The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild brings many changes to the franchise. The dark themes of the game, while not exactly a change, certainly stand out. Ruins are everywhere and people are relegated to small settlements. Overlooking these settlements and ruins are shrines. Deep inside these strange relics of technology long lost, past lethal trials and puzzles, you will find a strange sight for the Legend of Zelda: mummies.
Well, they aren’t exactly strange. Mummies appear throughout the series, but these mummies are strange because they aren’t enemies–they are failed protectors. You’ll find them enshrined behind a barrier and wearing the garb of Sheikah clerics. As a reward for clearing the trials, they offer you a spirit orb, the manifestation of their spiritual power. What’s more, you’ll see these mummies wait in various meditative poses straight out of Buddhist texts. It’s unusual for the Legend of Zelda to show such distinct religious elements. You’ll see hints, like the shield emblem from the original Legend of Zelda, but you don’t usually see a distinct religious practice. The mummies you see are based on reality: sokushinbutsu.
Those Who Want to Die for Others
A Chinese sokushinbutsu believed to be Liuquan, the master of the Chinese Meditation School who died around the year 1100 Image Source
Sokushinbutsu or “Buddhas in Their Very Body” aren’t considered mummies by their worshipers. Mummies are made by preserving the body after death, but these monks aren’t considered dead by followers. Rather, their spirits are preserved in their bodies in a state of deep meditation (Clements, 2016).
Would-be sokushinbutsu follow a path set by the founder of the Shingon tradition, Kukai. He believed it was possible to attain Buddhahood in the believer’s current body instead of some future incarnation as other schools believe. For his part, Kukai is said to be eternally meditating somewhere at Mt. Koya. In fact, the tradition closely associates with mountains including Mt. Yudono, Mt. Haguro, and Mt. Gassan. The belief led monks to practice harsh austerities such as fasting and reciting sutras under icy waterfalls and, for some, self-mummification.
Why would anyone want to mummify themselves? Well, it’s believed sokushinbutsu have a strong motivation to help people in need. They freely offer their powers to save people from problems that range from starvation to taxes. Sokushinbutsu are rare, which adds to their mystique and powers. About 21 sokushinbutsu are found in Northern Japan, and we know of 9 more from historical records. The oldest dates to 1683 and the most recent dates to 1903. This monk was enshrined only after World War II (Clements, 2016). The desire to help people in their suffering drove a few men (only men can become sokushinbutsu) to undergo the process.
Sokushinbutsu are found in China as well. A Chinese Buddhist statue contains the remains believed to be of Liuquan, the master of the Chinese Meditation School who died around the year 1100. We don’t know for certain if he mummified himself, but researchers suspect he went through the process. According to Vincent van Vilsteren, a museum curator (Winter, 2015; Self-made Mummy, 2015):
“We suspect that for the first 200 years, the mummy was exposed and worshiped in a Buddhist temple in China. Only in the 14th century did they do all the work to transform it into a nice statue.”
How to Mummify Yourself
Back in Japan, the self-mummification process builds from the already ascetic diet of Shingon monks. Monks who want to become sokushinbutsu observed a strict diet that forbids meat, alcohol, rice, wheat, soybeans, adzuki beans, black sesame seeds, barnyard grass (maybe backyard grass is okay?), millet, foxtail millet, buckwheat, and corn. They usually ate nuts, roots, and pine bark. The diet made sure the monk didn’t have body fat to decay. Some monks ate bark and sap from the tree used to make lacquer.
They would also seclude themselves in the mountain in 1,000 day intervals. Some for as long as 4,000 days or just shy of 11 years. Cold winters and daily cold water meditation practices combined with being forbidden to seek medical help killed many would-be sokushinbutsu before they could reach their goals. After this period ended, they would start the mummification process–such as drinking tea poisonous enough to deter maggots (Winters, 2015). The process ended with being buried alive with only a tube to allow them to breath. They would then meditate until starvation claimed them.
