Japanese manga has developed in a way unseen in other countries

For better or worse, a new source of materials for researchers of manga and anime has emerged since 2018: Original drawings and pictures of Japanese manga and anime began to be traded at high prices at Sotheby’s, Artcurial and other prestigious international auction houses.

Traditionally, such original drawings were traded within marketplaces for enthusiasts in Japan and overseas. I, for one, have acquired such materials for my research through this route. Prices varied widely, but even in such marketplaces it was not uncommon for prices amounting to millions of yen to be quoted for the original drawings of renowned animation directors, despite the fact that they were not meant to be artworks in themselves but merely intermediate production materials.

The prices of such original drawings and animation cels soared by an order of magnitude upon entering the catalogues of prestigious auction houses. In 2018, the British Museum featured a full-scale exhibition of Japanese manga, which may have contributed to attracting speculative interest.

Comic books and animated feature films are produced in many countries. Disney’s works in particular constituted an important part of America’s international cultural hegemony from the Mid- to Late 20th Century. Since around the 1990s, Japanese manga and anime have come to acquire comparable international presence and cultural recognition. Hypothetically, this was largely due to their unique development path, quite different from that of Disney’s works.

This development was largely attributable to the spread of manga to a wider range of age groups in Japan beyond children. In the past, in Japan, too, manga was predominantly regarded as reading material for children, with the exception of satirical cartoons. It was the postwar baby boomers that gradually changed the situation. In 1959, when the boomers were 5th or 6th graders in elementary school, weekly comics for boys started to appear. At that time, such magazines, highly optimized to cater to the generation, were of a totally new breed. Coincidentally, not just one but two magazines, Weekly Shonen Sunday and Weekly Shonen Magazine were launched simultaneously, resultantly in competition with each other.

The magazines began to constitute a generational experience for the readers, and it was not unusual for them to continue reading manga through their teenage years. By the late 1960s, when this generation had reached adulthood, college students indulging in manga magazines on the trains started to appear, much to the disgust of older generations.

At that time, college students were considered to be much more elite than today. Reading manga magazines in public also served as a fashion statement of the anti-establishment movement amidst the raging student revolt. The then-popular phrase “Holding [Asahi] Journal in one hand and [Weekly Shonen] Magazine on the other” reflects the mood of the time.

Meanwhile, Ashita no Joe, then serialized in Weekly Shonen Magazine, for example, offered a deep depiction of the protagonist who was raised in a slum area, giving a frosty look at his contemporaries who innocently enjoyed emerging lifestyle trends. While miniskirts, “group sounds (rock bands)”, “go-go cafes (discotheques)” and other youth culture were touted as the forerunners of a new era together with the campus riots, the manga magazines stood behind such youth culture and by the side of a large majority of youths and their sentiment when only one out of five high school students went onto college.

Then, to follow up on the maturing readers, magazine houses started publishing manga magazines for young adults and businesspersons one after another. Manga had become so popular and accepted in society by the time the baby boomers reached middle age that, for example, Introduction to Japanese Economy a la Manga became a bestselling book.

Not to forget, many girls’ manga magazines were created, evolving from the girls’ magazines of the prewar period. Manga for girls became no less popular than those for boys. The sheer volume of comic production catered to girls is also unique to Japan and not seen in other countries. Like their counterparts for male readers, manga magazines for young women, “ladies’ comics,” and even manga magazines for middle- and older-aged women were launched.

Academic significance of systematic archiving of manga

As a result of these developments, Japanese manga has come to acquire an aspect of being a unique historical record of the Japanese people, having reflected the changing values and lifestyles of each and every age-gender group from the postwar generation and onwards. What, for example, were young girls of the 1960s yearning for? How different was the world that they were seeing then from the one that the young boys of the same generation were seeing, or from the one that the young girls of the 1970s were seeing ten years later? What kind of lifestyle did they pursue when they started to have a family in the 1980s?

By studying manga from such perspective, one can learn much more than just the history of manga per se. Systematic archiving of manga provides a fertile deposit of research materials for the study of changes in the lives of Japanese people, especially since the postwar period. This is one of the reasons why our university established a library dedicated to manga.

