History of Manga

The following history is a revision of one was first published in three installments in Animerica: Anime & Manga Monthly, Volume 4, Numbers 2, 4 & 6. Both the original Animerica articles and this revision were written by me, Matt Thorn. After years of trying to protect it from plagiarism, I have decided to place it in the public domain. Anyone can copy the entire contents of this page, between the double lines above and below, and put it up on their own web site, providing they abide by the following rules.

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6) You may translate these entire contents into any language, as long as you follow all of these rules. Readers of translated versions who also read English are encouraged to compare the translation with the original, and to report any mistranslated to both me and the translator.

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Please note that my current (2005) view of the history of manga is far more complex and nuanced than the following might suggest. In particular, I regret the degree to which I attributed the development of manga to Osamu Tezuka. If you have any questions about anything in this history, please feel free to ask me at matt@matt-thorn.com. Naturally, corrections of any kind are also very much welcome.

History Of Manga

Written By: Matt Thorn


What is the origin of manga? The answer depends on how you define “manga.” The word itself was popularized by the famous woodblock print artist Hokusai, but, contrary to a popular myth, it was not invented by him. The word is composed of two Chinese characters—the first meaning “in spite of oneself” or “lax” and the second meaning “picture”—and has been used to describe various comical images for at least two centuries.[1]

A millennium before Hokusai applied the term to a collection of his less serious works, there were “cartoonish” drawings to be found in Japan, but whether or not pictures drawn in such a style constitute manga is a tricky question. The picture becomes clearer when we limit our discussion to works that fit American cartoonist Will Eisner’s definition of comics as “sequential art.” The first clear examples of such sequential art are the picture scrolls of medieval Japan, which combine pictures and text to tell stories or describe events. These scrolls look and work like modern manga or comics in many ways, but there is a crucial difference: whereas modern-day manga are produced for mass consumption, picture scrolls were singular works of art produced for an elite audience.

It was in late eighteenth-century Japan, when a growing middle class of urban merchants had developed a vibrant consumer culture, that a manga-like medium produced for popular consumption first appeared. Printed in book form using woodblock technology, kibyôshi (“yellow covers”) were storybooks for adults in which narration and dialogue were placed in and around ink-brush illustrations, often in creative ways that consciously blurred the distinction between text and picture. (Multi-volume kibyôshi were known as gôkan.) Like modern-day manga, they dealt with a variety of subjects, including humor, drama, fantasy, and even pornography. By the mid nineteenth century, both kibyôshi and gôkan had disappeared, victims of both government censorship and the convenience and speed of moveable-type technology. Although there are certain startling resemblances , kibyôshi are not the direct ancestors of modern manga. [2] The ancestor of the modern manga, believe it or not, is the European/American-style political cartoon of the latter 19th Century, and the multi-panel comic strips that flowered in American newspapers in the last years of the 19th Century and the first years of the 20th Century.

Some suggest that the Japanese have a historically-rooted affinity for such visual media as manga, but for the first half of the twentieth century, American comics were more popular and diverse than were Japanese manga. So why have manga flourished while American comics have floundered?

Perhaps the single most important factor in the creation of the modern manga industry was the work of one artist, the late Osamu Tezuka, known in Japan as the “god of manga.” Tezuka’s most popular creation, Mighty Atom, is known throughout the world; an animated version was broadcast in the U.S. in the 1960’s under the name “Astro Boy.” In his autobiography, Tezuka described what made his manga different from those that came before him:

  • Until that time, most manga […] were drawn from a two-dimensional perspective, and in the style of a stage play. The interactions of actors appearing from stage left and stage right were composed as if from the viewpoint of someone seated in the audience. I came to the realization that there was no way to produce power or psychological description using this approach, so I began to introduce cinematic techniques into my composition. The models for this were the German and French movies I saw in my days as a student. I manipulated close-ups and angles, of course, and tried using many panel or even many pages in order to capture faithfully movements and facial expressions that previously would have been taken care of with a single panel. So I would end up with long works five- or six-hundred to more than a thousand pages in length in no time at all [….] Also, I thought the potential of manga was more than getting a laugh; using themes of tears and sorrow, anger and hatred, I made stories that didn’t always have happy endings.

