A Trip Underground

Dojinshi cartoons offer glimpse into a bizarre side of the Japanese psyche

Text and photos by ERIC PRIDEAUX

Pop into any bookstore and you'll find shelves overflowing with comic books about samurai, yakuza, war, business, baseball, soccer, golf, examination hell, high-school romance, office affairs -- in every genre from sci-fi to porn. And that's just the tip of Japan's manga iceberg. But one thing you're not likely to find there are dojinshi -- underground comics read by hundreds of thousands every week that make even the most off-the-wall mainstream manga look simply mundane.

Dojinshi, meaning "niche journal," doesn't refer to any one style of publication, but to a way of publishing. Unlike their mass-market counterparts, stamped with ISBN numbers and sold at licensed bookstores, these underground manga are run off in small batches by amateurs who mainly sell them by mail order, through specialist shops or at comic-book conventions.

Though dojinshi include poetry, novels and even lay research papers, the vast majority are comics covering, with often outrageous abandon, the usual range of comic themes. And though their creators are mainly amateurs, the paper and printing quality of many dojinshi rivals or exceeds that of the thick, gaudy manga on pulp paper that weigh down konbini shelves from Hokkaido to Okinawa.

Despite artwork that is often outstanding, creative innovation in dojinshi is purely optional. The main characters are often drawn directly from commercial comics and dropped into scenarios based loosely on the originals, making up an alternate alternate reality, so to speak.

Dojinshi generally fall into one of four categories: the whimsical ya-o-i (an anagram of the phrase yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi, meaning "no setup, no punch line, no meaning"); June, a genre starring tough-guy heroes in risque tales aimed at women aged 25 and up; ero (erotic), mostly for men; and "normal," in which sex plays a relatively minor role.

However, don't bother looking too hard for Japanese equivalents of either samizdat -- the Cold War-era dissident literature of Eastern Europe -- or the subversive, drug-soaked hijinks of 1960s American counterculture heroes such as the "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers." Though dojinshi cartoonists do occasionally cover serious social issues in their work, comics about current events are rare -- evidence, perhaps, that Japan's underground is as politically apathetic as its mainstream.

Interestingly, while males are the main consumers of commercial manga, whereas females -- particularly ones in their mid-20s -- dominate the market for dojinshi.

And for anyone who still views Japanese women as shrinking violets, it may come as a surprise that, just like men, these women want to see lots (and lots and lots) of sex on the pages of their dojinshi.

To be precise, homoerotic sex between teenage boys. But why just that variety?

One reason, explain insiders, is that young maidens grow jealous when their favorite boy character gets involved with a girl -- even if the floozy's only two-dimensional. So high do emotions run, in fact, that factions of female readers devoted to particular characters will squabble over how they are portrayed by different artists. "We get one or two fist fights a year," sighs Soichi Watanabe, a clerk at a dojinshi shop in Tokyo's funky Shimokitazawa district.

As well, all this boy-meets-boy stuff appeals to these young women simply because it's not the norm. "When the characters are a man and a woman, the whole thing becomes too much like reality," explains 28-year-old dojinshi fan Kazue Kobayashi. "Same-sex relationships, on the other hand, are so alien to most readers that the stories assume a dreamlike quality."

An example of this kind of work is "Kaleidoscope," one of several dojinshi based on "The Prince of Tennis," a popular mainstream manga about a junior high school tennis team's rise to greatness. In the original, the characters focus primarily on winning tournaments. In "Kaleidoscope," there's more "15:love" in the bedroom than on the courts. All in all, about three-quarters of popular dojinshi comics contain sexually explicit material, estimated Essai Ushijima, an enthusiast for 22 years who writes critical essays about the industry.

Of course, titillation isn't every artist's cup of tea. Risa Suzuki, for instance, has spent the last 12 years portraying events from Chinese and Japanese history in the frames of her dojinshi. The cartoonist's most recent work combines drama with humor to tell the tale of a group of sailors in the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II. "On one hand, these guys are fighting for their lives," says Suzuki, 28. "But I still manage to throw in a joke here and there."

Besides serving as an outlet for their artists' intellectual and creative impulses, the dojinshi market also allows them to make some money -- though in Suzuki's case the several thousand copies she sells a year earns her barely enough to live on.

For Suzuki and hundreds of artists like her, though, it would be hard even to pay the printing costs if it weren't for Comic Market, called Comiket for short -- a colossal meeting of dojinshi sellers and buyers held twice yearly at the Big Sight convention center on Tokyo Bay.

The event fills the huge hall to capacity, not just with teens and twentysomethings, but also with a devoted following of older fans including physicians, police officers and lawyers. Some 480,000 people, many dressed like their favorite cartoon characters, flocked to Comiket in December --a turnout that dwarfs even the renowned Frankfurt Book Fair's 170,000-odd visitors every year.

With numbers like that, it's no wonder that Comiket's supporters describe their extravaganza in reverential tones. Ushijima, the dojinshi critic, claims an outpouring of self-expression on that scale is nearly impossible elsewhere in conformist Japanese society. "You get beat down, told you're an upstart," he says, "but you're accepted at Comiket."

Alas, not everybody is as pleased. Mainstream publishers grumble about their cartoon characters showing up in underground comics. "We in the industry work hard to create original material, only to watch dojinshi go ahead and violate copyrights," says Tomoaki Iwasaka, who edits comic strips at the respected Shinchosha Publishing Co. in Tokyo.

And as part of a crackdown on obscenity, in 1991 police confiscated thousands of dojinshi from merchants in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward and arrested several shop owners.

Still, that raid was a decade ago, and since then dojinshi have not attracted much police attention. With the exception of the odd pirating lawsuit, attorneys have also for the most part kept their distance.

Instead, it seems that nowadays most disapproval is likely to come from an authority figure of a more intimate nature. "My mom says, 'You're reading comics again? Aren't you ever going to grow up?' " the dojinshi buff Kobayashi says with a blush.

"But then I just tell her, 'What's the problem? It's my hobby. I'm not hurting anybody.' "

This story originally ran in a Japan Times package on manga:

The Japan Times: March 23, 2003
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