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MANGA, OR JAPANESE COMIC ART, IS A HUGE AND LUCRATIVE BUSINESS that is truly popular in Japan. Nowadays, it is also exported to many countries, influencing their popular cultures, children, youth, and the ways of the people. In this article, I briefly explore a history of Japanese manga, how it reflected events in Japanese society during various historical periods, and how it came to be what it is today.
Manga has humor, satire, exaggeration, and wit. The comic art includes caricature, cartoon, editorial cartoon, syndicated panel, daily humor strip, story-manga, and animation. Like any other form of visual art, literature, or entertainment, manga does not exist in a vacuum. It is immersed in a particular social environment that includes history, language, culture, politics, economy, family, religion, sex and gender, education, deviance and crime, and demography. Manga thus reflects the reality of Japanese society, along with the myths, beliefs, rituals, tradition, fantasies, and Japanese way of life. Manga also depicts other social phenomena, such as social order and hierarchy, sexism, racism, ageism, classism, and so on.
The Japanese Character
Contrary to popular Western belief, the Japanese are a very comical people who love jokes and funny stories. The stereotypical images of the Japanese worldwide are based on the assumption that they are serious, reserved, diligent, determined, successful, and rigid. Many people may also perceive them as economic animals, domineering, cold, calculating, oversexed, cunning, and unfriendly. Both positive and negative Japanese images abound, but generally the Japanese are a humorous, witty, and funny people once they bring down the formal facade that they project to others, especially foreigners.
The Japanese Language, Communication, and Manga
The Japanese culture belongs to what American anthropologist Edward Hall calls "the high context culture," in which people prefer to use more implicit, unclear, and ambiguous messages whose meanings are found in the context, rather than explicit, clear, and straightforward messages. According to Japanese anthropologist Masao Kunihiro, "English is intended strictly for communication. Japanese is primarily interested in feeling out the other person's mood" ("The Devil's Tongue"). Japan is a small island nation with a long history, and the people are homogeneous. In contrast, the United States, according to Hall, belongs to "the low context culture," in which messages themselves are important and everything must be spelled out.
Japanese communication, being in the high context culture, relies more on contextual cues such as facial expressions, gestures, eye glances, length and timing of silence, tone of voice, and grunts, all of which can be expressed in manga very eloquently. The high context communication depends more on visual and auditory cues. The Japanese language offers ample opportunities for word play, such as puns and double entendres, thanks to the abundance of homonyms and onomatopoeia. Both classical and contemporary Japanese literature, whether a novel, a haiku poem, or a play, attest to this point.
Japanese onomatopoeia is usually written with katakana, a form of Japanese characters. Japanese onomatopoeia is "much more integrated in the picture than western typography is capable of ... Japanese characters are just as much a product of artistic activity as the surrounding drawing. It is calligraphy" (Pollman 12-13). As part of the picture in manga, the onomatopoeia is capable of "building up atmosphere and dynamics" (18). It also represents the psychological and emotional state of the characters. Japanese onomatopoeia is "often used to make precise the feelings one wants to convey on specific occasions or actions" (Marechal 149).
Manga in Ancient Times
Manga and humor have a very long history in Japan. For example, Horyuji Temple was built in 607 CE in the ancient capital of Nara. Buddhism was officially introduced to Japan in 552 CE from Paekche, a southwestern Korean kingdom. Horyuji Temple burned in 670 CE, and was gradually rebuilt by the beginning of the eighth century. Horyuji is the oldest wooden structure in Japan, and probably the oldest in the world. Caricatures of people, animals, and "grossly exaggerated phalli" (Schodt, Manga! 28) were found on the backs of planks in the ceiling of the temple during repairs in 1935. These caricatures are among the oldest surviving Japanese comic art.
Manga in the Middle Ages
Bishop Toba (1053-1140) is said to have painted with brush and ink "the Animal Scrolls"--humorous pictures of birds and animals--in the middle of the twelfth century. The monochromatic narrative picture scrolls consist of four volumes, and the first volume is considered the best. The scrolls depict caricatured beings such as frogs, hares, monkeys, and foxes engaging in everyday human activities, parodying the decadent lifestyle of the Japanese upper class of the period.
In one of the pictures, a frog is wearing priest's vestments and has prayer beads and sutras, and some "priests" are losing at gambling or playing strip poker. The narrative and originally painted picture scrolls are national treasures of Japan, along with other scrolls such as Gaki Zoshi ("hungry ghost scrolls") drawn in the middle of the twelfth century, and Jigoku Zoshi ("hell scrolls") painted at the end of the twelfth century. The viewing of these scrolls was limited to a handful of people, including "the clergy, the aristocracy, and the powerful warrior families" (Schodt, Manga! 32).
Manga in the Tokugawa Period (1603-1867)
The town of Otsu near Kyoto sold Otsue, or "Otsu pictures," to people who were traveling on the main road from Kyoto to the north in the mid-seventeenth century. Otsue began as simple Buddhist pictures for prayer and as a form of souvenir talisman, but later included secular, uninhibited, comical, and satirical themes. They were printed using a primitive form of printing and were available to ordinary people (Shinmura).
The publication of Tobae pictures, a style of witty and comical caricature of Japanese everyday life, began in Kyoto during the Hoei period (1704-1711). The name Tobae stems from Bishop Toba. The publication of Tobae books in Osaka marked the start of the commercialization of manga at the beginning of the eighteenth century. They were printed using woodblock and spread from Osaka to Kyoto, Nagoya, and then to Edo (today's Tokyo) during the Tokugawa period (1603-1867). Osaka was then a city center where publishing businesses were flourishing with a rapidly increasing urban population.
From the Genroku period (1688-1704) to the Kyoho period (1716-1736), so-called Akahon became very …