Manga Artist Fumi Yoshinaga Talks about Her Own Works and Changes in Society: Expanding Manga Expression

Fumi Yoshinaga is known for her big hits including Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, which depicts the rise and fall of the Tokugawa family in the world where the Ōoku becomes a harem of men serving the female shogun, Antique Bakery, a story about a bakery where only men work and What Did You Eat Yesterday?a slice of life series focusing on a gay couple. 

She has been an artist whose approach naturally values the notion of diversity as can be seen from a work in which women assume the reins of government instead of men, or a story of a gay couple serialized in youth manga magazines. However, she herself describes her own activities as simply depicting manga works that she wants to read.

In the interview book 仕事でも仕事じゃなくても 漫画とよしながふみ(Regardless of Whether Work or Not Work: Manga and Fumi Yoshinaga), released on July 26, she describes in detail her life trajectory from her childhood to the present. She says that she draws manga freely, but how did these works, which are somewhat socially conscious, come about? 

My student life was just like the life of hidden Christian

–You have drawn many works that questions gender roles of men and women, but are you particular about that?

Fumi Yoshinaga (Yoshinaga): I have never been particularly conscious of that. I have always just created stories I wanted to read. I think those stories just happened to be set up that way.

I think it’s only been five years or so since people came to appreciate my works in relation to the notion of diversity, probably due to the diffusion of the concept of LGBTQ, the fact that working all their lives has become so common for women, and many other social movements. 

If there are people who take my works seriously, I think that’s wonderful and I’m glad.

–You originally made a name for yourself by making fanzines of SLAM DUNK and BL magazines, how did you end up working on them?

Yoshinaga: Ever since I was a little girl, Patarillo! has been my favorite, so I enjoyed reading stories about male and male relationships. I didn’t think of it as a homosexual story at the time. I also loved reading Kaze to Ki no Uta (Poem of Wind and Trees) and Hi Izuru Tokoro no Tenshi (Emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun).

I first encountered doujinshi culture when I was in the first year of junior high school and a friend lent me a copy of a story about the relationship of Kojiro Hyuga and Ken Wakashimatsu from Captain Tsubasa. I was shocked because it was a very profound story. I couldn’t believe that they could come up with such a story from that major sports manga (laughs).

However, when I was in junior high and high school, bullying was a social problem, and I thought that if I stood out, I would be bullied. So I tried my best to hide the fact that I was an otaku so that it would not be obvious. Although I read major popular manga to keep up with everyone, I tried to avoid talking about the manga I really liked outwardly.

–You had friends who lent you doujinshi copies of Captain Tsubasa, but you “held your breath” not to stand out?

Yoshinaga: Yes, I did. I had friends who were otaku, but when I graduated from high school, not only me but also all of my otaku friends “mimicked” normal people by reading the atmosphere. I dressed as normal as possible so that I didn’t look like an otaku, and I didn’t join manga club. I would go to coterie events, though (laughs).

–It sounds like being a hidden Christian.

Yoshinaga: Exactly. So when I joined the manga circle in college, my friends worried about me, saying “Will you be able to get along with others in school?” For me personally, I thought I would be fine since we didn’t have any classroom-relationship at the university, and I had a strong desire to talk about manga with someone, so I have no regrets about joining the manga circle.

I think it was when I was in my third year of college. A friend recommended me to read SLAM DUNK, and when I saw Kogure and Mitsui, I just came up with the idea of making their story (laugh). I couldn’t stay away from that idea and decided to publish a doujinshi.

Since then, I have not been able to do anything other than creating fan-fictions, and I even went to graduate school to continue my doujin activities for as long as possible. During that time, various BL magazines sprang up. A friend I met through doujin activities became the editor of one of the BL magazines called Hanaoto. And the opportunities I have been given to be involved in it have helped me build the career I have today.

–Did your parents not oppose you? Going to graduate school seems quite a big deal.

Yoshinaga: They were not against it. My mother was only worried if I could make a living off of it though. 

Love is love, even if it is BL, and I was strict with myself

–Your career as a BL manga artist began as an extension of your doujin activities, but did you ever feel difficulty or feel that it was better to hide that fact?

Yoshinaga: I did not feel a sense of oppression that I had felt as a teenager. Also, at the time of my debut, the term “BL” was coined and there was an atmosphere in which the entire market was gradually gaining momentum.

