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 a 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On September 24th, Japan confirmed Taro Aso as its fourth prime minister in two years. Aso is known, among other things, for wearing gold chains, smoking Cuban cigars, and for being a huge comic book fan. One report has him reading ten a week.
He argues that Japan can exercise diplomatic soft power through the export of its comic culture, known as manga. Manga makes use of simple lines to create diversions ranging from how to books to hard core porn. Here in the States, it’s swept everything from the publishing world to Hollywood.
Exactly a year ago, University of Tokyo lecturer Roland Kelts shared some manga lore with me. I told him about the day when I was in Barnes & Noble with my daughter, standing in front of a wall of manga. I asked her what it was, and she said, you wouldn't be interested, and I said, no, I really want to know. And she said, it’s girls in miniskirts kicking people. ROLAND KELTS: [LAUGHS] That’s great. That’s great. [BROOKE LAUGHS] 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 in 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 businessmen and older women, and for cooking and recipes and how to pay your taxes ROLAND KELTS: [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: 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 woodblock 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. [LAUGHS] 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: Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS] 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 onto 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 businesswomen 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: That’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 the importance of [LAUGHS] selecting the titles they actually choose [LAUGHS] 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. We spoke to him in September of '07.