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


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 others 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.


Anonymous user. 2005. “Kodomo ni dokusho o sasetai no desu ga, manga bakari yondeimasu.Yahoo! Chiebukuro. March 15.

Cabinet Office Director-General for Policy Planning. 2007. “Daigokai jōhōka-shakai to seishōnen ni kansuru ishiki-chōsa hōkokusho.” Cabinet Office, Government of Japan. December.

Chinami, Kyōko. 2005. “Manga de manabu nihongo: Manga o tsukatta nihongo-kyōiku no kanōsei.” In Manga Kenkyū e no Tobira, edited by Kusaka Midori, 133–53. Fukuoka: Azusa-shoin.

Endō, Orie. 2001. “Onna no ko no ‘boku/ore’ wa okashikunai.” In Onna to Kotoba: Onna wa Kawatta ka, Nihongo wa Kawatta ka, edited by Orie Endō, 30–39. Tokyo: Meiji-shoten.

Fujimura, Noriko. 2012 “Oto no nai oto o moji ni suru koto no jiremma: Manga ni okeru gitaigo-hyōgen no bunseki kara.” Bunka Kankyō Kenkyū 6 (March): 62–71.

Gakken Kyōiku Shuppan. 2014. Kokoro ni Hibiku Manga no Meigen Zengoshū. Tokyo: Gakken Kyōiku Shuppan.

Harvey, Robert C. 2001. “Comedy at the juncture of word and image: The emergence of the modern magazine gag cartoon reveals the vital blend.” In The Language of Comics: Word and Image, edited by Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons, 75–96. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Hongo, Tomoko. 2007. “Nihongo no hanashi-kotoba no tokuchō o gakushūsha ni dō kizukaseru ka: 4-koma manga no einichi-honyaku purosesu o katsuyō shite.” Nihongo Kyōiku Hōhō Henkyū Kaishi 14(2), 58–59.

Ikegami, Satoru. 2013. “Manga o yomu to iu keiken: Manga tekisuto no kaishaku tetsuzuki ni miru rikai no tassei.” In Manga Janru-Sutadīzu, edited by Ibaragi Masaharu, 220–58. Kyoto: Rinsen Book Co.

Inose, Hiroko. 2010. “Manga ni miru giongo/gitaigo no hon’yaku-shuhō.” Hon’yaku Tsūyaku Kenkyū (10): 161–76.

Inoue, Kazuko. 2009. “Manga ni okeru nihongo onomatope no shin ‘kōzō-hyōgen’.” Ōsaka Daigaku Gengo Bunkagaku (18): 69–85.

Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs. 2015a. “Heisei 26-nendo ‘Kokugo ni Kansuru Yoron Chōsa’ no kekka ni tsuite.” October 20.

Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs. 2015b. “Heisei 20-nendo ‘Kokugo ni Kansuru Yoron Chōsa’ no kekka ni tsuite.” October 20.

Japan Foundation Japanese-Language Institute, Kansai. 2010. “Outline: About anime/manga no nihongo.” Japanese in Anime & Manga.

Jung, Hyeseon. 2005. “Nihongo to kankokugo no yakuwari-go no taishō: Taiyaku-sakuhin kara miru honyaku-jō no mondai o chūshin ni.” Shakai Gengo Kagaku 8(1): 82-92.

Kaneko, Shirō. 2008. “Jissen! Manga kyōzai o tsukatta jugyō.” Gekkan Nihongo 21(5): 28.

Kawasaki, Kayo. 2006. “Nihon no manga no supeingo-yaku ni okeru giongo/gitaigo no hyōgen-bunseki (nihongo-kyōiku ni mukete).Lingua 17 (November): 105–23.

Kinsui, Satoshi. 2003. Vācharu Nihongo: Yakuwari-go no Nazo. Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten.

Kinsui, Satoshi (editor). 2007a. Yakuwari-go Kenkyū no Chihei. Tokyo: Kurosio Publishers.

Kinsui, Satoshi. 2007b. “Kindai nihon manga no gengo.” In Yakuwari-go Kenkyū no Chihei, edited by Kinsui Satoshi, 97–108. Tokyo: Kurosio Publishers.

Kinsui, Satoshi (editor). 2011. Yakuwari-go Kenkyū no Tenkai. Tokyo: Kurosio Publishers.

Kumano, Nanae. 2010. “Nihongo-gakushūsha to anime/manga.” Hiroshima Daigaku Ryūgakusei Sentā Kiyō (20): 89–103.