At the time, it was seen as pornography for adult women. Although I was embarrassed in the sense that I was creating erotic manga, I had no special feeling about the fact that I was depicting male/male love stories.

–Why didn’t you draw male-female romance?

Yoshinaga: It’s not that I don’t draw, it’s more like I can’t draw. I drew one once when I was in high school, and that was the first and last time. I don’t enjoy reading them myself.

–Why is that?

Yoshinaga: It is probably because I myself am not very interested in and dispassionate about romance. However, I can easily broaden my imagination as to stories starting from “comradeships,” “master-slave” relationships or the kind of friendship that becomes too passionate and then turns into romance. Nevertheless, although I debuted as a BL manga artist, it was not at all easy for me to draw many variations of romance.

–Why was it difficult for you who were drawing doujinshi to draw many different kinds of romance?

Yoshinaga: Even though I was drawing BL, love is love. At that time BL was basically short stories, characters in manga met and fell in love each time. I was troubled by the fact that they were another kind of love stories after all. Also, due to the policy of the magazine, I had to include sex scenes, which was very difficult for me. So I tried to move to a general magazine soon.

It should be possible to live without romance

–What was your intention in creating All My Darling Daughters, which focuses on the difficulties women face in life?

Yoshinaga: At first, I was going to depict something like a light romantic comedy, but as I went on working on it, it turned out to be something completely different.

–It portrays a daughter who cannot celebrate her mother’s remarriage, a woman who cannot fall in love with anyone, and a woman who continues to have a complex about her appearance because of her parents. The emotions of each character were vividly portrayed.

Yoshinaga: Yes, that’s right. In this work, I straightforwardly express the feelings I have had since childhood, such as the oppression I received from my parents and the speculation that I could be happy without falling in love. I didn’t want to use manga as a means to convey my ideas, but I was conflicted because I had to touch on these feelings in the creation of the story.

–In the interview book, you mentioned that you incorporated a lot of what you have seen and heard. Is that right?

Yoshinaga: Yes. For example, For example, when I saw a life counselor saying to someone who felt that it was unacceptable that her mother would remarry, that she should be happy for her, I wondered if that was true. I think it is hard for children, even if they are adults, to be shown the sexual side of their parents. I think that a mother’s life is her mother’s, and she is free to remarry, but I thought it was okay if this person couldn’t congratulate her. 

–I agree that even if you don’t congratulate her on her remarriage, you can still build a proper relationship with her.

Yoshinaga: In the manga, I expressed the idea that we can continue to have a normal relationship, but we don’t have to agree with her fully, and we may take ambivalent attitude to it.

–I was surprised by the personality of the main character’s friend, Sayako, who has no romantic feelings for anyone.

Yoshinaga: Yeah. She is what we now call “asexual,” but I didn’t even know that category at the time. I think it is very important to be named and recognized. It has certainly made life easier for many people.

–What was the story behind the character “Sayako”?

Yoshinaga: It all started when a friend said to me, “I pay my taxes, I take out the garbage on garbage day, and I live a decent life, so why should I feel as if the world is blaming me just because I am not in love?”

I nodded deeply at her statement because I too had been uncomfortable since I was a student because I was not passionate about love. I guess I had to go with the flow of society, where people who have never loved others are considered to be living a pitiful life. I have been skeptical that loving someone is the highest good. If I say, “I don’t want a boyfriend,” people say, “Don’t try to act tough!” so I had to pretend to want a boyfriend, which is too much of a bother (laughs). I felt like I was mimicking them all the time in my life.

–I also think that love is not the only thing that colors people’s life.

Yoshinaga: In the past, I think women chose marriage partly because it was in fact very difficult for a woman to work and live alone. It was a world where people were really starving to death, not metaphorically. But I don’t think we are in such an urgent situation now, so I feel that we don’t have to be concerned about marriage and love.

I am not skeptical about the institution of marriage; I think it would be good if we could have a society where people could have enough economic power to break up with the person they married if he or she was a terrible person.

I have vaguely thought since I was a child that I wanted to work all my life. But my childhood was a time when most women basically “got married, quit working, and became housewives,” so it was difficult for me to talk about my true feelings even with my friends.

–Why was that?

