Manga fans take their Japanese to another level


Manga are the engine of Japan’s new multibillion dollar export success, its pop-culture sofuto sangyo — software industry — which includes anime, video games, and music. Not surprisingly, perhaps, more and more foreigners are also using manga to learn Japanese.

The most popular are sutori (story) manga, a postwar innovation on an art form imported from the United States. Highly visual, novelistic and often stretching thousands of pages, they are first serialized in omnibus manga zasshi (magazines) and then compiled into a series of tankobon (books).

Why are manga being used to learn Japanese? First, they are highly addictive. Manga are a great alternative to forcing the adults to mindlessly repeat infantile passages in textbooks because, after all, even if the language is incomprehensible the pictures can presumably be enjoyed.

And there are always a wide variety of manga to choose from. You like fantasy/psycho/horror themes? How about the chilling, soon-to-be-a-live-action film, “Desu Noto (Death Note),” serialized in Weekly Jump? You prefer stories about fund managers? Try “Za Fando Maneja (The Fund Manager)” now running in Super Jump magazine. Or to really get your mojo going, go for the bounteous genre of women’s erotica, including reality-based mags with titillating stories submitted by readers, such as “Honto ni atta marunama koko dake no hanashi (Ultra-Real and Scandalously Secret Tales).”

Mark Blum, Associate Professor in the East Asian Department at State University of New York, Albany, marvels that recently most of his students are motivated to study Japanese because of manga and anime. He says manga are a particularly good resource for the 14-20 age group because they combine “creative artwork, a nostalgia for the pre-puberty experience of cartoon viewing and comic reading, and themes of greatest concern to adolescents and young adults: sex and violence.”

Wayne Lammers, the author of the acclaimed “Japanese the Manga Way: An Illustrated Guide to Grammar and Structure,” points out that manga are ideally suited to those who have learned basic Japanese, and want to go to the next level. Manga are “the most logical next step after [studying] textbook dialogues,” Lammers says.

Emphasizing the advantages of the “graphic interface” in manga, Lammers says, “If your ultimate goal is primarily to master spoken Japanese, you can just keep reading manga and pick up lots of great lines to use. But even if your goal is to achieve full literacy, manga are a fun way to take your skills to a higher level before tackling heavier-going prose.”

What manga to read, then? I recommend avoiding short yon koma (four panel) manga; they usually have too many cultural nuances. In reading long, novelistic story manga, difficult passages can be skipped and much information can be gleaned from context. Also, hundreds of such titles are now available in translation.

Manga for the younger set, such as shojo (girls’) manga and shonen (boys’) manga have advantages, in that the language is easier and kanji characters are annotated with hiragana rubi. This annotation is a godsend for adults learning the language too.

It may be easier to start reading gender-neutral or male-oriented stories, rather than girls comics, because the page layouts are less abstract and more orthodox. It also helps to read stories on familiar subjects, and for that reason I recommend avoiding samurai-oriented jidaimono (period pieces) as all but the history buff will find the unfamiliar terminology daunting. When I was learning Japanese, I liked a tragic-comedy, “Otoko Oidon (I am a Man),” about a starving student living in a four and a half mat tatami room, because I lived in one, too.

You’ll learn more than language when studying with manga; you’ll get a peek into a different cultural Id — into a Japan quite different from the official version. This knowledge will be essential for true fluency anyway, because language is always about more than words; it’s also about assumptions, sensitivities and dreams.