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Sales of Japanese manga comics continue to soar to new highs, both at home and abroad, underlining the longevity and adaptability of a literary form that has in the past been dismissed as the preserve of children. The potential for further growth is so significant that  the Japan business federation Keidanren has called on the government to promote manga, anime, and games as the spearhead of the nation’s broader economic growth.

According to statistics released in March by the All Japan Magazine and Book Publishers’ and Editors’ Association, total sales of print, electronic comic books and magazines increased 0.2% in 2022, which is worth around 677 billion yen (€4.62 billion, $5.05 billion).

Sales of manga topped the 600 billion yen mark for the first time in 2020 thanks in large part to the popularity of the “Demon Slayer” series, although the industry believes the sector has also been boosted by people reading more while going out was restricted during the coronavirus pandemic

Sales of print manga have remained relatively flat, accounting for around 250 billion yen in total, which is a contraction from sales of 335.7 billion yen reported in 1995. While the more traditional print format has shrunk, however, manga delivered as e-comics on smart phones or other mobile devices has risen dramatically. Sales of digital manga leapt up by 8.9% in 2022.

Japanese anime takes over the airwaves in Montenegro

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Dramatic 171% increase in US sales 

It is a similar story in the United States, pointed out Roland Kelts, a visiting professor in the media and cultural studies department of Tokyo’s Waseda University and author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese pop culture has invaded the US.”

“I was stunned when I saw the figures for 2020 and 2021, which showed that year-on-year manga sales in the US were up by 171%,” he told DW. “That’s just an astonishing figure, and the figures made it clear that the overall graphic novel market grew much faster than the standard market for books.”

There are key differences between the Japanese and US markets, however, with sales of print manga in North America driven in recent years by anime that consumers will have seen on television, including such famous titles as “One Piece,” “Attack on Titan,” and “Spy Family,” Kelts highlighted. The situation is reversed in Japan, where series of print manga that are popular are made into anime. 

More space to store books

According to Kelts, Japanese consumers have also been quicker to embrace online anime because North American homes are typically significantly larger than Japanese abodes, meaning they have more space to store large numbers of books.

Readers in Japan, on the other hand, used to treat manga as disposable and leave them on trains for other people to read. That no longer happens, as consumers now frequently read the latest instalment of their favorite manga on their mobile phones. 

‘Fundamental themes’

Makoto Watanabe, a professor of media and communications at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, is currently re-reading the “Full Metal Alchemist” series of manga, which he first devoured as a boy. 

Manga is a Japanese phenomenon that has spread to the United States Image: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s quite a strange story, but when you interpret the characters’ actions, it’s all about friendship, love and telling the truth, which are all very fundamental themes and will resonate no matter the reader’s age,” Watanabe said. “I think that is often what makes manga so appealing and timeless; you can read them as a child and enjoy the story but go back again much later and find a new story within them.”

Manga have proved to be a valuable way of escaping the restrictions and boredom imposed by the pandemic, according to Watanabe, and remain a valuable learning tool. 

“There are, of course, some negatives, such as excessive violence in some manga, but on the whole I believe strong storylines and images, that appeal to everyone from school kids to salarymen, help to communicate many of the essential elements in life, and they are a valuable resource,” he said.

Keidanren also sees them as a potential moneymaker. Eaerlier this month, the business federation released a proposal for the government to focus on the contents industry, which also includes anime, live-action films, television programs, computer games and music, as key exports.

Manga and anime beyond Japan

Akira, Dragonball and Pokemon: Manga is more than just hype among teenagers. Japanese comics have a long history, and have been successful in Europe for years.

Image: Naoki Urasawa/Big Comic Spirits/Shogakukan

There is a huge variety of manga, “Kodomo” for young children, “Shojo” for female teenagers, “Shonen” for male teenagers, “Seinen” for (young) men and “Josei” for (young) women. The last three, which explore Japanese everyday life, are expanded by a variety of science fiction worlds or the depiction of sexual fantasies.

Image: Naoki Urasawa/Big Comic Spirits/Shogakukan

In Germany, anime first became known to a wider (children’s) audience in the 1970s and 1980. Children’s series including “Heidi,” “Maya the Bee” and “Vicky the Viking” were co-productions that used material from Western children’s literature. The anime style was introduced to audiences via familiar stories suitable for children.

