Manga Studies #1: Introduction by Jaqueline Berndt

11 May

Manga [1] does not easily attract scholarly interest as comics. In the name of manga, the critical focus is usually less on sequential art but rather a certain illustration style or character design, and closely related, fannish engagement in transformative or derivative creations (dōjinshi), up to and including cosplay. In many cases, scholars turn to manga as an entry point for research on girls’ (shōjo) culture and female consumers, gender and sexuality, the subcultures of fujoshi (self-designated “rotten girls” engaged in Boys’ Love, or yaoi)[2] and otaku (geeks). Attempts at elucidating the peculiar role of the comics medium in that regard—for example, by focusing not only on “shōjo” but also “manga” when discussing shōjo manga [3] —remain a distinct minority whenever sociological and anthropological concerns prevail. Be it “fan culture,” “subculture” or “scene,” user communities are given preference over media specificity, texts and individual readings, at least outside of Japan. This applies especially to Japanese Studies, which is still the field yielding most manga research abroad. Here, manga is taken to represent, if not national culture in general, then Japanese popular culture, in the main understood as a youth culture with significant global impact and economic effects. Consequently, the utilization of manga as mere object appears to matter more than methodological diligence.[4] Whether subjected to symptomatic readings of social issues or to sophisticated critical theory, media-specific contexts and manga-related expertise tend to be neglected. This is as much due to specific institutional requirements as it is indicative of a lack within the institution, that is, the absence of a respective field of research and criticism.

In Japan, Manga Studies has seen its gradual institutionalization as a scholarly field since the 1990s.[5] In addition to data-rich surveys of manga history, for example by collector Shimizu Isao, and analyses of Tezuka Osamu’s accomplishments, prompted by his untimely passing in 1989,[6] the first systematic accounts of manga’s visual “grammar” appeared, with the intent to address not aspiring artists but readers and particularly those who seemed to underestimate manga as simple teenager entertainment. More or less intuitively leaning towards structural semiotics, critics such as Natsume Fusanosuke and Takekuma Kentarō catalogued the codes of Japanese graphic narratives (so-called story manga), from elements within the single panel (line work, pictograms, impact lines, sound effects, speech balloons, background patterns etc.) to panel arrangements on the double spread. Their seminal publication Manga no yomikata [How to read manga] (1995)[7] established a whole new current of manga criticism which has come to be called “manga hyōgenron.” While hyōgen signifies “expression” in the Japanese lexicon, and ron can mean “discourse” or even “theory,” a translation as “expression theory” is rather inadequate, as the term was coined not with expressionist painting or cinema in mind, but with the intention of deliberately avoiding any reference to the modern institution of Art. Thus, manga hyōgenron more closely equates to stylistics, or aesthetics in the narrow sense. Similar to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) and Thierry Groensteen’s Systéme de la bande dessinée (1999), the Japanese variant, too, has been criticized for disregarding media, market and historic change, yet it has been expanded accordingly in more recent years, for example, by Itō Gō (2005). But at the same time it is an irrefutable fact that the so-called formalist approach has contributed significantly to both the rise of manga’s cultural capital and the formation of a new academic field, which has become worthy of attention beyond the language barrier of Japanese. The monthly column launched here will certainly attest to this.

Manga Studies in Japan is presently underpinned by more than a dozen private universities which offer courses for training practitioners, complemented by a few theoretical lectures. Kyoto Seika University is the only one which runs a whole undergraduate department (established in 2006) as well as a stand-alone Graduate School of Manga with a greater focus on theory (master’s program since 2010, doctoral program since 2012). Manga Studies can also be pursued in non-vocational courses at two other colleges in Tokyo: Gakushūin University, where Natsume holds a chair, and Meiji University with former critic Fujimoto Yukari, a specialist in female manga genres, and manga historian Miyamoto Hirohito as academic supervisors. Together with the critics Ono Kōsei and Murakami Tomohiko, to name just the most prominent, professors like these serve on the board of the Japan Society for Studies in Cartoons and Comics (Nihon manga gakkai), an association with now approximately 300 members which has held annual conferences—and published an academic journal [8] —since its establishment in 2001. Other important pillars of Manga Studies in Japan are specialized facilities like the Kyoto International Manga Museum (since 2006) and the Yonezawa Yoshihiro Memorial Library of Manga and Subcultures (since 2009). These two are exceptional due to their close ties to universities: they are acknowledged as research institutions and eligible for government grants. Recently, the national Agency for Cultural Affairs has been stepping up efforts to pool the existing institutions in the form of an information hub and consortium. As part of this, a project to ‘map’ manga/comics studies inside and outside of Japan was launched in 2013 which has resulted in two reports so far.[9]

