Reverse harem has been garnering a lot of questions in many industries, but the definition changes slightly on occasion. It is an unusual term, but this article series will go into the origin, and the expectations from an audience in different types of media.
Where does the Reverse Harem term come from?
The word harem derives from the Japanese ハーレムもの or harumumono and it literally just means a love triangle or polygamous type relationship where a single person is getting attention from multiple people. Unlike a love triangle, where there are usually two people clamoring for a single person’s affection, the number of people can sometimes be three or more.
However, it is important to note that sometimes in anime or manga, a harumumono can often be just two love interests for the main character, while other supporting potential love interests are usually sweet but are completely just friends only. Those additional sweet friend interests are still giving attention to the main character, in a few very subtle romantic moments that pretty much get glossed over later.
There are actually several different types of harems. For example, when a girl (yuri) or a guy (hetero) is getting attention from a group of women, this is called a ‘male harem’ or sometimes people call it seraglios, which is a Turkish term meaning the place (usually apartments) where a man keeps his wives or concubines.
When a male (yaoi) or female (hetero) is the center of attention for a group of males, this is usually called male harem, reverse harem, or sometimes 逆ハーレム or gyaku hāremu. Gyaku translates to reverse or upside down.
It is important to note that even in a hetero or even a yaoi story, often there is also a female(s) in the harem who is also after the attention of the main character, although at times this person might just be a friend. There could be some hints that this person is actually romantically attracted to the central character. The same could be true for a seraglios or harem only with a male(s) being around. There may also be a trans-male or trans-female character in either of the types of harems. In some cases, the romantic options fall in love with or are in love with each other. (Example: The twins in the anime and manga series Ouran High School Host Club.) Despite this other relationship, those characters still spend a lot of attention on the main character.
What does a reverse harem story look like?
When it comes to anime and manga, the variations are numerous, but often enough, a male or female character acts as the center of the story. Sometimes the main character has a history of trouble or sometimes the main character is leading a very normal life but is suddenly thrust into unusual circumstances.
At the core of the story, there is a reason why all these other males are focusing on this one central character, a reason for all of them to stay together. The relationship between the central character and the guys usually develop because they are together for quite a while and they just naturally develop feelings — often in the very subtle Japanese standard of romance.
Is a relationship like this typical in Japan?
A lot of this make sense when understanding the Japanese when it comes to relationships. Jealousy is severely suppressed in the culture, and a girl or guy could go out repeatedly with others until she’s in a committed relationship. However, even in a committed relationship, even when married, it isn’t totally uncommon for a man or woman to go out with friends, both male and female. A partner won’t condemn or deny their partner the ability to do what they want.
While cheating is never really acceptable on the forefront, showing jealousy over a girlfriend or wife who happens to be out with another partner, even overnight, is simply not shown. This is a very, very generalization of the culture and doesn’t depict individuals in any way. If a woman or man does catch their partner in the act or is just unhappy with the lack of attention, they can and will break up with a person or asks for a divorce — usually quietly and without drawing attention to it.
While polyamory agreements like in western societies aren’t really discussed (although it sometimes rarely happens), the culture dictates one to turn a blind eye. This gets way more complicated in the culture, but for simplicity, showing jealousy just isn’t cool. So a man showing up with his wife at a party may run into other men or women openly flirting with his wife, and he may not say anything about it or he may even encourage it — in the very polite Japanese way.
However, to understand the stories, it is also important to understand the very huge separation of ‘fantasy’ versus ‘reality’ when it comes to fiction in Japan. Japan is known in the west to be ‘pretty out there’ when it comes to the types of themes in their worlds (think tentacle monsters having sex with women).
This is because Japanese have a firm grasp of ‘this is fiction’. They don’t really believe in a story or anime or movie reflecting real life desires. It’s just…fiction. It’s just fantasy. They are completely separate from reality. No one is hurt when it is ink on a page, so going wild with thoughts or ideas is very much a thing. So just because you see it in anime, it doesn’t really mean there are people doing that in Japan. They could see poly relationships in the same way as they see tentacle monsters or vampires, it is just fantasy and doesn’t necessarily relate to real life.
Back on track: What happens at the end of reverse harem stories?
While this may change regarding anime and manga, the majority of stories usually end up with the main character either voluntarily or through unusual circumstances (other characters move on, they die, etc.) picking a final person to commit to.
This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the story is open ended and you get a sense of they could be together in a happily ever after sort of way. Sometimes the main character picks one, but the other characters are still around her a lot, still flirting.
This is the basis for many, many anime, manga and other media within Japan, and also expanding into Chinese, Korean and other markets globally. The style hasn’t translated too often into western mainstream markets except in some rare instances, although it is gaining popularity in the fiction book market. But more about that in the next article: Reverse Harem in Western Fiction.