Julia Foos & Richard Lee

Naruto is one of the most popular anime franchises of all time. In 2021, Naruto had the highest total consumer engagement in Africa, Europe, and North and South America; its online presence overpowered colossal anime franchises like Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon, which have collectively existed for 17 more years than Naruto.[1] The show’s popularity owes, in large part, to its nuanced plot. Consisting of hundreds of episodes, the Naruto series continues to captivate its audience by focusing on the character development of a young ninja named Naruto, who dreams of becoming the leader of his village. Because the influential show is vastly male-centric, it is important to consider the subservient roles that the cute female characters play and the sociocultural implications of this role-playing. Within the storyline, cuteness functions to appeal to the male gaze, making Naruto a major byproduct of the Japanese cute revolution to replace “warrior-infused masculinity” with “pink-clad girls” and “animated fantasies.”[2] The show ultimately embodies Japan’s cultural shift from a powerful pre-World War II empire to one of a hypersexualized, feminized cuteness. 

Naruto is an important example of Japan’s soft power. Soft power can be defined as “power that operates via attraction and cooptation in contrast to… force, coercion, and payment.”[3] Japanese anime and manga are incredibly popular locally and globally, and kawaii culture has been experiencing globalization with the popularization of Hello Kitty and similar characters in the West. Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, “contemporary youth in an economic recession seem[ed] more skeptical about the concept of masculinity measured against work and marriage.”[4] Naturally, young people drove the development and appeal of kawaii culture, directly resisting traditional ideas of gender roles and the patriarchy. Gender is a major focus of the soft power and kawaii culture steering Naruto’s success; female characters are often immediately seen as cute. Kanako Shiokawa emphasizes how “the repetitive formula of ‘cute’ action heroines indicates that ‘cute’ women are desirable and that being ‘cute’ is advantageous to women who, in reality, do not possess equal ground in the male-dominant culture.”[5] Cute female characteristics tend to be sexualized, shaping the male target audience’s desires while cyclically propagating those same themes in anime. Much of the appeal of cuteness in Naruto stems from the fact that even the strong female characters fit male-dominated gender roles and ideas of cuteness in physical appearance and profession. It may be argued that Naruto’s male manga creator, Masashi Kishimoto, followed the “classic notion of kawaii: the woe, the helpless.”[6] This article will examine the nuances of character development in two of Naruto’s female companions, Sakura and Hinata, as well as the village’s female hokage (village leader) during Naruto’s adolescence, Tsunade, to assess any subliminal gendered commentary embedded in what could be the most popular anime of all time. 

Figure 1. Sakura (image by Julia Foos inspired by “Sakura” on Shipping Wiki).

Sakura (see Figure 1) is one of three main protagonists in the series and a relatively bashful character who befriends Sasuke and Naruto, two male ninjas in her class. While Naruto lusts after Sakura, she is infatuated with Sasuke, and her character premise is built around the attention given to or received by male figures.[7] Sasuke’s rejections of Sakura only strengthen her obsession with him, and she continues to submit to his opinions and abuse. Eventually, Sasuke becomes an international criminal, and Sakura is tasked with his execution to prevent war. However, her feelings hinder her from successfully killing him. She ultimately marries Sasuke, bearing and raising their child alone while Sasuke continues in his missions. While the two male protagonists consistently define their journeys with battles and independence, Sakura is restrained by domestication and romantic love. Unsurprisingly, her cuteness and audience appeal is framed through a “classic, often stereotypical, male view of women.”[8] Despite her attempts to be a world-saving ninja, she fits into cute male-centric stereotypes, becoming a “good” parent who stays at home with her child. Furthermore, Sakura’s appearance stands out due to her pink hair; she is the only character in the Naruto universe with such colored strands. While pink is regarded as a standard feminine color in America, its appearance is often inseparable from ideas of “commodification, consumerism, leisure, play, beauty, and erotics.”[9] Although pink is considered to be a color of cuteness, its ties to stereotypical femininity promote problematic ideals. In Naruto, the rareness of Sakura’s appearance contributes to the commodification of her personhood and objectification as a trophy for Naruto but a nuisance for Sasuke. 

