How do we categorize different kinds of Japanese comics? What categories or labels do we use? For that matter, who even decides what categories or labels we even have access to? These questions are provocative, but as it turns out, they are not rhetorical. Outside Japan, and particularly in the U.S., there are actually specific organizations that are tasked with assigning labels to different kinds of published materials, and probably the most important organization of this type is the Library of Congress. Unless you are somehow involved with the Library of Congress classification system in your work, or have studied it in a library/information science graduate program, the activity of the Library of Congress that are you probably most familiar with is the system of terms to organize entries in library catalogs both by subject and by genre.
Since November 2022, “manga” has been included on the approved Library of Congress list of terms as both a subject heading (for materials about manga) and a genre term – for actual manga titles. And, as it turns out, last year, the Metadata and Cataloging Committee of the American Library Association Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table presented a proposal to the Library of Congress endorsing the establishment of several specific terms that would apply to “manga subgenres”. In particular, the Committee endorsed four broad terms, with these potential recommended descriptions:
- shonen: “Manga emphasizing action and adventure, often with slapstick humor, a journey featuring personal growth, heroes with spiky hairstyles ,and themes of friendship, determination, and teamwork.”
- shojo: “Manga emphasizing personal feelings and emotions, often centered on relationships, with a distinctive artistic style featuring lithe characters and big eyes, decorative panel dividers and layered panels.”
- Boys love: “Romance manga with beautiful, androgynous male leads, featuring exclusive mutual attraction and a plot driven by emotion and psychological obstacles. For comics about realistic gay experiences, see Gay comics.”
- Yuri: “Manga depicting the homosocial, spiritual bonds and relationships between adolescent girls, often with a floral motif of lilies. For comics about the lesbian experience, see Lesbian comics.”
The Committee’s report includes a Considerations section that explains its reasoning and attempts to justify the recommended descriptions with citations. However, the citations the report draws on are eclectic at best, and include both scholarly works (published book chapters and journal articles, and unpublished dissertations), and mentions in website articles and blogs. The sources that it draws on do tend to describe the most immediately prominent and perhaps event stereotypical characteristics of the “manga subgenres”, but are these features and characteristics even truly typical? Nor is there any attempt to engage with the significant body of scholarship that addresses the “subgenres” in terms of either target readership and branding or other more formal criteria. One such example is the work of Giancarla Unser-Schutz, who demonstrates, in an essay in the collection Shōjo Across Media: Exploring “Girl” Practices in Contemporary Japan, that shonen and shojo manga can be defined and differentiated not by “action and adventure” opposed to “personal feelings and emotions”, but rather, by “the kinds of text, scripts and lexical items used, as well as characters’ speech patterns”.
Data analysis of a corpus of popular manga titles shows that there are distinct differences in language use in shōjo and shōnen manga.– Giancarla Unser-Schutz, Redefining Shōjo and Shōnen Manga Through Language Patterns
Similarly, the entries for both shonen and shojo in the recent volume Key Terms in Comics Studies specifically point out that these terms are used for a “kind” of “type” of comic – that can encompass the same kinds of genres that would be expected of fiction in general. Describing shonen, shojo, Boys love and Yuri in terms of supposed typical features shows at best a willing lack to engage with scholarship, and possibly, a reductive attitude of willing acceptance of easy stereotypes. Nonetheless, as of September 2023, LOC has accepted the proposal, and has established these four subdivisions as the accepted ways to further categorize manga titles in U.S. library collections.