Liu, Jun. 2004. “Effects of comic strips on L2 learners’ reading comprehension.” TESOL Quarterly 38(2): 225–43.

McCloud, Scott. 1994. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Paperbacks.

Mizuno, Ayu. 2003. “Nihongo to chūgokugo ni okeru onomatope ni tsuite: Honyaku manga no hikaku kara.” Gengo to Kōryū (6): 129–47.

Murakami, Yoshifumi. 2008. “Manga kyōzai no meritto/demeritto.” Gekkan Nihongo 21 (5): 27.

Nakamura, Momoko. 2007. ‘Sei’ to Nihongo: Kotoba ga Tsukuru Onna to Otoko. Tokyo: NHK Publishing, Inc.

Nihon Hakushiki Kenkyūjo. 2012. Jinsei o Kaeru! Manga meigen 1000. Tokyo: Takarajimasha.

Ōtsuka, Eiji. 1994. Sengo-Manga no Hyōgen Kūkan: Kigōteki Shintai no Jubaku. Kyoto: Hōzōkan.

Saika, Tadahiro. 2013. “‘Manga’ o kaku koto to ‘manga-ka’: Shokugyō toshite no ‘manga-ka’-zō o megutte.” In Manga Janru-Sutadīzu, edited by Ibaragi Masaharu, 192–219. Kyoto: Rinsen Book Co.

sarah. 2015. “Seiseki ga sagaranai ka shimpai! Manga-bon bakari yomu kodomo e no eikyō to wa?” PapiMami. October 20.

Takahashi, Michiko. 2006. Manga ni okeru warai no onomatope no eiyaku.” Tōkyō Denki Daigaku Sōgō Bunka Kenkyū (4): 147–50.

Takemura, Miwa. 2010. “Nihongo-bogowasha to chūgokujin nihongo-gakushūsha no danwa ni mirareru shiza: Pāsonaru-narativu to manga byōsha no hikaku.” Hiroshima Daigaku Daigakuin Kyōikugaku-Kenkyūka Kiyō Dainibu Bunka-Kyōiku Kaihatsu Kanren Ryōiki (59): 289-298.

Takeuchi, Osamu. 2005. Manga Hyōgengaku Nyūmon. Tokyo: Chikuma shobo.

Tanapat, Raruaisong. 2013. “Tai nihongo-gakushūsha ni okeru shiten hyōgen no shiyō ni kansuru bunseki: 10-koma manga no byōsha o tōshite.” Nihongo Kyōiku Hōhō Kenkyū Kaishi 20(1), 58-59.

Tawarayama, Yuji. 2013. “Katari no shūketsubu no gengoteki-tokuchō: Nihongo bogowasha/hibogowasha ni yoru 4-koma manga no naiyō o tsutaeru katari kara.” Gunma Daigaku Kokusai-Kyōiku/Kenkyū Sentā Ronshū (12): 59–70.

Unser-Schutz, Giancarla. 2011. “Language as the visual: Exploring the intersection of linguistic and visual language in manga.” Image&Narrative 12(1): 167–88.

Unser-Schutz, Giancarla. 2015. “Influential or influenced?: The relationship between genre, gender and language in manga.” Gender & Language 9(2): 223–254.


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 Manga Studies, Uncategorized


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The Bi-Monthly ComFor Update for October 2015 by Nina Heindl

After Lukas deviated from our usual look back on the last two months of German activities regarding comics and outrageously announced diverse activities in September and October (yes, Lukas, this was cheating!) we would like to recommend the rereading of Lukas’ column and add some updates on events that have not been mentioned yet.

First of all our annual ComFor conference entitled “History in Comics – History of Comics” was held at the University of Frankfurt/M. from September 4 to 6. Although we are excited about each annual meeting, this year’s get-together was a special one: the ComFor celebrated its 10th anniversary. With a record high of 17 panels and roughly 50 talks in three days, the annual meeting in Frankfurt was one of the largest ComFor conferences so far. The four keynotes by Anne Magnussen (University of Southern Denmark, Odense), Stephan Packard (Freiburg), Dietrich Grünewald (Reiskirchen), and Christina Gundermann (Köln) at the beginning set the tone for a conference full of thought-provoking talks, controversial debates, and inspiring conversations among fellow comics scholars.

