At first glance, A Certain Marriage by Ruri Kumashika is an attractive addition to the expanding collection of LGBT-oriented comics coming out of Japan. It tells the story of Saki Honjo, a Japanese woman who moved to Los Angeles to join her high school girlfriend Anna Abel, and their journey toward marriage. A bitter-sweet story, A Certain Marriage delves into the beauty of gay relationships and the discrimination LGBT people experience. The story, however, ultimately fails to delve into the challenges queer immigrants from Japan face living in America.
It should be noted that the comic came out at a significant point during the fight for marriage equality both in the United States and Japan. Ohta Publishing began running A Certain Marriage as a webcomic in June of 2015, coinciding with the Supreme Court of the United States’ ruling (in Obergefel v. Hodges) that bans on same-sex marriages were unconstitutional. The comic itself takes place in 2013, following the Supreme Court’s decision that Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional (Hollingsworth v. Perry).
In its country of origin, LGBT issues were also starting to gain wider recognition. Koyuki Higashi and Hiroko Masuhara, two lesbian activists in Tokyo, notably convinced Tokyo Disneyland to let them have a wedding ceremony at the park in March of 2013, and Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward began issuing “partnership certificates” in April of 2015.
Among manga publishers, several other notable works also started running around the same time as A Certain Marriage. In November of 2014, Gengoroh Tagame began publishing My Brother’s Husband, a story about a gay Canadian visiting his dead husband’s family in Japan; and in February of 2015, Yuhki Kamatani began publishing Shimanami Tasogare, a story about a gay high schooler finding solace in a queer safe space. Japanese publishers were keen to bring up the issue of LGBT experiences as a “hot topic” at this time, and Kumashika, who lives in Los Angeles, was uniquely positioned to work on this story.
Kumashika, however, does not appear to be a part of the LGBT spectrum. Her biography indicates she lives with her husband in Los Angeles, and she illustrates in her post-mortem comics that she was first assigned to work on A Certain Marriage at the request of her editor in Japan. She describes having to do a lot of research on LGBT issues and particularly focuses on observations she made while attending Los Angeles Pride.
Kumashika’s research is generally correct and she presents a rudimentary understanding of LGBT issues in America. Attending events such as pride can assist in gleaning some context for LGBT issues, but the author only hits the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing queer cross-national relationships. A Certain Marriage thus missed a unique opportunity to tell a more complicated and nuanced story.
“Some scholars argue that Japan tolerates queerness, … but in fact, other sociologists and political scientists have then argued that it’s actually not a place of tolerance,” Amy Sueyoshi, historian and associate dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, said in an interview conducted for this article. She explained that gender inequality in the workplace is also a major issue for Japanese women as a whole, and noted being both queer and a woman in Japan is “particularly brutal.” She added that some say the state of women and queer people in Japan is similar to 1950s America.
“With so many doors getting closed on you through social stigma — discrimination — there’s high rates of self-harm.” She characterized Japanese homophobia as less confrontational and often expressed behind one’s back. “It’s not the same kind of homophobia and aggression you would find in the U.S. […] it’s a different kind of psychological attack that forces you to harm yourself. You don’t need someone beating up on you. In fact, you’ll end up killing yourself in Japan.”
Kumashika makes no explicit allusion to the state of homophobia in her home country throughout A Certain Marriage. The story frames Saki’s biggest fear as not being able to fit in with the people around her. That fear comes to the forefront of her consciousness after Anna proposes to her, bringing up the issue of having to tell her mother in Japan. The issue is further complicated when her homophobic boss finds out and fires her from her internship at a translation company. Her fear of facing further rejection from society keeps her from accepting Anna’s marriage proposal.
The story, however, ultimately argues that love will carry Anna and Saki forward through good times and bad and that families are based on those bonds forged through that love. They are further emboldened by Sean, the two ladies’ next-door neighbor, who dies pining for his dead husband. His death makes both women realize they cannot imagine living apart from each other and firms their resolve to marry despite the rejection they may face from their respective families.
We come to learn that Saki sits in an enviable place for Japanese queer immigrants in America. Saki’s mother appears visibly uneasy about her daughter marrying another woman, but nevertheless shows her tacit acceptance by attending the wedding ceremony. Saki is also supported by what appears to be an openly accepting brother who is introduced in the last five pages of the comic.
Even before the wedding, Anna and Saki’s ability to communicate freely with each other is another major advantage for the couple. Anna, who is also half Japanese, spent her adolescent years in Japan; and Saki, as noted previously, worked for a translation firm and likely has a good command of English. Saki also isn’t isolated, as she lives with Anna and hangs out with her neighbor Sean and his adopted daughter Conny, whom Anna and Saki adopt at the end of the story. Such circumstances are not typical of queer immigrants.
Sueyoshi argued that while some Japanese immigrants have a strong command of English, most do not and that lends to creating barriers between partners, as well as serving as a detriment to finding meaningful employment in a foreign country.
“Recently people have started to think about gay marriage as an opportunity to stay here… but it’s still very, very precarious for the Japanese lesbians I know,” Sueyoshi said, noting that maintaining a relationship takes a lot of time and effort these women sometimes don’t have. “Especially because many of them might have college degrees in Japan and then they come to America to seek a better lifestyle, but then they face xenophobia and racism, as well as the problem of legal status and are shunted into low-wage jobs that are often underground, like being waitstaff at a Japanese restaurant, where their legal status won’t be questioned.”
While the issue of language and xenophobia make life difficult for many immigrants coming to the United States, Sueyoshi also argued that immigrants typically find solace among their own communities. Queer immigrants, however, are further ostracized from their own immigrant communities out of homophobia, which adds to the feelings of isolation.
While A Certain Marriage provides context to homophobia through Anna’s Christian minister father and Saki’s workplace discrimination and fears of rejection, it does not begin to broach the issues and concerns many other queer immigrant women feel in even the most progressive regions of America.
Saki is not at risk of deportation nor does she fear overstaying on her visa. Even after being fired, she tearfully tells Anna she would rather think over the marriage proposal by first going back to Japan. A manga that could have addressed challenges of being a queer immigrant in the United States despite the legalization of same-sex marriage instead becomes a superficial story praising how gay relationships can be loving and beautiful to a largely uneducated Japanese audience.
Comparably, Tagame expresses the same concept in My Brother’s Husband, but also adds in his criticism of Japanese homophobia and points out its irrationality through the characters in his story. And while it is not a prerequisite to personally be queer to draft a queer story, perhaps future works can take the time and care to do more research to properly address the issues surrounding disadvantaged minorities.
Kumashika’s story might also be taken as a symptom of a lack of queer voices in the anime and manga field and, by extension, a lack of understanding of those issues in the larger Japanese society. Relatively few works frankly address LGBT issues and even fewer have explicitly queer authors such as Tagame and Kamatani. Indeed, as Rachel Thorn notes in the Anime Feminist retrospective podcast on Wandering Son, one of the most well-known titles addressing transgender children in manga was drawn by a cis woman who had likely been “winging it” for the better half of its publication.
It’s too bad that A Certain Marriage fails to go the extra mile to tell a more detailed story about sexual minorities in America and Japan. Kumashika’s story is supportive, but only seeks the conceptual acceptance of LGBT people without addressing how they’re excluded from society beyond a few broad strokes of homophobia. While marriage and love play a major role in illustrating the importance of upholding these civil rights, they do not capture the full extent of what discrimination against gay and lesbian people looks like. Future works, especially those by queer authors, must elevate this level of discourse.