From the title of the post you’ll have gathered that this is a little “off the beaten track” in context to what I normally post. The essay contained within this post is what I wrote for my history minor subject for the first year of university. I had great fun writing it, and it provided me with quite an interesting subject to research as I couldn’t find much written material dealing with manga in the context of the ideas of Benedict Anderson. This also meant that most the ideas I wrote here I had to construct myself. Therefore, my views will probably clash with yours, particuarly if you’re interested in Japanese history or manga itself. However, the joy of history is that it’s purely subjective, and that’s exactly how it should be. I hope someone finds this enjoyable – as I mentioned before, it was fun to write.
Japan, the Invention of Manga, and the Creation of an Imagined Community
Manga (Japanese comics) hold a prominent place in contemporary Japanese media. However, this was not always the case. Manga itself is a relatively new form of medium, despite the claims to the contrary – indeed, manga has only reached its maturity and prominence in Japanese culture post Second World War. Holding a 27% market share of all books and magazines produced in Japan in 1984, ((Frederik L. Schodt, Manga! Manga!, The World of Japanese Comics (Kodansha International Ltd., Tokyo, 1986), p. 12)) rising to 38% in 1989, ((Shuppan Kagaku Kenkyūjo)) and only rising ever more since then, manga has become a part of the staple diet of Japanese printed culture. Indeed, it is so influential that it’s community of readers is increasingly diverse, indeed, in many books on the subject of manga the quip is made that it is not uncommon to see a businessman and a schoolboy sitting on the train next to one another, both reading the same manga magazine. Unlike the West, the reading of comics is seen to be perfectly normal. With ‘Shônen’ manga for boys, ‘Shôjo’ for girls, even ‘Seinen’ and ‘Josei’ for men and women no walk of life is left uncovered – there are even ‘Shōnen-ai’ manga produced, targeted for a gay audience.
Whilst manga claims to be a tradition of Japanese culture, this is not the case. Although there is a link to Japanese art, in truth the style was mainly adopted from western comics’ style of sequential storytelling, with the style of drawing adapted over decades to create the “traditional” manga style of the modern age. This style deviates from Western comics in that space is utilised to effect, and over-sized eyes are used to convey emotion, rather than the greater emphasis on dialogue present in western comics. This does indeed have links with the Japanese past – the use of a language comprised of ideographs means the Japanese were at home using pictures to tell a story, rather than relying on dialogue. Nationalistic manga fans usually tell how the origins of manga were in religious artists who draw scrolls of religious stories in a sequential story fashion. This style then grew into the Japanese version of the English ‘Penny Dreadfuls’, an early comic with the story told in one picture with the story written around it, all on one page. These nationalists then state that the introduction of western comics to the Japanese world introduced the Japanese artists to the comic style, which was then combined with the Japanese style to produce the manga comics. However, this European influence on Japanese artists is precisely what defined the contemporary manga style. Magazines like “Japanese Punch” introduced the Japanese artists to a new style of humour and sequential storytelling that had never been used before. European studies and techniques on anatomy were utilised to create the realism surrounding the characters of manga comics. These cartoons also introduced the comic portrayal of stereotypes to the Japanese cartoonists – specifically the exaggerated nose of the European. This ‘humour of stereotypes’ was used in the invention of the portrayal of the Japanese as having small, flat noses, rather than the bulky nose of the European. This fact that manga’s tenuous links with traditional Japanese writing and drawing has been used by Nationalists to emphasise it’s ‘Japaneseness’ shows that there are clear parallels to the ideas of Eric Hobsbawm in the nationalistic culture surrounding it. Hobsbawm makes the point that “new traditions could be readily grafted on old ones”, ((Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Introduction’ and ‘Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe 1870-1914′ in The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 6 (This work hereinafter referred to as “Eric Hobsbawm”) )) and this is a pertinent observation in the context of manga – the significance being in the name. The name “manga” means “whimsical pictures,” and was originally used from 1770. Although the manga style used today was not created until the 20th century, the term has been retrospectively applied to vaguely ‘cartoonish’ drawings from the 12th century onwards. However, it has been suggested that this link to the past was not to further the power of the government, but rather the opposite. “if they could prove that manga is, somehow, a part of traditional Japan, then it cannot possibly be uprooted and repressed by the government.” ((Sharon Kinsella, Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society (University of Hawaii Press, 2000), p. 19)) Therefore, we can see that the ‘invented traditions’ of Hobsbawm can be both used as a tool of the government, and by those in opposition to it.
