I’m going to talk about several things in this post, so bear with me if it takes a while to reach the core of what I want to address. We’re going to talk about gender non-conformity, transphobia, language and the online hive-mind that so often lead to worst case scenarios. And to talk about that we have to start with a Japanese term that many might not be too familiar with. That term is 女装 / josou.
The term itself is a play on the kanji for woman, 女 / on’na, and the kanji for wearing something, 装 / sou. So a direct translation would be something like “wearing woman.”
Josou is the act of dressing up in women’s fashion and acting the part. A person who does josou will present and perform in their interpretation of the gendered style they’re wearing, be it dressing like a princess, a school girl or any other style that fits the description. It’s something enjoyed by people of various genders and has been part of Japan’s gender non-conformity culture for decades.
There’s an equivalent for men’s fashion, which is 男装 / dansou, but for the purpose of this post I don’t need to get into that. What I do need to get into is the fetish culture that grew out of josou culture and how it became part of the regular consumption for a lot of otaku. That fetish has a different name, which leads us to our second term, 男の娘 / otokonoko.
Much like josou, otokonoko is a play on kanji. The term can be read both as one word, otokonoko, or as a phrase, otoko no musume. Both of these readings translate the same, meaning “Male Daughter.” It’s referring to, traditionally, a person who was assigned male at birth who is now doing josou in a seductive way. It got popular for being taboo, with a lot of those who’d be labeled otokonoko being considered “sexier than real girls” because of how perverted the act of crossdressing was.
Over the last two decades we’ve seen a steady rise in the use of otokonoko in Japanese media such as anime, manga or games. Chances are you’ve heard the term more than once, the latest example likely being from the currently airing anime Blend-S who features a character referred to with the term. As such it has also broadened its use in real life as well, in particular when it comes to blending crossdressing and the transgender community of Japan.
Otokonoko have become and umbrella term for sexy or cute people who are assigned male at birth who can “pass” as a cis woman. That’s not to say it’s considered a positive term at large however. It’s still a fetish term and most people who self-identify with the term do so either because they get a sexual kick out of how they present or because they’re a sex worker of some kind. For example, if you ever browse Japanese amateur porn you can find a lot of open trans women and x-gender (the preferred Japanese term for non-binary gender) performers who will use the term.
Long story short, otokonoko is a fetish term that grew out of josou culture. That in isolation isn’t that hard to grasp, but a major problem arises when otokonoko gets conflated with any gender non-conforming people, trans or cisgender. And where this problem is the most apparent is in the poor western attempts at localizing the term. Which leads us to the most common translation used for otokonoko. Trap.
The term trap as an identifier has existed for a long time, but its rise in internet vocabulary comes from the message board 4chan in the mid-to-late 2000s where the term was applied, constantly, towards people and characters that, in their eyes, were able to pass as women but once you’d have a chance to have sex with them, you’d be caught in their “trap” because they have a penis. It’s based on the fear that gender non-conforming people want to entrap innocent people into having sex with them, which we’ll get into later.
The term was not used as a self-identification label in its inception, but rather projected onto anyone a poster would seem fit. Most often this would mean anime characters, game characters or Japanese people you’d find by searching the internet. While many of them would likely be referred to as otokonoko in Japanese, the random projection and disregard for context would mean trans women and assigned male at birth x-gender people could easily be labeled “a trap” by someone.
It doesn’t matter if a character is known to be transgender, such as Futaba Aoi from You’re Under Arrest, featured both here and here under a lists of “Trap Characters in Anime”. It’s worth noting that Aoi is not the only trans woman on these lists and some characters have no connection to gender non-conformity, such as Totsuka Saika, who has a feminine face but still dresses like any other boy and is only “mistaken” for a girl in his first appearance before being referred to as a boy from that point onward.
To this day, trans women, assigned male at birth x-gender people and crossdressers are bundled in under this label. A label that suggests that they wish to entrap innocent people into having sex with them by tricking them about their gender. This idea is not a joke but a genuine fear people have, in particular about trans people. It’s what leads to politicians pushing for bathroom bills and more.
