Kindle Unlimited has opened up several titles for free for 30 days during the COVID-19 outbreak. You will need an Amazon account and to sign up for Kindle Unlimited. Free manga is listed below, along with some books in other categories of interest to manga readers. (There is a TON available via this method. This list is not comprehensive and will be continuously updated when I have time.)
Until I have a chance to pull each link individually, I’ve been compiling all of the titles on a Pinterest page, which might make things easier until I can get a free moment to do all the appropriate hyperlinking.
It’s a Wednesday morning, and usually I would be getting my school library ready for a busy day of the students. However, I’m currently on quarantine because I’m high risk, and schools are rapidly building toward remote learning. As a school librarian, I’m busy compiling resources for students and teachers. And a key concern of mine is how to keep my voracious manga readers supplied with manga in this downtime.
I’ve compiled a list of sites currently offering some form of free access to manga and light novels. There’s no bells or whistles in this post, because I’d like to get it out quickly.
BOOK☆WALKER: Currently offering 44 free manga and light novels in English.
Shonen Jump: Shonen Jump offers the first and three most recent chapters of all their manga for free. A membership is $1.99 a month to access their entire catalog. There’s a chance this might open up, as Shonen Jump in Japan just made their catalog free to encourage social distancing.
Comic-Walker: Many free issues of manga available. Be sure to click on “Language” at the top to select “English”.
Kodansha: Kodansha offers the first chapter of their series for free as a preview.
And… that’s about it for now. Other sites have some type of paywall. Any other sites are most likely pirate sites, which are illegal and directly hurt mangaka. Known piracy sites include Mangakalot, Mangahere, MangaRock… honestly the majority of what you would find first page of Google when searching “free manga”.
As things progress, I will add any new updates to the listing of free sites.
Before I jump in, let me be straight with you: you should watch any piece of media you’re going to show before you show it. Every school, every district, every region has varying levels of what’s acceptable to be shown to students. What flies in my Brooklyn high school library would probably not have been acceptable in my Kissimmee middle school classroom. What I want to share are several newer anime that are fairly surefire hits that I feel are low on fan service and gratuitous violence.
So, you have an anime club. You want to show students anime, but also don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation with your principal. The key of course is to be aware of titles that are appropriate, but you personally are not really into anime. It’s crazy to expect a non-fan to sift through the exponentially growing catalog of anime with no guidance.
I plan to make this a recurring list, so these are picks from what’s currently popular.
Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!
Official Description: First year high schooler Midori Asakusa loves anime so much, she insists that “concept is everything” in animation. Though she draws a variety of ideas in her sketchbook, she hasn’t taken the first step to creating anime, insisting that she can’t do it alone. The producer-type Sayaka Kanamori is the first to notice Asakusa’s genius. Then, when it becomes clear that their classmate, charismatic fashion model Tsubame Mizusaki, really wants to be an animator, they create an animation club to realize the “ultimate world” that exists in their minds.
Currently streaming on Crunchyroll and VRV, this is the safest of all possible anime. The series is a love letter to animation, with stunning sequences. The characters are the truest to real life high schoolers I have EVER seen depicted in anime. The three girls who run the club are dedicated and imaginative, and not sexualized. The series isn’t finished yet, but it’s a fairly safe bet that this anime is going to be a classic. The show comes from Science SARU, the same company that made Night is Short, Walk On Girl and (debuting tonight, 2/19) Ride Your Wave. It also has one of the best opening sequences in years.
Fruits Basket (2019)
Official Description: Tohru Honda thought her life was headed for misfortune when a family tragedy left her living in a tent. When her small home is discovered by the mysterious Soma clan, she suddenly finds herself living with Yuki, Kyo, and Shigure Soma. But she quickly learns their family has a bizarre secret of their own: when hugged by the opposite sex, they turn into the animals of the Zodiac!
This is the remade anime for the classic manga of the same name, and it is an absolute treat. The original anime was a bit rushed and was also made well before the manga was completed, which complicated the series quite a bit. The new anime has higher production values and is taking its time to really explore the characters and their relationships. It’s a sweet and powerful series, which lends itself to rich discussion and great activities.
