1b. Theories of Manga/Theories of Japanese Identity – “Japanese” Comics

Nihonjiron bullshit

“Just my idea,” Edward L. Sanborn, from Punch, February 4, 1888

In my previous post, I briefly alluded to a discourse of theories of Japanese identity, nihonjinron, so I thought it might be appropriate to speak at greater length as to what this might be and how it is relevant for these first tentative steps into trying to delineate what manga may or may not be.

Nihonjinron, as it’s typically known in English language discourses, or nihon bunka-ron (theory of Japanese culture), as it’s more commonly referred to in Japanese, typically argues for an essentialized Japanese racial identity, a unique one opposed to some hypothesized other: occasionally the Chinese but more typically the denizens of an abstracted European/North American “West.”  The essential difference of the Japanese can be predicated on a variety of things: physiology – recall Miyazaki’s statement in my previous post about the special outline-preferring nature of Japanese brains; climate – Japan is a nation subject to continuous violent storms, so the Japanese have an acute sense of the transience of all things; landscape – Japan is an island nation and thus isolated both geographically and culturally from neighboring influences; diet – the Japanese are less violent, because they rarely eat meat; mythology – the Japanese are directly descended from the sun goddess, Amaterasu; etc.  In my classes, I have a tendency to refer to these theories as “nihonjinron bullshit,” due to the ease with which one can demonstrate them to be downright idiotic or at least equally true of other cultures as well.

These theories have the unfortunate side effect of creating an arbitrary and absolute standard of Japanese-ness against which anyone might be judged positively or negatively.  I can recall on numerous occasions challenging the ridiculous claims associated with this form of cultural essentialism by saying “but so-and-so isn’t like that at all!”  The typical response to my objection takes the form of “well, she isn’t very Japanese,” despite being born, raised, and having lived her entire life in Japan.  This may sound harmless enough, but it also creates an environment where children whose parents worked abroad for several years often find themselves subject to intense bullying (or, alternatively, disproportionate admiration) simply because they were out of Japan for a few years.

Despite the claims within nihonjinron discourse to a universality stretching back to time immemorial, the current theories, though they have their roots in kokugaku, so-called “national studies,” are largely the product of a debate in the former half of the 20th century between theorists who understood the Japanese polity as fundamentally of mixed race (mixing a variety of Asiatic cultures with other “non-Japanese” races native to the archipelago like the Emishi or Ainu) and those who tried to argue that the Japanese are both homogeneous and distinct, as Oguma Eiji has shown convincingly in his A Genealogy of ‘Japanese’ Self-images (Tan’itsu minzoku shinwa no kigen – ‘Nihonjin’ no jigazō no keifu).  During the height of Japan’s imperial ambitions, culminating in the ironically named Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, the mixed ethnicity theories held sway mostly to justify why Japan was “annexing” (read “colonizing”) territories throughout East Asia: Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Manchuria, etc.

However, as Oguma notes, latent anxieties over what a truly mixed race polity might mean for Japan itself—through intermarriage and the repatriation of mixed race children—led to competing theories of Japanese homogeneity and mere tolerance and assimilation of foreign influences.  The mixed-race/mixed nation theories were so closely tied to Japanese imperialism that, when at the end of WWII Japan was forced to relinquish its imperial holdings, so too did Japanese public discourse abandon the mixed race theories of Japanese identity, leaving only the essentializing discourses we see today.  These theories are, of course, not universally accepted by the Japanese and especially not by Japanese scholars, which is the most damning piece of evidence against them.

“It’s not just big eyes!”

From Lela Lee’s Angry Little Girls

The double-bind of super special uniqueness at home yet startling variety and inclusiveness when abroad is mirrored quite clearly in attempts in English language discourse to distinguish manga from ye olde fashioned comics.  This is most evident in the introductions to the many anthologies of non-Japanese (sometimes OEL or Original English Langauge) manga to have popped up over the past decade.  These definitions often take the form of challenging your preconceptions about manga, yet they often fail to get much further than “manga is not…” in delineating the object of interest.