Then, 3 years and 3 months later, people exhumed the new sokushinbutsu, dressed him in clerical robes, and enshrined him. The Shingon tradition believes these monks will remain in deep mediation until Maitreya, the Future Buddha, descends from Tusita Heaven in the distant future (Clements, 2016). Maitreya is thought to come after the dharma (the path to compassion/enlightenment) is forgotten in the future and succeed Śākyamuni as the Buddha (the current Buddha).
Failure and Loneliness in Breath of the Wild
The mummies we find in Breath of the Wild‘s shrines pull from this tradition. These monks went into the shrines to meditate and await the coming of the Hero, becoming sokushinbutsu in the process. Tragically, they could do nothing to protect the people outside the shrines from the destruction that befell them. Throughout Breath of the Wild, you’ll see people seeking out the shrines–some looking for blessings or help. But the eternals inside could do nothing.
Now, I’ve seen people complain about how empty the world of Breath of the Wild is (it is mostly wilderness, after all). But the landscape acts as a storytelling method. That emptiness, the loneliness, speaks to the destruction and suffering that happened. The shrines housing the powerless sokushinbutsu add to this story. Throughout the game, you encounter people who have accepted their helplessness and the brutal life they live. You see people attacked outside the shrines and scattered settlements. Breath of the Wild reveals what happens when heroes fail.
The use of sokushinbutsu speaks of the level of desperation and fear within Breath of the Wild. Over 120 people willingly mummified themselves in order to await the hero. That means far more failed in the attempt and died in the process. What’s more, they did this 10,000 years before events in Breath of the Wild. Yet, in the end their sacrifice turned out to be in vain. When Ganon arrived, they could do nothing to stop him from murdering the populace.
The theme of loneliness runs deep through Breath of the Wild. The story even centers on on it, and how the hero can’t succeed alone. Sokushinbutsu, like many of the other design choices you see throughout the game, emphasizes this theme.
Clements, F. W. (2016). The Buddhas of Mount Yudono: Sacred Self-Mummification in Northern Japan. Expedition, 58(2), 30-34.
Several of you liked the idea of a grab-bag newsletter, so I thought to offer you one. When I write JP articles, I usually leave a lot of neat information in my notebooks. Not all of it is relevant for the articles I write. So I’m going to start dropping this information into a newsletter. The newsletter will be pretty random at times, but I don’t want interesting facts about Japanese culture, otaku culture, and anime to go to waste. Think of them as knowledge leftovers that await you in the refrigerator (only they don’t spoil!). I’ll also yammer a little about anything I found interesting lately or about behind-the-scenes stuff.
As usual, I’ll include citations, and I won’t spam you. You can subscribe below (you’ll receive a notice of your subscription in your inbox). The newsletter is separate from receiving blog updates, so if you signed up for those, you still have to sign up for the newsletter. I’ll experiment with the newsletter’s format for awhile until I find something that works.
Dragonball Z’s Goku provides a good example of an anime role model. Some scoff at the idea of a fictional character being a role model, but in many cases fictional characters make better role models than sports stars. It doesn’t matter if the character doesn’t exist in reality. If anything, a fictional character is even more influential because our minds have to create the character. Animation, prose, and graphic novels involve the audience. They invite us to enter the story in ways live action and standard role models cannot. Imagination takes the character and builds it deep within the mind. This makes fictional role modals like Goku influential. They become a part of our way of thinking.
Goku shares many similarities with Superman. However, Goku is a more identifiable character and a better role model than Superman. Goku must struggle to win and to improve his skills. Just like us. Modern society pushes us to improve. To level up. To get stronger in our various skill sets. Those that do not are eventually left behind in promotions and even employment. As a librarian, I daily see the results of those who didn’t try to get stronger: unemployment, damaged confidence, and a blaming attitude. Most struggle to function in a world of rapid technology change. Goku shows us how to go about the never ending quest to improve.
Optimism. Goku remains optimistic no matter how daunting the challenge. Goku doesn’t doubt he can do it. He only doubts how he will do it.
