Author and manga translator Frederik L. Schodt once pointed out to me that many of Japan's cultural products are embraced abroad just as they are declining at home. Ukiyo-e prints became the rage in Europe in the late 19th century, nearly 100 years after they'd peaked in Edo and Kyoto. Sake sales have been climbing steadily in overseas markets, with the value of exports doubling over the past five years and hitting a record in 2017, as they continue a decades-long slide in Japan. And now: manga?

According to a survey by the Research Institute for Publications, domestic manga sales were flat last year, but the big reveal in the numbers was that digital outsold physical for the first time, rising 17.2 percent while print slipped 14.4 percent. Weekly manga magazines saw the steepest drop in sales, to below a third of what they were in 1995. A lot of digital manga content is cheap or costs nothing at all, with some of the larger, more-established apps, like messaging service Line, offering free titles to entice readers to make in-app purchases.

The North American market for manga peaked in the mid-2000s, when it breached the $200 million threshold, according to Chigusa Ogino, director at Tuttle-Mori Agency, Inc., Japan's largest and oldest literary agency. But in 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (known in Japan as "Lehman shock") and the resulting financial crisis, followed a few years later by the bankruptcy of the American bookstore chain, Borders, dealt severe blows to the industry.