Does Manga’s Transnational Cool Benefit Japan?

Does Manga’s Transnational Cool Benefit Japan?

Casey Brienza, City University London

Imagine entering a Waterstones bookshop. You step into a softly lit interior decorated in conservative shades of brown and gold. You pass displays of the latest bestsellers and new releases and continue on past the checkout counter. Walking through stacks labelled ‘Fiction’, ‘Literary Criticism’, ‘Crime’, and ‘Science Fiction’, you finally arrive at a set of three tall bookcases tucked into a corner at the very back of the store. Each shelf is amply stocked with colourful paperbacks, alphabetized by title, and because some have been shelved face out, something immediately strikes you as odd about them. On closer inspection, you realize with a jolt that instead of reading left to right, they read right to left. The front is where the back should be! Neatly printed signs above the bookcases inform you that these strange, backwards books are called ‘Manga’. What in the world are they?

Manga, literally meaning ‘irresponsible pictures’, is the Japanese word for the comic book. Although some art historians have traced a tradition of visual storytelling going back hundreds of years in Japan, manga in its modern form begins in the period after the Second World War with the prolific, pioneering work of artists like Osamu Tezuka. Now, over sixty years later, there is manga to suit all ages and genders and every conceivable taste and interest in fiction and non-fiction. A history of instant ramen noodles—covered. How to raise a child with autismlook no further. Cross-dressing princesses—a classic of the manga medium. Approximately one in four books published in Japan is, in fact, a manga, and increasingly, these manga are going global. About a half-dozen publishing houses, nearly all of them based in the United States, have taken it upon themselves to translate manga for the English-speaking world. Hundreds of new titles are published each year, and the comic books in the ‘Manga’ section of the Waterstones (and other bookshops) are their wares.

Had you walked into a Waterstones or any other bookselling chain anywhere in the English-speaking world little more than a decade ago, you would not have found a section for ‘Manga’ and very few, if any, individual manga titles. Indeed, contemporary literature in translation, especially that from East Asian countries, has historically constituted a tiny portion of the Anglo-American book trade. But from 2002 to 2007 the sales of manga expanded 350 per cent. No one in the publishing industry had seen anything like this rate of market growth in their lifetime, and it was at the height of this explosion of newly translated and published content in the mid-2000s that the bookstore chains officially added a ‘Manga’ category to their shops. The rapid formation and continued presence of this section begs the question: how did these books get here in the first place?  And why did manga take off in the way it did at that particular point in time?

I began seeking answers to these questions in my MA dissertation. This research, which has since been peer-reviewed and published as an article titled, ‘Books, Not Comics: Publishing Fields, Globalization, and Japanese Manga in the United States’, in the journal Publishing Research Quarterly, focused on the particular conditions of manga’s production and distribution. Comic publishing and trade-book publishing in the USA—and in the UK—are two different fields with different centres of production, different networks of distribution and retail, and different target readership demographics. Throughout the 1990s, I argued, manga had been sold primarily as a comic book—without much success. But, at the dawn of the 21st century, with the support of the multinational retail bookselling chain Borders, manga publishing companies migrated into trade publishing. There they found a whole host of new opportunities, and the rush to exploit them fuelled the boom.

This was an exciting conclusion because it thoroughly refuted the common wisdom about the sources of manga’s global popularity. Previous commentators had assumed that it was a bottom-up phenomenon, fuelled by passionate fans who call themselves ‘otaku’. Instead I had shown it to be very top-down, both driven by and dependent upon powerful corporate interests. Naturally, I was eager to build on this preliminary research at the doctoral level: Who  precisely, stands to benefit from this transnational flow of culture, and how will manga influence and be influenced by the continuing transformations in publishing and bookselling in the digital age.