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Posted by on 2015/10/21 in ComFor Updates



The Bi-Monthly ComFor Update for August 2015 by Lukas R. A. Wilde

It feels a bit like cheating for me to write this column, taking turns for our bi-monthly ComFor updates on German comics scholarship. July and August have been comparably quiet, due to what must be a holiday breeze, but a regular storm of conferences, festivals and events appears to be looming on the horizon. So consider this more of a teaser trailer for September and October – and most of all for the ComFor’s own annual conference on History in Comics – History of Comics in Frankfurt/M. from September 4–6 (more about that later).

First, as a quick follow-up to Laura Oehme’s last column, and the news about the successful funding of a research cooperation between the University of Paderborn and the University of Potsdam on the subject of Hybrid Narrativity: the research group, combining approaches from the cognitive sciences, digital humanities and narratology, remains prominent in the German spotlight. One of the founders, Alexander Dunst, recently gave a lecture on the topic of Reading Comics – Contributions of Empirical Humanities at the University of Göttingen to present some preliminary results already. There have been some discussions of the project from outside academia as well (notably within regular newspaper columns and in online discussion groups), asking for more information about the aims and methods of the project than can be found on the public website of the group. An extensive and very informative (albeit German-language) interview with Dr. Dunst was published on Christian Meiwald’s comics-newsblog Dreimalalles, while Hybrid Narrativity-member Oliver Moisich of Paderborn University composed a short (Geman-language) project introduction for the ComFor. Since it is sometimes compared to (or contrasted with) Bart Beaty, Benjamin Woo and Nick Sousanis’ What Were Comics? by the University of Calgary and Carleton University, the ComFor editorial board followed up with a short interview with Bart Beaty (in English), in which he explains more about the backgrounds of, and possible connections between, both approaches. On a further note, the Hybrid Narrativity group will be organizing a Master Class with renowned media scholar Lev Manovich in Potsdam on September 23, doubtless deepening these discussions.

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Posted by on 2015/08/25 in ComFor Updates



Manga Studies #9: Studying Garo, the magazine by Léopold Dahan

The monthly manga magazine Garo (published by Seirindō 1964–2002) has gained a certain visibility outside of Japan throughout the past few years: more and more of its authors have been translated and recognized, exhibitions are being held [1] and articles released, even in non-specialized magazines.[2] While Garo authors and their work attract increasing attention outside of Japan, the magazine itself doesn’t seem to be a popular topic within manga studies despite – or precisely because of – its link to the so-called “alternative manga” (Asagawa 2015), the 1960s counterculture, the rise of a new readership and its role as an aesthetic forerunner during its first decade of existence. Bearing this in mind, this column will try to give an overview of the sources currently available on the magazine itself, identify those which can be used as proper academic references and demonstrate the possibilities afforded by studying the magazine itself, going beyond the focus on its authors.

As one begins to make preparatory research on Garo, the first thing that becomes evident is, aside from a few anthologies or anniversary publications,[3] there is a lack of books dedicated to the magazine itself, whether in Japanese or Western languages. There does not even exist a contextualization of the magazine within postwar manga culture. So, where to begin studying the magazine itself? Apparently, by consulting non-Japanese sources. Béatrice Maréchal was one of the first to have taken an academic approach to Garo and several of its representative authors. Her article “Garo, magazine rebelle” published in Angoulême’s magazine 9e Art (2004) and her essay on one of the most well-known Garo authors, Tsuge Yoshiharu,[4] in a special issue of The Comics Journal (2005) were pioneering works in which she compared the Garo authors to the watakushi shōsetsu (“I-Novel”) of modern Japanese literature. Maréchal has not produced academic work since shortly after the defence of her PhD thesis, “Myself as in oneself: narrating the self in comics – The Japanese founders” in 2005, but Ryan Holmberg, an art historian, who chose Garo for his PhD (2007), is still writing about related issues, for example in his column for The Comics Journal Online, “What was alternative manga?”. Another non-Japanese researcher worthy of note is anthropologist Tom Gill. Due to his professional interest in outsiders in Japanese society, he has published a number of meticulously researched essays on Garo authors, especially Tsuge Yoshiharu, following in Maréchal’s footsteps (Gill 2011a, 2011b, 2014). The work of these three critics provides a good jumping-off point for academic endeavors, but there also exist a limited number of Japanese publications.

