Perhaps no single cultural product is held more dear in Japan than manga. It was a dominant form of pulp entertainment in the early post-World War II period, a forum for social dissent in the 1960s, then for female creativity in the ’70s. By the ’80s, manga was at the center of a mass market that outstripped its overseas comic-book equivalents. At last count, there were more than 20 manga museums in its home country, including The Kyoto International Manga Museum, and now there is talk of creating a National Center for Media Arts to include manga and anime.

But as the national government swings belatedly into action, some experts are saying it is time to shift the focus from manga itself onto the fans’ subculture that has fed its success.

“As with the pyramids of Egypt, the greater the base, the higher the zenith,” said Kaichiro Morikawa, 37, associate professor of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University in Tokyo. “The focus tends to be on the zenith rather than the base.”

That changes this summer, when Morikawa and Meiji University will open the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library of Manga and Subcultures, which will house the 140,000-plus items of the late manga critic and subculture enthusiast’s private collection.

Yoshihiro Yonezawa was among the first manga critics in Japan, and he helped to legitimize the medium with his writings in the ’80s. Up until his death in 2006, he was a voracious collector, known to fill entire houses with books and manga, then abandon the space as storage and migrate to another house to repeat the process. This earned him a unique sort of repute, and friends would come to him to “donate” loads of manga and magazines they no longer wanted.

Before his death, Yonezawa agreed to leave the collection in Morikawa’s care on condition he provided permanent placement. Morikawa and a half-dozen assistants are currently spending their days in an abandoned middle school in Ochanomizu, central Tokyo, cataloging heaps of unorganized boxes gathered from across Tokyo and adjoining Chiba Prefecture to the northeast.

“The collection is not noteworthy because it contains any special or supremely rare items, but rather because of its broadness,” Morikawa said.

“He didn’t just collect things popular among maniacs or of general interest, but rather those things that others did not collect.”

Yonezawa’s trove includes everything from rental manga (kashihon), which was popular postwar as cheap entertainment for children and the poor, to ladies comics and pornographic manga for women — genres that exist to this day. There are even examples of manga sold from vending machines, and miniature manga given away as extras or prizes (called omake or furoku). Among the many such items in the Yonezawa collection is the original “Gigantor,” the first giant-robot manga in Japan.

“This collection is nowhere near as large as that of the Diet Library, but it contains loads of items not included there,” Morikawa explained. “Further, all the manga here have their original covers. The Diet Library removes these and disposes of them.”

But perhaps more than as a collector of manga, Yonezawa is most famous for his role in founding Comiket, the Comic Market. Since 1975, this has been a place where amateurs and professionals buy and sell doujinshi, a broad spectrum of works ranging from written academic criticism to drawn pornography produced outside official publication channels. The majority are remixes of popular characters from manga, anime and games put into side stories, situations and relationships not intended in the original work.

While this is flagrant copyright infringement, most authors and publishers permit this fan activity as long as it is not a blatant copy, obscene or for profit.

Koichi Ichikawa, one of the three power-sharing representatives of Comiket since Yonezawa’s death, explains that the organization was founded in a revolt from the Manga Taikai, a convention to showcase and learn from professional manga creators.

“Comiket was founded as an alternative,” the 41-year-old engineer said. “They wanted to be free in their expression and activity, to parody and criticize and rewrite.”

Under 26 years of Yonezawa’s leadership, Comiket grew into the largest public gathering in Japan. As the focus of the otaku (geek) fan subculture on which the manga industry subsisted, it now draws more than 500,000 people to Tokyo Big Sight in Odaiba twice a year.

Reflecting the importance of the event in the new Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library of Manga and Subcultures, the first floor will feature exhibits related to Comiket, including a draft of the original opening declaration. The second floor will be a small reading room and a reception desk for the closet stacks, stretching from the third to fifth floors.

In another indication of the new library’s focus on the fan subculture surrounding manga, it will be the first facility of its kind in Japan to house a substantial collection of doujinshi, both from Yonezawa’s collection and some 400 boxes donated by another late Comiket organizer, Tsuguo Iwata. The only other doujinshi collection in the world was held by Doujin Bunko in Tokyo’s geek Mecca of Akihabara, a commercial reading room that closed in 2002.

Morikawa also revealed to The Japan Times that the opening of the ambitious Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library of Manga and Subcultures is just the beginning of a long-term plan he has to bolster resources for the collection and for the study of Japan’s popular culture at Meiji University. Eventually, he said, he would like to expand the new library into what he is tentatively calling the Tokyo International Manga Library, a “united archives” of pop and subculture materials.

Having served as the commissioner of “Otaku: Persona = Space = City” — Japan’s pavilion at the 2004 Venice Biennale of Architecture — Morikawa has long harbored a desire to make those Venice exhibits the core of a more permanent facility. He also hopes to add exhibits charting the historical rise of anime, manga, games and otaku.

Importantly, Comiket, which has an estimated 2,000,000 doujinshi titles in storage, and the Contemporary Manga Museum, a private collection that boasts 200,000 manga titles, are cooperating with the project, which Morikawa said he hopes to realize in the next 10 years.

Aside from the exhibition and archive space, Morikawa would also like the Tokyo International Manga Library to include a hall to host small doujinshi sales events from around Tokyo.

While otaku are popular figures in the “Cool Japan” image overseas, Morikawa emphasizes that his goal is not to elevate subculture so much as to catalog its contents: “The value of a product or activity is gauged by its impact on the future. We want to preserve those things that are dismissed and discarded as subculture so that they may be better assessed by future generations.”

Although unique in its focus on otaku subculture, observers are interested to see how the Tokyo International Manga Library develops alongside the national government’s planned National Center for Media Arts, the exhibits of which it seems likely to duplicate, at least in part.

Morikawa declined to comment on the new national center, concrete discussion of which has only really started over the last few months.

The Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library of Manga and Subcultures opens this summer. Details will be made available at www.meiji.ac.jp/manga/yonezawa_lib/ Patrick W. Galbraith is a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Tokyo and author of “The Otaku Encyclopedia.”

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.