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Re-Examining the “What is Manga” Problematic: The Tension and Interrelationship between the “Style” Versus “Made in Japan” Positions

MOKK Media Research Center, Department of Sociology and Communication, Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Budapest 1111, Hungary
Submission received: 20 April 2018 / Revised: 22 June 2018 / Accepted: 3 July 2018 / Published: 10 July 2018


The term manga is used to refer to a range of related and at times exclusive domains according to the position of the speaker. In the present paper, I examine one of the fundamental dichotomies underpinning the arguments in relation to the meaning of manga, the tension and interrelationship between the “style” versus “made in Japan” positions. Building on research on manga, comics, and bande dessinée, I outline a framework that attempts to take stock of the most common features associated with works being considered manga. Highlighting some of the possible connections between visual style and content-specific elements on the one hand, and the Japanese language plus the culture of manga production, dissemination, and consumption in Japan on the other hand, I argue that the manga as style position is not as pure a possibility—transcending all cultural and material situatedness—as it is sometimes held up to be. At the same time, the manga is made in Japan position is not as simplistic as it is commonly thought to be and indeed points to a far deeper and more fundamental interrelationship between manga and Japan—as its real and mythical place of origin—than its proponents might actually articulate.

1. Introduction

Manga, not unlike other similar concepts,1 cannot really be defined in a satisfying manner (cf. Berndt 2008). The word itself is originally written as “漫画”, with the first kanji meaning whimsical, involuntarily, or unrestrained, and the second one denoting brush-stroke or picture.2 Today, however, it is also written in hiragana, katakana, or even romanized script for stylistic purposes and to express different emphases in relation to its meaning. Indeed, the meaning of the expression has not only undergone important shifts within Japan since it first started to be used in relation to various forms of illustration (the most well-known example being Hokusai manga from the nineteenth century), later political cartoons and daily strips (Stewart 2013), and finally long-form sequential art (Itō 2005; Odagiri 2010), but the question of continuity or its degree among these various forms is also an important point of contention. Some histories of manga highlight the tradition of drawn cartoonish figures within Japan dating back to as early as the twelfth–thirteenth centuries, with the most famous example, Chōjūgiga, depicting anthropomorphized animals reminiscent of modern satirical cartoons. The actual continuity between such picture scrolls, later ukiyo-e images, and modern manga, however, is strongly debated, and a more scholarly history of modern manga emphasizes the importance of the influence of political cartoons and comic strips from Europe and the US in the works and ideals of pioneers like Kitazawa Rakuten (Stewart 2013).
Turning to contemporary uses of the term, manga is commonly understood to have come to refer to comics in general in Japan. However, the narrower meaning of Japanese comics only has also been around for some time (cf. Odagiri 2010), as evidenced by words like amekomi—the abbreviation of amerikan komikku—used to denote US comics among aficionados. This more restrictive meaning of manga has also gained ground probably in part due to the way the term has come to be used outside the country to refer to comics made in Japan. As a result of the rise in interest in Japanese comics abroad and the growing number of works inspired by them, manga is also understood by many as a purely stylistic category. But other less commonly known uses of the expression have been well documented as well. For example, as a result of the development of a mature manga publishing industry in the US, offering both localized Japanese works and original domestic publications, a business definition of manga—being “simply a comic book of a particular trim size and price point that girls and women would be expected to read” (Brienza 2016, p. 12)—has also emerged there.3
In the following, I will examine one of the most fundamental dichotomies in relation to the meaning of manga that addresses the very core of this multiplicity of positions: the tension and interrelationship between the “style” versus “made in Japan” positions. Put simply, the first position would seem to argue for the potential of a purely formal definition of manga that can transcend national boundaries and systems of production or dissemination without any sort of difficulty. The latter position implies an anchoring of the form in the cultural and linguistic context of Japan and the realities of the wider manga industry and fandom found there. I will provide a more nuanced description of the various elements of these positions in Section 3 below.
The style versus made in Japan positions also correspond to a certain degree to the two historical perspectives referenced above.4 Histories of manga emphasizing the roots of the form, or at least the sensibility that gave rise to it, being traceable back to the time of Chōjūgiga and/or ukiyo-e seem to gesture toward its inextricable link to Japan. Scholars arguing for the modern origins of the form and highlighting the formative influence of political cartoons and comic strips from Europe and the US clearly underscore the way media, styles, and genres can and do travel between different linguistic and cultural domains. It is this very movement of forms of artistic expression and entertainment and their relationship to national cultures that are once again highlighted by the present debates around the meaning of manga.
Manga—along with anime and Japanese video games—has become a staple element of youth culture in a large number of countries around the world. As such, it serves as an example of the potential multi-directionality of globalization and cultural flows (cf. Iwabuchi 2002). It also stands as an exemplar of what it means to have truly transnational circuits of production, dissemination, and consumption both in relation to official channels and grassroots initiatives (see Brienza 2016; Mihara 2010). Manga is perceived as belonging to or stemming from Japan but at the same time is also increasingly experienced by young people across the globe as their own culture of choice; and its circuits of production, dissemination and consumption are being both decoupled from the Japanese context and seen as unentangleable from its country of origin. It is these very tensions that lend so much potency to manga—and the wider manga culture, or media mix of manga, anime, video games, light novels and toys (see Allison 2006; Condry 2013; Mihara 2010; Steinberg 2012)—as a possible channel for forging affective ties among young people in various countries around the world in relation to Japanese culture and, as a possible extension, to Japan. This is one of the reasons why manga was also adopted as a central element of the “Cool Japan” nation branding framework. But at the same time, the delicate balance and the double-edged nature of these tensions is perhaps nowhere more clear than in the way “Cool Japan” is now often seen to have not lived up to its potential in relation to furthering economic growth and/or the generation of “soft power” in the arena of international relations (Brienza 2014; Iwabuchi 2015; Valaskivi 2013).
To highlight the way this double bind is constantly reframed and renegotiated, I will reference not only views and positions in relation to the world of manga publishing, criticism, and research within Japan but also the business, fan, and research perspectives in other countries. Furthermore, in the next section, I will turn toward laying out in more detail some of the stakes and complexities implicit in both how we delineate the meanings of manga and the naming conventions that follow from those decisions.

