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Japan cracking US pop culture hegemony

Japan is quietly emerging as a global trendsetter in pop culture, as well as in green technology and environmental practices.

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Shin says that 50 years ago, people had much sharper delineations of who was good and who was evil in the world. "Now the world has changed. Nobody is sure who is good or who is evil.... The whole world is becoming borderless and unstable. The manga world's ambiguity has become realistic."

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That sense of familiarity and ambiguity is key. "There's nothing casual about this form," says Gonzalo Ferreyra, a vice president at VIZ Media, the largest US importer of manga and anime. In the past five years, he says, the company has seen high double-digit increases in sales. "These are stories that … can sustain interest for several dozen volumes."

Indeed, many readers commit to manga over decades. Suzue Miuchi, who is relaunching one of Japan's longest-running girls' manga, Glass Mask, points to letters from fans who say they have overcome weakness by tracking the life of Maya, an actress whose strong will to live helps her overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

"I have always felt that I give readers many things," says Ms. Miuchi, whose gentle demeanor belies an intense schedule of sleeping part of the day and working through the night on the series, which has run for more than 30 years. "But I am not asking them to take a certain message. You can take away what you want."

That's part of the appeal. "It's nice to be reminded that there's no one way of looking at, or surviving in, or laughing at, the world, but we all must, in the end, manage these things," Mr. Ferreyra says.

In true Japanese style, the point is made without fanfare. "I always feel like US culture bashes down doors, while Japanese culture seeps in under the door," says Bruce Rutledge, publisher of Chin Music Press in Seattle.

He points to cartoons that kids watch, but don't specifically associate with Japan. Or take sushi: "It went from being 'Gross! Raw fish!' to the food of beautiful people," he says. Japanese culture became all the rage, he adds, because "it was exotic, but it made sense or it entertained us, or both."

That point is not lost on the Japanese government, which sees the "soft power" possibilities of the country's artistic prowess. Its consular websites tout manga and animé. Government brochures share information via manga-style booklets. And Prime Minister Taro Aso is perhaps the first leader of a major nation to trumpet his credentials as a comic-book geek, though to limited success.

This year, Japan awarded its second International Manga Award to a Hong Kong artist – who beat out submissions from 46 countries, including Indonesia, Russia, Brazil, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and Spain.

"To improve your image in the world, you have to make use of all the tools available," says Kenjiro Monji, Japan's former ambassador to Iraq who recently became director general of public diplomacy, a post that was established three years ago. He is quick to note that pop culture doesn't need government's promotional hand. But, he says, he can play a role as Japan takes note of a three-fold increase since 1990 – to 3 million – in those studying Japanese. The number of Americans studying in Japan rose 13 percent between 2005 and 2007, according to the New-York based Institute of International Education. "We can use the attractive power of popular culture as an introduction," says Mr. Monji.

Amelia Newcomb reported from Japan as a fellow with the International Reporting Project.

Six of 10 bestselling graphic novels are Japanese

1. WATCHMEN TPB (Alan Moore)

2. FRUITS BASKET (Natsuki Takaya)

3. NARUTO Vol. 21 (Masashi Kishimoto)

4. THE JOKER (Brian Azzarello)

5. YU-GI-OH! (Naoyuki Kageyama)

6. WATCHMEN HC (Alan Moore)

7. NARUTO Vol. 31 (Masashi Kishimoto)


9. HELLSING Vol. 9 (Kohta Hirano)

10. CHIBI VAMPIRE Vol. 11 (Yuna Kagesaki)

Source: Nielsen BookScan