The theme for the upcoming Spring 2025 issue of Mechademia: Second Arc will be “methodologies” – such as “theoretical frameworks” and “methods of analysis”. The Call for Papers for the issue lists several potential topics to consider and questions to ask in connection with this broad theme, and one of these questions is “What hampers the interrelation between English-language and Japanese-language scholarship (including publications by non-Japanese nationals in Japanese, and translations of popular or non-academic Japanese media criticism in English)?”
Asking this leads into another, related question. Is it essential or necessary for scholars working in a field like anime and manga studies, where the objects that the field is about are originally in a different language, to use scholarly materials in that language? And, if someone is not proficient in Japanese to the level where they can access untranslated Japanese books and essays, what kinds of options are available to them if they still want want to make a meaningful contribution to the study of Japanese animation, Japanese comics, and other related topics?
What hampers the interrelation between English-language and Japanese-language scholarship (including publications by non-Japanese nationals in Japanese, and translations of popular or non-academic Japanese media criticism in English)?
As it turns out, this specific question is actually related to a broader question of the role that the English language plays in global scholarly communication more generally. For example, in an innovative 2004 study on “global English in the humanities”, Charlene Kellsey and Jennifer E. Knievel demonstrated that for the fields of history, classics, linguistics, and philosophy, the average number of citations to non-English sources in issues of major journals has increased slightly between 1962 and 2002, while the average number of total cited sources has increased significantly, from 66.8 to 236. The vast majority of citations are to materials either originally published in English, or to translations into English. A similar study with a focus on the scholarly literature for the field of linguistics found that for a random sample of 479 sources used as citations in materials in the Language and Linguistics Behavior Abstracts database, an overwhelming majority – 93.5% – were in English. Additional recent studies on the topic include Can scholarly communication be multilingual? A glance at language use in US classical archaeology, Cross-lingual citations in English papers: a large-scale analysis of prevalence, usage, and impact, and, just recently – and with direct relevance to Japanese popular culture studies – Citing East Asia: A citation study on the use of East Asian materials in East Asian Studies dissertations. For that matter, in my own study of sources cited in the first 10 volumes of Mechademia, I found that out of 2,187 sources that authors cited, 68.22% were originally published in English, and another 7.27% were translated into English from other languages. Materials in Japanese made up 22.54%, and the small remainder was divided between a few items in French, German, Korean, Chinese, Italian, and Spanish.
On average, each dissertation had 44 percent of its citations to East Asian materials. However, the individual dissertations varied greatly in terms of percentage of East Asian citations– Xiang Li, Citing East Asia
These studies then demonstrate both that scholars in different fields in the humanities that may involve using sources in languages other than English both do and do not actually use non-English sources, and the extent that they do varies widely between fields. So, conceptually, scholarship in the humanities that focuses on literature and media that is originally produced in a language other than English, and does not necessarily refer to sources in that language is possible and accepted. But, the question remains – how do you “do” anime and manga studies without being able to directly access materials written in Japanese?
And, to answer the question, I would point at least four possible approaches. Each of them comes with their own caveats and limitations, but, taken together, these approaches definitely offer some ways to resolve the basic challenge.
1. Consider translations of Japanese scholarly work
The most straight-forward approach simply involves asking the question to what extent is Japanese writing on anime/manga available in English translation? The answer to this question is – somewhat. English translations are available for two foundational Japanese texts in anime studies – Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals and Beautiful Fighting Girl, but in the first case, the original book was published in 2001, and the translation is from 2009; in the second, the book is from 2000, and updated in 2006, and the translation is dated 2011. So, neither can represent the “current” state of anime studies, either in Japanese or in English. And this is essentially also the case with the volume that was published in 2021 with the title Erotic Comics in Japan: An Introduction to Eromanga – the original Japanese edition is dated 2014, and the direct translation of the original title is Eromanga Studies, Expanded Edition: An Introduction to Manga as a “Pleasure Apparatus”.
Another consistent source of important “original” Japanese scholarly writing is Mechademia – its first issue included a translation of a chapter from sociologist Toshiya Ueno’s 1998 book Kurenai no metaru sutsu: Anime to iu senjo (Crimson metal suits: Anime as a battlefield) that asked the foundational question “what is animation?” Following issues featured chapters from Tezuka is Dead: Post-Modernist and Modernist Approaches to Japanese Manga by Go Ito, Yukari Fujimoto’s Where is my place in the world? Early shojo manga portrayals of lesbianism, and, just published in the latest Spring 2023 “2.5D Culture” issue, Live concerts by voice actresses/characters as state of exception: The affect and subjectivity of the audience as necessary conditions, which originally appeared in a September 2006 Special Issue on Idol Anime of the literary magazine Eureka.
Similarly, for several years now, Prof. John Holt (Portland State University), has been working together with University of Oregon East Asian Studies PhD student Teppei Fukuda to translate and publish in English Fusanosuke Natsume’s foundational 1997 study Why Is Manga So Interesting?: Its Grammar and Expression (Manga wa naze omoshiroi no ka: sono hyōgen to bunpō), with chapters appearing across issues of several different journals.
