Explaining Why There’s So Many “Not Blood Related Sisters” and Harems in Anime

A couple months ago I happened upon an scientific article that appears to suggest a reason for the popularity of catgirls (as opposed to say doggirls or foxgirls or cowgirls etc.) in anime and today I’m back with an answer to another question that has surely plagued most anime fans at some point. Why are there so many “not blood related sisters” and harems in anime? The answer my shock you, as it did me.

The answer lies, as is often the case, in the history of Japan.

In 1945, when Japan surrendered and the United States began their occupation, the Japanese were forced to fully adopt a western style government in the form of America. This meant many things with the most well-known being the end of Emperor worship which held that the Emperor was divine but it also meant that polygamy was outlawed as well.

That’s right, polygamy was legal in Japan until 1945.

By chance, I had come across this fact in an article and this started the gears going. I know anime is not a very accurate way to learn about Japan but I started wondering why I’ve never seen polygamy mentioned in any anime that I’ve watched, not even in the historical anime series. Almost immediately I realized the heavy prevalence of harems and the building of said harems in certain types of anime was the evidence of this long legal and accepted part of Japanese culture.

The Japanese might try to white wash their own history – as many anime series as I have watched about the Sengoku Era, none have seen fit to mention that Oda Nobunaga aka The Demon King in Sengoku Basara actually had more then one wife, for example – but it’s difficult to completely eradicate all traces of something that was part of one’s own history for so long. Hence the wish fulfillment of harem series.

I dug more into this and discovered more that helped explained other questions I had. Sometimes it’s easy to forget different cultures have very different views on certain ideas. At one time the idea of family in Japan was that everyone that lived in and worked for a single village was considered one “family”. Light bulb. I suddenly saw where the idea of “not blood-related sister” came from. It was not just a cute way of saying stepsister but a term to describe a girl, probably also a childhood friend, who lived in the same village as the boy in question.

This definition of family stayed in place until 1889 when Japanese law formally declared that the family was defined according to blood lineage as the father (head of the household) and all his wives and all his children as well as their relatives. It was only in 1945, along with the prohibition of polygamy that the definition was changed again to fully match the Western standard that a family is considered to be a husband, his wife, and their kids. That wasn’t that long ago and apparently there’s been plenty of cases of the wealthy who act as if the previous 1889 law as still in place. Which explains why in Summer Wars when the father fathers what we’d consider a bastard but the boy (who grows up, sells large tracts of the family’s land, and moves to America) is welcomed into the family and treated as if he was a child of the father and his wife.

To recap, the historical practice of defining the family to include an entire village and polygamy are the reason why there are so many “not blood related sisters” and harems in anime (or, at least, that’s what it looks like to me). If you want to read more, this article was very informative as was the wiki article for polygyny.

Sliding off-topic now, there are two points I wanted to bring up.

The first is that WordPress has decided they don’t like pages on their blogs and they don’t care what the actual blog authors think. Instead of putting older blog posts on say “Page 2” then “Page 3” and so on they want the home page to keep scrolling indefinitely. I don’t see the advantage to this change but I do see that this will tax older machines and those with slow internet connections as well. If this change makes it impossible to use my blog please tell me here or in an email. If enough people are having this problem I’ll look into maybe changing my theme to something that will work better or going over to a static home page or some other change.

Second, as you might be aware, there’s an anime blog tournament going on and this blog is currently in it’s match. I won’t lie, a vote for me would be appreciated but I’m mentioning this because during the last anime blog tournament I received a lot of good feedback that pushed me to improve my work and so far this time I really haven’t seen any. So for those reading, I’d love to see any feedback/critiques (positive or negative) you have either here or on the tournament match page.

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8 thoughts on “Explaining Why There’s So Many “Not Blood Related Sisters” and Harems in Anime”

  1. Oh, I’ve seen you’ve used the ‘Load More Posts’ button now.

    Although I agree with the redditor folks that this can’t be the only reason, it’s still might be wish-fulfillment nonsense, and ‘The answer my shock you, as it did me.’ is misspelled, they miss the entire point of the article: why there are so many harems in anime, COMPARED TO the number of harems in say, American cartoons or movies.

