Compared to years past, anime and manga has become much easier to access for non-Japanese speaking fans. Today simulcast and simulpub titles are prevalent, making legal venues increasingly enticing through ease of access. Yet one medium continues to elude wider distribution, primarily because of its state in the grey market.
Doujinshi, or fan-made works, are often classified as “thin-books” in Japanese pop culture. While most Western audiences tend to equate doujinshi with fanfiction, they aren’t always based on existing stories or characters. The term “doujinshi” encompasses a variety of independently published works, from parodies to original passion projects. From stapled together zines to multi-million-dollar video game ventures, doujinshi are a class of publications all their own within Japan’s media ecosystem.
I often want to share a cool story after reading it, but, as an avid reader of doujinshi, I find few outlets where I can share that passion. For all the interesting work indie publications can harbor, they are largely inaccessible to non-Japanese markets, making it difficult to share my passion with English fans.
Unhindered by larger corporate interests and sometimes even the concept of “marketability,” doujinshi often lends voice to raw passion for creators and lends perspectives often overlooked by the larger realm most Western fans see as “otaku culture.” Like the peculiar interests expressed by the women of Amamizu-kan in Princess Jellyfish, there is no definition as to what people are or are not allowed to obsess over. From guidebooks about hole-in-the-wall cafes in Western Japan, to unique recipes for bread, anything goes in dojinshi if you want to make it.
Doujinshi is the final frontier for non-Japanese fans of anime and manga. Its relative difficulty to attain legally outside of Japan, which makes its discussion and appreciation often predicated by an assumption that the reader acquired the works in a less than legal manner; meanwhile, open discussion—especially with the authors of doujinshi—draws critical responses. More often than not, doujinshi authors question the gall of non-Japanese fans for expressing they’ve read a work when no official English translation exists.
Part of the challenge in obtaining legally translated doujinshi lies in its limited nature. Though the medium allows artists to create on their own and produce works based on personal drive, there is no major commercial backing to make these works available to international markets. Though publishing a comic has become easier than ever through digital distribution, translation still stands in the way for doujin works to become accessible in non-Japanese languages.
Yet it would be fantastic if non-Japanese markets could explore a legal route to making doujinshi accessible. While some scanlators defend their position that their work makes lesser-known works available to a broader audience, much of the doujinshi published in Japan explicitly asks fan translators to stay away (and most notably, these demands are written in both Japanese and English). Consent is paramount to making these titles available and nurturing a future relationship that makes dojinshi accessible to readers outside of Japan.
Why, then, should these titles be made available? Doujinshi is a niche market serving what is already a subculture. Taken the other way, however, doujinshi also lends a more diverse voice to what is considered “mainstream” for these spaces.
Japanese light novel fans expressed puzzlement when they learned titles chosen to be translated into English were overwhelmingly from the isekai fantasy genre while ignoring a broader subset of other light novels, such as those centered around school life. Understandably, English-speaking audiences may not mesh as well with the minutiae of Japanese school life and these genres may perform poorly compared to a more universally accessible fantasy setting.
Doujinshi faces similar issues, with the added obstacle that many of the most popular works known to English-speaking audiences exist in the legal grey area of parody works of popular licensed titles or X-rated comics. As such, there are efforts to give wider legal access to doujinshi, but their sale has been relegated to original works of porn, notably by Irodori Comics and 2D Market distributed by Fakku. (Author’s note, this article was originally published just prior to Irodori Aqua‘s debut in late-2019)
Though pornographic indie comics can be a fun time, their reach is ultimately very niche and their scope generally limited to works oriented toward cishet males. A service making a wider range of doujinshi available could lead a broader range of people to appreciating doujinshi and, by extension, to becoming fans of anime and manga.
To this day, I’m still pretty stoked about finding niche topics in doujinshi, such as the time I found a doujinshi about posh cafes in Southwestern Japan. Whether writers tell these stories through popular franchises such as Touhou or don’t feature any anime or manga aesthetics at all, doujinshi can share the passions of other authors and potentially get readers into new things.
Queer fans especially stand to gain a voice and access to relatable narratives. From canonically trans characters and outright adult lesbian romance (rather than high school yuri romance predicated as “just a phase” for the girls involved), dojinshi gives authors an opportunity to tell stories that exist outside a mass market generally catered to readers who are assumed to be heterosexual.
It’s through doujinshi that I’ve found a female-to-male transformation fetish story. Similarly, It’s through doujinshi that I’ve found light novels that give me genderfeels. And it’s through self-published webcomics that titles like the yuri fantasy Beauty and the Beast Girl first got its start before becoming a paperback manga (now available in English from Seven Seas). Doujinshi also gives attention to rarely spotlighted elements of queer identity, like Mine-kun is Asexual.
As social attitudes relax toward sexual minorities in Japan, doujinshi are ripe to feature authentic LGBTQ voices. Even if LGBTQ representation may be few and far between in bigger imprints, dojinshi provides the opportunity for those voices to continue building a readerbase. In turn, making these works accessible in English will also help diversify the window in which fans of anime and manga outside of Japan see Japanese society.
As big of a dream this may sound, doujinshi could very well break down barriers for fans around the world and bring about solidarity among minority voices. Though each piece may only speak to a limited audience, this may very well be its strength by potentially providing something for everyone to enjoy. The quality stories are already there. We just need to make them legally accessible for others.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the limited-edition 2019 AniFem Zine. It has been republished here with minor edits with the author’s permission.