Gender Stereotypes and Children's Literature

Toshiko Sugino, The National Defense Academy

A few months before I was to go to the United States to study, a banquet was held by my high school for the teachers who were not coming back the following school year. The vice-principal gave comments about each teacher who was leaving. When my turn came, he said, "In spite of her age, Mrs. Sugino is planning to go to the States to study. I think she is very otoko masari." A woman who is otoko masari excels men in some way, in brains, muscles, or in spirit. It implies not only extra ability, but also a lack of femininity (Cherry, 1987). I was rather shocked and wondered what he would have said if I were a man. Most likely, he meant that I should stay home as ryosai kenbo (good wife and wise mother), according to the Japanese stereotype. This incident motivated me to investigate gender issues.
Coming from a country where gender-biased language such as otoko masari and memeshii (womanish) prevail, I expected that there would be more equality in the relationships between men and women in the U.S. However, I was surprised to find that many women there still do not feel that male-female relationships are equal or that sexist attitudes are in any way disappearing. These attitudes are also seen in children's literature. Children learn certain behaviors through role models that appear in society and also in books. In this paper, I will discuss (1) definitions of sexist language and gender stereotypes; (2) gender-biased American and Japanese textbooks and children's books; (3) research findings on Japanese children's books; and (4) implications for the classroom. By investigating the above, hopefully more knowledge and understanding will help ensure a gender-fair atmosphere in the classroom and in society.

Sexist Language and Gender Stereotypes

Sexism, defined by Banfield (1976) as, "the systematic oppression and exploitation of human beings on the basis of their belonging to the female sex" (p. 11), is tightly linked with language. Words such as "he,""man," and "mankind" are often used to represent all human beings. Whenever a generic term is needed, we often use the masculine as the proper form, and to a lesser extent and "he or she." This illustrates the inequality between men and women in language where, ironically, women are noticeable because of their invisibility (Brouwer, 1993). One-sided use of the personal pronoun "he" referring to human beings, "produces the impression that women are ignored and passed over. Psycholinguistic research has demonstrated that texts which refer only to 'he' do not provide women with any opportunity for identification" (Brouwer, 1993, p. 41).

Though the social roles of men and women American and Japanese societies have changed drastically in this century, stereotypical images and ideas can still be found in both countries. They exist because of commonly accepted over-generalizations of men and women, such as: women are intuitive and emotional; women do not understand mechanical devices; and women are not good at math or science. On the other hand, men are characterized as logical, pragmatic, realistic, aggressive, assertive, and competitive. These masculine traits are generally regarded as more desirable than feminine traits (Eakins & Eakins, 1978).

My intent in presenting the above material is to frame the following discussion of the kinds of language and concepts which are gender-biased and are often found in school textbooks and children's books.


To help children recognize and interpret social messages found in textbooks, teachers in Vermont asked sixth-graders to conduct surveys (Rutledge, 1997). In one study, the children counted the number of female and male athletes featured in the sports section of the local newspaper and found males to predominate. In another, they investigated a new history text and found white men predominated in number over white women and minorities.

Another study (Hildreth, 1979, p. 11) found that within the Pennsylvania public school system, four major textbooks represented women in stereotyped roles. Only a limited number of women who contributed to history, literature, science, and other areas of American life were featured. Again, female invisibility was reinforced.

A 1975 analysis of Japanese textbooks for elementary and junior high school students revealed that the majority of figures and main characters were male and almost all the textbook authors were male (Fanselow & Kameda, 1994). The researchers pointed out that traditional gender roles were seen throughout the texts: women were often portrayed as housewives, and occupational roles for females were limited to stereotypical "female" jobs such as nurse, teacher, and waitress.