Hobsbawm’s argument that nationalists seek to, “inculcate certain values and norms … [by establishing] continuity with a suitable historic past” ((Eric Hobsbawm, p. 1)) can also be applied here. This need to create a suitable Japanese past can easily be seen when delving into the history of Japan. Civil war has been present throughout Japanese history, until the time of the Meiji Restoration. Manga plays its part in the discrediting of the Shoguns of the pre-Meiji era, by producing the “Mythical Heroes” of the Edo period who had the moral courage to oppose the brutal rule of the shoguns. Although these heroes of manga usually resort to violence to achieve their aims, they are usually bound by a strict moral code only to use violence for the benefit of others, and only when it cannot be avoided. An example of one of these heroes is present in the manga “Rurouni Kenshin.” A hero of the Meiji Restoration, Kenshin leaves the morally corrupt Meiji government and takes to travelling. Using his sword, he upholds his morals of truth and justice, even though it often interferes with the new order. Although Kenshin uses his sword as a weapon, he does not kill using it as the blade has been reversed to make killing difficult. By providing role models of turbulent times that have the correct moral standards, manga is romanticising Japan’s brutal history, thus promoting a sense of national pride.
One can also see the nationalist traits of manga when looking at the subject matter it covers. Many mangas indirectly utilise traditional Japanese culture as part of their storyline. Looking at a specific example of this, in the manga “Bleach” the swords of the “Shinigami,” or Death God, are living entities, and may transform between states, even having their own living form. These ideas all have their base in Shinto, the former national religion of Japan. Shinto’s main belief is that objects each have their own spirit; therefore each object is a spiritual entity, just like the sword of the Bleach Shinigami. The Shinto belief in ‘Kotodama’, or ‘Words of Power’, is also used by the author of Bleach – the idea that naming a sword attack can have an impact upon its destruction. This use of traditional ideas to enhance a story’s appeal to its audience is an example of Deutsch’s idea of Social Communication, where “individuals who have these complementary habits, vocabularies, and facilities are what we call a people.” ((Karl W. Deutsch, Nationalism and Social Communication (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press 2nd ed. 1966), pp 96-8, 101, 104-5. Reproduced in John Hutchinson & Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 26 (This work hereinafter referred to as “Karl W. Deutsch”) )) The writer of Bleach is clearly writing for a national audience, utilising a well known set of ideas as a feature of his story world. This appeals to a Japanese audience as it uses a set of ideas that they can relate to, and boosts the national identity of the reader upon a subconscious level as they are relating to their culture without being directly told the link. Indeed, this link can sometimes be so strong that in many cases translations of Japanese manga or anime (Japanese animation, usually derived from manga) have to specifically explain why characters do or say certain things so that a Western audience can understand their significance. “They are far closer to mutual communication and understanding with their countrymen than with their fellow specialists in other countries” ((Karl W. Deutsch, p. 27)) Deutsch maintains, and this is definitely the case here.
This ‘Ethnic complementarity’ that Deutsch discusses can also be used by manga artists to output their viewpoints on certain national topics, some of the main ones being pollution and weaponry. An example of this can be seen in the manga “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” in which the human world is under attack from nature, due to the pollution of the earth and the heroine must save everyone by learning how the human and natural world can live together in peace. This generic storyline has been used many times by its creator Hayao Miyazaki, one of his recent films “Princess Mononoke”, further exploring this avenue. “People are held together ‘from within’ by this communicatsive efficiency,” ((Karl W. Deutsch, p. 27)) Deutsch remarks in relation to social communication. It appears that this is one of the reasons that such mangas are drawn, their creators believe that they can reach and influence the population by this bond of culture. According to an internet site, “Miyazaki sees similarities between the Muromachi era and the current era, which is going through various changes and confusion.” ((Mononoke Hime FAQ, http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/mh/faq.html#era)) Therefore, Miyazaki is attempting to use his artwork to influence the Japanese nation to act in a way which turns from the destruction of nature present in the Muromachi era, and towards a more harmonious relationship.
However, this influence can only be achieved if there is a sense of community between manga readers, an ‘Imagined Community’ which is bound by print culture in a way similar to that which Anderson describes in his book “Imagined Communities.” And indeed, such a community exists, and is present in Japanese society. Both through direct and indirect contact with other manga readers is this community maintained. A direct contact between manga readers is established at conventions. Although a convention-goer will never meet or talk to everyone else at a convention, the fact that they identify everyone present there as being a fan of manga in some way means that they are already imagining themselves as part of a community. Face to face contact can also be obtained at a ‘Manga kissaten’ or Manga café as we would call it. Such places offer coffee and manga to their patrons who therefore met in an environment in which they believe themselves to be part of a community. However, Anderson also maintains that “societies are sociological entities of such firm and stable reality that their members … without ever becoming acquainted, [can] still be connected.” ((Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (London, New York: Verso, rev. ed. 1991), p. 25 (This work hereinafter referred to as “Benedict Anderson”) )) And this is certainly the case when taking the example of the Manga kissaten. The goers to these cafés are aware that other such businesses operate throughout Japan, and are conducting business with other manga fans, giving them a feeling of Anderson’s simultaneity, and an imagined connection to the Japanese manga community. Indeed, with the opening of ‘Café Manga’ in London, the international manga enthusiast will be able to in some way connect to this Japanese manga community by partaking in an activity believed to be inherent in Japanese ‘manga culture’.