Ascendance of a Bookworm
Official Description: Avid bookworm and college student Motosu Urano ends up dying in an unforeseen accident. This came right after the news that she would finally be able to work as a librarian like she had always dreamed of. When she regained consciousness, she was reborn as Myne, the daughter of a poor soldier. She was in the town of Ehrenfest, which had a harsh class system. But as long as she had books, she didn’t really need anything else. However, books were scarce and belonged only to the nobles. But that doesn’t stop her, so she makes a decision… “If there aren’t any books, I’ll just create some.”
Isekai series have been incredibly popular recently, and this series is one of the better ones. The premise, of a book lover reborn into a world where access to books is limited, is really interesting, and segues perfectly into the library. The series is based on light novels of the same name, rather than a manga. There’s a lot of talk about how books have been made historically, and it works quite well with book making workshops. I showed it to my club members before having them make books for the Ezra John Keats Bookmaking Competition.
The Promised Neverland
Official Description: The one adored as the mother is not the real parent. The people living here together are not actual siblings. The Gracefield House is where orphaned children live. An irreplaceable home where 38 siblings and Mom live happy lives, even with no blood relations. However, their everyday life suddenly came to an abrupt end one day…
A psychological thriller, this is one of the darker series on this particular list. That said, it’s mostly about the children having to outwit the adults, and actual violence is fairly minimal in this season of the anime. It’s reminiscent of many dystopian novels popular with teens, and is a frequently requested viewing.
“Manga is sexist. The way it treats women is horrible!”
“I just can’t get into it. It’s only for teenage boys.”
“It all looks the same.”
“It’s fine for the kids, but I can’t stand it!”
Listen, listen. You’ve been reading the wrong stuff. Do you think I sit here, in my precious free time, and read Attack on Titan or One Piece? No way!
Here’s the secret about manga, that most of the industry doesn’t tell you, because it’s not the big booming business of the high octane shonen titles: there are infinite genres and categories that encompass as wide a variety as any fiction section in your library. Most of what our students read is what’s directed at them. The list I’m about to share with you is either not appropriate for your school library, or just wouldn’t circulate very well. I’m going to introduce you to some of my favorite series written for adult women (as a target audience… dudes, you can and should read these titles too!). Largely, these are josei titles, but some aren’t. It’s my belief that anyone can enjoy manga, because it’s so diverse. As an example of how granular it can get, I collect (mostly in Japanese) cat manga. So, manga about cats. Raising cats, playing with cats, cats’ daily lives. But, I don’t just read cat manga. I also read…
Yurika Namba is hung up on her ex… well, at least the idea of him. After she broke up with Makochi five years ago, she dated a bunch of less-ideal guys, and realized that he might just be the best she’ll ever get! So, she instead becomes fixated on the Makochi in her head, who’s super supportive and sweet and never lets her down… Until she gets a job at a real estate agency and winds up working alongside her ex! At the first opportunity, he… shows her a real estate listing he thinks is perfect for her?
Ex-Enthusiasts is incredibly hilarious and in many ways relatable. Yurika is even aware that she’s fixated on an idea, and is hurt to realize Makochi has changed in unexpected ways. There’s a lot of women’s anxieties carried in this title, with little of the “doki-doki” type of love scene. It’s wacky and awkward, kind of like real life.
This title is a recent discovery of mine, and is excellent in so many ways. It’s an episodic manga wherein the Shigeta twins take young women looking for apartments to neighborhoods that aren’t the highly desired Kichijoji (actually one of my favorite neighborhoods in Tokyo). Each episode is an insight to a different woman’s life and personality, as well as providing deeper insight into the lives of the twins. It also is an amazing insight into various neighborhoods in Tokyo and their attractions. Every place visited in the manga exists. Also, and this is pretty remarkable, the women are drawn the way women actually look, with different body shapes and styles that reflect their personalities. It’s a casual and enjoyable read.
