Mara’s Manga Series: Josei Manga

Guest column by Mara Wood, contributor at Talking Comics and co-host of The Missfits

He leaned back at his desk, surveying her intently.  He sighed, rolled his, and spoke in an exasperated tone:
“Look, it’s for the company.  My father won’t promote me to president until I start a family.  You’ve been a secretary for this company for 3 years, and you are devoted.  I don’t have time to date, and my parents choose insufferable women.  Marry me, help me advance in this company, and I’ll cover your parents’ debt so you won’t have to work as hard.”
The young secretary blushed.  She didn’t know what to say.  The vice president is cold, distant.  The other office workers avoid him at all cost.  But they never mentioned how handsome he is.
“O…K,” she offered, hesitantly.  Her parents were crushed under the weight of their debt, and the hours she put in at the company barely made a dent.  She thought of her two younger siblings, and how this opportunity could change everything for them.
“That’s settled, then,” he said, leaning forward on his desk.  “Give your apartment number to my assistant, and he’ll arrange to move your items this afternoon.”
“It’s best to get this done quickly.  I’ll add you to my family registry this morning.”
“Wait!  Isn’t this too fast?  I mean, I don’t even know your name!”
“We’ll get to know each other very well, don’t you worry about that.”


This is a scene common to josei manga.  An office setting, a young secretary, a distant boss, and a situation that throws them together in a romantic way.  Josei manga features older women in situations that reflect the real life of the women who read the stories.  Told primarily from the woman’s perspective, josei deals with much more mature themes than those found in shojo manga.

Josei manga is shojo manga’s cooler, older sister.  She smokes, has a job, strings along two or three handsome men, and has sex.  A lot of sex.  Josei hit the manga scene in the 80s, starting out with telling stories about housewives and office ladies.  Sales were even better with the addition of sex and racy elements.  The women clamoring for more mature manga were the very same who grew up reading shojo manga in the 60s and 70s.  They were also the same women who were beginning to gain more freedom – in the work force and in the bedroom.


Sumire from Tramps Like Us embodies the sexual freedom and career motivation Japanese women were beginning to experience.

Josei, like shonen and shojo manga, have an overall feel to the stories while offering a wide variety of genres.  There are series that are more plot and story based, and there are series that are made mostly for the sexy times.  There is often an incorrect assumption that josei manga is porn for women.  On the surface, many newcomers may initially see these comics falling under the soft porn category.  Further investigation reveals stories that aim to reflect real life, of which sex is a part.  For young women, these stories are true to the lives they already lead.  Of course, there is a hefty helping of drama mixed into the realism.


Chiwa and Hokuto deal with real issues in their life as newlyweds in Happy Marriage?! 

Ide, a force in ladies’ comics, hits the nail on the head with the portrayal of sex and nudity in josei manga:

“If there is a man and a woman in love, it is natural for them to feel amorous and make love. Love, romance, sex, and sometimes even violence (e.g., rape, domestic violence, etc.) are some of the subjects that adult readers expect, and they increase sales” (Cornog & Perper, 2011).

Classic josei manga features a woman of a lower status marrying a man of a much higher status.  In these stories, the woman is a normal person, someone the reader can attach to readily.  The man is seemingly unattainable, both socially and emotionally.  Through the kindness and love of the heroine, she peels back the layers of the romantic interest to find a man who cares deeply for her despite her oddities.

There is certainly reason for the appeal of this type of story for young women.  Escapism comes to mind; the man is the key to solving the woman’s problems of dating, finance, or monotony.  It can also be problematic.  The men in these stories are in positions of power over the woman, which brings up issues of powerlessness of young women.  In these types of stories with sex, the man is aggressive in bed.  The woman is often portrayed as resisting the sex, eventually giving in and becoming even more irresistible to the man.  The man is shown as unable to control his desire because the woman is, well, extremely desirable.  Praises to her sexuality may be showered upon her while criticizing her stubbornness.

And these books are addictive.

There is a stigma with these stories.  Much like harlequin romance books in America, they are considered trashy and lowbrow.  Again, that assumption can be easily made if you are looking at the most prominent surface elements.  However, there is a degree of liberation that comes with stories that feature sex from the female’s perspective.  In Japanese culture, there is a sense of shame that is expected with sexual activity, especially for women.  Stories that feature a woman demonstrating an expected amount of shame and resistance, natural allure, and eventual enjoyment of the act are throughout josei.


Nana and Ren from Nana are in a consensual, adult relationship that lacks the power imbalance found in many classic josei stories.

Can this be equally liberating for an American culture – a culture that has a different view on women and expectation from visual media?  That’s a hard question to tackle.  Like with many media, there’s good and there’s bad.  Everything is in the grey.  While the heroine is “saved” from her position by a more powerful man, she eventually rescues him from his lonely and troubled ways.

Another popular type of josei story is one that rarely features a female lead at all.  In these stories, a homoerotic relationship between two very beautiful men develops.  The characters may be more androgynous than masculine, and the relationship more idealized or subtle than real life.  This is the world of shonen-ai, the depiction of loving, emotional relationships between men.  Shonen-ai can easily be confused with yaoi.  The major difference is that yaoi manga portrays more of the physical aspects of the relationship, while shonen-ai can rely pretty heavily on the “will they/won’t they” plot device.  Think Free! anime – five young high school men on a swim team who regularly told each other their feelings towards one another.  These stories are also considered josei despite the lack of female characters.  We’ve already covered why homoerotic stories are important to a female audience, but here’s the cliff notes: Boys’ love stories allow women to explore sexuality and love without the restrictions of gender or class.  Shonen-ai, as opposed to yaoi, delves deep into that need to learn more about human interactions, sometimes in ways that heteroerotic stories cannot begin to touch.


