In Japan, there’s more than one “meaning of life.”
There’s the “capital L” life: the philosophical discussions about what it all means and why we’re here. And then there’s the “lower-case l” life encompassing everyday things such as eating, sleeping and bathing.
“The Japanese have different words for life, and one of the words — seikatsu — is just for the little minutiae of things,” said Jon Holt, assistant professor of Japanese literature at Portland State University.
Holt will present two talks about “How to Read Japanese Culture Through Manga” — one at the East Bend Library on Feb. 6 and the other at the La Pine Library on Feb. 7 — as part of the Deschutes County Library’s Know Japan programming this month. In manga — a specific style of comics and graphic novels developed in Japan in the 19th century — and its close cousin, anime, seikatsu is a major part of stories.
“My talk is going to show the audience how, when you read a manga, you can actually pick up on often body language,” Holt said. “You can almost read Japanese people in terms of how they view it. They may not talk about these things directly, but the manga will show it in maybe a positive or negative light or show what they like. So I’m gonna basically try to either decode or point out the less-than-obvious obvious. If you’re a Japanese person reading a manga, your assumptions or your feelings about these things are gonna be kind of backed up in it. But I think for a non-Japanese reader, they might go like, ‘Oh, why are they spending so much time doing this?’”
One major example is the prominence and reverence of food in manga. This attitude has crept into American culture in recent years with the rise of cooking shows such as “Iron Chef America” (based on the Japanese “Iron Chef” show) that focus more on revering flavors and the cooking and eating processes rather than recipes.
“When was the last time you read a Spider-Man comic where they would basically shut down the action for a page or two, and he’s just eating pizza or fried chicken or a hamburger, and he’s talking about how awesome it is and how delicate the flavor is?” Holt said. “It doesn’t happen. In manga — it doesn’t matter what manga it is — at some point you’ll just have all of the tension about the bad guy coming to destroy (the main characters) or something, or them trying to figure out a way to solve the problem, and they’ll come across a bowl of ramen. And they’ll just take time to enjoy it and talk about the food and how it gets made. That’s Japanese culture.”
Much of the talks will focus on a recent manga novel, “My Brother’s Husband” (“Otouto no Otto”), published from 2014 through 2017 and written by Gengoroh Tagame. Tagame is primarily known for erotic, gay manga, but “My Brother’s Husband” is a family story in which a single father struggles to accept his recently deceased twin brother’s husband, a Canadian man who visits the family in Japan to learn more about the country.
“People, I think they would — if they first read, ‘Oh, it’s by this porno artist,’ or something, they might be outraged,” Holt said. “But they have to realize it’s about a family who hasn’t really figured out how to talk about (how) a member of their family is gay. It’s really more about conversations and becoming comfortable just with different orientations. It’s also a beautiful book; it has some of the cleanest lines, and you just can see Japan in all its simplicity. It’s just a really heartwarming tale, too.”
Through the story, the father becomes more accepting of his brother’s husband. The book focuses on Japanese attitudes toward homosexuality as well as offering stark contrasts between Japanese and Western lifestyles.
“It really kind of changed the conversation about Japanese people — maybe they still have some reservations, but they’re ready to start talking about it,” Holt said.
It would be impossible to not notice the influence Japanese pop culture — manga and anime especially — has an American culture today. Starting with ’80s translations of popular manga such as “Akira” and “Astro Boy,” the medium took off in the U.S. “Pokemon” and “Dragonball Z” became household words in the ’90s, and in recent years stories such as “My Hero Academia” and “Ghost in the Shell” rose to the forefront of Western pop culture.
That influence extends to American-made media. Holt has noticed a strong manga influence on modern comics from Marvel, and shows such as “Avatar: The Last Airbender” take direct inspiration from manga sources.
“If you go to Barnes & Noble, probably the manga section is larger than the American comics section,” Holt said. “Some people might argue with me about that, but I definitely think it is an important part of our culture. There are American comic artists who basically draw like Japanese artists. A lot of Marvel stuff now is drawn in a very manga, cartoon-y way. We’ve lost a lot of the old Jack Kirby — the old-school masters. It’s become very Japanized.”
Holt lived in Japan in the 2000s when he worked for amazon.com, and continues to visit annually. But when he was growing up in Arkansas, Japanese pop culture was hard to come by. He soaked up what films and literature he could, including existentialist writer Kobo Abe, Kenji Miyazawa (about whom he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Washington) and filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.
He considers himself a geek, especially when it comes to comic books. Manga was a natural step.
“(College) was my ticket to see the world, and particularly a culture that I’d always had an interest in,” Holt said. “I grew up in the ’80s; this was when Japanese culture was really getting into film (and) especially comics. The first manga translations really appear in the ’80s, (and) Frank Miller, people that were really famous for changing the American style got a lot of stuff from the Japanese artists. You couldn’t be interested in movies or comics and not pick up on that.”