Josei Manga in the US

(This article was originally published in PiQ #3, June 2008.)

Josei manga, or from the Japanese, “ladies’ comics”, are titles aimed at women between 18-30 years of age. They usually deal with the same romantic subjects as girl-targeted shojo, but with more realism and mature content, including sex scenes. In addition to questions about finding Mr. Right (or Mr. Right Now), the female leads may deal with workplace issues, including harassment or finding the right job. Visually, the books tend to be less detailed, with elements given more room on the page, and less sparkly than shojo. Their loose, flowing lines suggest fashion illustration as an influence.

In the US, josei titles have struggled. That’s unsurprising, given the typical audience for comics and graphic novels; older women are the last untapped market. Today, several of the most successful josei titles are sold as shojo, with age ratings or “mature content” warnings the only suggestion that they’re aiming for an older audience.

There’s also the question of labeling. In Japan, titles are categorized based on the target audience of the magazine that they originally appeared in. In the US, that method of classification is obscure at best. Arguments may also arise over whether something is josei or just mature shojo. The age of the protagonist, the challenges she faces, and the type of content all factor into this decision. That said, here are some of the high points of the genre in the US.

Tokyopop has the deepest selection of josei titles. They began in 2003 with both Happy Mania, an 11-volume sex comedy about a Tokyo twenty-something craving a boyfriend, and a series of six books by Erica Sakurazawa. The latter were stand-alone stories branded, unusually, under the author’s name. Unfortunately, readers were destined to be disappointed, as the last book of the set ended with “to be continued”, a promise yet to be fulfilled.

In 2004 came Tramps Like Us (in Japan, Kimi wa Petto), one of the best of the genre so far. It’s the story of a working woman who is criticized for being too smart, too tall, and too successful. After an accidental meaning, she adopts a younger man as her housepet and a source of support. During their comedic interactions and attempts to hide their living situation, the two find the strength to follow love and defy societal expectations imposed on them. The last of the 14 volumes was published earlier this year.

In March 2005, Tokyopop announced “Manga After Hours”, a marketing effort that would promote those three series as summer reading for women who were “a little bit older, intelligent, independent, and discerning.” The promotion never happened, which is unfortunate, because chick lit buyers would be an excellent audience for these titles. Instead, two volumes of low-key erotic stories were released under the umbrella title Passion Fruit, which was cancelled for low sales before more volumes arrived.

Tokyopop continues to aim for the older audience, though, with new series Suppli, another working woman story, starting last year. If they can find success, they have the potential both to reach a new audience and to continue providing current readers with material of interest as they grow up.

All other US manga publishers have at least one title that can be considered josei, although none are labeled as such. For Del Rey, it’s Nodame Cantabile, about music students falling in love as they pursue their careers. Digital Manga put out Antique Bakery, which is sometimes mistaken for yaoi due to its gay characters. Musashi #9, starring a female James Bond, is from CMX, while new publisher Yen Press released With the Light, about raising an autistic child.

Viz has published two of the most popular titles in this genre, both award-winning, but they’re marked as shojo, to fit better in established purchasing and marketing patterns. Nana was first serialized in Shojo Beat magazine in 2005, only to be rotated out once themes became noticeably mature (including an unexpected pregnancy for one of its title characters). It’s still available in book form. Honey and Clover, collected beginning in March 2008, is unusual in that its protagonists are male, art school students who find themselves in a number of love triangles.

Which brings us to new publisher Aurora, bent on bucking this trend for josei in the US. They’re not shy about who they’re targeting. Their announcement of their arrival at the end of 2007 stated that they were “dedicated to publishing manga of the highest artistic quality with the highest entertainment value for females of all ages. … It is Aurora’s mission to introduce the highest quality Japanese manga titles to the wider population of North America, and develop the manga market here for a more mature audience.” Since they’re the American subsidiary of Ohzora, a preeminent Japanese josei publisher, they have the background to do it.

Walkin’ Butterfly was their first josei book, released in August 2007 as one of their launch titles. (They also publish shojo.) A young woman blames being tall for her lack of purpose and love, until she stumbles into a fashion show and decides to become a model. First, she has to learn to be comfortable in her own skin, a challenge symbolized by the artist drawing the character as a full-body nude. As a personality, she’s prickly, even unlikable, which makes for a challenging yet rewarding read that most women can relate to, given mood swings and body image issues. The remaining three volumes in the series will come out during 2008.

Even more interesting is an Aurora imprint named Luv Luv, which releases even more explicit material, or as they put it, “hot and sexy… passionate manga”. Voices of Love, a stand-alone collection of short stories, initiated the line in January. Whether finding out that the noisy neighbor next door is her student or running into an old classmate, the women in these tales encounter fantasy-worthy men and have sex with them. Several of them are rescued by men who then declare their love. They’re Harlequin-style romances, in other words, and the single volumes provide quick enjoyment without ongoing commitment. Luv Luv promises a new book every two months, with titles that include Real Love, Love for Dessert, and Pretty Poison. All promise to explore relationships and, no doubt, provide happy endings.

