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22 Mar

Culture is Soft Power.

Off late, when I decide what to watch on Netflix, I come across multiple Japanese shows, remakes of Animé cartoons, and TV series based on Manga. And it made me wonder how Japan came to influence so much of our taste in pop culture.

With the recent rise in popularity of Ramen, Sushi Diners, and Saké, I sought to find out how Japan cracked the production of pop culture, en massé.

According to a Grand View Research report, the global anime market size was valued at USD 28.61 billion in 2022 and the global manga market size was valued at USD 10.9 billion in 2021.

Additionally, the NPD research group's study on book sales reported a 65% rise in graphic novel sales between 2020 and 2021. To put it in numbers, 21 million more graphic novels were sold in 2021 as compared to 2020. 17 million units of those 21 million were Manga sales!

But hold on.

What's the difference between Anime and Manga?

Good question.

Anime and Manga are two distinct forms of Japanese entertainment, though they are closely related and often share themes, stories, and characters.

Anime is a form of animated entertainment, similar to cartoons, but with a distinct Japanese visual style, while Manga refers to Japanese comics or graphic novels, usually printed in black and white.

You could even say that Anime is the TV adaptation of a Manga.

But how did Mangas reach this volume of sales? How do they produce seemingly endless content?

Well, if we go by the history of Manga mentioned in the book Adult Manga, the term wasn’t used commonly in Japan till the 1930s.

Till the 1930s, Manga referred to Hokusai’s series of woodblock caricatures published in 1819.

The 1930s marked the publication of the first serialized comic strips published in newspapers. These comic strips came to be referred to as Manga by the Japanese.

Till then, comic strips meant for children and adults were published in newspapers, and political comic strips inspired by Marxism were far more common than the present-day themes.

Mangas or Manga artists didn’t encounter government scrutiny until the 1940s. But by 1944, artists were pressured to conform to national objectives and centralised media control. The circulation of Mangas fell from 16,788 to 942 in the years between 1937-1944.

But the suppression gave way to innovation in the fields of children’s comic strips and non-political manga. The latter mostly fell into the category of nonsense.

Through most of the 1950s, the spread of Mangas and its artists was the direct outcome of post-war fatigue and people’s need to look for cheap entertainment. Interestingly, Mangas were created by picture-card artists who often performed a series of picture cards for an audience. Rental shops in Japan grew exponentially, further increasing the readership of the magazines.

From the 1960s onwards, publishing in Japan changed significantly with the launch of weekly current affairs magazines and Manga magazines. This was also the period when television sets entered all households in Japan.

In response, the publication of Mangas also changed from a monthly cycle to a weekly one. But a tight-knit relationship between the two industries was established. The book Adult Manga describes it as —

“Rather than finding a formidable competitor in television, the manga and television industries expanded alongside each other and developed a symbiotic relationship. Serialized manga stories were adapted into televised animation, which served to advertise further the original manga stories and inflate manga book sales.”

And the collective power the two industries wielded led to declining audiences in Japan’s film industry. Manga became known as the ‘poor man’s film industry.’ Japan’s audience was simply more familiar with the picture-card performances and seek that out in the TV shows that were created too.

The increasing pressure to churn out content to serve the increasing demand changed how Mangas were produced.  

They led to what I would call, “The Industrialisation of Mangas.”

Till the 1960s, Manga publishers were small firms operating independently. But the structure soon became oligarchic.  Five companies — Shueisha, Shogakukan, Kodansha, Hakusensha, and Akita — dominated production. 75.3% was controlled by the first four of these companies in 1993.

And this success enjoyed by the few drew in more companies into the world of Manga production.

Large publishing firms in Tokyo took over independent firms and changed the division of labour to meet the weekly publication demands. They developed systems for the ongoing recruitment and training of new artists. They also changed the management and control of artists producing popular serialized stories.

Manga editors came to assume a higher position in the hierarchy, making the manga artists subservient to the larger production process. They also looked down upon the Manga that was created by the artists in studios with the help of their assistants, calling them mechanical, “formulaic,” and “lacking in artistic value.”

Artists responded to this pressure by assuming a self-employed businessman’s position and employing up to 20 assistants to work in their studios. Essentially, the industrialisation of the Manga production process also enabled individual artists to increase their power and aim for independence from publishing companies.

But the major obstacle for an artist operating his own studio was the task of printing, publication and distribution. The allied tasks that helped produce a Manga inevitably meant that the role of publishing companies couldn’t be eliminated completely.

And in spite of the unhealthy exchange between the production and publishing systems, Mangas flourished in popularity both within Japan and outside.

