History of Manga (Part 2) (漫画の歴史)

In the previous part of this article, you have read about the very beginnings of manga and its various primitive forms and precursors that existed prior to Japan’s opening to the world in 1853. Indeed, these “primitive” mangas, which grew in popularity over the centuries before Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan, laid the very foundation upon which the later manga industry would grow and flourish. However, they were not the direct ancestors to today’s mangas, as that honour goes to Western comics instead, thanks to the influx of Western culture after 1853.

An artist's impression of Commodore Matthew Perry and the US Navy in Japan

After Japan’s opening to the world (and especially to the West), several ports were opened and developed for purposes of trading with the West. One of these was Yokohama (横浜), which saw its population of foreigners swell enormously over several years. Yokohama quickly became a bustling port-city of trade and commerce, and it soon became one of the largest settlements for Westerners in Japan.

Japanese painting depicting foreign ships docking at the flourishing port of Yokohama

With a growing population of Westerners in the port-city, it was natural that magazines and newspapers in foreign languages soon began publishing and circulating within the Western community. Charles Wirgman (1832 – 1891), an English cartoonist, started publishing The Japan Punch (ジャパンパンチ, Jyapan Panchi) in Yokohama in 1862. Modeled after a popular humour and cartoon magazine in London entitled Punch, The Japan Punch was an English magazine that featured much local news relevant to the Westerners, as well as humorous cartoon strips.

From its inception in 1862 right up to its termination in 1887, the magazine commanded a large readership not only amongst foreigners living in Yokohama, but also among the Japanese, especially those who were interested in Western culture. Consequently, cartoons in The Japan Punch became important sources of inspiration and influence for Japanese artists of the era, who then went on to experiment Western styles of cartoon drawing by fusing them with elements of ukiyo-e and other forms of traditional Japanese art. Resulting from these was a hybrid form of comic art, one which was distinct from conventional Western comic art and thus bore a uniquely Japanese identity. This new form of comic art was commonly dubbed panchi-e (パンチ絵), named after the magazine that inspired such work.

Cover of the April 1883 issue of The Japan Punch

Another Western magazine that played a major role in moulding the unique Japanese style of comic art was a French-style humour-cum-comic magazine called Toba-e. Published in Yokohama in 1887 by George Bigot (1860 – 1927), a French artist, this magazine ran for a period of three years and featured many cartoons that satirized the Japanese government and society of that time. In addition to The Japan Punch, Toba-e soon became another major source of inspiration for Japanese artists.

An excerpt from one of George Bigot's work as found in the magazine Toba-e

During the period when these magazines were actively running, Japan was undergoing a major overhaul in its political, economic and social structures. This period, known historically as the Meiji Period (明治時代, Meiji-jidai) (1868 – 1912), thus saw much growth in Japanese economic and political strength, but along with it came an increase in civil rights and political reform movements that resulted in the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement (自由民権運動, Jiyū Minken Undō). This mass movement which, amongst others, sought for a democratic establishment and the institution of civil rights, placed much pressure on the Meiji government and fought their purpose by means of comics.

With the widespread use of comics to propagate the movement’s ideologies, the Japanese comic industry continued to flourish and garnered much more popularity than ever. Many cartoon and humour magazines, modeled after The Japan Punch, were published by the Japanese and sold at affordable prices to the masses. One of these which deserves mention here is the Maru Maru Chimbun (団団), published in 1877 by Fumio Nomura (野村文, Nomura Fumio) (1836 – 1891). This magazine featured current news and comic drawings that poked fun at the government and the imperial household, and was thus able to propagate messages of reform and democracy that would otherwise result in prosecution under the law were they to be voiced out loudly.

Cover of one of the issues of Fumio Nomura's Maru Maru Chimbun (団団)

As the dawn of the 20th century came, comics continued to prosper throughout the island-nation, this time with a lesser political tone and an increasing appeal for children. Comic magazines catering for children mushroomed throughout the country, the most popular of which were Shonen Sekai (少年世界, Shōnen Sekai, lit. “The Youth’s World”), Shojo Sekai (少女世界, Shōjo Sekai, lit. “The Young Girl’s World”), Shonen Club (少年倶楽部, Shōnen Kurabu) and Shojo Club (少女倶楽部, Shōjo Kurabu). Both Shonen Sekai and Shonen Club, published from 1895 and 1914 respectively, catered more for young boys, whereas both Shojo Sekai and Shojo Club, published from 1906 and 1923 respectively, were tailored for young girls.

