Minami Sakai on being an independent manga artist in Japan

By: Anime Feminist October 20, 20160 Comments

We’re keen to speak to anime and manga creators and fans from a range of backgrounds and perspectives. As such, we’re thrilled to start our interview series speaking to someone who is currently living the daily grind of an independent manga artist in Tokyo: creating comics, entering competitions, selling at comic markets, approaching editors for reviews, and creating even more comics. It’s an experience we don’t hear about as much in English, and even then mostly in passing from creators who have already made it big. 

What makes this even more unusual is that Sakai is one of a small number of manga creators from an English-speaking country, and is creating comics in both Japanese and English. She was kind enough to take the time to answer our questions, telling us about herself, how she got where she is, and what she has learned along the way.

Self portrait, Minami Sakai
Self portrait, Minami Sakai

AF: How did you first become interested in drawing manga?

MS: Like many people my age, I got into anime and manga in general through Sailor Moon. I always liked to draw, but I was mainly drawing Disney-inspired animals until my 3rd grade teacher introduced me to Sailor Moon and I was completely hooked. I would copy pictures from my Sailor Moon books and cards over and over again until things just stuck, I guess. But while Sailor Moon was the start, I’d probably say that CLAMP’s works were what really got me drawing manga itself. Their works were like the perfect combination of gorgeous art and exciting stories, and I knew I wanted to make something similar to that some day.

AF: How did you get from there to attending a school to study manga?

MS: Part of it was simply just drawing. Honestly, in the beginning I wasn’t even that interested in drawing comics in Japan. I happened to place 2nd in Tokyopop’s now defunct Rising Stars of Manga contest in my first year of college, and for a while I was seriously trying to pitch ideas to companies.

But when the manga bubble in the states broke, no one was interested anymore. I had also recently experienced a tragedy in my family so I decided to take a break. I loved studying abroad in Japan during my junior year in college, so I ended up taking up a job as a teacher through the JET Program.

Once I was back there, I periodically met up with the friends I had made there, and some of them were either seriously trying to debut, or already had debuted in magazines. It was really inspiring.

Another American friend of mine decided to enter a school to study manga, and I thought that was a great idea so I followed her footsteps. Drawing comics while working a full time job was really difficult, and since I couldn’t get a visa being an assistant I figured the next best thing was entering a school to refine my skills.

Manga panel in Japanese of a small boy seemingly being bullied by another boy.

AF: What was the school you attended, and what was the application process like?

MS: I attended Tokyo Design Academy in Harajuku. I remember the application process being really easy. They even had a page in English for international students interested in attending the school. I had gone to a few open houses and just filled the form to apply to the school and sent it in. Admittedly, I was a bit lucky because I already had passed the JLPT N1 (they require at least an N2 to exempt yourself from taking a proficiency test at the school), so that saved me a lot of time.

AF: How do you feel being a Black American woman affected your experience at the school, if at all?

MS: I thought about this a lot, and honestly, a part of me would say it didn’t affect me that much. But I will admit that compared to my friend, a white American, I felt like some of the (older) teachers tended to regard me as “tougher” (whatever that means). I suppose in a lot of ways they held me in pretty high regard considering I had to deal with not being Japanese on top of being an aspiring artist.

All my teachers were great and inspiring, being professionals themselves, and the school gave me lots of opportunities to hone my craft through assignments, part time work, you name it. I wouldn’t trade those two years for anything.

AF: How has attending the school affected your work?

MS: The school affected my work immensely. The thing you have to understand is they really start from the basics in your first year―things like how to hold a dip pen, how to tone, how to construct a basic story. Your first big assignment is four pages, then eight pages, then 16 to 32 pages. I stuck to it, and suddenly in my second year I just had this… leap in improvement. It surprised even me.

I actually made the finals in a contest in a magazine at that time! I think I never had given myself time to really study the basics before, so going to the school really brought me to task on what I did and did not know. I drew entirely analogue for a good three years until recently, when I decided to switch back to digital. But amazingly enough, my digital art has improved greatly just because of everything I did by hand.

AF: How do you think being a Black American woman has affected or will affect your experience as a manga artist in Japan, if at all?

MS: The odd thing is, I still don’t think Japan has a clear idea about what a Black woman is. Because of that, most people don’t know what to make of me. It has its good sides and bad.

As I’m sure you can assume, I stand out in Japan. There have been so many editor reviews I’ve gone to where they assumed I was Japanese after speaking with me on the phone, and when they meet me they just have this expression like “…Well. That was unexpected.” And depending on the editor, it doesn’t really matter, but some editors really can’t get away from the fact that I’m so far away from the normal Japanese artists they meet on a regular basis.

Ultimately I want to use my identity as a leverage for my work, but it’s hard to know where to start when everyone is just so… unaware of who you are and what you’re doing. And since I’m such a “novel” person, I’m very afraid of being reduced to just that. Because of that, in Japan at least, I’d like to make a name with a story that isn’t autobiographical first, before heading into that territory. That being said, I really do want to make a comic about my experiences, because in the seven, eight years I’ve been here, well, a lot has happened and a lot can be told in a really entertaining way.

