Business / Tech

South Korea's booming 'webtoons' put Japan's print manga on notice

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Japan has long prided itself on being a manga powerhouse, but intense competition from overseas has left the industry at a crossroads.

Emerging as a threat is the growing popularity in Asia of the South Korea-born web comics collectively known as “webtoons” — a portmanteau of web and cartoons — that experts say are overshadowing the global presence of manga. The past several years have seen these South Korean web comics make forays into Japan, where they have quickly carved out a fan base among “digital native” youth who are increasingly shunning the traditional print formats in favor of titles read on apps.

This changing landscape begs the question: Should Japanese manga publishers, who have for years invested first and foremost in developing print content, jump on the webtoon bandwagon to strengthen their outreach to a foreign, tech-savvy audience?

Opinions among industry insiders and experts are mixed, but at least for Hideki Egami, a former editor at leading publisher Shogakukan, the answer is a definitive yes.

“Sales for comic magazines in Japan have long been trending downward — we don’t know how much further the domestic market for print manga will shrink,” Egami said.

“Japanese publishers are now at a stage where they can’t overlook the need for going digital and overseas. … Webtoons, I think, are the most reasonable way forward.”

Vertically optimized

‘True Beauty,’ a 
hit South Korean ‘webtoon’ depicting the life of a nerd who becomes the prettiest girl in school after mastering the art of makeup application, is fast attracting fans in Japan.   | © YAONGYI / LINE

Unlike Japanese manga, which in most cases are first marketed for a print audience and only subsequently promoted online via apps, webtoons cater to digital device users from the get-go: Their format has already been optimized for personal computers or smartphones.

Webtoons typically scroll vertically and are in full color, as opposed to traditional manga, which are often black and white and read horizontally. Once they spread on popular manga apps in Japan, the digital South Korean comics immediately attracted a youth following here.

Line Manga, launched by messaging giant Line Corp., boasts some 23 million users domestically and is the largest comic-reading app in Japan, providing access to a host of Japanese titles that originally appeared in print.

But driving the popularity of this mega-app in recent months have been two Korean webtoons — “True Beauty,” by Yaongyi, and “Lookism,” by Taejoon Park — both of which have all but dominated the top two spots in a monthly subscriber ranking over the past six months.

“Since Japanese manga are originally meant to be read in print formats, they’re not necessarily optimized for smartphones,” said Baku Hirai, an executive with Line Digital Frontier. “For example, some of them are hard to read because the size of their letters is too small” for smartphones.

Egami, who now heads a Japanese subsidiary of Ylab, a South Korean firm known for its extensive stable of webtoons, agrees.

“As long as smartphones remain the most popular device to enjoy manga online, I think webtoons, with their vertical scrolling, will continue to offer the most stress-free manga-reading experience for the simple reason that smartphones, too, are vertically long and your finger is very much used to swiping up from the bottom,” he said.

Localize or alienate

But the burgeoning popularity of webtoons is fundamentally different from past Korean Wave booms in one key aspect: Chances are, Japanese consumers aren’t even aware of the origin of what they are reading.

Most webtoons trending on domestic manga apps are not only translated but meticulously localized for a Japanese audience, with names, locations and various proper nouns all Japanized. Even the original illustrations can be altered to erase anything distinctly South Korean, such as the design of the police cars.

Localized webtoons can also be found in other languages, such as English. But neutralizing any hint of “South Koreanness” is seen as a particularly important marketing strategy when exporting to Japan, according to Lee Hyunseok, a former editor of the biweekly manga magazine Young Gangan, published by Tokyo-based video game developer Square Enix.

Lee recalls learning the importance of localization the hard way.

As part of his goal to “bridge” content between the neighbors, he once introduced a Japanese translation of the smash-hit webtoon “Along with the Gods” to his readership but kept the names of the original Korean protagonists intact.

The result was something of a shock: As soon as it debuted, it encountered a backlash from readers apparently offended by the mere mention of South Korea.

“They would thoroughly attack the work,” Lee said. “In returning our questionnaires or commenting on (online forum) 2-channel, they would say something along the lines of ‘Why are there South Korean characters?’ or ‘Why do we have to read South Korean manga?'”

Yukari Fujimoto, a professor of manga studies at Meiji University in Tokyo, said this should have been no surprise.

“Japan’s manga market is the biggest in the world — meaning many people in Japan are so used to reading homegrown manga that they tend to recoil at reading foreign-born comics,” Fujimoto said.

“Given there are some people who groundlessly believe that manga only exist in, or belong to, Japan, I think it makes sense that webtoons are being localized to minimize their resistance,” she added.

