Experts of seduction: Construction of performable ‘love player’ characters in men’s advice manga
“A highly specialised semiotic repertoire connects a growing transcultural discourse produced by self-proclaimed seduction experts, who promote the use of gaming strategies in the pursuit of casual sexual encounters…“
University of Melbourne
Michaela Luschmann graduated from a master’s degree in Japanese studies at the University of Vienna and she is currently a PhD candidate at the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. Her research concerns transcultural discourses of genders and sexualities and focuses on emerging non-normative masculinities in the Japanese semiotic sphere.
Manga teaching men to become experts at seducing women have gained popularity in Japan in the last ten years. A highly specialised semiotic repertoire connects a growing transcultural discourse produced by self-proclaimed seduction experts, who promote the use of gaming strategies in the pursuit of casual sexual encounters. While topical research has explored the language of the pick-up artist (PUA) in the Anglophone sphere, its interconnectedness with Japanese men’s self-help texts has not been addressed. As part of an ongoing research project, this paper explores how performable images of seduction expert masculinities are constructed through the use of semiotic resources by example of the Japanese men’s advice manga series I think I’ll prove what love is by Fujisawa Kazuki and Igumo Kusu (2016 – 2018). A game metaphor that organises lexical items and visual resources within the semiotic repertoire of the ‘love player’ is investigated by taking a qualitative approach to social semiotics.
manga, pick-up artists, men’s self-help, seduction, dating
While stories about playboys seducing a great number of people have existed in Japan since before the onset of modernity , love, sex and dating advice written by “seduction experts” has only developed within the last ten years in Japan. Seduction expert manga aim to teach men how to conduct themselves, how to act and how to speak to “pick-up” women as quickly as possible. By sharing advice through storytelling, the authors position themselves as experts in seduction. Textual practices, such as using highly specialised vernacular and specific visual resources, demonstrate a “semiotic display” (Agha 2007) of seduction expert masculinities.
Manga are just one form of media that features men’s self-help or advice text – seduction experts publish in a variety of media, including books, blogs, social media posts, seminars and on television. So why study manga? Manga, Japanese comics, are widely read by people of all ages throughout Japan and even overseas. According to the Annual Report on the Publication Market 2022 by the Shuppan Kagaku Kenkyūsho (Group for the Scientific Research of Publication, 2022), the entire market for comics in Japan, including comics, comic-magazines and electronic comics amounted to 675.9 billion Yen in 2021. Covering almost any kind of genre one could possibly think of – including advice on how to seduce women – manga’s popularity has reached an all-time high.
While Japanese books generally feature dense text that requires an extensive vocabulary and knowledge of kanji (Chinese characters), manga utilise visual resources which increase legibility while reducing the amount of written text on the page. This multimodality  makes manga easily accessible to readers. Manga is further an inherently gendered medium: commercially published manga series are produced for target audiences which are categorised by gender and age group (Unser-Schutz 2015). Gendered expectations thus influence the characters and storylines (Unser Schutz 2015) as well as the semiotic resources presented. This makes manga an attractive site to study the construction of masculinities.
In seduction expert manga, different characters act out social scenarios that serve as examples for in/correct personal conduct of men in relation to sex, love, and dating. A seduction expert teaches other male characters who are having trouble with finding sexual or romantic partners – they then either become his disciples or they stay unpopular (himote). Seduction expert characters further utilise a highly specialised vernacular to teach their lessons. Employing this repertoire enables the embodiment of the masculinities that the characters represent. In addition, the characters’ looks, code of dress, and gestures, as well as the style in which they are drawn indexes additional knowledge about the performance of these masculinities. Besides character design, there are other, subtler visual resources that provide information regarding the seduction expert and his positioning in social interactions. This information is revealed when the interplay of visual resources and written language within the panel is examined closely.
This paper explores the construction of the “love player” – a performable seduction expert character based on a game metaphor connecting linguistic and visual resources in the popular manga – series I think I’ll prove what love is  (Original title: Boku wa ai wo shōmei shiyō to omou) by Fujisawa Kazuki and Igumo Kusu (2016-2018).
