Japan from the inside out

Why does the world like Japanese manga?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fighting evil by moonlight,
Winning love by daylight,
Never running from a real fight,
She is the one named Sailor Moon.
– The first verse of the Sailor Moon theme song in English

JAPAN was once known as the land of the rising sun, but it might be more appropriate to say that more people know it today as the land of manga and animations. Here’s yet another example: An annual exhibition titled the Manga Day Commemorative Four-Panel Cartoon Awards is underway until 20 February at the Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum (English-language website) in Kochi City, Kochi. It will run until 20 February.

The museum established the awards to recognize contributions to the development of manga culture, and this is the sixth exhibit. In October, judges at the museum selected 15 works from among the 1,197 four-panel strips submitted by 878 artists in 42 prefectures and the United States. The current exhibition presents the prize winners and the 139 works that made it past the first round of judging. There’s also an exhibit of 430 manga created by children of primary school age or younger that have been deemed to have promise.

The exhibit just began, so I’m not sure about the connection with Manga Day, which is 3 November in Japan. The museum was built to honor Kochi native Yokoyama Ryuichi, a famous manga artist who in 1961 created Japan’s first televised cartoon show, Instant History. He is also the first manga artist to have been named a Person of Cultural Merit.

Why have Japanese manga captured the imagination of young people around the world? Makino Keiichi, head of the Faculty of Manga at Kyoto Seika University, thinks their popularity originates in two aspects of Japanese culture: kanji and Yaoyorozu no Kamigami. The latter expression is literally “eight million kami” (divinity, divine essence), but what that eight million really means is “a heck of a lot”. In other words, the divine essence resides in all things.

Mr. Makino uses the kanji 重 as an example of the first aspect. He says that depending on the context, Japanese will immediately determine its meanings from among the possibilities of “overlapping”, “heavy”, “-fold” (as in three-fold), or “piled up”, and its reading from among the possibilities of kasanaru, omoi, e, ju, or cho.

He explains:

“Manga are the same as kanji. When the readers see one panel of a comic, they immediately understand the meaning and freely interpret the image. That culture is the backdrop for manga, so Japanese manga artists don’t draw anything into the background that isn’t necessary. They only include the content necessary to convey the information. That results in creations with communicative power which can be understood at a glance by foreigners and children.”

As for the second aspect, he explains that the Japanese believe the divine essence resides in everything, and this sense of spirituality underlies the rich story content of Japanese manga.

“It’s different from the monotheism that forbids idolatry. In Japan, the divinities and spiritual creatures take a multiplicity of forms and become anthropomorphic. I suspect that openness is what enables the free expression of stories and characters.”

Mr. Makino adds that in the West, the Devil is a frightening creature, but that demons and Tengu in Japan are depicted with human characteristics.

“Even that which is frightening is not rejected, but made into an engaging character.”

As demonstrated by the worship of the eight million divinities, a characteristic of Japanese culture is its acceptance of and openness to things foreign, which he cites as one reason for the diversity of storylines.

“Before they’re aware of what’s happening, people throughout the world become captivated by the spiritual culture of Japan.”

Now you know how the Sailor Moon girls got their magical powers!

Makino Keiichi has his own Japanese-language website that’s still under construction, but you can see some of his unusual creations on one part of it. Kyoto Seika University and the city of Kyoto operate the Kyoto International Manga Museum, which has the world’s largest collection of comics.

It’s not just the visual art or the stories, either. Listen to where this music from the Seek the Full Moon animation takes you in 80 seconds.

One final note: If you think Mr. Makino is off base with his Yaoyorozu no Kamigami idea, consider that today at the Museum of Art, Kochi–in the same city as the manga exhibition–a pop art exhibit opened showing the works of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, among others. Kochi City has a population of about 340,000 and is somewhat isolated on the island of Shikoku, where it is one of the primary cities.

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9 Responses to “Why does the world like Japanese manga?”

  1. Roual Deetlefs said


    My brother reads manga, and he also introduced me to anime. And what really struck me about anime was how good the stories are. The West, quite sadly, treats the storyline as some filler between some spectacular special effects sequence. And the stories are so predictable too.

    You just don’t have that in anime/manga.

    And another thing is that there is no denigration of masculinity in anime.

  2. toadold said

    While manga and anime illustrate a Japan and a world that doesn’t exist, and given artist tendencies to see thing from the left, the manga often has much more biting comentary on the powers that be than you’ll come across in the Western reporters accounts of Japan or the translations from the Japanese MSM.
    One thing that is kind of sad in a way is that you hardly ever see an anime character start to eat with out first putting hands together and saying, “Thank you for the food.”

  3. mac said

    The other side of this story is the recent news that Tokyo government has raised again the discussion of censoring the sexual excesses of the genre. I say “raised again the discussion” because although it has enacted new and additional laws, they appear fairly toothless and leave the responsibility on the industry to regulate itself. I read that as “they wont, things wont change, nothing will be enforced, but at least the politicians were seen to do something about it”.

    The degree of hard core sexual content of mid-shelf manga is quite extreme. And, yes, much of it does include what are very obviously children. The limits are being pushed further and further. When I say “mid-shelf” I mean not “top-shelf”, which is where pornography was traditionally placed, and stigmatized, out of the reaches of children, or underground comics. Just every day, ordinary comics you can buy at Lawsons.