The keyword “Garo” only shows three results in the Japanese Society for Studies on Cartoons and Comics (Kani, 2009, 2011; Shimamura, 2013). Furthermore, these articles are not about Garo itself, but rather Garo-related authors. Apart from these, most texts on Garo in Japanese are prefaces, afterwords, paragraphs or small chapters in manga histories. In a nutshell, the magazine is almost always presented as follows: Created by editor Nagai Katsuichi and artist Shirato Sanpei as a publication site for the latter’s new long-running series Kamui-den (1964-1971), Garo’s non-commercial approach and unconstrained editorial policy provided the breeding-ground for numerous highly original manga artists (such as the frequently cited Tsuge Yoshiharu), giving rise to a new manga readership, university students. Such writings are usually historical and synoptic (Kure 1997 [1986]: 150-176; Takeuchi 1995: 104-120; Ishiko 1988: 342-350; Yoshimura 2008: 131-134), although approaches that emphasise the 1960s and the 70s are also available (Ishiko 1994 [1975]: 126 -127; Tsurumi 1987, 1991: 63-70; Takano 2002; Sakurai 2015: 188-197). Sakurai’s recent book, for example, is well informed, which makes it a reliable reference to anyone studying post-war manga, kashihon [rental comics] and gekiga. The only available volumes exclusively dedicated to Garo are based on accounts from contributors (Nagai et al. 1984; Aihara et al. 1991; Gondo 1993). Garo Mandala by Aihara et al. contains a very valuable list of all the authors, essayists included, and their publications by date from the first issue to June 1991. This exhaustive list was created on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the magazine (Ono & Shimizu 2014), but the essays that are included in the same book are mainly personal impressions and subjective accounts, as has been  characteristic of manga criticism in Japan (Berndt 2014).

Whereas literature dedicated to Garo, the magazine, is scarce in Japanese, this is not the case for Garo-related authors of the “first decade”, namely Shirato Sanpei, Mizuki Shigeru, Takita Yū, Sasaki Maki, and Tsuge Yoshiharu. All have at least one book dedicated to them, which inevitably touches on the magazine in part. Sometimes such publications contain original approaches, as for example the biography of Takita Yū by Menjō (2006). To my knowledge, Menjō, an art school professor specializing in “entertaining” or popular literature, is the first to suggest a realistic print-run number for Garo’s Golden Age of around 50,000 copies (2006: 174). This significantly deviates from the inflated 80,000 copies proposed by Nagai in his autobiography, which number has subsequently been reused in even the most reliable materials (Maréchal 2004; Holmberg 2010; Leblanc 2013). The abundance of publications on Garo authors is somewhat surprising as authorism is more developed in American and European approaches to manga than in Japan. Here, Garo occupies a very special position: in contrast to other kinds of manga, it hasn’t yet been approached from the angle of Media Studies, which is typically the preeminent tendency in Japanese manga discourse. That is to say, an approach to Garo 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” (Berndt 2014) is still virgin territory, even though Media Studies could be the most promising way to approach the magazine, leading to a redefinition of its position in post-war manga on fresh ground. For example, ties between the editor, the artists and the readers can be observed in the readers’ column. Often sharply critical, letters gave an influential feedback to the authors (being, for example, one of the reasons why Tsuge stopped drawing new stories for two years[5]). Examination of the magazine also reveals that Garo aimed at a readership evolution from kids to students, which can be considered as an early sign of the forthcoming rise of seinen [youth] manga from the 1970s onwards. Regarding the cultural industry it is interesting to note that Garo and Garo-related authors have created bridges and crossovers to other media, especially within the counterculture: Shirato’s manga Ninja Bugeichō was adapted by director Ōshima Nagisa into an animation-like film, Hayashi Seiichi created posters for underground theater troupes and musicians; and Mangashugi (Manga-ism), the first magazine dedicated to manga criticism (although resembling a dōjinshi [fanzine] in terms of diffusion) was motivated mainly by a desire to write about Garo authors.

