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The Short History of Manga – The Birth of Japanese Comics

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In this article, we dive deep into the history of manga, where manga got started, what shaped its visual form, and where it’s heading. Exploring topics such as post-war Japan, the golden age of manga, the 60s and 80s, and manga’s influence on Japan’s culture and society.


Key Takeaways

  • One of the first forms of manga was the Chōjū-Giga or Scrolls of Frolicking Animals in the 12th and 13th centuries.
  • The term manga is said to be created by Santō Kyōden in 1798
  • Osamu Tezuka is seen as the godfather of manga for concretizing this medium into Japanese culture as a legitimate art form.
  • A manga artist or manga-ka is a comic artist who writes and/or illustrates manga.
  • Manga became a worldwide phenomenon via exporting, anime adaptations, conventions, and the internet.
  • Popular manga comics: Dragon Ball, Naruto, One Piece, My Hero Academia, Attack On Titan

The Origins of Manga: Tracing Its Roots in Japan’s History

With its distinct visual style and captivating storylines, manga has become a phenomenon beloved by fans of all ages. Originating in Japan, these comics have gone on to influence the publishing industry and attract readers of all interests, inspiring some to turn their passion for this unique art form into a career option through cosplay, art, or writing.

Contrary to popular belief, manga isn’t a recent phenomenon. Its roots can be traced back to the Kamakura period, encompassing the 12th and 13th centuries.

Many believe the earliest example of manga in Japan is the Chōjū-Giga or Scrolls of Frolicking Animals, which consist of several hand-drawn anthropomorphic animals, including frogs, rabbits, and monkeys.

These animals were usually depicted engaging in several comedic activities, such as wrestling, playing music, or making mischief because the purpose of the said “manga” was often to amuse the reader via its humorous and satirical twists.

frolicking-figures-and-animals
Frolicking Figures and Animals by Kawanabe Kyōsai 河鍋暁斎

The Chōjū-Giga’s importance lies in its significant influence on the development of manga and the use of sequential images to tell a story. This style persists today—contemporary manga artists tell stories in a sequence of drawings and sketches and generally follow the same style and themes as the scrolls.

However, this only tells us how the concept originated. We’re yet to understand how the term came to be and how this art form evolved to become popular among the common folk. 

Manga in the Edo Period

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It’s believed that the first kibyōshi was “Kinkin sensei eiga no yume” by Koikawa Harumachi.

This art form was previously limited to the elite. But during the Edo period, from 1603 to 1868, woodblock printing technology advanced and allowed the mass production of illustrated books.

This led to the emergence of Kibyoshi—illustrated books aimed at a wider audience—and helped concretize “manga” as a popular entertainment medium among the common folk.

The Edo period also marked the creation of a set of books that embedded the concept of manga. The Toba Ehon was a set of illustrated picture books created by artists and writers for entertainment and education. 

They were hand-drawn and colored using woodblock printing techniques and tackled multiple subjects, including folklore, myths, and everyday life, and featured Japanese or Chinese characters. Their importance lies in the fact that they’re among the earliest examples of Japanese narrative art in book form—manga before the term was coined.

These original works of art are regarded as national treasures, and their reproductions are displayed in several museums in Japan, including the Tokyo National Museum and the Yokohama Museum of Art.

When Did Manga as a Term First Appear?

Santō Kyōden coined the term in 1798 to refer to his picture book “Shiji No Yukikai,” which means Four Seasons. With the influence of all these artists and the renowned ukiyo-e Hokusai, who created a series of sketchbooks depicting everyday drawings and sketches, the term manga became broadly used and easily recognized by the late 19th century.

Japan’s Identity Crisis: Manga in Post-War Japan

The U.S. occupation of Japan was a tumultuous period in the latter’s history. 

Japan struggled with its cultural identity due to the restrictions placed by the U.S. on the production and distribution of manga, the censorship of some themes, and the requirement for pro-American content. These restrictions limited creative expression and the industry’s growth.

Japan had to make a change. It actively sought ways to redefine its culture and art, and a return-to-roots scenario via manga was a solid option. 

The post-war generation of manga-kas (manga creators) was inspired enough to create its unique style after being inspired by works such as Mickey Mouse, Bambi, and Walt Disney’s works, all of which Americans had brought along. Manga then saw a creative expansion into new genres and styles, which defined this period.

They initially took to magazines and newspapers. It was a brilliant first step as those mediums sought readership and consequently popularized manga enough to evolve into weekly and monthly comic magazines that contained approximately 10 to 20 series installments per edition.