Children's Books

Gender stereotypes can be traced in children from infancy, and therefore greatly affect how they are socialized and educated. In American and Japanese children's storybooks, girls are usually described as tentative, careful, decision makers, sweet, unfortunate, and dependent, and boys as adventurous risk takers. At the same time, boys are not supposed to cry or show emotions in front of others. In her article on sexual stereotyping, Temple (1993, p. 90) cited a study in which Hall examined prize winning childrenユs stories of the previous 40 years. The majority of the stories showed females in passive roles as caretakers: mothers, helpers in the kitchen, and nurses. On the other hand, males led exciting lives as fighters, explorers, and adventurers.

In an attempt to help a group of elementary school students identify and explore the impact of gender discrimination, Jett-Simpson & Masland (1993) asked students to finish a story about a girl who at first couldn't play on a team but who, in the end, was able to join. The elementary school boys wrote that the girl in the story was successful in the end because of her own determination and much practice, but the girls wrote that the boys in the story finally gave in and let her play. This suggests that the girls here felt they were under control of their male counterparts.

In a 1973 study (cited in Fox, 1993), 85% of the main characters in storybooks for children were male. According to Fox, "it's alarming to consider that by 5 years of age, children mentally enforce a sex change in a literary female protagonist because they find the idea of an active, interesting, self-respecting, female main character simply unthinkable" (1993, p. 84). Both girls and boys have to be free from gender stereotypes in order to enjoy their full human potential.

Gender Stereotypes in Japanese Children's Books

I began my research on Japanese children's books by Japanese authors by selecting books with the help of a young Japanese mother. We randomly chose 70 contemporary childrenユs books from the public library, most of which were for children ages 3 to 12, and published between 1980 and 1997 (See Appendix for the list of 70 books).

First, I looked at the male characters. In those 70 books, 45 stories (64%) had male main characters. Boys were described as follows: energetic, adventurous, mischievous, courageous, honest, cooperative, bullying, dependable, and curious. In six stories, boys displayed characteristics such as sweetness, shyness, loneliness and a liking to be babied. In Ta-kun [The boy, Ta] (Machida, 1987), the 7-year-old boy was portrayed as a very mischievous, bullying kindergarten child. However, one rainy day, he offered his umbrella to a girl in his class. In another story (Otokonokode gomen) [Sorry that I am a boy] (Yamashita, 1994), this 7-year old boy cried when his friend (a girl) pulled his hair. The boy sometimes wondered whether all his family were disappointed that he was born as a boy not as a girl. These examples suggest that boys can sometimes be liberated from stereotypes: it is all right for boys to cry and to show sensitivity.

Next, I compared male and female authors' depictions of their boy and girl characters. There was not much difference between male authors' depiction of boys and female authorsユ depiction of boys. Most boy protagonists were small-framed, energetic children who loved to play, were good at sports but not at studying, and often got into fights. This is a common stereotypical image of how little boys should behave in Japan.

Main character boys often competed with other boys they didn't like: those who were described as good at studying, who were class-leaders, or who were well-liked by girls and teachers. In only one of the 45 boy protagonist stories, Himitsuno neko nikki [The secret diary on cats] (Kamijyo, 1995), was the hero depicted as a very intelligent, hard worker who cared only about passing the entrance examination to a private junior high school. This type of boy accurately reflects boys in today's society in Japan, where entrance exams control education.

There were differences between male and female authors' depictions of girls. Only 6 out of 25 stories with girl main characters were written by male authors. In these stories and others with girls in supporting roles, girls described by male authors were caring towards their friends and families, curious about cooking, sweet, and timid. In stories by male authors, boy main characters had younger sisters whom they looked after.

Girls in books by female authors were described variously as adventurous, curious, dependable, cheerful, sweet, friendly, mean, careful, imaginative, a little afraid, responsible, and self-centered. For example, in Gogatsuno Fushigina Tomodachi [A strange friend in May] (Yamamoto, 1993), Mei, the girl protagonist, was confronted with the news that her mother had had a bicycle accident and had to be hospitalized. Knowing she couldn't count on her father's help because he was always too busy at work, Mei attended to her mother all by herself. Mei was described as very mature, independent, and also courageous as she tried to find the "offender" in her mother's accident by herself.

