhat gender-non-conforming, but that is not the same thing as trans AT ALL, and is its own group with its own issues in terms of representation.

    (I also don’t view her discomfort with revealing clothing as a sign of body dysphoria; many non-dysphoric people don’t like revealing clothing, and Naoto is a very introverted, shy character. It makes total sense to me that, however she felt about her gender, she WOULD NOT WANT to be the center of attention, or be sexualized, particularly since the game’s characters hold VERY FIRM to the idea that sexualization negates professional seriousness– see Rise)

    Also, I don’t quite see where you get the idea that Yosuke is a sympathetic character. The Persona series has never been particularly strict about keeping their protagonists (even the player protagonist!) as likable, and the fandom loathes him. I’m fairly certain he’s actively meant to be an annoying, whiny, clingy jerk.

    • I’d agree that Naoto isn’t, in the game’s final context, trans. The issue isn’t that there are other aspects to her narrative: it’s that the Shadow scene explicitly uses elements of a trans narrative (the body modification device – which then casts new context on everything we’ve seen of Naoto’s discomfort up to that point) and then it paints not the ambiguous parts of Naoto’s storyline but the explicitly trans-related one as the ‘wrong’ choice that she must overcome. That, as a narrative approach, is intensely offensive and turns what might’ve been a rare device into a cheap ‘gotcha’ shock moment.
      And my point about the sexualization is that even divorcing it from discussions of gender, the game’s quite happy to sexualize Naoto post-reveal…so they not only fudged any subtelty in a gender storyline but in her desire not to be reduced to her physical attributes in living as a woman.
      As for Yosuke, while I’ve seen the vocal minority that doesn’t care much for him, I’ve seen a far larger preponderance of “Brosuke” fans and those who tend to be more forgiving of him on shipping grounds. And in the most recent livestream for Persona 5, he came in #1 in the poll for favorite character. And while Yosuke’s certainly flawed, his offensive behavior comes across way more as meant to be an ‘oh you’ type quirk than something they expect the player to get seriously upset about (though that, admittedly, is hard to prove in concrete terms).

      • Huh. MaybeI’ve just hung out in a particularly Yosuke-loathing corner of fandom (this is really weird to me– it’s like finding out Scrappy Doo has a fan club out there).

        • From my short-lived adventures on the persona 4 kink meme, yosuke/souji is by far the most popular ship in the game, even with people that hate him for his homophobia!

        • Hi there! ;w; Yosuke fan AND gay person here to give some insight on why people can like him despite the (relatively minor, all things considered) homophobia. (I’m bringing up homophobia specifically both because OP’s post is about queerphobic media, and because that’s the #1 reason I see people quote for not liking him, at least on Tumblr. (Also, I know your comment is like two years old at this point, but hey, I wanted to comment anyway LMAO. Feel free to ignore this if you want, it’s okay! I actually don’t talk about ~serious things~ much because I’m kinda shy, and I had a lot of fun writing this even though oH MY GOD IT GOT SO LONG???)

          First off, I 100000% disagree that Yosuke was intended to be an unsympathetic character –
          though please understand this isn’t the same as me saying everyone who plays Persona 4 is guaranteed to like him either! I don’t think everyone has to be a Yosuke fan, and that’s okay (if a little sad, because I feel some people write him off not for legitimate reasons like homophobia but simply because they think he’s an idiot). If you’ve played Arena and gotten the benefit of his first person POV, you’ll know that a lot of the time, when he says something that’s either insensitive or can come off as insensitive, he IMMEDIATELY regrets it. I think it comes off that way in the original P4 too – at least, my roommates and I never had an issue reading between the lines and getting it when we first played the game – but it’s admittedly a little more subtle. But I do feel like some sensitivity on his part is still there…? Even in the infamous “WHAT ABOUT YOUR MOM NANAKO???” moment people like to mock him for, as soon as he realizes her mom is dead, he feels AWFUL and apologizes: (It certainly doesn’t play out like this: That’s… probably the biggest reason I’m not a huge fan of the Hiimdaisy P4 comics haha.) And yes, Chie prodded him to apologize, but there are multiple other instances where he recognizes he fucked up on his own, and he might have apologized on his own anyway. Unfortunately we can’t really know. He’s also, at least by the time P4 is over and Arena is taking place, self-aware enough to KNOW he sometimes fucks up and seems to feel bad about it (which… IDK if that means anything to you or other people, but it means a lot to me):

