Thursday, June 2, 2011


No visitor to Japan can fail to notice the omnipresent comic books that color every segment of life in that country. Visible in all settings, they are entertainment for both children and adults, male and female, making it hard to dispute that the Japanese are voracious readers of comic books and graphic novels. The range of types is wide, with weekly and monthly releases for young women, boys, young men, businessmen and other adults in a span of storylines from cute and funny to relevant social drama, sports, fantasy, superheroes, and with a large part of the market devoted to both soft and hardcore porn comic books. At the other end of that are the graphic novel versions of the great Japanese classics of literature. Not hard to find a comic book version of Japan’s great eleventh century novel, The Tale of Genji.

But don’t let their craze for comic books fool you into thinking the Japanese have a literacy problem. The thought is absurd, since ninety-nine percent of the nation’s 127 million people are literate. The Japanese are a nation of readers, and a good many of them enjoy reading comics.

The Chinese characters used to write the word ‘manga’ in Japanese might be translated as “whimsical drawings.” The word was in common use in Japan in the late eighteenth century, but manga in the modern sense came into use during the US occupation of Japan. Today these ‘whimsical drawings’ are a billion dollar industry in Japan.

Two manga series and characters from the post World War II period were critical to the future development of Japanese comics and animation—Osamu Tezuka’s 1951 Mighty Atom (Astro Boy) and Machiko Hasegawa’s Sazae-san, which debuted in 1946. Tezuka brought to his panels a cinematographic style, with movie-like action, a slow motion movement that included zooms in viewpoint from close-up to distant. Hasegawa’s depiction of daily life and the experiences of women influenced later comics for women.

Sales of comics have dropped by a third over the last decade, to $24.3 million in 2008. With the decrease in sales of manga in magazine format, the sale of manga in mobile phone format is rising. The top selling manga is currently Eiichirô Oda’s One Piece, which debuted in 1997 and by 2010 had sold over 239 million volumes. Number two is Gantz which has sold over fifteen million copies since 2008. In third place is Naruto which has sold over three million copies of the two latest issues, with overall sales over 100 million. A darker side of the industry is the sexually explicit manga that are sold at every convenience store in Japan, displayed at eye level visible to any elementary school child. The sight of middle-aged men flipping through these comics in crowded trains is a daily sight. New laws in Japan have recently been passed to curb the sale of erotic comics to minors, but it says nothing about taking them out of sight.

For a small few manga artist-writers, their comics may lead to high pay, but the rewards are slight for the great majority of illustrators working in the background. The top artists earned about $900,000 in royalties in 2009. Eiichirô Oda, creator of the top-selling One Piece earned fifteen million in royalties, but average royalties for most of the lesser known artists were around $35,000. Naturally, there are many who are not successful enough to have their own work published or compiled and must struggle as assistant illustrators earning meager salaries.

During my years in Japan I gave some time to cultivating an appreciation for manga but tired of it, eventually giving it up. It never was a genre I could sink my teeth into, and the notion in the back of my head that adults don’t read comic books always bothered me. Out of place notion in Japan, where adults read as many comic books as children do.

For a look at one beautifully done Japanese graphic novel click here. Yûnagi no machi is a powerful story of postwar Hiroshima and featured in a December 2009 post.


  1. Don't you wish we had just a few of the comics we read as kids? No doubt some of them would fetch some bucks today. Have a hard enough time not even keeping up with novels and such; can't afford the time to get into anything in the manga field.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America