Japanese Are Crazy for Comics


Many Japanese look to Kosaku Shima to teach them the impeccable corporate etiquette that will take them to the top of the business world. When this young, hard-working, irresistibly debonair Hatsuba Electric worker was promoted to division chief in 1992, it made national headlines.

Many also look to Rintaro, a visionary, idealistic bureaucrat in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, to teach them about the secret machinations of the nation’s ministries and to share his insights on energy policy. Now politicians in Washington want to hear what he has to say.

Rintaro and Shima boast social influence, salaries and celebrity that Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Los Angeles Dodgers star Hideo Nomo would envy.

Never heard of them? That may be because they aren’t real. They are characters in Japanese manga, or comic books.


Manga are a billion-dollar industry. Sales of these fat comics, which go for about $3.50 each, account for close to a third of the total output of publishing houses here and amount to a whopping 553 million copies a year.

More than 500 categories of manga are released each month. Some playful commentators once estimated that the Japanese use more paper for the telephone-book-size comics than for toilet paper.

Many analysts say this medium is more influential than television or newspapers. Manga perform a vital social function, supplying the flamboyant heroes that a highly controlled society can’t produce, experts say.

The comics also offer a rich fantasy world in a society where conformity is deemed a necessity, assertion of individual will is viewed as unacceptable, and life itself is often eye-glazingly predictable. All this, while gently reinforcing the values of working hard and supporting the status quo.

“Among Japanese media, manga are unquestionably the most powerful,” says the creator of Rintaro, who uses the pen name Kuzu Haruo.

In their subject matter and approach, manga range from the fantastic to the realistic to the educational. There’s Doraemon the robot cat, businessman Shima Kosaku and the world-famous “Japan Inc.,” a 1,000-page tome that lays out the corporate ways of the country’s labyrinthine economy.

Their stories often blend real news events with outlandish fantasies, unsayable words, undoable feats and--for a bestseller--graphic sex scenes.

So ubiquitous is their cast of characters that for millions of manga maniacs the line between comics and reality often blurs. For them, the characters take their place alongside real people in everyday life, capturing headlines, offering testimonials for advertising and winning the public’s love and respect.

“Manga made me what I am today,” says Haruko Sato, 30, a self-proclaimed manga nerd. “After I read the manga on the French Revolution--liberty, equality, fraternity and all that--I knew what I wanted to do.

“I was 13, and I thought, ‘Wow!’ ” says Sato, who works for an international think tank on Japanese-European relations.

Window Into National Psyche

Cultural critics call manga Japan’s postwar literature, its social commentary and a repository for its most creative minds. They also call them a window into the Japanese psyche, shedding light on what motivates, inspires and titillates readers.

Universities teach manga, psychologists analyze them and there is even a museum in Osaka to memorialize them.

Professor Tomofusa Kure lectures on manga at Tokyo Rika University, teaching students to study these graphic novels the way American students study classic literature. To him, manga are a unique literary form that has thrived untainted by foreign influences.

“In England, they have the study of Shakespeare. In America, perhaps you study the Greek tragedy,” he says. “Here we have the study of manga.

In Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya district, mecca for the city’s twentysomethings, manga superstores abound.

At the two-story Mandarake,employees dress as famous manga characters. A futuristic robot rings up purchases, while a space girl in a red vinyl dress checks bags.

Down the street at Comic City, fans comb through the neon-pink-green-and-blue-covered comics.

Store managers say their clientele ranges in age from 10 to 50 and that sales trends closely reflect broader social changes.

Most recently, says Yoshiiki Wada of Comic City, young women moving into the workplace have started reading manga about the legendary, job-consumed, stereotypical office employee--the “salaryman"--to try to glean information about the “logic of male Japanese society.”

Junko Shimizu, 31, a Comic City regular, says she picked up the comics before she could read.

She estimates that each week, she devours 10 manga, which are several hundred pages apiece. For her, they are pure fantasy, she says, an escape from daily life.