Cover of the January 1895 issue of Shonen Sekai (少年世界)

Of course, any discourse about the history of manga would not be complete without at least mentioning one of the two great founding fathers of modern manga. Nevertheless, since they lived and carved their names in stone during different eras, I will first be mentioning the earlier of the two in this part of the article. He is none other than Yasuji Kitazawa (北澤保次, Kitazawa Yasuji) (1876 – 1955), more commonly known by his pen name Rakuten Kitazawa (北澤楽天, Kitazawa Rakuten).

Rakuten Kitazawa was indeed a pioneer of manga during his time. Having travelled the world and acquiring extensive knowledge on comic art from various countries, especially the United States, he incorporated a new and vibrant form of art into his drawings that quickly rocketed him up to the pinnacle of fame. Many of his works integrated the best of both Western and Japanese comic art, thus creating a new and ingenious style that set the stage for mangas yet to come. Yes, Kitazawa wasn’t called the Father of Modern Manga just for nothing.

Kitazawa’s comics, which were greatly inspired by popular American comic strips such as The Yellow Kid by Richard Felton Outcault and The Katzenjammer Kids by Rudolph Dirks, went on to garner outstanding popularity and subsequently became a major source of motivation for many aspiring young artists. Many of his works, some of which were politically-themed, were published in Jiji Shimpo (時事) after he joined the daily newspaper in 1899. Some of his most famous works include Tagosaku and Mokube’s Sightseeing in Tokyo (田吾作と杢兵衛の東京見, Tagosaku to Mokubē no Tōkyō-kenbutsu) and The Failures of Kidoro Haikara (灰殻木戸郎の失, Haikara Kidorō no Shippai).

An excerpt from Rakuten Kitazawa's Tagosaku and Mokube's Sightseeing in Tokyo, a story first started in 1902 featuring two villagers going on sightseeing trips to Tokyo. Ignorant about city life, they embarrass themselves in foolish ways whilst in the capital

Besides working for Jiji Shimpo, Kitazawa also founded his own magazine in 1905, entitled Tokyo Puck (東京パック, Tōkyō Pakku). This was a monthly colour comic magazine that showcased the works of many Japanese comic artists, including his own refined and sophisticated style of drawing. Tokyo Puck became a tremendous hit that was translated into both English and Chinese and was also sold in Korea, Mainland China and Taiwan. Kitazawa’s works, which were at times cynical of the Meiji government, toned down and became more conservative after the infamous uncovering of an assassination plot against Emperor Meiji in the High Treason Incident (大逆事件, Taigyaku Jiken) of 1910.

Works of Rakuten Kitazawa as seen in the magazine Tokyo Puck. His drawings were widely admired for their uniquely refined and sophisticated styles

Alongside Kitazawa, there was also another comic artist who stood out among the many during that era. Ippei Okamoto (岡本一平, Okamoto Ippei) (1886 – 1948), after joining the Asahi Shimbun (朝日新聞) in 1912, was responsible for introducing the Japanese public to several American comics such as Bringing Up Father by George McManus and Mutt and Jeff by Bud Fisher. Besides bringing in these comics into the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, he also produced numerous comic strips which, like Kitazawa’s, involved a fusion of Western and Japanese styles of comic art. Okamoto was most credited for his renowned work The Human Life (人の一生, Hito no Isshō), as well as for being the founder of Japan’s first society for cartoonists, Nippon Mangakai (日本漫画会).

Ippei Okamoto (岡本一平, Okamoto Ippei) (1886 - 1948)

The ascension of Emperor Hirohito (裕仁) (1901 – 1989) to the throne in 1926, which thus marked the commencement of the Showa Period (昭和時代, Shōwa-jidai) (1926 – 1989), steered Japan into militarism, totalitarianism and ultranationalism. The Japanese government became more oppressive internally and aggressive externally, vying for more territorial control and political power in Mainland China and Asia as a whole. Indeed, the government’s tyrannical policies and military expansion rippled its effects onto every area of Japanese life, and the manga industry was no exception.

