In which yours truly, a cis-gendered male, decides overnight to overpay for a plane ticket to Tokyo to buy one very specific publication, in one very specific fandom, in one very specific women-oriented doujinshi event. Part 1 of a true story.
Note: Tales from Tabata is not a NSFW blog, and this post will not contain sexual or pornographic content. However, because of this post’s subject matter, please consider reading this post in private to avoid awkward situations at work.
I. How to buy a ticket to Tokyo
I started watching anime in the summer of 2013. Anime was not a staple during my childhood. I didn’t particularly care for Japan or Japanese back then. That summer, a friend complained to me that no one was available to accompany her to the Ani-Com and Games Expo, the large commercial show held every year in Hong Kong. I went with her, had fun looking at stuff with her, went home, and started watching anime on my own.
In college, I made some friends who also had a temporal interest in anime. I watched shows like one would watch Suits: occasionally, and to kill some time if I decided to stay in for the weekend. I did not have a red-hot raging love for anime, nor did I have a burning desire to dye my hair green, or actually attend anime conventions that sometimes happened at the Marriott hotel in downtown D.C. Once, I helped table for the Japan Network club. Next to us was the Anime Club. An invisible and impenetrable barrier existed between us. We made mochi for the new year. They watched anime dubbed. I consider that a sin serious enough to warrant an economy class ticket to the ninth level of hell; notwithstanding how offensive this sounds to many American fans of anime.
When I returned to Hong Kong, law school stopped me from watching anime. At this point, most of my friends in college who had an interest in Japanese no longer had an interest in Japanese. They had jobs, moved cities, and dated seriously. We were still friends, perhaps, and anime never really blinded us. I had to stay well-rested to learn such pressing and imminent issues as whether anti-oral variation clauses are valid and binding on parties. (Much to the chagrin of one certain contract law professor at Oxford, they are.)
This Chinese New Year, on a friend’s recommendation, I started watching a show called My Hero Academia, which Netflix licensed to Hong Kong. It’s popular enough to warrant an article on a mainstream website like The Verge. The synopsis is that it’s a story about superheroes in training. The original comic, by Kohei Horikoshi, appeals to both American audiences (for having a superhero setting) and Japanese audiences (for having a melodramatic schoolyard setting). In other words, it’s a piece of work that acknowledges that both Japan and the United States are both major consumers of Japanese pop culture. (No coincidence, then, that Los Angeles was the place where season 4 of the show premiered earlier this summer.)
My Hero Academia began to consume my life. Chinese New Year is supposed to be a time where one would exchange pleasantries to those family members who you would meet at most once a year, and to stuff one’s face with colorful gao, deep-fried taro dumplings, and other carb bombs. But My Hero Academia made me lose all patience for even that. I fidgeted and I wanted to get back my phone and finish all 65 episodes and one movie (around 1,660 minutes of animation in total, which I did in around 3 days).
One particular character, a spiky blond boy called Bakugou Katsuki, and his relationship with the other characters, stood out to me. He has a nasty mouth. No one in real life uses the Japanese language like he does. The other characters say that he has a くそを下水で煮込んだ性格, which literally means a personality of shit slow-simmered in sewer water. But he is also a good person at heart. Certain American people hate on him for being an abusive bully, but what can be more painfully relatable than a person who thought he could win at everything in life, only to realize that growing up means treasuring friends who support you, accepting help when you need it, realizing that behind the thick layers of pride you’re just an insecure piece of shit, humbling yourself, and crying out your frustrations when you need to? Besides, what could be a greater waste of everyone’s time than to go on Reddit and YouTube to hate on fictional characters (not unlike this very long digression I’m writing here to contextualize my consumption of ‘women-oriented’ doujinshi)? In other words, Bakugou Katsuki is a well-written character.
After Chinese New Year, I spent my commutes to and from school reading about My Hero Academia, specifically about Bakugou Katsuki, on Tumblr. One thing led to another, and soon I found myself making a Twitter account to follow Japanese fans of the manga. From time to time I would follow mainstream news sites about the anime-industrial complex, but I didn’t particularly care for news articles that mostly repeated what press releases say, or what anime voice actors (whose vocal capabilities, but sadly not their faces, are indeed sexy) were doing on a daily basis. Going on Twitter was different. These Japanese Twitter users filled my timeline with a bottomless well of drawings of my favorite angry explosion boy. Many of them would compile their drawings as ツイログ (Twitter logs) and posted them on a website called pixiv.
It was on pixiv where I completely lost all sense of self-control. I spent many late nights on my phone before bed squinting at the blue light on my iPhone. I threw myself in a deep web of illustrations. Most of them were about Bakugou Katsuki. Sometimes he was eating soba with Todoroki Shoto. Sometimes he went to the pharmacy with Ochako Uraraka. Sometimes he was living with Izuku Midoriya (the manga’s nerd otaku protagonist). Sometimes he misinterpreted Izuku’s booty call. Sometimes he sold off all of Izuku’s nerd otaku hero action figures on Yahoo Auctions, and in revenge Izuku auctioned off Bakugou Katsuki himself on the website. Sometimes he had to atone for his past as an abusive bully. I saw thousands of permutations of fantasies of what people imagined Bakugou Katsuki to be: an adorable, explosive blond dork.
I would later learn from Thankyou Tatsuo’s book, ボクたちのBL論 (originally published in 2016 as Oretachi no BL ron) that women especially like illustrations where men suffered. He says, on page 90 of the 2018 reprint of the book: “男って女の前、あんまり弱いとこ見せないですからね…一人でいるときにどうやって悩んでるかとかって、なかなかみられないじゃないですか。(Men don’t really show their weak side in front of women…we don’t usually see how they suffer when they’re on their own.)” So did I have the same wants and desires from manga as cis-gendered women?