After drawing several four-panel comic strips for newspapers immediately following the war, Tezuka made his comic book debut in 1947 with a story entitled New Treasure Island, which was published as an akahon, or “red book,” a cheap form of comic book named for the gaudy red ink used on the covers. At the time, akahon were a small niche industry providing children with one of the few entertainment media they could afford in the crushing poverty of early postwar Japan. New Treasure Island changed the scene overnight, selling an unprecedented 400,000 copies.

Publishers responded immediately and enthusiastically, and had no trouble finding young artists eager to emulate Tezuka’s revolutionary style. Tezuka moved to a rundown apartment building in Tokyo to be closer to the publishing industry, and quickly developed a following of budding manga artists, some of whom actually moved into the same apartment building. Most of these artists–Shohtaroh Ishimori (later Ishinomori), Fujiko Fujio, Fujio Akatsuka, Hideko Mizuno–went on to become giants of the postwar manga industry.

Tezuka’s innovations led to a broadening of the manga market and had a consequence that would inevitably force a radical restructuring of the market: the children who were raised on the manga of Tezuka and his followers, unlike their predecessors, didn’t stop reading manga when they got to middle school. Or high school. Or college.

It is important to note, though, that Tezuka was able to exert so much influence because he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Some prewar cartoonists, such as Noboru Oh-shiro, were using many of the “cinematic techniques” said to be invented by Tezuka when Tezuka was a still a child, and were also more technically skilled than Tezuka. But they were confined by the standards of Tokyo publishers (who felt that manga for children should be entertaining and educational, but not too “stimulating”) and also by government censors, who allowed only pro-war propaganda to see the light of day for the decade preceding the end of the World War II. “Red Books” were the ideal forum for Tezuka’s lengthy, “theme driven” manga, because there was minimal editorial oversight (they were not so much “publishers” as producers of nick-knacks for children made from recycled paper), they contained plenty of pages, and they were popular because the strict rationing of higher quality paper kept the price of “respectable” Tokyo children’s publications prohibitively high. Thus, a complex array of factors–cultural, political, economical, and historical–fell neatly into place, allowing Tezuka to catapult to unprecedented prominence.

The Manga Boom

After seven or eight years of talking with what must amount to hundreds of Japanese readers of manga (“comic books”), I finally came to a certain realization: there is a surprisingly clear line that separates the “pre-manga generation” from the “manga generation,” and that line can drawn somewhere around 1950. I’ve met a handful of Japanese born prior to 1950 who love manga, and I’ve met many born after 1950 who have no interest in manga, but for the most part, the former generation considers manga to be “kids’ stuff,” and stopped reading manga by the time they entered middle school, while the latter generation has always taken manga for granted as just another medium that can be enjoyed by adults as well as children.

Why 1950? Although Tezuka helped transform manga from a simple form of children’s entertainment into a sophisticated medium that children were reluctant to abandon as they grew older, the stylistic innovations of one artist didn’t make manga into the wildly lucrative industry it is today. To understand that, we have to look at manga in the context of postwar Japanese history and the other mass media with which it was competing. In 1954, when television broadcasting first began in Japan, there were only 866 television sets in the entire country. By 1959—the year Japan’s media went wild over the wedding of the crown prince—the number was two million. Television, with its weekly programming format, set the pace for the flow of information and entertainment in a postwar Japan that was undergoing rapid economic development, and the other media followed suit. In 1956, Japan’s first weekly magazine appeared, setting off a boom in weeklies that would encompass even the children’s market before the decade was out. In 1959, Weekly Shônen Magazine and Weekly Shônen Sunday became the first children’s weeklies, and others soon followed. Initially, these magazines were conceived of as general education and entertainment magazines, with manga usually occupying no more than forty percent of each issue. But circulations (hovering around 200,000) were low, as were those of the traditional monthly children’s magazines. It didn’t take long, however, for publishers to figure out that they could raise sales by increasing the the space dedicated to manga. Within a few years, manga came to occupy more than half of the total space, and at the same time, the magazines gradually phased out “educational” items, much to the horror and disgust of the educators and parents groups that had supported them early on. In Japan, however, there were to be no government hearings of the kind that intimidated and crippled the American comic book industry in the mid-1950s, and despite some blustering, sales continued to rise.

