Japanese Comics (日本の漫画)

In the section on Japanese comics, history and characteristics of the comics produced in Japan are discussed.


All Japan Magazine and Book Publisher's and Editor's Association says the number of comic books published in Japan in 2006 was 10,965 and that of comic magazines was 305 (including 1,450 reprint editions). And the sales figures of comic books and comic magazines accounted for 36,7 percent of the total sales figure of all publications in 2006.

Today, the words such as "Manga" and "Tankobon" which refer to Japanese comics and Japanese style comics are widespread all over the world. Compared to foreign comics such as American comics and bande dessinee in the French-speaking countries, Japanese comics have different characteristics like monochrome expression, distinctive deformation and well-written plot. Thus, Japanese comics draw great deal of global attention recently and they are translated and published in various countries. Previously, Japanese comics such as international version of "AKIRA" were often reconstructed and colored based on the form of American comics, but recently, the characteristics of Japanese comics are accentuated and published in the form which is closed to original. On the other hand, it is hard to translate them because of Japanese unique culture and verbal expressions.

Before the word 'animation' (anime) became popular in the late 1970, people called all of animated works, TV cartoons, animated films and dramas for children (including special effects works) 'manga (漫画, まんが or マンガ).'
(For example, 'Toei Manga Festival' and 'Manga Once Upon a Time in Japan') Thus, mainly among the middle-aged and older, some people call anime and special effects program manga or TV manga.

In the business world like publishing companies, cartoon is often called 'ponchi-e.'
The origin of this word was the first published comic magazine in Japan, "The Japan Punch" which was made based on the British magazine of caricatures called Punch.

Expression form

Japanese comics generally consist of 'frame, character, background, speech balloon, onomatopoeia, manpu (signs, symbols and characters used in manga to represent actions, emotions, etc.), dialogue and other techniques.'
Firstly, the expression form and technique used for common story manga are described below.

A space is divided by frames and each frame shows a scene. Readers should guess the following frame after reading a frame, in many cases, the order of reading is not specified and it is an unspoken understanding. Although there is an exception, the basic way to read frames is as follows.

Read from the right page to the left page.

In the same page, read from the top column to the bottom column.

If there are several frames on the same column, read from right to left.

If there is a visible difference in the clearance from the neighboring frame, read the closer frame.

A frame straddles the next page should be read at the end of the page.

If the frames are numbered (found in some four-frame cartoon and early comics), read in numerical order.
(This example shows the case where the lines in a speech balloon are written vertically and the page layout is right-to-left, but if the lines in a speech balloon are written horizontally and the page layout is left-to-right, the reading direction should be reversed.)


The dialogue and thought are written in a frame called speech balloon. The tone of the words is expressed by the shape of speech balloon and character style.

Onomatopoeia is written by hand in a picture. Sometimes, small-sized lines of dialogue is written by hand.

A kind of code called manpu is used to express the feeling and motion of a character and the movement of things clearly.


Professionals' works are often published as a book after serialized in a comic magazine.

There are various kinds of comics.

There is no separation between the comics for kids and those for adults and there are no generations left behind in the comic market except the elderly.

There is a huge variety of categories.

Although there is a local regulation, there are no government regulations on expression (Fusanosuke NATSUME says "The restrictions may be loosest in the world").


The word 'manga' literally means 'drawing a picture at will.'
Although the word 'manga' was created in Japan, it is not known exactly how. There is a theory that a kango (words of Chinese origin) 'manpitsu (漫筆)' meaning an essay which is 'writing (a sentence) at will' became 'manpitsu-ga (a picture painted at will)', then 'manga', also there is another theory that a type of spoonbill called 'mankaku (漫画)' which 'looks for various things' was the origin. A book called "Red Comic Books: The Origins of Modern Japanese Manga" points out that 'mankaku' has no meaning of caricatures and supports the former theory. Both theory explain that a word meaning texts changed to mean pictures.