Yoshinaga: To say that “working all my life” was a good thing might sound like denigrating my friends who want to get married and become housewives but also my mother who made that choice. I have been really struggling with how to deal with my true feelings because I like my friends even if their ideas are different from mine, I want to be friends with them, and I didn’t want to argue with them. I didn’t want to tell lies, but I didn’t want to make a negative comment about them.

But times have changed so much now. It has become easier to make such statements. When I first released All My Darling Daughters, I was a little upset, thinking that I had made something that would not sell as entertainment, but now I am glad that I did.

The moment I felt I had to apologize

–Gay people appear in many of your works, not only in What did You Eat Yesterday?. In Antique Bakery, Ono stood out as a “mysterious and alluring gay man.” In the interview book, you also said that you had been wondering if it is okay to portray that character in that way. Was there any change in your mind? 

Yoshinaga: I drew my BL and other works thinking that gay people might read them. So when gay people read my works, they may think “this is different,” but I was careful not to make them feel that they were being denied. I thought it was still okay to be unrealistic, but I never wanted to portray them in a way that might give an unusual impression to the readers.

But Ono was in a way the only exception. I had no intention of making him a laughingstock, but I felt bad if I had given readers a mistaken impression about gay people by portraying him in a funny way.

–This feeling was expressed in the conversation with the character Ato in You Can Make a Living Without Love, right? 

Yoshinaga: Yes, that’s right. I have a gay friend who reads my works. When I apologized to him for how I portrayed Ono, he said, “If you get angry at every little thing like that, you can’t live as a gay person,” which baffled me. At that time, I felt very sorry. Since then, I have been careful not to change the attitude mentioned above. As for the depiction of gay men, I am not really conscious of whether it is realistic or not.

I think there are not many male-female love stories that depict realistic dramas. Rather, I enjoy reading them while thinking, “How could this happen? ” or “I hope this kind thing really happens in my life.”

–In terms of What did you eat yesterday?, I feel that the daily life of a gay couple is elaborately depicted. What was your intention behind this?

Yoshinaga: For me, What Did You Eat Yesterday? is more of a cooking manga than a gay love story. I have sometimes been called socially conscious, but I really wanted to depict the daily life of a middle-aged man, which I love (laughs).

It is about those who have a job and worry about the difficulties of living with someone else (laughs). What Did You Eat Yesterday? is strongly focused on the difficulties of communal living. It is difficult to adapt one’s lifestyle to someone else’s, even if that someone is someone you like.

–It is a problem that many people have, not only gay people.

Yoshinaga: Yes, exactly. I wanted to read a gay story that wasn’t based on romance supremacism myself.

–The serialization of it in the youth magazine Morning received plenty of attention from readers.

Yoshinaga: At first, I presented the idea to the editor of a BL magazine, but that person didn’t respond well to it. In the context of BL, the relationship of the two who have already gotten together was not interesting. There is no description of sex, no indication that the two are growing closer. For the readers of ordinary BL manga, there is no part of the story they want to read.

I was talking to various editors about how I wanted to draw this kind of new work, and the editor of Morning approached me and said, “Please work with us.” I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but after the serialization started, I realized how influential it was. I personally thought that Morning had female readers who read the magazine because their partners buy it, so I even thought that it would be accepted as a cooking manga by such readers.

Thankfully, the first episode was featured in the opening color pages and even on the cover. I drew Kenji and Shiro, being very thankful, but I was horrified by the response.

–Can you say more about it?

Yoshinaga: I received a lot of email from my friends and they were like, “You work in Morning doesn’t look different from your previous ones, but is it okay?” or “Are you sure it is okay for you to put this in Morning?” The editor-in-chief of the gay magazine also contacted me politely and said, “It is epoch-making for a story like this to be published in a youth magazine like Morning, so please feel free to ask me anything if you have any questions.”

I was just drawing what I wanted to draw, which was not much different from what had been published in BL magazine, so the objective opinions made me raise my consciousness and feel horrified at the same time.

–Did you have to change the way you drew in response to the feedback?

Yoshinaga: When I started the series, I had already decided on the plot of the story and had drawn some of the episodes, so I couldn’t change it. I couldn’t do anything dexterous like that, so I just focused on drawing the story a little by little. 