2. The Unavoidable Entanglement of Positions and the Politics of Naming

Throughout this text, the problem of “what is manga” will be central to my discussion, and in order to avoid any confusion, I would like to make clear that I understand the term manga to have no fixed a priori meaning—it is only in the way the term is invoked by and encountered by various groups that any meaning is assigned to it.5 However, there is no easy way out, and no position devoid of bias, as cultural studies and other critical approaches have been emphasizing for a long time now. As a result, this seemingly detached meta-stance will also lend itself easier to privileging certain approaches, while implicitly undermining other positions. The pressing problem of what expressions to use in the following discussion provides a concrete example of this.
The terms “original English/German/etc. language manga”—commonly abbreviated OEL manga in the case of English language works—or “global manga”, among other names, draw attention to the way manga produced outside of Japan cannot simply be referred to as manga. As Young (1990) explains, in all such binaries, the unmarked—thus seemingly transparent and universal—position corresponds to privilege, and the marked-out position to subordination. This is in fact the case in discussions of manga, as I will demonstrate in my analysis below, where global manga, marked out by its adjective, suffers from a legitimacy problem vis-à-vis supposedly “real” manga—that is Japanese manga—or in these arguments simply manga, without a qualifying adjective. By choosing to use the expression manga to refer to all works identified by their producers and/or localizers and/or disseminating agents and/or consumers—and the list can go on—as manga, I necessarily privilege the manga as style position over the manga is made in Japan stance, to be discussed below, even though on one level, my own position in itself does not entail any such claim. And although such a move might be seen as liberating, since it opens up the possibilities of what manga can be, it is at the same time an unintended challenge in relation to the current privileges enjoyed by Japanese manga.6 Even so, the use of the term manga in the above described way, and the corresponding invocation of the adjectival construction “Japanese manga” to refer explicitly to manga produced in Japan7 still only partially changes the original power dynamic, in part because of the history and temporal aspects of the expression manga, as will be explained below.8
There are even further layers of complication and corresponding power relations at play, which become apparent when considering what is being equated with or delineated from manga. Taking two more common examples beyond the above discussed global manga, one might also ask, how do manhwa and how do other forms of comics or sequential art relate to manga, and what types of power relations are implied in those delineations?9 Starting with the position of Korean manhwa,10 it can both lend itself to be positioned as manga (Yamanaka 2013), and indeed seems to have profited from the interest in Japanese manga abroad (Nakano 2009; Schodt 2013; Yamanaka 2013), but at the same time depending on the context can be and is championed as a unique national comics culture (Leem 2012; Yamanaka 2013; Yoo 2012).11 However, the position of various flavors of global manga are not all that different from Korean manhwa—indeed, in a way, the latter could also be seen to qualify as global manga. What then sets forms like Korean manhwa potentially apart in, for example, Europe and North America from global manga is their more established positions as respective national comics cultures—their longer history of having been influenced by Japanese manga12—and their geographical and cultural proximity to Japan.13
Regarding the distinction between manga, comics, and bande dessinée, it is not only the replication of positional claims for various national comics cultures already touched on previously, and the conjoined double problematic of styles versus national/cultural/linguistic territorial distinctions vying with and reinforcing each other at the same time,14 but also the added layer of disciplinary differentiation on the level of academic inquiry (cf. Berndt 2010a; Berndt and Kümmerling-Meibauer 2013) that needs to be noted. The claims of manga studies to both uniqueness and universality vis-à-vis the wider field of studies of sequential art or comics studies highlights, in the context of the academic field,15 the same strategic shifting of positions endemic to all aspects of the present problematic.
This leads me to the final point I wish to raise in relation to the what is manga problematic. From creators, to publishers, to readers and fans, to government agencies, to critics, researchers and academics there are innumerable actors in vastly differing contexts invested in varying degrees in delineating what manga is, with the stakes and payoffs in relation to their efforts also being wildly different. Furthermore, as already indicated above, the positions of these actors can change in time and/or according to strategic needs, and in many cases can even invoke seemingly contradictory positions at the same time. For example, the International Manga Award established in 2007 by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to work toward a more inclusive notion of manga by showcasing non-Japanese creators while at the same time can also be seen to reinforce the centrality of Japan in relation to defining what manga is.16
Having offered a snapshot of the conundrum of terms, positions, and stakes involved, I will now turn to the central issue of the present article, in which I hope to highlight some aspects of how the debates around what is or is not manga are far more complex than usually given credit for.

3. Style versus Made in Japan

Without attempting to provide a comprehensive overview here, in Figure 1. below I have collected a number of different characteristics that are often either said to characterize manga and/or are mentioned as being responsible for the uniqueness of manga. I have tried to group these elements together according to what aspect of manga they correspond to (in the rows) on the one hand, and based on the distinction—namely style versus made in Japan—I find most important in relation to the what is manga debate (in the columns).17 The columns “visuals”, “content”, and the “made in Japan” columns together also correspond to the three-level model proposed by Lefèvre for “comparative comics research” to account for not only “formal properties” and “genres, themes and characters” but also for “how comics are produced and consumed” (2010, p. 87).
As my starting point for the discussion of the contents and relationships of the table’s elements, I want to first emphasize that although the style and the made in Japan positions are often seen as opposed to each other, they are instead better understood as a nested set, by which I mean that most people who argue for the manga is made in Japan position are usually not trying to point out that manga are stylistically far more diverse than what seems to be implied by the other position; rather, they would probably agree with a large number of the elements of the manga as style argument but in addition also hold that they have to be made in Japan. Furthermore, this characteristic of the arguments forming nested sets is also true in relation to the two sub-positions—visuals and content—of the manga as style side of the table. In other words, for the majority of proponents who would argue for elements in a given column defining what manga are, they will most likely take for granted all other elements enumerated in the preceding columns to the left of the given column. Thus, the manga as visual style argument is usually the smallest common denominator within these arguments. It is therefore on this section of the figure that I want to focus first.

