10-minute Shoujo History Lesson

by Erica Friedman, for the Shoujo Arts Society

It was approximately the late 1700s when the condition known as “childhood” was created. Until then, children were basically little adults, who needed to be fed regularly. In the late 1700s, someone noticed that these little adults had separate requirements than the big ones and “childhood” was born.

It wasn’t until Victorian England, however, that this new class of people had their own toys that didn’t entirely mimic the tools and tasks of adults. In fact, the middle of the 19th century saw a burgeoning trade in children’s toys and the creation of a completely new form of literature, especially for children. Young female protagonists were not uncommon, and while the bulk of literature was written by men, there were a few pioneering women who were writing tales for their young female audiences. Harriette Newell Woods Baker (The Robin’s Nest), Susan Coolidge (What Katy Did), Amanda Douglas (The Red House Children series, among several others) and many other women were writing stories that starred and were written for girls and young women.

At the dawn of the 20th century several things happened all at once. With the forcible opening of Japan to the West and the Meiji Restoration, western ideas and influences were flooding Japanese culture. The woodcut blocks that were created for early illustrations began to take on a new form – illustrated stories with text in the illustrations. And a new class of person was being formed. Not quite children anymore, but not yet needing to take on the somber responsibilities of adulthood, these young people were being given, for the first time ever, a chance to simply be young and experience emotional attachments without being thrust into arranged marriages upon reaching puberty. In both West and East, adolescence had been created.

By the 1920’s, adolescents were a quickly growing population in Japan. Upper and middle-class families could afford to allow their children to stay home or to go to school longer than previously had been considered useful. And as these young men and women increased in number – they began to want to read stories about themselves. In the 1920’s Japan saw the birth of a new genre of literature – shojo literature. This was written by women especially for adolescent girls, i.e. “shojo” or “maidens.” Shojo stories focused on relationships, especially love and friendship. One of the leading lights of this new literature was Yoshiya Nobuko, whose stories utilized descriptions, emotional states and moods that would be recognizable to any modern shoujo fan. Her “Hana Monogatari” defined the idealized beauty, the deep emotionality, the flower-scented and dream-like qualities that still characterize shoujo stories today.

In the meantime, manga had taken off as a part of Japanese life. After World War Two and the advent of the American comic book into Japanese consciousness, manga began to grow as a major influence on the Japanese publishing industry. In the 1950’s the man known as “the god of manga,” Ozamu Tezuka, entered the manga field with stories tailored towards a young, female audience. At the time, most manga was written by men for a male audience, but by the mid to late sixties a few women, notably Masako Watanabe (“Garasu no Shiro” (Glass Castle), Miyako Maki (Yume), Hideko Mizuno (Fire!), and Toshiko Ueda (Bonko chan,Fuichin san, and Ako baachan) moved into the field. These women wrote stories much as Yoshiya had – focusing on beautiful and dreamlike depictions of first relationships.

In 1966, as women were beginning to break into manga, the very first “magical girl” anime, or animated series, was shown on Japanese TV. Called “Mahoutsukai Sally” it was based on the American television series “Bewitched” and was targeted towards a female audience. This series went on for 109 episodes and was wildly popular with young women.

As the late sixties brought a kind of death to the American comic industry, the Japanese manga industry was literally flooded with new shoujo manga artists, and Japanese television carried shoujo series like Ribon no KishiAttack no. 10 and the significant Himitsu no Akko-chan, which established some of the more marketable aspects of the magical girl genre.

The mid seventies brought yet another significant move in shoujo manga. Superstar manga artists known as the “Magnificent Twenty-Four Year Group” (from their year of birth, 1949, known as “24 Showa” in the Japanese calendar) were writing stories that dealt with gender and sexuality in ways that had never before been addressed. Shounenai, or boys’ love, stories were created and became wildly successful. At the same time, Ikeda Ryoko published her incredibly popular series “Beirusaiyu no Bara” (Rose of Versailles) and “Oniisama E” (Brother, Dear Brother.) These series brought shoujoai, or affection between girls, to manga. These accounts of same-sex affection had been dealt with early on in shojo literature, but had not been seen in manga or anime until this time.

It was a common belief in the Japanese anime industry that boys would not read shoujo manga, or watch shoujo anime. In 1992, something happened that blew this preconception away and changed the face of shoujo forever. In 1991 a young manga artist by the name of Takeuchi Naoko had drawn a short series about a sailor-suited super heroine. (The sailor suit resonated strongly with her teenaged audience, who typically wore similar sailor suits to school for their junior high school and high school years.) This manga, “Code Name wa Sailor V” was marginally popular, but it spawned an interest in the sailor-suited super-heroine idea. The publisher asked Takeuchi to create another, similar, character and she did. “Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon” was an instant hit in Japan. It was closely followed by an even more popular anime, which broke all kinds of records from chart-topping music, to television audience ratings, to sales of toys and other series-related items. “Sailor Moon” was exported to North America but, while it developed a solid fanbase in Canada, failed to make a splash in the United States, until a young Cartoon Network bought it, Cartoon Network created a special show around Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z…and the Sailor Moon phenomenon hit again.

Girls, boys, adults, everyone was watching what may well be considered the most influential shoujo series ever.

With Sailor Moon‘s phenomenal success, the barriers were gone. Manga magazines for little girls, teenaged girls, young women and adult women began to appear everywhere. Along with the large publishing companies that employed hundreds of shoujo manga artists, thousands of popular artists work in what are known as “doujinshi,” self-published comics, some done as parodies of popular series.

As manga artists and their audience age, more mature themes appear in their manga. A related genre, “josei” or lady’s manga has become especially popular in the last decade. Josei manga includes yaoi stories – more mature stories of relationships between men, which often include fairly explicit sex. In the past several years, yaoi has been growing in popularity both here in the West and in Japan. Yaoi magazines can be found easily in Japanese bookstores everywhere. While yuri, the female equivalent of yaoi, is still considered to be something primarily for men, stories of shoujoai are still quite common in both shoujo anime and manga. And Japan’s single lesbian publication carries their own spin on shoujo manga.

And that brings us to today. Organizations like Shoujo Arts SocietyAestheticism and Yuricon all seek to bring various aspects of shoujo manga and anime to the attention of western audiences. With shoujo popularity (and shoujo fandom) growing every year, already doujinshi circles are popping up around the United States – and more are forming every day. It’s pretty likely that in the next decade, we will be seeing a new form of shoujo manga and anime – this time traveling in the opposite direction. What will happen when Japan experiences Western ideas and ideals in manga and anime created for girls? Well, stick around and let’s find out!