Manga Studies #10: What are you reading? Approaches and reasons for looking at language in manga by Giancarla Unser-Schutz

24 Nov


As a fan of manga outside of Japan, there comes a time when one is no longer able to stand waiting for translated editions. Perhaps you search online for scanlations, or head out to your local Japanese bookstore to buy them in the original. Needless to say, taking the latter choice draws its own new problems, primarily being how to read the text, whether by taking Japanese language classes or studying on one’s own. In both cases, it can be the beginning of a long, sometimes frustrating but always exciting journey in acquiring a new language. In full honesty, this is not a general story, but rather my story—and perhaps many readers’ too. While I did not start reading manga anticipating learning Japanese at the time, let alone having it as a specific goal, it would not be an underestimation to say that the linguistic elements of manga quickly became one of the most important aspects for me as a reader.

However, while language skills are clearly a crucial part of reading manga, there is a tendency to underestimate its linguistic side. Pressed to define manga, most people would probably mention their visual side, but it is less certain how many would stress the role of language. While it is hard to find examples as extreme as McCloud (1994), who subordinated language to the visual in comics by reevaluating language as a visual element because it appears as written text, stressing manga’s visual aspects appears to be a deep-rooted tendency in critical evaluations. As Saika (2013, 197–199) notes, post-war criticism of akahon (red-book) manga—cheap manga books popular in the post-war period influential in the development of today’s story-manga—amongst manga artists such as Shimizu Kon, Kondō Hidezō and Yokoyama Ryōichi focused on the lack of artistic skills found in akahon and their overuse of linguistic elements, picking up critical themes brought up in the 1930s by the manga artist Kitazawa Rakuten.

Yet, the linguistic elements of manga are clearly important to the reading experience, for both non-native and native speakers alike: after all, native speakers also need to gain the skills necessary for processing manga. In reality, there are many reasons to think that language is a very important part of modern manga, and below I will review four different approaches and reasons for focusing on language in manga: the role of language in the development of modern story manga, popular perception of manga’s influence on language, manga’s usefulness as a resource for linguistic research, and tying it back up, the use of manga in Japanese language study.

Approaches to language in manga
1. Language had an important role in the development of modern story manga

First, language appears to be crucial in enabling the complexity of story-oriented manga. According to Takeuchi (2005), language in manga used to be redundant in nature. However, starting in the post-war period, language increasingly came to complement the pictures by adding information not directly expressed in the images. Thus, where previously a drawing of a boy fishing might have been accompanied by the line “I’m fishing,” in later manga, the line would only indirectly describe the action, such as “my mom makes great fried fish.” This move away from redundancy is significant because it allows for juxtaposition between drawings and written text, one of the most important characteristics of comics by some accounts (Harvey 2001). It also has an impact on manga’s readability. Upon showing students of English as a second language the same comic with different verbal components, Liu (2004) found that while comics whose verbal components were more difficult—and thus less strongly linked to their visual component—somewhat helped beginner students, they were actually harder to interpret for advanced students than the text presented alone, suggesting that images may present conflicting information. By inference, the non-redundancy of language in manga suggests that they can be difficult to process, which would go against popular discourse: as Ikegami (2013) has noted, the idea that manga are easy to read is deeply rooted, even though manga literacy requires intense exposure.

Language also appears to have played an important role in the development of the shōjo manga genre. It is generally argued that shōjo manga came into itself in the mid-1970s and early 1980s with the so-called Magnificent 49ers (Hana no 24nen gumi). Interestingly, both Ōtsuka (1994) and Takeuchi (2005) have pointed out how the shōjo manga from this time period began to use text in very unusual ways, particularly in that it often used written text outside speech bubbles. Floating through the drawings, such written text appeared like a poem or monologue, leading to a multiplicity of voices and acting as a window into characters’ inner selves. While it appears these kinds of written texts as a strictly-shōjo manga characteristic has decreased (as a result of increased intertextuality between shōjo manga and shōnen manga and the apparent difficulty of their reading for some (Ōtsuka 1994)), some of these differences do still exist, if in somewhat different forms: in my research, I have found that shōjo manga seems to use more handwritten, out-of-speech-bubble, non-onomatopoeic language, which appears to also create a multiplicity of voices and intimacy to the text (Unser-Schutz 2011).

2. Manga are popularly viewed as influential on language

The general public also appears to approach manga as verbal texts. Readers find inspiration in their words, demonstrated by the plethora of books collecting manga sayings, such as They’ll Change Your Life! 1,000 Great Sayings from Manga (Nihon Hakushiki Kenkyūjo 2012) and the five-volume Manga Sayings to the Heart (Gakken Kyōiku Shuppan 2014). Manga consistently rank at the top of influential things on young people’s speech in surveys by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs (2015a), with 45% of respondents in 2015. Yet the manga-are-easy discourse re-emerges as a problem, as clear from parents’ many posts on advice sites, from the mother worried about her child’s grades on the child-rearing site PapiMami (sarah 2015) to the parent who wants their child to read books other than manga on Yahoo! Chiebukuro, the Japanese Yahoo! Questions (Anonymous user 2005).

