How manga shapes Japanese identity

Manga has become something of a global phenomenon, but every iteration and comic-strip has its origins in a particularly Japanese visual culture.

Bookshelf with anime comic books and magazine in a shop in Akihibara, Tokyo, Japan.
Bookshelf with anime comic books and magazine in a shop in Akihibara, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Manga — that is, comics or graphic narratives — have been attracting critical attention as a part of Japanese culture with an extraordinary suitability for transcultural flows. But not all manga are popular with global audiences, and not all manga exhibit the traits which people perceive as ‘Japanese’. Both ‘manga proper’ and ‘Japaneseness’ are a matter of perspective, and as such they call for address in the plural form.

While different actors identify different kinds of manga as Japanese, inside as well as outside of Japan, a felt recognisability as Japanese is one common thread running through recent discourses, as Stevie Suan, for example, discusses with regard to anime. Against this backdrop, tracking down what exactly it is which makes manga Japanese appears to be less reasonable than pursuing how manga is Japanese — that is, which aspects of manga distinguish it from other kinds of comics.

This essay focuses on three aspects: industry, that is, Japan as the initial site of manga production and the extraordinarily inventive business model of combining magazines as market makers with subsequent book editions as profit generators; mediality, which ranges from the materiality of the magazine format to the cultural and aesthetic interrelations supported by it; and representation, especially insofar as it applies to what linguist and cognitive scientist Neil Cohn has called ‘Japanese Visual Language’, a modular symbol system, highly consistent across artists and easy to share. As the three aspects are closely interrelated, they will partly overlap in the sections below.


In Japan, the word manga has had a broad semantic range since the nineteenth century when pictorial reference books flourished under that name, such as the Hokusai Manga (1814–78). Later the word was employed as a label for newspaper caricatures and comic strips and subsequently for animated cartoons on TV (that is, before the term anime gained currency in the 1970s). During the postwar period, however, manga has come to signify primarily entertaining graphic narratives, whose representational devices and consumption practices are grounded in magazine serialisation. This is what the Japanese word manga evokes today in the first place, whereas book editions [tankobon], which follow the serialisation of successful works, have been circulating mainly under the name of komikkusu — from English comics. Evolved under the specific conditions of postwar Japan, the publication format of the magazine distinguishes manga — as an industry, medium and form of representation — from other kinds of comics, in the eyes of both Japanese and non-Japanese members of the manga camp. The very fact that all attempts at transplanting this format to other markets have failed may attest to its particularity, or Japaneseness.

The Republic of Korea had come closest to the Japanese market until the 1997 financial crisis affected their publication industry to the extent that most manhwa magazines were discontinued and efforts turned to online comics, so-called webtoons, a domain in which Korea is much more advanced than Japan, as Park in-Soo describes. Thus, the first thing which makes manga culturally distinctive is not an illustration style or representational substance, but a specific publication format and the related business model.

Tankobon volumes, running to approximately two hundred pages, made the cheaply produced, low-price and highly volatile manga magazine contents commercially viable. Japan has been one of the few countries in the world where comics artists can make a living, thanks to the close interrelation between magazines and tankobon, which has formed the core of the manga industry. But since 2005, the initially subsidiary book edition has become paramount, generating approximately two thirds of the annual sales of all printed manga, and major manga magazines now have an eye on so-called media mix from the very beginning of drafting a series.

Due to the rapid ageing of Japan’s society, the prime target group for the magazines — teenagers — is shrinking, and they prefer smartphone and games to printed matter (as visual as it may be). Accordingly, the industry’s commercial heyday, exemplified by the magazine Shonen Jump and its 6.53 million copies a week in 1995, has entered the realm of nostalgia: in 2015, Shonen Jump had a weekly print run of less than 2.4 million copies. Thanks to the wide circulation of manga magazines, a significant proportion of the Japanese population is manga-literate by now. But this situation is about to regress due to the landslide changes in media usage induced by digitalisation. These gained momentum when the northeastern paper mills became inoperative after the triple disaster of March 11, 2011: the tsunami and the subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant triggered by a major earthquake.

Even if classic manga content reformatted for mobile devices or video games is the entry point for young consumers, manga in the sense of printed, monochrome and mute graphic narratives, is becoming a old medium. This transformation manifests itself in a new indifference towards medium specificity. In Japan, fans and critics had been distinguishing printed comics from animated TV series since the 1970s, not least because of the prevalence of the magazine format. But outside Japan, where the broad reception of both media set in decades later, the word manga has more often than not been used in a non-medium specific way, namely in reference to a whole range of subcultural phenomena, stretching from fan communities and their activities to character design, illustration style, and narrative conventions.


