Japanese manga has become a globe-spanning culture. Young people all over the world not only know Naruto and One Piece – popular in Japan when I was a student – but also Attack on Titan, Chainsaw Man, and Jujutsu Kaisen.
But what kind of culture is manga? The use of drawing to tell a story is not limited to Japan: the Western world has Christian and Renaissance paintings, and the Islamic world likewise has a rich painting culture. […]
But what sets the Japanese manga apart is its embrace of craftsmanship, spiritual growth and anti-authoritarianism–coincidentally what ties together the famous titles mentioned in the beginning! They’re characteristic of a popular genre in manga known as shōnen.
So, what are the characteristics of Japanese manga culture?
Although researchers disagree on when manga culture began in Japan, some consider the ‘Choju-giga‘ (bird and animal figures), painting scrolls from the Heian period, to be the oldest known ‘manga’ in Japan.
Choju-giga: the first manga in Japan
What’s the connection between the two? Japanese manga, in its nature, orientates towards civil culture, or a common ideology.
As a medium, it allows the author to express anything with pen and paper in hand. There are no restrictions: most times, the expression is not even dependent on language.
The Choju-giga exemplify this through their use of birds and various animals to satirize the politics of the time. What we now see as the ‘anti-authoritarian characteristics’ commonplace in Japanese manga first showed up here, meaning that, from this perspective, the Choju-giga could indeed be its precursor.
Anti-authoritarianism should not only be thought of as criticizing specific governments or politicians. The best comics criticize the politically and socially constructed historical views and dominant ideologies that exist in today’s society. One of the most successful examples of this in recent years is Golden Kamuy.
The story revolves around retired soldiers, the Ainu people, and the Japanese military in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War, competing with society to seize the secret reserves of the Ainu in order to realize their ideals. […]
The author of Golden Kamuy, true to the nature of manga, was not interested in constructing fictitious stories that touted Japan’s ‘victory’ in the Russo-Japanese War as an example of Japan’s successful modernization.
His choice of centring the character of the Ainu girl, an indigenous Japanese ethnic minority, as the protagonist in this story can be seen as a rebellion against the general history of Japan. When history is told by the state, its aim is always the reproduction of a triumphant narrative by the rulers of the time.
In such a narrative, minorities in society are relegated to a marginalized space. However, the Ainu girl is neither marginalized nor manipulative in her sense of victimization: she is a character with an identity of her own, proud to be herself.
Poster for the British Museum’s Manga Exhibition, featuring Golden Kamuy’s Ainu protagonist
The story of Golden Kamuy, defiant in its starring the very marginalized people and the atrocities committed against them that ‘big history’ desperately wants to hide – such as the persecution of minorities due to Japan’s modernization and the dark history of the military – can be considered the most courageous literary narrative in contemporary Japan.
In recognition of this, Golden Kamuy was popular enough to be chosen as the symbol manga for a special manga exhibition at the British Museum in 2019. To my mind, there is no other manga series whose story is as compelling and anti-authoritarian as this one.
An important theme of Japanese manga is spiritual growth guided by a master, a mainstay of the shōnen genre. Through the presence of a master, a ‘different being’, the self of the protagonist grows by guiding others and being guided by others.
On a larger scale, the manga uses this to develop its own understanding of itself as a different self. But what is achieved through this growth is not the introverted state of humanity.
In Hunter x Hunter, for example, the competition itself is rarely discussed: a deep understanding of oneself through education is the central theme of the work. In Freecss’ words, “enjoying the journey” represents the spirit of Japanese manga: there is no value in telling who you are or getting what you want.
Itadori, the protagonist of Jujutsu Kaisen, bases his philosophy on the last words of his grandfather: “You are strong. Help others.” […]
This feature becomes even starker when compared to Western TV shows and movies, where this process of growth is completely skipped. For example, Doctor Strange, a Marvel superhero, was a world-famous doctor who almost immediately became a sorcerer after meeting a master sorcerer.
His movie rarely features any meaningful scenes of the hero being trained by his master. And yet Avengers: Endgame, a franchise tentpole uniting the protagonists of the individual hero movies, features Strange somehow emerging as the most powerful sorcerer.
Devoid of the dimension of spiritual growth characterizing Japanese manga, one can’t help asking why – and how?
Also, one of the thematic cornerstones of Star Wars, my favourite American film series, features the relationship between the Jedi master and his apprentice as one of the pillars of its story. But the hero of the new trilogy falls prey to this trend seen in Doctor Strange, becoming the most powerful Jedi in Star Wars history without ever training with a master. Yet again, one asks: why and how?
Narratives in the Western world are full of seemingly Eastern-inspired elements such as masters and magic, but these rarely have a live function. This is because identity in the Western world is inherently individualistic, not defined and developed through interaction with others.
