It wasn’t too long ago that you couldn’t ride a train or bus without seeing many of your fellow passengers engrossed in manga magazines.

But smartphones and tablets are the ubiquitous sight these days, and in the past 15 years the manga magazine market has shriveled to half its former size.

Obviously, many in the industry are worried that the demise of the magazines will dent sales of manga books — the standalone paperbacks — and eventually Japan’s manga culture itself.

Weekly and monthly magazines like Shonen Jump and Big Comic Spirits consist of various manga serials that draw people to the independent comic books, which consist of only one story.

To survive and cultivate new business models in both domestic and overseas markets, some firms have launched free smartphone apps that play the role of manga magazines so people can casually read them and discover new titles.

The printed magazines may be facing tough times, “but the business model to make a profit by selling manga books is still working. So we are thinking that if we can provide an Internet service to introduce and spread new titles, it is highly likely we can create a successful business model,” DeNA Co. CEO Isao Moriyasu said during a panel discussion in Tokyo in late April.

According to people in the industry, most of the magazines don’t turn a profit by themselves. Their true value lies in turning readers on to the books containing the stories that appeared in the magazines.

There were 276 manga magazines in 2013, according to that year’s Annual Report on the Publication Market, published by the All Japan Magazine and Book Publishers and Editors Association.

DeNA released the Manga Box app last December. It has about 40 titles and lets people read some chapters for free.

People who like a particular manga can buy the e-book and continue reading it on their handheld device.

Moriyasu gave two reasons why DeNA, best known as a mobile gaming company, decided to get into manga.

One was to create intellectual properties the firm can use in other businesses, like gaming, and the other was to develop a global manga platform business.

“We think we can use Japan’s strength (at producing quality manga) to create a competitive, global platform,” he said.

The Manga Box app comes in English and Chinese versions as well as Japanese.

Most titles on Manga Box are exclusive to the app and overseen by Shin Kibayashi, a well-known writer responsible for numerous popular titles, including as “Kindaichi Shonen no Jikenbo” (“Kindaichi Case Files”) and “Kami no Shizuku” (“Drops of God”).

The content of the app, released in January, is basically updated weekly. It already has 4 million users.

DeNA spokesman Tomonari Kuroda said more than 1 million users are active on a weekly basis.

“It is not exactly equal to having a 1 million print circulation, but we think it’s close to something like that . . . it’s very exciting,” Kuroda said.

Shonen Jump, possibly the best-known manga weekly, has a circulation of 2.8 million.

Manga Box’s business model involves grabbing a chunk of the manga books’ sales, but Moriyasu said DeNA can come up with other business models once it attracts more users.

DeNA is not the only operator aiming to become an Internet manga platform operator. Publishing company Kadokawa Corp. launched a similar app called Comic Walker to hedge its bets against the declining magazine market.

“Manga magazines have really been struggling. . . . I feel it has especially been tough in the past two to three years. I think everyone in the industry shares the same feeling,” said Hiroyuki Watanabe, Comic Walker manager at Kadokawa.

He pointed out that manga magazines have been declining because consumers have more choices when it comes to leisure time, while the rise of smartphones in the past few years has been titanic.

Comic Walker was released in March with nearly 200 titles, including “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and “Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin,” and provides some chapters for free.

One difference between Manga Box and Comic Walker is that the latter has a lot more titles, thanks to Kadokawa’s extensive print lineup. Watanabe said many titles in Comic Walker also run in Kadokawa’s magazines, and the newest installments are uploaded at the same time the latest magazines hit brick-and-mortar stores.

But having a lot of titles can also be problematic, as people can be overwhelmed by the app and have a hard time finding the titles they like

Watanabe said Comic Walker’s prime aim is to attract 1 million users and 100 million page views per month by 2015, while hooking foreign users.

“Kadokawa’s strategy is to cultivate overseas markets, so we want to provide quality services to people in other countries,” said Watanabe.

Currently, Comic Walker provides English and Chinese translations. It also lets customers purchase e-book and print manga when they find titles they like.

Watanabe said the company is thinking of coming up with other business models, such as advertising and premium subscriptions.

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