If one were to sift through any bestseller list devoted to manga they would find a litany of expected titles gracing its lofty heights, yet last summer an autobiographical one-shot like no other gained traction, swiftly finding its way onto twitter timelines of those who would not otherwise consider themselves to be fans of otaku media. Catching countless purveyors off guard with its striking cover, they took to Amazon leading to over a hundred reviews being published within a reasonably short time frame. Through taking a cursory glance at the reviews I found a number of sobering sentiments, reviewers drawing attention to their own lived experiences – a rarity where this medium is concerned. It was only later I learned the history behind Nagata Kabi’s Sabishisugite Lesbian Fuuzoku ni Ikimashita Report, or The Private Report on My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. Originally self-published on Pixiv and garnering over five million views, it wasn’t long before it gained a cult following due to Nagata’s achingly raw delineations on her mental health, interpersonal struggles, and sexuality; the physical edition placing third in 2017’s Kono Manga ga Sugoi!’s female category as a testament to its enduring impact. It has even been licensed for a western release courtesy of Seven Seas, slated to be released in June this year.
But to understand why My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness has turned into something of a cultural phenomenon, despite spanning less than 150 pages in total, it is worth exploring the profound weight of the sociocultural context suffusing Nagata’s highly personal narrative which it feels as if a generation have found themselves closely mirrored by. Despite the western sphere’s uphill struggle with validating mental health issues, contemporary Japanese society continues to eschew the notion, perceiving mental ministrations as something to be kept shut tightly behind closed doors and contained deep within the confines of the individual’s mind. With its collectivist society placing an emphasis on the family as a harmonious unit above all, pressures bloom in the shade.
Although research is in its infancy, a recent meta-analysis drawing on Japanese responses to mental health-based prejudices demonstrated mental health literacy to be lacking within the community at large , in part due to the widespread belief that associated contingencies arise due to psychosocial factors easily transcended e.g. pressures where interpersonal relationships are concerned. Characterized by recent slippages in self-control, mental health difficulties take the form of momentary flickers, biological or developmental factors seldom considered. Prejudices tend to skew consistently higher than other countries, with negative beliefs and propensities for ostracizing increasingly prevalent among residents lacking understanding. In terms of treatment medication and psychiatric interventions are rarely considered, let alone perceived as viable channels to aid the individual due to deep-rooted suspicions and biases regarding those in desperate need of such services. If ultimately considered, however, Japanese physicians are prone to prescribing medication as opposed to establishing crucial communicative efforts with prospective patients , nomenclatures more common in comparison to western communities, in part due to both lack of sufficient training and a reluctance to potentially stigmatize a patient, contextualized by communities steeped in shame. And even if the individual happens to reach the point of seeking professional assistance, a number of the more beneficial SSRIs (e.g. fluoxetine and sertraline) as demonstrated by numerous clinical trials over the years are prohibited due to Japan’s ongoing conflict with medication .
As you can certainly imagine this is only scratching the surface of what a wretchedly barren landscape Japan has proven to be with regards to mental health stigmatization, lacking critical services designed with emotional relief in mind despite an estimated six million people suffering from depression . It is by no means a coincidence that it is the country with the longest average stay in mental institutions in the world , indicative of a society emphasizing prolonged ostracism as opposed to improved functioning of patients designed with eventual social integration in mind. Yet it comes down to a matter of self-control, apparently, a personal character failing, a matter which the family ought to discreetly attend to lest it spirals further out of control. Within the oppressive confines of a fraught hegemony, mental health is parsed in terms of a blip on an individual’s radar, to be sublimated and certainly not spoken about. As far as the average citizen is concerned, the potential social repercussions are too great to consider anything else .
Instead of encouraging healthier modes of discussion in order to potentially alleviate accumulated anxieties, mental health is classified as falling exclusively within the familial domain; a key constituent the honne-tatemae (本音と建前) divide. ‘Tatemae’ refers to the group-orientated façade fashioned out of social necessitation, juxtaposed with ‘honne’ which refers to the sublimated inclinations kept behind closed doors. Although psychological balance is said to be achievable via this model, issues inevitably arise whenever a schism occurs. As tensions rise due to the notoriously fraught obligations of Japanese professions, casting aside the façade upon returning home is crucial, surrounding family members allowing the individual to be completely at ease. Yet due to the increasingly restrictive and emotionally distanced nature of the familial unit, schisms are likely to occur when it becomes difficult to entirely cast aside the public façade, internal and external boundaries blurring which leads to upholding the superficiality of external principles within a realm where they ought to be at ease. It is a model where inherently devastating consequences arise in tandem with healthier modes of expression suppressed, leading to poor communicative efforts and internalization. In order to preserve the harmonious sanctity of the familial unit such issues go unspoken, left to silently fester.
