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I wrote and presented it about eight months before I began my serious (that is, "funded") fieldwork, so there are some things I would change if I were rewriting this paper now. Still, it captures a couple of basic orientations of mine that have not changed: 1) a rejection of psychological analysis, on the grounds that it creates a dichotomy between the "analyzed" subjects and the "analyzing" scholar that I think is baloney; and 2) a conviction that no amount of clever textual analysis can substitute for actually talking with and observing readers, and becoming a reader oneself.

Unlikely Explorers: Alternative Narratives of Love, Sex, Gender, and Friendship in Japanese "Girls'" Comics

This is a working draft, presented at the New York Conference on Asian Studies, New Paltz, New York, October 16, 1993. Please do not quote from or reproduce it without my permission.
The bracketed numbers refer to the transparencies shown during the presentation.

The foreign visitor's contact with teenage Japanese girls is often limited to sightings on train station platforms and in shopping districts. They can be seen giggling in groups of three or four; school uniforms of black, navy or gray neatly ironed; handbags decorated with cute characters dangling from one arm; hair plainly styled to meet school appearance codes. They present an image of untainted innocence and childlike naivete. Often as not, Japanese themselves are likely to share this image, and it sometimes seems that many of the girls see themselves this way, too—that they even try to cultivate this image.

[1] These same girls can also be seen sitting alone on the train, hunched over this month's five-hundred page issue of Bessatsu Maagaretto ("Special Edition Margaret") or Gekkan Rara ("Monthly LaLa"), two popular shôjo manga, or "girls' comic," magazines. Peeking over the shoulder of one of these girls, you, the outsider (whether foreign or native), are not likely to revise your initial impression on the basis of what you see: fashionably dressed characters gazing into each other's sparkling, saucer-like eyes as flowers float inexplicably in the background. But if you don't have anything to read yourself and keep glancing over long enough, you might come to a curious realization: you can't always tell which characters are male and which are female.

You have just touched the surface of an extraordinary phenomenon so taken for granted by shôjo manga readers that most seem entirely oblivious to it, and so contrary to the expectations of non-readers that they would never imagine such a thing. But intellectual fans of Japanese shôjo manga are very much aware of what I call "sexual ambiguity" in this graphic-textual medium created by and for girls and women. Androgynous characters are only the most immediately visible expression of this phenomenon. Reading through any month's issues of the top shôjo manga magazines, you are certain also to encounter generous amounts of cross-dressing and homosexuality, and perhaps some transsexuality or hermaphroditism, as well. This sexual ambiguity is by no means the central theme of shôjo manga (which is undeniably heterosexual romance, and interpersonal relations in the broadest sense), but it even appears, for no compelling reason, as a secondary or tertiary theme or subplot in many stories whose primary theme is entirely different. It is easy to see why most readers take it for granted.


In order to make some sense of shôjo manga, it is necessary to first frame them within the larger context of manga in general and Japanese society as a whole; in the U.S. there is no counterpart whatsoever to this medium, so it may seem to an American listener that I'm making much ado about a phenomenon of little consequence. In the U.S., comic books are stories of the super-powered brawling of muscular men in tights, and are read mostly by young boys and a small but dedicated following of adult men. Only a handful of women and girls read comic books, and a cursory examination of a representative sample of comic books reveals why this is the case: American comics are decidedly masculinist, despite the efforts of some artists and publishers to bring "women's lib" into the world of the X-Men (who are not all men), Batman, and all the other Something-Or-Another-Men. The fundamental premise of the American comic book—superheroes foiling the evil plans of supervillains by means of physical force—is hardly conducive to feminist revision, or even feminine revision.

Contrast this with Japan, where one-third of all publications are some form of manga; where the best selling manga magazine—which is far and away the best selling magazine of any kind in Japan—claims a circulation of over six million; where about a third of Japanese in their thirties, half of those in their twenties, and nearly seventy percent of those between sixteen and nineteen years of age say they like manga; where about forty percent of all Japanese sixteen or older read manga regularly; and where subject matter runs the gamut from history and science fiction to gourmet cooking and golf.

