13a. The Problematic Gendering of Shōnen Manga

Over the weekend I was at ICAF, and so I am still recovering from excessive travel.  I’ve decided to post the text of the paper I gave (or rather how I wrote it up–I tend not to actually read papers at conferences), and next week I’ll give some thoughts on the panel as well as the conference as a whole.

In 2006, the entertainment weekly Oricon Style surveyed 3000 female readers to see which manga magazines were most popular among them. Many of the usual suspects made the list—shōjo anthologies such as Bessatsu Maaguretto, Hana to yume, LaLa—but most surprising to the Oricon editors was the weekly that topped the list, Shūeisha’s Shūkan Shōnen Jump. While the various shōjo or “girls’” magazines were to be expected, how was it that the most popular comic magazine among female readers was one marketed to boys? The answer to this question lies in the early history of Japanese children’s print culture and how what is now a somewhat hard and fast distinction between shōnen as “boys” and shōjo as “girls” developed discursively within that context.

Luffy's a pirate, everyone's a pirate!

Luffy’s a pirate, everyone’s a pirate!

But, there’s nothing particularly odd, really, about girls and young women reading comics “for” boys, right? What’s most surprising here is the surprise on the part of the Oricon editors. Why would they assume female readers gravitate only to those print media marketed to them? Well, for some time now, Japanese comic publishers have used demographics as the primary means to carve up the now massive, though diminishing, manga market and to determine particular ranges of style. Of course, genres are important as well, but when you go into a shop that sells manga, they will be shelved according to demographics and not genre: shōnen, shōjo, seinen, ladies/josei, salaryman, etc. As a result, industry insiders, who, one imagines, must be profoundly out of touch with their own audience, have come see these categories as more than just marketing tools but as meaningful group cultures based in age and gender divisions. This assumption is rendered doubly interesting, when you consider how the very idea of shōjo or shōjo bunka (“girls’ culture”) is in many ways the invention of the first print periodicals marketed to children and has been reified ever since by the successors to those original weeklies and monthlies.

Though “boy” and “girl” are convenient translations for shōjo and shōnen—and certainly this is what they mean in contemporary Japanese—I’m going to continue using the Japanese words and not their translations, because, as I hope to show, shōnen (both the word and demographic category) was not originally gender specific—until the early 20th century, it meant, for the most part, “youth”—and, despite the intent of manga content producers of various casts, something of that original gender non-specificity lingers in manga print media, invisibilized by the demographic assumptions that would pigeonhole boys and girls in rigid gender roles. What I hope to argue in this paper, then, is that shōnen manga is, in practice if not intent, a generic rather than a gender specific manga demographic and that when in the early 20th century shōnen and shōjo print culture emerged as distinct things, this distinction did not map onto two mutually exclusive readerships. In fact, throughout the 20th century, this seemingly obvious distinction between “boys” and “girls” remained largely a creature of the print media themselves.

Shōjo sekai (Girl's World) - note the pink hair ribbon

Shōjo sekai (Girl’s World) – note the pink hair ribbon

It is important to begin, then, in the late 19th century modernizing reforms in Japanese education. Honda Masuko, in her pioneering study Jogakusei no keifu (The origins of the “girl student”), shows the various ways in which girl students were distinguished from boys in terms of social behavior and dress and how those forms of dress later contributed a visual iconography whereby boys might graphically be distinguished from girls. Print images of girls from the late 19th century could be recognized by a seemingly ubiquitous hair ribbon, an echo of which one can see in the red bow in the design of the popular Sanrio character Hello Kitty. These clear, immediate visual cues are necessary, because, for the most part, young children, aside from their genitalia, of course, are sexually ambiguous, and so markers of gender distinction among them are far more discursive than they are “real.” But it was Imada Erika who, in her 2007 study “Shōjo” no shakai-shi (The social history of “shōjo”), made explicit the connection between so-called shōjo culture, contemporary education, and magazines/journals for children in their function as para-educational materials.

Eisai shinshi

Eisai shinshi

She uses the example of the first shōnen magazine Eisai shinshi and how its readership when it started in 1877 was split roughly 60-40 between boys and girls respectively but within six years, as a result of the ever increasing social distinction between boys and girls, its female readership had diminished to single digit percentages. Because of this, it would be easy to see Japanese print culture for children as simply complicit in larger shifts in Japanese society, changes which were generating ever more specific and rigid gender roles for school-age children. In fact, this pattern of initial gender non-specificity splitting into distinct demographics can be seen in other magazines as well.