          And speaking of Chie… he apologizes in advance for wrecking her copy of Trial Of The Dragon and offers to buy her a new one when he gets his next paycheck (which we later learn, despite his parents being seemingly affluent, is from a paltry part-time job and can’t be much). To be honest, before Chie ruins his apology by screaming at him and kicking him, it’s handled incredibly sensitively for a high schooler. And when Chie and Yukiko later steal his money to buy Teddie’s clothes (don’t get me wrong, I still like them both, but you can’t really deny they stole from him), he acts understandably annoyed… but in the end, he lets them get away with it. He also doesn’t blame Teddie for it, knowing Teddie doesn’t know better and was just caught in the crossfire. He just tells him to take really, REALLYYYY good care of the super expensive clothes LMAO. (He even just gave Kanji money to get popsicles with Teddie beforehand, which indicates to me he probably WOULD have chipped in to buy Teddie some clothes, he was just mad so much was charged to him without his consent.

          And ultimately, that trait is why I’m willing to give him wiggle room on other things. ;w; Like, again, I don’t think that means everyone WILL like him. That’s just the #1 reason I’m wiling to excuse his slight insensitivity: I truly believe he’s a nice person under a bit of societal emotional repression/homophobic fuckery. I sadly don’t have a screenshot of it, but there’s even a scene in Arena where he tries to cheer up Yukiko, and even if it ends up with her laughing AT him instead of with him, he’s okay with that since it means she feels better. Like that’s just? So nice??? Yosuke does a lot of that in the background, playing the fool so other people can cheer up, even at his expense.

          Also, he’s still kinda a kid at seventeen. I’m in my twenties, but he’s not. I was older than him when I first played the game and always kind of recognized that, while teenagers are old enough to be complicated people, he’s a little developmentally behind a lot of the adults that play P4. Even then, most adults say some pretty insensitive stuff at one point or another, so I think it’s just a natural and realistic characterization and is meant to come off as a minor “OH, YOU~” thing instead of something unbearably annoying. (Not that I think insensitivity should necessarily always be handwaved away with NO comment, but…)

          And is he clingy? Yeah, definitely! That puppy-like clinginess is an integral part of who Yosuke is (which, again, is only magnified by how they wrote him in Arena, his devotion to Yu comes up CONSTANTLY). But I kind of disagree that it’s meant to be annoying – personally, it always struck me as horribly sad. Early on in his social link, he reveals that he didn’t have any friends before, at least not friends he could talk to about anything deep. And I think what really made that have an impression on me is that that came from a friendly, outgoing character, not an introverted one. Someone who casually chats up people easily had literally NO ONE to confide in himself. That’s… yeah. ;~; So when he meets Yu and has the worst parts of his personality accepted by him right off the bat, of course he’s going to cling to that relationship hardcore. I would! (Although again, I’m an adult with more nuance and foresight than Yosuke, so I’ve always tried very very carefully not to be too… overbearing.)

          It’s also shown as character development that he grows out of it! In Arena and Dancing All Night, he shows marked improvement toward dealing with his feelings of inferiority and worthlessness: + I’m not going to lie, as someone who likes Yosuke I almost cried when I first saw that first one. Because I’ve been where he is. I’ve felt like I had no one to turn to, and that no one cared about my opinion because they all outshone me anyway. I get how he feels. ;~; And it’s because I can relate to him that I like him and feel as though he at least wasn’t INTENDED to be annoying. (Whether or not he actually is annoying is, of course, up to each player’s interpretation of him.)

          And speaking of character development? It’s unfortunately mostly hidden in side conversations (which I’m actually rEALLY UPSET ABOUT, C’MON ATLUS YOU COULD HAVE DONE BETTER HHHHH), but Yosuke and Kanji get along great by the end of P4. is a collection of side conversations where they’re seen chatting it up like they’re best bros, which shows that a lot of development happened on Yosuke’s end in terms of accepting Kanji, even if Yosuke was initially uncomfortable with Kanji’s (perceived) gayness.

