One Piece, a long-running comic book series about a band of pirates, recently broke its own sales record by selling 1.5 million copies of its latest volume in a single week. It’s a stunning number that speaks to the influence of comics, or manga, in Japan, a phenomenon going strong despite the new technologies and entertainment that inundate our modern lives.
Go to any train station or convenience store in Japan and you’ll see racks of manga magazines with subjects including sports, cooking, horror, history, romance, sci-fi, fashion, gambling and even medicine. But manga isn’t just about escapism; there are manga textbooks, how-to books and non-fiction memoirs like Ichi-F, Kazuto Tatsuta’s graphic novel about working on the clean-up of the Fukushima nuclear plant. That’s one of the many reasons I love reading manga: the variety of stories and art styles means I can always find something new and exciting to read. And I’m not alone: manga makes up almost a third of the magazine and book publishing industry in Japan, racking up annual sales of about US$4 billion.
Japan’s love affair with manga endures perhaps because it is such a visually driven culture. On the most basic level, written Japanese involves kanji characters, which are essentially pictograms. In modern times, the Japanese created emojis back in 1999, as well as elaborate versions of emoticons before that. Manga-style storytelling is so woven into the everyday culture of Japan – for example, subway etiquette posters are often drawn as manga – it’s taken for granted as an effective way to communicate ideas quickly to a broad audience.
In other cultures, comics are sometimes regarded as a childish, low-brow form of entertainment. In Japan, comics are viewed as a vital, artistic storytelling medium capable of conveying almost any kind of story, much as movies and TV are viewed in Western cultures. And it doesn’t take a lot of money or technology to get into manga. Anyone with a pen, paper and some spare time can chase their dreams of manga superstardom and, if they reach the very top of the profession, can be rewarded with fame, wealth and respect similar to great film directors, fine artists and authors. One Piece’s creator, for instance, is estimated to make US$26 million a year.
While printed manga magazines and books are still very popular, today you’re just as likely to see people reading manga on their smartphones. And in the future? Maybe augmented reality and virtual reality will be the next incarnations.
Deb Aoki is an illustrator and manga blogger based in Oakland, US