What’s the difference between otome and joseimuke, and why can it be so confusing?
As Touken Ranbu continues to expand its reach to an English-speaking audience, I think it’s a good time to explore the similarities and differences of “otome” and “joseimuke.”
There’s a bit of confusion about what is an otome game, and what is joseimuke. Some of it is understandable confusion, based on the overlap between the two. But some of it has more to do with the vagueness surrounding the otome genre itself, exemplified in recent years by misrepresenting genres for marginalized audiences.
What is otome?
There is no one “official” definition of the otome genre, but there are elements that are heavily agreed-upon. The specific phrase “story-based” comes up almost every time, such as in the Wikipedia article for the genre.
There’s also always a focus on romance—specifically, you have to make choices that put you on a romantic path that leads to the end of the game. In addition, a female protagonist and male love interests are absolutely required.
After this, however, the lines holding in the genre become fuzzy. For instance, a 2020 Twitter thread by the user @cocopencils defines otome games as having not only routes and defined endings, but CGs along the way.
An announcement made on the r/otomegames subreddit to clarify what does and doesn’t constitute as an otome game similarly puts forth the requirement of CGs. In fact, it asserts that despite the visual novel genre not being a necessity, visuals themselves are a requirement… but audio, including background music, is not.
It may not seem helpful to introduce so many gray areas in the definition of otome right away, but it’s important to see just how diverse these genre boundaries can be. This will be pertinent as we start looking into the confusion that arises when joseimuke comes into the picture.
What is joseimuke?
Joseimuke is a term that means, quite literally, “aimed at women,” combining the word josei (woman) with the suffix muke (aimed at; intended for). As such, joseimuke encompasses far more than just games. Any media that targets a female audience, including various forms of manga and anime, is considered joseimuke.
Although the term has seen recent use as a video game genre for non-otome games targeting a female demographic, it’s more accurately meant to encompass any and all media that is made for a female audience. While a game like Touken Ranbu is not otome while still falling under the joseimuke umbrella, its specific, video game genre is simulation, or auto-chess-like.
Confusion by overlap
As we can see in the above diagram, the otome genre overlaps entirely within joseimuke. With otome being essentially the only instance of games made specifically for a female audience until recently, it’s understandable that some people may think otome is the umbrella term for “media for women” when it’s actually joseimuke that is the umbrella term.
But genres evolve. They grow and take bits and pieces from other genres to create unique, individual game experiences. Consider the obviously joseimuke 100 Sleeping Princes and the Kingdom of Dreams, or Yume100 for short. It’s a puzzle game with gacha elements first and foremost. There are no heavily defined endings like a traditional otome because the story must keep going with the never-ending mobile game format. This means there are no “routes” either, although each prince has his own set of unique stories.
But it does have CGs—with kissing! There’s clear romance elements in Yume100 despite primarily being a puzzle game. Would Yume100 be “more of an otome” than an indie game with routes based on romance interests with defined endings, but not enough time or budget to create full-blown CGs?
Examples of Kagetora alternate unit CGs from Yume100
The previous diagram has “media with lots of boys but strictly no romance” separated entirely from “otome media,” but there are some games out there with lots of male characters and romance that still don’t quite fit into the otome category.
The idea that “all otome is joseimuke, but not all joseimuke is otome” is correct. Additionally, most joseimuke actually excludes romance elements; however, otome elements can still be sprinkled into some games that would otherwise not be considered otome, which can make matters quite confusing.
It’s the demographic, not the genre
I’ve noticed many people using the term joseimuke as if it’s a game genre itself. In addition to the aforementioned Touken Ranbu, another common victim of this is Ensemble Stars, which is an idol raising game. Many games—especially mobile or “casual” games—get described as “joseimuke” without elaborating on what specific genre they are, even though games targeting a male demographic are still clearly defined by their proper genre.