          Did Yosuke say some things that, as a gay man, alienated me? Yes. I can’t deny it, because that would honestly be running away from the truth (which is exactly what P4 warns against). The first time I played the game it especially hurt, since I was just coming to terms with my own queerness, and seeing my favorite character act uncomfortable… don’t get me wrong, it DID hurt me. But I believe that Yosuke is a decent person and that he’s able to change, and that’s enough for me to forgive him. I unfortunately can’t forget, and it does hurt knowing that every time I engage with my absolute favorite piece of media, it’ll be just a little bit marred by that. But all things considered, what Yosuke did was just a symptom of broader cultural issues and not something I’m going to hold against some kid forever. I know he’s a fictional character, but I believe in him. ;~;

          And speaking of gayness… The Persona 4 OTP™ being Yu x Yosuke – along with the fact Yosuke did have a scrapped romance route – has made me (and I think other people) interpret his homophobia in a slightly different light than I would have if he’d been a character with no queerness of his own. What looks at first glance like straight dudebro gay panic instead turns into depressing internalized homophobia. It’s… really, really sad, actually. And I mean, I know he wasn’t confirmed to be queer, but the way he’s written and the continuous nods Atlus has thrown in (and the fact you can often outright FLIRT with him??? make me extremely suspicious he was written as a guy with some ~gay feelings~ himself, and that adds some interesting context to why he might act how he does. It’s an extremely popular pairing (and I will forever be bitter we didn’t get that Yosuke romance route in Golden, COME ON ATLUS), and I’m preeeetty sure that’s the angle a lot of people are taking with it. If you read him as a closeted queer guy, a lot of things come off less harsh and make a lot of sense, sadly.

          IN SUMMARY: I… think a lot about Yosuke. OOPS.

          As for what this all is actually about, OP made some interesting points but there’s nothing I can add that wasn’t already said by either them or Nenilein, so… yeah haha. (The TL;DR of what I think is that P4 was pretty fantastically boundary-pushing for 2008 – even in the comparatively more gay-friendly US – but because of the vast improvements in gay rights the US saw between 2008 and 2012, by the time Golden rolled around it came off as a lot worse in comparison. But I say that as someone who doesn’t know all that much about Japanese culture, so I can only really comment on the western reception. Alsooo that’s all kinda a tangent, oops.) Also, I definitely agree with you about Naoto’s storyline being about gender roles and age (and the respectability Japanese culture places on both men and older people) more than her gender identity. Her dungeon just has unfortunate, uh… implications that make it seem like it’s about transness.

          Anyway, sorry to both you and OP that this turned out so long! Again, it’s completely okay with me if you ignore it. I just wanted to make an attempt at explaining why I think Yosuke is beloved by many (even if he’s simultaneously reviled by some, like you’ve seen).

          • OH NO I knew I’d forget something. ;~; I forgot something big too OMG. I meant to say, RE: homophobia…

            Ultimately, THIS is what convinced me my trust in Yosuke isn’t for nothing, that he can change for the better. Persona Q is set around the time of the Group Date Café, and that line matches up nicely with his improving relationship with Kanji in the background of the original game.

            Like. That is a HUGE change from “WILL WE BE SAFE WITH HIM IN THE TENT WITH US???” I’m so glad they added that, even if it was in PQ and not P4. ;w;

          • Yeah, i’m also late to the party, but, taking the “romance route” that was cancel at the end of development, well … in a way, he’s kinda like i was.
            Before i accepted i was gay, what Yosuke is saying is … what i was always saying to myself. And, to be honest, Yosuke didn’t hurt me in the slightest, he made me laugh actually, it was literally the type of thing i would say or do, and the “Yosuke wedding” in persona Q, or this romance route that was cancel proves it further.

  2. I really really like this post! Says a lot of things I’ve wanted to put into better words myself! I feel like if they had gone strictly for “our rigid gender roles make us unhappy” it would have been a much more improved narrative because it wouldn’t appropriate or tease queer narratives, while still being about something that might be relatable to players in Japan. Adding in queer romances with the MC would have been nice too, though.

    Happily, you didn’t bring up the mechanics of the game, which I’ve wanted to write an article about for aaaaages!

    • That sounds interesting! The battle mechanics? The social mechanics? There’s a lot to dig into in a game that long.
      (Souji and Yosuke is DEFINITELY a huge factor for lots of people forgiving Yosuke – and in fairness, a certain part of me falls into that camp. Contextualizing his homophobia as the old ‘self loathing closet case’ doesn’t excuse it, but it goes a long way to giving him some sympathetic layers aside of all that dickishness.

