1a. Theories of Manga/Theories of Japanese Identity – A Sneaking Suspicion

There are many points of entry into answering the question of what manga is, all of them equally intriguing and equally bad, as well as many subsequent questions that demand answer as well: where (is it something only made in Japan?), when (is a modern or transhistorical phenomenon?), how (what is it in formal terms?), even why (what were the conditions under which it emerged as a form of popular media?). Answering all of these latter questions gets us quite far but has the unfortunate effect of causing so many more questions to be asked.

I would like to begin the WiM blog with a question no one seems to be asking—or at least no one seemed to be asking at the time I first became interested—and yet is more than pertinent to any discussion of manga as a distinctly Japanese thing: how are theoretical constructions of manga connected to constructions of Japanese identity. Back in ye olde 2009, I was reading Shimizu Isao’s section of Manga no kyōkasho (The Manga Textbook), edited by Yoshimura Kazuma, for reasons that now escape me and must not have materialized into anything, when I came across the following passage in the introduction.

“Whenever I am asked by a foreigner why the Japanese people like manga so much, I respond, ‘for that there are two reasons.’
First, it’s because the Japanese people have [always] loved to read books…”

Wait—what? If I understand the hypothetical question Shimizu posits correctly, this “foreigner” wants to know why the Japanese, as opposed to, we might suppose, all other peoples of the world (?), read manga/comics so voraciously. To this is given a certifiably dumb answer: “we just love to read so much!” His second reason is only slightly less likely to cause your eyes to roll.

“Second, in the past 300 years we have been gifted with the occasional appearance of manga geniuses: for example, Toriyama Sekien, Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Kobayashi Kiyoshika, Kitazawa Rakuten, Okamoto Ippei, Tagawa Suihō, Yokoyama Ryūichi, Tezuka Osamu, Hasegawa Machiko, Akatsuka Fujio, etc. Every thirty years another great genius appears. Along with the great ones come many middle and lesser geniuses, and the world of manga is rejuvenated.”

Rejoice! Kannon has blessed the Japanese people with manga bodhisattvas who have served as a guide for the way to manga enlightenment and along with them many arhats to serve as models for the life of the manga Way! As vomit-inducing as this explanation is, its form is not altogether foreign to me, as it closely resembles the dialogues and thus underlying discourse of Japanese English education, wherein the point of learning a foreign language is not so as better to experience the cultures of the peoples that happen to speak those languages but so as to explain super special Japaneseness to foreigners. The discourse is innocuous enough: some dopey foreign type, often with a gigantic nose, stumbles about asking questions, and it is the duty of a nervous but intrepid Tarō or Hanako to use their recently developed powers of English to explain Japan to Big Nose. In time, you learn to roll your eyes and get over it, and so it was with Shimizu. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

But later, I was reading the first volume Miyazaki Hayao’s memoir Starting Point, because it had recently appeared in translation and thus might be useful for teaching, when I came to his rather peculiar address to the Japan Cartoonists Association. The specter of explaining Japan to the dopey foreigner once again rears its ugly head.

“Lately I find myself in a position of being asked by foreign journalists about manga. Not only Americans and Europeans, but also many of our Asian neighbors appear to lump both Japanese comics and anime together as manga.
They want to know why manga have exploded in popularity in Japan, but it isn’t easy to answer their questions. It’s actually a bit of a pain in the neck, so allow me to hereby provide some theories.”

Seems harmless enough, but wait! It gets better! And by better I mean racist!

“Perhaps because of the way our brains are structured, Japanese people like to recognize and perceive things in outline form—as lines. There are, in contrast, other peoples in the world who like to perceive things in terms of volumes and solid shapes. This is clearly apparent to me when I compare the different tastes of Japanese and American animators. There is, therefore, a physical reason that Japan mass produces and consumes manga as black-and-white line drawings.”

Huh… now we are officially in looney territory. There are two important similarities between Miyazaki’s and Shimizu’s stupidity in print that are worth bringing special attention to: the frame of explaining Japan to foreigners and the fact that these things are originally in Japanese and thus, we can suppose, for an exclusively Japanese-speaking audience. The purpose of this drivel is as much to explain what manga is as reinforce a diffuse concept of a uniquely Japanese identity. What’s more, in discursive terms, it closely resembles a rather large literature of pop and academic sociology, so called nihonjinron or “theories of Japanese-ness.” Consider the following from Watanabe Shōichi’s The Peasant Soul of Japan.

“When did I decide to write about my own people, the Japanese? I’m pretty sure I was in the mood to do it when I was a student in Europe, when I was 25. At that time, though, the urge to write about Europe was stronger.
The notion that I had to write, at all costs, came to me after I’d been to America, about two decades ago. I was extremely anxious that my American colleagues and students should understand what sort of a country Japan was, what kind of people the Japanese were. I also thought my fellow countrymen might be interested in my theories.” [emphasis mine]

Note both the frame of explaining Japan to foreigners and the very real Japanese audience for these theories, for while Watanabe only ever wrote the one book in English, he has written countless more in Japanese on the subject of Japaneseness. Something that is so often overlooked in introductory treatments of manga is how the scholarship thereof is complicit in a multivalent treatment of Japanese identity, something that even those treatments that remain willfully ignorant of the Japanese critical discourse surrounding manga collude in, if perhaps by accident.

To define manga, then, is to implicitly contribute to a delineation of what it is to be Japanese.

Next week on the WiM blog: a brief introduction to nihonjinron, why the casual refusal of critics in English to define manga only makes matters worse, and the problem of terminology.

Stay tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. Thanks for this! I am a Brazilian comics artist currently working on a horror comic inspired by the battle of Sekigahara. There are plenty of samurai and katanas in the book, but I’m not sure I should call it a manga. However, I know many people will make this connection, which will be quite confusing and difficult for me to deal with. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the problem. Your post helped me think better about this. So thanks again!

  2. […] who will try to talk your ear off about Hokusai and other such nonsense, but, as Shimizu Isao (whom I may have otherwise disparaged) notes in his Nenpyō Nihon manga-shi (Chronological History of Japanese Manga, p. 100), in the […]

  3. […] and how some try to argue for a (not terribly well thought) cultural specificity for each.  I’ve written at greater length in the past about the rather problematic connections between theories of manga and theories of […]


  5. […] and how they play to certain ugly conceptions of cultural specificity and exceptionalism (c.f. my posts on theories of manga and [prescriptive] theories of Japanese identity).  It has left me open to genuine learning and kept at arm’s length the unfortunate habit of […]

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