Seduction expert manga are part of a larger transnational discourse that has developed from the convergence of different discursive streams  in the manosphere, which are produced by pick-up artists, men’s rights activists, incels, and other men’s groups (see Ging 2019; Cosma and Gurevich 2020; Rüdiger and Dayter 2020). In Anglophone popular culture, pick-up artists (PUA), who teach cishet-identifying men how to seduce as many women as quickly and cost-effectively as possible, became a topic of interest in the media the middle of the 2000s (O’Neill 2018). At that time, PUA published many influential self-help books targeting men and were heavily featured on Anglophone reality TV shows and in sitcoms. While the PUA-boom in popular media has since died down, teaching men how to seduce women has remained a lucrative industry (O’Neill 2018). Research into PUA texts has criticised the framing of heterosexual sex as a gateway to masculinity, and the positioning of men as winners and of women as losers of sexuality (Cosma and Gurevich 2020). In addition, the issue was raised that these instructive texts often encourage violent behaviour towards women including coercion and even sexual assault (O’Neill 2018; Denes 2011).
Besides the exchange with PUA in the manosphere, the Japanese seduction expert discourse was facilitated by the translation of Anglophone pick-up artist books into Japanese. For instance, Neill Strauss’ bestselling book The Game: Penetrating the secret society of Pick-up Artists (2005) was first translated into Japanese in 2006 and then published again in 2012. In addition, PUAs like Julian Blanc , who was touring in different countries to coach men about how to ‘get laid’, also came to Japan to hold seminars. This pick-up artist discourse has considerably shaped the self-help and advice products sold in Japan within the last decade.
Similar to PUA, Japanese seduction experts are profiting from selling seminars, manga and books, which are even translated into TV series (terebi dorama) that encourage men to pursue sex aggressively. Sexual violence perpetrated by seduction experts in Japan has also been discussed in Japanese mass media. The Japanese paper Asahi Shinbun reported that the head of the “Real Nanpa Academy” (riaru nanpa akademii) – a so-called “pick-up cram school” (nanpa juku) – was charged with the sexual assault of three women and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment (Abe 2020). Critically investigating the Japanese seduction expert texts is thus necessary to uncover how sexual violence is promoted in this discourse.
Defining Masculinities – Characterological Figures in Manga
A growing body of research on masculinities has utilised the concept of “hegemonic masculinity” (Connell 2005; Connell and Messerschmidt 2005) to discuss the normative effects of the prevalent cultural ideal of the salaryman on men’s lives in Japan, and the ways in which this ideal has been negotiated, subverted, reinforced or desired (see Dasgupta 2000, 2012, 2017; Roberson and Suzuki 2003; McLelland 2005; Hidaka 2010; SturtzSreetharan 2017; Saladin 2019; Baudinette 2021).
In this research project, however, I investigate masculinities as performances that are indexically linked to social types, and how they are semiotically constructed in text. According to Milani (2015, 10), masculinities are “performances that one carries out by employing linguistic and other meaning-making resources within normative constraints about how a man should sound, appear and behave”. Masculinities are thus not only performed by those whose bodies are categorised as male but can be enacted by anybody (Connell 2005; Milani 2015). Individuals access a library of performable images of personhood related to social types in their everyday life, which Agha (2007, 117) has dubbed “characterological figures”. These images link moral or ethical values to a certain personal conduct and specific semiotic repertoires that form registers (Agha 2007; Johnstone 2017). Individuals can then utilise the resources to perform masculinities through “semiotic display” thereby affirming their position as members of a social group (Agha 2007). The enactment of characters based on “linguistic performance” has been observed by Maree (2020), who examined the enregisterment of onē-kyara (big sister characters) in the Japanese media.
The semiotic repertoire of seduction experts includes semiotic resources in the form of written language, but also visual resources, and other forms of potentially meaningful expression. Since the manga in analysis are a form of self-help text, they provide instructions on how to speak, behave and dress. This is taught by example of the seduction expert character, who demonstrates the desired performance of masculinity in the text. Seduction expert characters thus correspond to characterological figures, which can be accessed and learned by individuals and then performed.
Constructing the ‘love player’
In the following paragraphs, I demonstrate how the characterological figure of the ‘love player’, a seduction expert character is constructed through the use semiotic resources with an example from the manga I think I’ll prove what love is 1 by Fujisawa and Igumo (2016). This manga is based on the light novel that was first published by Fujisawa Kazuki in 2015, which was further translated into a TV-drama and aired in 2017 on TV Asahi. Fujisawa is one of the most influential authors in the Japanese seduction expert discourse.
In this manga series, the continued picking up and seducing of a large number of women is presented as part of an aspirational lifestyle. Detailed instructions about how to approach, speak to and finally have sex with women are taught in the form of anecdotes of sexual conquests. Rüdiger and Dayter (2020) found that it is common in the PUA online community to share “field reports” in which the authors recount their pick-up attempts and brag about their skills to seduce women. This textual practice serves to assert that the author is part of the community (Rüdiger and Dayter 2020). Documenting successful, as well as failed pick-up attempts further exhibits self-development on the way to becoming a seduction expert.