In terms of content, adventure and sci-fi stories of the kind pioneered by Tezuka (labeled”story manga” to distinguish them from the simpler, pre-Tezuka manga) continued to dominate the shônen (“boys’) magazines, yet the readership for manga was growing older. Teenagers, young laborers and college students began to turn to the then-popular “rental book shops,” where a new genre of sophisticated and serious manga (known as gekiga, meaning “theatrical pictures”) had been developing since the late 1950s. These rental manga emphasized realism, in both drawing style and content, and were often grim, pensive, or violent. What humor there was tended to be black, and there was little of the slapstick and comic relief that characterized “story manga,” which always took primary school boys as their lowest common denominator. Among the more popular artists working in the rental manga market were Sanpei Shirato and Takao Saitoh, known to English readers for translations of The Legend of Kamui and Golgo 13, respectively. But by this time, the rental book industry was already in decline, for reasons I won’t go into here, and in the latter 1960s, a new category of manga magazine, known as seinen (“youth”) manga began to appear, such as Weekly Manga Action (1967, Futabasha Publishing) and Monthly Big Comic (1968, Shogakukan Publishing). While some rental manga artists moved to shônen (“boys”) manga magazines, many more began working for the new seinen magazines, which quickly began to eat into shônen manga magazine circulations.

Shônen magazines responded to the seinen manga threat by incorporating a toned-down gekiga style, with the intention of bringing back older readers who found the straight gekiga-style too oppressive. The seinen magazines responded in kind, reverting to certain “story manga” techniques in order to increase their popular appeal. But in their battle for the older reader, the two leading shônen manga magazines, Shogakukan Publishing’s Sunday and Kodansha Publishing’s Magazine, began to lose the primary-school boys who had always been their core readership, and circulations plummeted. But Shueisha Publishing’s Weekly Shônen Jump, a latecomer and underdog founded in 1968, remained faithful to it’s pre-teen readers and quickly moved up from behind to take the lead in the early 1970’s. Jump’s greatest handicap in its first few years—its inability to pull the best-known artists from the established magazines—proved to be its greatest advantage. While Magazine and Sunday had no choice but to give their star artists free rein, Jump could direct its team of rookie artists to produce works that met readers’ demands, which were ascertained through exhaustive reader surveys. Magazine and Sunday were left to struggle to catch up for years to come, but Jump widened the gap every year, and produced blockbuster hits one after the other, such as the long-running Dragonball, by Akira Toriyama, and Slam Dunk, by Takehiko Inoue. In 1980, Jump’s claimed circulation was three million; in 1985, four million; in 1988, five million. In 1994, the figure was a mind-boggling 6,200,000. It was far and away the best-selling magazine of any kind in Japan. Weekly Shônen Magazine’s claimed circulation in ’94 was 3,750,000, while Weekly Shônen Sunday’s was 1,270,000—figures most magazine editors can only dream of, true, but modest (to say the least) in comparison to the mighty Jump.[3]

But success in a medium such as manga is not measured by sales alone (though publishers may feel otherwise). Magazine and Sunday’s struggle to “grow up” in the late sixties produced some of the all-time classics of manga, such as the boxing epic Tomorrow’s Joh, by Asao Takamori (also known as Ikki Kajiwara) and Tetsuya Chiba, and both magazines—as well as the other magazines in the shônen genre—have continued to produce quality manga and more than their share of bestsellers, and they have commanded the loyalty of their readers well into adulthood.