These reports name about fifty authors as crucial for Japanese-language Manga/Comics Studies, measured against their publications’ profile, that is, the extent to which they are referenced in university courses and essays. But while it is now a matter of fact that Manga Studies has established itself as an outright academic field, it still exhibits a number of particularities which impede its acceptance across cultures and disciplines. First of all, from the 1970s onwards, Japanese manga research has been advanced by critics, or columnists (as Natsume prefers to call himself), rather than by trained academics, and it did not actively address academia. Even today, this manifests itself in an inclination to highly allusive texts which do not explicate methodological premises or provide exacting and clearly elaborated argumentation, as if jotted down for an in-group of peers with a certain degree of familiarity.[10] Such writing does little to help students seeking to legitimize manga as an academic subject, instead reinforcing the prejudices of supervisors who are unfamiliar with the field. Nor does this type of writing necessarily lend itself well to direct translation into other languages. At the same time, however, the non-academic style poses a challenge to academism, beginning with the need to contextualize, something which actually applies to all types of text.

It goes without saying that the long-time insularity of manga research has been reinforced by the Japanese language, its lack of familiarity abroad, and a strong tendency towards domestic self-sufficiency. Once the domestic manga industry had reached maturity around 1970, and as long as its sales were increasing incrementally (that is, until the mid-1990s), only a few critics felt the need to look beyond the Japanese market and learn foreign languages. Manga Studies confined itself to comics made in Japan. Yet, even if it was unable to conduct intercultural comparison, the proverbial “frog in the well” remained aware of manga’s Other (American comics, Franco-Belgian bande dessinée). It did not aim for what seems to be a specifically Western aspiration, that is, “universal” theory.

Since the turn of the millennium, translated editions of American and European graphic narratives have increased, and they have succeeded to circulate as “comics” [komikku] instead of “picture books” [ehon] as has been the case with Hergé’s Tintin series.[11] Some have even come to receive awards in the manga division of the annual Media Arts Festival held by the national Agency for Cultural Affairs: Paco Roca’s Arrugas (Wrinkles, 2007) and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) in 2011, Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten’s Les Cités Obscures (Cities of the Fantastic, 1983-) in 2012. Manga critics Murakami Tomohiko and Itō Gō were among the jurors, in addition to manga artists such as Takemiya Keiko and Saitō Chiho. Their selection paid deference not only to the works as such, but also to the translators [12] implicitly calling for more cross-cultural attempts at Japanese-language comics research. Just as Comics Studies outside of Japan tends to limit itself to a specific body of works and a specific cultural tradition, so do most manga researchers in Japan refrain from incorporating non-Japanese language scholarship into discussions of manga, despite the fact that Thierry Groensteen’s monographs have seen translated editions, to name just the most prominent example. By tendency, the few Japanese scholars who are engaged in the study of non-Japanese comics exhibit a more open-minded attitude.[13] As early as 1998, Frederik L. Schodt’s essays on manga were made available to Japanese readers, and the same interest in foreigners’ perception of things Japanese gave rise to the concurrent translation of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. On a related point, it should be mentioned that Manga Studies in Japanese does not rest solely on Japanese nationals anymore (a fact which tends to be ignored occasionally in the name of cultural “authenticity”). By now, there is a significant number of non-Japanese researchers who are familiar with Japanese-language manga discourse, and it is not uncommon they are based in Japan.

