Japanese comics are called manga, from a word that combines the meanings of “impromptu” and “pictures.” Popularized during the Occupation after WW2, these simplistic stories told in pictures with minimal script are a huge business in Japan and elsewhere in Asia. The trend has even spread to the U.S., Europe, Canada and the Middle East.
Most Westerners have at least heard of manga, but there are many misconceptions about this intriguing social phenomenon. Here are some essential manga factoids that every Japan enthusiast should know:
- Manga comics are not just for children. In Japan, the genre is popular with all age groups, literally spanning the range from tots who can barely read to elderly folks who enjoy reading manga every day. Yes, many of the very popular titles are sold and marketed to children and younger teens, but manga truly knows no bounds; any trip on a Tokyo subway can prove that manga is an all-ages phenomenon. The huge majority of manga is sold to people who are over the age of 13.
- One of the more popular manga story lines has been ongoing for 17 years and is still going strong. It was originally planned as a 5-year plot. This is the sort of thing that happens with some U.S. soap operas on television. Once they acquire a cult following that is large enough to sustain advertising revenue, the shows are perpetual hits.
- Manga is good for recycling. A typical Japanese reader who finishes a manga and does not wish to keep it will just leave it on a train or in a public place as an invitation for someone else to pick it up and read it.
- Myth: The majority of manga is nothing more than sexualized content that is light on story and heavy on soft-core porn plots.
- Fact: That pervasive perception is attributed to a few bad apples in the manga publishing world who indeed create that type of product. But the truth is that 99 percent of manga, both inside and outside Japan, is G-rated, family-friendly stuff that might not be all that interesting, but certainly isn’t anything akin to porn.
- There are cafes in Japan’s big cities that are just like coffee shops but are called manga shops. They serve coffee but are gathering places for those who want to read manga, play video games and maybe eat a very light meal. The Japanese call these places “manga-kissa,” which is a shortened, morphed version of the word for coffee or tea shop, “kissa-ten.”
- Manga is an incredibly diverse genre, boasting thousands of sub-niches and storylines for every age, taste, and occupation. There are literally hundreds of thousands of different series running at any given time within the world of Japanese manga. A close approximation is the comic book craze in the U.S. during and after WW2. That was largely confined to children and very young teens, whereas manga cuts across all age groups and social strata.
- The hallmark of manga is that every character is drawn by hand. Computerized images are considered verboten, and are quickly hounded out of the market.
- More paper is used for printing manga books in Japan than is used to make toilet paper.
- “Manga style” is an official art form, and many of the drawings become quite popular. In fact, the sign of a truly successful manga is its production as a televised anime cartoon. Of the millions of manga stories that have come and gone, only a small percentage have achieved anime status.
- There is a thriving subculture in Japan of manga collectors, just as there are still a decent number of comic book collectors in other countries. Like the sports card community, manga collectors sponsor official shows, auctions, gatherings and trade shows. Manga is big business, and its tentacles seem to have reached into every corner of Japanese life.
- Manga’s more sophisticated cousin, anime, has also become a world phenomenon, with massive conventions held in Europe, the U.S., Asia, and South America.
- Most Japanese cities have manga and anime clubs, with members attending regular meetups to swap manga books and get to know each other. The manga culture has grown so large, in fact, that Japan can no longer contain it. Still considered the “capital” of the craze, Japanese manga producers and anime corporations are quite powerful in Asia and elsewhere, raking in huge sums of money for their efforts.
- Manga drawings are considered “pure” if they are done only in pen and ink, using very clean lines. Typical characters have enormous eyes shaped like almonds, and feature body parts that are out-of-kilter with realistic proportions.
- Emotions are almost always exaggerated in manga, with huge eyes and sweaty foreheads betraying an overdone sense of surprise, worry or concern. In fact, every major emotional reaction in manga is drawn in an obvious way. There is no mistaking a character’s state of mind or feeling within a manga story.
While manga’s popularity has been slowly ebbing inside Japan, its popularity in the U.S., South America, the Middle East and just about everywhere else is growing rapidly. Some attribute the latter to “computer fatigue,” and a desire to sit with a paper copy of a book and read simple plot lines featuring one-dimensional characters. Others think the novelty factor of manga will soon wear off and give in to electronic entertainment, e-readers, and other modern-age diversions.
Japan brought matcha tea and Kabuki theater to the world centuries ago, but manga is relatively new. Whether the art form maintains its hold on the culture is yet to be seen. Like many other trends in modern Japan, manga is an authentic question mark.
Some experts think manga is on the decline for various reasons, computers being the primary culprit. As electronic devices have become commonplace even among young children, the hard-copy paper comic book faces stiff competition. Others say that manga is such an ingrained part of the Japanese psyche that even with a declining birthrate and an onslaught of computerization, the venerable comic culture will survive.