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Dreamland Japan: Manga's Paradise

Frederik Schodt explains to Maureen Furniss a few aspects of the Japanese culture behind manga and its huge success.

Frederik L. Schodt is the author of two highly respected books on Japanese comic art, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics and Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, as well as numerous articles. The following interview focuses on one of the subjects explored in these two books, the way in which the consumption of manga, or print comic books, provides insight into Japanese culture. It was conducted with him via e-mail in June 1997, during one of his frequent visits to Japan. The Scope of Manga Maureen Furniss: A press release for your recent book, Dreamland

Japan, states the following statistics: "almost 2 billion manga books and magazines were sold in Japan in 1995, which means over 15 manga-related items for every person in Japan. The manga industry boasts $6 billion in annual revenues, which amounts to a staggering $50 spent on manga for every Japanese person." Your book makes it clear that, in this case, practically "every Japanese person" is actually a consumer of Manga. How would you account for the widespread popularity of manga in Japanese society? Frederik L. Schodt: I don't think there's any single answer. Here are a few theories, though.

1) For hundreds of years Japanese people have loved art similar to modern manga, such as scrolls, woodblock prints, or sketches. Those art forms primarily are composed of line drawings, and often are fantastic, violent, erotic, humorous, and narrative in structure. 2) Manga are particularly suited to the crowded, fast-paced modern Japanese urban lifestyle: they are small, portable, and unobtrusive; they are quiet; and they don't take as much concentration as reading a book. They're perfect for reading on trains during a long commute to work or to school, and today a huge number of people in Japan spend a great deal of time on trains. 3) There may be aspects of the Japanese writing system that help people create manga, as well as enjoy them. The ideograms used in Japanese writing are a type of cartoon, and require a high level of hand-eye coordination to render; it may be one reason little children in Japan all seem to be so good at drawing manga. These ideograms also help foster a high level of pattern recognition skills at an early age. 4) The manga industry has not been subjected to the type of direct or indirect censorship that has existed in some other countries. For example, the manga industry in Japan never experienced the "witchhunt" that took place in the United States during the 1950s, when the Comics Code Authority was created. The Comics Code Authority was instituted by publishers in response to pressure by religious groups, educators, politicians, and those members of the general public who felt comics contributed to juvenile delinquency and general moral corruption. The Code helped the industry avoid some criticism, but stifled creators by strictly regulating the content of stories. The result was a glut of patriotic "superheros" fighting for good; comics became a creative ghetto and were stigmatized as something for children and immature adults. Publishers started going out of business, sales plummeted, and the industry has never recovered. In Japan, however, despite periodic anti-manga movements, the industry has been able to ride out the rough periods, and retain a very free-wheeling creative environment. Comics are not regarded as something just for children, but read by nearly everyone. The industry also was very successful early on at establishing a symbiotic, rather than competitive relationship with television, through the animation of popular manga stories. 5) Most important, manga are fabulous entertainment!

A Realm of Genres MF:

Personally, I am quite interested in the fact that females make up a significant portion of the manga consumers. In many other countries, comic book producers commonly presume that comic books for women would never sell. How do you account for this different point of view? FLS: I think that Japan conclusively proves that this view, that comics for females would never sell, is short-sighted, and very wrong. The industry in Japan very quickly figured out that if female artists drew manga stories for female readers, there was indeed a market nearly as large as that for males. MF: The "genres" of manga available to Japanese readers are quite diverse. What are some of the more popular genres being produced today, and how do you account for their popularity? Are there any popular genres you find relatively unique? FLS: Manga in Japan today have become a full-fledged mass medium, a medium of expression on par with films and novels. As a result, it's possible to use manga to depict anything. But manga are still a form of popular culture, so just as with novels and films in other countries, a great deal of the material being produced is erotic, violent, and often "trash." At the same time, there are works being created that have great beauty, and rival anything being done in novels or films in other countries. Sports and adventure stories are extremely popular with young males and romances and mysteries are popular with women. One genre that is probably unique to Japan is what are called "ju-ne mono" or stories for young women about homosexual love between handsome young men. Some other very popular genres rarely seen outside the country include manga stories about pachinko gambling and mahjong. Censorship and Content MF: In many countries, special interest groups are very concerned with the types of entertainment to which children are exposed. However, in Japan, violence and erotic imagery are fairly commonplace, even in comic books that might be read by young boys and girls. How would you assess Japanese attitudes toward this situation? FLS: I think you can make a good case for saying that the borderline between adult and child culture is more blurred in Japan than in some other countries. Religion may also have a lot to do with this. As citizens of a basically polytheistic nation, many Japanese people's ideas about eroticism and violence are not as rigid as in the United States, for example, where Christianity still has a powerful influence on what is regarded as acceptable in all arts. Despite the fact that, until recently, in Japan there was more censorship of frontal nudity in material for adults than in the U.S., innocent nudity in children's comics has long been regarded as nothing to worry about, and the same is true with scatological jokes. But then many fathers in Japan may bathe with their daughters up to the age of twelve or thirteen. Each culture has its own set of values. Finally, the inherent stability of Japanese society may make it possible for people to worry less about the effects of erotic and violent imagery on children. If the statistics don't show an explosion in crime, it may be harder to advocate cracking down on the content of manga to "protect" children. That said, I don't want to be in a position of defending the excesses of Japanese manga. I think that one of the most disturbing trends in the market is the eroticization of small, prepubescent girls in comics for adult males. MF: In actual practice, how concerned are Japanese manga producers about censorship of these or other subjects? Can you provide any examples of cases where content created a great deal of controversy or was subject to actual censorship? FLS: Manga producers worry a great deal about content when the content becomes an issue and threatens to negatively affect sales or the company image. Campaigns against excesses in manga occur with fairly regular frequency in Japan, but like a localized wind storm, tend to blow over quite fast. "Censorship" on the part of the government occurs rarely these days in manga, especially since the relaxation of obscenity laws now allows more nudity. Most government officials only get involved in extreme cases, and usually warnings and apologies are the result. Ordinances on obscenity differ according to prefecture as well; several of the huge "fanzine" markets have had to change venues in recent years because the place where the fairs were originally staged fell under the jurisdiction of very conservative officials.

