Tokyo Tarareba Girls: A Love Letter To My What-If Women and Third Places

Pave 7 volume 1 Tokyo Tarareba Girls

I didn’t know where to start this piece. I am overwhelmed and tired all the time. But through the quarantine there has been Tokyo Tarareba Girls (TTG) by Akiko Higashimura. From its first full page, TTG was a shock. The banner congratulating Tokyo for hosting the 2020 Olympic Games was such a rude reminder of the present. I wanted escapism, not to be shocked back into the present. Despite this, TTG’s constant rude reminders have made it perfect for this moment.

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the the main Tokyo Tarareba Girls series

Recently, I rediscovered my love of manga. While I read manga as a kid, I stopped reading them in my late teens. And then, one day, I woke up and I was 29, wanting to dive back into a hobby that I had forgotten about for almost a decade.

This is page 3 of Tokyo Tarareba Girls volume 1 published by Kodansha
Rinko considers where her life is on her 33rd birthday, page 3 volume 1 of Tokyo Tarareba Girls by Akiko higashimura

I was a different reader now. When I reread my classics, I found myself looking at them as historical pieces. Memories of my childhood, reflections of the times they were written. Manga had not stopped when I stopped reading them. Thankfully, I had friends who had kept with the times.

I cannot praise Carrie McClain’s wonderful and inspiring lists of josei manga enough. It reminded me that there was a genre geared towards my career-aged self and manga published more recently than 2005. And because of her and quarantime, I am now the proud owner of the entirety of Tokyo Tarareba Girls.

TTG is the story of three women in their thirties. They have careers they enjoy. They are successful. They regularly get together to talk, drink, and yell about the future. They tell what-if stories. And they are single, a status they consider unfortunate. Of course, shenanigans ensue as one of their night’s of revelry is interrupted by a much-too-attractive, young, blond man, who calls them out for what they are. What-If Women.

Illustrate Key's call out of the what if women
Key calls out our main characters for telling “what-stories” shaking them to their core. From page 42 volume 1 of Tokyo Tarareba Girls by Akiko Higashimura

The name for the series, “tarareba,” comes from two of the foods they regularly eat while out, codfish milt (tara) and liver (reba). When combined in Japanese, they sound like the phrase what-if.

From the synopsis, I knew I would love the series. But it was after buying the first volume to support a local bookstore, finishing that volume then immediately ordering the next four, and then reading those the day they arrived in my mailbox, that I knew I wanted to write about the series.

Rinko evaluating her life choices and choosing them over other people’s ideas of her.

Higashmura’s story made me think about how society views women, what it means to live a feminist life, and explore why the idealization of romantic love messes with our ideas of ourselves. There was so much great inspiration in her panels. But a month into my stay at home order, I figured out what I wanted to say about my girls. The thing that made the series perfect and why it resonated so deeply with me right here and right now.

And that was the prominence of place in the series. Not just that it has a setting, Tokyo is in the title, but the importance of third places.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, third spaces or places are the places we go when we are not at home or at work. Third places are where we go to relax. There we go to see friends, let off steam, be in the world, be part of a community. They are not eat-quick and leave places or special occasion places. They are the places where you get food, grab drinks, maybe hear some music and sit, talk, and be for a significant amount of time, regularly. And there is exactly where many of us cannot, or should not, go.

For the good of us all, those between places that allow space between our work and home lives,are closed. So after a month of work from home, and having read the first five volumes, I was sitting at home sad and overwhelmed. Missing my third places.

While people make places, quarantine is showing us how places make people. Tokyo Tarareba Girls’ third place forced me to focus on how important that is. In the TTG universe, Rinko, Kaori, and Koyuki have Koyuki’s family’s pub.