In an attempt to explain the insularity of Japanese manga research, Odagiri Hiroshi has demonstrated how closely the disinterest in foreign comics was entwined with the omission of newspaper caricature and political satire from the notion of manga since the 1980s.[14] At the expense of “cartoons,” (everything not story manga) as a media for adults—and also avant-garde art—the newly emerging field of Manga Studies privileged large-scale, magazine-based graphic narratives à la Tezuka which saw their advent as entertaining fiction for children, but became heavily reliant on teenagers for the industry’s high tide in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, children’s comics (kodomo manga) do not surface in Manga Studies anymore although they still exist. Another significant desideratum is the study of caricatures/cartoons and, more generally, of counter-hegemonic voices in and about manga. The popular “queering” of straight characters by mainly female users (in the form of Boys’ Love, or yaoi) deserves attention in that regard. If textual analysis takes center stage, style is usually scrutinized in separation from both narrative form and content, forestalling the discussion of larger ideological and social issues. In part, this seems to mirror the shift of bias in manga practice itself: from story- (and author-) centered interest to focusing on transmedia movements of characters and non-narrative, game-like usages.

Whereas English-language Comics Studies seems to be at home largely within the disciplines of literature, film studies and history, Japanese-language Manga Studies exhibits a strong inclination towards Media Studies, although not necessarily media theory, or transmedia narratology. Conceived primarily as magazine-based by the majority of Japanese researchers, manga is defined as a media in the sense of a set of practices which interrelate artists, editors and readers, and are tied but not limited to technical medium and the cultural industry. These practices and their institutional frameworks—age- and gender-related genres to begin with—have affected manga aesthetics to such an extent that researchers consider contextualization according to publication site and format often more important than author and artist (depending on name value, of course). While foreign fan critics tend to praise the diversity of manga’s stories, Japanese manga researchers accentuate, first of all, media-related diversity, pertaining to newspaper, and increasingly digital, cartoons, magazine serializations, book editions, fanzines and so on. Some even hesitate to speak of manga in a generalized way.

Media-related concern holds true for all branches of recent Japanese-language Manga Studies, namely the following five: stylistics, discourse history, gender-specific genres (with a special emphasis on female modes of address and readership), globalization (with the main focus on proliferation and localization of Japanese comics abroad, but including also manga not made in Japan or by Japanese), and manga museums (not motivated by legitimization efforts anymore, but rather practical requirements). Historiography dedicated to the pre-1970 decades is not rated highly among younger researchers, although much remains to be done, as becomes clear if we look at gekiga, which is generally agreed to be crucial for postwar manga history but remains to a large extent virgin territory in terms of scholarship. Even more pressing is the need for investigations of the manga industry, the magazines that form its backbone and their editors, especially now as the whole business model is at a fundamental turning point due to digitalization as well as media mix [15] strategies which call manga’s very specificity into question. Webcomics—as both a new form of circulation and a new aesthetic genre—have not been analyzed by scholars either.

This column sets out to introduce key texts from Japanese (as Japanese-language, and Japan-based) Manga Studies and representative positions therein, followed by overviews of dominant as well as underrepresented themes. Comparative approaches related to both comics and academic cultures shall be promoted, wherever possible in relation to transcultural issues. Accordingly, the notion of Manga Studies employed here will not be limited to Japan, neither with respect to subject (manga, manhua, manhwa, etc.) nor researchers’ backgrounds or locations. Cross-cultural comments are welcome, as are multiple contributions on the same subject. Please contact me at if you have a proposal for an article. In next month’s column, Ronald Stewart (Hiroshima) will discuss the use of the word manga in modern Japan and the implications this has when thinking about manga history, by focusing on the writings of Kitazawa Rakuten, Japan’s first modern manga professional. After that, Jessica Sugimoto-Bauwens (Kyoto) shall review recent Japanese research on BL manga, before CJ Suzuki (New York) highlights Ishiko Junzō, one of the forerunners of present Manga Studies in the 1960s, and Nicholas Theisen (Iowa City) discusses Takeuchi Osamu and the formalism/historiography overlap.

Works Cited

Allen, Matthew and Rumi Sakamoto, eds, 2014. Japanese Popular Culture, 4 vols, Routledge (forthcoming).

Berndt, Jaqueline, 2008. “Considering Manga Discourse: Location, Ambiguity, Historicity,” in Mark MacWilliams, ed., Japanese Visual Culture, Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, pp. 351-369.

Berndt, Jaqueline, Koide, Masashi, and Yoshimura, Kazuma, 2013. Report of Manga and Animation Research Mapping Project FY 2012 (bilingual, Jap. and En.),

Fujimoto, Yukari, 2013. “Women in ‘Naruto,’ Women Reading ‘Naruto’,” Jaqueline Berndt, and Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer, eds, Manga’s Cultural Crossroads, Routledge, pp. 172-191.