Faith. Goku has faith in his abilities, in his ability to learn and improve. We sometimes forget we have the capacity to improve with enough work. It takes a lot of faith to believe in ourselves when we face life’s challenges.
Friends. Goku is not a self-made man. Despite the perpetual American lie, no one is self made. It takes a good circle of friends to help us improve our spirits. Goku only improves so far when he trains alone. Only when he seeks help from others can he change his limits. Likewise, without his friends he wouldn’t have the opportunity to do this.
Satisfaction. Modern society encourages us to work hard and consume products in order to climb the social ladder and become happier. Goku is satisfied with the pursuit of improvement. He doesn’t seek happiness through products or through his power level. He seeks challenge to try his spirit, not so he can fill some emptiness inside. Seeking to improve merely so we can make more money is a fool’s errand. Consumption doesn’t satisfy. It dissatisfies. Goku enjoys the small things and the journey of improvement.
Purpose. Goku doesn’t seek power to lord it over others. He wants to try his abilities to decide if he has improved or not. He doesn’t pursue power. He just does his own thing.
Goku is a father. He cares about his family and their safety drives him. He enjoys spending time with his son Gohan and sharing a common interest in the martial arts. Good fathers are involved in their children, but they don’t attempt to force their children in a certain direction. Gohan wanted to learn martial arts. Goku didn’t train him until Gohan expressed that interest (and the story forced Gohan to study).
Goku is loyal to his wife and a generally upstanding guy. Many would claim he is old fashioned. I am a firm believer in so-called old fashioned values. Values of honesty, integrity, stick-to-itness, loyalty, selflessness, balance, and patience. Goku is all of these. He is also communally focused.
Let me stand on the soap box a moment.
American society worships individualism. Individualism is the idea that the self has more value than a community. It pushes the lie of self-reliance and independence. Reality is a communal affair. Self-reliance ignores the many communal factors that shape us. For example, many business owners consider themselves self-reliant and independent. After all, they started a business so they can work for themselves. However, they ignore the societal aspects of their business: roads for customers to travel, a safe environment, running water, and various other infrastructure. No one person can build all of these on their own. Too much individualism rots our sense of reality. No one can be truly self-reliant, unless they are in some survival situation alone in the mountains or on an island, and even then a good portion of the tools they use were made by others.
Goku isn’t a self-made man. He is a product of his culture, his friends, and his enemies. If you look to Goku as a role model, he has helped shape who you are. While he is fictional, he adds to the fabric of your identity just the same as your parents and friends. Like business-owners who take roads and safety for granted, we can be unaware of how stories and characters influence us. Goku can be a role model without our knowledge. The stories we consume change our perspectives. The human body uses everything we eat to build itself. The mind uses every bit of information to build itself. Garbage makes for a poor mind and body. Consuming primarily role models like Goku gives the mind higher quality building materials than consumerist, individualistic messages.
Change the messages you consume, and you can change your perspective.
Who are you role models? What building materials do you consume?
Few Japanese words dominate otaku lingo as the word senpai. Senpai, often mispelled as sempai, sometimes appears more as punctuation to speech than a proper honorific. It also has a distinctive submissive flavor. Senpai (せんぱいor 先輩) is an honorific used to address someone who is superior to you in status. Honorifics are parts of speech used to denote relationship and social status relative to the speaker. English’s closest equivalents include Mr., Ms., Mrs., and Sir/Ma’am. Honorifics attach to the end of the person’s surname (kincaid-sensei). A few stand alone as you see in the famous otaku phrase:
Please notice me, senpai.
The phrase comes in a few variations such as “I hope senpai will notice me.” It refers to the speaker’s desire for a mentor or someone from a higher grade level to admire them or fall in love with them. I can’t point to a specific anime/manga and claim it started the phrase. Rather, the phrase encapsulates a common storyline in romantic anime/manga. In such stories, a character pines after someone in a higher grade (a senpai) who doesn’t show any signs of knowing who the character is or tries to ignore the character. This ranges from romance to seeking friendship.
