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Isekai meaning – Kanji, history and appeal of the popular Subgenre

You want to dive deeper into the meaning of Isekai and how this subgenre came to be? Then keep reading. I will also give you some Isekai Romance Manhwa recommendations at the end.

Isekai meaning – a short explanation for the Kanji

Isekai (異世界) means something like „another world“ „different world“ or „parallel universe“ in Japanese. It’s a subgenre of the Japanese entertainment industry (Light-Novels, Manga, Anime, and Games) so you will not encounter the term in a real-life context. In Korea, the same meaning is spelled Isegye (이세계). In Japanese, there is also a difference between isekai ten’i (異世界転移 „traveling/passing into another world“) and isekai tensei (異世界転生 „rebirth into another world“).

The kanji 異 (read as I) can be read in different ways (depending on kun- and on-reading) but in the context of Isekai it means „different“, „strange“, „odd“. Among other things, it can also mean „unusual“. The kanji 世界 (read as sekai) means „the world“ but can also be translated as „society“ or „universe“.

How does an Isekai look like? An introduction

Don’t we all know it: You live your life as a hard-working College-Student/Middle-Aged Woman and then Bam – Truck-kun strikes out of nowhere. No one is safe… Especially not when you have been reading Romance-Novels or playing an Otome-Game the night before. And If you have a crappy family or are terribly unhappy the risk to encounter Truck-kun is even higher. But don’t forget sleep-senpai! If you read Romance-Novels too intensely or feel too empathic about a character in said novel, your healthy body will suddenly collapse overnight without any symptoms.

(c) TAPAS MEDIA 2020 / via / dalseul

It’s a tragedy really…BUT! there is a good side to all that misfortune: 99.99% of the time you will wake up in the body of a stunningly beautiful or a very strong character – it doesn’t matter if you are the protagonist, the villainess, the side-character, the mother of the villain, the maid… the list goes on, but you will always be beautiful. And there is another thing that’s almost certain: you are dense as f**** and refuse to accept reality. Or – if you read an Isekai without any Romance you will often encounter protagonists who will save the world and become OP overnight. But for now, let’s leave this generalized and exaggerated view of Isekais behind and dive deeper into the history of the subgenre.

Isekai meaning: when history was made

In literature “Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll which came out in 1865 can be viewed as one of the first Isekais in the western world, although the word Isekai isn’t connected to this story. Other works with the concept of changing worlds would be “Peter Pan”, “Chronicles of Narnia”, “The wizard of Oz” and so on. “El Hazard” and “Fushigi Yuugi” were some of the first Isekais in Japan where the protagonist was transported into another world. Here is an overview of popular works:

(c) Shounen Sunday /Takahashi, Rumiko

Before 2000:

  • Inuyasha
  • The Vision of Escaflowne

After 2000:

  • Knight’s and Magic
  • Saga of Tanya the Evil
  • Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

With the release of “Sword Art Online” the genre got many fans and became extremely popular. After that, many works were published as Isekais and it became so saturated that one organizer of a short story content even banished Isekais from the competition – but it was a one-time event. In some newer works the artists try to change the setting a bit by making the protagonist travel to a new world but ending up as an animal (“So I’m a Spider, So What?”) or a slime (“That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime”) and not an overpowered character. In recent years there has also been an increase in Villainess Manhwa, where the protagonist takes over the body of a villainess in a story and has to change the plot in order to survive.

Why is Isekai so popular?

It depends on what genre you’re reading but the protagonists in an Isekai often live an unfulfilled life. They had a difficult past and became Hikikomori, were abused by their families or unhappy with their job. If you look at that initial situation the appeal of an Isekai becomes pretty clear. You get to have a second chance at life. On top of that, you often have people to help and guide you and you get to have some special skills or are just very beautiful.

My take on the popular Meme

I mean, when you sit in your room and ask yourself: “What am I going to do with my life?” Or: “How the frick am I supposed to overcome this?” You probably understand the strong appeal this genre has from a psychological point of view. Although I don’t wish for Truck-kun to take me away, for me, every Manhwa and Manga I read is a small little Isekai in itself as it transports my mind into another world and I can forget my worries.

