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Cartoon culture

Forget green tea and digital cameras - Japan's greatest export is manga

Cartoon culture

Published on February 15, 2008

Weekend Magazine

In 2005, the French newspaper Liberation reported that two French girls were apprehended by the authorities in Poland. It seemed the two 16yearolds, both fanatics of Japanese comics, had hatched a plan to cross the world in search of the homeland of manga and anime.

Setting off from Paris, they had planned to traverse Europe and Russia by rail. From the Korean peninsula, they would then catch a boat to Japan. A lack of visas and adult supervision cut short their odyssey. But their story gives an insight into how far and wide Japanese comics and animation have stolen in the hearts of people far beyond Japan's shores.

Since "Astro Boy" became a hit with his 1963 debut in the United States, the global popularity of Japanese comics and animation has yet to be abated. The anime "Pokemon" is broadcast in 68 countries, in 25 different languages. Manga have been translated into hundreds of languages, from Slovak to Burmese.  The comic magazine Shonen Jump has been a major hit in North America since its launch in 2002 and the comic magazine Banzai! has a successful German edition.

"Vietnamese don't really play baseball, kendo or aikido, but today's kids know these sports very well. They even know the rules. Undoubtedly, it must be because of Japanese comics and animation," says Dinh Chi Hiell, 29, a Vietnamese engineer and father of a son. "Things like cultures and lifestyle are what you cannot find in Walt Disney but [you can in] Japanese."

Mot Phalla, 25, was born in the first generation after the cruel civil war that killed more than a million people in Cambodia. He believes Japanese animation and manga offered a version of childhood normality to his generation.

"I enjoyed watching Japanese animation so much. It's fun and interesting. It can help me and other children of my age to be happy again after the pain of the war," he says.

Tao Bo, 24, a Chinese student studying in Japan, recalls that when he was a junior high school student, other kinds of Japanese media were not generally accessible but that manga was widely read.

"I got manga for the first time in my life when I won it from a writing competition in my city. It's something I've never seen before. So impressive and cool. " All the students in his age group read Japanese comic books. It was a daily topic of conversation.

But not everybody in China has welcomed the imports. In line with the old Japanese adage that "reading manga all the time makes you stupid", Bo explains that, besides concern about depictions of violence and nudity, there has been a rising tide of concern among today's Chinese parents that manga and anime will distract their kids from serious study.

For Bo, however, manga was a great platform. "I and my friends liked "Dragon Ball" so much that we practiced drawing all the characters. Other manga like "Doraemon" made me curious about the real Japan. Manga made me interested in Japan regardless of the conflicts in the past between the two countries," says Bo, who has been studying in Japan since he was 19.

Antonios Karaiskos, 26, a student from Greece, accepts that some anime and manga can raise concerns: "Many of them, like hentai manga and anime, contain violent and explicit sexual scenes. Moreover, many young readers and audiences might have a wrong impression since they could not differentiate between reality and imagination in the manga and anime."

Like Bo, however, he sees manga as a positive influence in his own childhood. Growing up in Athens with a Japanese mother, Karaiskos recalls that his mother introduced manga in Japanese to him when he was about eight years old, in order to help him to practice Japanese and equip him with the knowledge about Japan.

"It did the trick. I found the manga so interesting, I was enthusiastic to learn more about Japanese and the country. As a result, when I came to Japan, I didn't feel left out. I knew how Japanese people think and I knew the do's and don'ts in Japanese society," says Karaikos who is now pursuing his master's degree in Japan.

"Manga and anime are the first important stepping stones for an interest in Japan, because you can consume them even when you are a child and the impression from them can take a very deep root," says Karaikos.

In Thailand, where manga and anime have been a significant part of popular culture for more than 30 years, Thai people have begun to move beyond merely consuming manga. Over the past half decade, local cartoonists, inspired by Japanese comics, have begun to subvert the Japanese hegemony on cartoon bookshelves. The result is Thai "pocket books" with a Japanese look but Thai storylines.

Cartoonist Panuwat Wattananukul grew up reading manga. "Japanese comic books and animation were my childhood fantasy and my inspiration to do my work," he says. Today Wattananukul is in the forefront of Thai cartoonists. His work EXEcutional  and its online game version are a hugely popular among local youngsters.

Neither is it just professional artists who are interacting actively with manga.  Otaku, a Japanese word roughly equivalent to the English "geek", has come to describe an increasingly global group of subcultures which celebrate manga and anime. France hosts  "Japan Expo", the largest Japanese subculture event in Europe, and, last year, 100,000 anime fans celebrated the 15th anniversary of "Anime Expo" in a suburb of Los Angeles. Fans of cosplay, an otaku genre in which fans dress up as manga or anime characters, assembled from around the world at the World Cosplay Summit 2006 in Nagoya. Similarly large events have been staged in Asian countries such as Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia.