Which leads us to My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness’s excruciatingly transparent memoir of the narrator’s voyage into the innermost recesses of her heart; the final bastion taking the form of an arrangement with a female escort, self-inflicted scars lining her arms and trembling like a newborn fawn. Craving emotional intimacy, a proverbial balm for her soul, Nagata drifts from location to location seeking even the faintest trace of warmth within an avoidant society. With a formidable charm to her cartoonish yet expressive illustrations, she depicts plumbing the nebulous nadirs of depressive episodes which extends to disordered eating and parasucicidal behaviours with a brutal honesty seldom seen. Through elaborating on aspects rarely (if ever) addressed within the medium, calling My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness a tough read would be doing its transparency a disservice for the material will be sure to leave you grimacing no matter how closely you find yourself relating with it. Nagata speaks of her tumultuous relationship with food, feeling as if she’ll be punished for eating; of struggling with verbalizing emotional pain, instead finding release in self-harm; of it all being so overwhelming that she eventually finds it difficult to read; of ambling along the streets without a purpose. Time after time she restrains herself to the detriment of her own self-worth, in order to be swept along by society’s powerful wave driven by filial piety. With each subsequent page we can’t help but wonder, with a lingering dread, if there will come a time where she’ll be engulfed entirely…
The distinct note of isolation persists through the manner in which an emotionally distanced society emphasizes a facsimile of communal cohesion in lieu of concepts such as compassion and sincerity, which unfortunately rings true where Nagata’s family is concerned. Filial discord arises as soon as she draws attention to her parents, lamenting their reluctance to acknowledge her unhappiness which further echoes sociocultural mores pertaining to mental health difficulties. In a startlingly raw metaphor she likens the situation to precariously balancing a cup of water on her head, refusing to let even a single drop spill – yet her mother responds that she cannot even see a cup. Where the community at large is concerned, if an illness fails to manifest through visible means it is often considered to be psychosomatic in nature, leading to questions regarding its validity if prolonged or results in impaired functioning. Within the context of Japanese societal norms, as earlier mentioned mental health difficulties tend to be parsed in terms of temporary losses of self-control to be hurriedly transcended, lest one falls under wider scrutiny. Although the ragged isolation Nagata finds herself in the throes of is unmistakable, when viewed through a sociocultural lens perhaps the same cannot be said. When she returns home after a hospital visit, her mother expresses bewilderment in response to Nagata mentioning that the doctor told her to take time to recuperate. The question posed (“haven’t you been doing just that all along?”) is stark in its severity, all the more so considering that there is no intended malice lying beneath those cutting words. Nagata’s mother is by no means a villainous caricature, but an unfortunate consequence of society drawing a curtain over those suffering within its all-consuming shadow.
Japanese documentary Seishin offers an intimate, yet at times discomforting, glimpse into the lives of individuals whose histories are inextricably bound to a mental health institution situated in Okayama – Chorale. The note of filial discord rings through via a number of individual narratives, ranging from parents stifling the personal development of young adult children, to husbands threatening divorce at the prospect of their wives attending similar institutions for crucial appointments. A later scene depicts a nursing student confiding in Chorale’s leading psychiatrist, Dr. Yamamoto, regarding the rehabilitation of a patient suffering from broken bones due to a suicide attempt. Fears are expressed as she reveals that it’s proving to be quite a challenging state of affairs for all involved: her employer by no means a mental health professional equipped to guide; the patient’s family harbouring no desire to broach underlying issues, going so far as to discourage their child from partaking in a form of rehabilitation that would prove to be beneficial. Dr. Yamamoto recommends that the nurse respect the patient’s wishes, although acknowledges that it certainly is a difficult situation due to the family’s fixed position within the hegemonic hierarchy, possessing a distinctly authoritative bent. Harmonious unions must be sustained even in the face of individual tragedy, forever thinking in terms of “we” as opposed to a singular “I”.
The same can certainly be said of Nagata, as revealed through tense vignettes interspersed throughout even My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness’s more uplifting sections. Tensions rise to the point where she is no longer able to view her home as a safe haven which facilitates emotional stability, but a space that fuels friction, its atmosphere stifling. The backbone of psychological stability (本音と建前) fractured, Nagata struggles in seeking alternative means of validation beyond the family home yet deliberately distances herself from potentially constructive interpersonal relationships which exist outside its insular confines e.g. extended relatives and friends. Chained to normative structures that bind, Nagata’s vulnerable position leaves her succumbing to society’s seditious pull while recklessly pursuing parental approval, returning home time after time despite (or perhaps because) of all that it represents. The prospect of acceptance enticing, in order to remain a good child she is all too willing to sacrifice what ought to be a healthily constructed self-concept; “we” casting aside “I” to the murky annals of her conscious. Yet thankfully Nagata is able to gain a certain degree of autonomy once she strives to remedy her impaired functioning, stabilizing the disordered eating which dominated much of this period, gradually transitioning to regular eating and sleeping patterns. Labours bear fruit once she is comfortable in securing a part-time position, yet her mother disparages such efforts, filtering them through the lens of what she ought to be doing as the chains lie ever-heavy. Such a distressing episode is sharply juxtaposed with Nagata subjected to positive affirmation for what appears to be the first time (or at least, the first time within the context of what she has chosen to reveal), slightly alleviating that pressure as she considers her own feelings at the expense of society’s unyielding hegemony, and the humiliation that arises with defiance.
