Last week, I had the rare opportunity to tour the offices of Shogakukan, one of the largest publishers in Japan since 1922. While this is probably the first time you’ve heard of the company, I’d be surprised if many of you hadn’t heard of some of the more famous manga that they publish: Doraemon, InuYasha, Pokemon, and Sonic the Hedgehog, among others.
But have you ever stopped to think about what manga really is? How do you think it is different from American comic books?
Well, for one thing, manga has been around a lot longer than traditional American comic books have. The manga industry that now generates hundreds of billions of dollars in profits each year, began with the Eshinbun Nipponchi, a magazine first published in 1874.
Before explaining the process of creating manga, some editors at Shogakukan gave us a wonderful tour of their offices, where we ran into some characters that you might recognize.
Any ideas on why manga is so much more popular in Japan than American comic books are in the United States? Well, there’s one reason that I can illustrate by giving you a peek between the pages of one of the publications from Shogakukan’s literature division – that’s right, they don’t only publish manga.
In order to read a newspaper article, the average Japanese adult has to know three alphabets – all of the hiragana and katakana syllabary alphabets, which work a little bit like the English alphabet, with each character representing a sound, as well as about 2,000 kanji. The kanji are Chinese characters, and most of them have multiple readings and meanings. Even for Japanese people they can be difficult to remember, and reading manga, which have pictures and oftentimes less kanji, can be a more pleasurable experience than reading a novel, which could require more than 8,000 kanji. Yikes!
Another reason that manga could be so popular is the fact that they are cheap – usually between $5-$9 American dollars in Japan. Cheap and easy to read means that they are perfect for reading on the train, where many Japanese spend a lot of their time – especially in Tokyo. On top of all that, you can find manga on just about anything.
Many of the most popular manga titles revolve around action and fantasy for boys, or romance and love for girls, but my personal favorite manga is something that you’d never find in an American comic book: A story about a businessman’s daily adventures as he works his way up from “subsection chief” to “company president.”
The manga editors who gave us our tour work with what is called 少女漫画 – Shoujo Manga – which is short for “little girls manga.” It is marketed toward 10-18 year old girls, and includes stories about friendship, romance, and even historical drama and science fiction stories about magical heroic young females. One editor explained the process of creating a manga, from beginning to end.
Each editor works with anywhere from 4-8 different artists, and are basically responsible for keeping them happy and productive – some of the more famous artists sound like they can be a bit hard to deal with, kind of like an American rock star!
I learned a lot during our tour of Shogakukan, and the editors were nice enough to give us some free Shoujo manga – which I gave to my host family’s granddaughter – as well as some very famous historical texts, which I’ll enjoy reading in Japanese for the first time. But I was in for another surprise: After telling my host mother about my trip to Shogakukan, she told me that her oldest daughter had written her own manga – about my host family!
Now I have the opportunity to read manga about the family that I’m living with, which is really incredible because I absolutely love them. It’s kind of like reading a comic book about your own family, or a close friend, with stories that you’ve never heard before. Can any of you draw? Maybe you could team up with a few friends and make your own manga about your family, a friend whose life you think is interesting – or just make up characters and write crazy adventures for them to have!
American comic books probably say a lot about us as Americans, just like any other piece of popular culture. After coming to Japan and being immersed in the world of manga that surrounds me – they are sold everywhere, and read by everyone, young and old – I believe that manga say something about the Japanese as well. I’m not sure what exactly that is, but what I am certain of is that art and literature are both amazing things that transport us to other worlds, and manga seem to be a special way of capturing this.
One of the most amazing things about Japan is the fact that there are so many bookstores, and that they are always full of curious people, each of whom might be searching for something very different – and the will all probably find what they are looking for.
COMING UP NEXT WEEK: Interview with a Japanese middle school student. This is going to be my final “regular” post, to be followed by one final celebration post, which I will tell you more about next week.
I’ve caught a cold and I’m not feeling so great, but if I find myself with some extra time I’ll try to come up with a bonus post for you guys this week. You guys have earned it – you’ve been great, and I’m really going to miss being your reporter. The good news is that I can still keep writing things now and again for any of you who want to keep on reading – as long as you get your parent’s permission, of course.