Indeed, manga in English, ostensibly a form of entertainment, has become very serious business. English is de facto the global language and gives those who use it access to the world. Thus, one of the most important stakeholders in manga’s global success is the nation of Japan itself. Faced with a second decade of economic malaise, the Japanese government began to promote the monetization of cultural exports and, by extension, the improvement of its national ‘brand’ through the dissemination of its popular culture. In June 2010, for example, the Creative Industries Promotion Office by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry was established, and its stated goal is to promote the expansion of Japan’s cultural industries and export of their products overseas. This vision of ‘Cool Japan’ is not just for bureaucrats; it has been a buzzword in the mainstream Japanese media since Douglas McGray, inspired by the UK’s ‘Cool Britannia’ campaign of the 1990s, wrote about the largely untapped potential of ‘Japan’s Gross National Cool’ in a 2002 issue of Foreign Policy. The national television network NHK had a show called Cool Japan on air every Saturday, and the well-curated English version of the Asahi Shimbun website has a tab devoted to ‘Cool Japan’.

To determine whether and how the Japanese government’s soft power ambitions, for its manga, are being realized, I spent over a year in the field, from September 2010 to October 2011, gathering data through participant observation and seventy interviews conducted in the greater New York, Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Tokyo metropolitan areas. The people I interviewed were employed by over ten different companies and in a wide range of roles and experience, ranging from unpaid summer interns and freelancers to the CEOs and founders of entire imprints and publishing houses. This fieldwork became the basis for my PhD thesis, titled ‘Domesticating Manga: Japanese Comics, American Publishing, and the Transnational Production of Culture’ and completed in 2013.

My findings suggest that the Japanese will be disappointed. The permanent closure of the Borders chain in September 2011 and concurrent rise of e-books and digitized bookselling has depressed revenue in the English-language manga industry. Publishers can no longer rely, as once they did, upon visibility in the shops to attract new readers, and the teens who were once the core market for manga are too young to have credit cards for online shopping. As a consequence, presses have increasingly pushed the costs of publishing translated manga back onto the Japanese copyright-holders—and since most books do not make money, the financial risks are enormous—or onto would-be readers who are enjoined to fund publishing projects on Kickstarter. In addition, ‘Westerners’ have produced their own ‘original global manga’, cutting the Japanese economically and organizationally out of the equation. This is a phenomenon I discuss in greater detail in a recent article for International Journal of Cultural Policy. The manga imprint of Hachette USA, Yen Press, for example, also publishes a bestselling comic book version of Stephanie Meyer’s young adult vampire novel series Twilight. Sales of this graphic novel dwarfed sales of all of Yen Press’s other translated manga. Similarly, the Scott Pilgrim series, while commercially indebted to the opportunities opened up by the North American manga publishing industry and stylistically influenced by Japanese output, shows how easily transnational success can be re-appropriated locally.

I would argue that the people who work for American manga publishing houses are particularly keen to appropriate manga for themselves. Most are underpaid, and many are precariously employed—freelance translators and editors of even some of the most famous and bestselling titles may make under $1000 per volume. They derive satisfaction from their labour, therefore, not from economic security nor from perfect, transparent communication of messages across languages and cultures. They are motivated, rather, by the pleasure of inserting themselves into the product. This is done either by literally seeing their name in print or by knowing that the witty turn of phrase in some bit of dialogue was their own idea, not the original creator’s. In other words, a lack of autonomy over one’s own professional life increases the desire to assert control over the object being produced, and this dynamic, in turn, fuels the transnational production of culture and the transformation of national context.

So manga and ‘Cool Japan’ are unlikely to enliven Japan’s stagnant economy or bolster its status on the world stage. Does this mean that manga does not matter? Absolutely not. Although expansion of the manga category has slowed down, it will not be undone. That ‘Manga’ section in Waterstones is there to stay. And for those making a living in the publishing industry who have given so generously of their time in the pursuit of this research—and the hundreds of thousands of people who read manga around the world—it certainly matters. It matters a lot.

Casey Brienza is a sociologist specializing in the study of the culture industries and transnational cultural production. Over the past several years, her research has progressed along two parallel streams. The first of these is an investigation of the social organization and transnational influence of the culture industries, using manga publishing in the United States as a case study. The second stream is related to the digital technologies of publishing and reading which have emerged at the beginning of the 21st century. She joined City University London’s Department of Culture and Creative Industries as Lecturer in Publishing and Digital Media in March 2013. Casey may be reached through her website or @CaseyBrienza.