Image: ddp images

Sailor Moon and other female heroes

Anime and manga, which were usually their templates, grew in popularity at the same time. Popular anime series in the 1990s included “Sailor Moon” and “Mila Superstar.” The strong female characters have a considerable fan base in Germany to this day.

Image: Netflix /Courtesy Everett Collection/picture alliance

In color and Western-style

“Akira” is a 2,200-page epic by Katsuhiro Otomo about the struggle for survival of a group of teenagers and children with special powers in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. The first volume published in Germany in 1991 was in color and adapted to Western habits. Today, manga are mostly in black and white and are read from back to front, as they are in Japan.

Image: Carlsen

Breakthrough with Dragonball

At least in Germany, the Dragonball series were the breakthrough for Japanese comics in 1998. Akira Toriyama’s 8,000-page adventure saga was a huge success. In black and white and in Japanese reading style, in an inexpensive paperback format, the manga was a hit with young people and children.

Image: Joel SagetAFP/Getty Images

Manga have a historical dimension, too — many refer to the picture stories in woodblock printing, which became a mass phenomenon in Japan from 1680 onward. The most famous graphic storyteller of the Edo period (1603 to 1868), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849, seen in a self-portrait), called them manga.

Image: CPA Media Co. Ltd/picture alliance

Pokemon: Manga around the world

The original folding books of the Edo period feature the same whimsical creatures that found their way into children’s rooms in the 21st century as Pokemons. They all come from the rich cosmos of the Yokai, the Japanese demons. These wondrous, at times ludicrous creatures inspired the manga and games culture, and Japanese horror and monster films.

Image: United Archives/kpa/picture alliance

“Spirited Away,” the story of a little girl’s visit to a bathhouse for Japan’s more than 40 million gods, also originated in this fantastical world. Hayao Miyazaki fleshed it out into an anime that reached a worldwide audience via Netflix.

Image: United Archives/picture alliance

Hollywood too discovered the manga/anime/video game connection. In 2017, “Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow, one of the best-known manga, was released as a blockbuster film adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson, a casting that brought accusations of whitewashing.

Image: Paramount Picturesx/ZUMA/IMAGO

God of Manga, Osamu Tezuka

Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) is considered the founder of modern manga. He regarded himself as a humanist and pacifist, skeptical of swift technological and social developments and was sensitive in his examination of his era. “Astro Boy,” “Black Jack,” “Princess Sapphire” and “Kimba” are his best-known works.

Image: Kyodo/MAXPPP/dpa/picture-alliance

Naoki Urasawa and other mangaka

In the West, too, major exhibitions and retrospectives celebrate the artistic quality of the works of mangaka — the people who create manga — including Naoki Urasawa (pictured), Jiro Taniguchi and the recently deceased Kazuki Takahashi. Manga is increasingly recognized as a valuable cultural asset, not just a temporary youth cult.

Image: Izumi Hasegawa/HollywoodNewsWire/picture alliance

Manga adress contemporary issues

Early on, manga addressed taboo subjects in the West. There are entire manga sections on homosexuality, the Shonen manga for male love. Tsumuji Yoshimura’s “The Gender of Mona Lisa” poses the question of gender identity. The manga is after all set in a world in which all people are born genderless.

Image: Carlsen

The proposal called on the government to set up an agency dedicated to promoting the contents industry overseas, for measures to promote industry experts from abroad to come to Japan to work, and to link with the tourism sector to help foreign fans of manga and anime visit sites across the country associated with particular manga stories. 

Ambitious sales target

The aim is to as much as quadruple sales of Japanese content in overseas markets, from approximately 5 trillion yen at present, within 10 years. 

“Fifteen years ago, Japanese business leaders sneered at the idea that manga and anime could become an important export sector for Japan, but that generation has now retired and been replaced by people who ‘get it’ when it comes to manga,” Kelts said. 

Keidanren chairman Masakazu Tokura is known to be a fan of anime and manga, and discussed the film adaptation of the basketball manga “Slam Dunk” with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol during his recent visit to Tokyo. 

“Tokura came of age during the 1970s and ’80s, when manga were ubiquitous in Japan,” Kelts pointed out. “In fact, domestic print sales peaked in the mid-’90s, so he and his cohorts have none of the prejudices against manga that their predecessors may have held.”

“At present, Japan is the unchallenged world leader in anime and manga and Keidanren is right to get behind it as a driver of the economy.”

Edited by: John Silk

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