Against this backdrop, the question remains as to why Garo and its authors aren’t subjected to the familiar Media Studies approach. It may be a simple lack of interest, or possibly a symptom of the fact that non-commercial manga aren’t “manga” enough for Manga Studies. Some authors actually exclude Garo from manga history. Frederick Schodt, for example, mentions Garo only once in his seminal monograph Manga! Manga! Manga: The World of Japanese Comics – “Garo a now-famous comic magazine that has often featured non-conformist artists” (1983: 150) – and he does not include it in the index. His use of the past tense in this reference speaks for itself. In 1983, the year when his book first appeared, Garo’s Golden Age was already over, and the magazine itself looked back on its past: Nagai’s autobiography was published in 1982 and the first Garo anthology in 1984, establishing the magazine as patrimony. If Garo played an important role, it is likely to have been during the first decade of its existence (Holmberg 2010). This was also pointed out by Paul Gravett, whose richly illustrated book Manga, 60 years of Japanese Comics is unfortunately one example of a superficial and non-critical approach to manga in general and to Garo in particular. It contains a number of factual errors, for example: Tsuge started working for Garo in 1965, but not as an assistant to Mizuki (Gravett 2004: 132); Sasaki Maki is not a woman (Gravett 2004: 139), and Garo is not likely to have reached its highest circulation in 1971 (although this is subject to debate[6]). Gravett is not unusual in making these mistakes; Petersen, for example, misspells Tsuge Yoshiharu’s name as Tsuge Yoshiharo (2002: 179).

The recently published Comics, a Global History is also problematic. It devotes one chapter to “Garo and Alternative Manga” (Mazur & Danner 2014: 79-87) for the sake of completeness, but this chapter doesn’t contain anything new and doesn’t specify the meaning of “alternative” either. The dichotomous scheme between “alternative” and “mainstream” is far more nuanced in Japan than it is in Europe and America, where those two notions are often regarded as mutually exclusive. With respect to Garo, it is noteworthy that Mizuki was publishing in a mainstream magazine released by publisher Shōgakukan when drawing for Garo, while Shirato was working for the commercial publisher Kōbunsha. The notion of “alternative” in relation to manga, along with a detailed examination of the non-Japanese discourse of “alternative manga”, would be a rewarding research subject. The huge gap between Japanese-language discourse and the rest of the world in regard to the notion of “alternative” in general and Garo in particular is also evident in the case of Tatsumi Yoshihiro. He contributed to the magazine at a rather late point in time and contributed relatively little – around six short stories a year from February 1970 to January 1975. While outside of Japan he is appreciated as the “godfather of gekiga” and reviewed in the mainstream press, in Japan he is not widely known. Ironically, his death was first announced on Paul Gravett’s website and well relayed (for example, on the homepage of the digital edition of the French daily journal Le Monde), but the information was not confirmed in Japanese sources until a few days later, and even then did not make the front pages. Another example of reverse-importing is manga monthly Ax’s April 2015 issue which commemorates Tatsumi. It includes an article by Asakawa, but not a newly written one; it was initially published in 2005 on the request from the Korean comics magazine, Sai Comics, before finally becoming available in Japanese ten years later (Asakawa 2015).

It is also interesting to note the different approaches taken in non-Japanese writings on Garo, and to consider the potential cross-cutting approaches they contain. In Jean-Marie Bouissou’s Manga, History and World of Japanese Comics, one of the mostly widely referenced books on manga in French, Garo is quoted in the part on manga history, but not in the one on the 1960s, as one might expect. Under the title “From Apogee to Decline: 1990-” (Bouissou, 2010: 119-120), Garo is introduced as a representative of a “second sector” that as of now has disappeared, but that previously revitalized the mainstream manga scene, i.e. the “first sector”. This approach – in addition to the fact that Garo refused the buyout offer by Shōgakukan in 1967, which eventually led to the launch of the commercial seinen magazine Big Comics (Nagai 1982: 239-243) – suggests a meaningful starting point for Garo studies: the industy’s past may help enlighten its present. Bouissou touches also briefly on Garo author Tsuge in the very last section of his book, called “So many genres”, indirectly referencing Maréchal when he calls him a creator of “watakushi manga” (I-comics): “Tsuge is the creator of a genre that didn’t appear in American comics before the late seventies, when it was named the graphic novel.” (Bouissou 2010: 353). A question remains a to the extent to which Tsuge can pass as the originator of autobiographical comics, and this presents another interesting lead. It is noteworthy that Kure Tomofusa, a well-known Japanese critic, omits Tsuge in his comprehensive monograph, in the part is dedicated to manga artists, though admittedly he does write about Mizuki and Shirato (Kure 1997 [1986]: 231-238).

