Let’s Socializing! The Manga Research Society at Sophia University

It’s coming up on two years since I left Japan.

Between going through a number of personal changes since my return to the States and not having written at any great length about my time over there, I figure now’s a good time for reflection. But rather than go headfirst into what could possibly turn into a tale wrought with awkward situations and misunderstandings, I’ll just focus on one aspect of the trip: my time at the Sophia University (Jouchi Daigaku) Manga Research Society, or Manga Kenkyuukai. “Manken” for short. Don’t get me wrong, this tale will also be wrought with awkward situations and misunderstandings, but if we take these things in small doses this blog probably won’t transform into a 13-year-old’s LiveJournal. Also, I think it would be beneficial to the English speaking fanbase to understand what a manga circle in Japan is like. I don’t think anyone’s written at great length about the subject in English, so I figure I’ll give it a shot. That said, Jouchi’s manken isn’t representative of manga clubs as a whole, so if anyone else out there has something to add, please feel free.

Before I even set foot in Japan, I had resolved to join Jouchi’s manken. I wasn’t sure whether or not they actually had one at first, but after some fruitless searching of my own, a quick Google search by Kransom confirmed their existence, and Shingo also recommended that I join. So why not, right?

Within my first week or so of stumbling around Japan like a moron, Jouchi had one of those Freshman open house days that you see time and time again as the years pass by in Genshiken. All the clubs had tables out, and were asking for new members. The manken was immediately identifiable by a sign with a ⑨ on it, as well as an illustration of its associated Touhou character. Between me and their table was a sea of people, but I made it there unscathed. After spouting the typical bullshit “Is this the manken?” question (of course it’s the manken), I immediately followed up with a “let me join.” They seemed overjoyed at winning over a new member so easily, and sent me off with the only guy who could kind of speak English. He took me to their club room, and on the way there we exchanged words in both awkward Japanese and English. During our little stroll, he invited me to the club’s cherry blossom viewing outing that was in a couple of days.

He was wearing a Yukkuri shirt, natch.

From this moment on my time with Jouchi’s manken would be a series of enriching and entertaining–yet at the same time awkward, and at times frustrating–social gatherings. Things kicked off with the aforementioned cherry blossom viewing picnic, where I would end up meeting a few people who I still keep in some contact with today. The picnic was more or less what you would expect: lots of drinking, food, and smoking. I just kind of sat down an observed, since my Japanese was really poor at this point. I don’t quite remember how it happened, but I ended up striking a conversation with this one fellow who I’ll call N-san. N-san somehow ended up talking to me about loli anime (go figure) and he mentioned that he loved Fate-chan so much that he bought a dakimakura cover of her. I said I own a few dakimakura covers myself, and upon hearing this N-san yelled, “Nakama!” or “Comrade!”

After parting ways with N-san, I somehow ended up among another circle of people. I didn’t talk much here (aside from saying “Satsugaiseyo!” in the midst of a Detroit Metal City conversation at what I felt was an appropriate moment) but I did end up meeting K-san, who I’d get to know better during successive club meetings. I generally tried to be as much of a social butterfly as I could, while at the same time trying hard to ignore the two other gaijin in the group (In Japan, all gaijin hate each other. But really, these guys were the typical anime con crowd that somehow managed to make it over the Pacific. In the end one of them proved to be pretty okay, but other one was just… not.) All in all it was a good day out: I met some people, and manged to incite some laughs with my ZAWA shirt (a dangerous shirt to wear around Japan, to be sure.)

Unfortunately, I had to duck out of further events like these with the manken. While I did go to one of their drinking parties (or nomikai, for those strong with the Nihongo) since they were covering new members for the first two weeks, I had to pass on further events due to monetary constraints. They had some weekend excursions out in the mountains and to the beach (you know, gasshuku) as well as more drinking sessions, but I just didn’t have that kind of cash to spare. That said, their weekly meetings, along with hanging out in the club room after classes, was more than enough to give me a taste of how the Jouchi manken operates.