Another way in which this sense of community is enhanced is by the practice of leaving used manga on trains for the enjoyment of others. It is a common trait of the manga reader that they will purchase a manga for their own enjoyment, read it on the train home, then leave it so that others may also read and enjoy it. As the mangas are cheap to purchase, this practice does not economically strain the fan who leaves the manga, and they have the feeling of connection to the manga community in that they are benefiting another fan. The fan who finds and reads the manga that has been left is also connecting to the manga community. They are aware that another fan has left this manga for the wider community, and therefore they are imagining a connection between themselves, the previous reader of the work, and those who could have found and read the manga before them. In addition to this, if the new ‘owner’ of the magazine leaves it behind themselves, they are in turn carrying on this linkage to a community, and in some ways recognising the debt they are in to the original fan who left his or her property for their enjoyment. Finally, the printing presses themselves do much to heighten a feeling of identity with an imagined manga community. The manga magazine “Weekly Shonen Jump” proclaims that its highest readership was 6 million readers per issue. The manga magazine “Shonen Magazine” proclaims proudly that it is the most popular manga anthology, using a quirk of magazine classification to reach its status. In this way, the magazines are making their readership aware of the popularity of the magazine, creating themselves a ‘community of buyers’ who will want their magazine. The readers of manga are thusly assured by various methods of the “steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity,” ((Benedict Anderson, p. 26)) of the manga readers.
Finally, the manga reader connects with the Japanese nation as an imagined community. Anderson talks about a “‘national imagination’ … that fuses the world inside the novel with the world outside.” ((Benedict Anderson, p. 30)) Although Anderson in this context is talking about the printed word, the same parallels can be drawn with manga. Manga, by definition are Japanese comics, therefore they are pre-associated in the mind of the reader with Japan. As mentioned previously, many references to Japanese culture are made within these stories, most of which are not explicitly pointed out but which are readily apparent as Japanese to the reader because of the context of the location of publishing. When a character in a manga is drinking tea, it is taken as read that they are drinking Japanese green tea, unless it is specifically stated that the character is drinking a European blend. In the manga Bleach, the souls of the dead are represented by butterflies. Although the European reader identifies with this as being Japanese, the Japanese reader can connect with the symbolism more, a Japanese folk tale reading, “That white butterfly was her sweet and loving soul.” ((D. L. Ashliman, Japanese Legends about Supernatural Sweethearts, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/japanlove.html)) Additionally, manga can sometimes make the national identity of its characters very apparent by using different scripts for different nationality. Whilst the Japanese character will usually have his or her dialogue written using Kana, Chinese characters can have their dialogue written using Kanji – the traditional ideographs imported from the Chinese language – whilst Western characters can have their lines written in Roman characters. This is a very visual way of representing the distinction between the Japanese nationality and the foreign. In the reverse, American artists who seek to use a manga style have parodied the information that is given in Japanese manga translations to help Western readers follow the Japanese right-to-left style of writing by inserting their own ‘help’ pages. All of this combines to promote a sense of attachment to the Japanese community for the Japanese when reading a manga, and a detachment and sense of cultural mystery for the Western reader, being a primary point of its appeal.
In conclusion, it can be seen that manga as a case study conforms to and supports the ideas expressed by Hobsbawm, Deutsch and Anderson. Indeed, in Anderson’s case, this case study can be used against those who accuse him of being Euro-centric in his arguments relating to print culture. However, it must be emphasised that this case study does not mean that the artists of manga are connected to the state in any way, indeed many seek to break the censorship of the state in relation to their artwork. However, these manga authors are still nationalists, and have a pride in the Japanese nation. It is only this pride that could produce the highly optimistic tales of good triumphing over evil, a stark contrast to the Western comics, most of which are pessimistic and satirical. Therefore, many of these manga artists could be seen as protecting the ‘Japaneseness’ of the nation, and, it could potentially be argued, are actively trying to influence the new generation to follow traditional Japanese values, and not to repeat some of the mistakes made throughout their nation’s long and bloodthirsty history.