Manga is Japan’s ubiquitous art form; a kind of comic book equivalent that illustrates everything from tax preparation to hard-core fantasy. But it is its growing success outside Japan that’s highlighted its new utility, what Japanese politicians are calling ‘manga diplomacy.’ Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica, explains why politicians are recognizing the form as a powerful cultural export.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: On September 14, Taro Aso, Japan's former minister of foreign affairs, announced his candidacy for prime minister. This week, he lost. And though he wasn't expected to win, he did have one unique plank in his platform — an intention to use Japanese comics, called manga, as a tool of cultural diplomacy.
Manga makes use of simple lines and no shading to create diversions ranging from romances to fairy tales to hard core porn. Here in the States, it's swept the publishing world and spawned entertainments ranging from Hollywood movies to the Food Channel's Iron Chef.
Roland Kelts is a professor at the University of Tokyo. He says that Taro Aso understands manga's potential to raise Japan's global profile. ROLAND KELTS: What he's on to is the fact that, in terms of the popular consciousness, China and to some extent, India are rising in the east in Asia, and Japan is losing its grip on the world's imagination. And he wants to promote this popular art as a way of retaining Japan's power, I suppose, and imagery in the world. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it's sort of Japan's Hollywood. ROLAND KELTS: You know, that's exactly right. It's Japan's Hollywood, although the creations themselves are far more diverse than what you generally get out of Hollywood today, which is one of the problems, because some of the stuff that is included under the very wide umbrella of manga and anime is racy or seedy or violent. BROOKE GLADSTONE: For those who may not have encountered it, and I know there are fewer and fewer of those, let's talk about manga - here and there. I was in Barnes & Noble. I was with somebody quite young, and I said, what is this stuff? There's a whole wall of it. Describe it in one sentence. And she said, it's girls in miniskirts kicking people. ROLAND KELTS: [LAUGHS] That's great, that's great. You know, some of it definitely is girls in miniskirts kicking and punching on their way to world domination.
I think one possible analogy would be to compare it to the appeal of punk music upon a certain generation of teenagers or hip hop upon a later generation, and manga sales really took off in the U.S. and in Europe at the start of this century, when the importers and publishers overseas started to actually print it the way it reads here in Japan, which is from right to left.
When they made that switch, it suddenly acquired a whole new cadre of fans who seemed to approve of the fact that this was not the way their parents read books. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's get down to a nitty gritty definition of manga, because now that there is a genre for boys and girls and middle aged business men and older women, and for cooking and recipes and how to pay your taxes, how would you define something that ranges across so many audiences and so many topics? ROLAND KELTS: Well, you're quite right that it's a protean art form.
Historically speaking, the word can be traced back to the great wood block print artist of the 19th century. His name was Hokusai. He coined the term to basically mean throwaway pictures, but the form that we know today was developed by a great artist named Osamu Tezuka, who in the 1950s created a hero that some Americans are familiar with now, named Astro Boy. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I remember him well. ROLAND KELTS: [LAUGHS] Yeah, do you? Well, Tezuka was working out of the ashes of World War II in Japan, so his version of manga contained a lot of the trauma and feelings of terror and resentment — vengeance, in some way — that existed in Japan after having been destroyed, really, by two atomic bombs.
And that art form is really what we're talking about when we talk about manga today, and that art form then became almost an underground form of expression in Japan. It could say anything. It could say what you couldn't say in movies or TV. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you think that so many anime characters don't have mouths? ROLAND KELTS: [LAUGHS] Oh, yeah. I interviewed a very knowledgeable editor of one of Japan's biggest anime manga magazines, and he advised me to note that in manga, frequently realistic elements of the human body are left out. For example, there's not much emphasis on the ears or the nostrils, because he said, your imagination doesn't need the ears or the nostrils. We fill these things in on our own.
When I interviewed the people who created Hello Kitty, I said, why no mouth? And they said, because when you look at Hello Kitty, she should feel like you do. If you're in a great mood, she feels great, and your mind will project the emotions on to that face without the mouth telling you how to feel. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that it springs from a sort of underground sensibility, but can manga be cool if every salary man is reading them on the train at night on their way home? ROLAND KELTS: Salary men and business women are now reading manga in different forms, the most popular of which is the Japanese cell phone.
And part of the reason is that if you're reading something that's a little bit unsavory [BROOKE LAUGHS] you can do so with much greater privacy if you're holding a cell phone screen up to your face.
So manga is in a sense mainstream, but they're not acknowledged purchases. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean they're guilty pleasures? ROLAND KELTS: Guilty pleasures, very much so and private guilty pleasures in a lot of ways. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet you said that Aso and others within the government have coined the term manga diplomacy. That's public. ROLAND KELTS: It's very public. And, you know, I just had lunch last week with an official from the government, who has been working on this very project, and you know, he emphasized to me that the importance of [LAUGHS] selecting the titles they actually choose to promote. So they're very aware of the fact that if manga diplomacy is going to be a popular art form that represents Japan, they don't want the girls kicking in their miniskirts to have miniskirts that are too short. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Roland, thank you very much. ROLAND KELTS: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.