For many teen otaku, the phrase captures their struggles with relationships and their social awkwardness. The stereotype of the socially backward recluse holds true for some members of the community–unless you count their online socialness. Many of these stereotypical otaku possess great online social abilities and run successful blogs. In any case, the “I hope senpai will notice me” phrase appeals to many who struggle and worry about their social lives. Many of the struggles found in anime and manga, and the ubiquity of the high school setting, mirror the same struggles of fans. The awkwardness of awakening sexuality. The struggle of growing into adult responsibilities. The struggle with learning the dos and don’ts of socialness.
Many introverts identify with the fading-into-the-background aspect of the phrase.I think back to my own high school years and see how my own struggles fall into the scope of the phrase. I wasn’t much of a socialite, but then I’m still not. Social ability differs from social proclivity. While I like to fade into the background (and can’t as a library manager), back in high school it was frustrating to be looked over in everything but my grades. My intelligence became my plea of “Please notice me, senpai.” Looking back, I cringe. I value my privacy and solitude now, but back then it often frustrated me that I couldn’t break out of my shell and be noticed. I didn’t have a particular senpai. I succumbed to the extrovert bias that infects American society. In some ways, introverts in American society struggle. Social America-senpai ignores the need of introverts for recognition and respect for our different nature. “Notice me, senpai” well captures the struggle of many people.
Although honorifics are ancient, the phrase is recent. According to Google Trends, the first blip of searches for the phrase appears in August 2012.
As you can see, interest in the phrase spikes as the otaku community latches onto it. Phrases like this became part of a community’s defining language. Language within a subculture separates those who are in and truly get it from the wannabes. Jargon also expresses sentiments and common experiences efficiently. “Please notice me, senpai.” can be read as a painful plea or as a comedic meme or both, depending on circumstance. But for those not initiated in the otaku culture (I make no claims to being an initiate), the phrase appears alien. The phrase makes fun of popular culture and lets mainstream culture-senpai notice otaku culture. Perhaps not in a positive way, but mainstream culture still notices.
The phrase also has a sexual component. In some cases, the person seeking to be noticed will flaunt themselves using the tired tropes of fan-service: “accidental” peeks being among the most common. While I doubt this happens often within otaku life, the Internet shows this as a part of the phrase. If you search for senpai you’ll see sexualized fan-service poses. This means people have made the connection between the honorific and sexuality. Within anime, a female character will sometimes use her looks as a means to be noticed, so the association is built into its popular foundation. This sexuality is neutral. You’ll see it in heterosexual and gay and lesbian contexts. Anyone of higher social status relative to you can be a senpai. Some stories play on the idea that a senpai has more experience (read:sexual experience) than the protagonist who is sexually innocent.
As for the honorific itself, senpai is half of a male social relationship. Kohai forms the other half. Strangely, Japanese women are not as aware of this social relationship as men are (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2002). The senpai-kohai relationship is a give and relationship. The senpai dominates the kohai who must follow his orders. The senpai’s opinions are absolute, and the senpai’s social standing improves as he gains more followers. As you can tell, the structure originated in feudal Japan, but to a certain degree this continues in the corporate world as well. As for the kohai, he benefits from his senpai’s mentorship, experience, and social standing. Kohai receive jobs, social positions, and emotional support from his senpai. These relationships form some of the most important and lasting relationships between Japanese men (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2000).
Anime glosses over this relationship because of its fixation on high school. Parts of the relationship remain in anime, however. Upper classmates are expected to mentor lower classmates, and lower classmates follow the orders of their senpai as if the orders came from a teacher. Sometimes the lower classmate, the kohei, benefit by associating with a certain popular senpai. Some of the popularity rubs off on them, so to speak. But anime likes to show the senpai-kohei relationship as mostly one-directional. The lower classes serve the upper. It makes for a convenient source for tension within a story as unfair senpai stir resentment that needs to be tamped down, lest social norms be violated.
“I hope senpai notices me” acts on many levels within otaku culture but has little to do with the origins of senpai in feudal Japanese society. Like with most online cultures, the word senpai develops its own set of meanings independent from its purpose as an honorific. While some may view this as a negative, it is how language works.