In fact, it is endemic as a metaphor of the history of the US as a superpower, as shown by Captain America, another Marvel superhero with movies of his own. The overarching arc is built on the character’s battle within himself, where he struggles between relinquishing his heroic powers to the control of others or taking personal responsibility.
Either way, arrogance can characterise the citizens of the superpower, who see themselves from such a post-imperial lens.
The focus of the story is always on the spiritual development of the individual human being, between master and apprentice. Hatake Kakashi in Naruto and Satoru Gojo in Jujutsu Kaisen, the sensei of their respective manga, are in fact people who carry loneliness and regret in their hearts.
Yet it is through this lens that they strive to guide their disciples in their quests and, in turn, be guided within their own. Had they been characters conspiring to limit the abilities of other heroes, their appeal would probably have been diminished.
While Chainsaw Man lacks the ‘master’ message of other shōnen manga, the demons in the story are a metaphor for the problems of contemporary society and nation-states.
In this sense, Japanese shōnen manga as a medium offers not the loving power of empire, but role models for humanity to aspire to. In short, it is the only remaining genre of bildungsroman, the “novel of formation,” left in the world.
Neither identity politics can be found in it, nor the history of conquest and victory as nation-states and governments would like it to be. Rather, manga tries to teach young people that human society can be infinitely complex.
The question that shōnen manga constantly poses to us is this: are the realities we now accept ‘true’? Certainly, the gravity of asking such a question would overwhelm anyone’s mind, let alone the young reader seeking to understand the world and their place in it.
Hence, it is by reading manga that we as readers train ourselves to cut through the fiction of reality with the blade of the mind.
Understanding this most important aspect requires us to look into one particular manga that isn’t the typical shōnen fare.
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, a manga about rakugo, the oral Japanese comedy developed during the Edo period, features a refreshing cast of characters, each uniquely imperfect and emotionally complex.
In a world filled with ceaseless existential questions about belonging and authenticity, this is precisely what makes them beautiful.
Showa-genroku rakugo shinju
Although a far cry from shōnen, it contains elements of the genre’s philosophy, such as the bond between master and apprentice, as well as rebellion against the authority of the time.
The human side of the characters is inspired by the classical rakugo stories, and they themselves are the artists who perform it.
It is through the cast that the story discusses the difficulty of continuing the tradition of the classics. After choosing your own rakugo, you perform the classics word-for-word.
But because these classics were written in the Edo and Meiji periods, there are bound to be changes – not to mention the one responsible for these changes.
The rakugo aspirants face the burden of infusing the stories they enact with a refreshing take without compromising on what made them a classic. Exaggerating the stories out of the ordinary risks the ire of rakugo lovers, thereby preventing it from ever becoming a classic.
But without taking any risks, their stories won’t astound the audience –and something like that is fated to never be a classic.
This dilemma faced by the characters, forming the backdrop of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, exemplifies a distinct cultural take on the universal trope of tradition versus innovation. Rather than blatantly reinventing the wheel as the West would do, the manga, inspired by the classics, chooses to illustrate it as a kind of critique of Japanese society: of the classics and their practitioners who have lost their authenticity.
Faced with real-world issues – in this case, there are currently calls in Japan to remove the study of classical Chinese and Japanese works from compulsory education as “useless for business” – are scholars able to introduce the classics to future generations as a dynamic source of inspiration, a guiding light in humanity’s never-ending quest? Or have they rendered them dysfunctional, valued only within the closed communities to which they belong?
Discerning readers would readily notice similar strands being echoed in their own lives, which shows that this critical perspective certainly does not have to only apply to Japanese society – do the classics retain their distinctiveness in Western societies, Islamic societies and elsewhere?
Japanese manga including Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju enables troubling, pressing issues that are too delicate to be discussed in public to be confronted, not only by researchers and professors, but all people. It allows this by neither offering a single answer to a question nor featuring a charismatic character who solves the problem.
In today’s society where various ideas are polarized, the attitude to be gained is to enjoy the state of being without answers. That the history taught in school is not the only answer, that there are wiser and more powerful people in this world than you, that the classics and culture you cherish are never the cultures of the majority in society – these are all unpleasant realities within their own existence.
But to define a ‘hard’ identity that rejects this reality is portrayed as ‘stupidity’ in Japanese manga. What matters is how one engages these unpleasant realities for one’s own spiritual development and how much value one attributes to this process.
On a more meta level, I am also suggesting that, in this light, these new works, written through this unique contemporary medium, can also stand to become classics one day.
This is part one of a series by Dr Naoki Yamamoto. In the next part, he will be discussing how Japanese Manga can be read and interpreted from an Islamic perspective.
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