Before I met my husband, I was a himono onna (干物女) like Hotaru. Himono means “dried fish”, so himono onna is a “dried fish woman”. It’s a term for women who are not interested in dating or having children. They put on a perfect face at work, but go home and laze around. Hotaru’s Way is a great title that explores Hotaru’s anxieties and what’s led her to lead her life as a himono onna, as well as the stress of switching from living life solely for yourself to taking on a dating life and all of its messiness. It’s funny, but also heartfelt and sympathetic. It’s an older title, which definitely paved the way for titles that deal with the topic of single life with care.
This is one of only two books on this list that aren’t josei titles. This title, honestly, is just a great manga for librarians! Magus of the library is a high fantasy about the core elements of librarianship: collection, access, curation, preservation. The main character is a young boy named Theo who isn’t allowed in his town’s library because he is poor and different. This all changes when Kafna and her fellow librarians come to town. It’s a tale of what it means to be a librarian, guided by some of the core philosophies of our profession, and you should ABSOLUTELY read it.
This is a josei masterpiece, written by the mangaka for Princess Jellyfish. The story is of Rinko, a 33 year-old woman who has sworn to get married by the time the Olympics roll around in 2020. She finds that this task might be more cut throat than she ever imagined! It’s a hilarious series, with depictions of realistic women. Society’s expectations weigh heavily on Rinko and her friends, in a way that is all too relatable. I highly recommend it- and if you’ve noticed that 2020 is this year, you should know that Kodansha is publishing the sequel series this year.
Cats of the Louvre is a manga published… by the Louvre. It’s a gorgeous fantasy tale that jumps through the artwork in the museum. And it has CATS! It’s a little dark, a little weird, and incredibly emotional. To describe it is to potentially ruin it, but it’s well-worth an exploration.
This is a collection of stories about women weighing whether being single is as terrible as society is telling them it should be. This is, honestly, a pretty feminist work. It depicts real women’s lives with sensitivity and honesty. Even better- these women don’t need marriage to find happiness. It’s refreshing and different.
Note: A lot of these titles are digital only. As such, you may have difficulty finding them at the public library.
So, you’ve decided to visit Japan. Maybe you’re just going on your own, maybe you’re an educator taking a group of students. Especially if you’re taking students, you may be wondering if students with reduced mobility or neurological conditions will be able to enjoy their time in Japan. Lucky for you, I just came from Japan and I have both! For reference, I have both early onset arthritis which reduces my ability to walk or stand for a sustained length of time and epilepsy. Due to the epilepsy, I have sensory issues such as photosensitivity and trouble processing multiple sources of sound. To make this as useful to as many people as possible, I am going to address other people with disabilities, and educators can take in the information as needed.
To start with, Japan is one of the most accessible places I’ve ever been. It is dramatically more accessible than where I currently live, New York City. If you utilize mobility or medical devices, it’s important to communicate it first with the airline you’re travelling with. My experience with JAL was particularly excellent. Their reception desk at Narita even had an adapted desk for a spot to place my cane while arrangements were made for transport.
That said, there are things to keep in mind. First off, if you have prescription medication, make sure they’re able to be taken to Japan. There are also limitations on what OTC drugs can be taken into Japan. Be especially careful of CBD oil. I take CBD for epilepsy, but was not able to bring it to Japan. Laws surrounding CBD are far more stringent, and US strains of CBD often have trace amounts of THC… which will cause problems if caught by Japanese authorities. Japanese drug laws are notoriously strict and punitive.
The Japanese transit system is a dream, and the majority of stations in Tokyo have escalators and elevators- but not all of them do. There was a smaller station near our hotel which had only stairs. Pay attention to signage and digital displays which indicate elevators and escalators in various stations. Also, it’s helpful to attempt to board near the doors closest to priority seating. The most useful phrase for me in Japan was “Sumimasen”, which approximates to “pardon me” or “excuse me”. If someone gives you a seat, be sure to thank them thoroughly (“Arigatou” or the more formal “Arigatou gosaimasu” comes in handy here). These two phrases are honestly the most useful in navigating Tokyo- my husband got around on these phrases alone. For wheelchair users, I recommend this resource from Accessible Japan.
All things considered, here are a few challenges I faced in Japan. Some of them are specific to my interests as an otaku, which is why I want to point them out.
