Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

America’s 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 honmono, 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 world.”

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 page.

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