From examining these contemporary children's books, it is clear that male main characters dominate. Further, male authors tend to stereotype girl characters (i.e., in traditional female characters and roles), while female authors generally do not.

Four other points are worth noting. First, in stories where the main male characters were vigorous, mischievous, and a bit too rough, there were usually female figures who were lenient or gentle. For example, in Kaminari Dodoon [Loud Thunderbolt] (Goto, 1997), a boy named Gon-chan was a little bully. When he forgot to bring his homework to class, he raised an uproar. However, his female teacher accepted his behavior with a sweet smile. In another story, Ganbattemasu Seiji-kun [The Boy, Seiji, Is Trying Hard] (Yoshimoto, 1985), when the father of two children was hospitalized and the mother was busy taking care of him, the little sister encouraged her brother by saying that since he was a boy, he had to be dependable.

Second, of the 70 books, four characters, all female, were either sickly, handicapped, or met with a tragic accident. The fact that no male character in the stories examined experienced these hardships suggests that Japanese society considers females to be weaker and less fortunate than males.

Third, mother characters appeared in stereotypical contexts: in kitchens, preparing meals, at part-time jobs, at tea-time, doing laundry, making apple pies, and wearing aprons. Fathers were not much in evidence. Furthermore, the fathers' words and behaviors were explained to the children in the stories by their mothers. Here, it was surprising to see such traditional stereotypical roles for men and women. These depictions show the reality of Japanese society, in which fathers play minor roles in family affairs, and mothers have greater responsibility for the children.

Lastly, in 17 of the 70 stories, boys interacted with animals, monsters, or ogres, or they themselves became mythical thunderbolts. In six stories, girl main characters interacted with small animals and flowers, with neighbors in one story, with grandmothers in three stories. In five stories, they interacted with mothers but had little or no interaction with fathers. Again, this shows that boys were depicted as more active, more competitive, and more adventurous. Girls were depicted as more passive, and more keen on female relationships, both of which are stereotypical images of females.

Applications for Language Teachers

As a language arts teacher of college students, many of whom are planning to be teachers themselves, I see importance in presenting opportunities to identify and explore the impact of gender issues. The following is a list of possible class activities:

  • Students find and discuss gender-biased expressions and expectations in their first language.
  • Students count the number of women and men in the field of sports, in history books, and other sources.
  • Students analyse the gender-biased expectations in English exercise books or textbooks written by Japanese authors.
  • Students do "what-if?" writing, where they re-write a story (i.e., a fairy tale) by changing a main character's gender. Teachers can introduce new versions of the story to the class or students can exchange and read others' stories.


I have briefly introduced the concepts of sexist language and gender stereotypes. Through my observations of Japanese children's literature, I have demonstrated the existence of gender stereotypes. I hope my research findings, however limited, together with other research findings will be beneficial to teachers who are interested in helping their students be watchful of gender stereotypes and rise above them.


The author would like to thank Rie Seki and Cheryl Benn for their help and advice with this article.


  • Banfield, B. (1976). Human--and anti-human--values in children's books. New York: Council on Interracial Books for Children, Inc.
  • Brouwer, D. (1993). Language and gender: Feminist linguistics. In R.Buikema & A. Smelik (Eds.), Women's studies and culture: A feminist introduction (pp. 40-55). Wiltshire, UK: Redwood Books.

  • Cherry, K. (1987). Womansword: What Japanese words say about women. Tokyo: Kodansha International.
  • Eakins, B., & Eakins, R. (1978). Sex differences in human communication. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.

  • Fanselow, K., & Kameda, A. (1994). Women's education and gender roles in Japan. In Gelb & Palley (Eds.), Women of Japan and Korea (pp. 45-59). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Fox, M. (1993). Men who weep, boys who dance: The gender agenda between the lines in children's literature. Language Arts, 70, 84-89.