Sugihara, Y. & Katsurada, E. (2000). Gender-role Personality Traits in Japanese Culture. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 24. 309-318.
Sugihara, Y. & Katsurada, E. (2002). Gender Role Development in Japanese Culture: Diminishing Gender Role Differences in a Contemporary Society. Sex Roles. 47. 443-452.
I don’t normally do promotional posts like this, but it’s tough to keep up with a regular blog writing schedule when posts require a fair amount of research. So think of this post as a way for me to rest while still telling you I have a new book available. I don’t believe in veiling promotional articles in the costume of a regular article, but I still made sure to sprinkle neat information and my experiences researching Japanese tree stories.
The sakura, or cherry tree, is Japan. The tree roots itself deep into Japanese culture. Anime fans are well aware of the symbols of the cherry blossom–how it represents the present, fleeting moment and springtime. However, these scenes from anime reach deep into Japanese literature, all the way back to the Heian period’s Tale of Genji and various folk stories.
The Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel, connects sakura blossoms with high art. The first written accounts of flower viewing parties sketch how the Heian elite spent their time politicking under cherry trees. It wasn’t until the Edo period that the rest of the populace began to enjoy their own cherry blossom viewing festivals. Part of this was because of the growing influence of the merchant class at the time. As merchants grew wealthier, the samurai class felt threatened and confiscated that wealth. They didn’t tax the urban class.
In response, the rich urban class burned their wealth on red-light districts, on geisha, and on public parks. They began to mimic the Heian period sakura viewing parties–only with more booze and rowdiness.
Each of Japan’s three classes of the time–samurai, urban, and farmer–had their own set of sakura stories. Each class reflected the concerns of the class. For example, the samurai focused on honor and family lineage, while the farming class focused on romance. Yes, people and trees fell in love. Or rather, the spirits of trees fell in love with humans.
Tree stories seem to be a bit of an odd topic. I stumbled across Japanese tree stories when I was researching for Come and Sleep: The Folklore of the Japanese Fox. One of the fox stories I found involved the fox turning into a tree to confuse people traveling through a forest. I thought it was a one-off story, but I soon discovered tree spirits could shapeshift too. Western tradition also has a long history of tree spirits, but those stories weren’t as well developed. However, they inspired many modern fantasy creatures such as nymphs and dryads and ents. In Japan, trees didn’t inspire other fantasy creatures, but they married, had children, and even walked. Not to mention, Japan’s association with cherry blossoms became a stereotype.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that we in the West gained access to these stories. I had to do some digging to find good English translations of them and none of those were modern. In fact, I found no collection of stories focused on trees in English. I had the same issue when I dug into kitsune. There was only a single book about it, and that book had been out of print for over 40 years. Which is why I decided to write these short, introductory books about kitsune, tanuki, and trees. I kept them short in order to make them easier to read, and I did my best to avoid using Japanese transliterations too much. I don’t like to slog through scholarly articles loaded with Latin substitutions for archaic Japanese so I decided to keep my books as readable as I could. I also decided to keep the original 1800s grammar intact for the most part. I find it charming, and it helps the stories feel old. But it can be tough to understand at times.
Old stories set the groundwork for stories we have today. In fact, we often see Hollywood and other studios retell them, but sadly, not everyone has access to these stories. Society results from the stories we tell ourselves. They reflect our concerns, which are little changed from past concerns despite the progress of technology. Human problems–social, economic, spiritual–remain the same throughout the ages. Old stories teach us lessons modern stories fail to do with their concern for profit and desire to avoid offending people. Old stories don’t worry about being politically correct and sledgehammer lessons we need to hear but find unsettling. Many stories, for example, take a firm stand against sex before marriage, which has become the norm in our society (of course, the stories focus on women keeping their chastity and not on the men). Research I’ve cited in other articles supports the idea of waiting until marriage, but it’s not a popular stance, nor does it sell.