Game centers and pachinko parlors are extremely noisy and contain a lot of flashing lights. I was aware of this and for the most part avoided them. My husband went to the game centers at night to gather intel and images for his work. But at one point, we went to the gachapon floor in the Shinjuku Yodabashi Camera. There were also rhythm games on this floor, and my brain couldn’t handle the sheer volume and variety of sounds coming from these machines. The synesthesia it invoked was on a whole other level. What I’ve been told by doctors in the past is that my brain can’t group audio as a single noise, and tries to process each sound individually. It made me dizzy, nauseous, and discombobulated. I actually don’t really remember what else we did that day. To avoid this situation happening again, I carried a pair of ear plugs from Daiso for the rest of the trip. If you have neurodivergence, I urge you to do the same, especially if visiting game centers is a dream you hold near and dear. For me, I was able to visit a purikura booth at Shibuya 109 and I could wander the UFO catcher/crane game machine in a Taito game center, so the things I wanted to do in game centers were covered. But if you dream of playing the many rhythm games but also find excessive loudness to be triggering, consider employing ear plugs. This is, I feel, an important consideration for travelers on the autism spectrum.
Also important is that many shops, especially in Akihabara, are not accessible. The day I went with my husband to Akihabara, we went to an obscure retro game store in a basement called Beep. It was insanely cool… and down a very narrow and steep staircase. The actual shop is stuffed to the gills, and is tight and a little difficult to navigate for a person unencumbered by assistive devices. This is the norm for Akihabara, where space is at a premium. Akihabara was the hardest day for me physically, with many stairs and a general lack of public seating. Even Animate is a tight space, although there is a bank of elevators. I was almost ready to quit the whole endeavor until we made our way to Akiba Culture Zone, the most accessible bank of otaku wares on multiple floors with elevators and escalators. I would honestly say Nakano Broadway might be a better destination. There was also a great shop, Surugaya, encompassing an entire floor at Shinjuku Marui Annex which had a great collection of items to choose from. (If you’re interested in knowing more about Beep and other eclectic gaming culture, I recommend following my husband over at Attract Mode.)
I’d actually highly recommend Shinjuku Marui Annex not only for this shop, but also for lolita shops. One half of Laforet in Harajuku is difficult to access because of its unusual layout, and Shinjuku Marui Annex has the majority of the key lolita shops such as Angelic Pretty, Jane Marple, Innocent World, and Baby the Stars Shine Bright.
Speaking of Harajuku… it is packed to the gills with tourists and social media fame hunters. This was the most difficult location in terms of humans pushing on me, making faces at me, and generally being horrible. On the other side of the planet, other Americans were honestly the worst part of my visit to Japan. At some point, I’ll talk about etiquette advice, but this isn’t the post for that. What’s important to convey is the difficulty navigating Takeshita Dori/Street. It is packed, and slightly sloped. If you’re in a wheelchair, you probably won’t see much, and what there is to see… well, it’s mostly tourist traps. Maybe it’s having always lived my life in tourist towns, but I have a sense for when something is purely there for the tourists. The fashionistas have long since left for another, quieter street in Harajuku, and all that’s left are cheap knockoffs, giant cotton candy, and lukewarm crepes. I’m not saying don’t go to Harajuku, but just know that it’s not what it used to be. I approximate it to St. Marks here in NYC… the style and substance left a long time ago. The one store worth visiting, 6% Doki Doki, is not easily accessible as it’s on the second floor of a building with no elevator (also, it’s not on Takeshita Dori, so I really don’t know what the point is). Hit up any of the many department stores for fashionable finds. I snagged an excellent skirt from Punyus at Shibuya 109 and had no problems navigating the space.
The final place I had difficulty accessing was in the Studio Ghibli Museum. Generally speaking, the Ghibli is tremendously accessible. It’s an enchanting, magical space, with multiple elevators and accessible seating in its amazing movie theater screening unreleased Ghibli shorts. But… the roof is only accessible by a wrought iron spiral staircase. It, honestly, was a bit of a shock, as Miyazaki himself is a great advocate for accessibility. Infamously, the roof is the only “photo spot” in the museum. There’s no photography permitted elsewhere. It’s where you can take a photo with a robot from Laputa. I made my way up, because I’d traveled around the world to see this robot, but it wasn’t easy. The staff offered to show me a photo of the roof when they informed me there was no elevator. I wonder about all of the people who aren’t as lucky as me to still be capable of climbing stairs, if all they could do was look at a laminated photo of one of the most memorable parts of the museum.
