Understanding Japanese Culture, Humor, and Gender Through Love Hina Part 3

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note on all the image scans: they are correct manga-style so they are read right to left

Spend enough time doing critical readings of media and you come across the assertion that all media tells you about the culture it was written in. Sometimes, as in contemporary media, this is easy to tease out. Other times, as with science fiction, it’s by extrapolation. So I thought it might be interesting to re-read Love Hina, by Ken Akamatsu, as a way to to understand Japanese culture.  Part One can be found here.

The Story

The third book begins on the second day of the key exam for getting into Tokyo University. When the last book left off, both of them were feeling quite confident. Keitaro had gotten a confidence boost from Naru and did better than usual. Time for Ken Akamatsu to drop tragi-comedy shoe and right before they go into the test he has Naru let Keitaro know she isn’t the girl of his dreams. This shakes him and he doesn’t do well early on. When the test results are posted it turns out that BOTH of them failed. To me this was almost as hard to fathom as the fact that Keitaro is managing a girls’ dorm. Naru has consistently scored number one on the practice tests. Sure, it not impossible for people to pass practice tests and fail the real thing. But it just seemed like Ken was cheating here to make the plot work. After all, it’s not as though there couldn’t have been a story in Naru being at college while Keitaro continues to try and get in. But, whatever, as with the inconsistencies here and there we have to view it for what it is – a romantic comedy. And those don’t always follow realistic rules.

Understandably upset after not having had a life for the past two years, Naru and Keitaro go to a bar to get drunk. At first they seem to be getting along well, but Naru’s temper gets the best of her and then Keitaro doesn’t temper his retorts and they end up have a huge fight. Both of them decide to take a journey and get away from the place where they’ve spent nearly every waking hour studying. Separately, and unknowingly, they end up on the same train to Kyoto. At once point they both end up with their glasses off and I love that when they’re both in Magoo mode they get along. It’s a great chance for Akamatsu to point out that context is everything. Naru “knows” that Keitaro is a pervert so she doesn’t accept that he could possibly be so clumsy. But when it’s a stranger she is more likely to accept that accidents happen. Part of the reason for their trip was to avoid each other, but they keep ending up in the same place – it turns out they were using the same travel guide from the dorm. Eventually they make up and decide to travel together. Meanwhile Akamatsu sets up a B-Plot of Kaolla Su and Shinobu going after them. However, they are relying on Kaolla’s reading skills and end up on the wrong train.

Keitaro and Naru go to a hotel where they end up having to share a room because the hotel is short a room and the inn keeper assumes they’re a couple. I’ll be exploring more of this in the next two sections. After the hotel stay, they go on a boat trip where they meet a new character, Mutsumi Otohime. Mutsumi is as clumsy (if not moreso) than Keitaro and we also discover she is a 4 year ronin and as dumb as Keitaro. Mutsumi is from Okinawa and I’m once again at a cultural loss as to what that would mean to Japanese readers. However, she does seem to be a bit forward although it seems to at least be partially due to her ditziness and obliviousness. Although it’s possible this has to do with her place of origin. At any rate, she seems to show some affection towards Keitaro until she finds out that he has feelings for Naru. This makes Naru jealous because her type (like Akane) may not want the guy who wants her, but she can’t stand the idea of others wanting him.

They end up stranded on an island and after some more misunderstandings with Naru, he finally confesses his feelings toward her. It doesn’t go anywhere yet, but we see hints that perhaps Keitaro may succeed in getting Naru. Mutsumi gives them a present for putting up with her clumsy self which turns out to be a turtle. Again, is this an Okinawan thing? A pun of some sort?