What illustrators would also upload to pixiv were samples of physical comic books that these illustrators would bring to events to sell in person. These physical comic books are called 同人誌 (doujinshi) and these events would be called 同人即売会 or 同人イベント(doujin events). The largest doujin event in the world, in fact, is called Comic Market or Comiket, and is happening this weekend in Tokyo.
As I browsed through pixiv one early July evening, I came across one particular illustrator who I’ll call B. Their works were hilarious. Sometimes people liked to put sad illustrations on pixiv. B’s art was fun, B’s stories were punchy, and B’s lines were crisp. In one particularly meta story, Bakugou Katsuki had graduated from school, and realized that he sorely missed Izuku Midoriya, his childhood buddy and designated Shonen Jump rival, in his adulthood. To remedy his emotional desires, he starts making his own doujinshi (also known as 薄い本, or little thin books) about himself and Izuku, posing as a female artist on pixiv.
One of my best friends would later ask me, after I somewhat forced her to accompany me to the Taipei branch of Toranoana, a Japanese doujinshi shop, what my kinks are, I said I wasn’t sure. But I do have a soft spot for all things meta. I learned that B had published this meta story in print in October 2018, and that the panels I saw on pixiv were only a sample. B was no longer selling any copies online, but they were bringing a small number of copies to a My Hero Academia-only doujin event (オンリーイベント) called どうやら出番のようだ17, which was going to happen on July 15 to Tokyo Big Sight, a convention center in Odaiba near Tokyo Bay. So I pondered about my finances and my appetite for recklessness for a hot second. Did I want to spend the rest of my life wondering what meta story B wanted to tell, or did I want to exploit the embers of my diminishing youthfulness to go to Tokyo just to get this book in person?
On the afternoon of July 11, I took out my credit card and bought a plane ticket to Tokyo. I was going to Tokyo Big Sight, and I was going to get this book.
II. How to attend a doujin event
In Japanese, shukatsu (就活) means going to job-hunting events. Konkatsu (婚活) means (roughly) going to going to speed-dating events with a view to finding a marriage partner. Otakatsu (オタ活) thus means going to events related to the anime and manga you liked as a self-professed otaku. Students use A4-sized clear folders to keep handouts and printouts crisp and neat. Otaku fans keep A4-sized clear folders in binders designed to preserve A4-sized clear folders in mint condition. Trial lawyers mark their diaries to set trial dates for their case. Otaku fans mark their diaries on when they can apply for concert tickets, or when the next doujin event is, or when the next DVD disc collection is released.
Indeed, something to quickly learn about being a pop culture fan in Japan is that you need to work to love the work that you love. Or, in Thomas LaMarre’s words, otakatsu is the “otaku production of consumption” in the Foucauldian sense:
Techniques, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and ways of being, as to transform themselves in order to attain a state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection or immortality.
Only the most elementary of fans, therefore, would causally work into an anime merchandise store store and be content with the things that they see in front of them. Just as finding a job consumes one’s student life (quite literally in the case of Japanese students in their third year), steeping oneself in otakatsu consumes one’s leisure life, chasing after objects of desire for one’s entertainment, and then selling these objects at huge second-hand chain stores like Mandarake or Surugaya.
Just as otakatsu is a form of performative consumption, going to a doujin event is also a performance. Everyone has a role to play. Dweebs like me who come to doujin events looking for thin books to get are called 一般参加者 (general participants). People who want to distribute something at a doujin event are called サークル参加者 (circle participants, ostensibly because people who publish doujin comics and circles work in ‘circles’, even if some circles have a membership of one). (Doujin events distribute (頒布) rather than sell doujinshi because it’s not meant to be a commercial exchange and people generally aren’t there to make a profit.) People who want to dress up in their favorite characters are called コスプレ参加者 (cosplay participants).
Each class of participants is subject to their own set of rules. General participants are not allowed to sell, trade, or even give out anything for free. Cosplay participants, for example, or generally not allowed to leave home and go to the venue in their costume. Page 37 of the Comic Market 96 (Summer 2019) Catalog explains it like this:
Although cosplay is increasingly well-known, there are still people who have various thoughts about people who appear in crowded commuter trains or everyday spaces dressed as anime characters. Considering this situation, we currently prohibit participants who come to the venue or go home in their costumes.
If each rule is there for a reason, then I was anxious to find out how I had to prepare for my first dive into otakatsu. After I booked my flight to Tokyo, I immediately did some Google searches on ground rules on doujin events.
The first thing I was told to do was to make a doujinshi shopping list. I had to go on pixiv and Twitter to see if the illustrators I was interested in were going to どうやら出番のようだ17, and if so, what they were selling, and for how much. The event organizers also had a catalog prepared: a digital version you could go online to see before the event, and a paper version that they sold for 600 yen on the day. (The actual price of each event’s catalog and where and when they are sold depends on the event. Some catalogs, like the ones for Comic Market, are more than 1300 pages long and are weeks ahead in downtown bookstores across Japan to help general participants prepare.) Ideally, I needed pocket notebook in which I could write down the names of all the circle participants and their locations inside the exhibition hall, so I could make sure I hit all the spots I wanted on the day.
Second, I had to prepare some money. Cash, to be specific. Circle participants frown upon people who dish out 10,000 yen notes, not only because (as I would later learn) giving out change is a pain, but also to avoid people arguing over receiving the wrong change. I was told to prepare plenty of 500 and 100 yen coins, and 1000 yen banknotes, in a wallet separate from the main wallet I use. Furthermore, the event organizers were not going to provide any change machines on site.
