Critics say “Maruta Shiga” is a reference to human experimentation in Japan-occupied China.

For quite some time now, My Hero Academia has been a near-perfect example of an internationally attractive manga/anime series. It’s got an unmistakable Japanese flair to its artwork and storytelling, but it’s also an accessible franchise with a focus on Western superhero-like powers and conflicts. It takes place in a school, always a quick way to connect with youthful audiences and provide exposition lessons, but the institution doesn’t present as many cultural hurdles international viewers need to clear as a more down-to-earth Japanese schoolhouse drama would.

Add in a respectable production budget and speedily produced localizations, and My Hero Academia has been a worldwide hit. However, its global success train was suddenly derailed this week with the release of its latest serialized chapter, when the true name of one of the series’ villains was revealed to be Maruta Shiga.

Originally known as Daruma Ujiko, the character is a scientist who performs experiments on human subjects, creating soldiers for the series’ nefarious League of Villains. However, once his name was revealed to be Maruta, some readers saw a parallel to the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731, which operated in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the run-up to and during World War II. Unit 731 was a human experimentation unit which forcibly gathered test subjects from among local political dissident and civilian populations, with accusations including experimentation on mentally handicapped, pregnant, and infant subjects, frequently involving willful infection with diseases and resulting in painful death.

Unit 731’s facility in China’s Harbin city was disguised as a lumber mill, and human test subjects were referred to as “logs,” the Japanese word for which is maruta. When this week’s chapter of My Hero Academia revealed that Maruta was also the name of its evil scientist, it was seen by many in China as a reference to Unit 731’s activities, and the resulting backlash had many demanding an apology from My Hero Acaemia creator Kohei Horikoshi on social media, and also has resulted in the series being removed from digital distribution platforms in China.

On Friday, Shueisha, the Japanese company that publishes My Hero Academia in its Weekly Shonen Jump manga anthology, as well as Horikoshi, offered apologies through Twitter, while also claiming that the similarities between the character and Unit 731 were entirely a coincidence (translation below).

Regarding the character Maruta Shiga, who appears in the chapter of My Hero Academia published in the 2020 Volume 10 issue of Weekly Shonen Jump (which went on sale February 3), we have received numerous indications from readers in China and elsewhere overseas that it is a reminder of a tragic part of history.

Shiga is from a part of other characters that appear, and Maruta was chosen in reference to his physical appearance, and there was absolutely no intention of superimposing them with past historical events. All the same, the result of combining that name with a character who is a doctor from an evil organization has inadvertently caused discomfort to our readers in China and elsewhere overseas. The editing department should have thoroughly considered this before publishing. We deeply apologize.

We are taking this issue seriously, and the character’s name will be changed when the print edition of the series is put into collected volumes, and also promptly for the digital version.

Moving forward, we will continue to make efforts to deepen our understanding of various aspects of history and culture, and produce a manga that considers the feelings of many people.

– Shueisha

Regarding the name Maruta Shiga, which appears in Chapter 259 of My Hero Academia, I sincerely apologize for the great discomfort this inadvertently caused to many people.

Regarding the name Shiga, the character himself was infatuated with All For One, the previous boss of the League of Villains whose real name was Shigaraki. In order to feel closer to Shigaraki, the character took a part of his last name, and began calling himself “Shiga.” As for “Maruta,” the name was chosen to give a feeling of chubby rotundness. Both are coincidences, and I had no intention whatsoever of causing any emotional pain to readers. I apologize from the bottom of my heart.

Moving forward, I will make efforts so that nothing like this ever happens again.

– Kohei Horikoshi

Horikoshi’s explanation of the rationale behind “Shiga,” which is a relatively common Japanese surname, could be related to speculation from upset readers that it’s meant to be a reference to the Shiga toxin group, which is named after Kiyoshi Shiga, the Japanese scientist who first identified them in the late 1890s. However, Kiyoshi Shiga has no apparent connection to Unit 731, and the unit’s experimentations are believed to have been focused on bacterial diseases rather than toxic infection.

“Maruta” is arguably the harder part of the name to see as a coincidence. The My Hero Academia doctor’s name was written with the kanji characters 丸 and 太, which mean “round” and “fat.” As you might guess, that connotation means that Maruta isn’t anywhere near a common name for an actual Japanese person to have, and the fact that 丸太 is also exactly how you write the maruta for “log” in Japanese again makes it an unusual choice for a person’s name. While we’re on the subject, though, Daruma (which, when written in phonetic hiragana script shares many characters with Maruta), the character’s until-now alias, also isn’t a typical Japanese name, since it immediately brings to mind daruma dolls, which are themselves round.

▼ Daruma

However, it’s also worth pointing out that while maruta was the term used by Unit 731 for its human test subject victims, the word doesn’t carry the secondary meaning of “Guinea pig” or “expendable material” in the Japanese language. Reprehensible as its use within the unit may have been, maruta isn’t a society-wide slur or euphemism.

Given the complexity of the situation, it’s likely that not everyone who feels the character’s name was in poor taste will buy the explanation that it was all purely a coincidence, and we’ll have to wait and see if the yet-to-be-announced renaming, as well as the apologies, are enough to get My Hero Academia back into the good graces of the Chinese publishing sector.

Sources: Twitter/@jump_henshubu via Otakomu, Anime News Network/Lynzee Loveridge
Insert image: Wikipedia/Crisco 1492
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