1c. Theories of Manga/Theories of Japanese Identity – “Nobody uses that word anymore”

Splitting Hairs

Songs from a variety of terebi manga

As a layperson, one of the most onerous offences you can commit in the presence of a hardcore fan of Japanese pop culture is to mix up the words manga and anime, the worst variation of this offence being to think of them as for the most part equivalent.  Your ear will slowly melt off as some shrill–perhaps reasonable but generally shrill fan accelerates into the excruciating details of how manga is comics and anime is animated films and TV shows.  I know, because I myself, in my less enlightened days, have been guilty of acting like just such an asshole.

The unfortunate fact is that the hardcore fan, her heart bleeding for the narrative minutiae of a Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles or Claymore or Bleach or whatever, is not, in fact, in the right, or rather from the perspective of the 100+ (<–random large number) year history of modern manga she is, unfortunately, not entirely correct.  How can this be!  How could her pure manga heart betray her so!  From a contemporary perspective, her (my?) usage of the terms manga and anime are not entirely out of line.  In modern Japanese, this is how these two things are understood.  The problem lies more in the fact that manga has meant many things over time.

Anime and the world of hardcore fan culture it has a tendency to conjure is a relatively recent phenomenon.  The term (a shortened form of animēshon – “animation”) didn’t gain currency in Japan until the late 70s/early 80s after Tomino Yoshiyuki‘s now infamous speech before the premiere of the first Mobile Suit Gundam compilation film in 1981 at a theater in the otaku Mecca, Akihabara.  For the longest time, film and television animation were closely associated with manga, the former typically referred to as manga eiga (manga movies) and the latter as terebi manga (TV manga).  It wasn’t until much later that these terms were supplanted (along with the less common industry term dōga [moving image]) by anime and these two drawn forms, comics and animation, were in Japan considered to be entirely distinct.  We can see this reflected in the fact that many early animation directors worked in other fields where illustration was common, in particular, manga.  Tezuka is perhaps the best known example of the mangaka/animation director, but nowadays directors like Miyazaki Hayao, who hasn’t drawn any manga since the completion of Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) in 1994, are more the exception than the rule.  That said, the distinction upon which our dear manga devotee so deliriously relies is a recent phenomenon, hard to see given how Japanese pop culture didn’t really explode onto the West until well after this shift had taken hold.

As for the term manga itself, there is no end of dipshits 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 latter half of the 19th century there were numerous terms floating around for what might now be considered manga: toba-e (after Toba Sōjō, the man sometimes thought to be the creator of the 12th century Chōjū-giga), Ōtsu-eponchi-e (after the periodical Japan Punch that first appeared in 1862), and others.  The word manga, however, which had existed since the late 18th century, was never used for the print illustrations we now think of until an artist working for the newspaper Jiji shinpō (Current News), Imaizumi Ippyō, used the word manga as a translation of “caricature.”  Given that most manga–and, in fact, most cartoons around the world–in the late 19th century were closely tied to current affairs and lampooning public figures, the connection between early manga (to my mind, at least) and the early histories of comics throughout the world couldn’t be more obvious, even in the way comics in both the Japanese and Anglo-American tradition came in the early 20th century to be understood as “for kids,” even though their previous histories don’t really support that understanding.

Manga, Picture Books (ehon), and Illustrated Stories (emonogatari)

By the postwar period, which one camp of manga historiography (more on this later) considers the beginning of manga as we know it, we are firmly in a time when manga was understood to have distinct readership demographics, particularly for adults (along the lines of the political cartoons/gag strips that had by then been in circulation for many decades) and for children.  As the old hackneyed story goes, manga was transformed by Tezuka Osamu when he combined what he saw in the animated films of Disney and Fleischer with his own artistic tradition blah blah blah to produce the modern phenomenon of yada yada yada.  I will have more to say at a later date about Tezuka’s (invention of his own) “transformational genius,” but for now I’d like to focus on the changing print contexts of illustrated stories and the emerging distinction between manga and children’s picture books (ehon).  Though even now some in Japan would not 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 image are simply present in the same visual field, while in the latter the text necessarily explains the images.  Obviously, one could quickly find examples to subvert this distinction (below), but for now we will leave it be.  This is why nowadays Yamakawa Sōji, the author of the once popular and long running Shōnen Keniya (The Boy from Kenya), is generally considered to be an author of illustrated stories (emonogatari sakka) rather than a manga artist, because his drawings do not “tell the story” in the way the text does.