      • Yes! It definitely does, it’s more sad than just douchey on that case. Mostly the social mechanics! The games system is identical to Persona 3 but without any of the narrative elements that support the reason for that system, like Minato’s weird “kind of a dead kid” deal. Especially the troubling aspect that you can conciously choose to two-time all of the female characters in P4!

  3. I’m glad to read an article that actually mentions Japan’s cultural context, but uses it to actually show why it’s still harmful and why these issues are still relevant. Far, far too often do I see people shut down criticisms of characters such as P4s (as well as some certain other characters from certain other things) because of “cultural context” without realizing that there are indeed still important things to note about the character, even taking context into account.

    • Thank you. There are definitely a wide factor of cultural elements to take into account when trying to look at this stuff (already I regret not acknowledging that Naoto and Kanji’s issues of gender roles are legitimate in themselves before moving on to the appropriated queer stuff), and despite how often I’ve seen the phrase CULTURAL CONTEXT used by (…mostly heterodude forum) fans, I’d never seen anyone try to investigate what that cultural context might mean from the other side. I don’t think I’ve accomplished it perfectly (I am not, after all, a queer Japanese individual), but I stand by it nonetheless.

  4. I am sorry, but I take a lot of issues with this article, and here’s why:

    Feel free to ignore this if you don’t like it, I just feel it needed to be pointed out that a lot of the “facts” you use, are either wrong or have been discredited in very credible ways before.

    I really don’t want to start a fight, it’s just, people I know (some of them Japanese) have been hurt by this kind of argumentation before, so I really just can’t let it stand. I’m not gonna discuss, I’m just gonna leave it here.

      • The discussion you linked to appears to be gone now. As a curious future reader, do you purchase have that discussion saved elsewhere? Or are you at least willing to re-hash it’s main points? I’m really interested in hearing a more detailed rebuttal to the above post.

        • I believe in the end we came down to more or less an agreement that Naoto is not intended to be read as trans, that there was well-meaning intent in addressing the overwhelming gender disparity in the police force with her character (less than 10% of police officers in Japan are women) but that the game does considerable damage to itself by co-opting trans imagery (particularly as a scare tactic).

  5. How do you feel about Persona 3’s approach to its queer content? In contrast to P4, it’s all subtext (at least on PS2), which I suppose was on the cowardly and opportunistic side, but at least its maybe-romantic relationships were mutually supportive, generally healthy and not the targets of stupid jokes. The PSP remake’s female route gave the heroine the chance to have romances with Elizabeth and Aigis, but it’s notable that neither of them is your standard Japanese girl (one is from a different world, the other is a gynoid).

    The fact that P4’s re-release didn’t follow suit and restore the Yosuke romance, even after how popular the pairing became, probably isn’t a good sign for Persona 5, but who knows.

    • While I really like the idea of Aigis’ route staying the same in theory, I can’t really comment on it in personal experience – the only version I’ve had access to was FES (I didn’t know that Elizabeth’s romance stayed the same either!). I think it’s a tricky subject – as you say, they’re both ‘abnormal’ girls, but at the end of the day I’d rather have that than nothing at all (P3 has its own cheap shot at trans folk during that beach scene, but it’s a minor moment I suppose). As for the subtext…ehhh, I dunno if that gets any credit so much as it’s a fun thing for fandom (which, it is in fact fun, don’t get me wrong for a second. I will ship Jin and Takaya (and Junpei and Chihiro) to my last breath, because I am apparently the only person who found Strega really interesting).
      Persona Q DOES have some knowing winks to the popularity of Souji/Yosuke as I’ve heard (no 3DS either, alas) but I think I ought to withhold comment on that until I’ve properly gotten my hands on it (and what I’ve seen is a touch more wink nudge than legit shipping business).

      • If you just want to see the social links, you can find them on Youtube by searching P3P and the name of the corresponding Tarot card. I think the Elizabeth route is almost the same, aside from the “sleep with her” option being less obvious. Aegis’s is largely the same, though along with her body issues, she also deals with being a girlbot who’s fallen for another girl.

        As for the more normal girls, the Mitsuru social link is very interesting. It’s so close to being a romance (and it probably isn’t just a relic from the male route either since Yukari’s rewritten social link doesn’t come off like that at all), but the writers just aren’t willing to go there.