Otherwise, Tokyo was incredibly accessible. It’s also a tremendously walkable city. It’s remarkably clean and public transit is very accessible. The Japanese people I encountered were also incredibly helpful and kind, and went out of their way to help me when I struggled in little ways in restaurants and shops. Honestly, it was more accessible than where I live, so my complaints are minimal. I just wish Americans would learn to not shove and push on people with mobility issues… but that’s outside the purview of this blog.
I don’t exactly have a good excuse for being so absent on this blog, rather than a list of reasons. The main one is that I’ve been exceptionally busy in my own school library, where we’re operational for the first time in a decade this year. I’ve also had a dip in health, and have been adjusting to a reduction in mobility. In addition, I spent the holidays (usually a time for me to catch up on my personal projects) in Japan.
I’ve been thinking how to better distribute information so that this blog is more usable to school librarians. So, here are the new blog formats and features:
Curated Lists of Manga with “Mini-Reviews”: This will be to better acquaint school librarians with a swath of titles with specific purposes.
Anime Club Recommended Activities: Activities, crafts, and even recommended viewings.
Japanese Culture Deep Dives: This is the feature I’m keeping, and hope to expand upon.
Japlanning for Educators: This is for educators planning to go to Japan on trips who haven’t been there previously, or are not familiar with the more otaku-related spaces. I’m actually starting off with this to discuss accessibility in Japan.
I hope that these changes make for a more useful resource in the coming year.
Title: The Alchemist Who Survived Now Dreams of a Quiet Life 生き残り錬金術師は街で静かに暮らしたい
Mangaka: Usata Nonohara, Guru Mizoguchi, Ox
US Publisher: Yen Press
Reader’s Advisory Tags: Seinen, fantasy, not recommended.
Content Warnings: This manga depicts slavery in an uncomfortable context. There is torture and abuse of slaves, as well as a main character justifying her purchase of a slave.
So, I’ve had a long list of manga I needed to review. I had plans to review xxxHolic, My Love Story, and Hana-Kimi for awhile now. But this past weekend at Anime NYC a publisher gave away a volume of manga that you will probably want to not purchase for a school library. (Anime NYC was great and merits its own post, but this is the thing I feel most pressed to write about.)
Let me say, generally, I don’t normally feel comfortable advising fully against a series. Most of the time, I think any book has value so long as it’s not pornographic or depicts morally reprehensible acts. This is the first time I was actively given a free book that I then chose to not add to the collection because I felt its contents would be actively damaging to my population.
My population is 95% Black. This book depicts slavery, and the main character actively purchases a slave and reasons that his enslavement is in fact useful to her. It perpetuates the horrific trope of “the good master” by having her be a sweet, young girl with magical talents.
The premise, of a magical young woman who survives a disaster by being in suspended animation for 200 years and wants nothing more than too have a quiet life, only to discover she’s the only one capable of her branch of magic was a premise I was into as a manga reader myself. I love gentle fantasy and characters. See my review of Flying Witch as proof. But this gets actively destroyed by the introduction of slavery to the narrative.
Slavery as a national form of economic development in the United States is only a century in the grave, and its wounds are still felt. Compound this with Japan’s own past as an imperialist power which committed atrocities. The enslavement of comfort women and manual laborers from surrounding territories in the 20th century is in the living memory of many Asians. The depiction of slavery in a work of fiction coming from Japan cannot be separated from the Japanese denial of responsibility for their atrocities, which has lasting socio-economic repercussions to this day.
I love anime and manga, and I love so many facets of Japanese popular culture. Japan has many of its own wounds, perpetuated by the nation I was born in. But that does not mean I’m blind to all media from Japan and willing to accept it as something on my school library’s shelves. Slavery is still an issue in the 21st century, and no matter how sweet, talented, and wholesome a master may be, they are still a master. There’s no escaping reality here, and I won’t have books on my shelves that depict slavery as anything other than the highest form of moral depravity.