- The riddle of the rise of Japanese manga (chap. 1) – INKS: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society
- Character expression and line (chap. 2) – INKS
- Panel configurations in shōjo manga – U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal
- The characteristics of Japanese manga – International Journal of Comic Art
- The construction of panels (koma) in manga – ImageTexT
- The functions of panels (koma) in manga – Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies
- The power of onomatopoeia in manga – Japanese Language and Literature
In addition, they have also translated the Pig Gourd: The meaning of Tezuka’s playing around with form chapter from Natsume’s earlier Where is Tezuka Osamu? (Tezuka Osamu wa doko ni iru), and a translation of another chapter from the same book, Where is Tezuka – A theory of manga expression?, from a different translator, appears in the 2014 Tezuka’s Manga Life issue of Mechademia. Again, however, the Japanese materials on anime/manga that are available on English translation can certainly be viewed as a “sample” of the total body of Japanese thought on these subjects, and can give an understanding of how major Japanese critics have approached anime and manga, but these texts certainly do not offer any kind of comprehensive picture of anime and manga studies in Japanese.
2. Consider work by Japanese scholars writing in English, whether currently working in Japan or in other countries, as well as by non-Japanese scholars in Japan.
In Myths and realities of ‘global’ English, Robert Phillipson makes the case that rightly or wrongly, the English language has come to be a “universally relevant lingua franca and medium of education” (and scholarly communication). What this means is that not infrequently even scholars whose first language is not English, and even those who are affiliated with academic institutions in countries that are not primarily English-speaking may strive to publish at least some of their work in English – for prestige, and simply to ensure that it is accessible to an audience that can be expected to be able to read it. If one of the goals of scholarship is participating in a conversation, then the best way to participate is by adding to the conversation – by joining it. Again here, examples are plentiful – a full study entitled A Development Strategy for Hybrid Products: The Case of the Japanese Animation Industry – the author is an associate professor of economics at Tohoku University, the chapter Fantasy wars and their real-life inspirations: Tourism and international conflicts caused by Attack on Titan, by Ryo Koarai and Takayoshi Yamamura (both at Hokkaido University) and the Multicultural Shakespeare: Translation, Appropriation and Performance article Toward “reciprocal legitimation” between Shakespeare’s works and manga (Yukari Yoshihaba, Tsukuba University). Some prominent Japanese anime/manga scholars teaching and working outside Japan include Shiro Yoshioka, who completed his PhD dissertation on Hayao Miyazaki’s views of Japanese culture and history, and is currently a lecturer in Japanese Studies at Newcastle University, University of Arkansas anthropology professor Kinko Ito, author of, among other publications, the monograph A Sociology of Japanese Ladies’ Comics: Images of the Life, Loves, and Sexual Fantasies of Adult Japanese Women (Edwin Mellen Press, 2011), and, at the University of Adelaide, Shoko Yoneyama, with notable articles such as Rethinking human-nature relationships in the time of Coronavirus: Postmodern animism in films by Miyazaki Hayao & Shinkai Makoto.
3. Rely on bibliographic research “reference chaining” techniques
These suggestions can work for helping find authors and sources to use. But, what if they still are not enough? At this point, it’s worth thinking about the the basic structure of the entire process of scholarly communication, and one of its most basic and defining practices – the use of citation. One of the key distinguishing characteristics of the scholarly essay is that not only does it engage in a conversation with previous scholarship, but it specifically mentions the scholarship that it is engaging with, via the formal process of citation. That is, when a book, book chapter, or journal article makes an argument of any kind that is based on the work of another scholar, ideally, it will mention that scholar’s name, and the title of the original work. So, what that means for the purposes of being able to access Japanese writing on a topic such as anime/manga is that even if you are not able to access original the original writing, it may be “good enough” to at least access English-language scholarly writing that responds to it. More specifically, this means that when evaluating a scholarly publication that you are interested in that is written in English but is discussing Japanese materials, simply consider if it itself cites to original Japanese sources in its bibliography. And, if you want to be even more certain, see if you can track down the author’s profile on a faculty website, or even their personal page, and see whether they are or are likely proficient in Japanese.
So, when you are reading through a book such as Manga: A Critical Guide, and a significant percentage of the sources in the book’s bibliography are Japanese responses to various trends, themes and issues related to Japanese comics, it is clear that the authors are directly engaging with them and adding to the ongoing conversation – as well as, in a way, providing a guide to the responses themselves.
4. Access English titles / abstracts
Again going back to the “global English” concept, even in Japan, it is not uncommon for journals to publish at least their tables of contents in English – as the Japanese Journal of Animation Studies for example does with its most recent issues, to mix articles in Japanese and English, or at least to provide an English-language title and perhaps even an abstract. And a useful, though limited, resource for access to Japanese materials is the Database for Animation Studies, developed by the Japanese Society for Animation Studies.
5. Accept the limitations – and refocus?
With all of these possible approaches, there are a couple of additional factors to consider. Again, I have to emphasize that the scholarly writing on anime/manga that was originally published in Japanese and is now available in English translation is still just a small percentage of the total body of Japanese-languages scholarly work on anime/manga – at best a sample, and not necessarily a representative sample. And even then, the format, style, and tone of much of what is available differs significantly from the usual style and tone of English-language scholarly writing in the humanities. So, with that in mind, here, it’s also worth making one more point.
In the end of things, if you are not comfortable with trying to approach Japanese sources for your own research, weird and maybe even uncomfortable as it may be to say this, anime and manga studies does not have to be “about Japan”. Anime is a global product, and researching anime/manga can focus on how it is received, advertised, promoted and marketed and packaged, how audiences interact with it, on fan activities, on the history of anime distribution companies and manga publishers, on various legal issues, and really, on so many other topics that go beyond the original texts. And does this diminish the texts in any way? No. Good scholarship is about finding making connections and about finding innovative approaches, and in the end, fluency in / proficiency with Japanese is in no way a requirement for involvement in anime and manga studies.