    The reason is because polygamy was outlawed quite recently in Japan because of the Western ideology, and the Japanese still have fewer qualms about polygamy. However, polygamy was outlawed quite long ago for ethical reasons in the West, and so it’s more of a cultural taboo to air harem cartoons/movies in the West, whereas it’s no-problem in Japan.

    Perhaps you should rephrase your post title to be that.

  2. @EEk: Thanks, this is the first time I’ve gone to reddit, I think I’ve found somewhere new to lurk.

    @Mushyrulez: Yes, exactly that. I don’t exactly see many such shows in the US, though there is that one TV show, Sister Wives.

    This has happened before, an implicit comparison or point that’s clear to me doesn’t get conveyed properly. I have tried to limit this from happening by being more strict with when I decide a post is done but I wanted to rush this one along because I’ve been slow with new content of late. I’ve got a bunch of half-written, quarter thought out posts right now and nothing to show. This post is actually part 4 or 5 of a series of articles I’ve been trying to lay out for months now.

    I do plan on lengthening and filling out this post at some point in the future and now I’ve actually got some quality critiquing in doing so. One of the things I’d like to find out, if possible, is how does the average Mormon anime fan view a harem anime series verses the national average. I’m not saying there should be but I think there might small variances in opinion.

  3. I would like to see you delve more into instantaneous style posts where you simply post your stream of thought on anime as you watch them, rather than waiting and processing them in long articulated posts that take up a substantial amount of time.

    I also believe in so doing, you will become better, and faster, at writing in general. If you later regret what you wrote, you can always delete it. Have a 5 day policy for rewrites. Post it as draft, wait 5 days.

  4. Steel, I got the sense that in Japan only powerful or high status individuals were expected to get second wives or concubines. To women, a man that can attract the attention of many other women is already high status and many women will get jealous or envious simply because a man is with a beautiful woman. When if that man was alone, she wouldn’t pay him any mind. Just a social dynamic to be mindful of.

    So high status harems are essentially fantasies, especially for adolescent males, and thus is a good draw on a social dynamics scale. While many in Japan are peasants or commoners, envisioning a higher class lifestyle for themselves is not out of their purview. To them, it may be the equivalent of the story of the knight and princess. Although Accel World and other stories also use the Western concept of chivalry, fidelity, and loyalty plus romantic love between a Princess (political leader) and her knight (military officer and security provider).

    The old samurai class and times, had women as well trained as the men in samurai families. Thus often times a woman who is the lover of a ruler, could also be his concubine and bodyguard at the same time. This dynamic is also present in Japanese culture in very subtle ways. Such as the “dangerous weapon of mass destruction in the form of a girl” motiff.

  5. Maybe there arem’t that many harems in western culture, but there sure are a lot of reverse harems (*cough* Bridget Jones *cough*)!

  6. Actually, the non-blood-related sister argument reminded me of the joke in SZS where everyone has to tell a terrible secret and Komori (whom Majiru refers to as Komori nee-san) tells Majiru she isn’s really his sister and he yells “I knew that!”

  7. The notion that the modern Japanese might be white washing any of this is a Western cultural bias of your own. If you follow any real (not anime) Japanese history drama, especially when the principles are warlords or daimyo, the sokushitsu concubine is a natural part of the dramatis personae. But then, it’s a privilege exclusive to daimyo and warlords. The whole purpose of keeping concubines in addition to the wife proper is to make sure there is a son, the heir apparent to the ruling family of the domain.

    The commoner’s mekake mistress is not the same thing, and unlike concubines, they are not considered married to the husband. Unlike concubines, they also do not live under the same roof as the wife proper. Unlike a secret wife or an extramarital wife, the mekake is supposed to be public knowledge and known to the family that the husband has one. There are plenty of drama in Meiji period settings that show a wealthy industrial baron spending time with his mekake and being absent from the family.

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