    From the selection left at our local onsen, they seem to be fairly standardized; one samurai story, one gangster story, two hard core romps and a romantic story (Not necessarily in that order) along with some photos of a 16 year old in a bikini (so you can flesh out the cartoons with your mind) and some penis enlargement drug ads. Actually, I cannot even work out the order the stories are in or whether they are serials.

    School girls, lesbian and kimono festishes stand out (sometimes, naturally, involving all three). Some of it is quite really wrong.

    The new laws seem to targeting at images of under 18s and incest. I suppose that means images of 18 year olds and incest is OK?

  4. mac said

    Yes, it is worth underline that some of the more interesting and challenging political stuff is handled using picture books and, in fact, adults use them to learn dry subjects like world history.

  5. Matt Oh said

    I may be wrong about this — and someone should please check out the sales numbers to see if this is true — but it seems to me that comics/graphic novels in general have become a lot more popular in my lifetime, both Japanese and American.

    If true, this may be more evidence that we are, at least in the West, entering an era that hearkens back to the Middle Ages in a number of ways: the central preoccupation of philosophy is once again the field of logic; the plurality, diversity, and resultant confusion of thought and morality dominates and sets the tone for ideological debates; and pictures and visuals have, as in the Middle Ages, become the dominant way of understanding and expressing our ideas — television, Windows, icons, YouTube, etc.

    If this is true — and at this point it’s just an idea I’m playing with — the global success of anime is not so much their Japanese-ness as the fact that they are very good examples of a medium that satisfies the philosophical needs of our times.

    Anyway, just something I’ve been thinking about lately.

  6. Andrew in Ezo said

    I think the wide popularity of manga/anime pretty much is owed to the spread of the internet- awareness and access to alternate forms of entertainment, as well as other points of view is so much easier than back in the late 80’s, when as a U.S. fan back in the first popular wave of Japanese animation, I could only get manga and anime from a limited number of Japanese bookstores, and translated works in an even smaller number of comic book stores-back then the manga were sold in US comic book size i.e. thin approx B5 size. Now you can go to any Borders and have a selection larger than the U.S. comics stocked.

  7. Jakes said

    It’s simple: Manga is entertaining.

    A poster above commented on the increase in popularity due to the internet. This is a fundamental truth. But also remember how much other entertainments and diversions the internet offers. Manga is flourishing not just because of the Net but in spite of it, simply because people like what they are presented with and want to keep reading it.

    From the morose and sepulchral darkness of BLAME to the witty idiocy of ONE PIECE, stories are being told, real stories, which engage and fascinate the reader. You don’t need graphs or calculators to figure this one out. If you see someone reading something that is obviously a manga, just ask two simple questions: Do you like it? And why ?

    My answers are yes, and because it’s fun.

    I recently had the honor of watching an anime called PAPRIKA, a film which deals with the concepts of dream invasion and manipulation. It is filled with strange sights and on some occasions can be disturbing and unnerving. But the sub themes of “good vs evil” as well as “responsibility for your actions” are well represented in a no-nonsense way.

    PAPRIKA is NOT child friendly in any shape or form, as it was intended for hard-nosed sci-fi buffs and adults.

    In the West, that grittiness is traded in for “family friendly” or more often “child friendly”.
    The recent resurgence in 3D of talking animals is a case in point. When it comes to comics and animation, studios in the West are very much stuck in the toy store.

    Brilliant concepts are often abandoned in favor of silly bears and deer making “coochie-coochie” noises at the audience. The Japanese with their manga and anime are always pushing the boundaries of art and storytelling, and usually leaves a guy like me wanting more.

    Yes, there is smut, so empower yourself by NOT buying or viewing it.

    P.S. 60% of all animated media on earth comes from Japan.

    There are some similarities with entertainment in the West but Manga gives the reader a perspective, that though it might be contrived, a view on the phenomenon that is the Japanese Mind which is beautiful … very beautiful …


  8. mac said

    Yes, there is smut, so empower yourself by NOT buying or viewing it.

    … especially on the way into the local onsen rather than on the way out.

    The Japanese youth of today must be made of limper stuff than I.

  9. toadold said

    So I was just reading that some Japanese scientist have bred a strain of “singing mice” and now have one hundred of them…….They are now studying to see if the more audible mice will use it for communication. Someone on that research team had a sense of humour. I was thinking about the consequences of those mice getting away. You’d know early if you had a mouse infestation becasue the noise would keep you up at night. Then can you imagine the screams from the mice caught but not immediately killed by mouse traps. This made me think about a manga and short anime called “Interceptor Dolls.” It takes place in the future when bugs have become immune to pesticides and so 11.2 cm tall robots are developed that hunt bugs at night with “small arms.” A serious infestation can lead to sounds of crunching and popcorn like gun fire. The next morinig the doll would present you a pile of cockroaches. Now with the singing mouse problem, you’d have the sound of the uber cute interceptor doll, in various special collector additions, heading out at night after the daytime recharge. Squeaks, screams, gun fire, blood and mayhem with the mice and bugs both until control was achieved.

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