A paper exploring the global rise of Manga comics interestingly notes —

“Manga has driven the success of Japanese cultural commodity exports. True, television series preceded manga in the European market,it does not enjoy the same recognition as the animated films of Miyazaki Hayao, for example, and probably generates smaller profits than video games. But it is manga that provided the television series and the animation and video games industries with their imaginary universes, value systems, often their plot lines and even the graphic designers’ labour. And so it is fair to say that the Japanese cultural export industry basically relies on manga.”

Manga’s success in the global world — compared to French Bandes Dessinées and American comics — can then be directly attributed to the country manufacturing a content/cultural product on a far more massive scale.

Producing Mangas as physical copies of books and simultaneously developing media mixes by adapting them into Anime unlocked new distribution channels. This mixed form of media production also helped the distribution companies attract a wider set of audience.

This was further accelerated with the rise of computer video games in the 1980s. And while computers overall briefly led to a decline in Manga readership and sales, their influence over other mediums continued to rise.

But, to truly create a global market for Manga, publishers in Japan adopted a two-fold approach.

The first stage was consolidation in a national market, followed by a stage of dumping in global markets.

By consolidation, I mean they created an oligarchic structure where major publication firms took over and formalised the Manga production process. It also allowed the Manga industry to grow, shielded from competition, and develop comparative advantages in terms of productivity and costs. It allowed them to sell Manga publication rights at lower rates initially when the market was nascent and gradually increase the price for publication rights when the market matured.

And while expanding globally, the Manga industry followed the path of major Japanese export industries with a dual structure (major publishing houses which organized the production of numerous small or family studios) and a highly trained labour force.

Additionally, when Manga comic exports grew, the commercial TV adaptation series borrowed from Manga comics also flooded the international pop culture market.

The picture-card performances that Mangas first gave rise to and the mixed media production of Mangas into TV shows and animated series created an unavoidable influence wherever it went.

Here's a related excerpt from a research paper I was reading recently:

“From an economic point of view, cultural products offer numerous advantages compared with industrial products. They are often inexpensive to develop and manufacture. They can be produced in a variety of formats thanks to the media mix which reinforces their impact and increases profits. On the one hand, they are consumed almost immediately, which leads to a frenzied demand for more; but on the other, they can be exploited for decades, like the Beatles’ catalogue. The dissemination of cultural commodities takes numerous forms, which are becoming less and less concrete, thus allowing new producers to bypass existing controlled distribution channels. Lastly, although manufacturing techniques are simple and it is very easy to copy the finished product, the know-how required to develop them is very hard to emulate.”

When you think about it, Anime and Manga have really helped shape Japan's image around the world.

Because they're so popular, Japan has this cool reputation that gives them an edge in the international market. There's even a government initiative called “Cool Japan” that's all about promoting Japanese culture and products worldwide!

In fact, many Anime and Manga fans actually visit Japan to see the real-life locations from their favorite series, attend conventions, and buy exclusive merch. In 2019 alone, over 31 million foreign tourists visited Japan, and a bunch of them said their love for Anime and Manga was a big reason they went there. That means more money being spent in hotels, restaurants, and shops.

Another cool thing is how Anime and Manga have led to some unexpected partnerships. Like, car companies have worked with Anime creators to design limited-edition vehicles featuring popular characters. And fashion brands have teamed up with Manga artists to create some really unique clothing lines. These collaborations bring in more money and make Japan seem even more creative and innovative.

Also, with so many people into Anime and Manga, there's a ton of money to be made from intellectual property rights (IPRs). Licensing agreements, merchandise sales, and distribution deals all contribute to Japan's economy. Plus, the Japanese government has been working on cracking down on piracy, which helps protect the money that creators and rights holders earn.

It's simply incredible to see how much influence Anime and Manga have had globally.

They haven't just made Japan money, they've also helped people from different cultures understand and appreciate Japanese culture more. Although there are lots of complaints surrounding how reductive depictions of Japanese culture in these productions aren't helping the country, it's common to see fans adopting aspects of Japanese language, fashion, and cuisine with great fervour.

And as they continue to grow in popularity, it's exciting to think about how Japan will keep using this cultural capital to their advantage. Japan already has the world's most powerful passport for the 5th year in a row. Holders can visit 193 out of 227 global destinations visa-free. In contrast, India is ranked 87th on this list!

This, my friends, is soft power: how cultural products can create a favourable image of a nation globally to achieve desired political outcomes through charm and attraction rather than coercion.

And I sense that as we move towards a more content-centric economy, playbooks on how to export culture will have interesting insights to offer on how to grow nations, let alone businesses.

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