Opening the Book on the World of Manga

Editors of shojo manga hard at work at the offices of Shogakukan, one of Tokyo’s largest publishing companies.

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.

The bookshelves in my bedroom have been filled with manga by study abroad students who stayed with my host family in recent years.

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.

The cover of the first manga magazine, Eshinbun Nipponchi, published in 1874 – only three issues of the magazine were ever published, but it was the beginning of what is now a major force in worldwide publishing.

Manga didn’t come out of nowhere: Japan had a long history of storytelling through painted scrolls, and, later on, Ukiyo-E woodblock prints. This scroll, from the Edo-Tokyo Museum, tells the story of an ancient palace eating and drinking contest, with images and text.

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.

This Doraemon electric car actually works – but I think Doraemon is much happier in the lobby of Shogakukan than he would be on the streets of Tokyo. It’s dangerous out there!

I have no idea what it’s supposed to be about, but it sure looks like a lot of exciting stuff going on in the upcoming Pokemon movie. I’m not sure about America, but it comes out this summer in Japan.

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.

This is the first page from the Man’Youshu – “Collection of 10,000 Leaves” – which is Japan’s oldest collection of poetry, dating from about 759. Even though it has been translated into modern Japanese, it’s no easy task to read, is it?

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.

This baseball manga was free at a game that I went to.

What a game!

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.”

Believe it or not, this manga is actually really popular in Japan. Sorry to spoil the ending, but he eventually becomes the 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.

Back to the drawing board: From the initial idea, all the way to the end, but I promise you, making manga is harder than they make it look on this board.

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!

The book on the left, “Atama no naka ni” – which means “Inside my head” – features a very funny drawing of my host mother making a mean face on the cover. I don’t think she really looks like this, and she’s actually very nice – I guess that’s why it’s so funny.

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.

“New National Kid” is a conservative super hero teenager, and he has his own manga. Can you imagine a comic book with Mitt Romney as a teenager? That’s pretty much what this is. If you can imagine it, they probably have a manga all about it in Japan.

Now reading: A manga about a couple of guys, eating McDonald’s on a bench. Actually, I don’t know what it’s about yet, but because manga is so cheap, I could afford to buy it just because I thought the cover was interesting. So far, it seems like they want to start a band together, but I’ll let you guys know if anything interesting happens.

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.

About Josh

Part-time journalist & student of communication studies.
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38 Responses to Opening the Book on the World of Manga

  1. Rebecca says:

    Hi, me again, posting early because I like it.
    Very nice. I do not read manga at all unlike, maybe, everyone in the world. I don’t particularly like the drawing style and I don’t find it adds to the plot, if there is one, which I’ve heard there often isn’t. I am myself a cartoonist. My dad is, and while I have not reached his level of fame publicly I have reached it in the environment of this school. Or at least I like to think so.
    Why did manga style evolve to the spiky-haired, enormous-eyed characters of today, and stayed that way for years? All the characters seem to be drawn with the exact same style, even when different people draw it. In America comics are very very different. It almost reminds me of how the ancient Egyptians drew their people all the same for years and years, without changing or improving the way they drew them. Do new styles not become popular like music or fashion does?
    Also, have you read Axe Cop? That is a comics experience you will not soon forget.

    • Josh says:

      Rebecca, thanks for the great reply and the fantastic questions. I think it’s fantastic that you have a talent for illustrating, and that you are confident enough to share your cartoon work with the people at your school. Keep at it!
      It’s important to remember that there are many different styles of drawing in manga, but most of what we see in America is the kind that you describe: Large eyes, spiky hair, and characters who don’t quite look Asian or Caucasian, but kind of between. There are lots of theories about this. One reason that the stye is so popular is probably because of Tezuka Osamu, the “god of manga,” who created the genre in the early 1950’s. He was highly influenced by Disney cartoons, and so he drew his cartoon characters with large, round “western” style eyes and combined them with features present in Japanese cartoons. Another interesting thing to mention is that Japanese popular culture has a fascination with “western” features, the most obvious being larger more rounded eyes: There are photo booths all over Japan called “purikura,” where girls go and get their pictures taken, and the photo machine makes their eyes bigger before printing out the photograph. Thee result is…interesting.
      On another note, there are all kinds of manga in all kinds of different styles, and new styles coming out all of the time. Right now I’m reading a manga about the political issues surrounding the nuclear disaster a few years ago, and it has a very modern kind of style.
      And yes, I am familiar with Axe Cop – It’s pretty cool!

  2. Molly says:

    I haven’t ever read any manga, but I am relatively familiar with the drawing style, which is kind of interesting because the characters look so different from panel to panel. Sometimes they can look pretty realistic and sometimes they have that weird smile that takes up their whole face, which doesn’t look realistic at ALL! Some of the covers you have included in this post, especially New National Kid, look very different from the stereotypical manga of the US–a lot more realistic, with smaller eyes, etc.

    • Molly says:

      Do you know why the manga we normally find in America is more of the “cute” style then the ones you find in Japan? Or is that just the selection you chose to show and most of them really are the cute style?

      • Josh says:

        That’s a great question, Molly. The simple answer is that in America, the audience for comic books are mostly kids and young adults (plus some really cool older people, like me). However, in Japan EVERYONE reads manga, so there are so many different styles and types of books catered to all different kinds of tastes. Older people might not want to see something as cute as young girls or boys, therefore there is more variety. At least that’s my theory.