Shōnen sekai, January 1895

When Shōnen sekai (Shōnen World) appeared in 1895, it was marketed explicitly as a yōnen zasshi, “youth magazine,” for nihon no shōnen, i.e. the shōnen of Japan. Here the connection between shōnen and “youth” is quite clear, yet in 1906, only four years after the appearance of the first magazine exclusively “for girls,” Shōjo-kai, the publishers of Shōnen sekai launched a “sister” magazine called Shōjo sekai (above). Even though Shōnen sekai was initially understood as for “youth” in general, by 1906, because of this split, the shōnen in the magazine’s title seemed to clearly say “boys only.”

Yet, despite this seeming split in the sense of shōnen, magazines for boys and girls did not altogether disappear, but what was previously signaled by a gender non-distinction in the term shōnen is now made explicit as a both/and in the shōnen/shōjo zasshi or “boy/girl magazines” that still exist today, though they now cover a much younger age range than in the 50s and 60s. Since our collective interest here is comics and not necessarily print culture in general, I want to skip ahead to the mid 20th century and to the advent of the comic magazines or manga zasshi that became the primary mode of publication for manga and remain so to this day. I want to focus in particular on the magazines Omoshiro bukku (Funny Book) and Bōken-ō (Adventure King) and how over time their origins as shōnen/shōjo zasshi, as magazines for boys and girls, became invisiblized by the print matter itself, even as the readership of those magazines remained mixed.

So, a simple question… is the figure on the following cover a boy or a girl, and, more importantly, what are you basing that determination on? I warn you in advance, there is probably a right answer.

Shōnen-shōjo Bōken-ō, Aug. 1950

Shōnen-shōjo Bōken-ō, Aug. 1950

It would be easy to justify calling this shōnen a girl, given the rosy cheeks and bright red lips, yet this shōnen lacks those graphic icons like the hair ribbon, long hair, or stockings that would signal to the reader that this is a girl. It is likely that this is supposed to be a boy, and yet the mere lack of those characteristics does not necessitate reading this cow-boy/girl as either sex. In fact, no matter the intent, given this is a shōnen/shōjo magazine, a reader of either sex could see him/herself in what to my mind is a rather gender ambiguous figure.

Bōken-ō cover from 1957

Bōken-ō cover from 1957

In just a few years, though, Bōken-ō eliminated the explicit shōnen/shōjo tag  and seemed to repeat the move into shōnen as boy we see in other, earlier children’s magazines. Yet, the gender ambiguous figure remains, still with rosy cheeks and bright red lips. Moreover, if you think about it, a female reader who had been following Fukushima Tetsuji’s classic Sabaku no maō (Magic King of the Desert) when Bōken-ō was a boy/girl magazine would not suddenly stop now that it’s being marketed “for boys” by its publishers. This possible mode of continuing female readership is key for seeing how the surprise of the Oricon editors’ reaction the survey of their female readers would be entirely unwarranted if the history of these manga magazines were properly understood.

Which brings me to Omoshiro bukku. It too began as a shōnen/shōjo zasshi and, within a few years, dropped the shōnen/shōjo tag to become exclusively “for boys.”


Omoshiro bukku both before and after losing the shōnen/shōjo tag

Unlike my earlier example, though, because this shōnen is wearing a catcher’s mask, he is rather intended to be read as male, since sports and particularly baseball uniforms had by this time become the exclusive social and iconographic domain of boys. So, this boy in a catcher’s mask seems truly to have supplanted the boy and girl playing table tennis together on that previous cover, given the discursively unambiguous signaling of his “boyness.”


Shōnen bukku, June 1966

Baseball, both as sport and as visual icon, is a crucial part of how masculine domains are established within Japanese popular media, so it’s no surprise, then, that when Omoshiro bukku became Shōnen bukku in 1959, baseball was there to provide a visual and discursive continuity even as the magazine was, in effect, erasing its origins in a gender non-specific domain. Now, I bring up this particular history of Omoshiro bukku not merely because it is yet another example of a particular pattern, but because in 1970, Shōnen bukku became Gekkan shōnen Jump, the monthly, as opposed to the more famous weekly, Shōnen Jump.