The significance of this library is greatly enhanced by the fact that very few institutions store manga systematically and with a degree of completeness, and that manga is still a relatively new area for academic research. Even though manga has been appreciated through the decades by a wide range of the Japanese people, it has traditionally been regarded as an insignificant subculture, with an abundance of areas left unexplored by serious researchers.

The National Diet Library does archive manga magazines and tankobon (independent volumes), but there are quite a number of missing issues of manga magazines that the publishers failed to deliver to the NDL. Moreover, the NDL archives books of all kinds after removing any dust jackets, obi paper strips or other book covers, with few exceptions. For this reason, the manga tankobon archived in NDL do not allow researchers to examine the cover illustrations that the people should have seen when they were hunting for manga to read at the bookstore, let alone take photocopies of them. This is a major obstacle for research reference.

At our Manga Library, we keep any cover, obi, and free premium item that were attached to the book or magazine as it arrived at the library. In addition, the library manages them without putting barcode labels or library stamps, and all collections are maintained in a condition suitable for individual exhibition.

The books and magazines archived at the NDL are predominantly those submitted out of the bookstore distribution route. The once-popular kashihon (rental) manga that circulated only through rental bookstores during the 1950s and early 1960s, and the doujinshi (self-published) manga that has been serving as a major foundation of manga, anime, and game culture after the late 1970s are only rarely found at the NDL. In fact, kashihon manga and doujinshi constitute an essential portion of our collection at the Mange Library of Meiji University. In that sense, our collection is highly complementary to that of the National Diet Library.

Internationality of Japanese manga, anime, and games

Meiji University opened the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library of Manga and Subcultures in 2009. We announced then our plan to use the Manga Library as a forerunner facility to eventually establish a larger and more comprehensive archival museum encompassing not only manga but also anime and games.

Although there are already manga libraries, museums of anime, and efforts to archive games in Japan and elsewhere, no full-fledged facilities exist yet with a framework that enables manga, anime, and games to be systematically archived and exhibited together to encompass their heavily interrelated cultural and industrial development in Japan.

The international success of Japanese manga, anime, and games is rooted in their diversity of content, based on their wide readership of manga in Japan. Many of the genres and traits that were developed in manga upon this readership were then ported to anime and games through transmedia franchising, and vice versa. Comprehensive archiving of Japanese manga, anime and games is essential for both research and exhibition purposes in order to analyze and showcase how their international transcendence was achieved.

For example, in stark contrast to Disney’s animated films that are made to be enjoyed by family audiences, many anime exclusively for girls or for young adults were produced in Japan, based on a broad range of manga that were created upon a finely segmented readership. Titles such as Sailor Moon and AKIRA gave fresh impressions worldwide, being unlike any animated cartoon from Disney or Hanna Barbera. The wide acceptance of manga within Japan has led to a unique growth that has spread throughout the world.

Because of this international popularity, in recent years, Japanese manga and anime have attracted attention not only from commercial enterprises but also from governmental bodies, both local and national, as important cultural resources to promote the economy through inbound tourism.

Examples include the huge 18-meter Mobile Suit Gundam statue installed in a public park that took part in the Tokyo metropolitan government’s campaign to bid for the Olympic Games, and the featuring of Captain Tsubasa and Doraemon in the video presentation as well as the appearance of the then Prime Minister Abe himself in a Super Mario costume to promote Tokyo as the next host city at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics. Today, Japanese manga and anime are utilized in ways which would have been unthinkable when they were regarded as mere subcultures.

This international acclaim has also led to the situation I alluded to at the outset about the trading of original drawings and the like at high prices in international art auctions. If one is to look for some signs of danger in the current situation, there is a risk that the evaluation of these cultural assets that have been nurtured by the common people of our country would be dominantly commanded by the principles of capitalistic speculation on the stage of international art auction houses and by the authority and interests of powerful museums overseas, where they might eventually land.

Against this backdrop, one of the most challenging issues in the Meiji University project to create an archive facility complex for manga, anime, and games is how effectively we would be able to acquire and archive original drawings and the like in cooperation with artists, publishers, and production studios.

* The information contained herein is current as of October 2021.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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