Talking about Manga Censorship with TOKYOPOP

Banned and Challenged Books, Intellectual Freedom Issues
Photograph of Kae Winters against a manga bookcase.
© Kae Winters 

Meet Kae Winters of TOKYOPOP. She works in marketing, ensuring both librarians and readers are aware of the newest releases from one of North America’s major publishers of manga. In February 2022, I had the chance to interview Kae Winters about manga censorship.

What does intellectual freedom mean to TOKYOPOP?

It’s not unusual for manga to be censored, or edited for a number of reasons. Some are simply due to the difficulties of translation (whether literal or cultural), some are for cultural sensitivities, and some are for legal reasons. It’s important to have freedom of information, but we don’t want to put the importance of freedom of speech over the rights of people not to be harmed.

What does manga censorship mean to TOKYOPOP?

Our general position at TOKYOPOP is that we aim to license titles that we feel comfortable printing uncensored, so fans will get the most authentic experience possible. There are times where the files we’ve received from the licensor were already censored, or where we’ve had Boys Love (gay romance) books removed from Amazon because the book didn’t state clearly the ages of the characters. As such, we’ve started clearly stating ages and clarifying with licensors before printing so that we can continue to print uncensored titles.

TOKYOPOP publications have been challenged prior. Can you think of a prior challenge you would like to share with our blog’s readers?

Unfortunately I haven’t been around for any of these prior challenges! I do know that TOKYOPOP has published a vast array of titles over the years, across many genres, and back when manga (and the comic industry in general) was less understood and readily available it may have been shocking to see the kinds of stories reflected in our books.

As of late, more and more graphic narratives – both comics and manga – are facing challenges. Does TOKYOPOP have any policy in place on what to do if one of their works was faced with a challenge today?

We’ve actually recently had a number of discussions regarding content warnings, as we’re branching out into some more adult 18+ titles. Some of these titles may contain themes that are upsetting to some readers, such as various kinks and dubious consent. We want to make sure that the content is clear to fans, so they can make their own personal choice as to whether it’s something they want to read or not. Ideally, this would result in less – or no! – challenges, as the content is clearly marked, rated, and easily avoided if it’s not to someone’s personal taste.

Often during the localization process content deemed unsellable or otherwise offensive to North American readers is removed, a process I call content sanitization. TOKYOPOP has a long history of publishing manga, and accordingly engaged in content sanitization in the past. What is TOKYOPOP’s current stance on the process? Often fans refer to this as censorship, but what do you say?

This is such a difficult topic, and I’m sure there are dozens of different takes on this. As I mentioned before, we try to only license titles that we feel completely comfortable releasing uncensored and unsanitized as you put it, and if during the title selection phase we find something objectionable, we don’t make an offer. That said, sometimes the objectionable content is just a single word, or something that can be tweaked with an ideal translation. Not necessarily changed completely or Americanized, but softened with the right use of words. Translation and localization is very difficult, I worked on the translation for Don’t Call Me Dirty and it can be really tough finding the right balance of authenticity and readability, but for the most part we try to stay as loyal as we can to the original.

TOKYOPOP employs an age rating system for their publications. Can you tell me more about how that came about? I’m curious if it helps or hinders your ability to bring a wide variety of content to North American readers.

Sure! We came up with the age rating system many years ago, as a way to help retailers and fans understand manga content. For a long time comics were considered only for children, and the bright colors and fun designs of manga characters often misled people into thinking it was all child friendly. This age rating system was adopted by many other manga publishers over the years, and has now become the industry standard, which is great!

The feedback we get from retailers, librarians, educators and parents is that they love it. It makes it easy to decide which titles will be okay for the age range they’re looking at, and helps them look past the cover art to understand the themes of the title. We also have a content box on the back of each book that warns about overall concepts like sex, alcohol use, violence and so on. It can be difficult deciding when a book crosses the line from say, Teen (14+) to Older Teen (16+), but we do our best.

TOKYOPOP publishes manga for all ages, and yet also publishes more mature series for 18+ readers. Have you experienced any difficulties with publishing both all ages and adult materials?

Thankfully no! We’re careful not to display these titles side by side in marketing materials, out of respect for our fans; we don’t want to trick anybody into picking up a book that’s not right for them. Over the years we’ve gained respect from librarians and educators who love our All Ages titles (particularly our Disney Manga line) because they’re easy to shelve and the content is always carefully vetted. But there’s a huge demand for 18+ content, and our LGBTQ+ titles in particular have been extremely popular too. At a tradeshow last year, I heard from a lot of retailers and librarians in conservative areas who said they proudly stocked our titles so they could be a safe haven for local queer youth, which was one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard. I’m really proud that we can offer something across the entire spectrum of age ranges!

How can publishers and librarians work together to address intellectual freedom issues around manga?

Personally, I believe the key is open discussion and education. We provide review PDF copies of our titles to librarians free of charge so that they can fully understand the content before they buy it, and can make personal judgment calls on who to lend it to and how to advise others. With the internet, people are going to read these titles even if there are challenges or bans, frankly. It’s in our best interests to work together to make sure this material is readily available legally.

Is there anything you would like to share with librarians fighting book bans and challenges against both comics and manga?

Honestly, librarians are incredible. They work so tirelessly to provide free information to everyone, and they’re so passionate about [it]. They’re some of my favorite people to talk to at tradeshows, and they’ve always got ideas and suggestions. Keep up the amazing work and don’t stop fighting, we’re here with you all the way!

TokyoPop Logo

I would like to thank Kae Winters and TOKYOPOP for their time with us today. May we continue to work together to bring manga to readers. As always, please report any censorship occurring at your library.

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