3.1. Manga as Style I: Visuals

In order to unpack the manga as visual style position, I will draw on comics and manga studies, most notably Cohn’s (2013), Natsume’s (1997, 2010); (Natsume et al. 1995), Groensteen’s (2010, [2011] 2013), and McCloud’s ([1993] 1994) work. These four authors are not only representative of studies of sequential art in relation to the major comics traditions of Franco-Belgian bande dessinée, Japanese manga, and US mainstream and independent comics but also explicitly address the specificities of the manga vernacular—or shōjo manga in particular in the case of Groensteen—that set it apart from the other main stylistic families.18 However, it is worth keeping in mind that only Cohn focuses explicitly on developing a fully fledged comparative approach to different visual styles—or visual languages in his terminology—of sequential art.
All four authors discuss elements of character design, morphemes, or symbols and paneling specific to manga. Starting with character design, McCloud—who, I should again stress, is not aiming for a comprehensive overview of the stylistic peculiarities of manga in Understanding Comics—notes the widespread employment of iconic characters and what he calls the “masking effect” ([1993] 1994, pp. 42–43). The masking effect, refers to the way characters are drawn in a more abstract style, inviting reader identification, with the backgrounds often created in a contrasting more realistic style—but he further notes that this is not manga specific per se, as it is also found in works like Hergé’s Tintin (McCloud [1993] 1994, p. 42).19 Groensteen likewise finds the characters of shōjo manga to be “minimally differentiated” ([2011] 2013, p. 59), echoing McCloud’s argument.20 Furthermore, building on Takahashi’s emphasis on the significance of “jojō-ga and shōjo novels” for the development of shōjo manga (Takahashi 2008, p. 132) Shamoon points out how the visual depictions of “dōseiai relationships” mirrored the narratives by “also reinforc[ing] an aesthetic of sameness” (Shamoon 2008, p. 139). The discussion of the fact that manga characters—and often their surroundings as well—are commonly drawn in iconic ways, as symbols rather than photorealistic representations, also has a long tradition within Japanese language manga criticism and research going back all the way to Tezuka’s own comments on how his drawings are more like symbols, a visual language, than representations of reality (Ōtsuka 1994). Even though there seems to be a correspondence between the Japanese, Francophone and Anglophone comics studies discourses in relation to the higher level of abstraction of manga character designs, it is important to keep in mind that not only do we find a range of varied character design styles in manga, but defining character design patterns in US comics—both mainstream and independent—as well as Franco-Belgian bande dessinée also often follow highly patterned modes of depiction (see Cohn’s (2013) visual breakdowns of US independent and superhero comics for examples of just how abstract these styles can also be).
On the level of more specific elements of character design, Cohn in his cognitive science underpinned visual language approach to sequential art offers the following characteristics of what he terms Japanese Visual Language or JVL21—noting that there are, of course, genre specific differences. With regards to graphic structure “people are drawn with big eyes, big hair, small mouths, and pointed chins” (2013, p. 154), “noses are [also] typically underemphasized” (2013, p. 155).22 While these traits of facial representation might be argued to correspond more strongly to works of certain periods, genres, or artists, they nevertheless offer a good outline of some of the features that, for example, European and North American readers commonly associate with manga, in part popularized by the visual world of how to draw manga guides (Bainbridge and Norris 2010) from the beginning of the manga boom—from the late nineties and early 2000s onwards—in these countries.
Cohn (2013) also offers a very detailed discussion of symbols, or in his terminology, closed-class morphemes, the various sets of visual signifiers used in conjunction with other visual elements to convey fixed meanings, such as forms of speech and thought balloons, indexical lines, impact stars, upfixes, supplations, eye-umlauts, forms of reduplication, and so on. Similar to McCloud ([1993] 1994, p. 131) and most all discussions of manga he too calls attention to the unique set of such bound morphemes found in JVL.23 It is important to remember, however, that these symbols, such as the sweat drop, also have a history of development and change over time with regards to their signified meanings and common modes of use (Natsume 1995a).
Natsume (2010) also draws attention to the use of vertical script in Japanese manga as opposed to the horizontal lettering found in bande dessinée and comics. This, as will be discussed below again, impacts the form and layout of speech balloons. As Yoo emphasizes, speech bubbles—especially in shōjo manga and sunjeong manhwa—are not only “a crucial part of the picture plane”, but the blank space inside them also carry meaning in relation to “the protagonist’s emotional state”, which can be lost or transfigured in the process of translation and the changing of vertical to horizontal script (2012, p. 50).
Furthermore, all four authors also mention the use of non-conventional visual symbols such as the background in shōjo manga to depict emotional inner states—again, likewise found in, for example, European color comics, adds McCloud ([1993] 1994, p. 133). In addition, McCloud ([1993] 1994, p. 114) and Cohn (2013, pp. 158–59) also point to the use of subjective motion lines—as opposed to objective ones—as a further visual hallmark of manga style, which however, as both authors also note, are now increasingly found in US comics as well, a point I will return to below.
Finally, in relation to paneling, the most obvious characteristic of manga compared to American and European comics—and notably also Korean manhwa—is that they are read from right to left, resulting in a corresponding difference in panel development. Within English language comics studies, one of the most often cited distinguishing feature of manga identified by McCloud ([1993] 1994) is its unique distribution of panel transitions. Analyzing the works of representative authors McCloud found that manga demonstrated a higher percentage of aspect-to-aspect transitions and the employment of moment-to-moment transitions, both of which are mostly lacking in US mainstream comics and Franco-Belgian bande dessinée but also found in US independent or alternative comics, the panel transition distributions of which are very different to all other forms.24 Cohn, using his own approach of examining underlying grammatical structures in the make-up of panel sequences, further elaborates McCloud’s findings by comparing the frequencies of macro, mono, micro, and amorphic25 shots in different visual languages. Works of manga were found to depict “whole scenes as much as they showed the parts of scenes” (2013, p. 160), meaning a higher ratio of mono and amorphic shots compared to American mainstream and independent comics, which also corresponded to the higher use of “environmental-conjunctions”—another term introduced by Cohn—within manga panel sequences. Environmental-conjunctions refer to the way panels “show individual elements of a scene, which together create the sense of an environment in the mind” (2013, p. 79). Cohn cites Shamoon (Cohn 2013, p. 163) in relation to how this style was introduced by gekiga authors seeking to create a more cinematic style but was then adopted in other genres of manga as well, again highlighting the importance of change within Japanese manga itself—further discussed below.
For Groensteen ([2011] 2013) and Natsume (1997, 2010), the discussion of the peculiarities of paneling found in Japanese manga are tied to the innovations introduced in shōjo manga and the special position the genre itself occupies in Japan both in relation to the industry and the critical discourse surrounding manga. Indeed, one of the differences in genre—as well as creators and readership—between the major traditions of comics art is the significance of manga for girls and women created by female artists in Japan (Natsume 1997, 2010). This is now also replicated in manga outside Japan (Brienza 2011; Malone 2010).
Natsume emphasizes the multi-layered nature of page layouts and paneling in shōjo manga, likening it to the structure of cell animation (Natsume 1995d, pp. 180–81). He also references the way Itō further develops his ideas to draw attention to the way the “uncertainty of the frame” (2005, p. 228 cited in Natsume 2010, p. 48)—the fact that “in manga it is actually impossible to say whether the reader’s visual frame is formed by the page or the panel”—is what “makes manga expression unique” (Natsume 2010, p. 48). But, as Shamoon points out, shōjo manga is subject to change as well, and layering has, for example, been employed less in “stories aimed at older readers” since the nineties (2008, p. 146).
Groensteen also takes on board Natsume’s concept of the multilayer, emphasizing how it “is combined with, and sometimes substituted for, that of the multiframe” ([2011] 2013, p. 63, italics in the original)—his preferred term for approaching the nested structure of interrelated frames of reference in comics (Groensteen [1999] 2007). He reaches this conclusion after identifying six distinct characteristics of shōjo manga paneling, namely: (1) “the catwalk effect”;26 (2) the preference for “long narrow frames”; (3) the “tension between closed panels” and either panels that are open towards the margins of the page or “unframed drawing[s]” between panels; (4) one or more “small inset panels superimposed on a larger panel”; (5) the pronounced role that blank spaces or whiteness play in the composition; and finally (6) the “decorative elements, [...] like flowering branches, showers of stars or twists of hair, that substitute for the frame and surround an image or a whole page” ([2011] 2013, p. 58). Furthermore, Groensteen also notes how, except for the first and last of these elements, they all show up in other genres of manga as well, but not as pervasively as in shōjo manga. Indeed, for him, one of the most peculiar tensions in relation to shōjo manga is the contrast between what he perceives to be rather schematic character designs on the one hand—as already discussed above—and highly innovative page layouts and paneling on the other hand.
One of the underlying stylistic peculiarities of manga to emerge out of these analyses is that manga emphasizes the subjective viewpoint in its storytelling (Cohn 2013; Groensteen 2010; McCloud [1993] 1994). The use of subjective speed lines (McCloud [1993] 1994, p. 114), the spillover of emotional states into background images (Badman cited in Groensteen [2011] 2013, p. 123; McCloud [1993] 1994, p. 133), the higher number of subjective panels found in manga (Cohn 2013, p. 166) all seem to underline this theme,27 and I would add to this list that even the “chibification” of characters28 can be seen to express subjective perception as opposed to objective reality. Some of Groensteen’s further observations also align with this proposition. In relation to the characteristics of shōjo manga paneling he notes how the “permeability of boundaries” acts in a way as “to invite the reader to project herself into the unreal world of the heroine and to identify with her” ([2011] 2013, p. 62). And even the recurring lack of backgrounds and the frequency of close-ups in shōjo manga (Groensteen [2011] 2013, p. 59) can be interpreted in a similar way, that is, emphasizing subjective identification versus objective depiction.29

