Major publisher’s promotion of Musume no Tomodachi has some saying the company is encouraging an illegal relationship with a minor.

Most of the bullet points for the premise of publisher Kodansha’s Musume no Tomodachi manga read like pretty typical anime/manga storytelling tropes. Hardworking but melancholy male protagonist Kosuke is sitting in a cafe one day when he spots some overly aggressive customers hitting on the new teenage waitress, Koto. After Kosuke’s quick and clever thinking saves her from the situation, Koto offers to thank him later, but he chivalrously declines. When the two unexpectedly bump into each other again in the hall at school, however, Koto asks him for his Line messaging app contact, and when he agrees to tell her, they begin a relationship that ends up affecting Kosuke on a deep emotional level.

But this isn’t a school romance story, because while Koto is a high school student, and legally still a minor, Kosuke is man in his 40s, old enough to be Koto’s father. As a matter of fact, Kosuke’s daughter is one of Koto’s classmates, hence the title Musume no Tomodachi, which translates to “My Daughter’s Friend.”

▼ The promotional video for Musume no Tomodachi can be seen by clicking through on the tweet here.

Kodansha describes the series with:

“Kosuke lived his life acting like an ideal man, as a father in the home and an executive in the office. But meeting his daughter’s friend Koto causes a 180-degree change in his life. When he’s with Koto, he can be his true self, and his worn-down heart is healed, even as he knows this is an emotion that must not be embraced.”

A present to people who suppress themselves in modern society, this is a ‘middle-aged-man-meets-girl story.’

While it’s nothing new for manga or anime to feature schoolgirls who are the focus of romantic or sexual yearning, it’s less common for a mainstream publisher like Kodansha to squarely place a relationship between an adult man and a girl who’s a legal child as the primary plot point of a series, especially one that’s being promoted online by the official Twitter account for the company’s Morning manga anthology, which is a mainstream publication, and not something marketed strictly to hard-core erotic manga otaku. There’s even some suggestive wordplay in the series’ official description, as the original Japanese for “even as he knows this is an emotion that must not be embraced,” “daite wa ikenai kanjo da to shirinagara,” can also be translated as “even as he knows that he should not have sex with her,” as the word daite can be used to mean hugs or intercourse.

The selected dialogue from the promotional video also points to a highly intimate relationship, featuring lines including:

“If I hadn’t met you, I’d have had a proper, boring life.”
“Just for today, why don’t you take a break from being Dad and Section Chief, and just try being Kosuke?”
“Being honest with yourself isn’t such a bad thing.”
“Who gets to decide what’s right and wrong anyway?”

Again, with a little digging, you can find plenty of “adult man sleeps with schoolgirl” stories in the anime/manga/Japanese video game sphere. But the key point there is “with a little digging.” Seeing Kodansha so openly trumpet Musume no Tomodachi has upset some Japanese Twitter users, and the promotional video’s tweet thread has turned into a debate on the appropriateness of the content and the way it’s being presented, with comments such as:

“Keep this out of the open for sales and marketing. You shouldn’t be advertising a manga where a middle-aged man tries to get with [a teenage girl] (which is a crime) in a way where people of any age can see it.”
“This is sexual exploitation of a minor, plain and simple.”
“Promoting the sexualization of an underage girl is disgusting. Please keep this out of all-ages media spheres.”
“Doesn’t matter how much you want middle-aged men to buy it or how much you want to draw a beautiful girl. Stop this. I’m going to be on my guard around any middle-aged guy who’s reading Morning.”

And on the other side of the discussion:

“There seem to be a lot of people who don’t understand that fiction is just that, fiction.”
“If you can’t tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction, then yeah, you shouldn’t read this.”
“Isn’t this the same plot as [the American movie] American Beauty?”
“There are a lot of fascists who say ‘Anything I don’t like should be burned or confined to a ghetto,’ but please, Kodansha, don’t pay them any mind and keep publishing this series.”

It’s worth pointing out that while the Musume no Tomodachi video was posted through the official Morning Twitter account, the series itself doesn’t actually run in the weekly Morning print magazine. Instead, Musume no Tomodachi is serialized through Kodansha’s Comic Days manga app.

Oddly enough, the series first collected volume went on sale back in August without attracting any major controversy. However, the Morning tweet, which was posted on November 15 to coincide with the release date of the second collected volume, seems to have brought the series to many people’s attention for the first time.

Comic Days offers previews of selected chapters of Musume no Tomodachi, and leafing through them doesn’t show any explicitly sexual content, though scenes of Kosuke and Koto conversing with their faces in close proximity, and Koto’s cheeks flushed with color, don’t seem to be rare occurrences. It’s not surprising that some people would see such moments as red flags, but it wasn’t all that long ago that After the Rain, a manga/anime about a schoolgirl who develops romantic feelings for her middle-aged male boss (who’s also a single father) at her part-time job, changed many people’s initially opposed minds by being a chaste story that was actually more about emotional strength and self-worth than forbidden romance and titillation.

After the Rain earned enough mainstream acceptance in Japan that it even got a positively received live-action movie adaptation.

In Musume no Tomodachi, Kosuke is a widower who’s unhappy with the state of his job, and who’s also being emotionally shut out by his teen daughter, so there’s a chance that his relationship with Koto won’t be about love or sex, but simply about how to cope with the isolation he’s feeling while floundering with the traditional roles he’s trying to fill. There’s even a linguistic backdoor built in, as in addition to “my daughter’s friend,” “Musume no Tomodachi” could be alternatively translated as “my friend who is a girl,” showing that the story is about Kosuke’s warm but strictly platonic relationship with the teenager.

However, After the Rain had an easier time in warding off accusations of skeeviness by primarily structuring itself as a tale of a girl with a crush on an older guy, and therefore implying that she’s not getting dragged or tricked into a relationship beyond what she’s hoping for. In the case of Musume no Tomodachi, it’s the older man who’s presented as the main character, and many would argue that places a far greater burden of proof on it to convince readers that Kosuke’s intentions and actions are neither immoral nor illegal.

Sources: Blogos via Itai News, Comic Days (1, 2)
Top image: Pakutaso
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