Manga: Japan’s Pop Culture Crusader

From being a major entertainment media in Japan since the post-war era, manga or Japanese comics, along with anime, has undeniably become the country’s “pop culture crusader” on the global stage. For some, manga even serves as a gateway to Japanese art and culture appreciation. (On the other hand, manga artists, called mangaka in Japanese, have also found themselves illustrating manga adaptations of classic or contemporary western stories.) Despite the independent evolution of the 9th art, comics, in the west parallel to manga in Japan, Japanese comic books still found their way to spread in the opposite side of the world, thanks to television, the internet, and globalization. This is manga in America, from the earliest localizations to the streaming culture of today.

Television and Toonami

Dragon ball manga

Most millennials grew up watching cartoons and anime on television. Dragon Ball Z, Astroboy, Digimon, Hunter X Hunter, Detective Conan, Captain Tsubasa, Sailor Moon, Pokémon, Gundam, My Daddy Long Legs, Slam Dunk, and the newer One Piece were just some of the shows that shaped many childhoods both in the east and the west in the 1990s to early 2000s. In the US, this cultural permeation started when Cartoon Network opened a new block called Toonami. Toonami’s block aired anime and introduced it to the mainstream American audience. To appeal to its western audience, the animes were localized, the plots altered, and the characters often given western names. The success of anime in the US certainly paved the way for Japanese manga to enter the limelight.

Beginnings of manga in the US

Why is manga so popular in the US, and how did it start?

American publishers have been importing Japanese comic books since the 60s and 70s, in an attempt to diversify their comics portfolio. Titles like Astro Boy and Barefoot Gen were introduced to the American market; however, these publications were barely successful.

Astroboy manga

It wasn’t until the 90s when anime was also rising in popularity, that manga made its mark in the American publishing industry. Undoubtedly, anime allowed manga to be known and eventually accepted by the mainstream audience in the US

“Once the major platforms made a commitment to anime, manga purchasing really took off”

Kristen McLean, an analyst for NPD (formerly National Purchase Diary Panel Inc.).

American publishers like VIZ Media took this opportunity and pushed the importation of manga in the late 1990s by localizing and releasing popular tankōbon (independent books) such as Inuyasha and Dragon Ball Z (which then became two of the most popular Japanese manga in the US), and publishing periodicals such as Shonen Jump, emulating the monthly or weekly manga anthologies of Japan.

The 2000s

Several changes had been made to localize and make Japanese comic books more accessible and palatable to the western audience. The right-to-left format has been flipped to left-to-right as in American-style comics, but it was eventually reverted to the original Japanese-style manga format with additional warning page/s saying “Stop! You’re reading the wrong way!” along with instructions on how to read manga. 

Eventually, thanks to the more varied genres and riveting plots of mangas, manga found its way not only to American publishers of manga but also to major bookstores such as Barnes and Noble and Borders. By this time, manga readers were not only limited to anime fans, but comic fans who were looking to diversify their reading experience, literature enthusiasts, and casual readers as well.