Picturing Historical Japan: Shonen and shoujo manga bring the country’s past eras to life

Manga creators have drawn on Japan's rich and varied history to create some of the greatest works in the medium. This short guide to the historical periods teens are most likely to encounter in manga is accompanied by a list of 9 titles that draw on ages past.

From the left: Essays of the Genji (woodblock printed book), Japan, circa 1620, (USC Pacific Asia Museum/Getty Images); 
Go-Daigo (1288–1339), Emperor of Japan, 1907, from Harmsworth History of the World, Volume 1, by Arthur Mee, J.A. Hammerton, and A.D. Innes (Carmelite House, London, 1907), (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images).


Japan has a rich and varied history, filled with tales of love, war, monarchy, and ordinary people, and manga creators have drawn on that history to create some of the greatest works in the medium. Many of the best-known series were written for adults and are too violent for most teens. But, happily, some creators of shonen and shoujo manga, which are aimed at younger audiences, have also chosen historical settings for their tales of action and romance.

Before we get to that list, here’s a short guide to the historical periods teens are most likely to encounter in manga.

The first historical era that English-language readers may read about is the Heian period, from 794 to 1185. This was the peak era for the Japanese imperial court, and Japanese poetry and literature flourished. It was during the Heian period that The Tale of Genji, the epic work thought to be the first novel, was written. The Heian period also saw the uniquely Japanese katakana and hiragana alphabets emerge to supplement the Chinese-derived kanji characters. In manga, the ghost in “Hikaru no Go” is from the Heian period.

This era was followed by the Kamakura period (1185–1333), which saw the rise of warlords known as shoguns and warriors known as samurai. The struggle between the shoguns and the emperor forms the backdrop—and sometimes the main action—in many historical manga.

In 1333, Ashikaga Takauji helped overthrow the Kamakura shogunate, briefly bringing the emperor Go-Daigo back to power. Yusei Matsui’s “The Elusive Samurai” is set during this time and follows Hojo Takayuki, the son of the overthrown regent, who fought, unsuccessfully, to bring his family back to power.

Go-Daigo’s restoration was short-lived: In 1336, Ashikaga overthrew him and appointed himself shogun, ushering in the Ashikaga shogunate era. This period lasted for over 200 years and overlapped with the Sengoku period, or Warring States period, a time of civil wars and power struggles between the samurai that stretched from 1467 until the early 1600s, when the Tokugawa clan took over as the military government of a now-unified Japan.

The Tokugawa shogunate lasted from the early 1600s to the 1860s and is often referred to as the Edo period; it was when Edo, now Tokyo, was established
as the nation’s capital. This was a time of relative peace, isolationism, and economic growth. The year 1853 was one of profound change in Japan, as U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s ships arrived and Japan reluctantly opened up to the rest of the world, setting off another power struggle between the emperor and the shoguns. Taeko Watanabe’s “Kaze Hikaru” is set during this time, known as the bakumatsu, and it depicts the tension between those loyal to the shogun (including the heroine) and supporters of the emperor. (Chika Shiomi’s “Yukarism,” set in the pleasure district of Tokyo, shows a very different side of the Edo period.)

In the end, emperor Meiji’s forces won that struggle, leading to the Meiji Restoration, which began in 1868. The shogunate was dissolved and the samurai abolished, and, in 1889, Japan got a new constitution, moving from a feudal to a modern form of government.

The Taisho period followed (1912–1926) and was a time of improved transportation and communication, increasing urbanization, and a burgeoning middle class. Manga set in this period often take advantage of the contrasts between traditional Japanese life and newly fashionable European styles.

The Showa period (1926–1989) encompassed the lead-up to World War II, the war itself, and its aftermath. Aside from Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa’s “Barefoot Gen” (Last Gasp, 2004), a fictionalized account of his experiences, there are few manga set during this period.

Nine Manga that Draw on Ages Past

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” by Koyoharu Gotouge. Viz.
Gr 8 Up “Demon Slayer” is one of the most popular manga and anime series of recent years, and its Taisho-era setting sometimes figures in the story. Protagonist Tanjiro, who lives in the country with his widowed mother, goes off to sell charcoal in a nearby village and comes back to find his family all dead, except for his sister, who is badly injured and has been turned into a demon. Tanjiro joins a corps of demon slayers with the hope of curing her. Throughout the story, he moves between rural and urban settings, and the book contrasts traditional lifestyles of the country with the rapid modernization of cities. This series is complete in 29 volumes and has been adapted into several different anime.

“The Elusive Samurai” by Yusei Matsui. Viz.
Gr 8 Up This series, set in 1333, begins with the overthrow of the Kamakura shogunate by one of its own, the handsome and skilled warrior Ashikaga Takauji. Hojo Tokiyuki, the eight-year-old son of the last Kamakura shogun, survives and manages to escape. Taken in by Suwa Yorishige, an eccentric priest, Tokiyuki trains as a warrior to avenge his family and take the throne back. Many characters are based on historical figures, including Ashikaga Takauji and Tokiyuki. Matsui’s clean, linear style brings in plenty of period detail. As in his earlier series, “Assassination Classroom,” he balances the darker moments of the story with humor and engaging characters. While Ashikaga’s rebellion is depicted in gory detail, the story then switches to a lighter mood, focusing on the bumbling protagonist and his three friends as they train to become warriors. This series has been running digitally in Viz’s Shonen Jump app, and Viz published the first volume in July.

