Sixty Years of Japanese Comics

Sixty Years of Japanese Comics

Manga (  or  ) is Japanese for “comics.” Coined in the 1800s by the Japanese artist Hokusai to refer to doodles in his sketchbook, the term can be translated as “whimsical sketches” or “lighthearted pictures.” The same term is the root of the Korean word for comics (manhwa) and the Chinese word (manhua). Today, most Japanese people use the English word “comics” (komikku) as well.

Almost as soon as modern printing technology was introduced to Japan in the late 1800s, comics were published: first European-style satirical cartoons, then American-style newspaper strips, and eventually monthly comics magazines aimed at young readers. The oldest manga available in translation, The Four Immigrants Manga, was drawn by Henry (Yoshitaka) Kiyama while he was living in San Francisco in 1931. After World War II, the Japanese manga industry was quick to rise out of the ashes. TV was not common in Japan until the late 1950s, and movies were always expensive, so comics were cheap, accessible entertainment. Some artists developed self-contained comic stories for kashibonya—professional book lenders or “pay libraries”—who loaned hardbound comic books for a small fee. Others drew manga for a new crop of children’s magazines, now printed in black and white instead of color because of postwar economic realities. The most popular magazine series were collected and repackaged as graphic novels (or, in Japanese, tankôbon). In this environment of frantic experimentation, today’s “classic” manga artists established the styles that future generations would mimic.

As the Japanese economy improved, manga adapted. Kashibonya became a thing of the past, but monthly and biweekly manga magazines could be purchased at any newsstand. To compete with the fast pace of TV, the biggest publishers introduced weekly magazines, starting with Weekly Shônen Magazine in 1959. Manga were licensed for anime, toys, and live-action movies. At the same time, the form began to achieve critical respect; Sanpei Shirato’s epic Ninja Bugeichô (“Ninja Military Chronicles,” Sixty Years of Japanese Comics1959–1962) was a favorite with student radicals due to its revolutionary themes. Art and stories became more diverse: sports, horror, war stories, science fiction, occupational manga, manga for adult readers. Sales rose throughout the 1970s and 1980s until the bestselling boys’ magazine Weekly Shônen Jump sold more than five million copies a week. As manga became a bigger and bigger business, a flourishing fan community began drawing and trading dôjinshi (self-published comics and zines) based on their favorite characters. Publishers produced sub-culture magazines and direct-to-video animation for the fan market, and the fans, aka otaku, became Japan’s equivalent of hard-core comic book collectors. But for most readers, manga were simply a part of their everyday lives, something they enjoyed casually, like movies or TV.

Osamu Tezuka helped establish the styles that would define modern manga. His Lost World was published in 1948. (Illustration Credit itr.2)         In the mid-1990s, the Japanese economy went into a recession, which affected manga as well. Sales dipped, and publishers were forced to rely more heavily on licensing, as well as finding new niche markets: video game manga, pachinko manga, Boys’ Love manga. As everywhere around the world, the rise of the Internet and other new technologies changed reading and buying habits; newsstand magazine sales slumped. Publishers fretted about a rise in tachiyomi (reading manga in the store without buying it), mawashiyomi (loaning manga to your friends), used-book chains, and all-you-can-read manga cafés. But graphic novel sales remain strong; in 2002, the latest volume of the manga series One Piece broke records with an initial print run of 2.52 million copies. In Tokyo today, subway commuters may carry more cell phones than manga magazines, but comics are still more widely read and respected in Japan than anywhere else in the world.

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