In the preface of a picture book "Shiishikoka (四時交加) " which was published in 1798, Kyoden SANTO uses a word 'manga' as the meaning of 'drawing (a picture) at will.'
The word 'manga' was spread as a word meaning a sketch like a caricature by Hokusai Manga (Hokusai's sketches) which was painted by Hokusai KATSUSHIKA in 1814. Though "Hokusai Manga" was a etehon (art manuals) (book of sketches), there were caricatures and cartoons.
As shown by "Hokusai Manga", the word 'manga' has existed since the Edo period, but the 'manga' carried a strong sense of 'a picture like a caricature' and 'an essay with pictures.'
Hokusai Manga became a long-selling book which was published after World War II and had been read by a wide range of people. Under the influence of this fact, some books containing several pictures like caricatures are titled 'something manga' such as "Korin Manga" (Korin's sketches) (1817) written by Korin OGATA. The tradition of 'something manga' such as "Yoshitoshi Manga" (Yoshitoshi's sketches) (1885) written by Yoshitoshi TSUKIOKA continued into the Meiji period. However, these were more like 'manpitsu-ga' and it did not have the same meaning as 'manga' in the modern language.

It was the Showa period that the word 'manga' started to be used as the daily language and it had been called such as 'ponchi', 'tobae', 'kyoga' and 'caricature' before that. It was Ippyo IMAIZUMI who lived in the Meiji period and started to use the word 'manga' in the same meaning as people nowadays use it. Ippyo published "Ippyo manga shu (Ippyo's collection of manga illustrations), first edition" which mainly contained caricatures on October 31, 1895 and used the word 'manga' as a translation of caricature or cartoon in the book. Rakuten KITAZAWA was the first person who used the word 'manga' as a translation of cartoon and comic that are imported into Japan during the Meiji period and this meaning of 'manga' became established as manga in the modern period.

The word 'manga' was exported to China during the Taisho period and the spelling of manga became one of the popular Japanese used in European countries. In European countries, the word 'manga' means only Japanese comics.

From the medieval period through the early-modern times

It is said that the oldest 'manga' in the sense of comical pictures in Japan was an emakimono (an illustrated scroll) called "Choju Jinbutsu Giga (caricatures of frolicking birds, animals and humans)" painted in the Heian period. Emakimono also shows expressions like comics and has some elements which are similar to modern comics.

Then, caricatures and ukiyoe (Japanese woodblock prints) grew out in the Edo period against the backdrop of the development of printing techniques and the flowering of townsmen culture. A best-selling book at the end of Edo period "Hokusai Manga" was particularly famous and it contained the old form of 'manpu' such as a line depicting nasal breathing and caricatures of court nobles and samurai. These caricatures grew out because of that period and led to latter-day cartoons, but it is difficult to trace the beginning of 'criticism of authority with pictures' due to a lack of information.

From the end of the Edo period through the Taisho period

In 1862, a comic magazine "The Japan Punch" was published in Yokohama City's Enclave for foreign residents and gained popularity. Due to this, Japanese newspapers also started to place comics and the word 'ponchi' meaning the comics which deal with topical themes became a vogue word. Western satire magazines became available afterJapan marked the end of a long period of isolation and Japanese comics developed by imitating them.

In 1877, a comic magazine representing the Meiji period "Marumaru Chinbun" was first launched. Japan's first serial comic was "A Tall Man and a Short Man Make a Trip to Enoshima and Kamakura" (1896) by Beisaku TAGUCHI serialized in "Marumaru Chinbun" and it was the first comic that describes a coherent story with specific characters.

Rakuten KITAZAWA showed great dedication to the development of Japanese cartoons by launching "Tokyo Puck" in 1905 and so on. Also, "Tonda Haneko (Miss Haneko Tonda)" serialized in "Jiji Manga" by Rakuten from 1928 was Japan's first serial comic starring a girl and it was a pioneering girls' comic.

Ippei OKAMOTO established the first cartoonist organization in Japan called Tokyo manga kai (latter-day Nihon manga kai) in 1915. Okamoto serialized a manga prose such as "Hito no Issho (A life of a man)"(1921) in Tokyo Asahi Shinbun and constructed a prototype of Japanese story manga later. Okamoto's activity played a large role in the process that comics which were considered to be solely as a means of satire became recognized as popular entertainment.

Since the publication of "Adventures of Sho-chan" written by Nobutsune ODA and illustrated by Katsuichi KABASHIMA and "Nonki na Tosan (Easygoing Daddy)" written by Yutaka ASO in 1923, the modern expressions such as layout of frames and speech balloons started to have popular usage.

From the before war period through the post war period in the Showa period

In 1932, Shin Manga ha Shudan (New Manga Group) was formed by young cartoonists in their 20s including Hidezo KONDO, Ryuichi YOKOYAMA and Yukio SUGIURA. The members of Shin Manga ha Shudan were characterized by drawing not with a brush but with a pen and their style was mainly Japan's own nonsense comics which was inspired by western nonsense comics. Shin Manga ha Shudan achieved so much popularity as to surpass Rakuten, Ippei and their disciples and the members of Shin Manga ha Shudan became core cartoonists in the comic world post World War II.

