The many buttons can seem as chaotic as the instruments in an airplane cockpit for first-time visitors to Japan. Such high-tech hardware on a toilet seat was a surprise for Asa Ekstrom, too, but also became fodder for her entry into the world of writing manga.
“Sometimes you flush with a sensor, and some of my friends have been very confused by that,” said the Swede, one of only a handful of foreign manga artists working in Japan.
Ekstrom turned one encounter — the button she pushed hoping to flush surprisingly started a spray to wash her bottom — into her favorite strip in her essay-style Japanese manga series “Nordic Girl Asa Discovers the Mysteries of Japan.”
In the work, Ekstrom captures snapshots of life in Japan in neatly drawn four-panel strips. She covers a wide range of topics, including off-color anecdotes about the complexities of Japanese toilets and how Japanese women groom their underarm hair. She also addresses social issues, like the struggle for LGBT rights. Her keen insight has given her the ability to move beyond simply being a cheerleader for Japan and instead present a more nuanced view of the country.
Many of the episodes first appeared on her blog before being put together in her first book published in 2015 by major publisher Kadokawa Corp. Four volumes have been released so far, with 200,000 copies sold.
“I had zero expectations [for major sales]. My only goal was to one day be able to draw manga in Japan like I had been doing in Sweden … but I thought it would be very hard or impossible. First of all, Japanese are obviously so good at it,” she said.
Wherever she goes, Ekstrom takes photos and jots down memos in Japanese or Swedish. When stuck for ideas, she goes to a discount store, which she has found to be a treasure trove of story ideas.
Ekstrom had already worked for eight years as a mangaka in Sweden before making her debut in Japan. To appeal to the Japanese market, though, she had to learn to depict facial expressions and use Japanese onomatopoeia. She also needed a different sense of humor and fast-paced work style, all on top of gaining fluency in the language.
The seeds of the skills and knowledge were first planted during her teenage years, when she was a self-described “geek” who got hooked on anime.
“I was really cute and popular, but then I got glasses when I was about 7, and after that I was a geek. Now I’m really happy that I was a geek because otherwise I probably wouldn’t be drawing manga today,” she said.
Ekstrom said that though she was a member of the “bottom layer” of her school’s social hierarchy, she didn’t mind — she was too busy “geeking out” watching Disney movies and other American animation. Then, one day, an acquaintance recommended she watch the anime “Sailor Moon.” She had never heard of it and remembers thinking, “What does the crew of a ship have to do with the moon?” However, the girly anime turned out to be a major source of inspiration.
“This is it! This is what I’m going to do with my life,” she recalled.
Although she didn’t immediately set her sights on becoming a manga artist in Japan, her introduction to “Sailor Moon” ignited a passion for the country. While the “top layer” girls began to show interest in boys, Ekstrom’s heart went to Japan.
“It was love at first sight,” she said.
The relationship was a long-distance one at first. At 19, she finally made her first trip to Japan, after which she periodically returned whenever she had the chance while working in Sweden. On one trip, she happened to arrive on March 10, 2011 — the day before the earthquake that hit northern Japan.
She said the experience was an “eye-opener” for her. “You never know what’s going to happen in life, so if you have something you want to do, you should probably go ahead and do it,” she recalled.
Six months later, she came back again on a student visa and studied Japanese for about a year, before enrolling in a vocational school to study graphic design. Her plan was to get a job in that field for a Japanese company while drawing manga in her free time.
But a life-changing event put her back on the path to becoming a professional mangaka.
In 2014, she opened her own booth at Comitia — a convention held in Japan where mangaka can sell self-published works — displaying some comic strips she had done for a school assignment. There, a kind-hearted man whose table was set up next to hers suggested Ekstrom present her works to an editor, and ushered her to the publishers’ section.
At the Kadokawa essay-manga booth, an editor told Ekstrom that she was impressed by her work, but also that she needed to “draw a little bit better.” So it was a surprise when Ekstrom received an email from the company soon after saying it wanted to develop her pieces into a manga.
“I was just waiting for disaster to strike. I was very nervous, but it was also very fun. In my case, I had really good timing, because there still aren’t many foreign manga artists in Japan.”
Viking manga in the works?
Aside from her budding potential, the eternal desire of the Japanese to know what the outside world thinks of the country helped Ekstrom find her niche.
She said her editor recommended that she draw manga “that uses the fact that I’m a foreigner as a strength.” She basically draws comics about her own experiences as a foreigner, which a Japanese mangaka is inherently unable to do, and “that helps you escape the competition a little bit,” she said.
However, Ekstrom admits that this advice can sometimes feel limiting. She said a friend once compared such a mind-set to “telling a Japanese person who loves the Harry Potter books [and] goes to the U.K. to write a new Harry Potter … that you should write about samurai because you’re Japanese.”
Still, Ekstrom is pragmatic. “I’m sure that in the future I’m probably going to write story manga or whatever I want to write, but I’m going to disguise it as something that’s Swedish — as a Viking manga or something — because that would help,” she said.
Wherever her creativity takes her, she will surely continue pushing the right buttons in providing Japan with insight into itself. Just as she has figured out the buttons on the toilet seat.
■ Quick Questions
Q: Describe your first impression of Japan.
A: There were so many sounds and lights and people. Every train station even had its own little melody! And a landscape of temples and skyscrapers next to each other.
Q: What is your favorite Japanese saying or word?
A: “Itadakimasu” (Let’s eat) and “tadaima” (I’m home).
Q: What is your favorite place?
A: Any kind of shitamachi.
Q: What is your current passion or interest?
A: I’m considering starting Japanese archery. Also, I spend a lot of time reading international news.