Words from Mr. Matt THORN: "This is the final version of a paper I presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, D.C., on November 22, 1997. Many thanks to the many friends, colleagues, and strangers who took the time to read and comment on the original draft I posted here: I hope you find it somewhat improved. Like my last paper, this will form the core of a chapter in my dissertation, so further comments are very much welcome."
Girls and Women Getting Out of Hand
The Pleasure and Politics of Japan's Amateur Comics Community
MATTHEW THORN--Department of Anthropology, Columbia University
This is a working draft of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, D.C., on November 22, 1997.
The term commonly used when addressing the general public is doujinshi sokubai kai, which, translated literally, would be something like "an exhibition and spot sale of coterie magazines." Among those in the know, they are simply known as ibento ("events") or, if one is talking about "The Big One," Komike, an abbreviation of Komikku Maaketto or "Comic Market." Simpy put, they are gatherings of amateur artists and writers selling the comic books and fiction they have created to anyone who cares to buy them.
This may sound like a modest undertaking, but as it happens there are a great many people who do in fact care to buy such wares, and these gatherings are indeed "events." The largest by far is the Comic Market, a two-day affair held in Tokyo twice a year and said to be attended by roughly three-hundred thousand people. But even smaller, one-day events held in cities throughout Japan are attended by thousands and even tens of thousands.
The first such event I ever attended was one held in Osaka in August 1993. I was conducting research on the readers of shoujo manga--Japanese girls' comics--and had heard from several informants about amateur manga, or doujinshi, that focused on the theme of same-sex love between boys or men. This theme, known as shounen ai, or "boys' love," first appeared in commercial shoujo manga in the early 'seventies, but by the late 'eighties had faded to a narrow sub-genre. In amateur manga for girls and women, however, but it had apparently become the dominant theme.
Arriving at the convention center on the designated Sunday morning, I found myself one of more than ten thousand people, overwhelmingly female, waiting for the event to begin. When the gates were opened, there was a rush as fans, armed with the event's catalog and map, hurried to the booths of the "major" circles before the lines grew too long. Examining the catalog, I found that the circles were grouped by genre. To the side of one hall was a modest-sized group of booths labelled "original shoujo." This seemed like a good place to begin, but it soon became obvious that this was not where the action was.
The action, I gradually realized, was at the yaoi booths. "Yaoi" is an acronym for the phrase, " Yama nashi, imi nashi, ochi nashi," or "No climax, no meaning, no resolution," a phrase coined in the latter 'eighties to describe this new genre of amateur manga. Until the mid-'eighties, the amateur manga world was composed largely of would-be professional manga artists, amateur manga critics, and the fan clubs of professional artists. In 1985, however, a group of young women artists began producing a series of spinoffs of the popular boys' soccer manga Captain Tsubasa, in which the two boy heroes were portrayed as lovers. This formula proved to be a stunning hit, and similar Captian Tsubasa take-offs began to appear in huge numbers, helping to rapidly increase the population of the amateur manga community. Captain Tsubasa was followed by take-offs of such boys' manga and anime hits as Saint Seiya, Tenkuu Senki Shurato, Yoroiden Samurai Trooper, and Ginga Eiyuu Densetsu.
The term yaoi refers to the fact that many of these take-offs did not purport to be integrated stories, but were rather just scenes and snippets, oishiii tokoro dake, "only the yummy parts." What constitutes a yummy part is usually a scene in which the two male protagonists are in some way brought into physical contact with each other, there is an awkward moment, then one makes an agressive move, perhaps initiating a kiss. The other resists, but it is clear that the feelings are mutual. Some artists will end the scene here, preserving the tension between the two. Others will treat readers to several pages of skin, tangled sheets, sweat, and other bodily fluids. Many so-called yaoi manga, however, are genuine stories, often with plots stretching over many volumes, leading some fans to suggest alternative meanings of the acronym, such as " Yamete, oshiri ga itai" ("Stop, my ass hurts").
