Meet Nobuko Yoshiya, the trailblazing author who brought queerness to manga

To this day, Nobuko Yoshiya is one of the most celebrated authors in Japan, but she also led an unapologetically queer life.

Manga author Nobuko Yoshiya in her office.
Image: @relevantqueer (via Twitter)

Nobuko Yoshiya is one of the most celebrated female authors in Japan, but even still, her works have rarely been translated into English. When taking a closer look at the life of the woman that is credited for laying the foundation for a whole literary genre within manga, we do not only find a successful writer but also someone who lived an unapologetically sapphic life. 

Born in 1896, Yoshiya was the only daughter in a family of seven. Brought up to fit the role of a woman as a mother and wife by her parents, as was common for the time, she grew up to challenge those norms and as she moved to Tokyo, away from her family, she began to lead a life of revolution.

She cut her hair short and began wearing Western fashion, allowing her to dress more androgynous. She was one of the first women in Japan to drive a car and designed her own house. The author attended meetings of Seitō, Japan’s pioneering feminist magazine, and wrote her way into becoming the most commercially successful female writer of her time. 

She is credited with laying the foundation of the popular shōjo manga, a form of Japanese comic especially created for young girls. She is also seen as one of the main contributors to the Class S genre, which focused on close romantic friendships between women, and is the most popular form of sapphic manga to date.

Whether blurring the lines between romance and friendship, writing about implicit lesbian relationships or indulging in sapphic fiction, Nobuko Yoshiya centred her works around the intimate connections between women. 

Beginning her career by writing more explicit works about women falling for other women, Hana Monogatari (Flower Tales), published between 1916 and 1924, features 52 stories of romantic friendships, mostly featuring motifs like longing from afar, unrequited love and unhappy endings. 

Another one of her earlier works called Yaneura no nishojo (Two Virgins in the Attic), published in 1919, is thought to be semi-biographical. The story is about two girls that get to know each other by being dormmates in school where they fall in love. Choosing to keep living together after they graduate, the girls choose an unconventional lifestyle. The story has strong underlying feminist themes, implying the rejection of a heteronormative society and the traditional lifestyle. 


The woman in her life was Monma Chiyo, who worked as a maths teacher at a girls’ school in Tokyo. The pair spent over 50 years of their lives together. 

In 1957, Yoshiya adopted Monma as her daughter, the only legal way for two women to share property or make medical decisions together because same-sex marriage was and still is illegal in Japan. Unlike many others, the author chose to live her relationship publicly, sharing it in photographs, interviews and personal essays. Together the couple travelled the world and worked on Yoshiya’s books, Chiyo getting involved and becoming her secretary. 

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