Even though it was the weekly that topped the Oricon survey, and my argument is not quite as tidy as I would like, by tracing this genealogy from genderless to mixed gender to seemingly “boys only” magazines, I want to make clear that this shock at a shōnen manga magazine being even more popular than those specifically marketed to girls is perhaps not all that shocking. Moreover, when this genealogy is, in a sense, unconcealed, we can look at contemporary developments in manga history in a completely new light.

So, I’d like to end with a scene from the first volume of Oda Eiichirō’s One Piece, in which we see a flashback to the character Zoro’s youth. He’s just been beaten in a duel by an older girl, who happens to be the daughter of the master of the fencing academy where Zoro is training. He tries to express his frustration at not getting any better, but she interrupts him.

One Piece vol. 1 p. 137

One Piece vol. 1 p. 137

I have to admit that the first time I read this, far too many moons ago, I didn’t really make much of it. Sure, it seemed like an interesting opportunity to address, if only indirectly, how only after puberty do rigid gender roles emerge in Japanese society. Coming-of-age is such an integral part of shōnen manga that a girl losing her talents as she comes of age could genuinely make for an interesting counterpart to what is otherwise a fairly worn out trope of adolescent male power fantasies. However, Oda more or less drops the ball, because on the following page Kuina is killed off in one of the most ridiculous ways possible, by falling down the stairs. Kuina is not to be a clever commentary upon the place of girls in shōnen manga, for she is to be little more than a motivation for Zoro to become “the greatest swordsman in the world.” However, even if Oda didn’t pursue this line of thought, Kuina’s frustration—and her ignominious death—when read against the complex history of the very shōnen magazines that became the primary locus for the shōnen manga demographic, becomes absolutely uncanny—and emblematic of an ambiguous gendering that shōnen manga has clearly tried to shed and yet has completely failed to do so. Kuina, like that ambiguous figure on the cover of Bōken-ō, is, perhaps, not meant to be understood in this way yet is still open to it. Something similar is true, then, for shōnen manga, namely that it is a generic category of a very peculiar sort, one that is marketed to a particular gender demographic and yet is susceptible to being read outside that narrow frame and narrowly defined audience.

Next week: some thoughts on ICAF and the position of manga in larger field of comic studies

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com

EDIT: I had the wrong reading of Honda Masuko’s given name, thoug, in my defense, Kazuko is a much more common reading of 和子 than Masuko. Still, I should have checked.


  1. This is a great article – very well written (and interesting to boot). Thank you for taking the time to post it!

    1. Thank you, but does that mean I normally ramble incoherently about nothing much at all? Certainly feels that way to me sometimes…

      1. Haha, no – you normally write well. I just think this particular article was especially good. 😉

  2. HA ! at least you don’t leave letter/posts to yourself. -_-; NICE article btw.

  3. […] reader, but it’s worth considering things from the flip side, because in my earlier argument I demonstrated that shōnen manga functioned historically as a kind of generic category.  That still leaves the possibility that shōjo manga is representative of a meaningfully targeted […]

  4. […] might recall, dear reader, that I have even written something along these lines, not just once, but twice.  Today, I’d like to focus on the phenomenon of moral education, its inherent contradictions […]


  6. […] for better or for worse, foregrounds questions of gender to the same degree that shōnen, as I have previously argued, tries to minimize them.  Shōjo manga seem to play with gender and how gender is construed, […]

  7. […] suspect, due both to the known fact of the current mixed gender readership of shōnen manga and the history of how mixed shōnen-shōjo manga magazines over time came to be redubbed simply shōn….  It is also well know that the readership of shōnen manga is not even limited to youth (though […]

  8. […] Theisen, Nicholas, 2013. “13a. The Problematic Gendering of Shōnen Manga” in What is Manga?, May 27, 2013. Accessed August 10, 2014, https://whatismanga.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/13a-the-problematic-gendering-of-shonen-manga/ […]

  9. […] The problematic gendering of shônen Manga […]

  10. […] myth of progress. If permitted to speculate, I would say this is because, as I have argued elsewhere, shōnen manga of the postwar function, in practice if not in intent, as generic rather than as […]

  11. […] most popular post over the years has been this one on the historical gendering of the shōnen demographic, and, though I’d like to think it has everything to do with the brilliance of my argument, it […]

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