With the introduction of yaoi, attendance at the Tokyo Comic Market shot from five digits to six digits; stories began to appear regularly in the mass media about the amateur manga world; and various groups began to see potential profits to be made. Commercial publishers began publishing anthologies of amateur yaoi-style manga and recruiting major amateur artists. Other entrepreneurs, noting the relative isolation of fans and artists living outside the Tokyo area, formed companies to organize events throughout Japan.
Meanwhile, at the event, I was feeling overwhelmed. There was a powerful energy in the air: this space belonged to these girls and women, and they were revelling in it. I envied the electric sense of community they shared, but I didn't have the courage to initiate many conversations.
At three o'clock, when the end of the event was announced, there was a burst of applause from both buyers and sellers, and here and there bouquets of flowers changed hands, presumably as congratulations for a job well done. As I lingered after the event, a group of about six young women caught my eye. One was taking pictures, and at the center of the group being photographed was one with short hair, wearing black jeans, a white blouse, a black vest, and black leather gloves with the fingers cut off. She looked very cool, and her more femininely dressed friends seemed to think so, too. They giggled and fawned, and she seemed to enjoy the attention. It was as if a scene from the all-female Takarazuka Review was being played out before my eyes. What I was seeing may have been an expression of homosexuality, plain and simple, but I suspect it was something more complex.
In the summer of 1995, I attended the Tokyo Comic Market. It was every bit as enormous as I had been led to expect, yet I couldn't help feeling that this giant of all fan events lacked the intense energy, the palatable sense of community that I felt in the earlier, smaller events I had attended. Comic Market organizers I spoke with concurred. YONEZAWA Yoshihiro, the president of the Comic Market, told me the event had grown so large and become so segmented that it lacked the overall sense of community that it once had, and which can still be found in many smaller gatherings.
But in spite of segmentation, the Comic Market retains a festival-like character. Such events create a liminal space and time, where participants shed many of the restraints of mundane society.
Many participants create and wear elaborate costumes, modelled on characters from favorite manga or anime. Known as "costume play," or kosupre for short, this is so venerable a tradition in the Comic Market and other events that dressing rooms are provided. Kosupure often entails cross-dressing, so that one sees women dressed as the dashing, uniformed heroes of Gundam Wing alongside men dressed as Sailor Moon.
Eroticized teasing is also common, particularly on the part of cross-dressed costume-players, who will make suggestive comments to or fondle fellow participants of either sex, who are usually happy to play along. When cross-dressing is involved, there is always a multi-layered combination of heterosexual and homosexual tension. When a woman dressed as a man makes a pass at another woman, she is "playing at" heterosexuality, but the fact that she is biologically a woman creates an obvious homosexual element. If the other woman is herself dressed as a man, then the two are "playing at" male homosexuality, yet there is also a suggestion of female homosexuality, since both are biologically women, and, because each woman is ostensibly reacting to the performed "masculinity" of the other, there is a heterosexual nuance, as well. Similarly, when a woman dressed as a man is flirting with a man dressed as a woman, there is a double-reverse heterosexual element, yet, again, since each is reacting to the performed gender of the other, there is also a suggestion of homosexuality.
Similar erotic play has been noted in carnivals and other liminal settings, but it is the term "queer" as used by Alexander Doty that I find best captures my own interpretation both of kosupure and of the fans and creators of amateur manga's most popular genre, yaoi. In Making Things Perfectly Queer, Doty uses the term "queer":
. . . to question the cultural demarcations between the queer and the straight [. . . .] by pointing out the queerness of and in straights and straight cultures, as well as that of individuals and groups who have been told they inhabit the boundaries between the binaries of gender and sexuality [. . . .] Queer would [. . .] describe the image of Katherine Hepburn dressed as a young man in Sylvia Scarlett, as it evokes a complex, often uncategorizable, erotic responses from spectators who claim all sorts of real-life sexual identities. (pp. xv-xvi)
When I ask fans why they like those genres, they tend to equivocate. One standard response is that stories of heterosexual romance, such as those common in shoujo manga, are boring because they are predictable. When one yaoi artist, who makes a living as a professional manga artist's assistant, offered this reason, I pointed out that yaoi tended to be as formulaic as heterosexual romance stories, she laughed and replied, "Yes, but this is the formula I like." Another fan expanded, saying that a heterosexual romance is always limited by the fact that the heroine and hero, no matter what the circumstances, are ultimately following the socially prescribed norm of mating. In a yaoi story, the two male characters are inexorably drawn to each other, in spite of social proscriptions and their own desire to avoid such a taboo relationship. The problem with this argument is that it doesn't explain why the taboo relationship has to be one between two men, rather than two women or some other pairing or grouping.