Naturally, in the first meeting of the semester, everyone had to introduce themselves. Amongst the other freshmen introducing themselves, I delivered my jikoshoukai in wonderfully bastardized Japanese; stating who I am, where I’m from, and what otaku things I like. It was here where I got to know K-san better. K-san was a freshman, and she really liked Genshiken, as well as old men. But she assured the club that her love for old men was in no way related to Genshiken. I ended up sitting amongst her and other girls, because, you know, I’m a gaijin in Japan. What else do you want me to do, not talk to girls? While speaking with her, she revealed that she also liked lolita characters somewhat. During the conversation, the group of us that had gathered there all scribbled on her sketch pad on her invitation.

Meetings were pretty structured: They opened with the higher ups going through a list of items on a blackboard, addressing various issues such as themes for the next doujinshi, where to go for the next gasshuku, and issues revolving around the club room. They actually moved to a larger club room during my time there, as the original room was about the size of a closet. It got really crowded in there moments before a club meeting. Since my Japanese was utter shit, I oftentimes had to rely on the powers of the bilingual students in the club. There were more than a few: One girl who really liked Inazuma Eleven; a freshmen who had allegedly never been to America, but spoke perfect English with no accent at all; a Chinese exchange student; and another Japanese girl with a curious name. I mostly talked to the Chinese guy and the curiously named girl when I needed help.

Let’s call the girl Y-san. She has kind of an interesting story: her parents were both Anglophiles, so they gave her a Western first and middle name (?!) matched against her Japanese last name. If I recall correctly, she went to an international school, so her English was spot on. For a while I thought she was an exchange student as well. I asked if her Japanese parents mispronounce her name a lot, and she said yes. To mix things up a bit, let’s call the Chinese guy HYPE-san, since he was HYPE for all manner of giant robot anime. One time he saw me drawing and asked if I was the guy who ran Mistakes of Youth. I said yes, and we immediately connected. I went over to his apartment one night with a friend of his (another reader), and we hung out for a few hours watching bits and pieces of random mecha anime spanning the decades. He played the “CHOUGOKIN ZETTTTT” clip from Shin Mazinger (airing at the time) something like 10 times. If you’re reading this HYPE-san, hello!

After those administrative duties were taken care of, an activity would sometimes follow. Drawing practice was a big one: Someone in the club would either volunteer to be a model, or pictures of people (usually ripped out of magazines) were dispersed amongst the members for copying. This would be followed by a critique by one of the senior artists in the club. Another thing we did was draw pages for the club’s doujinshi. In fact, on the first meeting, we were tasked with drawing a page introducing ourselves, which would be compiled into a book of member introductions. On that same vein, another activity would be actually printing the doujinshi. We’d take all the original drawings, cut off the margins, and arrange them in such a way that would allow them to be copied and stapled easily. We’d then head off to Kinkos to copy and assemble the books, while exchanging small talk with one another. It was at one of these outings that I got to know Lunatic-san, because he always played Touhou games on Lunatic mode. I think he actually called me senpai (which felt weird, believe you me) and chats with him were a little difficult since he slurred his words a lot. He’s a good kid though–didn’t watch much anime, but really liked Touhou and Nico Video.

In lieu of any real activity, club members would just shoot the shit for while after the administrative stuff was over. It was during times like these that I tried to assert myself socially, despite being incredibly socially crippled at the time, as well as having a marginal grasp on Japanese. I seem to remember chatting with K-san a lot, and we’d usually end up catching the train together. We’d also sometimes do paint chat outside of club. After getting to know him, I’d speak with HYPE-san every so often, as well as anyone else he was engaged with. N-san didn’t make it to meetings very often, but when he did I tried to strike up conversation with him. He was very forgiving of my shitty Japanese, and we tried our best to cross cultural barriers in order talk about very otaku-kusai things.

The other half of my time at the Jouchi manken was spent in their club room after classes, as I mentioned before. The club room consisted of shelves filled primarily with manga, some anime DVDs, various art books and art reference books; a television set with all manner of game console hooked up to it; a wall adorned with very otaku-kusai posters, and of course the lovely members of the club. Upon walking in, a few people would usually be playing video games–usually Beatmania, one of the Gundam VS games, or Smash Brothers. Every now and then some people would be watching anime, but it wasn’t a great environment to watch things in, so something lighthearted was usually on. I remember being in there when they were watching a Pokemon movie, supplying all manner of snarky commentary as it went on. People would also be deep into their DSs or PSPs, playing Pokemon or Monster Hunter respectively. Other people would be reading some manga off the shelves, drawing, or simply chatting.

