Gender Benders: Gunlord’s Quickshot Review of Manga Girl Seeks Herbivore Boy

Gender in Japanese society captures more than a bit of attention these days, mostly in the form of “Oh Japan, u so crazy” type articles. Any gender-related search term—or, heck, any term, really—and Japan will bring up articles on panty vending machines or wacky Japanese tentacle rape anime or a piece on transsexuals that goes for the “isn’t Japan so weird?” angle rather than anything serious. You may also find, however, critiques of rigid Japanese gender roles and encomiums for their continuing change. I’ve already read enough “zany Japan” fluff pieces and watched more than enough Japanese porn, so nowadays I’m much more interested in those latter questions. Thus, a few months ago I decided to buy Manga Girl Seeks Herbivore Boy: Studying Japanese Gender at Cambridge, edited by Brigitte Steger and Angelika Koch and published in 2013. This book is a collection of five essay which take a more scholarly and sober look at Japanese gender roles than you’d typically find in a dailymail humor piece, or even on Slate. I figure more than a few of my readers would be interested in that sort of thing, so this Friday I thought I’d offer up a review of this book.

The first essay, written by the editors and titled “Gender Matters,” is an lucid and adequately-written assessment of gender roles in Japan as they exist now, how they have developed since World War II, and how academics have written about the subject and how their interpretations have changed over time. In my own field of study, history, the analysis of what academics have written and how they’ve interpreted the subject (as opposed to the subject itself) is called “historiography,” BTW 🙂 Anyways, this short essay also explains why the study of gender is important (Japan ranks 101st out of 135th on the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, p. 7), and what the other essays hope to contribute:

“Together, the essays gathered in this volume make a contribution to the study of various gender identities and their representations. They illustrate both the persistence of traditional ideals of what men and women should be like, as well as the rejection and resistance mounted to these hegemonic notions from various quarters in society…Change, as this reminds us, is never a linear process, but can give rise to conflicting, diverse meanings that exist at the same time, reflecting the different attitudes and interests of various social groups. In this way, it becomes possible for figures like ‘manga girls’, ‘herbivore boys’, ‘absent fathers’ and transgender people to coexist in contemporary Japanese society.” (pp. 16-17)

The second chapter consists of Hattie Jones’ essay, “Sex, Love, Comedy and Crime in Recent Boys’ Anime and Manga.” It discusses how women are portrayed in four anime and manga series: To Love-ru, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Demon Detective Neuro Nougami, and Gintama. Her intent is “to establish whether early twenty-first century boys’ manga have changed in this respect [Ed. From “sexist” depictions of women] and whether they depict women in a more varied, positive, and realistic way.” (p. 25) Now, boy’s manga is an extremely large genre, and to her credit, Ms. Jones admits it’s impossible to study a truly “representative” sample of it. Still, she at least chooses her examples based on a reasonable metric, that of popularity. Three out of four of her examples came from the top selling shonen magazine (Shonen Weekly Jump) and all were written in the past decade by male manga artists before becoming anime (p.27).

Ms. Jones criticizes To Love-ru and Haruhi as “pornographic.” Now, neither anime is explicit, but she calls the former “pornographic” because the main character’s breasts are intended to tiltillate male audience members, as Mikuru’s are intended to do in Haruhi. In her view, this is not a positive depiction of women (pp. 44-45). She is much more positive about Nougami, which she claims portrays both female heroes and criminals realistically, with the female protagonist in particular being “progressive” because her physical appearance isn’t treated as important in the story (p. 59).  She has the most praise for Gintama, which she claims does not sexualize any of its females excessively and often places them in more powerful situations than men (p. 71).

While I’d heard of all of these series (except for Demon Detective Nougami, which was totally new for me), I haven’t actually watched or read any of them, which means I can’t say much about how accurate her assessments were. Even so, I’m somewhat hesitant to accept her conclusions, that Japanese manga is “progressing” in terms of gender equality, albeit slowly, as To Love-Ru attests (p. 76). While Ms. Jones constantly repeats the non-representative and somewhat arbitrary nature of her sample, I think she could have given a bit more detail on why she made those choices. Just off the top of my head, I can think of three shonen manga which are widely considered to be the “Big Three:” Bleach, One Piece, and Naruto. See these links for evidence:

(Also, just look up “Big Three” shonen for more proof on Google)

Granted, this definition also takes into account these manga’s overseas popularity, but I bring it up to note that Weekly Shonen Jump contains many different manga, and the four she chose may not necessarily be that popular.

Second, she doesn’t provide much historical context. She claims the portrayal of women in shonen manga is “progressing,” but progressing from what? She acknowledges that other scholars like Anne Allison and Susan Napier have criticized the sexism in manga in previous decades, and her endnotes do point towards the proper reading, but it might have been wise to include a couple of popular shonen manga from previous decades to give the reader a stronger impression of how things had actually changed. So, overall, I thought this piece was written well enough—unlike many “gender studies” essays, it’s not surrounded by bizarre jargon or stilted, impenetrable prose—but found its choice of evidence and thus conclusions to be somewhat dubious.