Part of this could come from the fact that before Touken Ranbu’s explosive popularity, joseimuke games were almost entirely comprised of otome. Touken Ranbu was the first major game to really put non-otome joseimuke video games on the metaphorical gaming map. The only things you had to compare it to at the time were similar genre games that blatantly appealed to the straight male audience—which Touken Ranbu obviously did not fit into—and otome games which, despite Touken Ranbu containing no romance, at least had the same target demographic.
On the other hand, it’s very rare to see use of the term “danseimuke,” or “media for men,” with the suffix muke this time on the word dansei (man). This is because, unfortunately, the straight male is still considered the “default” audience in not just gaming, but any entertainment media. Rather than recognizing that pretty much everyone below a certain age plays video games, meaning there shouldn’t be a “default” at all, games targeting a female demographic are singled out and ultimately defined by their audience rather than their content.
A good example of this is how otome became a well-known term even by people who don’t really engage with the niche genres within visual novels and simulation, but rarely will you see people calling dating sims for men “galge.” Instead, those get called the umbrella term of “dating sim” with no issue, again because “straight male” is considered the “default.” This means the target audience when you say “dating sim” is implied to be straight men until you specify if it’s otome after all.
Denial of romance
So what happens when someone who isn’t a part of the marginalized group tries to engage with media for the marginalized group? In theory, it shouldn’t be too bad, right?
Unfortunately, things don’t always turn out so savory when it comes to media for women being consumed by men. We see the “This otome doesn’t actually focus on romance!” claim all the time, but why exactly is this such a problem?
It’s because by doing this, the male audience attempts to take the genre away from its target group—a group that, in otome’s case, is so marginalized in gaming spaces that despite making up nearly half of the total gaming population, only a tiny fraction of games are meant to appeal to them.
As an example, Rice Digital published an article this March titled “Men! Play more otome games!” In it, the author gives some reasons as to why men shouldn’t shy away from otome games. He seems to genuinely enjoy some of them, and encourages readers to support major releases such as Bustafellows so that more otome can be released worldwide. It’s clear he has no malicious intent here. But intent doesn’t matter when the end result promotes unsavory stereotypes.
The author’s own definition of otome reinforces the point I brought up earlier about the straight male audience being considered the “default” in gaming. The author defines otome, with added emphasis my own, as “games (usually visual novels or adventure games) that feature female protagonists and a cast of primarily male characters. In other words, they’re the inverse of the ‘usual’ visual novel format, which typically features a male protagonist and a cast of female characters.”
The choice of defining galge as the “usual” not only under the umbrella of “dating sim” but the entirety of the “visual novel format” only serves to “other” otome more than it already is. The author continues to push this idea when he brings up how “it’s very rare to see otome titles described [as ‘dating sims’].”
It’s the same tired spiel we always hear: “This otome isn’t like other otome! This otome doesn’t focus on romance!” But the reality is, the reason why otome are rarely described as “dating sims” is not because of their lack of romance. Rather, it’s because of exactly what the author talks about in his definition: because otome are “othered,” the term “dating sim” has come to mean galge specifically.
And it certainly doesn’t help that, after all this time trying to define otome at all, the only thing we could even agree upon is that it does focus on romance!
There’s a lot of other odd choices in this article, from the insistence that the main character in otome is not meant to be a self-insert compared to the main character in galge, and the idea that players don’t engage in character routes based on attraction to said character, both of which continue to remove the female gaze from the otome equation.
“Don’t make the mistake of assuming these are ‘girls’ games,'” the author insists. But a comment from user Alphonse succinctly explains why all of the above points are problems:
Two points to address:
1. They are girls’ games. Just because something was made for women doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad or that no one else can enjoy it. Why is it that games clearly aimed at men such as almost all Persona games are perceived as “for everyone” but games clearly aimed at women aren’t?
2. Even though it can take a backseat at times, having romance is part of the definition of otome games. They aren’t just games with a female lead and a male cast. The reason romance in otome games seems to be so de-emphasized is because only games that seem like they can have male appeal are localized.User “Alphonse” in response to “Men! Play more otome games!”