Emperor Hirohito (裕仁) (Reigned 1926 - 1989)

Doubtless to say, the manga industry became one of the earliest casualties of the oppressive regime, since it was formerly the main media used to satirize the government and spread anti-establishment sentiments. Speech and thought were tightly regulated and any comic artists who fell under suspicion of dissidence were either threatened or imprisoned. As Japan got ready to engage in warfare for Asian dominion, manga artists had only two choices: to produce propaganda manga for the military government, or to risk losing their jobs, be imprisoned or exiled.

Some, of course, chose to bow down to government pressure, while others fled the country for greener pastures overseas. When the Second World War erupted in 1939, manga, too, went to war, along with anime. As the Second World War saw the division of major powers into the Allied Forces and Axis Powers, so too were manga artists divided along those lines. Those who chose to remain and work for the government were either stationed locally to draw nationalist propaganda mangas for Japanese consumption, or were drafted to battle frontlines to draw propaganda mangas which were to be dropped amongst the local populace and the enemy lines. On the other hand, those who chose to leave Japan mostly ended up settling in Allied countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France, whereby some of them even decided to produce propaganda in favour of the Allied governments.

Involvement of Japan in the Second World War

Amidst wartime paper shortages, the Japanese military government supported the production of propaganda manga that instilled values of patriotism and willingness to sacrifice for the state and the emperor. Enemies were depicted in demonizing ways while Japanese soldiers in battle were given the highest glory. In order to encourage self-sufficiency amidst a time of scarcity, propaganda mangas were also used to teach the people how to be creative and inventive with whatever little resources that they had.

In the battle frontlines, manga artists were compelled to produce comics for the local populace that encouraged patriotism towards the Japanese emperor and government. In order to intimidate the Allied soldiers and undermine their morale, propaganda mangas that glorified Japanese superiority and military strength were mass-produced and were dropped in enemy lines. Creativity was stifled, papers for comics continued to be scarce, and mangas served no practical purpose except as propagandistic tools.

A propaganda manga produced around the war era depicting American President Theodore Roosevelt in a monstrous form

Perhaps one of the most notable mangas of the pre-World War II Showa Period that bore propagandistic elements to a certain extent was Norakuro (のらくろ) by Suiho Tagawa (田河水泡, Tagawa Suihō) (1899 – 1989). This humorous manga, which began publication in 1931, revolves around a black and white dog called Norakuro who serves as a soldier in an army of dogs that closely resembled the Imperial Japanese Army of the era. Although not explicitly propagandistic in nature, the manga did feature Norakuro taking up arms and fighting valiantly in the battlefield, all of which attempted to instill values of patriotism and sacrifice in the hearts of its readers.

An excerpt from the manga Norakuro (のらくろ) featuring a dog who serves in an army of dogs made to resemble the Imperial Japanese Army of the war era

On the side of the Allied Forces (in contrast to Japan that was part of the Axis Powers in the Second World War), propaganda manga drawn by Japanese artists also had a role to play. As mentioned earlier, some Japanese comic artists who refused to have their skills exploited by the government chose instead to flee to Allied countries, especially the United States. In their new countries, however, some chose to switch their allegiance to the Allied Forces and started drawing manga for their armies.

One such manga artist was the renowned Atsushi Iwamatsu (岩松淳, Iwamatsu Atsushi) (1908 – 1994), better known by his pseudonym of Taro Yashima (八島太郎, Yashima Tarō). Working for the U.S. Army during the Second World War, Yashima produced propaganda mangas which served to adversely affect the morale of Japanese soldiers in battle. One of these was The Unlucky Soldier (運賀無, Unganaizō), which featured a peasant soldier who died in the service of corrupt leaders.

Taro Yashima (八島太郎, Yashima Tarō), also known by his real name Atsushi Iwamatsu (岩松淳, Iwamatsu Atsushi(1908 – 1994)

It is often said that the first casualty of war is truth, but in the case of the Japanese society, creativity might well be the first casualty instead. During the Second World War, many manga establishments shut down and hardly any new mangas that did not in one way or another bear propagandistic elements appeared. In fact, with the war leaving Japan in hardcore poverty after the country’s unconditional surrender in 1945, the manga industry was virtually crippled and it was not until several years later that it was able to fully recover to full strength. With that, let us move on to the last part of this article.

Main References:
(See last part)


  1. Really nice article! I am doing a work about the otaku world. Can I use some information from here?

  2. Sure! Glad to hear that you enjoy it.