History of Manga (Part 1) (漫画の歴史)

Many of us love comic books, don’t we? I’m sure most of you reading this article are familiar with such titles as Spiderman, Iron Man, the X-Men and Captain America. OK, if you’re not really into comic books, then I’m sure you must have heard of these titles from movies instead. Regardless, these movies still have their origins in comic books.

Well, perhaps it might have been an overstatement for me to say that MANY of us love comic books. In fact, it might be more accurate for me to say that only a minority are really into comic books, most of whom are children or from younger age groups. Am I right in saying this? Well, not if you are in a country where trainloads of people, both young and old, both working and studying, can be seen having a comic book at hand and being absorbed into the depths of its contents.

And in this particular country, they call such comic books “manga.”

A normal sight in Japan - people in trains reading mangas

Yes, for fans of Japanese popular culture outside Japan, the term “manga” is no longer foreign. Alongside anime (Japanese animation), mangas have become an integral and inseparable part of Japanese popular culture fandom. In fact, many animes nowadays are actually adapted from mangas, so it is fair to say that without mangas, there would be no animes and thus, no Japanese popular culture fandom.

Anyway, for those of you who may be reading this article and are still not very familiar with what mangas are, let me explain further. Mangas are basically comics of Japanese origin, but the term may sometimes be used in a wider sense to refer to any comic that applies the distinctive Japanese style of comic art. Just like its animated counterpart, mangas today cover almost any theme and genre. Common themes covered include romance, crime and mystery, fantasy, mecha (robots) and science fiction, sports, school life and adventure. Of course, this list is not exhaustive. In fact, mangas are commonly utilized as a tool of education especially in Japan, in which subjects such as mathematics, physics and chemistry are frequently taught through mangas.

Fruits Basket (フルーツバスケット, Furūtsu Basuketto) - a shojo manga-cum-anime

While readers of mangas or comic books may only comprise a small minority in most parts of the world, it is the absolute opposite in Japan. As what someone once wrote online, manga readers come in all shapes and sizes in the Land of the Rising Sun. Just hop into a commuter train or bus anywhere in Japan and chances are that you would see someone (or many ones) being absorbed in a manga at hand. They can be as young as school-going children or as old as retirees. They can be clad in school uniforms, informal wear or even business suits. They can be male or female. Such is the popularity of mangas in this island-nation, and waves of it have reached the shores of almost every corner of the world.

Such is the popularity of mangas in the Land of the Rising Sun

So, how exactly then did mangas come into existence? If you’re a fan of mangas or Japanese popular culture, how well do you know the actual history behind this popular form of art? Did you know that one of the earliest mangas to have ever been produced dates back to almost a millennium ago? Or the fact that the mangas that we know today actually have their roots in Western comics rather than traditional Japanese art? Or the fact that mangas, just like animes, served as Japanese war propaganda during the Second World War? Read on to find out more for yourself!

Before I go on with the historical aspects of manga, let me first give you a contextual and working definition of mangas. The term “manga” (漫画) comprises two kanji, or Chinese characters, which respectively mean “lax” and “picture.” “Manga”, as one term, can be translated as “whimsical drawings,” and this term has been used for at least two centuries to describe comical drawings or images. To define what we would call a “manga,” we must first understand what “sequential art” is. This term basically refers to a story or event narrated by means of images, and often but not always texts, arranged in a sequence across a page. Manga is, therefore, a form of sequential art used to tell a vast variety of stories, particularly but not exclusively from the Japanese perspective.

A comic strip illustrating the concept of "sequential art"

The exact date or period as to when Japan produced its first manga is frequently disputed by historians and scholars. However, it is widely accepted that one of the earliest forerunners of Japanese manga are the picture scrolls produced by Toba Sojo (鳥羽僧, Toba Sōjō) (1053 – 1140), an artist-cum-Buddhist monk who lived during the Heian Period (平安時, Heian-jidai) (794 – 1185) of medieval Japan. Known as the Scrolls of Frolicking Animals or Choju Giga (鳥獣戯, Chōjū Giga) in Japanese, these humorous drawings illustrate various types of animals engaging in daily human activities. These drawings, which include amongst others frogs as priests losing their gamble, mischievous rabbits wrecking mayhem and monkeys engaging in farting contests, serve to parody the lifestyles of Japan’s upper classes and priesthood of the era.

A scroll from the Choju Giga (鳥獣戯, Chōjū Giga), depicting animals wrestling each other

These scrolls might arguably be one of the earliest mangas to have ever been produced, since they adhere to a sequential art format. Reaching as long as eighty feet per scroll and crossing from right to left, these scrolls made use of images arranged in a proper sequence across the scroll to narrate a story. There were also many other similar picture scrolls produced around Toba’s era and thereafter, some portraying religious messages and ghost stories in them and others parodying the lifestyles of humans. Most of these, however, were mainly confined to the viewership of the upper classes and priesthood at that time.

