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Beyond Japan the term is used to describe a commonly pornographic genre of computer games, comics and animations, which includes characters that show both primary sexual characteristics. In today's language it refers almost exclusively to characters who have an overall feminine appearance. In that case the term is also often abbreviated as futa(s), which is occasionally also used as a generalized term for the works itself.
The Japanese folk religion created diverse fantasies related to sexual characteristics. Traditional vocal pieces that date back hundreds of years deliver rough evidence that a change of gender was not ruled out and that the representation of the gender was used to worship deities – like the Dōsojin which sometimes had ambiguous gender, being neither male nor female. As a side note Leupp mentions the origins might even reach back to the origins of buddhism, since the deities would not necessarily have a fixed or determinable gender. Likewise spread the belief that some persons could change their gender depending on the moon phase. This coined the term hangetsu (半月), which can be literally translated as ′half month′ or ′half moon′, which was used describe such beings. It is assumed that traditional clothing, which made it more difficult to distinguish men from women like in other cultures, might have had an influence on this development. To restrict women from accessing prohibited areas and to avoid smuggling by hiding items in the belt bag guard posts were assigned to perform body checks. In historic records it can be seen that guards liked to joke about this matter quite frequently, resulting in various stories and even poems. If anatomical anomalies, like clitoromegaly or sexual maldevelopment, lead to these assumptions remains an open question.
At the end of the heian period (from the 12th to 14th centuries) dances from Shirabyōshi (白拍子) were quite popular. These shows were performed by men dressed as women performing traditional dances and served to amuse the imperial court. After the end of the Battle of Sekigahara at the beginning of the 16th century the population has seen the lifestyle of military as growingly sloppy and described it as a kind of effeminacy. This lead to the point where labeling someone as feminine was equal to an insult or discrimination.
Until 1644, when Japanese onnagata actors were required to adopt male hairstyles regardless of the gender they were portraying, actors playing characters like female warriors capitalised on the interest in the futanari quality, which was common in both samurai and commoner society.
There is a specific futanari genre within hentai (pornographic anime or manga related media), which depicts hermaphrodite characters. Inside the Japanese language futanari originally referred to any character or person that possessed both masculine and feminine traits. As the genre got more popular in the '90s it is now usually used to name the genre, to define the characters and to refer to works that depict hermaphrodite characters. Specifically, women with both male and female genitals. Inside the English language they are also referred to as shemale, despite the fact that this term is technically inaccurate, is not of Japanese origin and is often seen as vulgar. While the English speaking community adopted the more polite term futanari (or short futa [ふた]), the Japanese community adopted the English-derived term newhalf (ニューハーフ), with "futanari" referring to hermaphrodites and "newhalf" referring to women with only male genitals.
Futanari manga became popular in the 1990s and quickly became a pervasive part of the industry, cross-pollinating with multiple genres. Toshiki Yui's Hot Tails has been described as the best known example of the genre in the West.
In anime aimed at a broad audience, the gender bender or cross-dressing storylines have always been popular. Popular examples include anime such as Ranma ½, Kampfer and Futaba-Kun Change! (in which the main character changes from male to female) and I My Me! Strawberry Eggs (which takes on a more cross-dressing theme).