Some have wondered –actually they have asked me directly- why I have ignored in my “Letters” what is probably Japan’s most famous export, the one which is responsible for the biggest part of its popularity and especially among young people for at least the last thirty years and the one that has become the symbol of the “Cool Japan” movement that at some point the Japanese government tried (albeit not very successfully) to quantify and benefit from: the comics manga (漫画). The answer is simple: I feel somewhat awkward when it comes to the manga because my involvement with them is small; to be accurate, if compared to their penetration in the Japanese society, it is infinitesimal. In reality, if we exclude the “Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Koen Mae Hasutsujo” (こちら葛飾区亀有公園前派出所) and “Sazae-san” about whom I had written previously, the world of the manga is for me virtually unknown.
Writing the above though, I realize that without ever having read them, I know how to distinguish the almost monkey-like Goku from “Dragonball”, Monkey D. Luffy and several of the pirates from “One Piece”, the newcomer alien Koro-sensei from “Ansatsu Kyoshitsu”, the ninja Naruto, the cat-robot Doraemon and the Nobi family it lives with, the apocalypse warrior Kenshiro from “Hokuto no Ken”, the executioner Ogami Ito and his son Daigoro from “Kozure Okami”, the swordsman Rouroni Kenshin, the assassin Duke Togo/Gorgo 13 and the robot-boy Tetsuwan Atomu, symbol of the new, postwar era in Japan and probably the only comics hero in the world who has borrowed his music theme to a railway station (that of Takadanobaba in Tokyo). And if I push myself a little harder, I’m sure I’ll find another dozen of familiar images –perhaps even more.
This is perhaps the hardest part to explain to someone who isn’t very well acquainted with Japan: the extent to which all Japanese are exposed to manga is so big that it is impossible to be here for more than a few days and not start immersing in them. In convenient stores/konbini, in bookstores, in the specialized shops (which, contrary to common belief are not limited to Akihabara and Nakano), in trains and parks and in the hands of children, adolescents, adults and seniors, men and women, in outdoors advertising and on television, in magazines and newspapers, the manga have been almost everywhere for at least two centuries covering every subject –from the banal to the extreme and from the funniest to the most serious. Contrary to the West where to get to the comics you need to cross the borders of entertainment, in Japan the manga are just one more dimension of everyone’s everyday expression; the enormous numbers of the corresponding industry aren’t but the inevitable consequence.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.