Buying doujinshi from the illustrators themselves is cheaper than going to bookstores or used bookstores downtown, but I still had to budget properly. Most doujinshi are 40 pages or less and cost 500 or 600 yen. More substantial doujinshi with 80 to 100 pages cost 1000 yen. If a circle decides to publish a compilation of their previous works (called a 再録本 sairokuhon), or do an anthology with other circles, these span 200 to 300 pages and cost 2000 to 3000 yen each, depending on the circle’s popularity.
Third, I had to make sure to top up my transit card before I go. There is no worst nightmare than being stuck in line at the train station trying to top up your card and being prevented from going home.
Forth, I had to buy a plastic pouch that could fit all of the precious paper products that I would acquire at the event. I’ve experienced the horror of inadvertently crushing books and pamphlets in my bag. I do not want to do this to any doujinshi I get, especially under the watchful eyes of the circle participants.
Fifth, I had to bring some form of identification. Circle participants have to make sure that you’re over 18 before they are willing and able to sell you any doujinshi marked ‘R18’. As I would later learn, this is in response to Japanese law on child pornography and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s ordinance on the healthy development of young people (青少年の健全な育成に関する条例). Since I am not resident in Japan, that meant bringing my passport.
Sixth, I had to prepare for the weather. That meant getting wet tissues to wipe off your sweat in the hot summer weather, and an umbrella in case it rains.
Finally, I had prepare a good number of tote bags to bring to the event. It would be impractical to carry around all the little thin books I would get by hand. It would also be impractical to carry around a large backpack, as that wouldn’t be considerate to the people around me.
Being considerate to others was definitely to top of my worries. As I read more about these rules, I realized that being a general participant had a lot of responsibilities, as this (rather strict) guide to Comic Market illustrates:
Be gentle when getting hold of doujinshi
Ask the circle participant whether you can see the inside of a doujinshi before you pick one up. When you return the doujinshi, make sure to say thanks. This is because some people have, without saying anything, picked up a doujinshi, pretended to check its contents, and simply walked away holding the book (in other words, theft). Doujinshi are passion projects, so please handle them gently. Also, when general participants get hold of doujinshi, circle participants get nervous, because it looks like the books that they made are undergoing some sort of inspection. They will be grateful if you say something to them, and they will be delighted if you ask about their work, so don’t hesitate to talk to them. You have no obligation to buy anything if you simply want to see what the doujinshi is or to talk to circle participants.
Don’t diss people
Try not to diss other participants or works that you don’t like at the venue. You don’t know who’s going to hear what you say, and it’s difficult for people who made or like that work.
It didn’t help that this specific doujin event is not marketed towards the gender I identify as. I identify as a cis-gendered male, and yet it is mostly cis-gendered females who wholeheartedly consume these hot-blooded (male) Shonen Jump characters, imagine them doing things with and to each other, produce mountains upon mountains of doujinshi throughout the year, and organize dozens of doujin events in convention centers in Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka.
どうやら出番のようだ17 was, without doubt, one of these events for cis-gendered females doing otakatsu. There were plenty of books containing (really well-drawn) illustrations of Bakugou Katsuki doing things with and to Midoriya Izuku and / or Todoroki Shoto. On the balance of probabilities, most of these things are sexy things that are best left undescribed on this blog.
It also didn’t help that most of the Google results I found about cis-gendered males attending women-oriented events were either outdated, and contained slightly worrying information. One Yahoo Answers post dated 2012 said that it was possible that a (female) circle participant could technically refuse to sell their doujinshi to a (male) general participant. Another online forum comment dated 2010 said that some men would go to doujin events just to hit on women (ナンパ目的の男性), and that:
To be honest, I get nervous when I’m selling doujinshi that have even a little bit of yaoi in it, and there are men. It’s okay if they are so-called fudanshi, but I can’t tell if someone is a fudanshi or not based on how they look.
A (male) Twitter illustrator made a viral series of posts about him going to a women-oriented doujin event in 2018. He had read about how female circle participants were wary of men generally, because circle participants weren’t sure whether the men were interested in their work (which they welcome), or in themselves (which they do not welcome). This person sought to overcome these obstacles by getting a haircut, buying nice bomber jacket from Uniqlo to make himself look presentable, and by rehearsing the lines of what to say to circle participants, including what to do if a circle participant refuses to distribute a doujinshi to him. He ultimately had a great time, and no circle participant was wary of him because he was a cis-gendered male. But it was still worrying that he had to mentally prepare himself for the possibility that a circle participant would refuse to distribute a doujinshi he wanted to him.
So as I packed my suitcase for Tokyo, I threw in a short-sleeved button down shirt I purchased from Muji a few months ago. It was made of soft cotton, dyed a pale sky blue, and screamed affluent hipster waiting for his drip coffee at Blue Bottle Coffee on a warm spring afternoon in Nakameguro while catching up on the finances of his rice farm and bookstore startup in Sendai to revitalize the Tohoku region after the 2011 earthquake on his 13-inch MacBook Pro. Hopefully that shirt would be a promising start.
I was suddenly grateful that I was arriving in Tokyo a day before どうやら出番のようだ17, because I had a huge shopping list to get through.