Thus the answer to the question, “Why 1950?” A boy born in 1950 would have been about nine years old when the medium of manga was revolutionized by the weekly format. He would have been in high school when the exciting developments of the mid- to late sixties took place. He would have been a college student (or worker) when the seinen genre had been firmly established. Another Japanese man born a year or two earlier would have already set manga aside by the time the weekly format was beginning to realize its potential, but the younger reader, never allowed a dull moment, would be hooked for life, as would every subsequent generation of Japanese.

And that goes for Japanese women and girls, too.

“Girls’ Stuff”

Considering that in most of the English-speaking world comic books are generally seen as “boys’ stuff,” it is only natural that the genre of shôjo manga, or “girls’ comics,” should be met by that world with surprise and puzzlement. While there is a lively community of women artists and fans in the English-language underground comics world, there is not even a rough equivalent of the shôjo manga genre, which is created primarily by women artists explicitly for audiences of girls and young women. Whereas female readers of comics in the English-speaking world are a minority within a minority, in Japan it is girls who don’t read manga who comprise the minority. And just as foreigners are surprised to hear that Japanese girls and women are such avid consumers of comics, so Japanese girls and women express surprise—and sympathy- when I tell them that women in the English-speaking world have no corresponding genre.[4]

Like their boys’ counterpart (shônen manga), shôjo manga first took root in the decade following the end of the Pacific War, and, as with shônen manga, it was seminal artist Osamu Tezuka who can be credited with planting the seed. Magazines geared at Japanese primary-school girls had long carried simple, humor-oriented comic strips of the kind common in American newspapers, but it was Tezuka, with a work titled Ribon no kishi (“Knight of the Ribbon,” 1954), who pioneered longer, more technically and narrative sophisticated stories combining drama, adventure, fantasy, tragedy, humor, and romance.

In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the majority of shôjo manga were created by male artists, most of whom also worked in the shônen genre. The number of professional women artists working in shôjo manga prior to 1960 (most notably, Toshiko Ueda, Masako Watanabe, Hideko Mizuno, and Miyako Maki) could almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. The stories featured primary school girls, and generally fell into one of three categories: humor, horror, or tear-jerker. Mother-daughter relationships featured prominently, and boy-meets-girl stories were still relatively rare, which is not surprising considering the tender age of the heroines (and readers).

Then, in 1963, the revolutionary shift from a monthly to a weekly format that had begun in the shônen manga genre five years earlier began to sweep through the shôjo manga genre as well. There was a need for more artists, and by then it had become clear that women artists were more likely than men to be able to meet the demands of readers and help the publishers realize their goal of selling more magazines. Women artists, such as Yasuko Aoike, Minori Kimura and Waki Yamato, debuted one after the other. But the debut that attracted the most attention was that of Machiko Satonaka, whose first professional story appeared in Weekly Friend in 1964 when the artist was only sixteen years old. In retrospect, this event seems to have been a foreshadowing of the second revolution in the shôjo manga genre.

Between 1967 and 1969, the steady stream of new women artists turned to a flood, and attention soon focused on a vaguely defined group of young artists who came to be known as the “Fabulous Forty-Niners,” because many of them were born in or around 1949. Artists such as Moto Hagio (creator of They Were Eleven and A, A’), Yumiko Oh-shima (creator of Banana Bread Pudding), Keiko Takemiya (creator of Toward the Terra), Riyoko Ikeda (creator of The Rose of Versailles), and Ryohko Yamagishi (creator of The Son of Heaven in the Land Where the Sun Rises) began to experiment with new themes, stories and styles, rejecting the limitations of traditional definitions of the shôjo manga genre and appealing to increasingly older readers. They played with notions of gender and sexuality, adapted such “boys’ genres” as science fiction, and explored some of the weightiest issues of human existence.

