It’s no secret that manga is big in Japan. Comics, or graphic novels, cover a dizzying choice of genres and titles and are widely read by people of all ages; young school kids devour the latest Doraemon, teenagers pick up their favorite teen titles at the local combini; young women sit in cafes with their preferred josei manga novels; a young man on the train might be poring over a seinen manga; a middle aged salaryman in the same carriage could be flicking through one of this week’s disposable manga collections. It’s a 400 billion yen – or US$4.75 billion dollar – a year industry that is at the heart of the nation’s influential otaku culture.

Detail of original dōjinshi artwork – akudō yūgi : : copyright 2004 Yuki Yasuhara

The success of manga enabled the development and growth of the innovative Japanese anime industry, and is arguably the foundation of digital gaming. It’s a phenomenal leap from the earliest examples of modern manga that appeared in post-war occupied Japan, but early successes such as Osamu Tezuka’s 1951 Tetsuwan Atomu – 鉄腕アトム, or Mighty Atom, who has since become the world famous Astro Boy – and a culture that is attuned to the comic book form helped the industry develop the various genres and sub-genres that constitute today’s manga.

The Japanese appreciation of picture books began in the late 18th Century – the thousands of woodblock print drawings that make up the 15 volume Hokusai Manga series are one of the era’s most famous examples – even though these works were unlike the sophisticated narrative comics with their cinematic direction and distinctive drawing styles that were developed during the 20th Century.


With the huge diverse manga readership various categories of manga have developed for different readers. Broadly, these are:

  • kodomomuke manga, 子供向け漫画, is made for children and most resembles the Western perception of comics; moral ideas of good and bad are embedded into the stories; Doraemon is the most famous example of this type of manga
  • shōnen manga, 少年漫画, targeted at teenage boys, but also enjoyed by older male readers, have male heroes in relatively simple stories that feature plenty of action; shōnen is the most popular type of manga in Japan; popular examples are Dragon Ball, Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist
  • seinen manga, 青年漫画, is created for men in their twenties and thirties, though it is also read by those in their forties and fifties; the stories and characters are and more complex, there’s less action and the range of subject matter – both dramatic and humorous – is broader; popular titles include Ultra Jump, Akira and Gantz
  • seijin manga, 成人漫画, sometimes also referred to as hentai in the West, comprises various types of adult manga material; seijjin, or ero-manga, is primarily aimed at heterosexual men while LadyComi is pornography aimed at women; it’s freely sold at kiosks, combini, and so on; there are title for all fetishes and fantasies, such as Ayla Deluxe (sex), Flamingo R (Bondage and Discipline) and Jukujo (mature women),
  • shōjo manga, 少女漫画, is created for teenage girls and covers a range of subject matter, while emphasizing relationships and romance; popular examples are Fruits Basket, Sailor Moon and Tokyo Mew Mew
  • josei manga, 女性, is manga aimed at young adult women; romance features heavily in stories of everyday life, but it’s more realistically portrayed than in shōjo manga; popular titles include You, Nana and Elegance Eve; Manga-ka artists of shōjo and josei manga titles are often women
  • dōjinshi manga, 同人誌, is self-published work, usually by amateur manga-ka who often rework characters and stories from existing popular titles

The most widely read manga are collections of serialised stories that appear weekly or monthly at station kiosks and combini as cheap and disposable phone-directory like magazines; more popular series and titles are consequently reprinted in the following formats:

  • tankōbon 単行本 are, in manga, compact paperback graphic novels – known in English manga circles as Tokyopop trim for their compact size; each contains a complete volume of a title’s series; a popular format for shōnen and shōjo manga titles
  • bunkoban,文庫版 – or bunko, are thicker A6 paperback novel size versions of tankōbon; a bunko volume contains more chapters of a title’s story than a tankōbon
  • aizōban, 愛蔵版, are collectable, expensive limited edition releases of popular titles’ series, printed on quality paper, with extras such as specially drawn covers
  • waidoban, ワイド版, manga collections are larger – wider – A5 volumes; the larger format again means that a series comprises fewer volumes than a tankōbon; a popular format for josei and seinen manga titles
  • shinsōban, 新装版, are new editions of titles that generally feature color pages