Isekai Romance Manhwa recommendations

If you are new to the genre and want to dive right in I have a few recommendations for you. This list won’t be very detailed, because I plan to publish a whole article about that topic. Here are some of my current favorites:

Flirting with the Villain’s Dad

(c) TAPAS MEDIA 2020 / via / dalseul

Official summary on tapas: “Ack! I’m trapped in this web novel, “Brigitte Wants to be Happy!” No prob, I KNOW what’s gonna happen so I’ll just—wait. I’m not Brigitte? I’m her aunt, Princess Yerenika?! Uh-oh. I’m stuck 20 years before the main plot… and everyone in my generation ends up tragically dead! Her parents, dead. Me, dead. Villain’s dad, King Euredian, dead. A-ha! That’s the key. I just need to prevent the villain from being born… time to break out some seduction schemes and flirt like my life depends on it!”

I shall Master this Family

© Kakao Entertainment / Ant Studio/ Mon

Official Summary on Tapas: “The great Lombardi family was once at the top of the empire. After the death of its patriarch, the fate of the family and that of Firentia, born from a Lombardi and a peasant, fall to ruin at the hands of her useless and cruel cousins. But when she’s reincarnated as her seven-year-old self, she’ll work to protect the family’s honor, gain her grandpa Lulac’s favor, and prevent her own father’s death. In this lifetime, there’s only one way for her to win: become the head of their mighty household.”

I’m a Stepmother but my Daughter is just too cute

© Kakao Corp./ Yir/Dinorex

Summary: This Manhwa tells the story of Snow White in a completely different and unique way. Some elements are the same: the evil stepmother (Abigail), the abused daughter (Blanche), and the mirror on the wall. However many things are different: after reincarnating Abigail doesn’t want to keep being the evil stepmother. She is still completely obsessed with Blanche, but only because of her cuteness. She calls out everyone in the castle who mistreats her – including her father. Blanche and even the King slowly start to open up to her.

Villain’s are Destined to Die

(c) TAPAS MEDIA 2020 / SUOL / Gwon Gyeoeul

Offical summary on tapas: “This game’s got me obsessed! It’s like it’s taken over my life… wait—HARD MODE ACTIVATED. No-no-no-no-no! It has literally taken me and thrown me into the part of Penelope Eckhart. Love is easy as the heroine, but as the hated villainess, I’m trying very hard not to die… at the hands of my brothers… the prince… a fork… every possible ending is death! This world is stacked against me, but can my wits and insider game knowledge score the affection of these male characters? Or the reset button???”

© 2021 Tappytoon/ Plutus, Spoon

Who made me a Princess

Official summary on tappytoon: “The beautiful Athanasia was killed at the hands of her own biological father, Claude de Alger Obelia, the cold-blooded emperor! It’s just a silly bedtime story… until one woman wakes up to suddenly find she’s become that unfortunate princess! She needs a plan to survive her doomed fate, and time is running out. Will she go with Plan A, live as quietly as possible without being noticed by the infamous emperor? Plan B, collect enough money to escape the palace? Or will she be stuck with plan C, sweet-talking her way into her father’s good graces?!”

How to protect the female leads older Brother

Summary: The story is about Roxana Agriche who isn’t the main villainess of a 19+ reverse harem novel, but rather part of a really psychotic family of assassins: the Agriches. Because she reincarnated, she knows the plot: After the death of her brother Cassis Pedelian the heroin Sylvia will go on a rampage and Roxana will end up getting killed. That’s why she tries to protect Cassis when her family kidnaps him while trying to keep up the act of torturing him so her father doesn’t get suspicious.

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I have read more than 1000 Romance Manhwa, Webtoons and Manga - TV-Series and books not included. So I hope to bring a deep and nuanced understanding of the genre to every review and recommendation. As a journalist with seven years of experience, I've dedicated my free time to exploring and writing about the intricacies of romance in various forms.

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