Prior to the launch of Aurora, no one was willing to go public about their commitment to this audience and follow through whole-heartedly on their intentions. One noted industry observer has commented that a josei boom is unlikely to happen until “a good anime geared toward adult women shows up on afternoon/evening television and pushes readers toward an equally good manga series.” Others speculate that it’s only a matter of time, as teenage manga readers hit college age and try new titles that better reflect more grown-up concerns. Aurora’s launch brings hope for more josei titles to reach the US and satisfy the adult female audience, the leading group of book buyers.


  1. I’d count these as josei and seongin too:

    Real Lies by Lee Si Young (was there ever a second volume?)
    Chicago by Tamura Yumi (marketed as shôjo adventure by Viz years ago)
    Forest of Gray City by Uhm Jung-Hyun
    9 Faces of Love by Wann


  2. I keep meaning to try Forest of Gray City, but it’s hard to find, what with the publisher change.

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  5. i love josei being an older female manga reader i mostly read josei now. i’m lucky to be able to read in chinese so i get a good selelction of them in chinese. since not alot are published in english yet.. yet the more i read them the more i kinda doubt how popular they might be in the states. b/c women’ place in society and work place issues are different btw US and in japan women are often expected to pour tea even the guys in the office might be at the same seniority level as you..

    i guess the core of love vs work , and searching-for-mr.right , bodily issues are universal themes but i wonder the difference in culture might be an impediment to popularity of this genre.

    josei are more often made into dorama rather than anime. the most recent josei made into anime is Hataraki man by Mayocco Anno, the author of happy mania.
    it’s ok.. i like happy mania and flowers/bees better.

    some of the dorama based on josei are not too bad. one i can recommend would be kimmi wa petto.

  6. kimmi wa petto is the dorama for ” tramps like us..”

  7. I seem to recall 12 Days was originally commissioned by TP to be part of their PassionFruits/Josei line. There’s also Harlequinn’s efforts, though I’m not sure they’re still putting out manga…… I recall seeing some post-DH volumes out there though.

  8. lelo Says: “…yet the more i read them the more i kinda doubt how popular they might be in the states. b/c women’ place in society and work place issues are different btw US and in japan women are often expected to pour tea even the guys in the office might be at the same seniority level as you…”

    Good point. At the same time, there are differences in culture between teen girls in the US and teen girls in Japan too, and that doesn’t seem to hinder shôjo’s popularity…

  9. @Hsifeng:

    I agree with you there. And I do think, that though the perception of women in Japan and the US are different, there ARE similarities.

    I enjoyed both Suppli and Tramps Like Us, and felt it captured well how hard it is STILL to be taken seriously as a career woman. How to balance out career and family while living out society’s expectations is still hard, no matter where you are.

    These are universal issues affecting the US that the best (realistic, non Harlequin romance josei. Not that I have anything against those, but…) of Japanese josei deals with well. I believe women all around us are awakening to their human rights, Japanese women as well, and I like looking at their views, comparing it to American, and seeing the similarities and differences. And some josei gives the newer views as well as older views of the Japanese on women. I find it fascinating….

    This just popped into my head though. A lot of josei I’ve read is about single women looking for their fit in the world, and perhaps finding success and a romance.

    I wonder if there’s a manga or something out there about women who have already married, with children? Maybe even a housewife and their own struggles (like, not having a career. Really, society is so double-edged). Like, divorce with/without children, maintaining a marriage, how to live with your dream-man after meeting him. Raising children, ect. That’d be really nice.

    I’d love reading it…But I can’t seem to think of any like that….

  10. With the Light is about a married woman raising an autistic child.

    But yeah, in most cultures, it’s hard to find stories about staying happy in marriage. Weddings are treated as the happy ending, not just the beginning.

  11. @Miki

    There are lady’s comic magazines published in Japan about marriage and family(“For Mrs” is one example). I don’t read them so I wouldn’t really know if they have mostly one-shots or would have collections published (with lady’s comics I read primarily horror and mystery)

  12. :sigh: I have tons of reading to do. I absolutely adore the idea of so many Josei manga titles to choose from now… that my head is spinning. I just started getting into manga, so I’m glad I have so many to read. I just hope I don’t become let down with a “shortage” of sorts after I get my paws wet. I hope it becomes more popular.

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  15. […] Suppli Book 1 came out three years ago, I tried it. And even though I am always looking for josei manga (aimed at women, not girls) and although Suppli was well-recommended, it didn’t click for me […]

  16. […] For more information on josei manga, which is manga aimed at adult female readers, check out this 2008 overview article or this post about examples of the genre and its resulting comments, which are full of […]

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