3.2. Manga as Style II: Content

In discussions of what makes manga manga, content-specific elements peculiar to Japanese manga are less often mentioned than the characteristics pertaining to visual style discussed above. This does not mean, however, that references to such traits in analyses dealing with manga cannot be found. First and foremost, as already cited above, the distribution of genres—especially with regard to their nominal target audiences according to gender—seems to present a unique feature of what manga are in comparison with American comics and Franco-Belgian bande dessinée (Natsume 2010), which traditionally cater to a mostly male audience. This aspect of manga has had a huge impact not only on the development of the manga market and fandom outside Japan (Brienza 2016; Erik-Soussi 2015; Malone 2010)30 but also on the perception of what the term manga potentially means in various countries (Brienza 2011). Although shōjo manga is the most important example, it is far from the only unique genre to emerge from Japanese manga. Groensteen, for example, notes the distinctiveness of eroguro, “a cross between the erotico-grotesque and the extremely violent” ([2011] 2013, p. 57).
Regarding narrative progression, Drummond-Mathews—building on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth framework—points out how shōnen manga usually focuses on the “initiation phase of the hero’s journey” of the protagonists as opposed to American superhero comics, where “heroes spend most of their narrative time in the return phase of the journey” (Drummond-Mathews 2010, p. 73). Shōjo manga’s focus on “emotional interiority” and its verbal “style approaching poetry” (Shamoon 2008, pp. 144–45) are also hallmark elements that—although potentially shared with sunjeong manhwa—are often contrasted with non-Japanese comics. As for unique character templates, of which there are many, Prough discusses the figure of the “bishōnen (beautiful boy)”, which was also first pioneered in shōjo manga (2010, p. 95).
In the very last section of Manga wa naze omoshiroi no ka [Why are manga interesting/entertaining?] on the peculiarities of manga, Natsume points out three further characteristics, beyond the role of shōjo manga, that he considers to have advanced the unique development of Japanese comics (1997, pp. 270–72). The unparalleled size of the comics market in the country, coupled with its somewhat insulated state and its lenience toward sexual and violent content,31 have all contributed to an environment in which experimentation can flourish. Thus, the formal and content elements peculiar to Japanese manga, as already alluded to above on several occasions, can be seen to be related to the size and structure of the Japanese manga market and its system of production, dissemination, and even consumption patterns, leading on to the topic of manga as made in Japan.