Manga has developed a distinctive style, and while different manga-ka artists interpret and deviate from the conventions, titles usually feature the following elements:

  • reading flow is traditional – the spine of the book is on the right and the pages read right to left from top to bottom; layout is used inventively with overlapping or dominant panels and characters placed out of panels on a page
  • dialog bubbles are drawn in various ways to match emotion and tone in a character’s speech
  • abstract background effects are used to enhance narrative or internal mood
  • characters often have childlike facial features and the size of eyes are exaggerated, more so for female characters and in younger manga, while noses and mouths are usually small and simply represented;
  • tonal variations are used to show character types – darker tones are used for a villain, lighter tones for an inhibited character
  • some particularly Japanese ideas are used to signal narrative developments, such as cherry blossoms to represent a tender moment in a story, or a nosebleed to convey sexual arousal

Some of manga’s most influential manga-ka are:

  • Osamu Tezuka: creator of Tetsuwan Atom and the granddaddy of modern manga
  • Akira Toriyama: creator of Dragon Ball and a major influence on modern manga artists
  • Hiroshi Fujimoto and Motō Abiko: gave the world Doraemon
  • Takehiko Inoue: creator of manga’s hugely popular titles, Slam Dunk and Musashi
  • Hayao Miyazaki: creator of the epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, who’s found greater fame and influence as an anime director
  • Machiko Hasegawa: a pioneer of women’s manga, starting Sazae-san in 1946
  • Rumiko Takahashi: manga’s most popular female manga-ka and author of the award-winning urusei yatsura and hugely popular Ranma ½
  • Mitsuru Adachi: nuanced writing has given him great success in shōnen (Touch), shōjo (Hiatari Ryōkō!) and seinen (Jinbē) manga markets
  • Naoki Urasawa: master of complex narratives and multi-award winning creator of the brilliant Monster and 20th Century Boys series

Astro Boy image : : original artist Osamu Tezuka & original publisher Kōbunsha 光文社

The medium has shown great creativity and innovation and manga has become one of Japan’s most identifiable cultural products, developing strong followings in the US, Europe and throughout Asia, where local versions of manga have developed. At home, manga style characters are heavily used in advertising and corporate branding, the country has seen the rise of the popular manga-kissa comic book cafes – which offer libraries of manga for customers to read in cosy spaces, often open 24 hours a day, and the celebrated cos-play culture, which has teens getting together to dress up as their favourite manga, anime or virtual game characters and which peaks during the hugely popular biannual August and December Tokyo Comiket convention, when well over half a million Japanese and foreign fans come together in Tokyo for a few days to enjoy all aspects of manga culture.

At other times of the year Japanese manga fans can get their fix at various specialist stores such as the excellently stocked Mandarake outlets. Mandarake, まんだらけ, has been dealing in manga since 1987, when it first opened in Tokyo’s Nakano district. One of its central Tokyo stores is the Shibuya branch, which is hidden away on Inokashira dori behind the Tokyu Hands flagship store. This utilitarian space at the bottom of a couple of dimly lit flights of stairs in the Shibuya BEAM building, with its sculptural façade, is an Aladdin’s Cave of manga and anime. A series of 2-meter high shelves are neatly lined edge to edge with a daunting collection of new and used manga volumes. Glass cabinets display models, toys and other otaku culture paraphernalia; posters, animation cells and character costumes are on sale and at certain times you can catch dressed up cos-play girls singing on stage. With its narrow aisles and apronned staff, the space feels like some kind of antiquarian bookshop. It’s fascinating browsing, but for manga and otaku fans it’s essential viewing.

mandarake mandarake shibuya