A Japanese manga story is the creation of one, occasionally two artists, and first appears in serial form in a manga magazine, alongside the stories of a dozen or so other artists. Episodes of an individual story are periodically collected and printed in paperback, with a single title running anywhere from a dozen pages to dozens of volumes. Unlike American comic book titles, such as Batman, most manga stories have a preplanned plot and foreseeable conclusion.

What distinguishes shôjo manga from the popular shônen, or "boys'," genre of manga, is an emphasis on relationships over action. Even shôjo manga that take the form of science fiction, fantasy or historical pieces are primarily concerned with the complexities of interpersonal relations, romantic and otherwise.

[2] Until the late 1960's, shôjo manga were written almost exclusively by men, for a market of pre-teen girls. At the dawn of the 1970's, however, a gender revolution swept through the industry. A new generation of young women artists moved in and took over, creating stories and characters far more appealing to girls than the sappy, simple-minded romances men had been writing. This group of artists came to be known collectively as the Nijuuyo-nen Gumi, or "49-ers," because so many were born in 1949, or the 24th year of the Showa Era.

It was the Nijuuyo-nen Gumi that developed sexual ambiguity as one of the primary concerns of shôjo manga, [3] although the subject had been first suggested by the great founding father of Japan's manga, TEZUKA Osamu, in a shôjo manga titled Ribon no kishi, or "Knight of the Ribbon."

The work that set off the shôjo manga boom in 1972, [4] IKEDA Riyoko's Berusaiyu no bara ("The Rose of Versailles") set the tone by taking as its main character a woman who was raised to behave and dress as a man. This character, a captain in the French army, draws the romantic interest both of a man who is a subordinate in the unit she commands and Marie Antoinette, whose personal bodyguard she has been made.

[5] In 1974, HAGIO Moto wrote Tooma no shinzou, "The Heart of Thomas," a story of love between two boys in a vaguely European, vaguely early 20th century boys boarding school. The story begins with the suicide of fourteen year-old Thomas, whose love for an older boy, Yuri, has gone unrequited. In his final love letter to Yuri, Thomas writes:

To Yuri, one last time, This is my love. This is the sound of my heart. Surely you must understand.

On the same day that the news of Thomas' death reaches the boys' school, a new student appears, Eric, who is almost identical to Thomas. Eric becomes the vehicle through which Yuri overcomes his guilt and grief. In the end we discover that Yuri had in fact been in love with Thomas, but felt that he was unworthy of Thomas' love because Yuri had apparently been gang-raped by a group of older boys when he was an underclassman. Yuri resolves this problem, which would seem to have been made unresolvable by Thomas' suicide, by entering the priesthood. In the Japanese cosmology, all individuals become a part of the Buddha or kami (the Japanese word for a deity) when they die. By "marrying God," then, Yuri is in fact consummating his love for the departed Thomas.

In 1976, TAKEMIYA Keiko shocked Japan and raised a storm of controversy by dealing explicitly with what Hagio had only implied: sexual relations between boys. Wasting no time, she went straight to the heart of the matter with this now famous first scene from Kaze to ki no uta, "The Song of the Wind and the Trees." [6] This story, too, is set in a European boys school, in Provence, France, in 1880, and deals with a torrid romance between the pure-hearted Serge and the cold-blooded Gilbert. Gilbert is the school prostitute, who lets the decadent older boys have their way with him for a price. The important theme in this story, which is typical of stories written in the late seventies, is that, while pure love between boys (whether or not it is expressed physically) is a beautiful thing, sex for the sake of lust is something dirty, usually initiated by "older boys." The difference, then, between same-sex love and "sodomy," then, is a mental, emotional one. Serge's challenge is to make Gilbert realize this.

The successors of the Nijuuyo-nen Gumi have continued to deal with themes of sexual ambiguity, though the scale of the stories has become less mythic and more grounded in everyday reality. [7] Works such as AKISATO Wakuni's Nemureru mori no binan ("The Sleeping Male Beauty") portray gay life as it is actually practiced and even take on the issue of A.I.D.S.