  • Goto, R. (1997). Kaminari dodoon [Loud thunderbolt]. Tokyo: Popura-sha.
  • Hildreth, K. (1979). Sexism in elementary physical education literature: A content analysis. Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

  • Jett-Simpson, M., & Masland, S. (1993). Girls are not dodo birds! Exploring gender equity issue in the language arts classroom. Language Arts, 70, 104-108.
  • Kamijyo, S (1995). Himitsuno neko nikki [The secret diary on cats]. Tokyo: Junior Bungakukan.

  • Machida, H. (1987). Ta-kun [The boy, Ta]. Tokyo: Kaisei-sha.
  • Rutledge, M. (1997). Reading the subtext on gender. Education Leadership, 54, 71-73.

  • Temple, C. (1993). "What if beauty had been ugly?" Reading against the grain of gender bias in children's books. Language Arts, 70, 89-93.
  • Yamamoto, Y. (1993). Gogatsu no fushigina tomodachi [The strange friend in May]. Tokyo: Kaisei-sha.

  • Yamanaka, T. (1994). Mukamuka no isshukan [The upsetting week]. Tokyo: Kinno Hoshisha.
  • Yamashita, K. (1994). Otokonoko de gomen [Sorry that I'm a boy]. Tokyo: Popura-sha.

  • Yoda, I. (1992). Tenjou ura no himitsu [The secret in the ceiling]. Shizuoka: Hikumano Shuppan.
  • Yoshimoto, N. (1985). Ganbattemasu Seijikun [Seiji is trying hard]. Tokyo: Popura-sha.