It’s the idea that trans people only “pretend” to be a gender in order to rape innocent people.
The idea breeds more than just fear, it leads to the killing of trans people. In the United States of America there’s been over twenty-five trans women murdered this year alone, with more dying all over the world from violence often related to the fact that they were transgender, not for anything they had actually done. But it’s not just that trans people are murdered, it’s the nature in which they are murdered and how the perpetrators are given softened sentences that shows how the idea of trans people inherently being at fault is still alive.
In 2013, a man named James Dixon murdered a trans woman named Islan Nettles. He turned himself in and explained that he had murdered her in a “blind rage” after learning that she was trans. He says he had no control over his actions because of the panic he felt over the idea of having had sexual attraction to someone he considers to not be a woman. James Dixon was not charged with a hate crime, he was not charged with murder. James Dixon was convicted of manslaughter and was considered to have not been fully at fault because of “trans panic.”
Trans panic is nothing new and it has its roots in “gay panic”, a similar defense used by perpetrators as far back as the 1960s. In 2004, a trans woman named Gwen Arauju was murdered by three men after discovering she had a penis. Two of the three men were charged with murder, but the third perpetrator claimed a trans panic defense. His attorney stated that Gwen’s supposed failure to disclose “biological sex” was an act of deception and stated to be a sexual violation “so deep it’s almost primal.” The third perpetrator was not charged with murder.
Trans people are murdered and in death subjected to victim blaming all because of the idea that they’re trying to entrap people by being deceptive about their gender or genitalia. Using terms such as trap reinforces this idea. It’s right there in the word itself. Even if someone says they only use the term towards crossdressers or fictional characters, the idea still spreads, the fear still spreads and you’re still labeling someone as a sexual assault assailant. Because that is the very nature of the term and it has been for as long as people have been afraid of their sexuality being challenged.
You see it in movies like Hangover 2 where a trans woman sex worker is used as a “joke” about how one of the characters “just had sex with a man.” The same “joke” is in Family Guy where one of the main characters puke up their guts after learning they had sex with a trans woman. This fear is reinforced over and over in both media and in the way we talk to each other. It’s why it’s so important to stop using terms that continue to fuel this fear.
Before I close, I want to talk about the nature of translation and how it has led to the slur that is the term trap being far more common now than it was just ten years ago. I mentioned before how otokonoko is often translated as trap, despite it not being an accurate translation. But it’s not just that term that is translated this way. In the English release of Akiba’s Trip: Undead & Undressed the term ネカマ / nekama is also translated as trap.
Nekama is derived from オカマ / okama, a term often used for stereotypes of effeminate gay men or trans women in Japan. Nekama is specifically “an okama on the internet”, which means it’s used to call out people calling themselves girls as actually being men. A transphobic act, but not surprising if you’ve seen how bad the general attitude towards those considered okama usually is.
The English equivalent to this would be “there are no girls on the internet, tits or gtfo” if one is to stick to message board culture. But XSEED instead decided to translate it using a slur. That being the term trap. They faced criticism from trans people and allies over this, but it was handwaved aside as not important and no apology or change was put into place. Despite the fact that it wasn’t even otokonoko being translated this time, the slur still got to remain.
But how would you actually translate otokonoko then? There is no literal translation, much like many other Japanese terms it’s likely better to let it speak for itself and have it become common tongue. We don’t translate kimono to robe, for example. But the safest translation is to keep track of context and either go with “transgender” or “crossdresser” as that’s normally the two categories they’d fall under. The aforementioned anime Blend-S‘ localization used “femboy”, which has its own issues but it slightly better than the slur we’ve seen in most translations.
It’s A Slur
If you got to GLAAD’s website devoted to transgender terminology, you’ll find trap listed under defamatory language. Regardless of what urban dictionary or anyone else might say, the truth is that the transgender part of the LGBT+ community have made it clear that this term is used as a slur towards us constantly. If you won’t listen to trans people about what trans people hear and experience, then this article was never going to change that.
Stop using the term trap.
Stop fueling fear of trans people.
Stop killing trans people.
Thank you for your time.