The development of ukiyo-e became the next major milestone in the history of Japanese art and manga. During the 16th and 17th centuries, ukiyo-e (浮世絵, lit. “Pictures of the Floating World”), a form of Japanese woodblock printing, developed and became a popular form of art. Ukiyo-e was frequently used to depict natural sceneries, historical events or everyday life during the Tokugawa Period (徳川時代, Tokugawa-jidai) (1603 – 1868), but most markedly, it was used to depict activities in the “floating world” of Yoshiwara (吉原), from which it derived its name. Yoshiwara was the red-light district and the centre of nightlife in Edo (江戸) (modern-day Tokyo) that provided escape and fantasy for rich clients by means of traditional theatres, teahouses, restaurants and high-class brothels.

An ukiyo-e painting of The Tale of Genji (源氏物語, Genji Monogatari)

Ukiyo-e, however, was not in any way directly associated with manga or sequential art during the earlier years of the Tokugawa Period. Instead, there were other forms of published drawings that resembled modern manga more during the same period. During the 18th century, Toba-e (鳥羽) became popular in cities such as Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and Edo (Tokyo). Toba-e, named after Toba Sojo himself, were books produced via woodblock printing which depicted everyday life using humorous caricatures, just like the scrolls produced by Toba. Simultaneously, akahon (赤本, lit. “Red Book”), which were children picture books with red front covers illustrating Japanese folktales, became popular amongst the general public. Akahon, which were either woodblock printed or hand-drawn, soon came to cover a larger variety of stories, some catering more for grown-ups.

A piece of Toba-e using humorous caricatures to illustrate everyday life

From akahon, other picture books of similar formats started appearing in subsequent years. Kurohon (黒本, lit. “Black Book”) and aohon (青本, lit. “Blue Book”), which were variants of akahon, came into existence and enriched the flourishing picture book businesses during the Tokugawa Period. In the later years of the Tokugawa Period, these picture books came to be known as kibyoshi (黄表紙, kibyōshi), which were essentially yellow-backed cover books depicting contents more suited for adult viewership, such as political satire, economic issues and philosophical ideals. Since kibyoshi mainly poked fun at the government, the powerful and the rich, they were soon after banned by the Tokugawa regime.

Contents of a kibyoshi published in the later years of the Tokugawa Period

As far as ukiyo-e is concerned, only the term “manga” has anything to do with it. Ukiyo-e was, is and has never been a form of sequential art, as it is used only to portray single scenes not connected to one another. It was the renowned ukiyo-e artist, Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北) (1760 – 1849) who first coined the term “manga.” Published from 1814 to 1878, the Hokusai Manga (北斎漫画) is a 15-volume collection of block-printed sketches on various subjects drawn mostly by Hokusai himself. Although Hokusai decided to call his collection of works “manga” (which, as I’ve explained earlier, can be directly translated as “whimsical drawings”), they do not refer to manga in the same way as we understand it today, as they are not a form of storytelling sequential art.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (神奈川沖浪裏, Kanagawa Okinami-ura), one of Katsushika Hokusai's most renowned ukiyo-e paintings

An excerpt from the Hokusai Manga

Prior to 1853, the entire island-nation was under an isolationist policy that tremendously limited Japan’s contact with the outside world. The entry of foreigners, especially Westerners, was strictly regulated and monitored under this policy. This stemmed from the fact that Catholic Christianity had spread extremely rapidly throughout Japan, especially in Kyushu, during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Tokugawa Shogunate, realizing that most Catholic missionaries present in Japan at that time were either Portuguese or Spanish, feared that their presence and work in Japan might soon cause the country to fall into either Portuguese or Spanish hands. As a result, the Tokugawa Shogunate enacted a series of policies from 1633 to 1639 to bring the entire country into isolation.

The arrival of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794 – 1858) in Japan and the consequent opening of Japan to the world in 1853 was a turning point for the history of manga and Japanese history in general. With the use of threat and intimidation, the American naval fleet under Commodore Perry succeeded in prying open Japan’s closed doors to the world and opening its ports for Western trade. Through a series of unequal treaties signed between the Tokugawa Shogunate and several Western powers in subsequent years, Japan eventually saw an influx of Westerners residing in the country under extraterritorial rights.

Commodore Matthew Perry (1794 - 1858)

Indeed, the influx of Westerners into Japan brought with it an influx of Western culture and ideals, which greatly influenced every aspect of Japanese life, including the comic industry. Japanese comics would thus never be the same again, as it developed in a distinct direction that mixed the best of Western comic art and traditional Japanese aesthetics. Move on to the next part of this article to find out more about how mangas developed from after Japan’s opening to the world right up to the Second World War.

Main References:
(See last part)

Part 1 – the earliest forms of manga in Japan before Japan’s opening to the world in 1853
Part 2 – the manga industry from Japan’s opening in 1853 to the Second World War
Part 3 – the manga industry after the Second World War

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