One of manga’s major properties is networking, something which takes its departure from the magazine’s mediating between characters and readers, artists and readers, and also readers and readers. Once specialised magazines were established (beginning in the 1950s), their pages had to be filled and the consumers kept hooked. This was accomplished not only by extended serialised narratives, but also through paratextual elements which usually do not reappear in the later book edition; for example, short comments by the manga artist addressed directly to readers, or announcements by the editors in the magazine’s page margins. In addition, survey postcards and special pages reserved for letters and fan art helped to involve readers in quasi-virtual communities. The magazine format seems to have anticipated what was materialised fully by the internet, which in turn has proved to be vital for manga’s global spread. In other words, the fact that manga’s globalisation gained momentum around 2000, in parallel with the rise in popularity of the internet, cannot only be traced back to the historical disinterest of major Japanese publishing houses in foreign markets. Apparently, the manga medium itself – its participatory and community-building potential – has matched the phase of transition from the culture of the Gutenberg galaxy to the mediascape of the information society.

Forming the backbone of the manga industry from the late 1950s to the early 2000s, the publication format of the magazine also gave rise to another one of manga’s most salient characteristics: gender-specific genres. From the 1970s onwards, the gendering encompassed both artists and readers (not magazine editors though). But while series targeted at men are not necessarily being read only by men, feminine-looking page layouts and linework are less likely to cross borders of gendered taste. Down to the present day, the public ‘standard’ of manga manifests itself in the male genres.

Symptomatic in that regard is the inclination of politicians and civil servants to privilege male artists who employ a generically masculine style. For its 2015 free brochure, Tokyo Bosai [Disaster Preparedness Tokyo], the Tokyo metropolitan government commissioned Kawaguchi Kaiji to create the fourteen-page manga supplement Tokyo ‘X’ Day. And deputy prime minister Aso Taro, who has been promoting ‘Cool Japan’ since the early 2000s, is known to be in favour of Saito Takao and his hard-boiled action series Golgo 13 (running since 1968). While works by artists like these are mainly popular with elderly [salary]men, the online fan community shows an inclination to ascribe to them ‘an outdated style called gekiga’, as Takeuchi Miho observes.

Serialised graphic narratives targeted at girls and women [shojo, josei] have led female readers worldwide not only to consume, but also to create manga. Although stylistically close to Japanese manga, their publication is not necessarily linked to the Japanese market anymore. To cite two Swedish examples, Åsa Ekström is now successfully publishing in Japanese — an originally produced collection of comic strips titled Nordic Girl Åsa Discovers the Mysteries of Japan (2015–16), and a Japanese translation of her Swedish publication Sayonara September (2015). In contrast, Nosebleed Studio, now formed by Natalia and Catarina Batista, Elise Rosberg, Joakim Waller and Alice Engström, relies mainly on a domestic fan-base rather than Japanese corporate support for producing manga.

Two differences between manga beyond Japan and in Japan are noteworthy though. First, the generic gendering is less possible abroad where manga readership forms a minority anyway; many non-Japanese readers who are not familiar with manga still assume this medium to be ‘childish’ and, in the case of female styles, even perpetuating conservative gender roles in part due to its non-realistic and highly conventional visual rendering.

Second, manga has come to be appreciated inside and outside Japan as an apparently inexhaustible reservoir of narratives. This again rests on the magazine format. The available space allows not only for dynamic, rapid-fire action sequences, but also for lengthy pursuit of affective states and emotional changes — one dialogue may fill many pages, in which the plot does not progress much — and a more visual rather than verbal story-telling. Manga artists and their editors have developed sophisticated techniques of paneling, guiding the reader’s gaze across pages and double-page spreads.

The mode of magazine serialisation has given rise to an interplay of page and panel as well as an aesthetic awareness of the double-page spread. These did not have an equivalent in western comics until recent exchanges and attempts to create something which can be called a fusion style. In general, printed graphic narratives hold the potential to unsettle the reader who incessantly has to decide whether to privilege the single panel or the entire page, if not the double-page spread: the page may push itself to the fore of the reader’s attention, and then again, the page may go unnoticed, and characters may stay within borders, within ‘shots’ or frozen moments to be visually scanned in sequence. While the two variants assume different weight in different works, a high degree of interrelatedness remains characteristic of manga. If it does not apply to the relation between panel and page, it applies certainly to the relation between panels on a page: cut out, few manga panels are strong enough to convince by themselves as autonomous images.


Reaching beyond the actual publication format and related business model, genre-specific magazines have shaped the local as well as global identity of manga as a highly codified and participatory media, suiting (and structurally anticipating) the age of digital networks and virtual reality. Back in the 1980s, European comic critics still agreed that manga were culturally too particular, and therefore too exclusive, for Europeans to enjoy easily. Thirty years later, manga has become, according to cognitive linguist Neil Cohn, ‘one of the most recognisable styles of representation’. This characteristic is usually traced back to Tezuka Osamu (1928–89), the pioneer of graphic narratives in postwar Japan, who defined his drawing style famously as ‘hieroglyphic’; a tool for storytelling. Adopting these hieroglyphs — or modules — has proven to be socially rewarding for younger people worldwide as it allows them to enter a community and to acquire social identity as one of its members. Thus, many non-Japanese people have become ‘manga-literate’. They know that a so-called chibi — a diminutive creature — may be a different manifestation of the same character, relating, for example, an inner self-image and not just an inner voice; they are familiar with the manga- specific device of layering perspectives within one and the same panel, for example, when the object at which a character gazes appears behind this very character as if they could gaze with the back of their head; and they are able to process abundant modifiers and decode pictograms or visual ‘morphems’ (as Cohn calls them), like wordless speech balloons containing only three dots as a sign of speechlessness, cruciform popping veins as a sign of anger, and nosebleeds as an indication of lust.