Established otome players can tell this is an instance of a guy who genuinely likes otome games but just doesn’t understand why what he’s saying is so problematic and frustrating. But we were all otome newbies at one point. Anyone unfamiliar with the genre, regardless of their gender, would read an article like this and walk away thinking otome doesn’t necessarily focus on romance or inherently target the female demographic.
As more and more men who do not question the unrelenting use of the male gaze in media get into otome and write about them in this manner, either in articles or in reviews, more confusion about the nature of otome compared to other joseimuke games will certainly arise.
And then the devs do it
Sometimes even developers will engage in removal of the female gaze when marketing their games. In a recent interview with Siliconera, Bustafellows producer minetaka describes the game’s genre in the following manner:
BUSTAFELLOWS has been introduced as an “otome game,” but our production staff do not see it as an “otome game.” I think that otome games are just a subgenre of text adventure games. That’s why, we created a “text adventure game,” and it is up to each user to decide whether it is a “horror game,” a “comedy game,” or an “otome game.”
We tried not to worry about genres as much as possible, because there would be many constraints. For example, genres are likely to stick to rules such as “otome games have to have a love element” or because it is this genre, we must do that. We feel that conforming to a genre only limits the creativity of creators, so we tried not to worry about the genre of the game.Bustafellows producer minetaka to Siliconera
Honestly, minetaka is absolutely correct that otome games are a subgenre of text adventure games. Although some of the definitions we looked at previously claim this doesn’t always have to be the case, it still works out that way far more often than not. This is likely because the near-requirement to repeat playing the game due to the different routes is simply more convenient when done in a visual novel rather than another genre such as an RPG.
But it still feels strange to see minetaka describe not wanting to tie Bustafellows down with any genre constraints, then proceed to describe otome’s “constraint” as “hav[ing] a love element.” I mean, it’s true, but… Bustafellows has that exact “love element.” That’s why people call it an otome!
In a very particular context, I do agree with minetaka. The arbitrary definitions we assign to genres, especially otome, can heavily limit creators. As was discussed earlier, why does otome require CGs and sound? What if someone wanted to make an otome through the perspective of a woman chatting on Discord and the game was primarily text-based UI rather than visuals?
Beloved otome titles can make use of unique elements to set them apart from other games. Hatoful Boyfriend includes an RPG-style battle, and uses photographs instead of sprites and CGs. Bustafellows uses timed components for a more dynamic visual novel experience. But they’re still otome at the end of the day.
It’s important to understand that otome is a particular video game genre while joseimuke is an umbrella term for all female-targeted media. But what’s even more important is to maintain the female gaze of these media, even if some men happen to enjoy them, too. In addition, it’s very uplifting to recognize that more joseimuke games are being made than ever before, both within various genres—otome or otherwise—and while crossing genre borders.
Revisiting the definitions
So… we still can’t solidly define otome after all this time. Even on the aforementioned site Rice Digital, another article by a different author takes a completely different approach to the definition, insisting they are “aimed at a female demographic,” and that the primary goal “is generally to have one of the love interests fall in love with the main character.”
Looking even further back, the Twitter thread by @cocopencils links to both the Uguu Cage of Love’s article on the topic—where the handy diagram comes from—and a post on the Otome Obsessed blog as great resources. We’ve already looked at how “media with lots of boys but strictly no romance” doesn’t always work as a good categorization, but to make matters even more muddled, the Otome Obsessed author notes, “I have been told by people who know the Japanese otome industry that … As long as there is romance somewhere in the gameplay, it is an otome game.”
Hmm… yeah. We’re kind of stuck, aren’t we? Not only can no one entirely agree on a definition, but at a certain point, you’d have to ask, “How do you define romance?” Considering how often we see guys claim there isn’t much romance at all in otome, I’m sure they may find some of the more flirtatious lines in Touken Ranbu to serve the same purpose.
There are some clear boundaries in place for otome, including a female protagonist, male love interests, and a focus on romance. From there, however, it really comes down to community consensus combined with the unique and fun ways developers find to push the genre boundaries further than ever before.
Throughout this essay, I brought up a few points that warrant being topics all their own. Please vote in the poll below to let me know what you’d like me to write about next!