Likewise, old tree stories speak about individual environmental responsibility. We often look at what government and industry can do, but fail to discuss how we need to change our habits. Tree folklore speaks about how individual habits can hurt the trees around a village, which eventually hurts the village too. But individual responsibility is often lost in our environmental discussions because many see such changes as infringing on their freedom of choice. As Edo period stories show, the consequences of irresponsibility leads to death of loved ones. Strange how stories from the 1600s can still be relevant to current environmental concerns, if on a smaller scale. They even touch on naysayers in the stories.
It’s interesting how centuries-old stories address the same concerns as today. We really haven’t changed all that much. If you want to learn more, check out Under the Cherry Blossoms and Come and Sleep. Both are available in paperback and on Kindle.
Sex is one of the most powerful and controversial words in the United States. People blush and giggle. People wince. It is a taboo subject that sells everything from cars to dollies. Sex is a sin, and it is an obsession in American society. All of this influences how sex is perceived by American manga and anime fans. Japanese aesthetics, sexuality, and gender ideas may seem unnatural to us with our “universal” concepts of sexuality and gender (Comog, 2005). However, our views of sexuality and gender are far from universal. They come from our culture. Anime and manga provides a safe way to explore different sexual perspectives. As you can tell, this discussion isn’t safe for work.
American culture associates sexuality with identity. Traditional Japanese society doesn’t wrap identity and sexuality in the same way. Manga and anime inherited this tradition. For example, in traditional Japanese culture men could have homosexual interests. However, this didn’t override their duty to have a wife and raise a family. Homosexuality was just a small part of who they were instead of being one of the defining pillars of their identity. See this article for references and more information. In the United States, sexuality is a defining part of a person’s identity. Anime and manga explore different sexual ideas because it is only a small part of a character’s identity. Sailor Moon, for an example, contains lesbians, transgender characters (female to male), and cross-dressing characters. However, the story doesn’t play up these proclivities as defining identity markers. They are just a part of the character’s overall personality. This ties back to tradition. Homosexuality was a small part of being a samurai. Likewise, transgender and cross-dressing played a part in kabuki. Kabuki began as an all-female production–women would dress as men–until the Tokugawa government stepped in. The government stipulated kabuki had to be all-male because it was “safer for the viewers and the performers alike.” This meant males would play female roles. Many of these men became sex symbols for samurai men with their blurred homosexual and heterosexual interests (Darlington, 2010). The gender-bending stories we see in manga trace to this tradition.
While Japan doesn’t make sexuality the defining part of a person’s character, it is a factor. It put it simply, Japanese tradition views sex as a part of normal life (Comog, 2005).
Japanese Obscenity Laws and Censorship
Tradition has limits, however. As Japan westernized, it adopted some of the West’s ideas of obscenity. Article 175 of the Criminal Code makes the sale and distribution of obscene material a criminal act. Yet, Japan has a constitutional provision for the freedom of expression. This creates similar tension to what we see in the United States. On one hand, you have the desire for uncensored expression of ideas and views. On the other hand, you have the desire to not see material you consider damaging or offensive.
Japan also has a constitutional principle of public welfare, which includes sexuality morality, as defined by the Supreme Court in two cases from 1957 and 1969. The cases defined public welfare as an idea “shared by an average person of good sense, a sense of modesty and shame.” Sex in Japanese culture, though normal, is considered a private affair. This view, coupled with the definition of public welfare meant obscenity became defined by the artistic merit of a work compared to its level of intended sexual stimulation. Basically, if a manga didn’t intend to sexually arouse someone with a beautifully drawn page, it was safe. But if the artwork fully intended to make you horny, it was smut. In other words, the regulation settled on forbidding explicit portrayals of adult genitals and pubic hair. The side effect was the rise of sexual metaphors–tentacles being the most famous. However, throughout the 1990s, the law allowed nonexplicit, nonsexual depictions of adult genitals (Zanghellini, 2009).
Nothing in the law concerns itself with underage nudity. This led to an over-representation of children or child-like characters in manga and anime. Erotic genres used this as a loophole and adapted the kawaii designs of girl’s comics. Many of these stories are essentially child-porn by American standards. The characters may be adults or of legal age, but they certainly don’t look that way.