The most fascinating manifestation of sexual ambiguity in contemporary shôjo manga, however, is found not in the commercial magazines but in dôjinshi, manga created and published by amateur artists at their own expense and sold at komikku maaketto ("comic markets"). The genre of dôjinshi I am speaking of is generally known as Captain Tsubasa. [8]Captain Tsubasa is the name of a long-running commercial boys' manga about high school soccer. The genre of the same name originated when female fans of Captain Tsubasa took the two main characters, both boys, and created their own stories, but with a twist:[9] the two boys are lovers. The characters have become unrecognizable, as you can see, and the genre has grown to include spinoffs of other commercial manga as well as original stories, but always with two boys or young men portrayed as lovers. The largest of these comic markets draw as many as two-hundred thousand fans and thousands of artists, the vast majority of whom are girls and young women in their teens and twenties. This summer I attended a comic market in Osaka which drew several tens of thousands of participants from all over the Kansai area and even from the Tokyo area. At this market, as at others, the Captain Tsubasa genre was by far the largest represented.

What's It All About?

I don't want to give the impression that male homosexuality is the primary manifestation of the kind of sexual ambiguity I am discussing, which would be androgyny in the broadest sense. It is remarkable, though, how comparatively rare lesbianism is in these manga. In the few instances I have encountered, it is never a main character who is a lesbian but rather a minor character. The lesbian is usually portrayed as a tragic and in some ways dangerous character. She is often wily and scheming, trying to seduce some innocent young girl. As with male homosexuality, it is perfectly acceptable for a young girl to develop a "crush" on an older girl in shôjo manga stories, but the portrayal of romantic love between women is far less sympathetic than that of love between men.

This is one of the fascinating problems these manga pose. Why would young girls be so interested in reading about male/male love, but not female/female love? But of course the larger question is simply, What is this sexual ambiguity all about? Why does it appeal so strongly to women and girls of the postwar generations? Why this phenomenon and not another? Why in Japan but not elsewhere?

There are two popular explanations of the sexual ambiguity that appears in shôjo manga. The first is the notion that cross-dressing in shôjo manga allows the reader to experience vicariously male privileges that are denied them as women. This explanation is essentially political, but it is also superficial. It may have made sense to some readers in the early seventies, when so many stories seemed to involve a main female character who is raised, for whatever reason, as a male, wearing male clothes and engaging in male activities. But how, then, are we to account for the fact that, in general, all characters, male and female, tend to be feminized in shôjo manga? And, of course, this answer does not even address the homosexuality that is so common. Another popular interpretation of these stories is that androgynous characters are not really bisexual (in the sense of having two sexualities) but rather are asexual. Young girls, this theory suggests, are afraid of sex and want to distance themselves from it, so the heroes in their manga must be distanced from it, too. But whether or not young girls fear sexuality, it cannot be denied that it is rampant in the manga they read. In order to conclude that shôjo manga characters are asexual, you must turn a blind eye to the profound sexuality that is undeniably there. I would suggest, on the contrary, that young girls do fear sexuality, but are at the same time fascinated by it and want to confront it.

I've been studying shôjo manga since 1988, and over time developed something of a ten tative theory of the theme of sexual ambiguity, which goes as follows:

As I said at the beginning of my paper, Japanese girls seem on the surface to be "immature" in comparison to American girls of the same age. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to discover that Japanese adolescent girls are very sexually active—more so, in fact, than are boys . (Apparently, they must be having sex with older boys and men.) But girls do not flaunt this fact. They seem to be very ambivalent about it.

