New book on disability by Japanese studies professor Yoshiko Okuyama

Professor of Japanese Studies Yoshiko Okuyama’s book, Reframing Disability in Manga, examines the representation of disability in Japanese graphic novels.

By Susan Enright

Manga graphics of three children inset with photo of Yoshiko Okuyama
Inset photo of Yoshiko Okuyama using sign language at Galludet University, NY, 2019. Graphic art from the cover of Prof. Okuyama’s Reframing Disability in Manga featuring Kimi no Te ga Sasayaiteiru (Your Hands Are Whispering) by Karube Junko, Kodansha; using Japanese sign language, the manga’s heroine, Mieko, and her husband sign “see you later” while their daughter signs “bye-bye,” see full image below.

A professor of Japanese studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has authored a book analyzing how characters with disabilities are represented in Japanese graphic novels known as manga and how disabilities affect people in Japan.

Yoshiko Okuyama wears a t-shirt with sign language on front.
Yoshiko Okuyama takes a selfie in t-shirt with sign language. Courtesy photo.

Reframing Disability in Manga is Yoshiko Okuyama’s second published book, supported by research and grant awards related to disability studies. In the new book, she focuses on several representative conditions of disabilities, including Asperger’s syndrome and visual impairments, as depicted in manga, a style of graphic novels originating from Japan.

“Informed by numerous interviews with manga authors and disability activists, [the book] reveals positive messages of diversity embedded in manga and argues that greater awareness of disability in Japan in the last two decades is due in part to the popularity of these works, the accessibility of the medium, and the authentic stories they tell,” says Okuyama.

Okuyama says the journey to publish the book took almost five years from incubation of the idea, to contract signing, to the book hitting the market. She credits colleagues at UH Hilo and scholars in the disability field as seeding the idea and giving her the feedback and support needed to sustain the project.

Released in May 2020 by University of Hawai‘i Press, the book is already adopted for courses on Asian studies, including a summer course taught by Cornell University’s Assistant Professor Andrew Campana.

Understanding disability  

Cover of book with three children in magna style graphics. Title "REFRAMING DISABILITY IN MAGNA. YOSHIKO OKUYAMA.
Book cover, Reframing Disability in Manga by Yoshiko Okuyama.

Okuyama explains that in 2020, the United States celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act that was signed into law on July 26, 1990.

“The topic of disability continues to be relevant to many of our lives in this country and beyond,” she says. “A disability can be visible or invisible, severe or mild, and rare or common. People may be born with a disability or develop a disability later in life, commonly due to aging.”

About 15 percent of the world’s population currently has some type of disability, according to the World Health Organization.

“However, the topic, in fact, is not irrelevant to those who are in the other 85 percent of the able-bodied population” says Okuyama. She quotes from Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States (2012), “Disability is not the story of someone else. It is our story, the story of someone we love, the story of who we are or may become.”

Okuyama has taught and conducted research at UH Hilo for over 20 years. Her areas of expertise are Japanese mythology, semiotics, second language acquisition, as well as technology-mediated communication. Her current research areas include deaf studies, disability studies, and comics studies.

She received her master of arts in teaching English as a second language and her doctor of philosophy in second language acquisition from the University of Arizona. Her book, Japanese Mythology in Film (2015, Lexington Books), is a significant contribution to the literature on Japanese mythology.

Reframing Disability in Manga

Okuyama says she was motivated to research disability in Japan due to her own experience of caring for a disabled family member. Her early-life dream was to become a professional comic artist, or mangaka. Although she chose the life of an educator instead, the professor has been teaching a course on manga (JPST382) for over ten years at UH Hilo.

Yoshiko Okuyama gestures in sign language with photo of Hawaiian Airlines jet on the screen behind her.
To prepare to write Reframing Disability in Manga, Yoshiko Okuyama read intensively beyond her primary research field of deaf studies. Here, she talks about Hawai’i’s tourism in American Sign Language at Gallaudet University, Washington D.C., 2019. Courtesy photo.

Reframing Disability in Manga analyzes popular Japanese manga published from the 1990s to the present that portray the everyday lives of adults and children with disabilities in an ableist society. It focuses on five representative conditions currently classified as shōgai (disabilities) in Japan—deafness, blindness, mobility impairments, autism, and gender identity disorder—and explores the complexities and sociocultural issues surrounding each.

To prepare to write the book, Okuyama read intensively beyond her primary research field of deaf studies.

She received a research fellowship from the Japan Foundation to be a visiting scholar at Kokugakuin University Graduate School in 2017, and was selected to participate in a month-long Global Histories of Disability Summer Institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2018. In addition, she held a joint seminar with disability scholars, including prominent researchers of Japanese disability studies at the Association for Asian Studies conference in 2019.

“I begin [the book] by looking at preindustrial understandings of difference in Japanese myths and legends before moving on to an overview of contemporary representations of disability in popular culture, uncovering sociohistorical attitudes toward the physically, neurologically, or intellectually marked other,” she explains.

The book presents fifteen case studies, each centered on a manga or manga series, that showcase how careful depictions of such characters as differently abled, rather than disabled or impaired, can influence cultural constructions of shōgai and promote social change.


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

Share this story