Her favorites are gay love stories, the current craze among women in their 20s. Asked why, she waxes romantic: “It’s real love from the heart. . . . Gay love is more natural than male-female love. There’s none of that, ‘I’m a man, so I love a woman.’ Gay men say, ‘I love this person for who they are.’ ”

Although comics existed before World War II, they were considered a children’s medium. But amid Japan’s horrible postwar poverty, the manga industry was born.

“After the war, there was a big gap between what the Japanese people wanted and what they had,” says Hiromichi Moteki, a private publisher with a passion for manga. “Movies were too expensive to make, but manga allow you to make a high-quality product cheaply.”

Japan’s baby boomers grew up reading them. As they went to college and joined the work force, they took their manga with them, demanding ever more complex adult themes: sex, job promotions and family problems.

Experts say manga are ideal for long commutes on the nation’s packed subways. They are compact and entertaining and require little concentration. Publishers also throw in large doses of porn to woo readers: Huge, sexually insatiable white women are often the subject of sexual attentions from mighty Japanese manga heroes.

And as the manga generation began to reach top posts in the Education Ministry, a society-wide transformation in attitudes occurred, elevating the comics from an entertainment medium to an educational tool.

Suddenly, manga began to appear in textbooks and on university exams. Kure predicts that as the manga generation grays, publications soon will even deal with aging as a topic.

Manga are a cultural force that can’t be ignored,” says Kenji Sato, who studied political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and penned a critique of Japan’s pop culture titled “Godzillian Democracy.”

“This is the only country with [millions of] comic books published every week,” he observes.

Unlike those in the United States, where most comics are populated by superheroes living in a two-dimensional world, Japanese characters were created for a highly diversified market and are psychologically well-developed. Their lives chronicle the tribulations of all Japanese--whether they be children, salarymen, bankers, politicians, underworld figures or mah-jongg players. Manga heroes often are pure, principled men who must defend traditional values against countrymen who are selling out to foreign influences.

Many of the most beloved characters poke gentle fun at those who undoubtedly live by--but are failures at--Japan’s rigid social standards.

Nobotta Oyama is the hero of the famous series “I Am a Man,” about a dispossessed student who has not yet found a university to accept him. He lives in a tiny apartment, owns 64 pairs of striped boxer shorts and subsists on a diet of instant noodles and mushrooms that grow in his closet.

Meantime, Hamasaki, the hero of “Diary of a Fishing Freak,” is an unambitious salaryman whose wife and boss try to cajole him to work harder. He despises drinking with his cohorts and playing golf, essential for any Japanese corporate drone who is trying to move up. Instead, he develops a passion for fishing, which--to the horror of his boss--he brings up at every possible moment.

To readers, what lies behind these jokes is a gentle admonition to maintain the status quo and embrace traditional values of discipline and self-sacrifice.

Work hard, say the manga, or you too could end up like these poor creatures.

“While people are laughing at manga, they are also unconsciously learning how to behave and what not to do,” says Dr. Masahiko Ito, a pediatrician who co-wrote a book psychoanalyzing one of Japan’s most famous manga heroes.

Why do comic books exert such influence in Japan? Society’s demands here may often exact such a steep psychological price from its members that manga can be essential in maintaining a mental balance, experts say.

“Everyone is extremely controlled from a very young age, so fantasy is extremely important,” Ito says. “We are a managed society, and there are psychological bruises from that experience.”

Apart from manga, and enka, the maudlin Japanese folk songs that businessmen croon at karaoke bars, the stoic Japanese lack ways to let these feelings out, he says.

By featuring the most average salarymen or bureaucrats, some authors say, they are trying to offer silent encouragement to the millions who probably believe that their efforts go unrecognized by bosses, wives and children.

A Hero Who Speaks His Mind

“I think there are lots of people like Shima. They probably just don’t get . . . many women,” says Hirokane, creator of the character who is successfully scaling the corporate ladder.

