MANGA & QUEER CULTURE-
A PERFECT MATCH?
Closing my eyes, I focus on the booming, crackling voice heard over the sound systems which had been strategically placed around Town Hall. Surging waves of cheers and applause heavily laced every remark made by opposition leader Bill Shorten, pre-empting the reaction of his words with a slight raise in his tone.
“All I see is a community filled with love and support for one another…” he exclaims, his words cradling the crowd within the temporary auditorium we have created.
Eyes open, I am overcome by a symphony of colour, as placards printed with ‘Love is Love’ and ‘Vote Yes’ obstruct my view of the stage.
I had been standing at the station for no more than 10 minutes when the train came bounding seamlessly towards us on the tracks. Headphones in, blasting a Spotify playlist entitled ‘Love is Love’, I was more than ready to engage with the rally occurring in a few hours’ time. More and more people arrived just in time for the train doors to open, donned with rainbow flags, shirts and faces.
The symbol of the queer community was being worn so proudly and unapologetically, which solidified both my own resolve and excitement for the rally.
Leading up to the rally, I naturally ease my overwhelming anticipation by engaging with queer theory and representation.
I remember reading a HRC report titled ‘The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered Down- LGBT Bullying and Exclusion in Japanese Schools.’
The opening narrative read as follows:
“In the world there are some weird people,” my high school health teacher said to introduce the lesson. Then she said sex between boys was the main cause of AIDS so we should stay away from homosexuals. That was the only time I heard about LGBT people from a teacher—except when I overheard them making gay jokes.
–Sachi N., 20, Nagoya, November 2015
Caught up in the cacophony of political debates, and social battles, I was completely by my own privilege. In a country where we are campaigning for marriage equality, at least we have the representation to provide space for a campaign.
Completely at a loss as to how Japanese society engages with queer culture, I took to google to find out. As someone who is a proponent of equality and representation, I was upset as to how little I knew about this side of the world. Enthralled by the litany of online sources on the topic, I took notice of a familiar, recurring word; manga.
But if manga were a destination, it would be the north pole and I would be the south. I knew nothing, and that only furthered my curiosity.
For those who are asking similar questions I did, manga are essentially Japanese comics which have their own specific drawing style. Manga lends itself to a variety of topics from historical narratives, fantasy, and superheroes. Although manga has a very specific and unique style, it is not so much a genre as it is a format.
Japanese youth can find themselves seriously lacking in accessible information on LGBT issues, so they turn to alternative, escapist, fantasy literature to enter a world where queer people exist openly. Both manga and its animated version, anime, are places where transgressive behaviour is allowed or lauded and they’ve long been places where gay love stories are portrayed.
Apt examples of which are Wandering Son (2002) and Bokura no Hentai (2012).
The similarities between the two were endless- manga form, tackled concepts regarding trans* identity in Japan, and completely foreign to me.
Although both address similar topics regarding trans* identity, their execution varying drastically.
Wandering Son, due to my own perceptions regarding trans* identity, was read with intense contempt. This reaction aptly reveals the way in which my own cultural framework influenced the way I viewed the text. Positioning the leading protagonist as a social oddity, with no real desire to embrace their identity, the manga further perpetuates discriminatory ideologies still present within Japanese society. Opposed to viewing the story as the starting point for queer representation on an evolutionary timeline regarding the acceptance of these identities, I viewed it as highly repressive contrast to what I am accustomed to in my own cultural space. Cultural signs that i have been routinely exposed to throughout my life have promoted this viewpoint. Similar to this experienced epiphany, Ellis prompts an examination into the way in which other people of the culture under study also experience epiphanies. With this knowledge, coupled with my own understanding of textual influences, it further consolidates my discontent toward the text. However, Bokura No Henati proved itself to be a stark contrast. Painting a narrative of inclusivity, pride and cultural support. Reading Bokura No Hentai directly after Wandering Son however heightened my affinity for the latter text, due to the fact that it aligned more consistently to the social codes that I am used to, as well as my own moral compass.
Growing up, I was never introduced to comic book culture. The bridge between comics and manga was not all too long, but I had never accessed either side. The images, text, composition and flow were so unlike any book that i have ever read that at times I was forced to pause as i decided which text bubble I were to read next. If my initial motivation were to have not taken place, it would be safe to say that i would have never interacted with the medium.
However, there’s no denying the enormous popularity of manga – an industry valued at $5 billion in annual Japanese sales. The fact that it’s read widely at every level of Japanese society and that people have respect for their manga heroes makes it a really effective vehicle for delivering positive messages and giving LGBT issues substance and respect. In fact, manga and anime provide such accessible media for young people to explore an alternative world free of society’s prejudices that the Human Rights Watch has created its own manga series.
Over the past decade, manga, along with other quintessential elements of Japanese pop culture, have had a souring increase in popularity within the western world. Reflecting back on my own upbringing, what once was considered a niche source of entertainment for very few children, is now being used for discussion on pervasive social issues, as well as within academic research. This overwhelming increase in recognition and application has led to a wider interest in Japanese culture through the apt appropriation of these cultural materials as a source of poignant socio-cultural information. Manga has always presented itself as something that I am curious about, but I lacked both the urgency and connection to the medium to pursue this curiosity further.
What’s interesting to me is the way in which constructing my narrative, for the purpose of discussing my initial interaction with manga, prompted epiphanies regarding the topic. Through following Ellis et al’s suggested narrative methodology in order to ‘bring readers into the scene – particularly into thoughts, emotions, and actions’ provoked an awareness of occurrences and intricacies which heavily influenced my motivation on the topic.
My first epiphany was with regard to my own privilege. Although the concept of privilege, and its function within society, is highly systemic, it is also exceedingly relative to the country in question. Japanese culture operates not only culturally different to Australia, but also socially on a lot of issues. Due to these socio-cultural biases and my lack of interaction with manga, I came to view manga as a revolutionary tool before seeing it as an entertainment medium.
The history of Japan is completely separate from what we know as the West. Its evolution regarding distinctive philosophies, socio-cultural structures and religious authority, understandably built Japan into the country it is today. Although there is no law against homosexuality within Japan, there is little discussion of LGBT issues at all. Topics and representations of homosexuality are frequently kept silent, and gay rights, including marriage, receives very little political discussion. This poses itself as a stark contrast to my own experiences within Australia, and this knowledge has prompted me to view Japanese LGBTQ+ culture as repressed and systemically discriminated against.