Acclaimed manga author Akiko Higashimura (famous for Kuragehime, or Jellyfish Princess, a series about female otaku) this week cancelled her latest series, Himozairu, after just two chapters, following an online outcry. The publisher, Kodansha (it was being serialised in their Morning magazine) announced the author’s decision on their website, noting that it was in response to various feedback received over social media.
There was some discussion over what had happened in the Japanese language press – here’s the Asahi Shimbun, Jiji Press, Mainichi Shimbun (all traditional news providers), Blogos and NicoNicoNews (portal news sites), and Joshi-Spa and Cyzo Woman (online women’s magazines). Some TV news sites devoted short segments to getting talking heads to give their views on the manga and its cancellation. It was all fairly civil, low-level stuff – there’s certainly no indication in these accounts or on Higashimura’s own Twitter account to suggest that she was facing some awful, GamerGate-esque campaign of hatred (though don’t get me wrong, those things do happen in Japan and they’re spectacularly horrible).
Then the Asahi Shimbun translated its story into English, and it spread from there to fansites (here’s AnimeNewsNetwork’s take) and eventually to the mainstream media (here’s the Washington Post). The narrative as it’s reached the Washington Post, and hence a wider audience, is that Kodansha and/or Higashimura have been forced to pull the series due to a “torrent of criticism” from people who think the comic is “demeaning to men” because it shows them “doing laundry, cooking and washing dishes” – and that suggesting that men should learn domestic skills in Japan is “close to sacreligious”. The Post concludes that in Japan, “there’s no room for women to even dream about a world where men might whip up dinner and pick up their own socks.”
Those of you who read Japanese might now find it interesting to flick through the links provided above and contrast the tone and content of the Japanese articles with that of the Washington Post piece. The Post’s narrative is that this is a backlash from the patriarchy to the mere suggestion of men doing housework; Post writer Anna Fifield links the manga’s message to the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter and accuses the manga’s critics of rallying to a call of “misandry!”. It’s a strong message, not least because it fits so neatly with the established narrative; we know that Japan is a sexist place that’s far behind other developed countries in its treatment of women and in the workplace opportunities which they are offered. We know that career women in Japan are criticised for failing to have babies and stay at home to look after them, and that women who do have babies are forced out of their workplaces. Fifield’s account in the Post fits that narrative neatly and gives us something straightforward to feel outraged about for a few minutes of our coffee break.
Yet in the original Japanese news coverage, the story is quite different. Sure, the Asahi piece notes that critics disliked the manga for “putting down her male assistants” (“mocking” or “looking down on” might also be reasonable translations), though I note that the “and other men” part added to the English translation of the piece is not in the Japanese original. Other stories give lots more context to the criticism, though. Jiji Press cites a critic saying that the manga “doesn’t show consideration for house husbands” (literally, men engaged in work in the home). The Blogos piece notes, alongside a sense that the manga ungently mocks its subjects, criticism of the manga’s conflation of “himo” (parasitical men who live off their spouse’s earnings) and “house husbands”. The Joshi-Spa piece accuses the manga of looking down on unmarried women and house-husbands alike. Only the Cyzo Woman piece implies that the gender-related nature of the manga earned it unwarranted bashing, suggesting that Kodansha’s staff should have realised it wasn’t suitable for free publication online (make what you will of that – I think it’s rather condescending, personally).
So which is it? Did Himozairu fall to a hate campaign by thin-skinned men horrified at this assault on traditional gender roles? Or, on the contrary, did critics who disliked its very support for traditional gender roles and mocking of men who fall outside those roles derail it by convincing the author she had made an error in her depiction?
Though it’ll be hard to say for sure until such time as Higashimura makes a further statement on her decision to suspend publication, I lean towards the latter interpretation. Firstly, because the former interpretation seems to have crept in when a (dubiously translated) Asahi Shimbun article was picked up and spun into quite a different narrative by the Washington Post, seemingly without reference to any other original sources (seriously, the WaPost story cites the translated Asahi story and the AnimeNewsNetwork story, which itself solely cites the translated Asahi story, and not a single other source – I found the seven articles above in under five minutes on Google!). Secondly, because the content of the manga itself is genuinely uncomfortable not from a weird Men’s Rights Activist perspective but from a progressive perspective. Its essential contention is that “loser” men who are no good at getting ahead in “proper” careers should learn household skills in order to attract a career woman who’ll marry them as a “kept man”. This is incredibly problematic; it implies, all at once, that only “loser” men should do household work; that house husbands are men who have failed at other things; and that the relationship between a career woman and a house-husband is an unequal, “kept man” situation. Looked at from another angle, it’s also not saying anything progressive or praiseworthy about women who become housewives and their relationships with their husbands.
Honestly, the problems with this manga start from the word “himo” itself, which the Washington Post gently translates as “string”, implying that it refers to a man who lives off his wife’s purse strings. It’s got far more negative connotations than that; it also means “leash”, for a start (and the manga refers to women who marry “himo” men as their “owner”), and more troublingly means “pimp”, in the sense of a man who lives off a woman’s (immoral) earnings. It’s a term utterly steeped in regressive, traditional and unpleasant gender connotations. Perhaps Higashimura intended to challenge those connotations and reclaim the term; if so, she went about it entirely the wrong way, starting from the very moment when she described (in the pitch line for the manga!) her “training” for housework and chores as being aimed at “men who have dreams, but have no money, no job, no popularity and no style”.
Japan has huge problems with gender; roles are traditionally constructed and strongly socially enforced, which contributes to a lack of opportunity for women (slowly but surely being overturned by a combination of policy and economic reality) and a relentlessly sexist media environment, not to mention being a major factor, I believe, in both the low birth rate and the high suicide rate (especially among men). There is, however, progress occurring, both on a policy level (criticise Shinzo Abe’s motivation for Womenomics all you like; the policies are real and they’re slowly, all too slowly, starting to move previously intractable business culture in a good direction) and on a cultural level (the outcry over sexist heckling in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly about a year ago would probably never have happened in the recent past, because nobody would have thought it untoward). It’s important that we don’t try to pigeonhole gender issue related news events into our own pre-selected narrative for convenience, because doing so risks missing the important detail of the picture. In the case of Himozairu, my sense of what has happened is not that the patriarchy has lashed out and silenced a woman’s voice, but that a very talented young author has reconsidered her stance on an issue of gender following progressive criticism. If so, it’s a good thing – and I for one would love to see Higashimura return to the issue in future with a more thoughtful approach.