Let’s talk about the important developments that took place during this era.

Gekiga

Gekiga is a more mature and brutal form of manga that tackles serious political and social issues, including war, poverty, prostitution, and disillusionment. Yoshihiro Tatsumi pioneered it through his notable pieces “Black Blizzard” and “Abandon The Old in Tokyo.”

Please note that there’s a difference between gekiga and other demographic categories or types discussed below that discuss more mature subjects. While seinen and josei encompass a wide range of styles and genres, gekiga refers to one style in manga that’s more realistic, dark, and gritty.

Shōnen

If you’re unfamiliar with Shōnen, it’s somewhat similar to American superhero comics in storytelling but differs in the cultural context and art style, and it can cover a wide range of genres. 

It targets Japanese teenagers and young adults with fast, action-packed stories featuring memorable superheroes and villains and usually dabbles in themes of adventure, action, thrill, and fighting.

It’s also guilty of relying on common tropes to attract its target audience. These often revolve around the protagonist’s youth, sense of friendship and loyalty, acquisition of or birth with special powers that set him apart from others, etc.

Osamu Tezuka is one of the key figures that brought Shōnen manga into the spotlight in Japan and abroad.

Osamu Tezuka’s Role in the Development of Modern Manga

Osamu Tezuka is often referred to as the “godfather of manga” and “Walt Disney of Japan” for his contributions to concretizing this medium into Japanese culture as a legitimate art form. 

Influenced by American comics such as those of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, he created his unique and distinct manga style after combining his American-born inspiration with traditional Japanese art styles, such as ukiyo-e wood prints.

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Osamu Tezuka, New Treasure Island (Shintakarajima), 1947, revised 1984. Image credits.

His work, “New Treasure Island,” published in 1947, is widely recognized as the first modern manga. However, he’s better known as the manga-ka behind Astro Boy,” published in 1952. Although he was famous for Shōnen manga, he was also comfortable creating Shōjo – manga for young girls.

The Golden Age of Manga: From the 60s to the 80s

Manga saw a significant increase in popularity during this period. It became an integral part of Japanese pop culture and a common entertainment medium for individuals of all ages. But this era differs from others for being a period of experimentation, growth, expansion, and artistic development.


With “Astro Boy” and “Doraemon” already widely recognized by the Japanese populace and tackling predictable science-fiction subjects, it was time for manga to evolve into more mature, realistic genres ideal for adults and niche audiences.

This era saw the development of several new genres and the inclusion of more controversial mangas in magazines, such as “Big Comic,” which was established in 1968. Let’s tell you more.

Jidō

Jidō is a genre of manga intended for kids just learning to read, and the most famous example is “Doraemon.” It emerged in the 1960s.

Shōjo

Shōjo manga targets young girls. In contrast to shōnen, they focus on more innocent themes such as romance, personal growth, and friendship instead of fighting. A famous example of a Shōjo is “Sailor Moon.

Seinen

Seinen manga is intended for older male audiences. They emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and often tackled more mature themes such as politics, war, violence, prostitution, etc. They also feature more complex storytelling. Some famous examples of seinen are “Vagabond” and “Berserk.”

Josei

Josei manga emerged in the 1980s, and they target older female audiences. It’s an introspective genre that delves into more mature themes that shed light on issues women struggle with, such as betrayal, love, femininity, insecurity, and sexuality. Some famous examples of josei include Paradise Kiss” and “Nana.”

Hentai

Hentai is a genre of manga that emerged in the 1980s. It features sexually explicit or pornographic content. Its name is taken from hentai seiyoku,” which means a “perverse sexual desire.” However, note that a niche audience consumes this genre, and it’s taboo in Japanese society. It’s not recommended for minors.

Of course, each of these genres contains several sub-genres that cater to the interests of more niche audiences. To sum it up, this era’s importance lies in its experimentation and creative expression, and many mangas created during it remain influential today. A great example is “Dragon Ball.”

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Dragon Ball Super Manga. Image credits.

Contemporary Manga: Its Evolution in the 21st Century

Due to technological advancements, manga saw a significant shift in how it was created and consumed in the 21st century. Although print remains a popular format, digital manga has become more accessible worldwide, thanks to the spread of smart devices.

Furthermore, the emergence of popular distribution platforms such as Crunchyroll and ComiXology enabled readers worldwide to access large libraries of manga that encompass countless genres and topics. This has allowed manga to become popular in countries where prints are unavailable or otherwise expensive.