3.3. Manga: Made in Japan—Potential Connections

Brienza notes how the manga is made—or more precisely published first—in Japan position can also be seen as a way of circumventing the fuzziness implicit in any attempt at providing clear-cut definitions based on style (2015, p. 106). This interpretation highlights the possibility of moving beyond the simplistic dismissal of the manga is made in Japan position as mere closed-minded essentialism while retaining one’s critical stance at the same time. In the present section, I will attempt to provide four further different approaches to teasing out the critical potential that this position can point toward in understanding the complicated relationship between style, production, dissemination, consumption, and place of origin (summarized in Figure 2). These four aspects will be related to (a) consumption, (b) production and dissemination, (c) linguistic and cultural context, and (d) temporal change.
First, starting with the consumption side of the problem, another possible reason for wanting to limit the boundaries of what can be considered manga to comics produced in Japan is tied to the desire for authenticity. On the one hand, the enjoyment of manga for a great many readers is not unlike the enjoyment of American pop culture was/is outside the United States for example, with the myth of the US being just as much consumed as the actual content of the products themselves. From this vantage point manga and authenticity in relation to manga are still anchored in Japan, as its “real” and at the same time “mythic” place of origin. In a way, Japan is to manga what the Mississippi Delta is to blues or the Bronx is to hip-hop. On the other hand, as Vályi (2010) and Hodkinson (2002) demonstrate, the discourse around authenticity within fandoms and/or subcultures offers a way for participants to both lay claim to membership and status within the group and to position themselves in relation to its central issues. Brienza (2015) also comes to a similar conclusion, informed by Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of distinction, regarding the significance of policing what is manga within US anime-manga fandom.
Second, from a production- and dissemination-oriented point of view, it could be argued that there are certain qualities of Japanese manga that arise specifically as a result of being produced within Japan. First on the list of the most often cited unique qualities of the Japanese manga market is its truly unparalleled size (Nakano 2009; Natsume 1997; Odagiri 2010). Furthermore, and strongly related to this point, is the system of magazine serialization coupled with the publication of tankōbon editions of successful titles, the creator-editor relationship fostered at these magazines, and the importance of the media mix potential of series (Berndt 2008; Moreno Acosta 2014; Nakano 2009; Natsume 1997; Omote 2013; Prough 2010).
So strong is the perceived potential connection between the system of production and the manga being produced that the introduction of its elements—like “manga magazines and Rookie of the Year awards”—in Korea could be seen to have influenced Korean manhwa’s development to approximate Japanese manga more closely (Yamanaka 2013, p. 92). The differences between the two production systems—for example, the higher number of self-published tankōbon (Yoo 2012) and the lack of Japanese-style editorial control (Lent 2010) in Korea—have also been cited as a possible reason for some of the divergences between Japanese manga and Korean manhwa.
Following on from this thought, it is common knowledge just how important Japanese editors are in the development of “the story, characters, and pacing” of a series (Prough 2010, p. 99), monitoring reader feedback, providing suggestions even to the point of practically co-authoring stories in some cases (Omote 2013).33 The magazine system, however, has a number of further implications for the development of stories. Through the example of the change in tone of Naruto, Omote (2013) illustrates how the distribution of the types of stories being serialized concurrently in a given magazine can impact the progression of a specific series. The fact that there are multiple stories appearing in one publication can also alleviate the pressure to constantly provide high-tension cliffhangers and in this way impact the stories’ development (Natsume 1997). According to Moreno Acosta, the initial magazine serialization compared to the straight-to-tankōbon production of OEL manga also necessarily has an impact on narrative progression, with the story structure of the latter closer to the novel form with no cliffhangers, and a marked lack of the repeated re-establishing of plot points and re-introduction of characters found in manga serialized in magazines first (2014, p. 65). Furthermore, in relation to the decompression of scenes and the corresponding cinematic style discussed above as a hallmark of manga paneling, McCloud ([1993] 1994) suggests that it might be linked to the unique publication format and pace of Japanese manga. Indeed, the strenuous weekly publishing schedule and the visual conventions emerging out of a cinematic oriented creatorly approach can be seen to align to support each other. In addition, even the size of the original tankōbon editions can impact the contents and visual composition of manga—in this case “how much information is included in each page”—as demonstrated by Yoo in her comparison of Japanese shōjo manga and Korean sunjeong manhwa (Yoo 2012, p. 50).
The significance of the pace of publication is also apparent in the way stories originally circulated in Japan in weekly magazines—sporting a dozen or so concurrent series—were in many cases initially published in the single series monthly floppy format of US comics featuring around two installments of the story at the most (Brienza 2009; Goldberg 2010; Kacsuk 2011; Schodt 2013) and thus providing a somewhat glacial story progression compared to their original publication rhythms.34 The mode of publication outside of Japan could never fully follow the Japanese model, either in pacing or in the double system of magazine serialization and tankōbon editions, but after a period of trial-and-error, now seems to have adopted the tankōbon format as the standard for publishing manga (Brienza 2009, 2016; Kacsuk 2011; Malone 2010).
The publication formats of manga are also interrelated with their distribution channels both in and beyond Japan. The shift in the meaning of manga within the US to that of girls’ comics, argues Brienza (2009), was in part the result of the way manga came to be disseminated in bookstores following the adoption of the tankōbon format, as opposed to the comic book store—the traditional source for US comics. This example also highlights how the context of a preexisting comics culture and its conventions can further impact the way manga is understood within a particular market.
Finally, one of the less obvious elements of the system of production to impact the development of stories and characters is the structure of copyrights in relation to the intellectual property being produced. In the case of companies holding the rights to the characters of their titles, the authors can be replaced while serialization continuous, as is the case in US or Hong Kong comics (Natsume 1997), for example. In Japan, on the other hand, creators usually retain the rights to their characters, which according to Natsume can be seen to contribute to the development of more pronounced author-specific styles (1997, p. 265). The role of selling rights to characters and stories has also increased over time in the business model of manga production in Japan, especially since the breakthrough success of Akira (Nakano 2009, p. 102), tied to the “‘one content—multiple uses’ type production” (Nakano 2009, p. 18), or as it is more commonly known, the media mix (Steinberg 2012).