Perhaps, then, shôjo manga provide a safe, female-dominated world in which to explore a broad range of possible human sexuality. Same-sex love between male characters is in a sense ideal for three reasons. First, it allows readers to project unvoiced feelings onto the male Other. Interestingly enough, when Toma no shinzo was made into a live-action movie, all the parts of the boys were played by girls. This made explicit what I had felt all along: that Thomas and Yuri and Eric and all their friends are actually girls in drag, exploring same-sex feelings without striking to close to home. Homosexuality in shôjo manga also exposes girls to a non-threatening male sexuality. As Japanese critic and novelist HASHIMOTO Osamu (who incidentally is gay) has pointed out in a book of shôjo manga criticism, a gay male, unlike a heterosexual male or a lesbian, poses no threat to a girl who is not yet comfortable with her own sexuality. A third purpose of same-sex love between male characters is to help girls try to make of sense of the mysterious male animal by casting him in terms that she can understand, by feminizing him and making him more interested in relationships than in, say, soccer.

Perhaps what we are seeing in shôjo manga, then, is an ongoing effort on the part of readers (and perhaps artists, too) to come to grips with a blossoming sexuality that has profound implications for their lives beyond the narrow arena of reproduction. That these manga continue to be popular with adult women readers, and even attract a number of male readers, speaks to the fact that the questions they pose about human sexuality and gender continue to puzzle us even as adults.

This was my basic formulation, but I was never quite satisfied with it. I always felt there must be some perfect answer, some key that would unlock all the mysteries of shôjo manga, a key that had eluded me but that I would uncover in time. This summer, however, when I was doing preliminary dissertation research in Kobe, Japan, I had an experience that might be described as an anti-epiphany. It started innocently enough when I began a conversation with an employee at a manga shop where I was doing research. I knew she was a fan of gay male manga of the Captain Tsubasa variety, and I showed her an essay by shôjo manga artist Takemiya Keiko which suggested that the Japanese woman's fascination with gay male love was a first step towards true feminism.

The manga shop employee, Satoh-san, began commenting on the theory, voicing both agreement and reservation. Another young woman who works in the shop, Kawachi-san, joined the conversation. The conversation began to move in directions I hadn't anticipated, and I brought out my notebook and began scribbling. Both agreed with Takemiya that many women sometimes fantasized about being men. Satoh-san also suggested that it was precisely because a woman could never become a man that she was fascinated by the prospect. One suggested that girls would prefer to see a boy they loved from a distance with another boy than taken by another girl. It was an expression of a wish to avoid adult reality. Soon the two women were discussing almost every conceivable issue related to gender and sexuality, from menstruation to rape. Both said they are turned off by manifestations of physical maturity in men, such as body and facial hair. It's unfair that men don't have to endure the biological burdens that women do. Women take pleasure in seeing men suffer by being in a relationship that society refuses to accept. But both Satoh-san and Kawachi-san expressed distaste at the idea of actual homosexuality, particularly between women. I finally recalled that I had my tape recorder in my bag and quickly turned it on, but i t was too late. The conversation died out, the women returned to work. I was left with a great deal to think about. I was overwhelmed.

The anti-epiphany I experienced that day made me realize that the search-for-the-golden-key approach had been all wrong; that the phenomenon I was looking at was one of enormous complexity that resisted easy formulations. There are different reasons that different Japanese are attracted to sexual ambiguity in shôjo manga, yet there is at the same time undeniably some thing there. Something in Tezuka's Ribon no kishi must have struck a chord in those girls who would later become the Nijuuyo-nen Gumi, something they took up in there own work and developed in different directions, Hagio in hers, Takemiya in hers, and other artists, such as OHSHIMA Yumiko and YAMAGISHI Ryoko, in yet different directions. The themes they developed have been taken up and reinterpreted by a new generation of artists. And Japanese girls and women—and a handful of men, as well—continue to respond.

At this point I feel that even if a hypothetical golden key were offered to me, I might refuse it. I might refuse it for fear of dispelling whatever magic there is that makes this medium so powerful and compelling to so many shôjo manga readers—myself amongst them.

Images copyright: [1] Hakusensha, [2] ISHINOMORI Shohtaroh, [3] TEZUKA Productions, [4] IKEDA Riyoko, [5] HAGIO Moto, [6] TAKEMIYA Keiko, [7] AKISATO Wakuni.

©Matt Thorn 2004

Matt Thorn ()
Cultural Anthropologist
Associate Professor
Faculty of Manga
School of Manga Production
Kyoto Seika University