As someone who’s read manga for over half her life, I don’t even think about the imported terminology used to describe Japanese comics anymore. But the more I talk to new manga readers, the more I’ve realized this tendency to assume that people can pick up the meaning from context might be a problem. I’m all for lowering the barriers of manga adoption and bringing in new readers, so I thought a beginner’s guide to basic manga terminology would be helpful.
The main thing to know about manga is that it’s typically divided into categories based on target audience. A lot of this has to do with how manga is published in Japan. Manga series are originally serialized in anthology magazines before being collected into individual volumes. Because these magazines are often geared toward specific age demographics, the same anthology can serialize titles from vastly different genres such as romantic comedy Sankarea: Undying Love, epic fantasy The Heroic Legend of Arslan, and post-apocalyptic adventure Attack on Titan.
Keeping that information in mind, here’s a breakdown of some essential manga terminology. Most of them are words directly imported from Japanese, but not all. I’m making no assumptions here. This is a judgment-free space!
Anime: Anime is literally the Japanese word for “animation” but in the English-language industry, it refers to animation made in Japan. So if you were in Japan, you’d use the word “anime” to refer to any and all animation whereas in the U.S., it means animation created in Japan. Make sense? I include this term here because most anime these days are adaptations of manga.
Boys Love: Often abbreviated as BL, this term refers to manga featuring romantic and/or sexual relationships between men. Its primary audience is women, and most BL mangaka are also women. As an example, VIZ Media’s imprint, SuBLime, is devoted entirely to this category and if you look carefully, you’ll notice something about the stylization of their name.
Doujinshi: Doujinshi are fan and/or self-published comics. Many mangaka started out as doujinshi artists. For example, creative team CLAMP produced doujinshi for several series including Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure prior to the start of their professional careers.
Ecchi: This term refers to content that is sexy or slightly erotic in nature. Think sexual innuendos, suggestive content, and nudity. Hardcore, explicit content doesn’t fall under this category.
Hentai: This word typically means explicit sexual pornography. While there is overlap with other categories like BL and yuri, it generally implies heterosexual content. The Japanese usage of the word also has connotations of perversion to it, which may explain why some hentai titles have elements that are considered extreme or fringe by Western pornography standards.
Josei: Josei is a category originally aimed at older teenage girls and adult women. Think ages 18-40. It tends to portray life and love more realistically than shoujo. Example: Princess Jellyfish
Manga: Manga refers to Japanese comics. As we saw with the word “anime,” it is the Japanese word for “comics” so all comics are called manga in Japan. But as with anime, it means comics made in Japan in the English-language industry.
Mangaka: In English-language usage, a mangaka is a manga creator. As with the words “manga” and “anime,” it means any comic creator in Japanese but like the other words, the term took on a precise connotation in English.
Otaku: In English-language fandom, fans of anime and manga often use this word to describe themselves. It’s important to note, however, that this word has negative connotations in the original Japanese.
Seinen: Seinen refers to manga that is originally aimed at older teenage boys and young adult men. Think college students and young professionals. Example: Gangsta.
Shojo/shoujo: Shoujo refers to manga that originally targets girls roughly between the ages of 10-18. Example: Sailor Moon
Shonen/shounen: Shonen refers to manga that’s originally geared toward young boys under the age of 18. Example: One Piece
Yuri: This refers to content that features lesbian relationships between women. It’s meant to imply material of an erotic nature, but I know that general usage between fans isn’t quite as strict.
Yaoi: Yaoi is actually a Japanese acronym for “Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi,” which means “no climax, no point, no meaning.” In English-language usage, yaoi has the same meaning as BL, although it tends to indicate sexual content whereas BL may or may not. In Japan, yaoi usually only refers to non-commercial material such as doujinshi.
And that should cover the basic manga terminology! One thing I want to mention is that while the major mainstream categories of shonen, shoujo, seinen, and josei originally have gender-based target audiences, the actual demographics aren’t so narrow. Many shonen sports series have a huge female readership and based on some of the merchandise I’ve seen, the original Japanese companies are aware of this.