“Manga is an oft-misunderstood concept.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no pre-determined ‘manga look.’  Manga is a broad Japanese term, literally meaning ‘entertaining visual.’ […] We at TOKYOPOP [sic] support this true meaning of manga as a broad entertainment concept, not a certain look.  These first Rising Stars did not win our contest by redrawing American superheroes with big eyes and round faces—this is not what manga means to us.  The key to becoming a Rising Star of Manga is passion—the passion to tell a great story; the passion to bring vision to the written page; the passion to create unforgettable characters; the passion to move a reader.”

The first major anthology of OEL manga, Rising Stars of Manga vol. 1 (2003), and its editor, Stu Levy, never quite get around to tackling the problem of what manga is (“broad entertainment concept” is laughably vague) but definitely want you to know that these are NOT your daddy’s Fustey Olde Comick Bookes.  They’re MANGA!!!!111 (insert loud, overwrought guitar riff).  Why these non-Japanese manga are not, in fact, simply Anglo-American comics with a dash of Japanese influence is a case that needs to be made, because in Japanese the word manga need not necessarily refer to comics made strictly within the narrow confines of Japan or by a Japanese native.  In several of his works, the historian Shimizu Isao makes a distinction between gaikoku manga (foreign “manga,” i.e. comics) and nihon manga (Japanese “manga”), both Yomota Inuhiko in Manga genron (Principles of Manga) and Takeuchi Osamu in Manga hyōgen-gaku nyūmon (Introduction to Representation in Manga) use examples from non-Japanese artists to illustrate the formal properties of “manga,” and the Japanese Wikipedia article for manga clearly refers to non-Japanese comics and even links to the English article on “comics” in its other languages section.

The distinction between comics and manga only becomes necessary outside of Japanese language discourses, where, in its more articulate forms, the tension between an exotic uniqueness (so as to be distinct from other comics traditions) and inclusive variety (so as to allow for the non-Japanese manga being presented) is never and, in fact, cannot be resolved.  Consider this schizophrenic back and forth in the introduction to the first volume of The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga.

“Manga, the Japanese art of comics, is stylistically distinct – not only from American comics, but equally as much, from indigenous [?] European, Indian, or South American comic books…

The first thing [sic] you should know about ‘manga style’ is that there is NO SUCH THING [sic].  Manga is just a Japanese word for comics – they can, and do, come in an infinite variety of drawing styles…”

The editor, Ilya, does at least go on to make the case that what distinguishes manga is its narrative pacing—a suspect claim in itself—but these two passages serve to demonstrate the double speak that becomes necessary in order to hold manga at arms length and preserve its specialness, unless I’m an idiot and simply fail to see how something can be “stylistically distinct” and yet also have no distinct style.  I shall ponder this koan as I lie awake tonight, and perhaps by morning I will have become sufficiently enlightened as to abandon this whole foolish enterprise and apologize to Messrs. Levy and Ilya for my impudence.

Next week, the initial sally of this, our foolishly chosen endeavor, concludes with a look at manga terminology over time and the distinction that emerges between manga and ehon (children’s picture books) and collapses between manga and gekiga.

Don’t touch that dial!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. […] flinch at the idea of a manga ehon (children’s book in a “manga style,” which, as you might recall from our previous episode, “doesn’t exist”), the distinction that is typically made between manga and ehon is that in the former text and […]

  2. […] As I pointed out not too long ago, though the claim of there being no unified manga style is basically correct, I cannot quite come to agree with it, due in part to the context in which such a claim is typically made.  It is so often belied by the fact that an implicit (and, it seems, consciously unspoken) distinction is being made between comics and manga, even as the claim for the anything-and-everything-ness of manga is laid out in its particulars.  By the logic so often used (c.f. Stu Levy’s “broad entertainment concept”), even ye olde ordinary, boring, run of the mill Anglo-American superhero comics would qualify as manga.  They all do, in fact, qualify, though not for reasons the manga peerage are willing to explore in any great detail (i.e. because in Japanese, at least, the word manga can refer any comic art).  In a non-Japanese context, the claim of something being manga (and not your daddy’s comic books, fanboy) is not merely an innocent determination of an object of fan adoration (or policing of a particular gestalt fan consciousness) but a fairly clear, though perhaps unintentional, exoticizing of what might otherwise fall neatly into a pre-existing media discourse. […]

  3. […] 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 Japanese […]

  4. […] 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. […]


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