Usually when I talk about my PhD research with people, four out of five people say, ‘What’s that?’ or ‘Huh?’ with a question mark on their faces. At first I was a bit panicked, feeling that I might have come to the wrong place to do a research on manga. However, as I got more chances to talk to different people of various ages, I started to discover a growing interest in Japanese culture in the UK. Manga, Anime, computer games and card games are all getting popular here, especially among young people.
What is manga?
‘Japanese comic book’ is the simplest answer I usually give to people when they have no clue about manga. It is not a comprehensive definition, but it helps differentiate manga from the other comic books in sense of its origin and artistic style. Manga is the Japanese word for comic or cartoon. A manga book is read from up to down and right to left, and Japanese sentences are written vertically. Although English is written horizontally from left to right, most publishers tend to keep the right-to-left reading direction of manga when it is translated to English. Readers start reading the book from its ‘back cover,’ flipping pages from right to left and reading panels in the same direction.
Manga is marketed to different audiences in Japan, including children, teenage girls, teenage boys, men and women. Manga for teenagers dominate the market. Those targeting boys are called shónen manga, and those aimed at girls are known as shójo manga. Shónen manga is usually characterised by high-action in fighting or competitions. The male characters are often drawn with spiky hair. Shójo manga usually includes romance in the plot-lines. The female characters are often drawn with big galaxy eyes. Flowery background is especially used greatly by some artists in shójo manga. Compared to other comic books, manga tend to have more details in the pictures, and the development of emotions is often emphasised. Themes covered in manga are various - from school life, sports, adventures, fantasy to science fiction and so on.
Following the question of what manga is, I have often been asked, ‘Do you speak Japanese?’ or 'Are you Japanese?’ The answer to both questions is, ‘No.’ If it is sufficient to start a research by personal interest, I study manga because I like reading it and I grow up reading it (in Chinese-translated versions, of course). Access to manga is easy and cheap in Taiwan. There are many rental bookstores where thousands of manga are available on shelves. You can pick the latest released volume of the manga that you are following and read it in the store for about 10 pence. Alternatively, you can pay about 20 pence to rent a manga for two to three days. If you have more budget, you can buy a manga for about 1.50 pounds from any bookstore or convenient store. I used to exchange manga with friends in the school so that we did not need to spend much of our pocket money. Some of us were such big fans of manga that they joined a manga club in the high school where the fans met regularly to talk about manga and learn to draw manga.
Although the culture of manga is still new in the UK, I have started to see a growing craze for manga among young people. A record of the issues of graphic novels in all Cambridgeshire libraries from May to October 2011 shows that two of the top three issues are shójo manga. In London, the annual Japanese cultural event, Hyper Japan, and biannual pop cultural event, London MCM Expo, have always drawn thousands of manga fans and cosplay lovers. Some libraries and schools also hold workshops of drawing manga occasionally. Ark Academy, based in London, is one of those. The school does not only hold manga workshops, they actually have a manga club where students use their weekly morning reading time to meet and talk about manga. The library also has a collection of some very popular manga, such as Naruto and Dragon Ball Z.
A network of manga
How does reading manga become a craze and how does the craze spread among young people? Based on my own reading experience and my observations on children that I came across in the UK, talking about manga with friends seems to gain people a sort of identity in a specific group. It is like talking about a popular TV show with friends. We talk about it not just because we enjoy it, but more because we seek the commonalities between our friends and ourselves. It is the commonalities that link people together. On my visit to Ark Academy, two 13-year-old boys were talking about manga in the manga workshop. One boy questioned the other in a surprising voice, “How have you not read this book yet?” The boy being questioned looked very innocent with a volume of Dragon Ball Z in his hand. He answered, ‘I just got it from the library today!’ If I were the boy, I would definitely try to finish reading that manga on the day and let my friend know I am not to be excluded from the cool group of people who read cool manga. A 12-year-old boy that I interviewed told me how he and his friends built a network by passing on manga to one and another, “It’s kind of like Facebook and how it works.”
Parents’ views on manga
As far as I can remember, my parents never liked the idea of me indulging in reading manga. Their concern was, these books were so addictive that I would not want to read my textbooks and therefore would get bad grades. I actually stopped reading manga for quite a while when I prepared for the entrance tests to the high school. Even that I have a solid reason to read manga now, I still have a kind of reflex reaction to hide the manga that I am reading when my mom suddenly enters my room (she seldom knocks!) I have talked to some parents in the UK and have asked some children about their parents’ views on manga. It seems that Chinese parents’ concerns on manga is slightly different from what British parents are worried about. Instead of worrying that manga has bad influence on children’s academic scores, parents here more worry that manga is picture-dominant and therefore provides less verbal input.
The 12-year-old boy that I interviewed agreed that children at his age should start reading chapter books as well, but he also mentioned that reading picture-dominant texts do not impede people’s reading ability, but rather forming a kind of reading habit. He said, 'It doesn’t really make you lazy, it’s just another kind of reading and you might get used to it more than the other one.’ Of course I also came across some parents who encouraged diverse reading and were supportive of what their children were interested in. Although manga has not received an overall approval from parents yet, I can see that a popular culture is burgeoning. Kodansha, one of the biggest manga publishers in Japan, claimed in their 2011-2012 company profile that they now have readers in over 40 countries worldwide. I am positive that there will be a continuous increase either in the number of the countries that publish manga or the population of overall readers over the world.