“Golden Japanesque” by Kaho Miyasaka. Yen.
Gr 11 Up –This romance is set in Yokohama during the Meiji Era (1868–1912), when Japan was opening up to trade with foreign countries. Heroine Maria is 16, and her blonde hair and blue eyes mark her clearly as the daughter of a foreigner. Her father is no longer with the family, however, and her mother, ashamed of Maria’s appearance, forces her to dye her hair black and hide her eyes as much as possible. When Rintarou, the son of the wealthy family that employs Maria’s mother, plays a prank on Maria and discovers her true hair color, he is immediately attracted to her. Despite the difference in their stations, the feeling is mutual. Miysaka mostly keeps backgrounds and clothing simple but brings in the period details when they count, as in a dramatic party scene in volume 2. This series is ongoing. The fifth volume was published in April.

“The Heiress and the Chauffeur” by Keiko Ishihara. Viz.
Gr 8 Up–The Taisho era is the backdrop for this smoldering romance between a rich but lonely heiress, Sayaka, and her devoted chauffeur, Narutaki, who is a few years older. Class differences loom large in the story. Sayaka’s classmates look down on her since her family is new money, while her relationship with Narutaki, even before it gets romantic, breaks all kinds of rules. At the outset, Sayaka is clueless about both the class divide and the fact that she and Narutaki are developing feelings for each other, which leads to some awkward situations. The story is complete in two volumes.

“Hikaru no Go” by Yumi Hotta. illus. by Takeshi Obata. Viz.
Gr 5 Up –This manga was first published in 2004, and some volumes may be hard to find. That’s a shame, because it’s also one of the few manga rated for preteen readers. It’s a fascinating example of the power of manga, as Hotta and Obata make a story about a board game as exciting as any sports event. Hikaru is a bored schoolboy living in modern times who is haunted by a ghost, Sai, who was a master of the board game Go during the Heian era. Together they play one opponent after another, ascending in the competitive ranks while striving to play the ultimate game of Go. The manga is 23 volumes long, and there’s also an anime.

“Kaze Hikaru” by Taeko Watanabe. Viz.
Gr 10 Up –Sei, the heroine of this action-packed manga set in 1863, disguises herself as a boy and joins a group of swordsmen who are loyal to the shogun. Her motivation: She is determined to avenge the deaths of her father and brother, who were killed by a clan loyal to the emperor. This manga starts out with a lot of information about the political situation, but there’s plenty of drama and action. The straightforward art includes a lot of period detail without being fussy. The series ended in 2020 with volume 45, but the American releases are only up to volume 29, so there’s a lot of story left for English-language readers.

“Mao” by Rumiko Takahashi. Viz.
Gr 10 Up –When Nanoka was a young child, a sinkhole opened up suddenly and swallowed her family’s car. Both her parents were killed, but Nanoka survived under mysterious circumstances. Now a high school student, Nanoka returns to the scene of the accident and passes through a portal into the Taisho era, where she meets Mao, an enigmatic young man trying to lift a curse placed on him by a cat demon. Traveling between the past and the present, Nanoka starts to realize that she, like Mao, has supernatural powers. Takahashi’s economical art keeps details to a minimum, but the Taisho-era world is clearly demarcated from Nanoka’s modern surroundings. The series is ongoing; the sixth volume was published in July.

“Nekogahara: Stray Cat Samurai” by Hiroyuki Takei. Kodansha Comics.
Gr 8 Up –Norachiyo, a masterless samurai, roams the landscape, dispensing rough justice to the wicked and protecting the powerless. The difference between this manga and every other samurai story is that all the principal characters are cats—all different kinds, with different personalities, elaborately detailed clothing, and plenty of attitude. Cats who wear bells are kept by people, except for Norachiyo, who wears a bell to honor a former master and who champions strays. He is also addicted to catnip, which dulls the pain of wounds he has suffered over the years. While Takei, also the creator of “Shaman King,” does not specify a time period, the story is clearly set in the feudal era. His stylized art and expressive felines make this five-volume series a fascinating read.

“Yukarism” by Chika Shiomi. Viz.
Gr 8 Up –In this time-travel story, Yukari, a modern-day teenage boy with an uncanny ability to write historical novels, turns out to be a reincarnated oiran, a term that primarily translates as “courtesan.” Yukari likes to sit alone in his house writing novels, with a housekeeper to take care of him, until he meets Mahoro, who goes to the same school as he does. When he touches her hand, he gets dizzy and starts dreaming about an earlier life as a high-ranking oiran in Yoshiwara, the pleasure district of Edo (Tokyo). The fact that Yukari can barely walk when occupying a female body in elaborate clothes is good for some slapstick humor, but the plot gets dark in a hurry when a young man named Satomie enters the picture, and he and Mahoro start channeling their earlier lives as well. The story has plenty of high drama and some horror sequences, but it stays rated 13+ through all four volumes.

Brigid Alverson edits the blog “Good Comics for Kids” (slj.com/GoodComics).

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Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, editor of the “Good Comics for Kids” blog, writes “Stellar Panels” SLJ’s graphic novels column. 

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