III. How to make a shopping list
The first thing I did after I landed in Tokyo was to prepare my cash. The cheapest place to get Japanese yen in Hong Kong was in Chungking Mansions, and I didn’t have the foresight to ask the nice man behind the thick glass to return my money in 1000 yen bills, rather than 10,000 yen bills. So I decided to go to the ticket machine see and top up my Suica in 500 yen and 1000 yen increments using a 10,000 yen bill every time I used the train in Tokyo. That way, I could get my hands on 1000 yen bills, and make sure my transit card was full of money for the big day.
The more difficult task was to obtain 100 yen coins. Some Japanese websites tell you to buy drinks from vending machines to get change. I thought this was a waste of time. Instead, I decided to use the change machines in an arcade. Since I wasn’t getting change for the purpose of getting anything in the arcade, what I decided to do is what arcades deem to be 業務両替. This term literally means exchanging money for business, rather than consumer, purposes, which happens most often when large numbers of people require large amounts of change before major doujin events in Tokyo. (It could also happen when bona fide businesses go into arcades and exchange bills for coins for free, rather than doing it properly at a bank.)
A Japanese lawyer’s forum is full of questions from laypeople about whether one could be arrested for doing this in an arcade. In one forum post, a person had an arcade employee ask him whether he was going to play any of the arcade games with the coins he had just exchanged. The person lied to the employee’s face, loitered for a few more moments, and then left. He was worried that he would be caught by the arcade’s security cameras. A criminal defense attorney replied that what he did could constitute fraudulent business obstruction (偽計業務妨害) contrary to the Criminal Code. In any case, the arcade has a right to refuse business from anyone from uses their change machines for non-consumer purposes.
On the night I landed in Tokyo, I traveled to Kinshicho, a few stops on the Sobu Line east of Asakusabashi, where my hostel was. After enjoying a much-needed late night snack after an exhausting afternoon flight to Narita (a rich serving of oyster ramen with plenty of nori and a generous portion of sweet, fresh oysters in the bowl), I headed to the nearby Sega, a basement behemoth of white noise and red lights in a mostly shuttered mall at 10:30 p.m. at night.
The Kinshicho Sega would have been heaven for a night out with friends. The arcade had rows upon rows of claw machines, each with stocked with completely useless, plastic, and highly sought-after figurines, puzzles, and cushions. At the back, rhythm game machines waited for players to smash their buttons at inhuman speeds––complete with their own set of white gloves (to protect their fingers) and their own set of earphones (to hear the music properly above the arcade’s cacophony).
But I set my sights on the yellow change machines throughout the arcade. To be honest, walking into an empty arcade in a suburb in eastern Tokyo was asking for trouble. There were more employees than customers at this hour, and these employees were everywhere. If I had to play the dumb gaijin game of abusing change machines, I had to do it properly. After walking around the claw machines and pretending to be interested in the prizes that I statistically will never get, I inserted a number of 1000 yen notes into the change machine, grabbed what I needed, and walked out of the mall briskly before anyone could stop me.
The next morning, I walked to Akihabara, one stop west of Asakusabashi, in hopes of finishing off the rest of my shopping list.
The weekend draws out crowds in Tokyo. Akihabara was no exception. A group of tourists contributed to Akihabara’s noise pollution by driving a motorcade of obnoxiously loud go-karts, stripped of their unauthorized Nintendo branding, down the wide boulevard towards Asakusa, where all horrible overseas tourists to Tokyo should be banished. Female arcade employees were handing out disposable uchiwa fans to customers, beckoning them inside with high-pitched voices. A fictional idol group was holding a stamp rally at various locations across Akihabara. Groups of fans, clad with clunky backpacks and navy cardigans, weaved through bookstores and merchandise stores to collect a complete set of stamps on their small, crimson pamphlets. People who successfully got all 6 stamps would be able to claim a prize. Another store was holding an exclusive sale of merchandise belonging to the fictional idol group. An employee yelled instructions on a handheld loudspeaker, calling for people who had time-stamped ticket reservations to come throw their money at the store. As with most things in otakatsu, finding out about something on Twitter or at the venue itself on the day is far too late. Everyone plans well in advance for this on their otakatsu pocket calendars.
July 13 was also the same day Comic Market 96’s catalog hit the shelves in all the bookstores across Japan. Every bookstore in Akihabara was trying to get people to get the catalog at their store by wooing people with either large photos of a female idol I didn’t know, or a thin booklet of illustrations. This year, for the first time in its history, Comic Market required everyone to purchase wristbands to enter to cover increased security and venue costs, so getting a catalog, which included wristbands to cover all the days on which Comic Market was happening, became more or less mandatory. This was five days before a middle-aged man decided to pour gasoline on himself and set a Kyoto Animation building on fire.
I was in Akihabara to get my hands on something that could show the circle participants tomorrow that I loved My Hero Academia. Anything to appeal to them––especially to B, for whose book I traveled thousands of miles to Tokyo––that I appreciated Kohei Horikoshi’s comic, their work, and most of all, a fictional, blond, and explosive boy called Bakugou Katsuki. Alas, my mid-morning in Akihabara’s hobby stores were in vain. All the stores were more interested in selling merchandise from manga, anime, and games with almost exclusively female characters. Nothing from Shonen Jump––a magazine originally catered to young male readers––was in Akihabara, ironic for a town that was swimming with people belong to the magazine’s demographic that Saturday morning.
Defeated, I sought refuge at a Muji at a mall near Akihabara station, where I calmed down by staring at muted grey tones while listening to a generic melody of Scottish bagpipes in an air-conditioned space. I purchased some A4-sized plastic pouches, a denim case with zippers that acted as a secondary wallet, and a very small black shoulder pouch that I could place my wallet in, so I could easily access my cash without fumbling around with my pockets. I also got a passport-sized notebook from Muji, which I would later use to create my doujinshi shopping list.