Dojinshi, selfpublished works of manga by fans of manga and usually featuring characters taken from mainstream manga, is another subculture, using the internet as a medium. YAOI, a genre of Dojinshi that focuses on homosexual relationships between male characters, seems to be the most popular, especially amoung girl readers, and is also the most criticized.

"Although I found it different and very interesting, my parents don't want me to read it," says a Danish student, Astrid H. Kongsted, 15, who is a member of yaoi.shisaite.net, a YAOI online community that has members from 113 countries.

It is not the first time that a globalised popular culture has had the power to shock parents and watchdogs of morality. Rock music and MTV, to name a couple, became a phenomenon and generated waves of adoration and anger across the globe. It is, however, perhaps the first time that such a globalised popular culture tsunami has emanated from Japan. If the big wave can still attack the global village hard like this, it might become as Takashi Murakami, a leading Japanese pop artist, said, "Maybe someday the whole world will turn otaku."

- Jessada Salathong

Side bar:

Manga's popularity is academic

Ravaged by war, Japan in the "lost decade" of the late 1940s and '50s gave rise to a new pop culture - manga, literally "whimsical pictures".

Over the years, manga has become a worldwide phenomenon. The sparkling eyes, short skirts and long legs of Sailor Moon and her friends are known to many, as are such characters as Doraemon, Pokemon, Astro Boy and Dragon Ball Z.

Many bestselling manga series have been made into such films as the "Death Note" series, the action movie "GTO" that was made from a longstanding series "Great Teacher Onizuka", "Tennis No Oujisama" from tennisinspired drama series "The Prince of Tennis" ... and the list goes on.

In the fashion world, artist Takashi Murakami introduced manga style to highend French brand Louis Vuitton. In Thailand, mangamania reigns among teenagers, who snap up the comics and engage in cosplay in Siam Square at weekends.

Manga is, technically, a book that has pictures telling stories instead of text. It can be anything for everyone; romantic stories, suspense, comedy, educational or fantasy.

"That's why manga fits perfectly as a tool to carry Japan's culture to the outside world," Junichi Yano, deputy director of the Foreign Press Centre's Media Relations Division, says. "Anyone can read manga. Kids read stories for children when they're still young, and when they grow up they shift to something that suits their adolescent interests. Even middleaged people have something they can read in manga. Manga is open for everything and there is no censorship. It's a freedom of expression of thoughts and ideas, and most importantly it represents Japanese culture."

Manga style is widely used in public relations booklets by governments, schools, medical societies and other organisations. It's a big business that is gradually expanding, requiring more skilled artists to meet the demand. But while there are many cartoonists who can draw perfectly, it takes special talent to create great stories.

Such demand spurred Seika University in Kyoto to establish the world's first ever Faculty of Manga in 2006. Admissions have increased each year, with students from Japan as well Korea, China and Taiwan. The fouryear course teaches how to write stories, draw and develop characters.

"We are fully aware that manga is a totally freeform art and it cannot be taught or given formats to," says Keiichi Makino, dean of the Manga Faculty, a former political cartoonist for the Yomiuri Times. The awardwinning artist became a professor in 1994 after nearly 20 years as a cartoonist. "The faculty is to develop the systematic and comprehensive study of this field and foster young artists and producers."

Though the Manga Faculty has up to 200 graduates each year, the scene still lacks enough talented manga artists who can meet the insatiable demand for good, original stories.

"A real manga artist is not just a good illustrator," explains Machiko Satonaka, one of Japan's most respected manga artists. "You have to be able to come up with good stories, create original characters, make good plots. You put it together and make it interesting with your style and story telling. Every little thing, like what to put in one box, where to leave blank spaces or how much shading needed is crucial. And the most important things are the impact your story and drawing have on the readers and whether they will catch the same drifts and feeling you put in. You can't just draw."

The 60year old manga artist started drawing manga when she was 16. "I knew since back then, at that very young age that I wanted to be a manga artist. I fanaticised and daydreamed a lot, and I also practised a lot. There was no manga school when I started, I copied and learned from the good ones. I'm not saying manga schools are not important. They can help with teachable skills, but somehow you can't teach people to be creative. You can't mass produce artists." n

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan is holding the second Manga International Awards to inspire and promote manga arts. The first year's awards had 146 entries and candidates from 12 countries. Entries are being accepted until February 29. For more information, see www.mofa.go.jp/policy/culture/manga/index.html.

Manta Klangboonkrong

The writer visited Japan at the invitation of the Japan Embassy.



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