Lost in Translation

What’s not gay about girl-on-girl comic book love? In Japan, everything. Caroline Ryder explores the elusive world of lesbian manga.



appetite for all things Japanese is voracious -- sushi,
karaoke, Hello Kitty. In the past seven years our Nipponese
fixation has turned toward manga, comic books that
have a distinctive Asian aesthetic and are published
in innumerable genres, including romance,
action-adventure, horror -- even sexuality.

In 2007 manga
sales represented 56% of the revenue of all graphic novels
sold in the United States. And things have been particularly
good for manga in film lately: Warner Bros. put out
Speed Racer earlier this year, and 20th
Century Fox is adapting Dragon Ball for a 2009
release. U.S. publishing houses HarperCollins and
Random House have teamed up with manga publishers.

Manga is so vast
that there is an entire subgenre portraying love between
girls. Yuri -- which literally translates as
“lily” -- can revolve around anything
from hard-core sex between impossibly pneumatic girl
characters to sweet tales of schoolgirl crushes, where
hand-holding is as racy as things get. And while
you’d be forgiven for thinking yuri is a gay
story written for a gay audience, the Japanese would
likely disagree. In a country where homosexuality is
still very much taboo, even the most conservative of
Japanese parents are OK with their daughters reading
yuri manga because the comics aren’t viewed as
“gay.” (For the record, there are also boy-boy
manga love stories, called yaoi. Raw in their
depiction of romantic and sexual relationships between
males, they’re primarily read by straight women
in Japan.)

This cultural
coyness may be attributed to the concept of tatemono
, a term for the space between what things
appear to be and what they really are, says Erica Friedman,
founder of ALC Publishing, the world’s only
all-yuri publisher. “In Japan there’s
intense societal pressure to live life as a straight
person, more than any Westerner could
conceive,” says Friedman, who is also president of
Yuricon, a convention that celebrates yuri in
anime and manga. “Yuri is accepted—so
long as it’s perceived as being this fantasy

To the
contemporary Western mind, this nuance can be perplexing. In
his book Japanamerica, Roland Kelts explains
that “the strict codes of etiquette that govern
daily life in Japan also allow for an extraordinary
degree of creative and social permissiveness: the
freedom to explore other identities.” So while a
married woman may be able to explore her sexuality
freely and without reproach by reading yuri on the
subway, that freedom ends as soon as she turns the last

Tags: Books