In the afternoon, I went to Ikebukuro, the other otakatsu hub in Tokyo. (Aside from conventions held at Tokyo Big Sight, there are three otakatsu hubs in Tokyo: Ikebukuro, Akihabara, and Nakano, a college town to the west on the JR Chuo Line.)
When I studied abroad at Waseda University in 2016, the proliferation of sexualized schoolgirl imagery in Akihabara thoroughly disturbed me. I didn’t understand why Japanese pop culture depended on the consumption of women who had unrealistic personalities and unrealistic anatomies. Worse still, the fact that Shinzo Abe’s government wanted to export the manga-anime-video game industrial complex worldwide as part of the country’s ‘Cool Japan’ brand offended me.
My views on ‘Cool Japan’ haven’t changed, but a walk around Ikebukuro provided me with some much needed context. Ikebukuro was a separate but parallel world, in terms of gendered consumption, to Akihabara. If male consumers fondled over fictional women idol groups in Akihabara, then female consumers fondled over fictional male idol groups in Ikebukuro. If subway ads in Akihabara were about books and video games of fictional women who had unrealistic personalities and unrealistic anatomies, then subway ads in Ikebukuro were about books and video games of fictional men who had unrealistic personalities and unrealistic anatomies. Indeed, my very own pursuit of the My Hero Academia doujin event shows my own hypocrisy to my prejudices against the ‘Cool Japan’ brand. Who was I to dismiss everything about Akihabara’s images of women, when I was about to go after fan-made comic books about Bakugou Katsuki and his biceps? Why am I okay with the sexualization of young males, but not with young females?
In any case, I went to Ikebukuro in hopes of showing my love to My Hero Academia to the circle participants through can badges. I once thought that buying My Hero Academia can badges was a waste of time and money––why go through the trouble of trying to collect cheap, aluminum circles?––until I realized that this was the language that people in otakatsu speak. Much like trading pins at Disneyland, can badges are a person’s street cred. The larger, and rarer, the can badge, the greater the jealousy the badge engenders to an observer on the street (or at least, for me). (Also, people do actually exchange can badges on Japanese Twitter, just like the Disney trading pins.) The black shoulder pouch I got from Muji was perfect for pinning up a handful of can badges with Bakugou Katsuki’s face, and to show the circle participants that I was a serious reader.
So I went into the Ikebukuro branch of Animate looking for My Hero Academia can badges. It was a sweltering Saturday afternoon, and the store, which seven floors, was filled to the brim with people, mostly cis-gendered women. In the elevators, Mamoru Miyano, as Bungou Stray Dogs‘ Mamoru Dazai, asked people about their day at Animate Ikebukuro in a husky, whiskey voice on the loudspeakers. (The Akihabara Animate does not have this.) I went to the fifth floor, where was a huge collection of My Hero Academia can badges in every shape, color, and size.
Unfortunately, unlike the anti-capitalist origins of doujin events, can badges are a nasty capitalist conspiracy. Each type of can badge comes in at least 8 to 10 varieties, all with identical packaging, so you never know what you’re going to get. All of the packages are sealed with tamper-evident tape, and Animate employees will call you out if you try to sneakily peek at what’s inside. In other words, buying a can badge is like entering a lottery. More often than not, you pay your hard-earned money for a useless slip of paper representing your dashed hopes and dreams. And that was what exactly happened to me: I tried my luck with a number of can badges; alas, none of them at Bakugou Katsuki’s face on them. So that was 1000 yen down the drain.
I went across the road to a second-hand merchandise store called Lashinbang. This branch, in the basement of a building opposite Animate Ikebukuro, was dedicated exclusively to merchandise from Shonen Jump. Despite being a literal hole in the ground, the store was brimming with customers, mostly women, holding their prized findings in small shopping baskets. Here, nothing was hidden in sneaky cardboard packaging. I saw dozens of rows of Bakugou Katsuki can badges. Of course, I had to pay a premium for the privilege of choosing exactly what can badge I wanted. The rarest can badges, preserved in a large glass case, cost more than a sushi lunch in Ginza on a weekday afternoon, or a nice bottle of Suntory whiskey from a liquor store. I decided to pick up a handful of Bakugou Katsuki can badges, and a My Hero Academia tote bag. It wasn’t much, but it still cost 5000 yen.
At Waseda, I sometimes wanted to hang out with my friends in Ikebukuro. I liked Ikebukuro because it had all the major stores, was close to where I lived, and inside the range of my commuter pass to school (and therefore ‘free’ to go to). My friends, however, would give me a weird look. Why did I want to go to a place filled with high school female students? Why not hang out in Shibuya, where all the cool kids vomit? It wasn’t until now that I understood what they mean.
The buildings housing these merchandise stores in Ikebukuro are small and narrow. I had to yield to people who are going the opposite direction in the cramped hallways. Some of them were still in their school uniforms, fresh out of Saturday morning class, and on their way to look at doujinshi tucked away in the upper floors of Ikebukuro. I was also probably the only cis-gendered male customer in the store. Simply put, I felt out of place in Ikebukuro. Inside these compact merchandise stores, I felt that I was literally intruding into a safe space meant for others.
And to my knowledge, the act of producing and consuming My Hero Academia doujinshi is part of a safe space for some women. The little thin books I sought after are called yaoi, which, according to Tricia Abigail Santos Fermin at Osaka University, are:
fan-produced art and fiction [which] borrow characters and settings from original mainstream manga and animation and they imagine alternative scenes and stories, or re-interpretations of the official story. … in the case of yaoi, there is a special kind of tweaking involved. In fan-produced yaoi, usually two male characters who are not originally involved with each other romantically but somehow share a strong bond—be it friendship, rivalry or even hatred—are reinterpreted as indulging in romantic relations with each other.