    • Books with male main characters (in alphabetical order by title) N=45
    • Title /Author /Year
    • A-da jiisan to Co-da jiisan (Grandpas Arda and Koda) N. Tatara 1995
    • Atarashii tomodachi (A new friend) Y. Kimura 1991
    • Bokuno epuron wa sorairo (My apron is blue) M. Yamamoto 1989
    • Bokuwa yujadazo (I am a brave boy) M. Sato 1997
    • Boku kyanpuni ittanda (I went camping) S. Watanabe 1981
    • Daichan no aoitsuki (The blue moon and the boy, Dai) T. Yoshida 1988
    • Doronko youchien (muddy kindergarten) Nagasaki, G 1986
    • Ensokun kishani noru (The boy, Enso, rides a train) Suzuki, K 1986
    • Fushigina kotowa buranko kara (A strange thing happens in a swing)M. Sano 1985
    • Futon danukino bouken (The adventure of futon raccoon) A. Yoshihara 1991
    • Ganbattemasu Seiji-kun (Seiji is trying hard) N. Yoshimoto 1985
    • Haru ichiban no okyakusama (The guest in spring) A. Yamashita 1994
    • Henna tenkousei ga yattekita (A unique new student came) T.Shimizu 1992
    • Himitsuno neko nikki (The secret diary of cats) S. Kamijyo 1995
    • Itazura ponkotsukun (The naughty used car) H. Tominaga 1978
    • Kaminari dodoon (Loud thunderbolt) R. Goto 1997
    • Kyaputen nikki (The diary of the captain) S. Yamamoto 1991
    • Kumatakunnchi no jidousha (Kumata familyユs car) S. Watanabe 1986
    • Mafin obasanno panya (Auntie Muffin's bakery) A. Takebayashi 1981
    • Moeru tanima (The burning valley) T. Yoshida 1989
    • Moujiki ichinensei (Soon I'll be a first grader) G. Nagasaki 1984
    • Mukamuka no isshukan (The upsetting week) T. Yamanaka 1994
    • Nakayoshi (Good friends) K. Souma 1996
    • Noromana ososan daihenshin (The slow father has changed much)M. Yokoyama 1992
    • Obachan yureininaru (The grandma became a ghost) M. Nasu 1986
    • Obake to asobou (Let's play with a ghost) K. Asuka 1989
    • Otokonokode gomen (Sorry that I'm a boy) Y. Yamashita 1994
    • Otosanto saikuling (Went cycling with my father) T. Takahashi 1989
    • Ousama daiboukenn (King's adventure) I. Okamoto 1991
    • Ousama uranai ooatari (The king's predictions came true) T. Teramura 1997
    • Ousamano pan wa daietto pan (The king's diet bread) N. Takashima 1997
    • Pengin yamano aisu hoteru (Penguin mountain's ice hotel) Y. Watanabe 1995
    • Poporokun no sentakuya-san (Poporo, a laundryman) M. Ryou 1991
    • Pukkun no youchien (The boy, Pukkun's kindergarten) K. Funasaki 1988
    • Sanpokun no tabi (Sanpo's trip) N. Tatara 1994
    • Soreike Annpanman (Go, Anpan man) T. Yanase 1988
    • Suiyoubiwa gyunyu no hi (Wednesday is milk day) I. Yoda 1992
    • Ta-kun (The boy, Ta) H. Masho 1987
    • Takoyaki Mantoman (Takoyaki Mantman) H. Takada 1994
    • Temo karadamo araeruyo (I can wash my hands and body) K. Iwase 1993
    • Tenjyou ura no himitsu (The secret in the ceiling) I. Yoda 1992
    • Tatsuo gonennsei (Tatsuo, the fifth grader) T. Yoshida 1981
    • Uchuu sukeito (Skating in the space) S. Tamura 1991
    • Uchuujinn ga yattekita (The alien came over) N. Matsui 1996
    • Yukino onitaiji (Yuki chased demons away) K. Seiya 1997
    • Books with female main characters (in alphabetical order by title) N=25
    • Title /Author /Year
    • Akai sandaru (Red sandals) K. Yoneda 1987
    • Ashitamo asoboune (Let's play again tomorrow) K. Aman 1987
    • Ecchan no namae (The name of the girl, Ecchan) N. Akaza 1990
    • Fuchan to chulip (The girl Fu and a tulip) M. Imaki 1990
    • Gogatsu no fushigina tomodachi (The strange friend in May) Y. Yamamoto 1993
    • Itazura majyokko to ijiwaru rukuchihime M. Fuji 1997
    • (The naughty witch and the mean princess Rukuchi)
    • Itaiha tondeike (Go away aching tooth!) S. Saito 1987
    • Kakochan no otetsudai (Kako helps housework) H. Yamanaka 1990
    • Karin doubutsuen e iku (Karin goes to the zoo) Y. Souma 1991
    • Kiraitte iwanaide (Don't say you don't like me) H. Abe 1990
    • Majono takkyubin (Witchユ's express delivery) E. Kadono 1989
    • Mitemite omeme (Look at my eyes) S.Umeda 1990
    • Momode genki (Pink means fine) K. Jyanbo 1991
    • Natsu yasumi wa majo no kennkyu Y. Yamamoto 1992
    • (Study about witches during a summer vacation)
    • Nazonazo Amichan (riddles and the girl Ami) S. Murayama 1995
    • Nemurino kunino majyokko (The little witch in a sleeping country)M. Fuji 1995
    • Nikyu mahotsukai kurobarasan (The second-rated witch) A. Sueyoshi 1981
    • Rusuban (Housesitting) W. Sato 1995
    • Shikkari dakko (Hold me tight, Mom) C. Natori 1996
    • Tanjyoukai ga hajimaruyo (Your birthday party will begin) K. Miyazaki 1995
    • Tenohira no pi-ko (Pi-ko on a palm) E. Kishikawa 1989
    • Wagamama Ma-ma hime (The selfish princess Ma-ma) H. Saito 1997
    • Watashiga kobutadatta koro (When I was a piggy) S. Umeda 1992
    • Watashimo ensoku (I'll go on an excursion, too) S. Umeda 1986
    • Yuzuchan (The girl, Yuzu) H. Hida 1995