Furunaga, Shin’ichi, 2010. BD, dai-9 geijutsu,Tokyo: Michiya.

Galbraith, Patrick W., 2011. “Fujoshi: Fantasy Play and Transgressive Intimacy among ‘Rotten Girls’ in Contemporary Japan.” Signs. Journal of Women in Culture & Society, 37 (1): 211–232.

Groensteen, Thierry.
—2008. Sen ga kao nin naru toku: bando deshine to gurafikku āto (Lignes de Vie: Le visage dessiné, 2003), transl. Furunaga Shin’ichi, Tokyo: Jinbun shoin.
—2009. Manga no shisutemu: koma wa naze monogatari ni naru noka (Systéme de la bande dessinée, 1999), transl. Noda Kensuke, Tokyo: Seidosha.
—2014, with Benoît Peeters.
Tepufēru: manga no hatsumei (Töpffer, l’invention de la bande dessinée, 1994), transl. Furunaga Shin’ichi, Hara Masato, Morita Naoko, Tokyo: Hōsei University Press.

Itō, Gō,
—2005. Tezuka izu deddo: Hirakareta manga hyōgenron e [Tezuka is dead: Towards an open manga stylistics], Tokyo: NTT.
—2011. “Tezuka is Dead: Manga in Transformation and its Dysfunctional Discourse,” Mechademia 6: 69-83.

Iwashita, Hōsei, 2013. Shōjo manga no hyōgen kikō: Hirakareta manga hyōgenshi to “Tezuka Osamu” [Aesthetic mechanisms of shōjo manga: An open-minded history of manga aesthetics, related to the imagined role of Tezuka Osamu], Tokyo: NTT Shuppan.

McCloud, Scott, 1998. Mangagaku: Manga ni yoru manga no tame no manga riron (Understanding comics, the invisible art, 1993), translation supervised by Okada Toshio, Bijutsu shuppansha.

Miyamoto Hirohito, 2011. “How Characters Stand Out,” transl. Thomas LaMarre, Mechademia 6: 84-92

Mizoguchi, Akiko, 2010. “Theorizing the comics/manga genre as a productive forum: Yaoi and beyond,” in J. Berndt, ed., Comics Worlds and the World of Comics, imrc, pp. 143-168 (

Murakami, Tomohiko, 1998. Manga kaitai shinsho: Tezuka Osamu no inai hibi no tame ni [Deconstructing Manga: For the time without Tezuka Osamu], Tokyo: Seikūsha.

Natsume, Fusanosuke,
—1992. Tezuka Osamu wa doko ni iru [Where is Tezuka Osamu], Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.
—1995. Tezuka Osamu no bōken [The adventures of Tezuka Osamu], Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.
—2008. “Manga: Komatopia”, transl. Margherita Long, introduction by Hajime Nakatani, Mechademia 3: 65-74.
—2010. “Pictotext and panels: commonalities and differences in manga, comics and BD,” J. Berndt, ed., Comics Worlds and the World of Comics, Kyoto: International Manga Research Center, pp. 37–52

Natsume, Fusanosuke, Takekuma, Kentarō, 1995. Manga no yomikata [How to read manga], Tokyo: Takarajimasha.

Odagiri, Hiroshi.
—2007. Sensō wa ikani manga o kaeru ka? Amerikan komikkusu no henbō [How does war change comics? The transformation of American comics], Tokyo: NTT.
—2010a. “Manga truisms: On the insularity of Japanese manga discourse,” in J. Berndt, ed., Comics Worlds and the World of Comics, Kyoto: International Manga Research Center, pp. 53-64 (
—2010b. Kyarakutā to wa nani ka [What are characters?], Chikuma Shinsho.

Ono, Kōsei
—2005. Amerikan komikkusu taizen [Compendium on American comics], Tokyo: Shōbunsha.
—2011. Sekai komikkusu no sōzōryoku: Gurafikku noveru no bōken [The imaginary power of world comics: The adventures of graphic novels], Tokyo: Seidosha.