The next chapter gives us Zoya Street’s essay, “Absent Fathers: Fatherhood in Moral Education Textbooks in Post-War Japan.” Here, Ms. Street (Note: There is a male Zoya Street, but I’m unsure if he’s the same person) makes two arguments. First, that the protagonists in the stories in moral education textbooks are treated as self-motivated individuals as opposed to citizens, subjects, or group members. Second, father figures in these stories encourage the protagonists to behave based on individual concerns. She bases her analysis on sixteen stories published from 1966 to 1996 (pp. 86-87). A good choice, in my view—a thirty-year timeframe allows one to much more convincingly portray historical change than choosing sources from a single decade, as Jones did. Alas, this essay seems to rely heavily on ethnographic methods, and while I’ve some familiarity with ethnography, not enough to make a really educated critique of Street’s work. Still, I was able to understand the introduction (a brief history of Japanese moral education since the Edo period up to the present day) and found it quite edifying, so I was at least able to glean something from this piece J

The fourth essay in this collection is my very favorite. A bit of background information: The phenomenon of the “Herbivorous Male” in Japanese society has gotten a decent amount of attention, even in the West. These guys aren’t very keen on marrying or having children, so some have claimed the Japanese government is worried about a population decline. Once again, check out these links:

These articles are all a bit sensationalistic, though they contain kernels of truth. We need a more sober, rational look at the “herbivore men,” and Chris Deacon is up to the task! His essay is titled “All the World’s a Stage: Herbivore Boys and the Performance of Masculinity in Contemporary Japan.” He places these herbivores in historical context, explaining how men in Japan have been expected to act from the Warring States period through World War II and up to the present day, and then examining why so many young Japanese men are choosing to reject this “hegemonic” ideal of masculinity in lieu of the more laid-back herbivore life.

His analysis, wedding economic history (particularly that of the Japanese “Karoshi” salaryman and corporate culture) is nothing short of excellent and I highly recommend you all read it if you can. To summarize, Japanese masculinity historically took its mold from the application of a battlefield mentality to the corporate world. Up until the 1990s, Japanese society actually scribed “Bushido” characteristics to the white-collar, private sector male office worker, transporting those values from the soldiers who had returned to peace after being defeated in WWII. The salaryman was supposed to be incredibly loyal to his employer as well as a strong father figure and a breadwinner for his wife and children, working long hours to support both them and his company. In return, however, the company would look out for his interests, his pay would increase the longer he worked, and he would be guaranteed employment. (pp. 145-147)

However, when the bubble of the Japanese economy burst at the beginning of the 1990s, unemployment rose. Many employers had to let their employees go or were unable to hire new college graduates who were ready to accept their office job as was required of them as “men.” Companies were supposed to provide employment and job security in return for the massive sacrifices they expected of their male employees. When they couldn’t do that, many men felt as if they’d essentially broken their social contract. The salaryman life certainly didn’t seem appealing anymore. Thus, many took up a “herbivorous” lifestyle, abandoning everything associated with salarymen, including the stereotypically masculine behaviors they were supposed to display. “Normal” salarymen were supposed to drink a lot and eat spicy foods rather than sweet foods, and generally be aggressive as opposed to passive and frugal, since those were seen as “feminine” qualities. Since so many men see no point in upholding that vision of masculinity anymore, many are quite fine with eating sweets, not spending much money, and being more laid-back. Also, salarymen were expected support a stay at home wife and their children, which isn’t possible for many men in this economy. Thus, they’re holding off on getting married and having kids, which is what’s worrying the government. However, they’re not entirely opposed to it. Deacon notes that most of his interviewees see it as an individual choice. It may not be for them right now, but they don’t look down upon those who do choose to get married. (pp.159-166) Most news outlets don’t pay much attention to the corporate-culture roots of the herbivore men, and neither do most MGTOWs, from what I’ve seen. An essay that can correct the misconceptions of both a fringe group and more mainstream sources is certainly worth reading, IMO.

The fifth and last essay here is “Resistance and Assimilation: Medical and Legal Transgender Identities in Japan” by Nicola McDermott. I liked this paper almost as much as Deacon’s! She discusses several issues facing Japan’s transgender community, such as the legality of Sex Reassignment Surgery, the concept of transgederism as Gender Identity Disorder, legislation surrounding transgenderism, and lastly, other types of transgender identities not often found in Japanese legal and medical discourse (p. 181). Much like Jones and Deacon, Mcdermott has a writing style that is both academic and clear, managing to convey complex ideas about a relatively esoteric subject without getting mired in the overwrought, jargon-ridden prose so common in academic writing and anything having to do with gender these days. Her conclusions are amply supported by the evidence (news articles, interviews, etc) she marshals. My favorite aspect of this essay is the more subtle way she examines the challenges faced by transgendered people. Her examination of the Japanese family registry system exemplifies the strengths of her approach. While many of us in the West may associate transphobia with overt acts of violence, such as beating up transgendered people, that’s not the only thing certain groups might have to contend with. There’s not as much of that sort of violence in Japan (pp. 201-202), but transgendered people also have to deal with some odd legal issues, as McDermott shows. The family registry in Japan labels your sex at birth and you can’t change it, even if you’re a transgendered person. Since your family registry information shows up on your insurance cards and whatnot, it can be hard to get health insurance, or register for social services, or many other things if your gender identity doesn’t match whatever’s on your card, since people might believe you’re impersonating someone else or have faulty information on your card or something (pp. 203-204). It’s a good enough way to end the book on a high note, with this sort of innovative analysis, IMO.

So, overall, while I don’t agree with all of it, I can’t say I’m sorry that I bought Manga Girl Seeks Herbivore Boy. If you can find it for about the same price I did on Amazon (around 20 bucks, it’s not a common book), I’d say go for it. 😀


  1. […] on the heels of my recent book review , I’d like to spend this “Manosphere Monday” going into a bit more detail on the differences […]

  2. I’m pretty sure it’s the same Zoya Street, because he is trans and a feminist historian. (I saw a talk by him once–about video games.)

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