Notably, Sakura moves about under Tsunade’s mentorship to become a nursing ninja, specializing in healing rather than fighting. Even in the modern era, countries like Iran portray nursing roles as gentle and subordinate, and masculine proactivity or dominance simply do not fit among dominant perceptions of the nursing profession.[10] Cuteness, then, pervades realms of the workplace, connecting career merits to rigid gender roles and traits. As a result, Sakura most closely aligns with the role of a supportive character instead of a main character. Although Sakura was originally intended to be a ninja, her eventual nursing role ties into the following point by Fujimoto Yukari: “The site where female ninjas can show their capabilities is the field of healing and not the battlefield.”[11] Fujimoto also comments on the division of gender roles, or the “fighting men, healing women” observed in the anime and Sakura’s character. The traditional division of gender roles demonstrates Naruto’s tendency to focus on conventionally cute aspects of women, not their intrinsic power. 

Figure 2. Hinata (image by Julia Foos inspired by “Hinata” on Heroes Wiki). 

A discussion of the character Hinata Hyūga (see Figure 2) expands upon the cute commodification of women to further comply with Western beauty ideals. In the past,  Hinata’s father blamed her failures on her timidness, and she was bullied for having large eyes as the Hyūga clan specializes in harnessing the destructive, insightful power of the eye.[12] In this way, the series continues the tradition maintained by female anime writers of the late 1960s of having “overwhelmingly large eyes… many taking up nearly half of the faces.”[13] Some scholars have remarked that Asian women’s infatuation with white facial features and the subsequent urge to medically transform them result from “patriarchal and hegemonic oppression that become much more insidious, overlapping, and pervasive in everyday life.”[14] In almost all popular culture, cuteness is defined by Western terms, which accounts for the pressure that drives some Asian women to resort to medical alterations. While originally bullied for her eyes, Hinata is able to harness their large size and power in the end and becomes an incredibly strong ninja. Yet, problematically, her character encourages the pursuit of larger eyes and Westernized cuteness standards in Eastern culture and media. Naruto is a centerpiece of Hinata’s motivations to become a better ninja; she is constantly inspired by his ability to accomplish anything once he sets his mind to it. However, she develops a similar infatuation for Naruto as Sakura did for Sasuke, slowly developing a dependent relationship with him. Hinata eventually becomes a homemaker and wife for Naruto and a mother to their kids. Like Sakura, Hinata’s final role as a mother fits into themes of cuteness by highlighting the idea that most women possess an intrinsic desire for motherhood and caretaking. While male characters dominate Naruto’s storyline in the form of important missions and journeys, the show’s female characters serve the male gaze as eroticized caretakers. Two of the most prominent female characters in Naruto share similar domestic fates, pointing to the persistence of male-centric cuteness in modern society. 

Figure 3. Tsunade (image by Julia Foos inspired by “Tsunade” on Heroes Wiki).

To touch on a final female character, Tsunade (see Figure 3) is a descendant of Hashirama, the first hokage. After her lover died in front of her, she developed a fear of blood as a result of her inability to save him.[15] Upon meeting Naruto, she manages to overcome this fear and eventually becomes the Fifth Hokage and enters into a position of power. Interestingly, she depends on a young man to overcome her fear and transcend the cute roles assigned to other characters in the plot. Moreover, while Tsunade looks to be in her twenties, she is actually in her fifties and maintains her youthful image through a “transformation technique,” changing her appearance at will.[16] She also wears a revealing blouse to expose her large chest. Tsunade’s powers include strength and chakra control, and she is a highly powerful medical-nin, likely more powerful than most. She performs actions that other medical-nins cannot, such as healing poisonings or making undetectable sleeping potions. 

