Before 2016, many people believed the internet was a democratizing force. While “fake news” may have some folks rethinking this with regard to politics, there are still places on the web that give voice to those without a platform and provide access that wasn’t previously available.
In Japan, there are forums for 四コマ漫画 (yonkoma manga, four-panel comics) — comic strips that, as the name suggests, generally feature four コマ (koma, panels/frames), which are aligned vertically.
Yonkoma manga were popularized in the early 1900s, and until recently they mostly appeared in newspapers, magazines and manga. But the internet has provided would-be manga artists with an easy way to publish their own yonkoma, resulting in a wide variety of different stories that are easily accessible and free. Relatively less wordy, they can be useful reading materials for language learners too.
Traditionally, yonkoma feature a narrative structure called 起承転結 (kishōtenketsu), meaning “introduction, development, turn and conclusion,” and the conclusion, saved for the fourth panel, is often the 落ち (ochi, punch line) — or オチ (ochi), as it is frequently written.
You can see a few nice examples of this structure on the manga artist Rinrin Yamano’s blog 山野りんりんの近況ブログ (Yamano Rinrin no Kinkyō Burogu, Rinrin Yamano’s Current Status Blog). While Yamano mostly uses her blog to publicize her professional works, she also has some one-offs on the site. To the right under カテゴリ (kategori, categories), you can see 犬猫 ４コマ漫画 (inu neko yonkoma manga, dog and cat four-panel comics), which brings up a list of 42 different strips about Yamano’s pets.
In the fifth in the series, the artist enters her bedroom mumbling the words: さー、そろそろ寝るか (Sā, sorosoro neru ka, “Well, about time for bed, I guess”). The second and third panels cut to her sleeping cats, the first on the 布団 (futon, quilt), the second on the 枕 (makura, pillow). The last panel zooms out to show her husband, noted in katakana as オット (otto, husband), taking up the rest of the bed, leading to the question どこで？ (Doko de?, [But] where [do I sleep]?).
Yamano is even able to capture the kishōtenketsu structure without using words. In the second strip, the cat is cleaning itself and spots her tail. She grabs it — note the onomatopoeic word がしっ (gashi’) to emphasize the firm grip — but then capsizes with a ごろん (goron), another onomatopoeic word for when something rolls over.
While Yamano is a professional, there are many hobby bloggers posting their own strips. Tamako Ryu, for example, has a blog titled 規格外な夫 (Kikakugai-na Otto, Non-standard Husband) on アメブロ (Ameblo), the blogging arm of the social network/blogging website Ameba. She posts stories about her two children and her husband, who has 強迫性障害 (kyōhakusei shōgai, obsessive-compulsive disorder).
Many of the entries focus on her husband’s amusing responses to stress, but Ryu also has a more sober series of 39 comic strips addressing her own mental health struggles with 産後うつ (sango-utsu, postpartum depression), which she has titled たまこのうつ病体験記 (Tamako no Utsubyō Taiken-ki, Tamako’s Depression Diary). She notes in the 第一話 (dai-ichiwa, first story) that オチはないよ (Ochi wa nai yo, “There are no punch lines”); It’s a straight story.
The difficulties begin before even giving birth. Despite not having the best relationship with her parents, Tamako comes back to her hometown for the birth according to the Japanese tradition of 里帰り (satogaeri, returning home). Here she feels as though 居場所がなく (ibasho ga naku, rootless; literally, “she has no place to be”).
This comes to a head when she orders her own mother out of the birthing room: お母さんは出てってくれる？ (Okāsan wa detette kureru?, “Mom, could you get out?”).
The series, one of many narrative series Ryu has written, traces her diagnosis and recovery through 心の大掃除 (kokoro no ōsōji, spring cleaning of the soul) over a series of 39 strips. The blog has been so successful that she has released one volume of a published edition.
Yonkoma is a whole genre on these blogs, and you can use the tag feature to search for other popular yonkoma on Ameba (bit.ly/YonkomaTag)
Pixiv is another great site to scour for yonkoma. It’s more image-centric than Ameba, which is perhaps why it tends to attract a less-polished product, but it puts users at ease and enables them to make confessions through their art, as Ryu did.
For example, the artist named only みー (Mii) shares her own struggles with 抑うつ (yoko-utsu, depression) in a series titled ゆるゆる日常 (Yuruyuru Nichijō, My Leisurely Everyday).
The extremely rough, hand-drawn style is endearing and begins with a 紹介 (shōkai, introduction), as many of these personally inspired yonkoma do. Then she explains how she was diagnosed, lost her job, and what she is able to manage now: どんよりしている時唯一できたのがスマホ (Don’yori shite-iru toki yui’itsu dekita no ga sumaho, “When I was feeling gloomy, all I could do was play on my smartphone”). She passes the time playing 無課金勢 (mukakinzei, free-to-play [games]).
There are 10 posts in total with about four strips each. She writes about how she likes drawing manga stories on A3 paper, about her pet hamster and about the 偏見 (henken, prejudices) she had about depression before being diagnosed (bit.ly/Henken).
She also notes that she has felt supported by the community: Pixivでうつの方の エッセイ、励みになっております。私だけじゃない！ (Pikushibu de utsu no kata no essei, hagemi ni natte orimasu. Watashi dake ja nai, “Essays by people with depression on Pixiv are encouraging. It’s not just me!”) (bit.ly/Hagemi).
These sites are not only great for reading practice, they are open for you to use yourself. Navigating the registration process is another (important) form of Japanese practice, and a username will enable you to like and leave comments on yonkoma that you enjoy. Interaction is the true purpose of language, so why not take advantage of it here.
And if you feel so inspired, you can even try your own hand at yonkoma to share a part of your life.