From “One Piece” and “Naruto” to “Doraemon” and “Sazae-san,” comic books have been the heart of Japanese pop culture.

Most “anime,” “cosplay” and other made-in-Japan examples of “otaku” (“nerd”) culture that have spread worldwide would not exist without “manga” because few anime producers are willing to invest the time and money on stories that aren’t proven popular in comic books first.

In the eyes of many Westerners, adults reading manga on a train or at a convenience store appear peculiar, at best.

Why are manga so popular? Here are some of questions and answers on the topic:

What is the origin of manga?

“Choju-giga” (“Scrolls of Frolicking Animals”), a series of drawings of frogs, rabbits and other animals produced in the 12th and 13th centuries by several artists, is widely believed to be the first manga in Japan. The techniques used then, such as how to draw a character’s legs to simulate running, would not appear out of place in contemporary comics.

But in “Manga no Rekishi” (“The History of Manga”), author and researcher Isao Shimizu defines manga as popular works sold to the masses. According to this definition, Shimizu asserts, Japan’s first manga was “Toba Ehon,” a book of drawings accompanying a story featuring the lives of ordinary people in the Edo Period (1603-1867) that was sold by an Osaka publisher in the 18th century.

Newspapers and magazines in the 20th century ran comic strips to help gain readership. But the largest contributors to the development of manga were the weekly and monthly comic magazines that emerged in the 1960s, which carry a collection of about 10 or 20 series installments per edition.

“Comic magazines are the first place where manga artists were given a chance to show their work. Without them, manga artists would not have been born,” manga critic Haruyuki Nakano says.

How well do comics sell in Japan?

Volume 52 of “One Piece,” an adventure story about a boy who wants to be a pirate, was the best-selling comic book last year, selling 2.5 million copies for publisher Shueisha Inc., according to statistics compiled by the Research Institute for Publications. Coming in second was Volume 44 of “Naruto,” a ninja story, also published by Shueisha, which sold 1.55 million copies. In comparison, last year’s best-selling noncomic book was “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” at 1.8 million copies, institute official Masaharu Kubo said.

Among magazines, best-selling Shukan Shonen (Weekly Boy) Jump had a circulation of 2.79 million last year, followed by Shukan Shonen Magazine with 1.77 million copies.

These figures are significantly higher than in other countries.

For example, in the United States, a book of comic strips that sold 150,000 copies would be considered a success, critic Nakano says, adding that comic magazines in the Japanese style are almost nonexistent there.

He also says English versions of Shukan Shonen Jump have sold 300,000 copies in the U.S., an achievement he calls “amazing,” though shrugged off by the Japanese manga industry.

Why do adults in Japan read manga?

Nakano said publishers have specifically targeted adults with manga series centering on business, politics, history and even gambling.

“People who were kids in the ’80s and ’90s keep reading manga. Before then, comics used to be read only by children in Japan, just like other countries. But publishers had to raise the target age range because readers of long-selling manga did not stop reading,” Nakano says.

For example, Shukan Shonen Jump’s “Dragon Ball,” a popular comic series featuring the adventures of martial artist Son Goku, ran for 10 years until 1995. As the comic’s loyal readership aged, publisher Shueisha had to add more manga with adult content to keep them buying the magazine.

In 1995, the magazine achieved an astonishing circulation of 6 million.

Nakano also points out that Japanese children have developed the habit of buying manga for themselves.

Kids here had more money during the country’s rapid economic growth period between the 1960s and early 1990s than their counterparts in other countries, he says. Also, many went to cram schools and they used the dinner money their parents gave them to buy ¥200 comics along with their meal at a convenience store.

“You can easily imagine such kids continuing to read manga when they grow up,” he says.

In other countries, parents buy comics for children, so the act of buying comics is not a childhood habit, he argues.

Apart from economic and lifestyle reasons, why are manga far less popular than animated movies overseas?

Nakano believes the answer has to do with “manga grammar.”

For example, the established styles of drawing — the use of lines — to express a character’s movements and emotions have become so engrained in Japanese readers that it is not easy for foreigners to “crack the code” when the comics are shipped overseas, he says.

He points to the difference in how movement is rendered in American comics, which, whatever the object, be it fighter jet or bullet, is shown from beginning to end. In contrast, he says, Japanese manga artists stop short of the end to give readers the chance to picture the motion in their minds and thus feel a part of the manga.

Nevertheless, Japanese comic books are sold all over the world as graphic novels. A Shueisha spokesman says, for example, “Naruto,” one of the company’s best-selling manga overseas, is sold in more than 25 countries and regions. He declined to disclose how many are sold outside Japan.

Kubo notes that “Naruto,” “One Piece” and “Nodame Cantabile” are doing well overseas.

As for the world-famous Pokemon character, “I have heard not so many (Pokemon) comic books have been published,” Nakano says.

How is the comic book and magazine industry faring in Japan?

By 2008, sales of manga books and magazines had fallen to ¥448.3 billion from ¥586.4 billion in 1995, the oldest figure available, according to the Research Institute for Publications. That translates to a drop of 23.5 percent, nearly the same as the 22 percent decrease in sales of all kinds of books and magazines, according to the statistics.

Why is the industry experiencing a slump?

Fewer people are reading manga magazines, and therefore fewer are buying manga comic books because people usually purchase comic books after reading the series in magazines, according to Kubo.

The end of “Dragon Ball” in Shukan Shonen Jump in 1995 is also a big reason people stopped reading manga magazines, he adds.

Both Kubo and Nakano also blame the aging society and the falling birthrate for the drop in sales.

Because publishers focused too much on expanding the range of readership to adults in the 1980s and 1990s, there are less interesting comic series published in manga magazines, which have failed to attract younger readers, they say.

“If you have three or four interesting individual manga (out of the 10 or 20 that are typically carried), you buy that magazine, but if there is only one or two, you don’t buy it. That’s why children don’t buy (comic) magazines,” Nakano says.

Kubo and Nakano also say children nowadays have other forms of entertainment such as video games and mobile phones and are busy going to cram schools. Some people read comics on mobile phones, they say.

What does the industry need to do?

“They have to grab child readers again and keep cultivating new young readers to maintain the size of readership,” Nakano says.

Kubo says publishers have launched magazines this year whose target readers are junior high students, but how well they will do is still unclear.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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