What really makes Shima special for many is that he can do what a normal salaryman wouldn’t dare: Between steamy sexual rendezvous with beautiful career women, model salaryman Shima happily speaks up at work.

In one episode, he argues in an executive meeting that big, U.S.-style retail stores are dry and businesslike. He challenges his bosses to consider whether a more caring society such as Japan’s should drive out mom-and-pop stores simply for profit.

“Of course,” Hirokane says, “salarymen can’t really give their opinions the way Shima does or they would be fired.”

Manga provide the Japanese with the heroes their society rarely produces in real life.

“Here, heroes are manga characters,” Ito says. “In the 1960s, there were no real heroes, and there aren’t now either. . . . If there are no real heroes, you turn to manga.”

In a Nikkei newspaper survey in 1995, when asked who they hoped to emulate in their professional lives, almost 30% of new company employees named Shima.

As for the sensational events of the parallel manga universe, they also often elicit more public response than reality does. After a crash diet to compete in his archrival’s weight class, champion boxer Toru Rikishii was slugged to death in the ring by Jo Yabuki, an old opponent from his reform school days. The Kodansha publishing house held a mock funeral that attracted close to 1,000 fans.

Measuring the real influence of manga heroes is all but impossible, experts say, although advertisers can offer some insights.

Japanese companies, they note, opt to use manga characters to sell products because, in the words of one ad executive, the comic figures do not age or get embroiled in embarrassing scandals.

Boost to Brand-Name Recognition

Meanwhile, market research has shown that using manga testimonials is one of the best ways to increase brand-name recognition fast in Japan.

Take Asteru, an upstart cellular phone company.

A year ago, it was a struggling unknown. Then, for its ads, it decided to borrow from manga the popular Bakabon family--a bumbling father, a smart mother and their two sons, one an oaf, the other a genius. Within a year, Asteru’s name recognition went from zero to 70%.

Manga also influence public policy and help people chart the inner workings of government and business, almost like another arm of the news media, experts say. Because the publications are a hybrid of fact and fiction, manga writers can probe sensitive topics with a vigor and thoroughness that Japan’s conservative media can only dream of.

And they are more fun. Rintaro’s creator, Kuzu--actually a government employee who employs a nom de plume--had long written substantive pieces on energy policy. Then an editor told him he could increase his readership from several hundred to 900,000 if only he would write manga.

Now he says he can write far more freely.

Every episode in his series is based on actual events and important ministry publications. He just changes the names.

When his series on the Ministry of International Trade and Industry first appeared in the popular monthly Comic Morning, he says, MITI officials scoured the ministry trying to figure out who was leaking its secrets.

For that reason and others, foreign interest in manga that deal with business topics is growing.

There is interest in a translated Rintaro, for example, among Washington trade bureaucrats. And after U.S. business people expressed interest in reading manga to help them learn what it takes to crack the Japanese market, Moteki, the owner of a small publishing house, recently translated a collection of salaryman manga into English in a hilarious book called “Bringing Home the Sushi.”

The insights in manga now draw attention even from the Japanese elite.

Hirokane tells of receiving a telephone call from Kunihiko Saito, Japan’s new ambassador to the United States.

“He told me he was a big fan and he agreed with my ideas on the United Nations. He wanted to discuss them,” Hirokane says.

Some social critics argue that excessive manga consumption can have negative results.

Some educators have voiced fears that children are losing their imaginations, while others complain that children can no longer read books without pictures.

A recent Nikkei article complained that thirtysomething salarymen have lost their ability to communicate because of reading manga.

“If real advertising agents spoke like that, their customers would never give them a second chance,” the business paper said.

But social criticism has done nothing to dampen the nation’s enthusiasm for this fantastic medium. Sato, the manga nerd, gives this advice: “Americans should forget Hollywood. They should learn the way of manga.”