In the 1950s and 1960s, female artists took over the girl’s comic genre from male artists. Their new, cute designs and more diverse storylines introduced an association with beauty and cuteness with morality. Protagonists were beautiful and cute. Villains were not (Zanghellini, 2009). Erotic genres took these designs to circumvent censorship. The side effect was the development of the lolita.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government passed a law in 2010 that obligated businesses and residents to recognize materials depicting sexual acts of minors as harmful. The regulation stated such materials prevent children from developing a healthy attitude toward sex. Yukari Fujimoto, a professor of girls manga and gender at Meiji University in Tokyo, claims the opposite. She claims the censorship of sexual material hurts children and teens. It bars them from stories that help them cope with their desires and the realities of sex. She claims exposure to sexual material at an early age reduces the chance of committing sexual crimes. She thinks children should gradually learn about sex and censoring manga would prevent this (Fukada, 2010).
The Benefits of Sex in Manga and Anime
Fujimoto’s argument brings us to the benefits of sexuality as seen in manga and anime. The debates surrounding censorship center on harm. Advocates of censorship desire to control exposure of sexual imagery because they see it as harmful. On the opposite side are those like Fujimoto and those who make profit from the sale of sexual content.
The growth of manga and anime here in the States makes this debate important. From 2002-2004, North American manga sales grew from an estimated $60 million to $135 million. Sales peaked in 2007 at $210 million (Brienza, 2014). Even with sales declining, manga remains an important part of the American social fabric. As a small town librarian, I see steady interest in manga, and I see hesitation. Some libraries have banned manga, anime, and books about manga in the past:
A parent of a 16-year-old son was offended by sex scenes in a history called Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, by Paul Gravett. Under pressure, the California library pulled the book. The Chair of the Board of Supervisors stated the library must do more to “protect children from inappropriate books and other materials” (Oder, 2006).
Manga still has association with porn because of its different sexual perspective. Outside of hentai, sex in manga differs from American porn. In many cases, manga’s sexuality is “powerful, vivid, and deeply emotional.” Because Japan lacks “the Eurocentric Christian notion of sex as polluting or dangerous, most manga present sex as physically and emotionally desirable for men and especially for women. (Comog, 2005).” American culture feeds men the idea that they need to be dominating and stoic. Sex is something to be enjoyed because it feels good and because it is “manly”. Manga shows how the emotional aspects of sex isn’t just for women. Powerful moments of tenderness and an openness to emotional connection are masculine. They are more masculine than the usual “male” narrative of dominance and control.
Whereas American porn reduces people to their genitals, many manga and anime stories focus on the exchange of emotion between characters. Again, I am leaving hentai out of this. Part of the appeal of porn is its taboo, dangerous nature. What is forbidden by law or religion becomes desirable. Christianity, for that matter, recognizes this in the book of Genesis. Sex in manga teaches the beauty of deep relationships, and how sex can enhance that connection.
In the 1980s, ladies comics targeting 25-30 year olds gained popularity. These comics presented women’s desires and alternative role models for adult women who were most often housewives. Early ladies comics showed sex as positive and women who enjoyed it. They focused on the female point of view which helped women accept the reality of their sexuality. However, the stories featured post-marriage problems and the darker side of sex. Amane Kazumi’s Shelter deals with a mother who is beaten by her husband. After the death of one of their daughters in an accident, the husband’s violence escalates. The wife and her eldest daughter escape to a shelter for battered women. The story follows her recovery and how she regains her confidence and independence (Ogi, 2003).
Manga allows people to explore stories, different sexualities, and different cultural perspectives. Gender-bending stories allow people to escape rigid social roles and imagine what it is like to experience life from the opposite gender’s view. Manga allows readers to explore alternative sexual identities and controversial issues about sex without feeling threatened or exploited.