It was harder to be social here, since people were really deep into what they were doing, so I instead opted to take in the general vibe, and usually just read manga or drew. But I did get to know more people in the club when the odd conversation happened around me. Every now and then I’d speak to Big-san–named such because he was BIG–who often times spoke too fast for me to understand, and sometimes busted into the room swearing in English just because. One time he asked me where I was from in the US: I said Washington DC, to which he replied, “White House, White House!” I followed up by saying I go to school in Boston, to which he replied, “Tea party, tea party!”

During my time at the club, I think I must have developed something of a reputation amongst some people as “that gaijin who is a real-deal otaku.” One day a member I hardly knew walked in with the Kannagi: Nagi Portraits book for the club, and before putting it on the shelf, he handed it to me: “I know you like this sort of thing.” One other time some girls asked me my opinion on Asu no Yoichi.

One thing I noticed at the manken was a real diversity amongst fans. When you’re sitting here in the US on the other side of a computer looking at Pixiv submissions, it’s pretty easy to narrow down Japanese fans these people who only like a specific set of things. And while there are a large amount of those people, actually seeing other types of fans opens your eyes up to another side of Japanese fandom. You were sure it had to exist, but there was just no way of telling short of actually being there. The club had lots of girls in it, so I got to experience a lot of fujoshi stuff first hand. I also ran into casual fans of manga who didn’t get into moe stuff at all, a couple of serious business UC Gundam fans, and people who watched American cartoons and Monty Python.

I also noticed that club members were unusually fashionable. Japanese friends of mine have put forth that the manken’s good fashion sense is due to them being Jochi students, and I also noticed that people who lived in Tokyo generally dressed up well, but it was still strange being in a room filled with well dressed otaku.

In an attempt to wrap things up, I’m going to say my time at Jouchi’s manken was generally positive. I met some great people and got a nice taste of Japanese otaku culture. But while there were lots of fun times, there were also times of intense frustration. During my time there I tried to pretend I wasn’t being crushed under a mountain of pressure due to being in a completely new environment, but I really was. There were times where I was just really mad that I couldn’t understand other people, or articulate myself with people who I wanted to know better. I knew this was going to be the case, but didn’t know it was going to be so frustrating. But the people who I talked to were nice and understanding, and to some degree friendships were formed, and I’m looking forward to meeting with those people again during my next trip to Japan. There were some people in the club who seemed a little reluctant towards interacting with the few foreign members, probably because they simply didn’t want to deal with the hassle of trying to talk to them. And I don’t blame them, it’s tough for both parties.

As much as I get on nerds’ cases for being annoying on Twitter, I only do that because I relate to such behavior too well. That’s also why watching this video is somewhat painful. But if you’re like me, and find yourself studying in Japan, I highly recommend joining your school’s manga club. It’ll be tough for those first couple of weeks, but if you just try your best, people will help you out, and you’ll have a fulfilling social and cultural experience. I’m not one to dish out advice, but based on my prior experience I have some tips:

  • If you’re a socially awkward nerd (like I was, and still am to some degree) get out there and stop being one! You’ll feel a lot better!
  • If you live in a city with a large Japanese population, or happen to know a Japanese person online–practice speaking with them, it’ll probably help you out.
  • Don’t be scared of making mistakes. You’re a big ol’ silly foreigner in Japan, you’re going to fuck up, and a lot. I always punished myself for fucking up, but it’s better to just take each fuck up with stride and learn from the experience.

And at around 2700 words, I’ll close this thing up. I hope you learned at least a little more about manga clubs beyond what you saw in Genshiken, and I can only hope someone out there can manage to learn from my goofs in Japan. And remember, even though you’re a nerd, you can still socialize! So Let’s Socializing together!


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