Life in Japan

Love Hina Book 3 - Sepukku

Love Hina Book 3 – Sepukku

I think the Japanese are just as in love with the idealism of seppuku as we are in the West. I think the idea of dying rather than allowing one to be shamed is a universal concept. (See Southern antebellum American culture) I had a pretty strong feeling this was just being played up for the comedic inappropriateness of the suggestion, but I did a bit of quick research. This New York Times story mentions a Bridgestone manager in 1999 and this site mentions a former Olympics gold medalist. Most of the other “recent” famous example are, interestingly, during the same period as in America the 1800s. While I’m sure a small number of misguided people choose to attempt this every year, they don’t make the international news.

Love Hina Book 3 - Mixed Bath at the Hotel

Love Hina Book 3 – Mixed Bath at the Hotel

As I mentioned in the first entry of this series, there are single gender public baths/hot springs and there are coed public baths/hot springs. The hotel at which Naru and Keitaro are forced to share a room also has a mixed gender bath. Naru is very uncomfortable with it and it serves as a comedic chance for Keitaro to be her Knight and help her escape to her room without being seen naked. It only goes to reinforce the notion that the nudity taboo in Japan is varied as it is in nearly all of the developed world. Some people are more ok with it than others and some cultures as whole are more ok with it than others, but no culture is uniform. Also, a bit of truthfulness in having the old man ask where the cute young girls are. Etiquette may demand that you keep your eyes to yourself, but reality is a bit different. Also, it’s pretty universal for old people to lack shame – having spent their entire lives following the rules they decide at some point to just ignore them.

Love Hina Book 3 - Sharing a Hotel Room

Love Hina Book 3 – Sharing a Hotel Room

This innkeeper features in what is easily my favorite scene in volume 3. She assumes that Keitaro and Naru are lovers and that their protests are simply an attempt to be discreet. Later on she even makes them a feast of aphrodisiac food in an attempt to help things out. I know the main purpose of this scene is to mess with the main characters for our amusement, but it also exposes some cultural norms. American media tends to depict hotel trysts in a less discreet manner unless there’s cheating going on or prostitution. Yet, this woman’s answers to their protests seems to signal that this is something couples often say. It wouldn’t surprise me, given Japanese culture that it would be considered faux pas to be overt about spending time in a hotel together. Many of us have hear about Japan’s “Love Hotels”. It just sounds naughty, right? Like somewhere you take a mistress or prostitute. But, according to a family friend who lived in Japan for a number of years, many married couples use the love hotels to get the privacy that might not be available in the smaller homes that many Japanese have.

Going back to Mutsumi and the fact that she’s from Okinawa, I was wondering why she was carrying a melon around. I knew this had to be shorthand for something. So I tried this Google Search. Unfortunately, it just brought up a bunch of Love Hina fan fiction. So I tried a different search term. Apparently the Okinawans are famous for their bitter melon stir fry so it was a reference to that and probably an early clue to her origins. As I am writing this, I’m reading book six and when Mutsumi returns she has pretty much only packed melons.

Gender/Sex Norms

Love Hina Book 3 - Keitaro is not a threat

Love Hina Book 3 – Keitaro is not a threat

Again, Akamatsu returns to the theme that Keitaro is so unmasculine that Naru does not feel threatened to be sleeping in the same room as him at the inn. Of course this also perpetuates the idea that men are out of control and a woman would be crazy for sharing a room with a man who she wasn’t involved with. (And ignores entirely the idea of date rape)

Love Hina Book 3 - "It Might Be Loose on Me"

Love Hina Book 3 – “It Might Be Loose on Me”

Ah yes, this one appears to be a favorite joke in manga: two female characters have to share clothes for some reason. Then one of them complains about the chest area or the waist being too tight or loose. An early Ranma joke uses the same punchline and I think I’ve seen it at least one other time, if not more. Sometimes it’s meant to be a passive-aggressive dig from one female to another. Other times, like this one, it’s just meant to be an offhand remark by a clumsy person. The interesting thing to me, as a reader, is that the girls being called fat or flat chested rarely seem to look any different than the other girl. No one would look at Naru and think she’s overweight or that Mutsumi is much smaller than her. So what are we left to think? It could be that the artist just isn’t good at portraying different body shapes, given that roughly all manga girls look the same and that’s what he’s used to drawing. Or it could be that the girls are only off by a small measurement – say an inch or half and inch and it’s a commentary at how petty things can sometimes get in the female fashion world – especially when a character is using it as a passive-aggressive insult.

