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Where Is My Place in the World?: Early Shōjo Manga Portrayals of Lesbianism

From: Mechademia
Volume 9, 2014
pp. 25-42 | 10.1353/mec.2014.0007

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Where Is My Place in the World?
Early Shōjo Manga Portrayals of Lesbianism

I have often been asked about the lack of lesbians depicted in shōjo manga, especially compared with the numerous depictions of gay men. At one event I spoke with a lesbian woman for a long time, and the heart of the issue finally became vividly clear to me: “Why is it that there are so few lesbian shōjo manga?” 1

I attempted to respond with this explanation: “Lesbianism introduces reality into the work.” After all, doesn’t Hagio Moto say that when she was writing “Jūichigatsu no gimunajiumu” (1971, November gymnasium)—which was the model for her masterpiece The Heart of Thomas (1974, Tōma no shinzō), that set shōnen’ai in motion—doesn’t she say that at the draft phase, she tried writing both a female and a male version, and she gave up the female version because it was too raw and fleshy? 2 Girl readers do not want to embrace female bodies; they want to create a distance between themselves and sexual love. If that is indeed the case, then girls have no reason to desire lesbianism.

The lesbian woman I was speaking with responded: “Yet before the war the world of ‘S’ that Yoshiya Nobuko created was so well supported by girls. I can’t believe that there is no demand from readers for that kind of work now.” 3

I could not produce an answer that completely satisfied this particular woman, and I continued to wrangle with the issue: “Why can’t love between [End Page 25] women provide sufficient fantasy for girls today?”

One explanation that I might give is that the closed, girls-only time and space that comprised Yoshiya Nobuko’s world does not exist as a communal object any more. Of course there are still girls’ schools now, and in those places there are still wavering emotions between girls, and this is reflected in works such as Yoshida Akimi’s Sakura no sono (1985–86, The cherry orchard).4 However, these works do not replicate the experiences of the general masses, and although girls’ schools may exist, these days they are substantially influenced by the outside world. The schools can no longer exist as maidens’ gardens (otome no sono).5

Most important, in Yoshiya’s time, girls’ schools provided a temporary respite before marriage. Marriage was usually something parents imposed on girls with or without the girls’ agreement. Therefore in the limited time before marriage, girls desired the only love that they could freely choose for themselves: the fantasy of love between girls. And they savored it. However, as the concept of freedom in romantic relationships was popularized, romantic relationships with the opposite sex surfaced as a means for girls to choose their own paths through marriage. We label this concept “modern romantic love ideology.” This powerful fantasy drove out all other fantasies.

Thinking through my explanation, I have come to realize that my first instinct, that “lesbianism introduces reality into the work,” conceals an essential issue. I would like to consider that issue here, by examining some of the few shōjo manga that actually portray lesbianism, starting with the origins of this phenomenon in the early 1970s.

DARK ENDINGS IN LESBIAN WORKS

The earliest and most famous shōjo manga work portraying lesbians is Yamagishi Ryōko’s “Shiroi heya no futari” (1971, The two of the white room).6 This is the tragic love story of Simone and Recine, who are assigned a shared room in their school dormitory. When Simone is called on in class, she recites a Rainer Maria Rilke poem that is not in the textbook:

I must die because I have known her Die for the indescribable radiance of her smile For her light hands I must die, for her . . . 7

[End Page 26]

It is a very affecting poem. Simone then leaves Recine murmuring mysteriously, “I was looking at you as I said it.”

Backing up slightly, the story begins with Recine, who has just lost her parents in an accident, coming into the dormitory of the girls’ school. Her roommate...