(On the other hand, Boys’ Love manga now generally refers to original or commercially produced works that do not borrow characters and settings from original mainstream manga or animation. See page 25 of ボクたちのBL論.)
According to the Japanese studies literature, yaoi emerged as a reaction to gender roles and heteronormative romance in the 1970s:
…yaoi artists had issues with imbued meanings in representations of the female body, especially within the context of heterosexual relationships. For the earlier artists, female embodiment in itself automatically put their characters in a subordinate position in relation to men. In particular, being the “child-bearing sex” for them was considered a huge barrier to achieving equality in heterosexual relationships, for when a woman marries and gets pregnant, then the woman’s role is immediately relegated to caring for the family and becomes dependent on her husband, having to abandon whatever dreams of a career she may have. Being born female is already in itself a social disadvantage. However, the sterility of homosexual intercourse does away any possibilities of pregnancy that may put either party in a subordinate position. In a way, one can say that for yaoi artists and fans in Japan, especially during the 1970s, male homosexual love is deemed as the only way that they can portray a love relationship between equals in the realm of gender.
Therefore, in Japan, fujoshi are people who, perhaps, indulge in fantasies about men as an escape from real life. As Patrick Galbraith explains (references omitted):
Fujoshi are rotten because they are enthusiastic about yaoi, a genre of fan-produced fiction and art, usually manga, that places established male characters from commercial anime, manga, and video games into unintended romantic relationships, roughly analogous to “slash” fiction outside Japan … In a country where patriarchal family values persist, fujoshi are criticized for pursuing yaoi and are described as rotten because they are attracted to fantasies of sex that is not productive of children However, fujoshi typically lead heteronormative lives despite their queer fantasies, which they describe as nothing more than play. Indeed, fujoshi consciously situate their fantasy as digression: the term yaoi is an acronym for “no climax, no punch line, no meaning” (yama nashi, chi nashi, imi nashi). This follows a long tradition in Japan of asobi, or play that is outside the expectations and rules of the everyday.
Fudanshi, the term to describe cis-gendered male readers of yaoi, have the benefit of male privilege. They need not resort of queer fantasies to escape their own gender-related problems. This context is what makes me nervous about attending a ‘women-oriented’ doujin event. Why was I traveling thousands of miles to a Tokyo convention that was literally not created for me?
When yaoi and Boys’ Love manga spread to other countries, the idea of fujoshi became divorced from its feminist origins and seemingly took on a queer dimension. Many Japanese fujoshi readers have a heterosexual sexual orientation, but Hong Kong fudanshi readers are sometimes asked if they’re gay. Comb through the fanart on Tumblr and you can see hundreds of Tumblr users, many of whom identify on Tumblr as queer, drawing Shonen Jump characters with the pride or bisexual flags, or overlaying anime screenshots with a rainbow filter. People have heated arguments about which man (or woman) is allowed to be romantically ‘shipped’ with another, sometimes projecting their own real life experiences and romantic struggles to accept of reject other people’s imagined relationships of characters who only existed on digital screens and paper pages.
Part of me wants to outright reject mixing yaoi doujinshi and queer culture as a misguided weeaboo projection. A cultural debate called やおい論争 (lit. the “yaoi dispute”) erupted in the 1990s, when a gay man published a critical piece in a feminist zine arguing that yaoi manga discriminated against gay men in real life. In 2007, a writer called Hitoshi Ishida revived the debate between gay men and yaoi illustrators. As Akiko Hori explains (references omitted):
… the expanding Internet gave a boost to the boys’ love market, the word fujoshi came into use around the year 2000, and yaoi began to draw the attention of the mass media. Yaoi and fujoshi also caught the eye of researchers, but as Hitoshi Ishida notes, the yaoi fans who were the subject of such research tended to respond with “Leave us alone”. Ishida points out that yaoi fans—who imagine a gay romance that is not apparent in the original works on which yaoi is based—usually don’t react to hearing their activities called disgusting or yaoi denounced as antigay discrimination.
For Ishida, the fact that yaoi always already references real, existing gay people means that it is a mistake to see it as no more than a fantasy or fiction that has nothing to do with reality. Wondering if “yaoi may be misappropriating gay symbols”, Ishida mentions that Japanese fans tend to look the other way when confronted with a serious issue like antigay discrimination, or say things like “Real gay people and yaoi have nothing to do with each other”. This attitude stands in stark contrast to the tendency of yaoi fans in other countries to associate their love of yaoi with support for the LGBT movement.
Indeed, the idea of yaoi stories necessarily having a seme and uke is, in my opinion, asking who’s the ‘man’ and the ‘woman’ in a same-gender relationship. If one wanted doujinshi marketed for gay men, then one could search on pixiv with the appropriate tags, or better still, go to Yarou Fes, an annual convention in Yokohama dedicated to only distributing little thin books for gay men made by gay men.
Furthermore, in the Japanese-language media samples I found, the cis-gendered gay men interviewed therein don’t have particularly strong views about yaoi.
- In a 2016 withnews article, one gay man said that he sees as uninteresting and unrealistic (“読んだけどリアルじゃないから共感できなくて面白くなかった”).