Thus, due to the lack of solid references and clear conceptions, the academic literature about Garo remains incomplete. Rather than simply regretting this current state, we can actually try to draw conclusions from it. One is that the necessary groundwork it is yet to be done. A key element for understanding the birth, rise and influence of Garo magazine and to define its “alternative” identity, is the need to dig out its roots in kashihon manga (rental comics) and gekiga. For instance, the three original “pillars” of the magazine – Shirato, Mizuki and Tsuge, as well as the editor, Nagai, were actually kashihon manga veterans. Solid knowledge of the kashihon manga market and its authors is vital for the study of Garo, as is kamishibai (paper theater) (Tsurumi, 1991: 63-70). Fortunately, there are a lot of materials on kashihon manga in Japanese (which is also paradoxical, given the scarcity of the primary sources), and this field of studies seems to be particularly vivid, as indicated by the productivity of research groups such as Kashihon manga Kenkyūkai. The latter’s papers often deal with gekiga and other early “alternative manga,” executing a certain academic meticulousness. Kashihon manga and gekiga authors prepared the ground for Garo’s birth, and their influence is an indispensable part of Garo’s DNA. Early gekiga were created for rental libraries, and although they tried to get rid of humor and lightness in tone, they were still destined for kids. Nagai was a kashihon manga editor before launching Garo, and this is likely the reason why “junior magazine” is written on the cover of the first 20 issues of the magazine. In the beginning, Garo had clear educational goals, coupled with antiwar orientations and government criticism. This highly interesting fact is rarely mentioned, except by Ryan Holmberg (2010) and Claude Leblanc (2013). This leads us to the issue of access to the material. For the main part, the literature on Garo (at least in Western languages) is based on preexisting essays and not on primary sources. This partly explains the similarities and the reiteration of clichés.

As demonstrated above, currently available sources on Garo are not scarce, but nevertheless they do not meet the requirements of academic research, which might be inevitable given that these are often written by critics rather than trained academics, and if by academics, then not by manga specialists. Although there is plenty of literature dedicated to Garo authors in Japanese, the magazine’s role, place, and legacy is yet to be discussed. At the same time, the role of Garo seems to be overrated outside Japan: it is often oversimplified as an influential “avant-garde alternative” magazine. This column is a call for deconstruction, an invitation to reconsider and rewrite Garo’s history from the start, including background studies on kashihon manga and gekiga, and considering the industry of the mainstream manga magazines, since the birth of the magazine was the result of a long genesis and its rise closely linked to the socio-cultural context of the 60s and 70s. It goes without saying that access to the primary source, the magazine itself, is imperative if anyone is to confirm, or deny, that “Garo represented the first true, concerted movement toward comics as a medium of personal expression and creative freedom anywhere in the world” (Mazur & Danner 2014: 16).

Work Cited

Aihara, Koji et al., 1991. Garo Mandara [Garo Mandala], Tokyo: Tbs-Britannica.

Asakawa, Mitsuhiro, 2015. Tatsumi Yoshihiro to nihon no shoki orutanatibu manga shīn [Tatsumi Yoshihiro and the beginning of the Japanese alternative manga scene], in Ax, vol. 104, pp. 23-32.

Berndt, Jaqueline, 2014. “Manga Studies #1: Introduction,” in Comics Forum, web:

Bouissou, Jean-Marie, 2010. Manga, histoire et univers de la bande dessinée japonaise [Manga, History and World of Japanese Comics], Arles: Philippe Piquier

Ishiko, Jun, 1988. Nihon mangashi [History of Japanese comics], Tokyo: Gendai kyōyō bunko.

Ishiko, Junzō, 1994 [1975], Sengo mangashi nōto [Notes on postwar manga history], Tokyo: Kinokuniya shoten.

Gill, Tom.

——2011a. “The Incident at Nishibeta Village: A Classic Manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge from the Garo Years”, in International Journal of Comic Art, vol. 13, spring, pp. 475-489.

——2011b. “Fetuses in the Sewer”, web:

——2014. “‘Chiko,’ ‘A View of the Seaside,’ and ‘Mister Ben of the Igloo’: Visual and Verbal Narrative Technique in Three Classic Manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge”, web:

Gondō, Susumu, 1993. Garo o kizuita hitobito [Those who built Garo], Tokyo: Holp Shuppan

Gravett, Paul, 2004. Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. London: Laurence King Publishing

Holmberg, Ryan.

——2007. Paper megaphone: “Garo” manga, 1964—1971, PhD thesis, Yale University.

——2010. Garo Manga: The First Decade 1964-1973,, New York: Center for Book Arts.

Kani, Yōsuke.