Publishers have also tended to be rather sensitive to any material that raises too many foreign eyebrows. In the last ten years or so, stereotyped depictions of blacks in Japanese manga have become an issue, as did a series called "Rapeman" which was perceived as glorifying rape.

Finally, there is a real "herd" instinct in the Japanese media which includes the manga industry. When a problem occurs, people fall all over themselves in an attempt to be seen "doing the right thing." One recent example which does not directly relate to manga (yet), is the sudden concern over violence in the media; not all violence, but specifically any material with references to or scenes of heads being cut or sliced. As I write, the Japanese media is bending over backwards to assuage people's fears over a clearly berserk individual who recently beheaded a school child and stuffed a threatening letter in the head's mouth daring the authorities to catch him. The prestigious Asahi newspaper ran a fascinating article today (June 17, 1997) on all of the TV shows that have been pulled by networks because of fears that viewers will be offended by scenes of violence or cutting. Even an episode of the popular "X-Files" was pulled. These things tend to happen in waves in Japan, though, so as soon as the murderer is caught, the pressure on broadcasters will probably end.

Beyond The Current Sphere

MF: Do manga have cross cultural appeal or is the subject matter and, as you say, the "vocabulary and grammar" of the books very specific to Japanese culture? Are there significant barriers to their sale in other countries, and is this even a consideration for manga producers?

FLS:

Manga are increasingly popular overseas, in Asia, Europe, and North America. Often this popularity is piggy-backing on the popularity of Japanese anime (animation), so that many people now read manga stories to find out more about their favorite anime. The most culturally specific manga generally have not been translated and probably never well be, except in magazines like Mangajin, which uses manga as a teaching tool. Some manga genres we're never likely to see outside the country are mahjong and pachinko.

MF:

Since the 1960s, Japanese animation has become increasingly popular in Japan and elsewhere. A number of successful feature films have their origins in manga. How do you see the relationship between these two industries? Are there significant aesthetic differences? Does the Japanese consumer see them as separate types of entertainments or as being closely related in some respect?

FLS:

The manga industry is sort of a meta industry in Japan today, and it is increasingly the place where new ideas are first presented. If a story is successful in printed manga format, it is then turned into animation and sometimes live-action theatrical features. In a way, it's a very neat system, because it enables producers to do a cost effective form of market research. If a story has been enormously popular as a manga, producers know that it will have a strong chance of success in other media.

MF:

What is your prediction for the manga industry in the next ten years? Do you see any Japanese changes in society affecting subject matter, readership or formats?

FLS:

The manga industry has peaked in Japan, and we are unlikely to see much more explosive growth. When over a third of all published books and magazines are manga, there simply isn't a whole lot of room to grow. The only possibly underdeveloped areas are manga for senior citizens and the overseas markets. We'll see more and more attention being given to developing both of these. Manga also have more and more competition these days from video games, movies, and the Internet, and unfortunately, readers are getting busier and busier while there are still only twenty-four hours in a day.

MF:

Any new books on the horizon?

FLS: I don't plan to bring out any new books on manga for awhile (they take a long time to write!), and I'm hoping that two should suffice for now. Stay tuned for other books, though.

Frederik L. Schodt's book, Dreamland Japan: Writings On Modern Manga, is available for US $16.95 from Stone Bridge Press, P.O. Box 8208, Berkeley, CA 94707. E-mail: sbp@stonebridge.com.

Please visit Frederik L. Schodt's web site at http://www.jai2.com.

Maureen Furniss is the Editor and Publisher of Animation Journal, a scholarly journal based at Chapman University, in Orange, California, where she is an Assistant Professor in the School of Film and Television.

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