Where my girls at? Western bias blinds us to the inspiring female leads offered by manga comics

Part of what we brought with us wherever we moved to as a family was our manga collection. I think my mother saw it as security, a connection that was necessary for her as my father’s job took the family all around the world.

The material my sister and I read growing up was mixed. Mom’s old manga from when she was younger, and a lot of newer manga that we got a hold of during the six years we lived in Japan.

My dad was stationed in Virginia for language school when I was in 7th grade. This was the first time I lived in the U.S. Weeaboo culture was brand new to me, this obsession with Asian media, mostly Japanese and South Korean, that is often linked to fetishising Asian people. Moving to the States, I started realising how I might look from a non-Japanese perspective. Most of my growing up had been in Japan so far, so this was the first time my conception of myself was challenged. All anyone knew about Japan at middle school was manga and anime, mainly boys’ comics like Naruto or Bleach, or for girls’ comics, very young feminine stories like Fruits Basket.

Naruto. Image from Hulu

In high school, this came with sexualization towards my body from horny boys who associated me with the submissive characters they saw in men’s comics. I was overwhelmed at how my culture was being interpreted. They had taken things that I had actively enjoyed but that were only small parts of my country, and made it a focal point of their understanding of my nationality. Manga and anime was a tool for that.

I struggle to come to grips with the fact that some of the media coming out of Japan and can be gross with imagery of sexualised young girls. It can be difficult to juggle being grossed out by this and still wanting to defend the type of media I love.

What I grew up with was artists like Kawahara Izumi. She introduced me to my first trans-woman character in anything, in a storyline about the first all-female baseball team. Izumi had science fiction story lines like Buremen II, which follows the first ever female space captain being assigned to a ship and crew, only to find out she’s been “undermined” by being given a crew of genetically modified animals instead of a human crew. The series explores the rights and treatment of the animals as she warms to them and fights for their rights.

Hana no Asuka-gumi. Image from Nina Manga

I grew up with comics that my mom read when she was younger, like Hana no Asuka-gumi, a story about middle-school girl gangs that were modelled after the sukeban subculture. It was the first time I was introduced to the concept of not wearing a bra and not giving a fuck about it because the main character claimed it helped her fight better. Who knew!

I grew up with comedic manga like Gokusen, a story about a new female high school teacher who hides her family background: that she’s the granddaughter of a Japanese mafia family head. And I grew up with Nodame Cantabile, a series about a complete weirdo pianist who falls in love with a conductor at school. But instead of making the story all about her love interest, it follows people’s passions and careers, and how her and her peers pursue success.

Gokusen. Image from MyAnimeList

None of these stories are perfect, or free of problematic elements, just like any other media. But all of them brought three dimensional female characters to life, and weren’t all about romance. I still read romance and shoujo manga as part of a repertoire of comics about female protagonists, and there’s nothing about femininity or romance that I would give up in storytelling. But to have these options was to know that I was capable of being my own protagonist. I dreamed of starting a girl gang, of growing up tough and cool and strong like so many of the characters I loved.

The main roadblock isn’t necessarily demand, it’s translation. What is being translated is usually about popularity in the original country. Fan edits are great for temporarily moving the story, but it’s not so great for showing support to artists who are creating content that we want to see in the world. We need to make sure that real money is going to the people who are creating the content that the West wants to see, not just digital copies that are technically stolen.

Thankfully, this is happening to a certain extent. Content like Princess Jellyfish that focuses on a group of misfit women trying to save their commune has been popularised and translated at least into English.

But this can’t be the end and how we pat ourselves on the back. There is more work out there that needs to be highlighted.

Katherine Tamaki

Art by Josh Walker. Find Josh on Instagram: @jdw_draws

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