Manga is a central part of Japanese pop culture, appealing not only to kids but also to salarymen and women on their daily commute. Even former Prime Minister Taro Aso declared his love for the medium.

If you think smartphones have replaced these comics as the commuter’s time-killer of choice, take a closer look — you’ll notice that many people are simply reading manga digitally on their devices.

Japan’s print manga market is huge — seven times larger than that of North America. There are comics aimed at children, at adults and even at the elderly. The major weekly manga omnibus magazines, priced at around ¥300, bundle newly drawn episodes of about 20 different manga titles per issue. The most popular of these, Weekly Shonen Jump, prints 2.7 million copies every week, making it the nation’s highest-selling magazine.

So it’s no surprise that online manga magazines are becoming popular too, with several services that launched over the past year or so already having reached over 5 million downloads each.

DeNA, operator of social-game network Mobage, launched Manga Box last December as a digital manga service, and a few weeks ago it reached 6 million downloads on iOS/Android.

The app allows users to read new and recent episodes of about 30 manga series. New episodes of several series are delivered each day, encouraging users to check in regularly, while proven social-game marketing methods such as rewarding online comments with extra content help the app to spread among users’ friends.

Manga Box also offers English- and Mandarin-language manga.

NHN PlayArt’s Comico launched in October 2013. It reached 5 million downloads in August, with 1 million of those off the back of a TV commercial that boasted the service has “reinvented manga.” Abandoning the concept of a “page,” it instead presents each comic as a long vertical scroll without any page breaks, just like a website. And while many other services only offer black and white manga, many of the ones on Comico are in color.

Drawing on the 50 million domestic users of its popular messaging app, NHN PlayArt’s sister company Line has counted 8 million downloads of its own manga app since April 2013. Line Manga works with major print publishers to license popular paper-originated content, and Line this week announced a joint venture with publishers Kodansha and Shogakukan and digital content distributor Media Do to launch English and Chinese versions of the app.

The most surprising point of these digital manga services is that the “magazines” they offer are free. They make their money by also selling compendiums of each particular manga title. Each magazine edition is available for a limited number of weeks, but if the user wants to read an older issue of a manga or to start a series from the beginning, they can buy the dedicated comic book for that manga.

Actually, this business model is not so different from the print manga business of decades past. The paper editions of omnibus magazines are not especially profitable. While the top magazines do OK, the smaller ones with a circulation in the tens or hundreds of thousands run a tight business, and their number decreases year by year.

For these publishers, the omnibus magazines are like a showcase, and their real profits come from selling the individual comic books of particular manga series. Once a series becomes a hit in a magazine, millions of books may be sold, and the opportunity to transform it into an anime, TV drama or movie offers the real payload.

The paper magazines are not free, but they’re cheap enough that they might as well be. The digital versions simply take this model to its extreme.

The traditional publishers aren’t taking this lying down, of course. On Sept. 22, major publisher Shueisha launched Shonen Jump+, the online version of Weekly Shonen Jump, for smartphones and PC. The chance to read Japan’s most popular manga magazine in digital form has been long awaited. The price, ¥300 per issue, is higher than the print edition’s ¥255, but the ¥900 monthly subscription rate is cheaper.

Kodansha, one of the big three Japanese publishers and a rival of Shueisha, has been selling a digital version of Weekly Morning, which targets adult readers, since May 2013 for a monthly ¥500 subscription.

Every major print publisher is doing something in the digital field, but most offerings are limited and give little incentive for readers to switch. It seems unlikely that these publishers will ditch print editions, as they enjoy high circulations that benefit longtime partners such as wholesalers and bookstores.

Indeed, most traditional publishers seem to hope they can delay digital migration as long as possible, though affiliations between Kodansha and Manga Box, or the several major publishers that provide contents to Line Manga, allow them to hedge their bets somewhat. With free manga apps offering many hours of free reading every week, they face tough competition indeed.

Akky Akimoto is a Japanese blogger for Asiajin and Cybozu. His Twitter @akky has about 120,000 followers.

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