Interestingly, whereas the weekly format has become the foundation of the shônen manga magazine market, the same format, though it provided the occasion for both the increase of women artists and the radical expansion of the genre’s boundaries and readership, did not last among shôjo manga magazines. The weekly format put pressure on artists to focus on action, and forced them to work at a pace that made it difficult for them to achieve the depth that many of them sought. The weekly format was gradually replaced with a biweekly format, and the weekly format has largely given way to the original monthly format. Now artists can draw longer installments at a less hectic pace, developing the subtleties of character relationships, mood, and setting that are shôjo manga’s strongest features.

By the end of the 1970s, shôjo manga had ceased to be a monolithic and homogeneous genre. A number of subgenres, such as fantasy and science fiction, or stories focusing on homosexual romance between boys (known as “boys’ love,” or sometimes “yaoi”), had become firmly established, distinct from the “mainstream” of (heterosexual) love-comedies that themselves had become more sophisticated and less governed by taboo. As the upper age-limit of shôjo manga readerships continued to rise, the 1980s saw a trend towards increased specialization and more narrowly-targeted readerships, particularly with regard to age. Few girls above the sixth grade (except for diehard Sailor Moon or RayEarth fans) would be caught dead reading Nakayoshi, for example, while many others give up Ribbon by the end of middle school. Similarly, the content of Shôjo Comic in 2005 might make a more innocent reader blush, and while Hana to yume might stigmatize one as a sci-fi/fantasy otaku (“geek”), the popular Special Edition Margaret is dismissed by some as too middle-of-the-road.

The market has been made even more complex by the increasing demand among adult women for manga they can call their own, and here we see the same pattern I discussed in the previous installment in talking about shônen and seinen (“young men’s”) manga: women born after 1950 continue to read manga even as adults. The first magazines to try to tap this market appeared in the early 1980’s and were narrowly geared at young “office ladies” (clerical workers) and housewives. The content was similar in many ways to American soap operas: lots of sleaze. By the late 1980s, it became apparent that this formula appealed only to a certain niche as publishers began to realize that many young adult women were buying not these new “ladies comics” but the same shôjo manga they enjoyed in high school. Having finally “got it,” publishers in the 1990s began to create a variety of sub-genres geared at a specific “types” of adult Japanese women. They range from more “artsy” publications, such as the progressive Feel Young, through the conservative top-seller YOU and the mainstream Chorus, to the unabashedly pornographic Comic Amour. At long last, there are manga catering to the tastes of practically every women and girl of the post-1950 “manga generation.”

Yet in many ways, the diverse works that appear in these narrowly-focused magazines continue to hold more in common with each other than any of them do with shônen or seinen manga. Even as tastes have diversified and the market has matured, there remains a certain esthetic common ground that Japanese women—as artists and as readers—have staked out for themselves. There are plenty of girls and women who read shônen or seinen manga, and there are more than a few boys and men (many of them “closeted”) who read shôjo or “ladies'” manga. Yet the basic genre distinctions remain, and it seems unlikely to me that they will collapse any time in the near future. From what I can gather, that is just fine with the majority of Japanese manga readers.


[1] Adam Kern, a scholar of Japanese literature, has noted that the popular kibyôshi creator, Santoh Kyohden, used the word in print in 1798. When and by whom the word was created remains unclear.

[2] For more on kibyôshi and gôkan, look for anything on the subject written by Professor Adam Kern.

[3] Since I wrote this article, the fortunes of Jump have waxed and waned and waxed again. I cannot imagine what those fortunes might be as you read this, but chances are the top spot among shônen manga magazines continues to be vied for by Jump, Magazine, and Sunday.

[4] Please remember that this was written long before the North American shôjo manga boom that began in the first few years of the 21st Century–and which I like to believe I helped trigger. (^_^)

©Matt Thorn 2005