Understanding Japanese way of life through shoujo manga

Though I read all sort of manga, shoujo is a go-to genre for me when I just want to feel good. They are fluffy and romantic and makes your heart go all gooey inside.

At the outset that is all they are worth for, as they don’t have a great plot line. Boy loves girl, the girl loves someone else and finally the two get together. You could say they are toned down version of Nora Roberts and Mills and Boon. As you chisel it down, removing all the fluff and romance, you will realise these comic manifestations hold much more meaning and are culturally rooted. 

In shoujo manga that follows the life of teenage girls and boys that are in high school, you will find three major themes rising out of it. Romance and unrequited love of course top the list. But there are few common elements that characterise most shoujo manga.

Adulation towards men, who are tall, athletic and extremely intelligent and basically non-existent; isolating and bullying any girl or boy who is different or stand up for themselves and show their individuality; submissive women and forbidden love. Some manga have all three characteristics like Faster than a kiss and Kimi ni Todoke. More famous manga like Hana Yori Dango, Ao Haru ride and Koi Dano Ai Dono have the first two elements.

Though adulation is very common, what struck me the most was the extent to which people go to express it. In the manga Kimi no todoke the male protagonist Kazakeya is extremely popular and well liked by men and women. So girls who like him in the school form a group with a motto: Kazakeya is for all. This way though they all like him he belongs to no one. They go ‘kya kya’ when he passes by and nobody confesses. Even if there is one person who tries to get close, she is bullied by the group. You will find this in most shoujo manga.

Another one, which is find very unique is isolation. When I was reading Ao haru ride, there was a girl in the manga who was isolated. The reason was she was very pretty and was not afraid to flaunt it in front of guys. Nor is she afraid to be alone when she was ignored by all girls in class. This is one of the reasons for why she was being isolated and no girl would talk to her. Though many admire her grit, none come forward in the fear that they might be left alone. This somehow says a lot about how Japanese people view individuality.

When I was talking to a friend of mine, he conversationally said Japanese would rather go along with the crowd rather than be different. There is a strong sense among them to be together and be accepted. Even in India, when someone is different, people tend to treat them differently. But going to the point of isolating the person does not happen here, as far as I’m concerned. I figure the idea of needing to gel is too strong among Japanese. Perhaps that is the reason why having a tattoo is still a big no-no there. In addition to standing out, tattoo is associated with yakuza, crime syndicates in Japan.

Satoshi Akimoto, owner of Aki Bay ramen shop in Chennai, said people with tattoo are not allowed to display it in public spaces like onsen (hot spring) and when in public or work place they should dress in a way that covers tattoo. “But things are slowly changing in Japan as we see a lot of foreigners especially from the US settling down there.”

Forbidden love is another plot angle that is very common in shoujo manga. It is mostly teacher who falls in love with student and vice versa. It is a written rule in Japan that teachers and students should not involve in romantic relationship. If they do, the teacher is expelled and student is suspended. But that does that mean it never happens. You have manga like Faster than a kiss and Sensei, suki that deal with teacher-student relationships and how they progress throughout the manga. Forbidden fruits are sweeter aren’t they, so these genre of manga have their own moe factor.

Finally the topic of submissive women. In most manga women are portrayed as weak, pretty, submissive and needed strong guys to protect her. There are few manga that had strong women were Kaichou wa maid-sama and Tokyo crazy paradise. I loved these manga. Women – Misaki and Tsukasa – were strong and independent unlike most shoujo manga female characters that are weak and helpless. But Misaki and Tsukasa at some point surrender or give in to the men’s charm. It was as if, even though they are strong they needed the men to protect them or rather they needed to be stronger for them if not for themselves as in the case of Tsukasa. Somehow this never sits well with me. 

Like India, Japan is very conservative where men are the bread winners of the family. Even now, many Japanese women quit work after marriage or after children are born. It is the norm. Though women participation in the workforce might not be as bad as it is in India, it is less compared to its western counterparts. Gender-biased roles are still prevalent in Japan despite its developed country status.  I’m sure women are respected and are given due honour, but unlike its western counterparts I get the feeling women are more inclined to go by what men say. 

Well these only give a glimpse into Japanese way of life, which I’m sure is very complex and different just like other cultures. It might be very difficult for other country people to settle down there given their deep conservative roots.  Reading manga might not be a comprehensive guide to understanding their culture, but they very well give you a platform from which you can build on.


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