Third, looking at the linguistic and cultural context, starting with the use of the Japanese language and corresponding script, they both impact manga in a number of different ways. First, it has even been suggested that the way kanji have a stronger role as visual markers rather than aural ones in the Japanese language—where a single kanji can often be read in a number of different ways with regards to pronunciation—has impacted the development of manga by creating a stronger link between the spatial and the temporal (Natsume 1997, pp. 178–80). Second, Japanese not only “has a much wider range of onomatopoeic expressions than most languages”, but their incorporation in illustrations also has a rich tradition stretching back all the way to ukiyo-e (Petersen 2009, p. 166). Petersen notes how US comics usually pay far less attention to differentiating between the “weight and emphasis” of sound effects, and in turn OEL manga also seem to lack the “same degree of complexity” in relation to the depiction of sounds (2009, p. 170). In their visual language framework–informed quantitative analysis, Pratha et al. (2016) also found a marked difference between Japanese manga and US comics in the distribution of the form and content of sound effects. Third, the use of Japanese script is going to have an impact on page layout and paneling, as any retoucher, translator will attest who has ever had to deal with the vertical-shaped speech bubbles of Japanese manga. In fact, vertical speech bubbles, which are just a natural result of vertical typesetting, can become another stylistic element associated with Japanese manga to the extent that even creators of global manga will sometimes employ them in order to better approximate the look and feel of Japanese manga pages (Moreno Acosta 2014, p. 76).
The questions surrounding the appropriate translation of Japanese, the treatment of—mostly katakana form—sound effects, and the handling of Japanese cultural references, have been a favored topic of both academic inquiry (Natsume 1995c, p. 136) and fan debates. The overall trend seems to be a move away from the “domestication” of Japanese cultural references, phrases and even orthography, preserving more and more of the original, a move towards “foreignization”—according to Rampant’s interpretation (Rampant 2010)—which is rooted in “scanlation” practices.35
Japanese cultural references will inadvertently make their way into manga, similar to how, for example, US superhero comics are also littered with the quotidian elements of American life. All these components ranging from clothing, food, architecture, objects, patterns of social interaction and so on, which are transparently everyday within their culture of origin will become starkly obvious in the context of reception grounded in a different cultural backdrop. And similar to the way tropes in rock music, punk, or hip-hop that were originally very much tied to their context of origin have carried over as hallmark elements of the style itself invoked in a foreign context so too various elements of Japanese culture have made their way into global manga. In fact, the influence of this kind of intrinsic correspondence between form and content can be seen in the predilection evidenced in—especially early—works of global manga for not only working with Japanese tropes but even setting the whole story in Japan.36 One more further element of the cultural context in Japan that, as Cohn (2013) points out, also possibly impacts the appearance of manga is the wider Japanese visual cultural environment.
Finally, looking at the fourth aspect of the connection between the style and made in Japan positions, the temporal dimension of change, the fact that Japan—for now—is the fountainhead of authenticity in relation to manga and the uphill battle that global manga face becomes strikingly evident. Such a longitudinal view of manga has to take into account the shifts in both Japanese manga and forms of sequential art abroad, for it is in relation to the interplay of these changes that the conceptions of what is or is not manga are constantly re-evaluated.
Considering changes within Japan, for instance, the system of producing and circulating manga has and will change over time with a corresponding impact on the development of manga form, genres, and so on. An example from the past is the link between rental book businesses and the development of gekiga (Suzuki 2013), as for the future, Nakano (2009) offers the case of the impact digital distribution and consumption—in part driven by the desire to read manga but without the hassle of owning physical books—will possibly have on manga. For example, coloring can become more widespread if no printing costs are involved. Omote further notes how the shift toward consuming stories in tankōbon form among an ever-widening segment of the audience within Japan37 will also have an impact on how the reception of such works can be understood (2013), which—I would add—in turn can and probably will have an impact on story creation and other aspects of manga.
However, most importantly, a creator working—or first published—in Japan will not have to worry about whether their work is perceived as manga, for it is that by definition. Examples of this would be the way the visual world of Hideo Azuma plays with negating some of the conventional forms of expression common to manga (Natsume 1995b), or the way traditional hallmark elements of shōjo manga like the focus on eyes in order to achieve emotional intensity, can be replaced by other tools, such as the nuanced depiction of hands in Kiriko Nananan’s blue (Shamoon 2008: pp. 150–52). On the other hand, any stylistic, thematic, etc. innovation in relation to manga outside Japan will always be perceived as a move away from manga.
This is the real underlying connection between the manga as style and the manga is made in Japan positions: manga published first in Japan and all the stylistic innovations it might entail will be authenticated as manga by definition. Because manga published outside of Japan still suffers from the lack of this same automatic recognition as manga, its creators are faced with two options. They either attempt to strictly adhere to already recognized conventions of manga, potentially resulting in allegations of slavish imitation and/or a dated look compared to the cutting edge of what is being published in Japan,38 or they decide to pursue their own vision and possibly end up with something that is manga or manga-like but not necessarily recognized as manga by certain parties. The potential innovations, in this case, perceived as leading away from manga, as opposed to enriching it.
This could very well change with time, but for now it is no wonder that artists creating manga and manga-like works outside of Japan have increasingly come to distance themselves from the label—for example, Bryan Lee O’Malley, the creator of the Scott Pilgrim series refers to his work as “manga-influenced comic”39—in order to circumvent the possible backlash the adoption of the label manga might invoke (Moreno Acosta 2014). Ironically enough, they are doing so at the very same time that their publishers might be positioning them as manga from a marketing point of view based on the logic of format adherence identified by Brienza (2016).
Itō’s systems approach to manga outlined in Tezuka Izzu Deddo (2005) [Tezuka is Dead] can help better understand this self-reinforcing feedback loop that seems to maintain an invisible barrier between Japanese manga and global manga. It provides a vantage point that allows for the aligning of formal and textual analyses, theories of authorial intention, and reception and representation all in one unified framework (2005, p. 75). In this model, individual works, readers, and authors alike are embedded in the space of manga expression, which is made up of the various genres of manga, all of which are further embedded in the wider space of other forms of expression on the one hand, and the wider social environment on the other hand. Genres in this framework arise and change in a dynamic relation between the readers’ and the authors’ constantly evolving knowledge of the interplay of various works and their shifting positions. Although not explicitly stressed by Itō, these feedback loops ultimately provide a temporal dimension to his framework. Furthermore, the perception of genres and individual works and their respective evolution will both be influenced by the shifts in the wider social and art/media/expression environment and at the same time have an effect on those very changes themselves.
Thus, based on Itō’s model, the stylistic shifts and changes in other forms of sequential art, as already alluded to above on several occasions, also have an impact on what is and will be considered manga-specific. The adoption and diffusion of various elements—from visual symbols, character design, paneling to story structure, character templates and so on—originating in manga to US comics and Franco-Belgian bande dessinée has already produced a discernible mark on those traditions (Brienza 2016; Cohn 2013; Groensteen [2011] 2013). These shifts together with the proliferation of manga and manga-like works produced outside of Japan will no doubt effect changes—most likely a loosening (Odagiri 2010)40—in relation to the currently existing underlying bond between the concept of manga and Japan as its privileged place of origin.