Additionally, contemporary manga-kas have less to worry about in publishing. They no longer need to rely on draconic, traditional publishers and spend large amounts of money on their passion – self-publication of webcomics and manga has become possible thanks to websites such as Tapas and Webtoon.

Despite the challenges piracy and intellectual property rights pose, the manga industry remains a popular and beloved entertainment medium in our present time. Moreover, it continues to contribute significantly to Japan’s economy, surprisingly even more than anime does!

Leaving Japan: How Manga Became a Worldwide Sensation

Once it became an inseparable aspect of Japanese identity that contributed significantly to the country’s cultural, tourist, economic, and artistic heritage, manga went on to spread its arms outward to become enduringly popular among people of all ages and backgrounds around the world.

Several factors contributed to the popularization of manga outside of Japan. Let’s go back in time a little.

The restrictions placed during the U.S. occupation of Japan inhibited the creativity of manga-kas and the production and distribution of manga, which inevitably harmed the industry’s growth. As a result, manga was limited to the country’s borders during that period.

However, Japan sought to grow its economy and redefine its cultural identity once the U.S. was out of the way in 1952. The period after World War 2 saw what many call the “Japanese economic miracle” due to the rapid growth of the economy and the new wave of creativity and innovation in manga.

That innovation popularized manga enough to become a mainstream entertainment medium and a major contributor to the country’s economy. The next logical step was to introduce manga to foreign countries and monopolize the industry via the following:

Exports

Manga first gained recognition outside Japan in the 1970s when Japan began exporting it to other countries. To this day, manga exports still make up an impressive profit for the country.

Anime Adaptations

Once mangas started getting adapted into anime series broadcast on television networks in other countries, viewers were curious about the source material and consequently sought to get their hands on it, increasing the demand for manga.

Conventions

Anime and manga conventions are important cultural aspects surrounding the medium. They allow fans to meet like-minded people and industry experts to share their love for it and participate in various events, such as cosplay parties.

They also serve as a platform for artists, writers, and cosplayers to showcase their talent and get discovered by industry professionals. On top of that, they’re also a critical revenue source for the industry via merchandise booths and exclusive products.

Internet

The internet allowed like-minded manga fans to gather and express their love for the medium. What started as individuals casually chatting turned into large communities that spread awareness of manga worldwide. We can categorize the impact of the internet on manga into three areas:

Fan Communities

Fan communities are online communities dedicated to manga. These extend to Facebook groups, individual blogs, and famous websites, such as Reddit. Fans often write posts about a specific comic they’ve read and discuss its topics and influences with other users.

Scanlations

Although illegal, scanlations, or unauthorized translation and distribution of manga, played an important role in spreading awareness of manga worldwide. It’s the primary way manga lovers consume this medium in countries where the print is unavailable or expensive, and subscriptions are locked behind large paywalls.

But that’s not to say they’re a positive act. Unauthorized distribution of any artwork can significantly affect the way artists earn a living, as people will stop paying for the legal version and enjoy the illegal one instead.

Digital Distribution

Platforms such as Crunchyroll legally distribute and offer a large library of mangas of all genres via subscriptions. They made it even easier for people worldwide to access manga in their language, further popularizing it.

Manga’s Influence on Japanese Culture and Society

With it quickly growing and becoming an integral part of Japanese culture, manga has influenced several aspects of society. Let’s look at how it impacted some social institutions.

  • Education: Students find manga entertaining and engaging and use it to learn Japanese. Universities also use manga to teach students complicated subjects, including history, science, politics, and language. A great example is “Detective Conan (known as Case Closed abroad) – it’s rich with trivia.
  • Politics: More mature mangas often tackle enduring social issues and subjects of corruption, nepotism, environmentalism, and inequality. They help raise awareness among the Japanese populace and promote critical thinking and activism.
  • Economy: Manga has created thousands of jobs for artists, writers, editors, etc., and generated billions of revenue for the country through exports, broadcasting, and tourism.
  • Fashion: It’s common to see manga fans worldwide change to a style that matches their favorite characters.
  • Gaming: Manga inspired countless big-hit games, including the Dragon Ball, Naruto, and One Piece series.

Furthermore, it’s common to see manga and anime-related themes in other aspects of Japanese society, including advertising, daily conversations, design, and more.

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Okuha

Digital Artist

I’m a digital artist who is passionate about anime and manga art. My true artist journey pretty much started with CTRL+Z. When I experienced that and the limitless color choices and the number of tools I could use with art software, I was sold. Drawing digital anime art is the thing that makes me happy among eating cheeseburgers in between veggie meals.

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