I’m pushing this out because I know Yen Press is going hard on this title. It was a giveaway at their panel at AnimeNYC, now considered the most prestigious anime convention in New York City. I have a notepad with the character and title on it that was given to me by Yen Press. I feel like the descriptions of this manga and marketing have in large part obfuscated the prevalence of the slavery subplot in the text. There are many other titles being published now that are far better suited for school libraries. Skipping out on this one title won’t have much of an impact.
Mangaka: Kobayashi Miyuki 小林深雪 and Andō Natsumi 安藤 なつみ
US Publisher: Kodansha USA
Level: Secondary. May also work for some upper elementary students.
Reader’s Advisory Tags: Romance, cooking, love triangles, .
Content Warnings: Some mentions of eating disorders, character death.
Kitchen Princess is what I would consider typical shōjo fare from the early 2000’s. I remember reading it while waiting for a Harry Potter release (I believe it was Half-Blood Prince). I remembered it as being a gentle read, something I could easily blast through. It also taught me a little about cooking.
Kitchen Princess is the story of Kazami Najika, a scrappy orphan who loves to cook because her parents were tremendously talented pastry chefs. She is searching for her “Flan Prince”- a boy who saved her from drowning and showed her how eating something delicious can give a person hope. He leaves her a spoon with the crest for Seika Academy, and Najika’s goal is to go to that school, find him, and make him the “best dessert in the world”. Using her cooking skills and her “perfect sense of taste”, she sets out to do just that.
The story is what I would call a typical early 2000s shōjo. There’s a pure, earnest protagonist who is poorer than everyone else in the school. She’s rejected by everyone because of her class, until her skill (and the hot guys who recognize it from the start) make the others around her recognize her worth. There’s a bully who turns into her best friend, an adult who spends way too much of his time trying to ruin a child’s life for plot reasons, and a love triangle featuring the prince of the school and his gruffer but still loveable brother.
There are a few things that set Kitchen Princess a little apart, though. First off, they kill off one of the love interests about halfway through in an accident. It’s a pretty mercenary way to avoid having Najika choose between the brothers. Honestly, she effectively chooses both without ever cheating on or betraying anyone.
The main thing, the thing that made Kitchen Princess stick in my memory among the many shōjo manga I read in the early 2000s, is the food. There are recipes at the end of every chapter, and they are honestly quite simple and easy to replicate. Food is a symbol of hope and togetherness in the story, a way of transmitting your feelings from one person to another. Every single dish Najika makes is with another person in mind.
So, Kitchen Princess is a series that I have on my school library’s shelves, and I think you should also consider. It’s light, it’s dramatic, and every student I’ve recommended it to has loved it. Fans of K-Drama especially gravitate to it, because the story has all of the same beats as any popular Asian drama.
A note: One thing to know is that there’s a two chapter storyline about a character with an eating disorder. It onsets quickly and is resolved quickly, which is… unrealistic, but actually pretty common for how Japanese media treats mental health. I’ve personally never read a manga that handled eating disorders as more than a temporary state of mind that can be cured by a friend’s understanding. It’s not dissimilar to how American media treats ED, though, so I have a hard time calling out any foreign piece of media that’s effectively following American trends. Just know that the issue is in there.
This is a list of manga which you may want to consider when selecting specifically with food, cooking, and eating in mind. These aren’t formal reviews, but I’ll link to a formal review when and if I do them. This new format is to get you acquainted with multiple titles at once.
Quick Synopsis: Yukihira Soma, a teenage boy who runs a traditional Japanese restaurant with his father, goes to an elite cooking school wherein students compete to be considered the top in their field. They have to participate in matches, which determine their ranking.
Have I read this?: Up to volume 3.
Manga or Anime?: Manga
Age range: Upper Elementary and Above
Quick Synopsis: Najika dreams of becoming a pastry chef like her late parents, and loves to connect with others through her food. When she enters the prestigious Seika Academy, will she be able to follow her dreams and find the boy who gave her a silver spoon to comfort her after her parents’ death?
Have I read this?: Yes!
