Censorship and Challenges of Manga in the Age of Simulpubs
When Japanese anime and manga were first localized in North America they underwent both material and textual shifts as formats and narratives were localized with American and Canadian audiences in mind. An early localization of the Sailor Moon manga was sold in a floppy comic format while the anime was heavily censored by DIC Entertainment to fit heteronormative ideas of love and friendship. Part of the success of early forms of anime and manga censorship was the fact many readers were unable to access the original materials themselves. Simply put, if the only way you could enjoy Sailor Moon in English was via the DIC Entertainment version, that is the one you are going to consume. Additionally, challenges to Sailor Moon were not towards their original Japanese-language editions, found at few North American libraries, but the English-language localized editions, found at many North American libraries. Twenty years later, a new phenomenon is shifting censorship and challenges of manga away from local-national issues, but to transnational ones. This phenomenon is Simulpub.
“Simulpub” is a portmanteau of “simultaneously” and “publish” that refers to manga chapters which are published at the exact same time in Japan in Japanese and globally in English via various digital platforms. In contrast, the collected print volume of the work will still experience a delay between its publication in Japan and North America. English-language Simulpubs undergo little editing with only the text bubbles being translated and the digital platform which host them often being the same in Japan and North America (e.g., Book Walker).Some other digital platforms where readers access Simulpub manga include ComiXology, CrunchyRoll, and Shueisha’s Manga Plus. Manga Plus is the global edition of the Japanese Shōnen Jump Plus digital manga platform with both platforms simulpublishing the latest chapter of top-selling manga such as Demon Slayer, My Hero Academia, and One Piece. I chose to highlight this platform due to a challenge that occurred on it this year, and how this challenge was not pushed by North American sensibilities, but rather East Asian and Southeast Asian ones.
In February 2020, a controversy developed due to conflicting wartime memories – the ever-popular Kōhei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia manga was removed from the Chinese marketplace due to a reference to war crimes committed by the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731. The two screenshots show the textual changes made due to the challenge, fueled by fans wishing for the chapter to be without reference to war crimes, as I recorded using both Manga Plus and Shōnen Jump Plus. The English-language screenshot, recorded February 2020, includes the pejorative term 丸太maruta, which is reminiscent of the terms for victims of the medical experiments committed by Unit 731. The parallel Japanese-language screenshot, recorded December 2020, shows the name changed to 柄木 球大 Garaki Kyūdai which is without reference to the Second World War in Asia. The reaction to this event, however brief in the publishing history of My Hero Academia, made me curious and wonder how Simulpubs complicate issues related to manga censorship and challenges.
The first question we must ask is, “Is this censorship?” ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) tells us to report when books are removed from libraries, but this platform is not a library nor was it removed in the traditional sense. The act of altering the text, however well-argued for, is what allows it to be discussed as a form of censorship. This form of censorship is of value to archivists and librarians as this platform is where our readers are both accessing manga, and, I hope, we are advising them to access manga as often chapters are available at no cost thought privacy issues related to single-sign-on (SSO) remain. We must also explore how archivists and librarians are to respond to challenges to materials which occur outside their local area, but in the international community, and yet have a direct effect on their locality. As shown above both the English-language and Japanese-language editions of My Hero Academia were altered in response to a challenge which occurred outside North America.
Future work should explore how we can identify these challenges, and if there is an effect on anime and manga studies scholarship as a result of them. That is, can I, someone who researches the history of manga, write an accurate history when working with strategically altered materials? I argue not; that there is a real need for archives and libraries to preserve all formats and editions of a manga series to ensure a complete history is written that accounts for the ever-evolving dynamics of transnational publishing. As Ash Ketchum, whose anime and manga series are also frequently censored, would say, we must read ‘em all.
Victoria Rahbar is an early career web services librarian. She has a Master of Arts in East Asian Studies from Stanford University’s Center for East Asian Studies and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Washington iSchool. She conducts research on the global dissemination of Japanese anime, manga, and video games through a DEI lens. She applies her research to the needs of libraries, speaking on issues around cultural representation in manga at academic conferences and anime conventions. She is especially interested in how current digital publishing practices disrupt past ideas around censorship and challenges to manga.
Shouldn’t we consider that, at a bare minimum, any given library should always maintain both a relative, localized copy and its original version, but with no concern given to other local versions. For example, as a matter of preference, an English-targeted library wouldn’t need concern themselves with a German or Russian localized version, though they may always choose to do so.
A question that bothers me more. Why is the motivation, leading up the act, relevant to the question of censorship? Isn’t the right of art to exist, untampered with regardless of the reason, meant to be respected? It’s easy to say the old oil paintings and marble statues shouldn’t be altered to cover up nudity, simply because of the whims of some ignorant and immature troll. Should art not also be protected from accidental alteration by under-educated idgets? Too many anime suffer poor English language casting for both vocal tone and acting ability, as well as, poor translations and audio quality. Several award-winning anime, that I’m aware of, have ended up sounding like their English dubbing was performed by high school students in a garage. Others have been so badly translated, that story-critical details were completely thrown out, while hiding behind the excuse of needless localization. Localization should never alter what is said outside the occasional need to improvise a word or phrase that doesn’t have a matching translation. Proper names and honorifics, like ‘chan’ and ‘sama’ should never be altered or pronounced differently, including the order that a person’s first and last name is spoken. Why isn’t this art form respected as much as others, and why isn’t this casually callous attitude towards it, considered censorship or at least just as bad by whatever name you choose to call it?
My final thought for the author of this article, Victoria Rahbar, is to point out a good example of what I’ve been talking about. In the Manga/Anime franchise Pokémon, the protagonists name is Satoshi, not Ash Ketchum. This was not a translation error, but a willful choice to disrespect aspects of art that should never be changed. The idea that the western audience won’t or can’t understand some element of east asian life is an excuse. These changes are made as demographic based marketing choices to appeal to the largest audience possible. By that logic, all oil paintings of females in museums should be edited to include significantly more naked breasts to draw the largest crowd possible.
There should be laws against this.