  6. This is an amazing article and the addendum broke my heart. You’re right, it didn’t fix it. Such a goddamn shame.

  7. I have yet to finish this game, but so far I’m quite disappointed in this area when comparing it with Persona 2: Innocent Sin (and judging by the article, it doesn’t get any better). I boil it down to Atlus not having anymore the balls to do what they did in Innocent Sin.
    The whole Kanji’s story arc seems to me a big retconning or chickening out at the last moment. Up to his dungeon, it really seemed that he was harboring some secret homosexual feelings. What with him being attracted to Naoto and all the symbolism in the steamhouse. Then suddenly, even after accepting his shadow, the creators kind of step back, and come out of nowhere with the watered-down explanation that, well, it was all about him feeling insecure around girls and liking to sew, nothing to do with gayness, not at all.
    Then I wonder, if his insecurities had absolutely nothing to do with sexuality, then why on earth was his dungeon so charged up with sexual themes and homoeroticism? What has to do that with sewing or feeling antipathy towards girls? All the other dungeons and shadows were deeply symbolic, why not this one?

    And now that I know they cut up Yosuke’s romance as well, I’m even more inclined to think that all this is just a matter of cowardice, rather than the creators wanting to make a particular statement. Oh yes, I know they justified it by saying that they wanted the character to be ambiguous. But it’s just so convenient that it was Kanji’s feelings, precisely, the ones which didn’t get resolution.

    I really don’t understand why they are so afraid of these issues at this time and age. The Metal Gear Solid games have been featuring blatantly gay characters and situations for a long time (Peace Walker, for example, had a side quest in which Snake had a date and off-screen sex with his male instructor), without this stopping the games from being popular among its manly fanbase. The Sims series have allowed players to date, marry and have sex with both genders for a looong time. Dragon Age, Mass Effect… All feature gay options and all of them were commercially successful.
    Sometimes I get the impression that creators are way too scared of homophobes who, in the end, may just be a bunch of internet trolls.

  8. So I’m going to regret this comment but I just… need to get this out and ask.
    I see a lot of people saying Kanji and Naoto hurt queer people in their strories, but I love them and they make me feel better? Yes I’m queer, had to just emphasize that so my question makes more sense, so does that make me bad for liking these characters? Do I hate how their story was handled, yes. But I feel like ATLUS did want them to be queer in their own way, but chickened out. That’s not fair, sure, but does that mean I have to despise these characters? I love P4, and mainly Kanji and Naoto. Does that make me a bad queer person?.. it feels like all the straight people who fight about this (not saying this person is but others I’ve seen say they are not queer but these characters are horrible) don’t consider that maybe some people are still positively impacted by their stories, even if censored.
    I just want to be able to love Kanji and Naoto and not feel like my comforts on my sexuality are wrong.

    • I like both Kanji and Naoto. I like the potential I saw in them. I wouldn’t feel betrayed by the ultimate trajectory of their stories if I weren’t attached to them. I think a lot of people feel that way–it’s a big part of queer history to reclaim characters fucked up by the canon. What I don’t believe in is giving ATLUS any credit for a pretty consistent streak of homophobic behavior with this director (across P3, P4, P5, and Catherine).

      • That is fair, it feels like most of the people who argue against atlus (not just the dumb decisions they make, because they go to tell awesome open minded stories and then censor themselves) feel you need to hate the products they make. Which is tough for me, cause games Like Catherine taught me who I am as a person and made me feel okay being myself. Loving Kanji and Naoto, this felt like the same situation where I agreed we had been let down by them attempting to appeal to closed minded people, but at some point we have to consider showing the company we will support them if they take the all out stance of open minded characters and stories. Why would they start not censoring their characters if we’ve shown we won’t support them then.

        • Eh, I think that’s a fallacy that happens a lot with videogames–“make sure you support this thing, or maybe we’ll take our toys and go home” isn’t a very healthy artistic model. I completely understand why people have powerful emotional reactions to ATLUS games (I keep playing them!) but I think it’s equally important to be able to say “hey you fucked up, you should want to do better because that’s the good person thing to do.”
          If games really want to be taken seriously as art, then they should be ready to face up to being critiqued as substantive pieces of culture with the power to impact lives. And one can do that while still saying “parts of this really spoke to me, and it’s important to me even if I recognize its problems.”

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