This perception licenses making manga the scapegoat for many linguistic ‘ailments’: one example is the use of the masculine first-person pronouns boku and ore by young women, for which manga are often blamed, as in Endō’s (2001) survey results amongst female college students and Nakamura (2007), who found similar anecdotes amongst elementary students. Of course, popular opinion is not fully reliable; young readers do appear to read manga more than non-manga books, at a little over 30 minutes per day (Cabinet Office 2007), but only 2.6% of people only read manga, whereas 54.1% read both manga and non-manga books, suggesting they do not replace other types of books (Agency for Cultural Affairs 2015b). There are hints that popular perception is increasingly positive; advice doled out by professionals is not necessarily negative, as in the response given to the parent worried about grades above. As I discuss in Unser-Schutz (2015), the role of manga in language change is also not very well established, and probably does not warrant the concern it receives. Yet, given the impact that these assumptions have on the discourse surrounding manga reading, they are still pertinent points for anyone interested in the social perception of manga.

3. Manga’s characteristics make them a unique resource for linguistic research

How manga are perceived ties into questions of language attitudes and folk linguistics, making manga a prime source for these issues, but manga are a prime resource for linguistic research for other reasons as well. Because different types of text are presented as visually different to clarify their roles, manga can be a resource for examining how language is used in different contexts. Research on onomatopoeia—words imitative of or mimicking real sounds—has particularly flourished. There are few contexts where onomatopoeia would be used as creatively and frequently as they are in comics; research such as Inoue’s (2009) have picked up on this by examining the formation of onomatopoeic neologisms, and manga have also been useful for cross-linguistic comparisons and translation research on onomatopoeia (Fujimura 2012; Inose 2010; Kawasaki 2006; Mizuno 2003; Takahashi 2006).

The most popular topic on language in manga in recent years is likely yakuwari-go or ‘role language’. Kinsui (2003, 205) defined yakuwari-go as the kinds of speech used “when one can recall a particular image of a person . . . upon hearing a particular style of speech . . ., or when given an image of a particular person one can recall a style of speech that it would seem they would very likely use . . . .”—that is, stereotyped speech associated with given images or types of people. While stereotyped speech has long been a topic in the field of stylistics, naming the phenomenon has given a new focus to the topic, and yakuwari-go appear to be especially important to manga: Kinsui (2007b, 98) himself has claimed that manga would not be without it. Since the term’s coinage, a flurry of research has come out; in addition to two volumes edited by Kinsui (2007a; 2011), there have been 64 articles dealing with yakuwari-go since 2001 on Ci.Nii, the research database run by the Japanese National Institute of Informatics. While they do not all have to do with manga, many do; like onomatopoeia, cross-linguistic comparisons are common themes, such as Jung (2005), who showed that the elements used in creating stereotypical speech are different in Japanese and Korean. While the problematic discourse on manga’s easiness may have led some to be hesitant to look at its language, the volume of research coming out on yakuwari-go clearly establishes manga’s potential as a linguistic resource.

4. Manga are increasingly used as a resource for Japanese language learning

Finally, manga are clearly an important motivation for many students of Japanese, with up to 80% choosing to study it because of an interest in manga and/or anime (Kumano 2010). It has also been suggested that students get into them easily (Okazaki 1993) and that the familiarity students have with manga can encourage student engagement (Murakami 2008). This is one of the few contexts where manga’s presumed easiness is viewed positively; it has been suggested that the visual aspects of manga can offer clarifying information to make characters’ relationships, situations, and grammatical structures easier for readers to understand (Kaneko 2008, Murakami 2008), making them ideal for non-native speakers in need of help interpreting.

Of course, as Liu’s (2004) research has shown, this assumption may not be well-formed, pointing to the need for more data-based research on the use of language in manga. Chinami (2015), who reviews the characteristics of manga in terms of Japanese language education, specifically notes three problems that need to be dealt with: selection of appropriate series, both in terms of student interest and applicability to language study; sufficient linguistic research and series analysis; and the creation of appropriate classwork. Practical ways to use manga are especially crucial, and there have been some proposals, such as Hongo (2007), who examined a back-translation task to engage with context, and several proposals have focused on the use of manga to examine viewpoint and expressions in narrative contexts (Takemura 2010; Tanapat 2013; Tawarayama 2013). There has also been some development of open resources like, a website created by the Japan Foundation Japanese-Language Institute, Kansai (2010) based on Kumano’s and her team’s research. aims not just to teach Japanese through manga, but also to help readers study language specific to manga, such as yakuwari-go by character types. By presenting practical applications for topics such as yakuwari-go, efforts like these present themselves as one of the final products of the research conducted on the characteristics of language in manga, offering an important outlet for the knowledge thus gained.


As should be clear by now, there are many reasons to look at language in manga, and just as many possible ways to approach them; naturally, not all of the possibilities have been laid out here, either. As hinted at earlier, the use of language in manga is closely tied to manga literacy and the skills needed to be a competent manga reader. The relationship between text and image is also a topic worthy of its own article and cuts across many of the issues brought up above, from the development of linguistic elements in manga to yakuwari-go. There is a vast range of possibilities when taking up language as a topic for manga research, any of which would contribute to our understanding of manga as a medium and manga in society. If there is anything critical to say, it is that precisely because research on language in manga can be conducted in so many different ways and with so many different goals, there sometimes seems to be a lack of communication between the different fields. In the future, attempts to further and more comprehensively integrate the ways that language can be approached in manga and draw out connections between the different topics would be particularly useful.


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Giancarla Unser-Schutz is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Psychology at Rissho University, Japan. She earned her PhD at Hitotsubashi University in Japan in sociology. Her research focuses on the role and characteristics of language in manga, using quantitative data from a corpus of popular series. She has particularly analyzed (1) the structural characteristics of language in manga, (2) the lexical and orthographic makeup of manga, and (3) characterization through linguistic patterns. Comments and feedback are always appreciated at

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Posted by on 2015/11/24 in Guest Writers, Manga Studies


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