Love Hina Book 3 - Mutsumi Intrudes on Naru

Love Hina Book 3 – Mutsumi Intrudes on Naru

We’ve seen Naru not have any problems being nude at the hot springs with the other female residents. As we pointed out in the first installment of this series, Naru even goes to Keitaro, thinking he’s Kitsune, and asks if she wants to squeeze her breasts. But he were see her showing shame at being nude in front of Mutsumi. And we saw her unhappy at the mixed bath. So I think we can continue to refine what Love Hina can tell us about public nudity taboos. Naru, who I’m taking as probably representing the average response, is ok with nudity among friends, but not among strangers. So it’s not the same as countries or cultures that have a nude beach lack of nudity taboo. For at the beach you’re most likely to see and be seen by naked strangers. Additionally, context appears to be important. A bath tube with a curtain does not have the same nudity expectations as a public hot springs. And so while Naru isn’t doing anything crude or rated R, she would expect the privacy to be able to do so in the circumstances depicted above.

Love Hinta Book 3 - Keitaro's Problem

Love Hinta Book 3 – Keitaro’s Problem

Once again I applaud the book for drawing attention to male issues. Sure, the comic is mostly fan service of the cheesecake variety, but as I mentioned before, it’s pretty rare for comics to ever draw attention to male awkwardness. In this case, Keitaro has two hot girls on what they still think is a deserted island inviting him to come join him at the pool. He gets and erection and so he doesn’t want to change and get into the water just then. The girls misunderstand and throw him in the water.

Love Hina Book 3 - Featured Image

Love Hina Book 3 – His First kiss

I think it’s interesting that Akamatsu has their first kisses each be with Mutsumi. Unless something is lost in translation, there’s no indication (at least as of book 6) that she’s bisexual. Yet she kisses both of them. Of course, it’s almost more interesting that Naru has made it to 19 without kissing anyone and Keitaro has made it his 20s without kissing anyone. I don’t know if Akamatsu is exaggerating Naru’s prudishness and Keitaro’s loserness, but here in the USA I think all but the most prudish/religious kids have at least had a kiss on the lips by the time they’re done with high school. Shoot, in high school I mostly hung out with friends who went to church twice a week (if not more) and we all went further than that with our girlfriends/boyfriends. It’s hard to tell whether media is reflective of the culture of if they’re pulling an “America 1950s TV” on us, but this isn’t the first manga/anime I’ve read/seen in which people were a lot older than Americans usually are with their first experiences with the opposite sex. If any readers has some experience, it’d be interesting to hear how we differ or are the same, especially given that all humans are going to have the same emotions/hormones in them at a given age.

Love Hina book 3. Written by Ken Akamatsu with art by Ken Akamatsu. You can pick it up on Amazon here

This post is part of the thread: Understanding Japanese Culture Humor and Gender Through Love Hina – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

3 thoughts on “Understanding Japanese Culture, Humor, and Gender Through Love Hina Part 3”

  1. Dan says:

    Just so you know, the Okinawan melons you’re thinking of are probably the bitter melons. I think they’re called goya and they look like bumpy cucumbers (http://www.stippy.com/wp/wp-content/zuploads/2009/03/goya.jpg). I don’t think that her carrying melons has to do with being Okinawan, unless we’re drawing a weird line to it being a common gift, summertime treat, or heavily associated with the beach where you play a game whose objective is to smash open the melon (it’s kind of like a piñata).

    1. Eric Mesa says:

      Interestingly, in book 6 she comes to live next door to Hinata Inn and only brings melons with her.

  2. Pingback: » Understanding Japanese Culture, Humor, and Gender Through Love Hina Part 4 - Comic POW!
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