Image of an androgynous, long-haired person putting on a glove

AF: What are your next steps professionally?

MS: I’ve actually managed to get a job in the creative field (though not design, per se) in Tokyo, and while it’s a lot of fun it’s also a lot of work. I’ve scaled down my original plans with my comic work and for the meantime am starting to put out a webcomic that I’m doing both in Japanese and in English.

A while ago I met with several editors during a comic event in Tokyo, and several of them seemed rather receptive of my work, so I’m going to spend the following months submitting more to contests to try to get my work out there (I already submitted to one monthly contest as of writing this). More than anything, though, I’ve realized that I just want people to read and enjoy my work, so I figure the more platforms I have it out there on, the better. We’ll see where that takes me!

AF: What advice do you have for aspiring manga artists who would like to follow in your footsteps?

MS: Draw. Draw, draw, draw, and draw again. One of the things I really like about Japan is there really is a a culture built into the industry that really encourages artists to draw, and continue drawing until they get results. That’s one of the points of the monthly contests that many magazines put out. I’ve seen so many artists start from nothing and debut simply just because they continued.

I was told the following by a mentor that I always keep in mind: you may only have a one percent chance of succeeding, but if you don’t try you’ll have a zero percent chance. It won’t be easy, and sometimes you might need a break, but stick with it, and who knows where you’ll be years from now.

AF: How is the manga industry for women to work in? 

MS: For the most part, I would say that it’s a very welcoming place, mostly because there are so many women creators out there to begin with. From the beginning, women have had a place in the manga industry, and because of that I feel like a lot of female creators have been given the space to really flourish on their own.

This isn’t to say that it’s perfect, however. I remember being shocked when we were visited by a former editor in chief from a big magazine in school who said that if you’re a woman and want to be a mangaka, don’t bother having children, or a love life.

There was also a time that I had a very uncomfortable review with a male editor from another big publisher—I was surprised someone like that was on the editorial team of a manga magazine for women, of all places. That being said, I have much more positive stories from the perspective of a female creator working in Japan than otherwise.

AF: Who are your favourite female manga creators, and why? 

MS: I have so many it’s hard to really narrow it down, but I’ll try. CLAMP were the original reason I started drawing comics, so I’ll have to give them a shout out first. I remember X completely blowing my socks off in elementary school. I’d never seen something so beautiful and yet so gory. I was hooked. You wouldn’t be able to see their influence on my work nowadays, but years ago it was really obvious.

Recently I’ve been devouring Izumi Tsubaki (of Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun fame)’s works. Not only is her art really appealing, she is hilarious. I’d have to say that she’s probably my biggest inspiration at the moment, since I mainly draw humorous comics right now.

A manga page in Japanese. A young man with a bouquet of roses winks, then sneezes.

AF: What kinds of characters do you most enjoy creating, and why?

MS: My MO is the “unfortunate pretty boy,” as has been dubbed by numerous people I have shared my work with. I love drawing cute guys who would be perfect… if there weren’t a catch. It really all comes down to the fact that “gap moe” is my ultimate weakness. The villainous prince, the handsome freeloader, the anemic vampire–what can I say? It’s a guilty pleasure that I intend on taking full advantage of.

AF: What kind of community is there in Japan for fujoshi fans and/or creators? 

MS: It’s a great time to be a fujoshi in Japan right now, let me tell you. Not only are there scores of anime, manga and games made by and/or for women coming out, but there has been a really big boom in 2.5 entertainment (plays, or events with voice actors who play characters in popular anime/manga).

That’s not even factoring in the doujinshi scene, which has spread even further due to the popularity of Twitter in Japan. Go to Ikebukuro on a random weekend and you’ll see droves of women on the prowl for merchandise of their favorite characters, or in cosplay for one of the many events that happen in the area.

This applies to fujoshi, and their not as rotten sisters, yumejoshi (a term I’ve seen popping up that refers to girls who generally consume similar content to fujoshi, but with less of a focus on the boys getting together with each other–think fans of otome games/seiyuu fans, etc).

AF: Finally, who are your favourite female characters in manga, and why? 

MS: I love Yukino from KareKano. I just find the fact that she keeps a certain image in public, and is a complete slob at home to be so relatable. On a similar note, I also like Nodame from Nodame Cantabile a lot because of some of these same faults. I guess it’s just really nice seeing girls in comics who get to be weird, or slobs, or what-have-you because we’ve been taught in real life that this is unacceptable. Being someone who is rather messy and disorganized, I really enjoy seeing girls in media who succeed despite that.

Minami is a little lost comic artist who came to Japan 7 years ago and never really left. Her days consist of 60% screaming about anime and/or game boys. Her dream is to make a series that makes people scream as much as her favorite series make her. You can follow her on twitter @sakaimii or check out her comic for yourselfit is available in English too. You can also read about her experiences at the Tokyo Design Academy and see her in-progress comic work on Tumblr.

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