One thing I changed was that I made sure to draw the recipe and ingredient quantities properly because I received a postcard from a reader saying that she had made the strawberry jam that appears in the piece. Although I was able to make some adjustments to it in the aspect of cooking manga, I thought I couldn’t change much about the setting of the gay couple, so I continued the manga as it was. However, the editor-in-chief of Morning changed around the time I published the second volume, and when I greeted him, I was surprised to hear from him that Morning is a conservative magazine for middle-aged men.

–In the past, you also said that you were worried about expressing yourself in a place where many people would see your work.

Yoshinaga: That’s right. Doujinshi is simple; people who want to read it read it, but that is not the case with commercial magazines, so I was worried in the beginning.

As long as it is a concrete expression, it will definitely hurt someone

— I heard that you also felt conflicted that your work might hurt someone. But if you think too much about not hurting anyone, you might not be able to draw anything.

Yoshinaga: It’s a struggle every time. When I was young, I once told an editor that I wanted to draw a manga that didn’t stand out in any way, and he admonished me, “That won’t make for an interesting work” (laughs). As long as it is a concrete expression, it will definitely hurt someone. So, in a way, I gave up on that point.

–Was there any trigger for it?

Yoshinaga: When I heard a classical musician say, “No matter how much emotion you put into classical music, it will never hurt anyone because it is an abstract expression without lyrics,” I came to the realization that concrete expressions definitely hurt someone.

–How do you deal with it?

Yoshinaga: Even now, I still can’t deal with it well. I think I am probably in a kind of trance when I am drawing. I am outputting what I wanted to read and reading it myself, so there’s definitely an adrenaline rush. That kind of pleasure is what keeps me going with this job.

Of course, I have to be considerate, but if I don’t have the energy to say, “This is definitely interesting, and I want to give it shape,” then I can’t possibly complete a single story.

–I hear that you are also conscious of political correctness.

Yoshinaga: I value political correctness as something that makes the story even more interesting.

–It is said that today, “expressing something is difficult” because excessive consideration for every kind of thing is demanded.

Yoshinaga: On the contrary, I think that the range of content that we can depict has become much wider. Even in terms of BL, there are now not only love stories with sexually explicit descriptions, but also love stories in which couples gradually deepen their relationship. Manga featuring argumentative but attractive girls are also popular. The number of stories that do not depict romance has also increased dramatically. But as a reader, I also love romantic stories.

The range of manga I enjoy reading has expanded and now I like manga even more than before. As a reader, I look forward to the future.

Fumi Yoshinaga
Manga artist who made her commercial debut with The Moon and the Sandals. Her works include Ichigenme… The First Class is Civil LawA Child’s Temperature Antique Bakery and Flower of LifeŌoku: The Inner Chambers, serialized from 2004 to 2020, won numerous awards including the 13th Tezuka Osamu Cultural Award Manga Grand Prize and the 42nd Japan Science Fiction Grand Prize. Her work What Did You Eat Yesterday?  which has been dramatized and made into a movie, is now published in serial form in the magazine.  

『仕事でも、仕事じゃなくても 漫画とよしながふみ』

仕事でも仕事じゃなくても 漫画とよしながふみ (Japanese Edition)
(Regardless of Whether Work or Not Work: Manga and Fumi Yoshinaga)

This first book of interviews with manga artist Fumi Yoshinaga includes many stories from before her professional debut. In more than twenty hour-long extensive interview, she talks not only about her own work, but also about her childhood memories, influential manga for her from elementary and junior high school days, interesting stories from the manga club she belonged to in high school, and the circle activities she was involved in at university before she debuted as a professional manga artist. She also talks about her future plans after Ōoku is completed. The interview was conducted by writer Fumiko Yamamoto, who is well versed in BL and has interviewed Yoshinaga many times.

Author: Fumi Yoshinaga
Interviewer: Fumiko Yamamoto
Release date: July 26, 2022
Specifications: 127 × 188, Paperback
Number of pages: 362
Price: ¥1,980
Publisher: Film Art Inc.

Translation Shinichiro Sato
Photography Yohei Kichiraku
Edit Atsushi Takayama(TOKION)


Yui Kashima

After graduating, Yui Kashima joined a telecommunications company as a sales representative. After working for Gizmodo, she worked as an editor and writer for HuffPost and Buzzfeed Japan. Currently works for a news platform and writes interviews, essays and columns as a freelance writer.Twitter:@yuuuuuiiiii