When I talk to other school librarians about manga and anime, many of them voice a similar concern: the manga they see has horrible treatment of women. These are not invalid concerns, especially as school librarians are working to make their collections more inclusive and affirming. And when students are requesting series that depict sexual harassment and assault as comedic occurrences (I’m looking at you, Seven Deadly Sins), or at the very least, series which treat women solely as sexual or romantic beings, I can’t blame my colleagues for their hesitation.
That said, there’s a lot to unpack with this debate. There are elements of Japanese society that are inherently different from American society. Many school librarians also know nothing of the distinctions between genres of manga, or have only heard of what’s most popular among their patrons. Manga is often seen as the way to get boys reading, and so masculine titles tend to be extremely popular for purchasing. What I’m going to do is try to unpack these things, piece by piece, to try and provide some context- and maybe show my peers that the stereotypes of shōnen manga are not all there is out there to purchase.
Societal Differences in the Perception of Gender
If we all work from the supposition that gender is a social construct, then perhaps it might be easier to understand that Japan’s constructs are similar and different to Western constructs. Japanese media can come across as being both freer and stricter with gender roles. Here are a few things you need to understand about Japan in relation to women:
- Japan is ranked 110 out of 144 countries on the World Economic Forum’s annual report on gender equality.
- There is only one female member of the Japanese Cabinet.
- As of 2017, only 3.4% of executives in Japan were women.
- The ratio of female-to-male physicians in Japan is 21%.
- Japan has been trying to improve the standing of women in society, but it’s been difficult.
- Japan is only recently starting to think critically about these issues.
Japan has a long history of having a traditional gender balance of labor wherein women are expected to raise children and take care of housekeeping, while men are expected to work. Japanese society generally has a very heavy line down the center in this division, much more so than there currently is in the West. Since 1986, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law has been in place to try and provide more gender equity in the workplace in Japan, but it’s been a struggle. Part of the problem is that there was no penalty for employers who did not adhere to the changes.
Japan, also, has a serious problem with the way it handles and reports sexual harassment and assault. Certain occurrences which Western women consider assault are not necessarily seen as such by Japanese women. In her article, “Shifting attitudes toward sexual violence in Japan”, Masami Ito describes her experiences:
When I was in junior high school, a young man who lived in the same apartment building flashed me in an elevator, blocking the entrance as he did so.
When I was in college, a middle-aged man cornered me in the box seat on a train and masturbated in front of me.
When I was in my mid-20s, a man pressed himself against me in the aisle of a convenience store and then followed me home. I had to call my father for help that time.
And, of course, I have been groped on trains many, many times.
Until recently, I never considered these incidents to be sexual assaults, nor did I ever view myself as a victim. I told myself that such things happened all the time and I was never physically hurt. I compared my experiences to those of other women and I considered myself lucky.
In Japan, there’s even a word for men who grope women on crowded trains: chikan. Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department reported 1,750 cases of groping on the trains. (I attempted to find figures on this particular crime in NYC from the same year, but was unable to find any exact report of figures.) It’s such a common occurrence, it’s often a plot point in manga. In My Love Story!! the protagonist meets his future girlfriend by stopping a man from groping her.
I want to be clear, and maybe the panels of My Love Story!! do something to show this, that the problems of sexual harassment in Japan are seen as problems by people in the country. There are Japanese feminists and citizens who want things to change. Last year, the BBC released a documentary titled Japan’s Secret Shame, which went into the experiences of three different women who were raped in Japan. It’s not available at the moment, but if you can find a way to see it, it may give insight into the issue if you want to know more.
Shōnen, Shōjo, and So Much More
The complaints I hear the most are in relation to what is known as shōnen manga. Shōnen is geared toward boys between ages 12 and 18. There’s a reason this stuff flies off the shelf with our male-identifying patrons: it’s literally made for them. The longest running series in Japan are shōnen manga, and are household names here in the West (you’ve probably heard of Dragonball Z, I presume). Typically, these are high-action, hyper-masculine stories. And while there are exceptions, such as My Hero Academia, there’s a large history of “fan service” in shōnen. There’s also some pretty big issues with some of the creators of shōnen titles.
For example, the author of Rurouni Kenshin was found with an enormous backlog of child pornography DVDs. Not only did he have this material, he admitted his attraction to young girls. His manga is currently still in publication, after he paid a fine of only ¥200,000 (about $1,800 USD). No, I am not joking.
I don’t want you to come away from this thinking shōnen manga is evil, by the way. What I want is for fellow school librarians to know that what they’re seeing is just a fraction of what manga has to offer. Some shōnen has female protagonists (Yotsuba&! features a mostly female cast with little to no fan service, as its main character is a child). And a lot of women and girls read shōnen.
Shōjo manga is the counterpart to shōnen: manga written for girls between the ages of 12 and 18. Honestly, shōjo can have its own issues. Some titles feature girls whose identities revolve solely around romance or a desire to get married and make babies. Kidnapping and threats of sexual assault can be normal (the idea being that these girls need to be saved by their boyfriends, who frequently are much older than them). There’s a whole slew of manga revolving around schoolgirls having romantic relationships with their teachers. So, I also don’t want you to think that being labeled shōjo makes the content automatically appropriate for students.
I recently reread a manga I loved as a teen, Ayashi no Ceres. It featured multiple rather explicit sex scenes and the main character dropping out of school to have a baby. It was an easy decision to select other series over that one, although I still consider it a classic. I leave it to students to select series with those sort of themes at their own pace through alternate pathways such as the public library, bookstores, or manga apps.
However, I do want to point out that shōjo manga is a category in which feminine fantasy and identity is often at the forefront. And while this is the case, there are many shōjo manga which widely appeal to boys. Titles which spring to mind are Escaflowne and Magic Knight Rayearth.
There are other categories as well: seinan (for adult men), josei (for adult women), kodomo (for children), and gekiga (for adults, with a more “artistic” and “literary” reputation). The differentiation between adults and teens has more to do with the difficulty of the Japanese than the content or target demographic. Gekiga is probably the most “different”, because it strives to be taken more seriously. (I have a plan to talk more in-depth about each category in their own posts).
Look For Women
When purchasing, if you are looking to move away from the pure moe that is popular among certain titles, I’d suggest looking for women who are mangaka. The likelihood that problematic behavior will be present is lower, and honestly, women creators can always use the boost. Series that are beloved by boys are written by women: Fullmetal Alchemist, Inu-Yasha, and Ranma 1/2 are examples (admittedly, the latter two were both written by Takahashi Rumiko).
Note: I kept this fairly pared down, so if you’d like to know more or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to comment. If you would like me to go more in depth on any topic, please let me know, and I will do an expansion in a future blog.