There are more foreign-born manga artists active in Japan than you might think. You just may not notice some of them because they take on pennames that obscure their non-Japanese origins. For instance, “Minami Sakai,” whom Anime Feminist interviewed last year, is the penname of an American-born manga artist working in Tokyo, while “Yuu Kamiya” is the penname of the Brazilian-born manga artist and light novel author Thiago Furukawa Lucas.
There are all sorts of reasons why an artist may take on a pseudonym, but for foreign-born artists working in an industry that still struggles with international outreach, the stakes may just be higher. Some artists may wish to be judged on their own merits instead of being reduced to their racial identity. Others have mentioned that having an overtly foreign-sounding name and/or appearance threatens their chances of being published altogether.
For East Asian foreigners in particular, the pressure to assimilate—to pretend to be Japanese—may be even stronger. There’s a long history of Korean immigrants taking on Japanese names in an effort to avoid discrimination in Japanese society, but it’s common for many foreign-born residents to do this, especially when they can physically “pass” as Japanese.
The pressure to assimilate may cause Japan to seem like a more ethnically homogeneous country than it actually is. But I think it’s important to highlight diversity where it does exist, especially when artists subvert common gender- and race-based expectations. The artist known as Tiv, for instance, may seem like a Japanese man from the content of her work, but she’s actually a Korean-born woman.
Tiv was born in 1981 and grew up in Seoul, where she lived until moving to Japan in 2010. These days, she’s primarily known for drawing the art of Masamune-kun’s Revenge, a shounen rom-com series with ecchi sensibilities. It was likely her ability to appeal to a (presumed) heterosexual male audience through her sexualized drawings of petite, doe-eyed “moe” girls that she was chosen to draw “Eromanga-sensei’s” illustrations in the Eromanga Sensei anime. But although she may be known nowadays for this less-than-feminist content, her work does not belong exclusively to this genre.
In fact, Tiv’s very earliest manga shows potential for an altogether different career trajectory. Her first series, which she drew in 2007 while she was still living in Seoul, centered on the daily lives of South Korean schoolgirls. Called Annyeong! (meaning “hello” in Korean), it was a simple, unpretentious story that never particularly sold its girls as the beacons of “moe.” The girls were drawn with a visually appealing manga style, but they were never sexualized, nor were their feminine characteristics accentuated for cutesy effect.
Annyeong! felt like an earnest, semi-autobiographical work, but unfortunately it was cancelled after only two volumes. There’s any number of reasons why this could have happened, and there’s no reason to think that readers didn’t appreciate Tiv’s portrayal of life as a Korean schoolgirl. In fact, a blog post from 2008 gushes with praise about the series, calling it an eye-opening experience. However, Tiv has never returned to a Korean setting or characters in the ten years since debuting as a manga artist, which is a shame.
Over the years, Tiv has found more mainstream success by partnering with Japanese writers and focusing on the illustrations. She drew the Heaven’s Memo Pad manga adaptation between 2010 and 2012, and since then she has been working on Masamune-kun’s Revenge. Within her monthly manga schedule, she finds time to illustrate for some of the latest anime series, including the original character designs for Idol Incidents and insert illustrations for Eromanga Sensei. Her personal life and identity are second to her artwork, which now completely fits the “moe” style of manga art that is so closely associated with modern Japanese pop culture.
This could very well be the way she wants it. Although the About page on her website does mention that she’s from Seoul and currently lives in Saitama, her Twitter bio identifies her location as “The Earth.” Perhaps Tiv does not see herself as belonging to any particular country. She may draw manga in Japanese, but her illustrations are enjoyed around the world. Her penname is neither Japanese nor Korean, nor is it even really English, despite being written with English letters.
She didn’t adopt the “moe” style out of pressure to assimilate in Japan either. In a 2013 interview, Tiv mentions being obsessed with Japanese anime and manga as a child, to the extent that she was inspired to major in Japanese in college. This was somewhat frowned upon at the time, given the long-standing tensions between South Korea and Japan. Moreover, the “super-deformed” style in Japanese manga art was looked down upon in South Korea as mere populist art, while realistic-looking Western art was seen as an example to aspire to. From her perspective, South Korea was the country that had problems accepting other cultures.
In the end, Tiv’s life and career stands as a testament to the tensions of identity politics in Japan and South Korea. Japan was a former colonizer of Korea, and the overwhelming presence of Japan’s pop culture in its neighboring Asian countries has been regarded as a form of cultural imperialism at times. Although the law was hardly enforced, the South Korean government banned the importation of Japanese media between 1945 and 1998. Tiv’s eager adoption of Japanese pop culture in the ’90s was transgressive in a country that valued cultural purity, but it could also be read as a blind acceptance of anime and manga with all of its cultural baggage.
Tiv’s identity as an artist is further complicated by the works she has produced since moving to Japan, a number of which are authored by Japanese men and are marketed to a straight male Japanese audience. In this sense, her work has been “assimilated” into the culture of mainstream Japanese manga, obscuring her foreign roots. These exist in stark contrast to her earlier work, which drew more obviously from her personal experiences as a Korean-born artist. Tiv is undoubtedly a talented artist whose work holds wide appeal, but she has found mainstream success while avoiding the politics of difference.
Is it truly necessary for manga artists to cast aside identity politics in order to attain global appeal? It’s a question I’d like you to ponder as you enjoy works by foreign-born creators.