Sweetness and Lightning
Manga or Anime?: Both.
Age range: Upper Elementary and Above
Quick Synopsis: Math teacher Kouhei Inuzuka is raising his young daughter Tsumugi as a single father after the unexpected loss of his wife. Although he’s bad at cooking, a chance encounter with one of his students, Kotori Iida, leads to them going on a journey to learn how to cook delicious food.
Have I read this?: Yes!
Giant Spider & Me: A Post-Apocalyptic Tale
Manga or Anime?: Manga.
Review: Not yet.
Age range: This title is rated Teen. It may be appropriate for younger audiences, though.
Quick Synopsis: A young girl named Nagi and a giant spider make an unusual pair in this post-apocalyptic story, but living in the mountains is lonely, and they’ve managed to find each other. Join them in their strangely sweet domestic bliss as they spend their days sharing tea and throwing picnics, proving that love (and delicious food) can bring together even the most unlikely of friends.
Have I read this?: Not yet. It’s on my list though!
Looking for more? I’ll add to this list as I discover more titles, but this list at Anime Planet is very comprehensive.
I love cooking and eating and that is largely because of anime and manga (and video games).
It’s only recently I made this connection. Food and the act of eating is something that was fraught with anxiety for me as a teenager. In middle school, my shifting body and American standards of beauty in the 90s and early 2000s collided to give me an eating disorder. I struggled with it into my twenties, and even now I have to work hard to avoid slipping into disordered patterns of thought. This is a frequent reality for our students, who also contend with unhealthy options and food deserts wherein junk food with dull flavor profiles mean that their relationships with food are inherently problematic, political, and often unhealthy.
It was only through the act of learning about Japanese food and food culture that I found myself building a positive relationship with food, and in turn, the body that food nourishes.
American society ascribes a certain level of shame to the act of eating and the enjoyment of eating. We’ve gotten better in recent years, but students may often feel disconnected from food or the experience of trying new food. I want to explore how food and its portrayals in Japanese media can help students build a more positive relationship with the fuel we put in our body, deepen student enjoyment of these media, and even provide opportunities for personal enrichment and career opportunities.
First, though, let’s talk a bit about Japanese food culture.
You can’t talk about Japanese food without cooked rice, or gohan (ごはん). Rice is the center of Japanese food culture, to the point that the word for meal is the word for cooked rice. Japanese households are almost guaranteed to have a high quality electric rice cooker. These appliances cook rice perfectly and keep it warm for days (if necessary, although the odds of the rice not being eaten in that time span are slim). Rice is eaten for all three meals, and Japanese cooking has a variety of methods of eating it, from a plain side dish to onigiri (rice balls).
There’s a lot of talk about what it is that makes a Japanese diet so healthy, although it basically comes down to a diet high in fish, fermented foods, and vegetables. As an island nation, meat and dairy products are less accessible. However, Japan has its fair share of sweets and junk food. Some of my favorite Japanese foods are patently unhealthy: karaage (a fried chicken dish), tamago sando (an egg salad sandwich which has the benefit of using Japanese mayo, which is lower in fat, but also calls for an addition of sugar to the mix), and an unending list of sweet “pans” or breads. What seems to play into the relative health of the Japanese as a nation, though, is that healthier options are just as readily available as the less healthy options. At a Japanese 7/11, you can get all of those dishes, but you can also get a variety of far healthier options. YouTube is filled with videos documenting the offerings at conbini (convenience stores), if you’re curious. I personally recommend videos by TabiEats, run by a couple living in Japan, which is comprehensive and also includes very accessible recipes.
The key is that Japanese people have more options if they’re too busy for home cooking.
But what stands out to me is how joyous manga characters are when eating. Food is seen, through this lens, as a gateway to bliss. In American media, a character actively eaten is seen as piggish and greedy, or at the very least, irresponsible. Think of Homer Simpson and his donuts. Think of every time you watched a cartoon character eat. Generally, it would have been to excess, and other characters would regularly deride that character for poor decision making.
