Rica ‘tte Kanji!?
Here’s a little something in honor of National Coming Out Day: Rica ‘tte Kanji!?, an autobiographical comic about the unique challenges of coming out as a lesbian in Japan.
As Rica Takashima, the book’s artist, says right at the start, “I grew up out in the country. So, I’ve never met an actual lesbian.” Or at least, not that she was aware of. It’s a truism that since about 10% of the population is gay, most people have more LGBT friends than they realize. But whereas the U.S. at least has something like National Coming Out Day, the Japanese maxim “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down” reigns supreme, and Japan’s gay population in non-metropolitan areas remains invisible. One gets the sense that if Rica hadn’t moved to Tokyo to enter junior college, thereby gaining access to the GLBT-centric Nichoume district of Shinjuku, she might have gone her whole life without meeting another actual lesbian: “It’s the same for everyone in the beginning,” confirms Miho upon hearing the above line.
That general sense of desperation amongst the Tokyo lesbian community informs a lot of the book’s events. After making a quiet debut at one of the Nichoume clubs, Rica is taken to a women-only event at a larger club; there, as is standard for girls new to the scene, she gets an avalanche of passes by girls who don’t often see new faces in the crowd. Miho, one of the first girls Rica meets and the one who becomes her girlfriend over the course of the book, laments early on that she hasn’t found a girlfriend in the six months she’s been in the Nichoume scene, with the implied reason that the pickings are that slim. The only real challenge to their love comes when Rica briefly develops a crush on Kaoru, who turns out not to be a lesbian at all but a preoperative transsexual also active in Nichoume. (“You didn’t realize?” asks Kaoru to a bewildered Rica when the secret is revealed. “I thought you were just a fag hag.”)
Given that Rica ‘tte Kanji!? offers a rare perspective into a little-represented corner of Japanese society, it’s a bit frustrating that Takashima doesn’t expand her scope beyond her tentative romance with Miho. For instance, her area of study at the junior college is early childhood education, but although she gets a job at a foster nursery toward the end of the book, we’re never told whether her employers know or care about her relationship.
This may be a byproduct of Takahashi’s explanation in an afterword that “Ten years ago there were very few manga with lesbian stories. Only depressing stories, about ‘forbidden love’ with a break-up in the end. […] I wanted to read a HAPPY story.” (This was in 2003, and it’s been nearly ten years since then without a lot having changed in the manga world, as far as I can tell.) In this light, it makes sense that providing information about the gay Japanese lifestyle is outside the scope of Rica ‘tte Kanji!?, which serves instead as a sort of proto-It Gets Better for young Japanese lesbians. (Then again, there’s a distinct possibility that some of these issues do come up in the frustratingly large amount of untranslated text pieces inexplicably included in the English adaptation.)
Even apart from the window into Rica’s particular subculture, it’s a cute book that tells a sweet story with breezily naive cartooning perfectly suited to its subject matter. It may not provide all the answers one might hope from someone with Rica’s perspective, but what she does reveal, both about herself and about her newfound social circles, is worth the read.