Ōtsuka Eiji
—2008. “Disarming Atom: Tezuka Osamu’s Manga at War and Peace”, transl. Thomas LaMarre, Mechademia 3: 111-126.
—2010. “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative”, transl. and with an introduction by Marc Steinberg, Mechademia 5: 98-117.

Schodt, Frederik L., 1998. Nippon mangaron: Nihon manga ni hamatta amerikajin no nekketsu mangaron (Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, 1996), transl. Higuchi Ayako, Tokyo: Maar.

Takeuchi Osamu, 1992. Tezuka Osamu ron [On Tezuka Osamu], Tokyo: Heibonsha.

Welker, James, 2006. “Beautiful, Borrowed, and Bent: ‘Boys’ Love” as Girls’ Love in Shōjo Manga,” Signs. Journal of Women in Culture & Society, 31 (3): 841-870.

Jaqueline Berndt is full professor in Comics/Manga Studies at the Graduate School of Manga, Kyoto Seika University, Japan, and deputy director of the International Manga Research Center (imrc), located at the Kyoto International Manga Museum. Holding a first degree in Japanese Studies and a Ph.D in Aesthetics from Humboldt University Berlin, she focuses now on Manga/Comics Studies (manga and ‘”Art,” comics as transcultural media, manga’s post/critical role in both affective communities and society at large), anime research, “Art” as discourse and institution in modern Japan. A founding member of the Japan Society for the Study of Cartoons and Comics (Nihon manga gakkai) in 2001, she serves now again on its board. Dr Berndt authored the first comprehensive monograph on manga in German, Phänomen Manga (Berlin 1995, Spanish transl. 1996). Her Japanese publications include a monograph on manga as visual culture (1994), an edited collection on manga aesthetics (2002) and a special issue of an art-historical journal on manga and art (2011), her publications in English the co-edited volumes Reading Manga (Leipzig UP 2006) and Manga’s Cultural Crossroads (Routledge 2013). For the imrc she has organized annual international conferences since 2009 and edited the subsequent essay collections, beginning with Comics Worlds and the World of Comics (Kyoto 2010; Engl. & Jap.: The 6th conference is co-organized with the University of Wollongong (

[1] – This column follows Japanese-Studies custom with respect to the Romanization of Japanese words, including the waiving of the plural suffix (‘s’) for Japanese nouns. Japanese names are given in the Japanese order, surname preceding first name without separation by comma except in the Works Cited list.

[2] – For definitions see Welker 2006, Galbraith 2011, Fujimoto 2013, Mizoguchi 2010.

[3] – Iwashita 2013.

[4] – Highly indicative of that tendency are the manga-related sections in Allen and Sakamoto, eds, 2014 (forthcoming).

[5] – For a brief historical outline see Berndt 2008: 302-306, and Odagiri 2010a.

[6] – The most representative, and influential, monographs were Takeuchi 1992, Natsume 1992, Natsume 1995.

[7] – For articles in English see Natsume 2008, Natsume 2010.

[8] – Titled Manga Kenkyū [Manga Studies]. 20 issues so far, in recent years, one per annum. In Japanese only (

[9] – Berndt, Koide and Yoshimura 2013. The second report is scheduled to go online in late May 2014.

[10] – Representative are Itō Gō, and Ōtsuka Eiji. See the few translated essays in Mechademia, (ed. by Frenchy Lunning, University of Minnesota Press, 2006-), the “Annual Forum for Manga, Anime and the Fan Arts,” which has rendered significant services to introducing Japanese voices in English.

[11] – ShoPro books, a joint venture of publishers Shōgakukan and Shūeisha, has been the forerunner in that regard ( In Japanese, the Anglicism komikku, or komikkusu, denotes mostly a specific publication format (book [tankōbon] edition instead of magazine serialization, for domestic productions) and non-Japanese origin, or comics style. For the use of “manga” as a Japanese equivalent to “comics” see the titles of Odagiri 2007, Groensteen 2009, 2014.

[12] – Outstanding: Ono Kōsei (English) and Hara Masato (French).

[13] – One of these exceptions is Odagiri Hiroshi, specialized in North American comics, from the superhero genre to alternative productions, as, for example, his 2010 monograph demonstrates.

[14] – Odagiri 2010a.

[15] – The Japanese equivalent to American “media convergences.”


Posted by on 2014/05/11 in Guest Writers, Manga Studies


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