Ritsuka and Soubi from the shonen-ai series Loveless.

In almost all josei manga, the main characters have prominent Caucasian features.  Besides lust for a certain type of life, josei manga gives a glimpse at what Japanese women want to see in themselves:

  • Curly hair
  • Large and round eyes with thick eye
  • Well-shaped sexy eye brows
  • Long nose
  • Thin and cute lips
  • Stylish clothing

(Ito, 2002)


Chiwa is a class josei heroine in both attitude and looks.

For most American readers, this may pass without notice.  For us, this is the normal standard of beauty.  In Japanese culture, these comics can perpetuate the gajin complex, or envy of foreigners.  These beauty traits can often only be achieved in Japanese society through plastic surgery, making the “real life” stories found in the genre suddenly unattainable on a different level.

Yes, the genre is rife with issues.  From the occasional negative portrayal of women to the extreme power differences to upper-middle class struggles, josei’s got some things it could work on altering.  That does not mean that josei isn’t important to read.  These are stories that young women consider important.  There are emotional subtleties that cannot be found to the same degree in other categories of manga or American comics.  Marriage is an important part of a Japanese woman’s life, and stories that explicitly deal with this milestone are worth looking at (Ito, 2002).

Due to American demands, fewer josei titles have been translated than the more popular shonen and shojo titles (Brenner, 2007).  That doesn’t mean great titles aren’t available to English-speaking audiences.  Here’s a list of some of the josei titles that are easier to find:


Happy Marriage?!

Probably the most josei-est of josei comics.  This series almost follows the josei book to a T.  Chiwa is an office secretary with a single father in debt.  She also works nights as a hostess.  Working two jobs is stressful, yet her father continues to make poor financial decisions.  One day at work, Chiwa is called into the president’s office.  There, she meets the chairman and the president.  The chairman explains hurridly that he knew Chiwa’s grandmother very well, and wants to repay her kindness by marrying his grandson to her granddaughter.  There seems to be a nostalgic factor in this proposal, with the grandfather expressing how much it would mean to him to have a relative of the woman in his family.  Under pressure from her father’s growing debt (and the yakuza that show up to claim their money), Chiwa agrees to marry Hokuto.  What follows is a story about two strangers learning to love each other and finally open their hearts up to love.  Available in digital and print from VIZ Media.


Midnight Secretary

Like Happy Marriage?!, Midnight Secretary features the relationship between a powerful company head and a secretary.  Kaya is a baby-faced executive secretary for a prominent company.  She takes great pride in her work and strives for professionalism.  One night, she discovers that her boss is a vampire.  In a moment of panic and need, he feeds off of Kaya.  Kaya, ever the professional, decides that the health of the president is necessary for the health of the company.  As you can imagine, the relationship between the two become more complex than boss and secretary.  A little out of the norm for josei because of the dark fantasy element, but still possesses the mature themes common to the genre.  Available in print and digital from VIZ Media.



Nana Komatsu is a girl who tends to fall head over heels for men.  After struggling in high school with an inappropriate relationship, she is ready to swear off men as romantic partners.  All bets are off when she meets Shoji, a young artist.  Nana K saves up her money and joins him in Tokyo a year later.

Nana Osaki is a punk rock singer with big dreams.  She devotes her life to her music and her band.  Nana O exudes confidence.  Her boyfriend and bassist, Ren, leaves the band for an internationally famous punk rock band.  Nana O moves to Tokyo to start a new band up and achieve her dreams of punk rock fame.

The two women run into each other on a train to Tokyo and have an instant connection.  They eventually become roommates.  Nana follows their lives as they learn to live with each other, love, and deal with major life changes.  One of the major elements of Nana is the role of female friendships and how important they are to the growth of a woman into adulthood.  Nana is on hiatus due to the mangaka’s illness.  There is a great anime based on the manga currently available from Neon Alley.  Available in print and digital from VIZ Media.



Loveless is a shonen-ai series.  Ritsuka is a middle-school boy whose older brother, Seimei, was murdered under strange circumstances.  His memories are spotty, and his mother is extremely abusive as a result of Seimei’s death.  Ritsuka meets Soubi, a college man who was friends with Seimei.  Soubi reveals that he and Seimei were partners in an intricate spell battle team.  Seimei asked Soubi to take care of Ritsuka, which includes bringing Ritsuka into this crazy spell battle world.  Soubi deeply cares for Ritsuka and asks him to be more commanding in their relationship.  Ritsuka acts like the middle school boy he is and ignores all feelings of love he has for Soubi.  Available in print from VIZ Media.


Tramps Like Us

Sumire is a successful businesswoman with little romantic prospects.  Between her cold demeanor and chain smoking, she is far from the beautiful women that men go for.  One rainy day, Sumire finds a young man sleeping on the streets.  She hesitates, but decides that if the man were a dog, she would take him home as a new pet.  Promising to act as a pet, the young man agrees to be Sumire’s housemate.  Sumire names the man Momo after a beloved childhood dog of hers, and takes complete care of him.  A reversal of the classic josei story, Tramps Like Us defies stereotypes and expectations of the genre.  No longer in print, but used copies from TokyoPOP can be bought from companies like Amazon.


Sumire letting her pet Momo lick her fingers while she cooks him dinner.



Brenner, R. (2007).  Understanding Manga and Anime.  Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Cornog, M., & Perper, T. (2011). Mangatopia : Essays on Manga and Anime in the Modern World. Santa Barbara, Calif: Libraries Unlimited.

Ito, K. (2002). The World of Japanese Ladies’ Comics: From Romantic Fantasy to Lustful Perversion. Journal Of Popular Culture36(1), 68-85.



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