In the 1930s, popular children's comics such as "Norakuro", "Tanku Tankuro" and "The Adventures of Dankichi " which were serialized in "Shonen Club (Boys' club)" published by Kodansha Ltd. and other children's magazines became bestselling books.

Aside from these mainstream comics which were serialized in newspapers and magazines, there were thin and two or three colored comic books sold at mom-and-pop candy stores and toy stores. These cheap and rough comic books were called akahon (a book for boys) due to heavy use of red ink. For these akahon, cartoonists such as Masao HAGA (芳賀まさを) and Gajo SAKAMOTO, in the early years, produced the manuscript.

When Japan joined World War II, Japanese comic industry was temporarily forced to decline due to the regulation by intelligence bureau and lack of paper. After World War II, Osamu TEZUKA who was inspired by Walt Disney and Fleischer Studios, Inc. established the expression technique in "Shin Takarazima" combining cinematic composition with symbolism specific to the comic, and his technique became the de facto standard of Japanese comics.

The post war period in the Showa period

After the war, rental comic became established as one of the inexpensive supply systems of comics and it was a mainstream until the 1950s. In 1595, the first ever weekly comic magazine "Weekly Shonen Sunday" and "Weekly Shonen Magazine" were launched, followed by "Weekly Shonen King" in 1963, "Weekly Shonen Jump" in 1968 and "Weekly Shonen Champion" in 1969, then it entered the five boys' magazines period. Around that time, a lot of new comic magazines were launched and the rental comic system rapidly declined.

In the 1950s, many cartoonists who were inspired by the story manga developed by Osamu TEZUKA appeared one after another and in 1960s, the works of Shotaro ISHINOMORI, Fujio AKATSUKA and Fujio FUJIKO became big hits. Also, the works for adults like gekiga (graphic novel) which was created by Takao SAITO appeared as a type of comics which had been considered as reading for children and it led to the expansion of the market.

Japanese comic started to be exported around the 1980s and it gained new fans. The fact that Japanese animations had already been broadcasted abroad and gained high popularity made a major contribution to this. In addition, major publishing companies which didn't have a comic department such as Kadokawa Group Publishing Co., Ltd., Tokuma Shoten Publishing Co., Ltd. and Gakushu Kenkyusha also entered into the comic market at the end of the Showa period (from the end of the 70s to the 80s), then so called 'geeky' comic books and comic magazines appeared.

Since the Heisei period

Genre of comics expanded in keeping with changes of the times and the number of magazine publication rose drastically, also comic magazines in complex with information magazines appeared. In the early 90s, Enix Corporation and MediaWorks, Inc. entered into the market and they created different works than major magazines. Since the 2000s, the culture of dojinshi (publication aimed at a particular hobby group), derivative work, anthology and web comic (a comic published on the Internet) developed further and the number of comic magazines continued to increase. Also, the relations with media franchise is being strengthened. On the one hand, the sales of boys' magazines and girls' magazines have been decreasing as a result of the increasing number of children who are not interested in or do not read comics due to the aliterates in earlier age group and other entertainments such as portable game machines and mobile phones and the low birthrate, then the number of defunct magazines is increasing. On the other hand, Japanese comics are translated into many languages and gained worldwide popularity. However, in recent years, it has been commercially struggling because the comics are downloaded into personal computers and delivered domestically and internationally via P2P and so on due to the development of the Internet.


Compared to the development of comic work itself, criticism remains relatively undeveloped. In Japan, comics became an object of criticism from the early 1960s. That started with heavy social criticism toward some rental comics ("Ninja Bugeicho" by Sanpei SHIRATO and other comics were taken up as harmful books by newspapers and PTA). The outpouring of reactions and objections by fans to such criticism led to a gradual increase in the number of comic reviews. Around the 1970s, Jun KAJII, Junzo ISHIKO and Shunsuke TSURUMI started to deliver their commentaries. It seemed to be a boom for a while. However, the number of professional critics and the opportunities of criticizing were small and it paled compared to literature, music and movie, also it was still hard to say that critical techniques were established. Fusanosuke NATSUME developed a unique method of comic analysis which focuses on comic's frame and line and comic-specific symbolic expression called 'manpu' in the 1990s, which was the beginning of a quest for manga studies. Today, in addition to Natsume, Jun ISHIKO (he is not Junzo ISHIKO), Tomohiko MURAKAMI, Tomofusa KURE, Kunio NAGATANI and Yukari FUJIMOTO are working as a critic. Sometimes, researchers and cartoonists of subculture field such as Eiji OTSUKA and Jun ISHIKAWA also deliver their commentaries. One reason behind this is the fact that it is often difficult to see the comic work itself due to the insufficiency of comic database because comics have been disposed of after reading in the past. Japan Society for Studies in Cartoon and Comics was established in 2001 and it is working to build a foundation of criticism including the improvement of database. See section on Comic Review.