Most of the women and girls I've asked have simply said they like such stories, period. They're exciting. They're moving. They're beautiful. These stories give them pleasure, and that's good enough for most readers. The stories tend to be almost stubbornly apolitical. Most of the characters insist, "I'm not gay, I'm just passionately in love with this one person, who happens to be a man." That such a relationship is taboo is the sine qua non of the genre, but that fact is never addressed politically. In fact, some gay male activists in Japan have blasted yaoi as offensive to homosexuals.
Some readers have told me they enjoy the stories because they present an idealized masculine world. Some speak of despising femininity, and even of wishing they had been born male, rather than female. For most such women, yaoi and shounen ai allow them to indulge in the fantasy of loving a man as a man, or, to rephrase it, as an equal, free of predefined gender expectations. Nonetheless, I think there is an undeniable voyeuristic element, because the readers and artists are in fact females.
Many fans also clearly take pleasure in seeing their male characters suffer. There is much eroticized violence. In one famous commercial manga in this genre, OZAKI Minami's Bronze, the agressor actually hacks his own arm off with a sword to demonstrate his love. This, too, suggests to me that, while readers may imagine themselves in the place of one of the male characters, they may also objectify them at the same time.
And while they speak fondly of otoko no sekai, a "world of men," they show contempt for "straight" masculinity, just as they scorn standardized femininity. In every yaoi story, there is a seme, an agressor, and an uke, a recipient or "target." The seme comes to accept his feelings early on, and pursues the uke until he relents. The story climaxes when the uke abandons strict masculinity and accepts that he is hen, a word that can be translated as "strange," "odd," or "queer."
Perhaps you can begin to see why I characterize this genre and its fans as "queer." The women and girls in this community are not satisfied with mainstream norms regarding gender and sexuality. They may never display that dissatifaction in front of their more conventional peers, but they give expression to it in the liminal space of the "event," and every time they read or draw or write a story in this genre.
Fans acknowledge the subversive potential of their hobby when they jokingly describe it, as they so often do, as yabai, abunai, or ayashii, words meaning "dangerous" or "suspect." But beyond the treatment of gender and sexuality in these stories, there is another subversive potential in this community. Feminists, both in Japan and elsewhere, have noted that mass media tend to be male-dominated because of limited "access to technology." Media require the capital of corporations because of the expensive technology and labor they entail, and women have limited access to such capital. Manga, however, like literature, is a medium that requires very little capital, which may be part of the reason why it has become a lucrative form of income for so many women artists. Amateur manga, in turn, while providing income only for the most popular artists, provide women and girls with an inexpensive means of self expression, utterly free of editorial restrictions. In commercial manga magazines, by contrast, the top editors are almost all male, and will not publish pieces that violate "editorial policy." Yet even commercial publishers have created "alternative" manga magazines as well as lines of novels dedicated to this genre. They can be bought in any Japanese bookstore, any convenience store, for that matter. And those looking for the "hard stuff" can join the hundreds of thousands of women and girls who make the trek to the Comic Market and similar events.
The possibilities of such a community should make any feminist drool, yet there is a tendency to look on such popular culture with suspicion, to see participants as dupes of capitalist patriarchy. We would like to see these women identify themselves as feminists, but to try to make it into something "good for you" ( tame ni naru) might spoil the fun and nullify the energy of this movement, if it can be called a movement. After all, the pleasure for most readers is the very fact that it is "naughty." Perhaps we should accept the progressive, subversive, and feminist potential in a community such as this that does not carry the "union label."
Note: Copyright permission of article above was granted by
owner of this article, Mr. Matt Thorn, to Thinkquest team C0115441.
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