Many Westerners are familiar with the Japanese cartoon Doraemon, but did you know it’s actually based on an older manga comic-book series? In fact, Doraemon is one of the best-selling manga in the world. It’s sold over 100 million copies.
For those interested in Japanese culture, anime is one of the first things they think of. In the West, it’s a major cultural import. But is it really that popular in Japan? The fact is, it’s not anime that dominates Japanese entertainment, but manga. Manga is the mainstream art form that infiltrates every aspect of Japanese society and dwarfs the influence of anime by comparison.
To understand why, take a look at the history and scope of the two art forms. There’s a reason why manga is so mainstream in Japan. You can enjoy it too.
For Westerners, manga can best be described as comic books. However, unlike comic books in the US, manga is the one of if not the most important literary forms in Japan. In theory, manga can be any Japanese comic or graphic novel, but they normally conform to a particular artistic style that’s become popular in Japan.
Manga can be serial magazines or long graphic novels that fit into any genre. There are manga franchises covering everything from action and adventure to romance to business and sports. Sometimes manga are even based on previous live-action movies or TV shows. Manga is usually printed in black and white, but there are sometimes special color issues.
Manga may seem like a modern art form, especially considering how recent comic books came about in the West, but it actually has an incredibly long history. In fact, it’s often traced back to Japanese scrolls from the 12th Century.
The art form became a major part of the culture during the Edo period, sometime in the late 18th Century. Certain artists began publishing picture books, and some were even mass-produced using woodblock printing. Many historians consider these to be the world’s first comic books.
Manga expanded through Japan during the end of the Edo period and especially after the Meiji Restoration when Japan opened again to foreign trade. However, it really exploded after World War II. Japanese economic growth as well as influence from American comics brought over by soldiers and diplomats allowed for innovation and increased creativity.
Who reads it?
Everyone! In the US, comic books are usually associated with children or specific fan bases and subcultures. Graphic novels are becoming increasingly popular, but it’s still nothing like the widespread consumption of manga in Japan.
People of all ages, genders, and interests read manga. You’ll see kids reading in the park or old women reading on the train. It’s just the most common way to tell a story in Japan.
Manga is more than mainstream in Japan. It’s a cultural phenomenon. One reason is that public transportation is a major part of Japanese society. Fewer people drive, and more commute to work or across the country on trains. This gives them a lot of reading time, and manga is the go-to.
If you need proof of how popular the medium is, consider that stores sell around 1.9 billion manga books and magazines in Japan each year. That’s about 15 issues per person and amounts to about $6-7 billion.
When you’re in Japan, you won’t have to look too far to find manga. Giant stores, some with multiple stories, feature rows and rows of shelves of the books and magazines organized by genre and author. Aside from the devoted stores, you can find manga in newsstands and convenience stores. These days there are even digital issues you can read on your phone or tablet.
Manga’s influence has also spread outside of Japan and gained popularity. For example, there were $175 million of manga sales in the US and Canada in 2008, and it makes up about 38% of the French comics market.
In Japan, “anime” technically refers to any animation. It could be hand-drawn or computer made. Anything from children’s cartoons to adult CG action films can be anime. That said, in the West, we usually think of anime as animated shows and movies that feature a particular Japanese style similar to that of manga. While the Japanese don’t necessarily differentiate between anime of this style and any other animated medium, it’s true that the style we usually associate with anime is very common there.
Japanese filmmakers began using animation early in the 20th Century, similar to those in the US and Europe. With Japan’s long history of drawings and picture books, it was quick to catch on.
However, unlike manga, anime was expensive to produce in the beginning. Western companies like Disney had already cornered the market and were producing films much more efficiently. As a result, anime was originally mostly an art form used by the government. Especially in the 1930s as Japan began expanding its empire, the government used anime for propaganda.
After World War II, anime diversified and some major artists started experimenting with the medium. During the following decades, it expanded to more genres and made it to television, but it wasn’t until the 90s that it gained considerable popularity. This is also when it spread outside of Japan and became popular in the US and Europe, especially children’s programs like Pokémon and Digimon.
Who watches it?
Unlike manga, anime is not as mainstream in Japan. It’s often hard for Westerners to understand, especially since for us, TV in general, is more popular than books. We’re used to movies adapted from books making hundreds of times more money in the box office. In Japan, though, anime adapted from manga is usually just a promotional tool to sell more of the manga.
For the most part, anime in Japan is a lot like cartoons in the US. Children are one of the major consumers, and they watch family-oriented anime like Doraemon. Aside from kids, there are plenty of hard-core fans for adult anime shows and movies that cover genres like SciFi, romance, and action/adventure. These are usually more of a subculture or cult following, though.
Although it’s not nearly as ubiquitous as manga, anime is gaining popularity in Japan, especially with young people. Right now there are over 430 anime studios in the country which sell their works mostly on DVD and Blu-ray. Despite not being a very prominent part of the general film industry, anime makes up the majority of Japanese DVD and Blu-ray sales.
Plus, even if anime is mostly a subculture medium, it’s still a bigger part of Japanese culture than cartoons are of American culture. That’s because the characters feature prominently in advertisements and TV commercials. If you visit Japan, expect to see plenty of Japanese-style anime characters on posters and billboards all over.
See for yourself!
Many people are surprised to learn anime isn’t that popular in Japan, especially compared to manga. That’s because anime is one of the biggest cultural products the West imports from Japan. In fact, Japanese anime accounts for about 60% of the world’s production of animated television shows.
Manga is a little harder to get your hands on in the US and Europe, partly for distribution issues and partly because of language barriers. Still, if you like anime, it’s well worth the effort to explore manga. Many anime shows are simple adaptations of manga anyway, and the manga world is much deeper, richer, and elaborate. Manga is an entire world of entertainment just waiting to be explored.