- In a 2017 dialogue book with a Japanese male porn director and a female Boys’ Love critic, an anonymous gay interviewer in his 30s said that he couldn’t help by see yaoi as purely fantasy after having sex with real-life male partners, and that (somewhat problematically) gay men preferred young, masculine partners over long-haired, effeminate bishonen.(“BLに出てくるキャラって、髪の長い美少年とか、女性的なイメージがあるじゃないですか。ゲイの多くは、少年性とか男らしさが好きなので、キャラクターのルックスとか内面に女の子っぽい要素があると、あまり萌えないんです。…あと、リアルにオトコ同士で恋愛とかセックスしていると、どうしてもBLの世界観が、作り物に見えてしまう。” See pages 234 to 235 of the book.)
- In one mass-market Q&A book on LGBT issues, published in 2018, the author warned against fujoshi treating real-life gay and lesbian people as objects or toys, and being ‘okay’ with gay characters on paper, but not in the ‘three-dimensional’ world. Unlike manga characters, real-life people have real-life feelings. (“僕たちはマンガのキャラクターじゃないので、普通に傷つきます。See pages 214 to 215 of the book.)
And yet another part of me is sympathetic to people whose consumption of yaoi doujinshi ignores its origins of subversion against heteronormative gender roles for women. As page 123 of the December 2014 issue of Bijutsu Techo observes:
In the [yaoi] dispute, many female yaoi and Boys’ Love manga fans say that Boys’ Love manga has nothing to do with gay men. However, Boys’ Love authors and fans overseas tend to see the relationship between Boys’ Love manga and real-life ‘sexual minorities’ with a wider, sociological lens. Researchers who have conducted fieldwork in American and Italian Boys’ Love manga conventions say that Boys’ Love manga fans in America and Europe care about how realistically Boys’ Love manga culture portray male same-sex relationships (for example, on self-identifying as gay, homophobia, and the issue of coming out). Furthermore, Boys’ Love manga conventions in the Philippines not only sell doujinshi and yaoi merchandise, but also have lecture sessions on gender and sexuality.
More countries have become more accepting of diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity. Gay marriage is now possible in most Western democracies, and two wards in Tokyo recognize same-sex civil partnerships. And yet, queer people around this heteronormative planet must still go through the process of ‘coming out’: a public expression, or even confession, of who they want to love, to correct people’s views of who they think they should love. All the corporations and governments in the world can decorate their offices in rainbow for Pride Month, but ultimately everyone’s queer journey is their own.
So as people try to grapple with the queerness they are born with, perhaps people naturally look to yaoi, which represents a convenient intersection of their interests. People grasp for representations of their identity whenever they can. Who can blame those who inadvertently make yaoi doujinshi a part of their queer journey?
IV. How to confess your fetishes over dinner
Eagle-eyed readers (who can read Japanese) may notice that one of the recommended steps for first-time doujin-event general participants is to invite friends to go with you. This wasn’t something I could do easily. First of all, it’s rude to ask people to commit to something big on such short notice. Tokyo is a busy city, and friends have to book each other at least a week or a month in advance. Second, who the heck wanted to gaggle at a My Hero Academia convention of little thin books?
Last year, I met a female college student from Hokkaido who moved to Tokyo for college through a part-time job that I did in school in Hong Kong. I’ll call this person M. I wasn’t very good at keeping in touch with M, but I later learned that she was a big fan of My Hero Academia, so I thought it might be a good idea to reach out to her, just to know what she thought about the idea of me going to a My Hero Academia doujin event. I didn’t really expect her to go to Tokyo Big Sight with me the next day. I messaged her the night before I went to Tokyo, saying that I would be in town for the weekend, and whether she would be interested to grab dinner. To my surprise, she agreed.
We met in a warmly lit Italian-style izakaya in Nakameguro, a swanky neighborhood southwest of Shibuya. A light drizzle dressed the asphalt around Meguro River with the air of understated luxury and good taste. Over oven-roasted mushrooms, deep-fried chicken skin senbei, and arugula pizza, I decided to skip the pleasantries and asked M the million-dollar question: was it weird that I, as a cis-gendered male, wanted to attend どうやら出番のようだ17?
To my surprise, M didn’t really have a strong opinion about me going to the doujin event the next day. She said I would probably be ‘forgiven’ (許される) for going. “日本人に見えないから”, she said. “You don’t look like a Japanese person.” Apparently, I wore rounded glasses that looked different from what Japanese men would usually wear. That was a signal to other Japanese people that I didn’t look Japanese, and therefore wasn’t Japanese. As helpful as gaijin privilege could be sometimes, part of me didn’t want to be forgiven for going to a ‘women-oriented’ doujin event simply because I was neither identified as a Japanese person, nor was seen as a Japanese person.
I told M that I was going mainly because of B, the hilarious illustrator I saw on pixiv. I showed her the doujin sample that brought me to Tokyo. She loved it, and said if I told B tomorrow that I came all the way from Hong Kong just to get their work, “they would absolutely be delighted (きっと喜ぶよ)”. The more I talked to her about どうやら出番のようだ17, the more she wanted to abandon studying for her exam tomorrow to come join me at Tokyo Big Sight. I told her I would take the first train out of Asakusabashi tomorrow to arrive at Tokyo Big Sight at 7:00 a.m. She thought I was crazy.