This manga literacy has been one factor in spurring the global popularity of a recent series whose protagonist lacks the infamous manga-esque saucer eyes, namely Nakama Ryo’s The Story of Isobe Isobee: Life Is Hard in the Floating World, serialised in Weekly Shonen Jump and related magazines since 2013. Protagonist Isobe Isobee has a face reminiscent of kabuki actors depicted in ukiyo-e woodcut prints, and as such he may appear very Japanese to those who are familiar with this form of traditional visual art, but for manga consumers, his look took getting used to. What makes the series appear Japanese in a manga-specific sense is not necessarily character design. On the industrial and media side, it is the publication site – the flagship manga magazine — and this magazine’s recent engagement in developing globally successful media franchises. Isobee has proven his aptitude for crossing media from magazine serialisation to bound book edition (sixteen tankobon volumes in total), to Flash and web anime, and even a stage version, not forgetting related fan production, primarily online via social networking sites. On the representational side, it is the use of abundant modifiers, including a nosebleed when reading erotic books, the varying page layouts, and also verbal elements such as humorous dialogue, but most important is the overall setting and tone of the narrative.

Set in Edo in the early nineteenth century, the series features a lazy slacker who lives with his mother although he is of marriageable age. In front of her he pretends to be devoted to the way of the samurai, but actually he is more like a contemporary hikikomori, a reclusive young man who withdraws from social life. Similarly, he is not good at communicating with women (whom he desires) and consumes pornography instead. Thus, the success of Nakama’s series suggests that the key to a popular manga lies less in an apparently ‘Japanese’ look than in accessible, and by now globally shared, cultural references as well as playfulness, which is not necessarily in line with straight, content-oriented readings. What Isobee offers is neither historical realism nor a serious approach to contemporary social issues, but a parody of cultural nostalgia for a time long gone and, for male readers, the opportunity to laugh at the hikikomori in themselves. The identification of Japaneseness is usually focused on visible traits.

One of them is the visual representation of ethnicity in manga. Isobee, for example, looks Japanese, from his small eyes to his hairstyle and attire. The fact that he enjoys popularity among Japanese and non-Japanese consumers alike may be related by some critics to the latter’s indulging in Orientalist desire, but it also points in a different direction, one beyond representationalist readings. Manga’s way of conventionalising representations (for example, of ethnicity) distracts from the initial reference, and thereby entails the possibility of moving beyond segregation altogether. As is widely known among fans, whether manga faces are ethnically specified differs according to genre. While shojo [girls’] manga shows a particularly strong penchant towards Westernisation and employs Japanese faces mostly for the characterisation of supporting characters (to indicate sneakiness or other flaws), manga for men, especially realist ones for non-infant readers [seinen and gekiga], feature Japanese or Asian faces occasionally, as do Otomo Katsuhiro’s AKIRA (1982–90), Urasawa Naoki’s Billy Bat (2008–12) and Kawaguchi Kaiji’s Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President (1998–2001). But they also exhibit a penchant to deracialise, and thereby universalise, their protagonist, in contrast to some of his female partners.

In female genres, Caucasian-looking Japanese characters are mostly signifiers without Caucasian signifieds. Precisely this makes them available to both consumerist play and post-ethnic projections, for example by non-Japanese fans of various ethnicities and races. While Caucasian as conventionalised, and as such allegedly neutral, faces may be related to a utopia beyond race altogether, representational readings can become a barrier for easily investing imagery with fantastic visions or experiences of one’s own everyday life. Yet, manga balks at being subjected to either representation or use-related analysis. It calls for both, just as mangaesque faces can pass as both ethnically neutral and specified, depending on context and the viewer’s experience.

In the late 1980s, when manga started to attract critical attention inside and outside of Japan, its Japaneseness was not of much interest to Japanese manga critics. Their battlefield was limited to the domestic public sphere – and they did not know much about non-Japanese comics anyway. Today, manga is inclined to be identified as Japanese by completely different actors, despite the key role of intercultural exchange during its formative years and recent transcultural flows that have already given rise to a significant number of non-Japanese productions.

For most of its history, manga has been flying not only above the radar of national identity, but also below it, belonging to the domain of subcultures, and as such being prone to attempts at regulation (first and foremost with respect to sexual representation).

This essay did not aim to dismantle discourses of nationalisation, or expose the contribution of popular media to a homogenised notion of Japanese culture. It rather foregrounded distinctive features of manga as comics. It goes without saying that these are always informed by discourses, and these discourses suggest that manga can stand in for ‘Japan’ and go beyond it at the same time. It is local enough to be recognisable as a brand which conjoins attempts at nation branding, and it is sufficiently global, appearing as a local variant of globally shared affects, demands and media experiences. With respect to critical engagement, especially outside Japan, a hope remains that manga gains acknowledgment in its own right, and is not limited to being a representation of Japaneseness.


Jaqueline Berndt