Since manga is a multimodal form of media it is crucial to examine the interaction between visual resources and written text, namely the illustrations within a panel, and the contents of its speech bubbles. Investigating the combined use of different resources helps to uncover the complex layers of meaning within the seduction expert repertoire. I have found that the semiotic resources in this repertoire are connected by metaphor. According to Lakoff and Johnson (2003), metaphors function to structure our language, and thereby our thoughts, by linking abstract concepts to familiar experiences.
In the text in analysis, the practices of seduction experts are conceptualised by the use of a game metaphor that positions the man who engages in serial seduction as the player of a game – the so-called “love player” (renai pureyā). The aim of this game is seducing as many women as possible within a short time, by applying strategy and skill. The more phone numbers the player can get, and the more women he can sleep with, the more the masculinity and expertise of the “love player” is affirmed.
I would now like to present an example of this metaphor in action. Figure 1 shows two panels from volume 1 of I think I’ll prove what love is (Fujisawa and Igumo 2016, 173). Due to Japanese script, manga are read from the top right to the bottom left of the panel and the page. In the first panel above, the seduction teacher Nagasawa, outside of frame, explains what “metagame” (metagēmu) means to his disciple Watanabe, who is depicted in the second panel (ibid.). Floating playing cards are depicted in front of a cloudy black and grey watercolour background in the first panel, indexing the game metaphor. The cards represent a mental image which illustrates the teacher’s explanation. The speech bubbles in this panel read as follows:
|Panel 1: Speaker||Speech bubble|
|Source||(Fujisawa and Igumo 2016, 173)|
Lexical items such as “game’s outcome”, “high win rate”, “compose a hand” and “metagame”, are used to instruct the reader about picking up women. The lexical item “battle” in Panel 1, Speech bubble (1) further connects the game metaphor, via the theme of competition to combat, adding an aggressive nuance. Only the combination of both panels, however, illuminates that through game imagery and terminology, picking up women is presented as a game for which a winning strategy exists.
In the second panel we see the disciple Watanabe who, as can be inferred from the seatbelt across his chest, is sitting in a car, where the conversation is taking place. The speech bubbles in this panel read as follows:
|Panel 2: Speaker||Speech bubble|
|Source||(Fujisawa and Igumo 2016, 173)|
Reading the two panels in sequence further instructs the reader on how to use the semiotic resources of the “love player”. The game metaphor provides a framework through which different concepts are connected in a meaningful way, positioning the “love player” as a strategist, who can defeat rivals by playing the game at a “higher level”. Seducing women through skilful game play is cast as “winning”. Women in this metaphor are presented as passive game pieces or non-player characters (NPCs) who are manipulated in order to win. This positioning denies women’s agency in flirting and in sexual encounters. In contrast, the importance of defeating other men/players in the game is emphasised.
In conclusion, the “love player” is a characterological figure constructed in instructional text – a mould for how to be a seduction expert by employing specific semiotic resources. In the manga I think I’ll prove what love is 1 (Fujisawa and Igumo 2016), a metaphor establishes a conceptual link between gaming and seduction. The male player of the game is instructed to apply skill and strategy to seduce women and thereby to “win” the game. Cosma and Gurevich (2020) found the framing of men as winners and women as losers of casual sex to be prevalent in the texts of pick-up artists. However, in the discursive stream of Japanese seduction experts, women are not competitors but both pawn and price of the game. Through the use of the game metaphor, female sexual agency is erased. The positioning of the man in the active role of player, emphasises male authority and control in flirtatious interactions and sexual encounters. Further research is necessary to deepen the understanding of the semiotic repertoire and interplay of different metaphors which are utilised to construct performable seduction expert characters in the Japanese discourse.
[1.] Ihara Saikaku’s novel The Life of an Amorous Man (1682) which tells the stories of the sexual conquests of its protagonist Yonosuke, was published during the Tokugawa period (1603-1867) (Britannica 2022; Ihara and Hamada 1975).
[2.] Multimodality describes the utilisation of semiotic resources in different communication-modes that are combined to make meaning (Van Leeuwen 2005; Zhao et al. 2017).
[3.] All translations from Japanese into English in this paper have been translated by the author if not stated otherwise.
[4.] Based on a Foucauldian understanding of discourse, the term” discursive stream” describes an outflow of text production in a particular space and period of time (Jäger 2015).
[5.] Due to a Twitter campaign, which raised awareness that he was promoting physical violence and emotional abuse of women, Blanc was forced to leave Australia in 2014 since his visa was revoked (Davey 2014).
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