More than anything, it reminded me of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau. Not the new, four-winged fortress near Tennoz Isle, but the old and cramped one in Otemachi. And it wasn’t because of the exposed plumbing running along the corridor ceilings. No, it was the number of people inside; they seemed to inhabit every nook and cranny — squatting, leaning, standing, and even lying around. The difference, of course, was that they weren’t “aliens” waiting for a number; they were reading, and what’s more, they were all reading manga.
Judging from its latest visitor numbers, it is likely the Kyoto International Manga Museum will one day rival the Tokyo Immigration Bureau for foreign visitors — satisfied ones, at least.
Having opened in November 2006, the centrally located facility (near Karasuma-Oike Subway Station), which boasts what is soon to become the world’s largest collection of manga, attracted about 30,000 foreign visitors in its first 12 months. That figure represented about 15 percent of its total of 220,700 visitors — one of the highest percentages of any museum in Japan.
The museum’s popularity among foreign visitors stems in part from the surprising fact that it is one of the only museums in Japan dedicated to manga, long considered too low-brow to warrant such treatment.
The other reason is that it provides a decidedly modern alternative to the usual Kyoto fare of temples and shrines.
The Manga Museum is a joint venture between Kyoto Seika University and Kyoto City, and it aims to provide both a repository of historical and contemporary manga for the public to enjoy — a manga library, if you like, albeit without the facility for lending — and also a research center for academics.
The museum’s staff and funds are provided by the university, while the city provides the building, which is an attraction in itself.
In a city that prides itself on its history, the residents of Karasuma-Oike apparently overcame their initial high-brow skepticism of the museum when they found out it would give a second lease of life to their beloved local primary school. Tatsuike Primary, the central wing of which was completed way back in 1929, had been vacant since 1995, after decreases in school-aged residents. One respectful renovation later, and the old building was reborn as a museum.
Hiroko Nakamura, a museum public relations representative, gave me a tour.
“The first to third floors house what we call the ‘Wall of Manga,’ ” she said. “Visitors can come and read any of the 50,000 manga on the shelves.”
As we creaked along the 80-year-old floorboards, Nakamura explained that “we wanted to make it a lively museum, where people feel free to talk.”
“After all,” she added, “When people read manga they get so lost in that world that they don’t notice the noise anyway.”
The Wall of Manga houses mostly post-1970s publications, and includes all of the most popular titles, including three of the nation’s biggest current sellers: “One Piece” (a story about a rubber-bodied pirate aimed at shonen, or boys); “Nana” (about two girls named Nana, one a hopeless romantic, the other a punk singer, aimed at shojo, or young girls); and “Naruto” (another shonen title, about a trainee ninja with the spirit of a fox).
“We don’t want to make a dent in manga sales, so we don’t stock the very latest issues,” Nakamura said.
Winding down an original stone staircase we came to “the archive,” a restricted area in which mostly pre-1970s manga are stored.
“The manga our grandparents used to read are all here,” said Nakamura. “Norakuro,” a tale from the 1930s about a dog who joins the army, is particularly popular among older visitors.
Altogether, the museum’s holdings are about 200,000 titles and it plans to amass another 100,000 by the end of this year — that will make it the largest collection of manga in the world.
While the “archived” manga can be viewed on request, the museum also has a few treasures viewable on touch-screen panels, including the first manga published by a Japanese, “Eshinbun Nipponchi.” Appearing in 1874, it was influenced by “Japan Punch,” which had been made by British journalist Charles Wargman since 1862.
Of course, theorists now trace the popularity of manga in Japan back to the line-drawing traditions seen in ukiyo-e prints of the Edo Period and the 12th-century depiction of frolicking animals, the Choju Giga, of which the museum has a replica on display.
Still, if manga in its current form started with foreign connections in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), those connections have strengthened again in recent years. “We get visitors from France, the United States, Australia, South Korea, China,” explained Nakamura, pointing out museum signs written in five languages — Japanese and the four catering to visitors from the countries she mentioned. According to Nakamura foreign visitors fall in to one of two categories: “academics seeking a particular title for study, and casual fans.”
“Manga such as ‘Nana’ is now published in English overseas, so fans of the English versions often come just to see how the manga look with the original Japanese characters,” she said. “Also, foreigners hear stories about how Japanese get totally immersed in manga on trains and the like — so visitors often enjoy just seeing for themselves all the Japanese reading manga here.”
I have to admit I was pretty impressed myself — walking through the museum, dodging slouching shoulders and stepping over outstretched legs was novel to say the least.
Sure enough, during our tour we came across a handful of visitors from afar. “We are exchange students, studying at Kyoto University,” explained Sabina, aged 26, and Melanie, 23, both from Germany. Both manga fans, they hadn’t yet located their favorite titles, “Fushigi Yugi (Mysterious Play)” and “Fruits Basket.” “It’s a big and ambitious museum, and it’s good that you can come and just enjoy reading manga with your friends,” said Sabina.
Included in the museum’s holdings are examples of Japanese manga published overseas in English, such as the popular “Fullmetal Alchemy (Hagane no Renkinjutsushi),” and there are also samples of foreign comic books.
The museum also holds temporary exhibitions. Running until April 1 is one on the closely related tradition of kamishibai — picture theater, or, as a practitioner explained while giving a performance we saw at the museum, “TV with spittle.”
Once a popular form of children’s entertainment, it is conducted by a charismatic narrator who tells a story while leafing through pictures in a purpose-built frame. “Ougon (golden) bat!!!” the performer boomed in a deep and evil-sounding voice. He was priming the audience for his rendition of the story of a hero named Golden Bat, apparently a favorite with children back in the 1920s. Noticing me in the crowd, he ad-libbed: “The kamishibai with pictures so convincing that even foreigners can enjoy it!”
Admission to the Kyoto International Manga Museum is ¥500 — ¥300 for high-school and junior-high-school students. For info, call (075) 254-7414 or visit www.kyotomm.com
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.