Classification by target reader

In terms of the age and sex of main target readers, comics are classified as follows.

Infant comic (A comic for elementary school students)

It is also called children's comic.

Boys' comic (A comic for mainly from elementary school boys to high school boys)

Girls' comic (A comic for from elementary school girls from to high school girls, including comic for adult women)

Youth comic (A comic for high school students and above)

Women's comic

A comic targeting adult women. It includes young lady's comic.

Family comic

A comic targeting children or family with children.

The classification above is just a general and expediential classification. For example, sometimes women read youth comics and adults read boys' comics.

Adult comic - A comic containing sexual expressions for people aged 18 and older
It includes lady's comic.

Classification by expression form

The classification by superficial expression form is relatively clear. Many comics are classified according to the number of frames in a set for developing a topic as follows.

Comic (One page is divided by several frames and the topic develops with such several pages.)

Single page comic (A short story completes within one page.)

Four-frame comic (A topic develops with a set of four frames.)

Single frame comic (A topic develops within one frame.)

Classification by distribution form other than publication such books and magazines.

Web comic

It is possible to classify comics by the number of 'episode' in a work.

Serial comic (A work is developed with several episodes.)

One-shot comic (A work completes with just one episode.)

Painting tools

Although it is possible to draw comics with just paper and a pencil, generally-read comics are painted with various painting tools. Recently, sometimes no manuscript exists because a personal computer is used.

Japanese writing paper

It is okay to use regular paper, but Japanese writing paper is more useful because of the reference lines.

Pencil and eraser

They are used for drafting.

Dip pen, G-pen, mapping pen, school pen and kabura pen (turnip pen)

Millimeter pen

Drawing pen and ruling pen

They are mainly used for drawing frame borders.

Color ink and black ink

Correction fluid

They are used not only for correction but also for effect.

Fude (ink brush) and fudepen (Japanese pen with a tip like a brush)


Cutter knife

They are used for cutting and trimming screentones.

Ruler, curve template and stencil template

Painting tools for colored manuscripts


Watercolor and acrylic paint

Color ink

Air brush

Color screentone

Pastel and crayon

Other tools

Light box

Feather duster

Drawing doll

Personal computer (such as Macintosh, Adobe Photoshop and ComicStudio)

Recent trend and sales of comic magazines and comic books

A number of new comic magazines were launched in the 2000s. At the same time, defunct comic magazines are increasing. This includes a lot of old-established magazines.

In recent years, comic magazine sales have been decreasing, but comic book sales have been broadly flat while there is an increase or decrease.

In 1995, the sales of comic magazines and comic books were 355.7 billion yen and 250.7 billion yen, respectively, but the sales of comic magazines have been decreasing and the sales in 2005 was below that of comic book.

Although magazine sales have dropped, some hits were produced among comic book franchises which were made into anime and so on.

It is said that people lost interest in reading magazines but they often learn a work through media franchise, thus the sales of comic books are maintained.

Technical term


Name (storyboard for comics)

Beta (to black out some spaces in comics)

Shironuki (to outline something)

To draw something in white on a black background. It is used to emphasize the expression and impression of feelings.

Sometimes it is used as a substitute for mosaic representation in the comics for adults.

Buchinuki (to run across columns in the comics)

To draw a character ignoring the layout of frames. It is used to express the extent of space and time and to emphasize impressions.

Mekuri (to turn a page)

It is a technique to make an impression on the readers by using the short period of time to turn a page. In other words, to emphasize a frame by cutting off a scene at the last frame of a page and put an important scene in the first frame of the next page.

Mihiraki (double-page spread)

To spread two pages of right and left. It is a technique for drawing comics to emphasize a frame by drawing one frame which straddles two pages.

[Original Japanese]