Compared to the aforementioned female characters, Tsunade straddles a greater line between cuteness and sex appeal, exuding reverence yet only within traditional, established roles. Sharon Tran notes that “the kawaii aesthetics of the [anime] genre have been coopted to attract and entice male audiences.”[17] Tsunade’s appearance as a young woman with large breasts, despite canonically being over fifty, works to show the impact of the male gaze on a character’s cuteness. Additionally, despite her youthful appearance and lack of children, Tsunade seems to be coded as a mother figure instead of a cute character due to her age.[18] However, she possesses some aspects of cuteness seen in many traditional kawaii characters, including big eyes, smooth skin, and youthful features. Fujimoto further states that “[e]ven without intending to diminish the importance of healing, one cannot avoid noticing the correspondence of this motif with the assumption that the presence of women is not required on the battlefield, and if so, only as nurses.”[19] Despite Tsunade’s formidable healing abilities, she is fixed into a profession traditionally regarded as cute or sexy. While nursing is by no means a negative occupation, Fujimoto highlights the diminishing of Tsunade’s extraordinary and unusual abilities in the anime through her nursing role. It should be noted that Tsunade’s abilities are rare abilities to create violence and damage are much more common than those of healing. Despite the creators of Naruto giving her character different powers than other women, Tsunade nevertheless fits into male-dominated gender roles and ideals of physical appearance. Therefore, she displays notions of cuteness in male-dominated societies, especially given that her profession is so often stereotyped as “cute."

Naruto’s popularity speaks to Japan’s ongoing soft power. According to Koichi Iwabuchi, “Japanese products, which embody a new aesthetic emanating in large part from Japanese cultural inventiveness, capture the new popular imagination.”[20] Naruto is an excellent example of this idea, as its characters, especially those who are female, have long been subjects of interest around the world. In Naruto’s feminine universe, Sakura’s pink hair, pale skin, and submissive personality make her an example of cuteness entangled in the patriarchy. Hinata displays surface-level cuteness through her large eyes and is primarily motivated by a man despite having unique power. Lastly, Tsunade acts as a mentor to many other characters, yet her abilities and appearance are essentially reduced to the realm of the sexual and cute. In such ways, cuteness appears both subtly and overtly in Naruto. Although the show seems to include diverse female characters, each falls victim to a cute, male-centric stereotype, limiting their existing abilities and potential storylines. 

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] Brittney Lin, “What’s the Most Popular Anime Around the World?”, DiamondLobby, accessed May 22, 2023,

[2] Christine R. Yano, “Wink on Pink: Interpreting Japanese Cute as It Grabs the Global Headlines,” The Journal of Asian Studies 68, no. 3 (August 2009): 685.

[3] Sharon Tran, “Kawaii Asian Girls Save the Day! Animating a Minor Politics of Care,” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. 43, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 21.

[4] Kumiko Sato, “From Hello Kitty to Cod Roe Kewpie: A Postwar Cultural History of Cuteness in Japan,” Education About Asia 14, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 41,

[5] Kanako Shiokawa, “Cute but Deadly: Women and Violence in Japanese Comics,” in Themes and Issues in Asian Cartooning: Cute, Cheap, Mad, and Sexy, ed. John A. Lent (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999), 120.

[6] Shiokawa, “Cute but Deadly,” 100.

[7] “Sakura Haruno,” Fandom, accessed May 22, 2023,

[8] Shiokawa, “Cute but Deadly,” 94.

[9] Jillian Hernandez, “Radical Pink: The Aesthetics of Visionary Black Girlhood in Sadie Barnette’s ‘Dear 1968…’ and Black Sky,” Visual Arts Research 47, no. 1 (July 2021): 31.

[10] Aimei Mao et al., “‘I am called girl, but that doesn’t matter’–perspectives of male nurses regarding gender-related advantages and disadvantages in professional development,” BMC Nursing 20, no. 24 (2021): 2.

[11] Yukari Fujimoto, “Women in ‘Naruto,’ Women Reading ‘Naruto,’” in Manga’s Cultural Crossroads, ed. Jaqueline Berndt and Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013), 176.

[12] “Hinata Hyūga,” Fandom, accessed May 22, 2023,ūga.

[13] Shiokawa, “Cute but Deadly,” 101.

[14] Eugenia Kaw, “Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian American Women and Cosmetic Surgery,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 7, no. 1 (March 1993): 78.

[15] “Tsunade,” Fandom, accessed May 22, 2023,

[16] “Tsunade,” Fandom, accessed May 22, 2023,

[17] Sharon Tran, “Kawaii Asian Girls Save the Day!”, 19.

[18] Fujimoto, “Women in ‘Naruto,’” 176.

[19] Fujimoto, “Women in ‘Naruto,’” 176.

[20] Koichi Iwabuchi, “How ‘Japanese’ Is Pokemon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 53.