Long before online fan fiction and image-sharing sites like DeviantArt, Japan nurtured a universe of subculture creators and collectors. Anime, manga, SFX progams (tokusatsu) and video games have spawned generations of amateur “fan” artists (dōjin) whose annual output exceeds official releases and publications.
In 1975, one of those enterprising amateurs, the late manga critic Yoshihiro Yonezawa, co-founded the Comic Market (Comiket): a mix of meet-up and bazaar for fan-artists and fans to buy, sell, share and discuss their work.
The first event squeezed roughly 700 attendees into a conference room at Tokyo’s Nissho Hall. For the 95th Comiket at Tokyo Big Sight convention center last weekend, a record 570,000 showed up.
Average attendance for the now biannual, three-day event has hovered around half-a million since 2004, making Comiket the largest fan convention in the world. (By comparison, San Diego’s International Comic-Con hosts less than a third as many participants).
To accommodate his own ballooning collection of manga-related paraphernalia, Yonezawa had to move house repeatedly after his former homes were turned into warehouses.
A decade ago, associate professor Kaichiro Morikawa opened the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library of Manga and Subcultures, a research center on Meiji University’s Ochanomizu campus, containing more than 140,000 items from Yonezawa’s collections.
But that was just the beginning — or at least, it was supposed to be.
In 2009, under then-Prime Minister Taro “Rozen” Aso (nicknamed after he was seen reading the manga, “Rozen Maiden”), the government announced plans for a ¥13.8 billion national manga museum, tentatively called the National Center for Media Arts. The Yonezawa library was branded a “forerunner” to the University’s own museum project, the Tokyo International Manga Library of Meiji University, which would be much larger and open to the public.
Aso soon lost his job. He returned to power a few years later, as current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Minister of Finance, but plans for the museum did not proceed.
“The project was used politically to attack Aso,” recalls Morikawa during a recent meeting in his office at the Yonezawa library building. “Then the government changed, and that’s why it was halted.”
Talk of an opening resurfaced in 2014 and 2015, but there was a problem borne of success: Since the Yonezawa library’s founding, donations of manga, anime, games, toys, figurines and other official and fan-made goods had poured in from across the country. The university discovered that there was no building on campus large enough to house them all.
The need for an entirely new building and a revised and growing budget prompted the government to return to the table, hoping to revive its failed former plans by linking them to Meiji’s proposed museum.
But some believe the bureaucrats’ involvement is half-hearted, at best.
“(Aso’s original) plan was supported by otaku (obsessive fans) in Akihabara, but most other people thought that it was just a waste of taxpayer money for a glorified manga cafe,” says Renato Rivera Rusca, a fellow Meiji University lecturer and assistant animation producer at Studio Machiken.
“It illustrates the contradiction inherent within the government’s entire Cool Japan ideology,” Rusca adds. “Japan simply cannot successfully attempt to sell an image of a country where manga and anime and the contents industry is dominant, while in reality 95 percent of such content is the domain of the outcasts relegated to the odd parts of society, like Akihabara.”
While official Japan may be slow to act on the appeal of its native subcultural mavens, the rest of the world is keen to embrace them.
Last month, Morikawa flew to Paris to oversee “Manga←→Tokyo,” an exhibition he curated for The National Arts Center, Tokyo, as part of the broader “Japonismes 2018” project between the governments of Japan and France, celebrating 160 years of peaceful relations between the two countries.
The exhibition was held in the Grande Hall in La Villette, a cavernous arts and culture center in the French capital. It featured a 1:1,000 scale model of Tokyo surrounded by massive video screens and installations from 90 manga series, in addition to film props, videos, SFX models, figurines and ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Also on display were models of trains, convenience stores, and other icons of everyday life in Tokyo, including a Shinto ema (votive tablet) stand, on which visitors could post their thoughts on the exhibit or draw their favorite characters.
The aim, Morikawa says, was to show Tokyo as a hybrid city, composed in equal parts of mundane physical realities and spaces spun from works of the imagination. Japan’s capital is a unique urban sprawl without a core, characterized by constant destruction and renewal, from the fires and earthquakes of the Edo Period (1603-1868), to the bombing raids of World War II, to the more modern “scrap-and-build” approach to reconstruction in contemporary architectural designs.
The essence of Tokyo is bound to its impermanence and instability. Unlike Europe, Japan rebuilds its cities anew, without trying to replicate their former physical selves.
“Every time Tokyo got rebuilt, we didn’t really reconstruct what was originally there,” Morikawa says. “Mostly, we remade an entirely new cityscape out of the rubble.”
This process of constant change reconfigures the conventional roles of fact and fiction in Morikawa’s vision of Tokyo. Imaginative narratives in manga or anime or other subcultural products may convey a Tokyo that no longer physically exists, but that is truer to the memory and history of the city’s experience.
“Manga←→Tokyo” closed on Dec. 30 after a month-long run, but there is talk of its revival at a venue in Tokyo to coincide with the city’s hosting of the 2020 Olympic Games.
If the bureaucrats can get their act together, next year may see both of Morikawa’s celebrations of Japanese subculture, his exhibition and the national manga museum, finally come to fruition at home. Sadly, that’s a big “if.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and is a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.