4. Concluding Thoughts

The manga as style position, as I hope to have demonstrated, is not as pure a possibility—transcending all cultural and material situatedness—as it is sometimes held up to be. At the same time, the manga is made in Japan position is not as simplistic, as it is commonly thought to be, and indeed points to a far deeper and more fundamental interrelationship between manga and Japan—as its real and mythical place of origin—than its proponents might actually articulate. Thus, an acceptance of the inherent impossibility of the either-or positions and an appreciation of the intricacies of the and-and relationship between these two aspects of the meaning of manga can help better understand the double bind facing policy drives like “Cool Japan” or the position of manga creators and publishers outside Japan and the spread and development of the form itself as it relates to the wider circuits of national and transnational manga production, dissemination, and consumption.


This research received no external funding.


I would like to express my sincere gratitude to both my anonymous reviewers for all their generous input.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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See for example Suan (2017) for a discussion tackling the issue of what is anime.
See Stewart (2013, p. 31) for a brief summary of Miyamoto Hirohito’s work on the changes in the meaning of the two kanji together from “spoonbill bird” to “caricature”.
Odagiri also notes how, in the US, alongside visual style, “price and format” seem to have become primary characteristics identifying manga, as opposed to for example country of origin (Odagiri 2010, p. 54). He further underlines the importance of format in identifying manga in the American context by pointing to the existence of a reverse operation, where Japanese manga are sometimes published in “large-size hardcover or softcover editions” and positioned as graphic novels rather than manga (Odagiri 2010, p. 54).
I am very grateful to my first anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.
Even though one could argue that kanji are pictograms and thus cannot be arbitrary in the same way as a non-motivated string of characters or phonemes, as Stewart points out: “despite some kanji having, in Peircean semiotic terms, iconicity (i.e., look like the thing they are intended to represent), their usage is arbitrary and their meaning dynamic. That is to say, the kanji-composed word manga, like all words, has no essential meaning. Rather, it is a site of negotiated meaning, and any meanings given to it are subject to change over time, between users, and contexts”. (Stewart 2013, p. 31, italics in the original).
Whatever our views might be on the current distribution of power in relation to any given problem, it is important to remember that any reconfiguration of a given power dynamic will be experienced as positive or negative based on the concerned actors’ position within the status quo compared to which the redistribution of privileges takes place.
Japanese manga, could be used to refer to an endless combination of different dimensions of varying gradation in relation to the works’ producers, publishers, etc. (cf. Brienza 2016), however, for my present discussion, I will simplify this to works first published in Japan.
And to complicate things further, the arguments put forth in the present article could also be interpreted in a way that would seem to reaffirm the privileged position enjoyed by Japanese manga, the affordance of which is just as much an unintended but at the same time unavoidable part of the present approach as the arguments’ flip-side of challenging its current dominant position.
There are of course many other comparisons that help learn about manga—see for example Natsume’s detailed discussion of the similarities and differences found in relation to Hong Kong manhua (1997).
In line with the conventional mode of discussing manhwa in English (Berndt 2012), Korean and Korea in the text refer to South Korea.
“In Japanese, discussions of this exchange in the name of “influence” and the resulting similarities would tend to use the word manga, while attention to the agency of Korean artists and readers and, in consequence, Korean-Japanese differences leads to favoring the word manhwa”. (Berndt 2012, p. 7, italics in the original) It is in this way, taking my lead from the authors I am citing, that I use the term manhwa throughout this article. On the other hand, in previous work (Kacsuk 2011), I have highlighted the often-shared position of Korean manhwa and Japanese manga in the Hungarian fandom and market for example.
See Cheng Chua and Santos (2015) for a discussion of US comics versus Japanese manga influenced sequential art in the Philippines as an example of the importance of the temporal dimension in relation to the presence of different comics cultures in the context of a particular national market.
A detailed discussion of the richness of positions and power relations implied in the way OEL manga, global manga, manhwa, manhua, and so on are invoked to delineate various forms of non-Japanese manga, not to mention the complexity of the qualifying adjective non-Japanese itself (again see Brienza 2016) will for now have to be left unexplored.
Emphasizing “national particularities” in relation to different forms of comics—as Berndt points out reflecting on this strategic aspect of discursive position takings—has been mobilized both in “the domestic struggle for cultural status and [...] the international struggle for market shares” (Berndt 2010b, p. 2).
Field in the Bourdieusian sense (see for example Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992).
For a discussion of the Cool Japan nation branding project in relation to manga, see for example Brienza (2014).
The space of this problematic can arguably be broken down according to other dimensions as well. For example, in her overview of a particular instance of this debate, analyzing the posts from a forum topic about OEL manga on Anime News Network, Brienza identifies not two, but five positions: “Manga as Marketing Function”, “Manga as Style”, “Manga as Japanese”, “Manga as Quality”, and “Why Do You Care So Much?!” (2015, pp. 104–8). In a way, setting up a central dichotomy like I do in this paper is again itself a move privileging certain positions and suppressing others.
As Suzuki (2010) and Lefèvre (2010) both emphasize from different angles, these comparative studies are often themselves based on a smaller number of representative works and could hardly claim to do justice to the stylistic diversity found across authors and genres in time in any one of these major domains of comics.