In order to further develop as a functioning individual sans restraint a certain degree of self-exploration is required. Diving deep to uncover the source of Nagata’s issues allows potentially problematic components regarding the strained relationship with her mother to rise to the surface. Rather suggestively a whiff of Freudian regression suffuses their awkward interactions which she readily acknowledges, all psychosexual fixations married with desperate yearning. Latent sexual curiosity channelled towards her is framed within the context of a oral stage; its roots an infant yearning for oral stimulation courtesy of its maternal figure. Although one cannot help but question the legitimacy of this mildly uncomfortable sequence, Nagata openly ogling her mother’s body (psychoanalysis’ questionable and outdated mechanisms aside), it nevertheless enables her to contextualize their interactions, allowing her to pursue the theoretical schema of becoming an autonomous individual. Comparatively secure as far as her desires are concerned, Nagata is in a position where she is able to pursue yearning of her own accord… Yet those filial shadows are ever-present, the thought of interacting with a female escort swathed in layers upon layers of deceit framed in the form of betrayal. If she is to break the chains once and for all, she must fully comprehend the weight of all that she has sacrificed while rigidly adhering to sociocultural notions of ‘the good child’ despite being an adult in her late twenties.
Sexual contact is posited in the form of a mystical force that will sever those filial bonds coiled tightly around Nagata’s existence; silencing the child desperate to please and be acknowledged once and for all. While shunning the notion of maturation, being anything but a ‘good child’ is parsed as an adversarial impediment threatening the sanctity of the harmonious familial unit. Yet upon seriously considering hiring a female escort, the world tellingly expands in a truly magnificent fashion – glimmering with immeasurable possibilities as reflected by the visuals abandoning its rigid four-panel structure, the city stretching across the page in all its rich potential. Nagata’s world undergoing a revision turns out to be so profound that she likens the experience to Helen Keller verbalizing the word ‘water’ for the first time . This improved approach to life likewise extends to her indulging in self-care, bettering her personal appearance while paying closer attention to her form. A certain level of stability is achieved in a manner which feels immensely cathartic to anyone that has similarly found themselves in circumstances where they’ve finally managed to transcend self-destructive inclinations; illustrations poised with purpose, instilling you with relief. Representative of a psychological turning point in the tale, Nagata adapts a considerably positive outlook, depressive criticisms transitioning to a healthier self-image which enables her to widely speculate beyond the hegemonic confines society fashioned, laying waste to those stifling chains. Functioning as a wry symbolic gesture, to pay for the escort Nagata uses money borrowed from her mother, cementing the transition of power and forever silencing that child crying out, desperate for her parents’ acceptance.
Throughout his two years spent filming Seishin, director Soda Kazuhiro had been predominantly concerned with pulling back the dense curtain which sociocultural normative structures kept firmly closed for decades. Avoiding narration entirely he instead opted for Chorale’s patients and staff to relay their own narratives, in turn allowing a glimmer of light to sliver through the impervious material. Although mental health responses do seem to be steadily improving if emerging trends are any indication, at this point it is indeed questionable whether that is enough. As a result of Seishin and similar works imbuing an otherwise daunting concept with humanity, there’s a note of hope for those who find themselves adrift in the sea of life which likewise reverberates through My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness’s core. Despite the inevitable disparities in one’s cultural identity or sexuality, it is nevertheless a piece dredged from Nagata Kabi’s heart, calling out to anyone that has similarly found themselves searching for a place to call home, a welcome sign for a directionless generation whose existence is fraying at the edges. Despite her affair with the female escort not serving as the anticipated breakthrough she was certain would eternally alter the course of her life, it was nevertheless a courageous step to take, a step worth making.
With that curtain pulled aside, step out into the future.
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 Zielenziger, M. (2006). Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation. New York: Random House.
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 漫画『さびしすぎてレズ風俗に行きましたレポ』レビュー 生々しい決断の記録. (2016). Retrieved from http://kai-you.net/article/30460