The sort of generic comfort of pub
This is the sort of delicious food Koyuki, Rinko, and Kaori eat at “Pub”. From page 17 volume 1 Tokyo Tarareba Girls by Akiko Higashimura

It’s got the best sort of greasy pub food, inexpensive and lots of alcohol, a relaxed vibe, and few old men as regulars. It spells comfort in ways one doesn’t realize are comforting until you hit your late twenties. The sort of place that you get accustomed to going to and when you can’t, for one reason or another, that’s when you realize it meant something to you.

They don’t even give it a name beyond Pub or Koyuki’s Family pub that’s mentioned in the dialogue. Higashimura makes it feel homey by drawing the interior as basic but comfortable, with cloth and wood interiors that feel like they’ve been there for a long time. She reinforces that comfort by regularly reusing a particular panel set up with the three main characters in the series. It identifies their “spot” and seating arrangement in the pub, accenting its importance as a fixture of their lives and as a third place.

Higashimura uses this frame over and over, accenting the pub as their third place.

Higashimura contrasts this with the other potential third places in the series. As we find out  that Koyuki’s family’s pub was not their first choice. Through the series we see that Kaori, Rinko, and Koyuki have shifted their chosen third place. Those places reflected the way they dressed, what they ate, how much they paid, and more generally why they met.

At first it’s about where they think they should go as young women in the big city. They overpay for their food and don’t feel satisfied. And through the years, their desires change and they become comfortable in the lives they lead and where they want to spend their time and money. They know their goals: Get Drunk Faster and Eat Real Snacks.

At 28 the Tarareba Girls realized that they wanted to just eat and drink without a lot of fanfare

Their pub fits their desires and they became part of that place. Koyuki’s dad doesn’t push them out, though he claims they drive off customers. They feel comfortable and we see that the ease and openness that Koyuki, Rinko, and Kaori feel in their third space is what draws in their romantic interests. That understated confidence does not always attract the best people but their third space allows the characters to be themselves in public, which is not easy for many women.

Higashimura also contrasts the events that occur within the pub from “special” event locations. Unique events, such as discussing Kaori’s pregnancy scare, occur at other places than that pub. Major debates over Koyuki’s relationship happen outside of the pub, literally stepping outside, rather than inside. When Rinko wants to ask Key why he is how he is, they go to a tapas bar.

All the “special” one time events happen outside the pub, even if just feet from it.

The sacred space of the pub is for getting to know people. The daily practice of cultivating relationships and living your life. It is not for major character shifts. It’s where we practice being ourselves, for ourselves, and with the people we care about.

While the original series does not cover 2020, the not-yet-released in English Tokyo Tarareba Girls Returns does, and find myself wondering what Rinko, Kaori, and Koyuki will be doing in it. The glimpses Higashimura gives us of their future selves involve Rinko, Kaori, and Koyuki watching from a time machine. While they ruminate on what their romantic lives will be like, I don’t think any of them envisioned a future without Koyuki’s family’s pub. While Higashimura includes plenty of shojo manga-esque scenarios, I doubt she envisioned the absurdity of the future we are all actually living through.

The girls in their forties
Kaori, Rinko, and Koyuki in their forties look down on their younger selves from a time machine. From page 76 of Volume 4 of Tokyo Tarareba Girls by Akiko Higashimura

And in this moment, the series is perfect. It speaks to me with frightening specificity. I am many years into my career. I have doubts about what my future will look like. I have friends I regularly meet with to complain or yell about the future. I am content with my level of success. And I have an important but third place that I miss dearly right now. And Tokyo Tarareba Girls helped me realize and grieve that loss. But I don’t regret losing it for now because I am thankful for having had it in the first place.

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina (aka @punuckish) is a Filipine-Polish archaeologist and anthropology graduate student who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and loves comics and pop culture. Her academic work focuses on how buildings and landscapes aid or impede the learning of culture by children. In general, she is an over-educated fan of things; primarily comics, comics-related properties, cartoons, science-fiction, and fantasy. This means she takes what she knows and uses it to critique what she loves. Recently, she has brought such discussions to the public by organizing and moderating panels at comic cons centered on anthropology/culture related topics.