Myopic response

The prosperity of manga culture at home has traditionally kept Japanese publishers busy catering to the domestic audience, resulting in relatively little focus on demand from abroad, experts say. But as publishers continued looking inward, markets overseas — especially in South Korea and China — increasingly shifted away from Japan’s traditional print manga to develop their own content in the form of webtoons, they say.

China, for example, has been in the grip of a wave of digitization, with a manga app called Kuaikan Manhua proving so popular it has essentially marginalized print comics and turned cyberspace into “the main battlefield,” Fujimoto said.

With juggernauts like this, she said, the Chinese equivalents of webtoons reign as the dominant comic format, far eclipsing Japan’s horizontal, black-and-white manga.

The same is happening in the home of webtoons, Lee said.

Their advent has “created a situation where South Koreans no longer necessarily read Japanese manga because there are so many original South Korean works that fit their tastes,” he said.

Observers say this poses a dilemma for Japanese publishers, heaping pressure on them to pursue webtoons to better woo overseas audiences as they bleed print readers.

“I think we’re now in an age where Japanese manga can’t survive unless they explore webtoons,” Fujimoto said.

“Not just globally, but domestically, too, given that a growing number of young people in Japan shun print manga and instead turn to smartphones to kill time. … Although I doubt the culture of print manga will disappear entirely, I think Japanese publishers will lose competitiveness if they only focus on that.”

In Japan, the culture of webtoons remains underdeveloped.

One of the few exceptions is ReLIFE — a hugely successful vertical comic by Japanese artist So Yayoi available on the Comico app. The series was converted to anime and a live-action film before ending in 2018.

In principle, domestic publishers “still have it in their heads that they need to protect their domestic industry, long centered on the print culture, so they can be slow to go digital or global,” Egami said.

Publishing behemoth Shueisha, which runs the popular weekly manga magazine Shonen Jump, said it recognizes the importance of the vertical scrolling in webtoons, viewing it as an example of “how manga expression has been diversifying.”

The publisher said its app, Shonen Jump Plus, carries at least five vertical webcomics along with a plethora of postings by amateur illustrators rendered in the same format.

But at the same time, the publisher said it’s skeptical these vertical comics are the favorite of smartphone users today, claiming many horizontal titles that originally appeared in print actually do get traction when promoted on its app.

The important thing, therefore, is not the format, “but simply whether content is interesting,” said Shonen Jump Plus Editor-in-Chief Shuhei Hosono.

The limits of webtoons

Jay Kim, head of Kakao Japan Corp., a subsidiary of South Korea
Jay Kim, head of Kakao Japan Corp., a subsidiary of South Korea’s Kakao Corp. and operator of the popular manga app Piccoma, poses during an interview in Tokyo’s Roppongi district last month. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

This view has been echoed by Jay Kim, who heads Kakao Japan Corp., a subsidiary of South Korean IT firm Kakao Corp.

Kim, whose company runs popular manga app Piccoma, said he has recently met people from the publishing industry seeking his advice on how they should cope with the rapid incursions made by webtoons. He quoted industry insiders as griping to him that children in South Korea and China today are so used to vertical scrolling they don’t even know how to navigate the intricate maze of panels that constitute Japanese manga.

His answer: Don’t give up on your traditions.

Since its launch in 2016, Piccoma has quickly become Japan’s second-largest manga app in terms of sales. But a whopping 98 percent of the content available on it consist of Japanese horizontal-style titles, with webtoons accounting just for the remaining 2 percent, Kim said.

“We believe it is thanks to our pushing of Japanese manga that we have grown this much,” Kim said.

“The marvelous thing about Japanese manga is that you almost feel as if you are watching a TV drama, despite it being a sequence of still images,” he said. “Authors deftly manipulate panels on each page to zoom in and out on characters and convey their surprise. … This is one heck of a technique and is exactly what makes Japanese manga feel so vivid and alive.”

And according to Kim, webtoons have their share of shortcomings.

The fate of webtoons, he said, is likely to hinge on the longevity of the smartphone boom. The potential rise of devices with more horizontal screens — as signaled by the recent unveiling of larger, foldable smartphones — could turn the tide in favor of Japanese manga, he said.

Also, some experts say that since webtoons tend to be browsed casually by those looking to kill a few minutes of free time, they are generally considered unfit for plots based on complex themes or worldviews — although they work well with lighthearted, easy-to-understand stories.

“Even in Japan, there has been some talk of Japanese manga possibly changing to webtoon style,” Kim said. “But Japanese manga has its own strength built on more than 100 years of history — it would be such a waste to abandon it.”