Yaoi, BL, Yuri, and Dojinshi
Yaoi, BL, Yuri, and dojinshi are unique aspects of manga. Yaoi, BL (Boy’s Love), and yuri began as dojinshi, or self-published comics. Better known as fan-fiction, they became genres in their own right. Each tell alternative relationship stories and provide alternative views of sexuality. Yaoi and BL are written by female artists for female readers. BL focuses on the relationships between bishonen, or beautiful boys. While yaoi features explicit relationships between men. Yaoi is an acronym for the Japanese “Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi.” – “No build-up, no foreclosure, and no meaning.” It is also a backronym–a deliberately formed acronym that fancifully explains the origins of the acronym: “Yamete! Oshiri ga itai!” — “Stop! My ass hurts!” (Zanghellini, 2009).
Yaoi may feature homosexual relationships, but it isn’t aimed at males. Manga of that type are called bara. Japanese homosexual men dislike yaoi because of its unrealistic relationships (Zanghellini, 2009). When yaoi and BL appeared in the 1970s, it shook the male-dominated world of manga. It appeared just as kawaii designs and women began to take over shojo. Yaoi raised eyebrows with its explicit sexuality. BL flew under the censorship radar of the time because of its underage characters. Bishonen are basically the male version of Lolita.
Because of the gender roles of the time, young women were better able to to imagine idealized strong, independent characters if they are male. Manga like Sailor Moon would later change this, but yaoi and BL remained popular among female readers. Despite its content and initial resistance by male mangaka, yaoi was more acceptable than yuri. Yuri, literally translates to ‘lily’, deals with love between girls, which is a taboo subject. While we know women Japanese history, particularly in the Edo period, had sex and relationships with each other, it is not something discussed. Yaoi fell within accepted samurai practices. The most famous yuri manga, Revolutionary Girl Utena broke ground by placing a female character in the role of a male. Utena doesn’t want to be male. Rather she seeks to embody the virtues male characters typically embody: courage, strength, and compassion. The story completely flips the traditional narrative. Utena along with Sailor Moon and other stories, including yaoi, changed the narrative of female sexuality and gender role. They break the Judaeo-Christian narrative that dominates American culture.
The Male Side of Manga Sexuality
Most studies focus on the benefits of manga reading for women and girls. Manga allows Japanese girls to break from their rigid gender roles. It allows American girls to explore taboo sexualities and different cultural perspectives. However, men see many benefits as well. As I mentioned previously, manga allows boys and men to safely explore feelings of affection, tenderness, and other emotions typically reserved for women. Masculinity in America and in Japan is one dimensional. Society expects men to be go-getters, controllers, and sexual conquerors. Some of the issues in American society concerning homosexual men centers on the idea of sexual conquest. Men are expected to go out and “get” women. Gay men defy this cultural norm. They are seen as being “got” rather than “getting.”
Gender-bending stories such as Ranma 1/2 use comedy to explore the different dimension of masculinity. In the story, a boy becomes a girl whenever he is splashed with cold water. Comedy stories like Ranma 1/2 stimulates the imagination and helps male readers consider other possibilities for manhood.
Manga also breaks the equation American romance has: sex = love, love = sex. Newitz (1995) writes:
Anime offer to the post-sexual revolution generation stories which suggest that young men and women do not need to have sex in order to experience love.
Look at many shonen stories. Male characters often fall in love with female characters, but they never get down to banging like they would in American television. When they finally do, such as in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, it is off camera, and the story clearly shows the consequences: children. Pregnancy and children are a reoccurring theme in manga sexuality. Fatherhood is lauded, unlike in many–perhaps most–American stories. Goku is a dad. Even the goofiest fathers are still active in the lives of their children. This provides an example for male readers of an alternative to the “dead-beat” dad issue found throughout the United States: fathers who have little or nothing to do with their children. It also contrasts against the Japanese salaryman who is never home because of their work schedules.
Manga provides escapism, titillation, and–most importantly–a different perspective. Sex is a part of the human experience. It is wrapped up in identity, morality, and taboo. Sex will continue to spark controversy and provide a means to explore different culture and gender perspectives.
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