  3. Zeno says:

    Josh, I wanted to tell you the answers to what you were wondering about the Pokémon movie. In America, it comes out on December 8th on Cartoon Network. It’s about a battle between the horse dude, Keldeo, (ケルディオ) and the giant yellow dragon, Kyurem (キュレム), who can turn into Black Kyurem (ブラックキュレム) or White Kyurem (ホワイトキュレム).
    Also, in America the movie is called Kyurem VS. The Sword of Justice, and the Japanese title, Kyurem VS the Sacred Swordsman: Keldeo, is really the same thing.
    I was wondering what those words on the front of the Doraemon car mean.


    • Josh says:

      Thanks for the great comment! You sure do know a lot about Pokemon – that sounds like a pretty interesting movie! It’s nice that you’ll get to enjoy it on Cartoon Network, instead of having to go out to the theatre, especially in this cold weather. Well, it’s cold in Tokyo, at least.
      Oh, and the sign on the front of the Doraemon car doesn’t say anything exciting, but if it hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have been able to show you the car at all: It said “Photography is allowed.”

  4. Zeno says:

    I think you should read Pokémon Adventures, and if you can’t find it, try ポケットモンスターSPECIAL (Pocket Monsters Special).

  5. Sophia says:

    I think that manga has changed drastically over the years. I do not envy regular middle school students there, because I would hate both having class on Saturdays and wearing uniforms. It is amazing how free we are

  6. POKEMON!!!!! I have Black2. Black Kyurem, and White Kyurem! Anyway, I read some manga. Not a lot, though. My favorite is Rave Master. It’s fun to read. I don’t know how to draw manga style, but in 13-21 days, I’ll get a book on Machines, hands, feet, weapons, and vehicles, in manga style. Pokemon is awesome. Manga is probably more popular because it is more fun to read.

  7. Danny says:

    Manga seems like it’s super popular in Japan! It really seems to show the world what Japan’s culture is like. American comic books definitely don’t do that! I think Japanese manga is better than American-translated manga, because it is way more genuine, even if I can only read a few kanji. And for middle school students, I think America would be a much smarter country if we had a will to study extra hard to be super smart, like these Japanese middle school students!

    • Josh says:

      Danny, thanks for the great comment. Although I love manga, and agree with you that they certainly say something about Japanese culture, I think that if you really look at American comic books, there is a lot that you can find about American culture within them. It is easier to miss because we see American culture everywhere, as Americans, so it becomes hard to recognize it because it doesn’t stand out. Japanese culture, on the other hand, is easy for us to spot because it is so different.
      In fact, I think if you think about some of the ways in which we are taught to think about America (Freedom, Justice, Individuality, Innovation, Courage), you can see these ideals in many American superhero comic books: Superman, Batman, Avengers, and the like. See if you can think of any particular examples of your own, I’ll bet you can come up with a few.

  8. Annie says:

    Is manga for them like regular books for us? Do you read them?

    • Josh says:

      Thanks for the great question, Annie. I only read two manga books before coming to Japan, one called “Detroit Metal City,” about a rock star who wants to sing romantic songs but instead is forced into a heavy metal band, and “Neko Ramen,” which is about a cat who owns a ramen shop. Now, I read manga much more often; a couple each month, which is a lot considering how busy I am.
      Manga doesn’t replace normal books for Japanese, because on average, I would say that Japanese read at least as many, if not more normal books than the average American adult. Book shops are everywhere here. When it comes to manga, there is simply no comparison; the average Japanese person probably reads more manga in one year than an American will read books in ten years.

  9. Youki says:

    Manga is obviously more popular because they are more interesting. They are the best thing ever! If I could read Kanji, then I would buy some of the Japanese-only manga like Medaka Box or Paja Konojo. You have heard of Jump right? Weekly Jump. Shounen Jump, Jump squared…
    hope you feel better!

  10. Edil says:

    I think manga and comics are very similar but very different. To me, it seems like the manga in Japan is a little more detailed than the comics in America. I think manga is a lot more popular than comics because I don’t really see very many comics around these days. I mostly see manga. I think the way the format and the illustrations are made is really neat. There is a manga which I think is pretty popular in Japan. It’s called Naruto. There is two series, Naruto and Naruto Shippuden. You should probably read the first series before you read Shippuden. It’s also an anime. I think more people are familiar with the anime than the manga. I read the manga sometimes but mostly I watch the anime. I think you should consider reading the manga because it’s really interesting. Are there any specific manga or anime that are really popular in Japan? Are there any that most people don’t read?

    • Edil says:

      Also, I hope you feel better!

    • Josh says:

      Edil, thanks for your great comment and for your kind words – I feel much better now, thank you! I have definitely heard of Naruto, and you’re correct that it is very, very famous. In America, I think more people have heard of the anime, but in Japan the anime and manga are equally famous. In fact, often times anime have to first be a successful manga before they are made into an anime in the first place.
      As for manga that people don’t read, I can’t really think of any right now. I’m sure they are out there, but what amazes me is what incredible variety there is at the local bookstore when it comes to manga.

  11. Max says:

    I like Manga because in regular books you can’t really see what is happening but you can only visualize it but in manga you can totally see what is happening.

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