We spent hours talking in that izakaya that night, long after we had finished our lime sours, and our brown butter chicken had turned lukewarm in the midsummer limelight. M told me that she wasn’t that intense of an otaku. Ikebukuro, to her, was 超オタク, or super otaku. Indeed, planning one’s life in Tokyo around manga and anime events was probably a little too much for M or me. She only had a few friends from Hokkaido with whom she shared an interest in anime. She actually didn’t really finish watching all of My Hero Academia, and only learned about what happened to the characters by reading spoilers on the Internet. Throughout the night, she kept giggling about the fact that we couldn’t stop talking my anime over dinner. An undercurrent of mutual embarrassment flowed in our conversation. I was embarrassed because I was confessing to someone whom I had not met for almost a year about being what was essentially Shonen Jump erotica. She was embarrassed at talking about me going to Tokyo Big Sight to buy Shonen Jump erotica. As I would later learn, people who consume Shonen Jump erotica don’t tend to expose their fetishes to the general public so causally on a Saturday night in a restaurant under the train tracks in a Tokyo suburb.
I also learned a few things about doujin events. I rattled off all of the rules I remembered from my research before leaving Tokyo. M agreed with everything I said, and she thought that it was a little far-fetched to think that a circle participant would refuse to distribute their doujinshi to me. M probably thought I was way too nervous from the research I did. “みんなおばさん”, she said. “Every illustrator there is actually a middle-aged woman”. The general participants, though, were probably slightly younger.
Our conversation turned to what anime we previously watched. I showed her an online list of anime that I had watched since that fateful summer of 2013. She commented on all the sports anime that I watched. Haikyuu was thinly disguised volleyball erotica, and Okiku Furikabutte, a relatively old manga about baseball, was unrealistic, because strong, healthy, male friendships didn’t really exist in real life.
M’s comment about male friendships struck me. I live under the tyranny of images: and what greater guilty pleasure is there from having access to an endless deluge of doujin illustrations accessible at any time of the day on one’s smartphone, and to go to a doujin event where hundreds of circle participants publish little thin books filled with the same illustrations. These images are (probably) why Kyoto Animation is loved by so many people in the world: they pay animators well enough to make the male anatomy sexy, and to conjure a franchise about high school students swimming out of thin air. And at the same time, the fact that muscular anatomies are directly proportional to one’s male sex appeal creates major body image problems for queer men.
But I believe that there is a message about masculinity and masculine relationships underneath this tyranny of yaoi imagery. There is a telling line when an interviewer in Bijutsu Techo observes that male-oriented doujinshi (featuring females characters) are drawn from the reader’s perspective, but female-oriented yaoi doujinshi are drawn from the side, with an emphasis on both people and their relationship.
I had very few real, healthy male friendships in high school. I hate complaining about my high school years; alas, the more I think about them, the more I realize how much they hurt me. Who had the biggest abs and pecs were the hot topics of the day in every locker room session. There was one male classmate in particular who walked around school with a toxic cocktail of masculine pride. With an athletic build and an unbroken line of girlfriends that he had strong-armed into dating, he was the alpha male among all the male students I knew in my circle of friends. The last time we met at a winter holiday party a few years back, he asked me how it felt to be rejected by my high school crush.
In the last few months, as I consumed Bakugou Katsuki images at a breakneck pace on my phone, I wondered if this masculine trauma was what I sought to escape from. To a fictional world where men were open with their vulnerabilities, and able to express gratitude, love, and support to one another. To a fantasy world where cis-gendered women defined the healthy boundaries of masculine relationships, in a genre created to escape from the heteronormative oppression of our lonely world.
At the end of dinner, M told me that she would join me midday at どうやら出番のようだ17. It was, after all, more fun to go to a doujin event with friends. Elated, we parted at the train station, and I went back to my hostel in Asakusabashi, ready for the big day.
To be continued in Part 2.
Notes and further reading
- This post contains descriptions of Japanese criminal law. I am not a Japanese criminal attorney, nor do I profess any knowledge about Japanese law. This post is not legal advice for anyone and I provide this information for entertainment purposes. If you require legal advice, please seek assistance from a legal professional qualified to practice in Japan.
- For an overview of contemporary Boys’ Love manga, I recommend this very comprehensive reading list prepared by a PhD student. If you can read Japanese, the December 2014 issue of Bijutsu Techo is a good read. I also recommend BL進化論 ：ボーイズラブが社会を動かす by Akiko Mizoguchi, which provides a history of Boys’ Love manga, and the ‘yaoi dispute’ debate in the 1990s.
- So far, no doujinshi that I’ve read in Japanese address the issue of queerness, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity. I am therefore sympathetic to people who see yaoi doujinshi as a wholesale exploitation of queer identities for the benefit of people who have the privilege of not needing to address the question of queerness. Fortunately, mainstream publishers are printing an increasing number of comics and essays about LGBTQ+ issues. One of my favorites is a comic essay called あさな君はノンケじゃない! (Asana isn’t straight!) by Sakuma Asana.
- I fucking hate Tokyo go-kart tours. They are very noisy. All visitors to Japan have to eliminate their primordial desire of thinking that they can drive through the streets of Tokyo as if they were on a Mario Kart racetrack. First, they aren’t. Second, far from looking like cool Mario Kart racers, they just look like a formation of twats taking up precious street space on Tokyo’s crowded roads. And third, it’s a manifestation of modern orientalism. I’m surprised (and glad) that Vox sent a writer to write about this: “Companies that let visitors drive a go-kart in costume, dress up in traditional garb, or even have robots or ninjas serve them dinner all fit within the stereotype that Japan is full of silly-yet-stern, tech-savvy people with strange, exotic customs.”
- Many American readers misunderstand Bakugou Katsuki because they’ve chosen to read poorly translated versions of My Hero Academia online. If you’re interested in My Hero Academia, keep a look out for all the little details about him and his relationship with Izuku Midoriya, and you’ll understand why he’s consistently rated the most popular character by Shonen Jump readers.