McCloud, in addition, identifies the use of a contrasting more realistic style for characters that are supposed to be perceived as “other”, objectifying them in the process, as opposed to the more iconic design of characters intended to elicit identification from the reader ([1993] 1994, p. 44).
Writing on hybrid forms of manga, Bainbridge and Norris likewise mention how “the features of the manga style (big eyes and exaggerated body proportions that often mix a number of racial, cultural, and gender characteristics) make many manga characters racially, ethnically, and often sexually indeterminate” (2010, p. 246), further pointing to the way manga character designs are often perceived as being potentially more abstract than character designs in other comics traditions.
The relationship between JVL and manga is that the former is used to create the latter, but it is not manga itself (Cohn 2013).
Although Groensteen argues for sidestepping the detailed examination of the artwork itself for a better understanding of what comics really are (a markedly different stance from the other three authors’ approaches) in his System of Comics (Groensteen [1999] 2007), he is nevertheless enticed by the imagery of shōjo manga and allows himself a few points in relation to character design—similar to Cohn emphasizing the role of the depictions of both eyes and hair—in his chapter addressing edge cases of the comics form in his follow-up volume Comics and Narration (Groensteen [2011] 2013).
For an enumeration and analysis of the visual metaphors (keiyu)—the term introduced in Manga no yomikata (Natsume et al. 1995) for these symbols—in Japanese manga, see Takekuma (1995). See also Cohn and Ehly (2016) for a quantitative exploration of the differences in the distribution of visual morphemes found in shōjo and shōnen manga.
For further discussion of panel transitions in US underground comics—confirming McCloud’s observation—see Garlington (2016).
Amorphic shots do not show “active entities” (i.e., characters) (Cohn 2013, p. 56).
Groensteen is referring to the full-figure representations of characters often spanning the length of the page and standing outside the panels of the story. These sutairu-ga (style pictures), as they are commonly referred to within manga studies, were often initially only added to the tankōbon version of the stories to replace the advertisements featured in the original magazine serializations (Kálovics 2016).
Drawing on Gravett’s observation that “in Western comics we read what happened next; in manga, we read what is happening right now” (cited in Groensteen 2010, p. 24), Groensteen also emphasizes the way manga provide a more immersive experience of the story compared to Western comics.
In the context of anime and manga chibi has come to mean the deformed representation of characters—usually depicting them smaller and cuter—often employed to mark moments of emotional intensity and comical effect. This form of representation is also commonly found in derivative parody works.
As Takahashi notes, there is a double movement here, “faces and figures serve opposing functions: close-ups of the former draw the reader inside the emotional life of the character, while, simultaneously, more distanced views of the latter allow for a consideration of external aspects like physical appearance or clothing style” (Takahashi 2008, p. 125).
According to Nakano, shōjo manga is the main driving force behind the international spread of manga (2009, p. 133).
In relation to themes and tropes within manga, Lent (2010), for instance, offers examples of how Taiwanese manhua and Korean manhwa, despite having been strongly influenced by Japanese manga on the level of visuals, are still likely to retain unique characteristics in relation to personalities and values represented in the works or even the level of violence depicted. In a similar way, Yoo (2012) draws attention to the thematic differences in stories between shōjo manga and sunjeong manhwa.
The variation in the color and style of the arrows and borders carries no extra meaning and is only employed to help delineate overlapping domains of influence.
Lefèvre (2010, p. 88) citing Rogers notes that editors can play just as important roles in the production of mainstream titles in the US as well.
Not only in the US, but in other countries as well, for example Hungary, see Kacsuk (2011).
“The zeal of hard-core American otaku fans, who prize authenticity in manga format, has also led to a strange phenomenon. Because most Japanese manga are now published in English in Japanese format, with page and panel order in a right-to-left sequence, and onomatopoeia left in Japanese, they have in a sense become an awkward hybrid format”. (Schodt 2013, p. 23)
For example, the Manga Shakespeare version of Romeo and Juliet is set in modern-day Japan (Hayley 2010, p. 270).
Schodt also foresees the gradual disappearance of manga magazines in Japan (2013).
Such time lags are again symptomatic of center–periphery relationships.
“For authors and readers of this generation, ‘manga’ does not necessarily mean Japanese manga. If stylistic hybridization continues in the same vain, the unifying force of the word ‘manga’ will gradually weaken, and the art style and panel layout associated with it now will become just one of many technical and stylistic options” (Odagiri 2010, p. 55).
Figure 1. Elements that contribute to making manga what it is.
Figure 1. Elements that contribute to making manga what it is.
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Figure 2. Potential connections between elements of the style and made in Japan positions32.
Figure 2. Potential connections between elements of the style and made in Japan positions32.
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Kacsuk, Z. Re-Examining the “What is Manga” Problematic: The Tension and Interrelationship between the “Style” Versus “Made in Japan” Positions. Arts 2018, 7, 26.

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Kacsuk Z. Re-Examining the “What is Manga” Problematic: The Tension and Interrelationship between the “Style” Versus “Made in Japan” Positions. Arts. 2018; 7(3):26.

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Kacsuk, Zoltan. 2018. "Re-Examining the “What is Manga” Problematic: The Tension and Interrelationship between the “Style” Versus “Made in Japan” Positions" Arts 7, no. 3: 26.

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