What Japanese media does, in general, is to celebrate food. The Japanese (and, honestly, most Asian countries) simply have a different relationship with food. Perhaps it has to do with food being integral to ceremonial aspects of Japanese life, or to a complex history involving famine and times of economic hardship. My husband, whose mother lived through famine in North Korea, has instilled within him a need to clean his plate and not put food to waste. Americans, nowadays, are perhaps removed enough from our Depression-era anxieties that we have lost our great-grandparents’ anxieties.
An important early scene from my life as an anime fan was the below scene from InuYasha. Upon returning to her world after many mishaps in feudal Japan, Kagome is ecstatic to find out her mother has made oden. At the time, my relationship with food was probably the worst it ever was. I was in treatment for an eating disorder. I didn’t bring lunch to school, opting instead to just eat the crusts from my best friend’s turkey sandwiches. I was given lunch money, but I was blowing it on Mountain Dew. Seeing Kagome so eager to eat made me curious. What was this magic food that caused such effusive joy?
The episode I saw had a bad translation, and it translated oden as udon. So, I went on a hunt to get udon noodles. Udon is very different from oden. Oden is a hotpot or nabemono dish, so it’s closer to a stew. It also has fishcakes in it. Oden, is, honestly not the most approachable to an American palette. In a Japanese context, it makes perfect sense for a scene of homecoming and celebrating home cooking. It’s a comfort food, traditionally eaten on cold nights. It would have been fairly impossible for me to try at the time, so the mistranslation was almost helpful. Udon noodles are insanely versatile. Thicker than popular Italian pastas, it’s really good at being simple and filling, and grabbing onto sauces. A quick search for udon on Google will bring up a seemingly infinite number of dishes.
The ease with which udon could be cooked and simply put in a simple sauce made it a perfect beginner dish. I also tried soba and somen, and of course I ate ramen. I began to develop a positive relationship with food based in curiosity: can I like food the way that character likes food? I wanted to know what made food less fuel and more joy. And for me, anime was what got me there.
Nowadays, I’m a fairly proficient cook. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur… my brother is a Cordon Bleu trained chef who works for Disney and has won cooking competitions. But I don’t know if I would be so proficient in the kitchen if it weren’t for the curiosity I had.
Students often express that same curiosity. It may be even more pronounced because food based manga and anime has become in vogue lately. I regularly pack bento boxes, and if a student sees me eating from it, they get curious. I’ve even been asked if I can teach them how to do it.
Which brings us to what we can do in the library to foster this curiosity and help our students to have a positive relationship with food.
Bento box making looks complicated, especially if you’re looking at what’s called “decoben”. These are works of art, and are either for making food more appealing to children who are picky eaters or for purely artistic purposes.
However, a regular bento box can still look cute but not require hours of careful assembly and cooking. In the resource list, I’ll share some YouTube videos which give a basic rundown. A bento making program would be a lot of fun. I’m lucky enough to have a culinary program on campus, so we’ve talked about teaming up the program and the anime club for a quick bento program.
Trying various Japanese snacks also helps students to experience Japan without cooking. If you’re near a Japanese supermarket, this can be fairly easy to accommodate. If you’re not, your local grocery store is likely to have the most popular Japanese snack among foreign otaku: Pocky. I’ve even seen this once hard to find snack in WalMart. While Pocky isn’t really the best indicator of Japanese food, it’s something to bring a bit of Japanese flavor in. You can also try a Japanese food subscription box or order snacks online.
The following are blogs, YouTube channels, and books related to Japanese food which can help you plan your own programming. I’ll publish a list of manga and anime with descriptions separately later this week.
Little Miss Bento: Primarily a showcase of bento designs, there are recipes available.
Just One Cookbook: An outstanding blog (and YouTube channel) with easy to follow recipes and great explanations.
TabiEats: This Japan-based couple is dedicated to sharing delicious food from their life in Japan and travels around the world. Their recipes are very easy to follow, and they also regularly review strange cooking gadgets.
Cooking With Dog: An excellent Japanese home chef cooks delicious homestyle Japanese food with narration from her dog, Francis. Francis did pass away within the past couple of years, but he continues to narrate the recipes. Honestly, I refer to this channel a LOT in my own cooking. Every step is clearly outlined, and the presentation is all about the cooking.