Kawamori Hisao's manga take on middle school life

Kawamori Hisao’s manga take on middle school life

The problem with this understanding is that it takes modern manga print culture–short-ish chunks of longer stories published along with other chapters in massive weekly and monthly anthologies–as historically universal, when in fact even if you except the manga books (so-called akahon [redbook], for the predominantly red color of their covers) of the first 2/3 of the 20th century from the argument, there are still the boys/girls magazines of the midcentury that were the primary mode of dissemination of youth-oriented manga and that contained much more than just comics.  Magazines such as Omoshiro bukku (Funny Book), which later became the weekly manga anthology Shōnen Jump, contained short news articles, educational pieces, puzzles, and a variety of print media in addition to long manga stories and short form strips (yonkoma manga).  The primary print context for the form of manga that supposedly is more or less identical to what we have now is much more akin to contemporary Japanese children’s magazines (e.g. Shōgaku ichinen) or Highlights than the massive tomes you can buy at trains station bookshops or kiosks.

The fact that in these periodicals manga and emonogatari stood side by side with little in the way of meaningful distinction may even help explain why in the context of much earlier illustrated stories the word manga seems simply to mean “illustration.”  For instance, the byline to Okamoto Ippei’s Botchan emonogatari (Botchan Illustrated) reads Nastume Sōseki gensaku Okamoto Ippei manga: Original Story – Nastume Sōseki, Illustrations – Okamoto Ippei.  In form, it looks just what we considered earlier to be the domain of ehon but it still, in some sense, is manga.

Gekiga and/or Manga


Tatsumi Yoshihiro, A Drifting Life, p. 651

Much of Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s graphic memoir Gekiga hyōryū (trans. 2009 as A Drifting Life) is taken up with the brief history of the Gekiga Workshop and its members endeavor to create manga better suited to an adolescent readership.  The very term gekiga (劇画 – literally, “dramatic images”) seems to stand in stark contrast to manga (漫画 – “over-the-top images”), yet Tatsumi claims that within the Gekiga Kōbō there were debates as to whether there was a meaningful distinction between “serious” and “silly.”

A Drifting Life, p. 789

A Drifting Life, p. 789

Clearly, Hiroshi (Tatsumi’s alter-ego) understands gekiga as critics do now, as a subset of the umbrella form that is manga.  Here Hiroshi, like contemporary manga critics, understands manga almost purely in formal terms and rejects the notion that difference in audience makes them distinct.  By the time Tatsumi came to write his revisionist history of postwar manga (from 1995), gekiga had already been subsumed into the universalizing, transhistorical category that manga had become.  And yet we still have this lingering thing that people refer to as a gekiga style (Saitō Takao, creator of Golgo 13, certainly thought there was one) that is applied to artists, such as Shirato Sanpei, who never were part of the gekiga group nor identified themselves with that movement, and which plays on the tension we see in Tatsumi’s memoir between gekiga being a part of manga (re: visual similarities) and yet also antagonistic to it (catering to a readership that Tatsumi claimed in his postcard manifesto to have been ignored by the manga of the time).  Shirato’s palpable nonpresence in Tatsumi’s text (despite a mention) is telling, because he is a figure in manga history who breaks down many of the distinctions we take for granted about what manga is both in formal and historical terms.  Perhaps this is why he is virtually unknown outside of Japan.

Next week: stories from the manga education abyss; I give voice to my students so they can confirm what a horrible human being I am!

Stay tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com

N.B. In the third image above “Takai Saito” should be “Takao Saito”


  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] Next week, the initial sally of this, our foolishly chosen endeavor, concludes with a look at manga … […]

  3. […] murkiness of distinctions between forms of print illustration that nowadays feel tried and true.  I have written previously about the promiscuity of the term manga, both in terms of national context as well as recent history.  There I spoke in more general, […]

  4. […] reflection of the manga scene he entered into as the whole kamishibai thing was winding down.  I have written previously about the rather arbitrary distinction between manga and emonogatari that nowadays, more or less, holds and how those two “distinct” forms were part of the […]


  6. […] The short English speech was written by cartoonist Imaizumi Hidetaro 今泉秀太郎 (aka Imaizumi Ippyo 今泉 一瓢), the man who, on April 27, 1891, was the first to use the word manga 漫画 to describe what we would call ‘caricature.’[*][*] […]

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