——2009. “Sasaki Maki o meguru gensetsu” [An analysis of discourse concerning Maki Sasaki], in Manga Kenkyū, no. 15, pp. 28-53.

——2011. “Garo jidai no Tsuge Yoshiharu – Mangashugi o chūshin to shita dōjidai gensetsu no bunseki” [Tsuge Yoshiharu in the days of Garo: an analysis of contemporary discourse on the example of the magazine Mangashugi], in Manga Kenkyū, vol. 17, pp. 8-33.

Kure, Tomofusa 1997 [1986]. Gendai manga no zentaizō [Overview of contemporary manga], Tokyo: Futaba bunko.

Leblanc, Claude, 2013. Garo 1964-1974: Une histoire dans l’histoire [Garo 1964-1974, A History inside History], held from 22 March to 25 March 2013, Paris. Re-used in ManGaro/Heta-Uma exhibition, 17 October 2014 to 1st March 2015, Marseille.

Maréchal, Béatrice.

——1999. “Les paysages de Tsuge Yoshiharu” [Tsuge Yoshiharu’s landscapes], in Daruma, vol. 5, Arles: Philippe Picquier.

—— 2004. “Garo, magazine rebelle [Garo, rebellious magazine], in 9e Art, no 10, Centre national de la bande dessinée et de l’image, pp. 48-53.

—— 2005. “On Top of the Mountain: The Influential Manga of Yoshiharu Tsuge,” in The Comics Journal Special Edition, vol. 5, pp. 22–28.

——2005. Moi tel qu’en soi-même : le moi narratif dans la bande-dessinée : les fondateurs japonais [Myself as in onself : narrating the self in comics : the Japanese founders], PhD thesis (Linguistic sciences), EHESS, Paris.

Mazure, Dan & Alexander Danner, 2014. Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present, London: Thames & Hudson.

Menjō, Tsuyoshi, 2006. Nukeraremasu ka: Watakushi mangaka, Takita Yū [Can you get out? Takita Yū, mangaka of the self], Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha.

Nagai, Katsuichi.

——1982. Garo henshūchō [Garo’s Editor-in-Chief], Tokyo: Chikuma Books.

——et al., 1984. Garo Nijūnenshi mokusei morutaru no oūkoku [Garo, 20years history of the Kingdom of the Wood Mortar], Tokyo: Seirindō.

Odaira, Namihei, ed., 2014. “Manga, la révolution Garo” [Manga, Garo’s revolution], in Zoom Japan, vol. 43, Ilyfunet: Paris, web:

Ono, Kōsei & Masashi Shimizu, 2014. Garo to iu jidai [The time of Garo], Tokyo: Seirindō.

Petersen, Robert S., 2002. Comics, manga, and graphic novels, Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Sakurai, Tetsuya, 2015. Haikyo no zankyō, sengo manga no genzō [Echoes from the ruins, in pursuit of the origins of Japanese postwar manga], Tokyo: NTT.

Schodt, Frederick, (1988) [1983]. Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics, New York: Kodansha International.

Shimamura, Masari. 2013. “Heta” na wake – Late 70’s-Early 80’s Garo, renzoku to danzetsu” [“Heta” na wake, Late 70’s-Early 80’s Garo, Continuity and rupture], in Sankakuboshi, vol. 2, Gakushūin University, Tokyo, n.pag.

Shirato, Sanpei et al., 2012. Garo/COM 1964-1970, Tokyo: Kōdansha.

Takano, Shinzō, 2002. Tsuge Yoshiharu 1968, Tokyo: Chikuma bunko.

Takeuchi, Osamu, 1995. Sengo Manga gojūnen-shi [50 Years of Post-war Manga History], Tokyo: Chikuma Library.

Tsuge Yoshiharu, 2000. Nejishiki Tsuge Yoshiharu sakuhinshū [Screw-style: anthology of Tsuge Yoshiharu works], Tokyo: Seirinkōgeisha.

Tsurumi, Shunsuke.

—— 1987. Cultural History of Postwar Japan, Londres: Routledge.

—— 1991. Manga no dokusha to shite [As a Reader of Manga], Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

Yoshimura, Kazuma, ed., 2008. Manga no kyōkasho [Manga’s Course Book], Kyoto: Rinsen shoten.

[1] Holmberg, 2010; Leblanc, 2013, 2014.

[2] See for example Odaira, 2014.

[3] All in Japanese. See for example Nagai,, 1984; Gondō, 1993; Shirato,, 2012; Ono & Shimizu, 2014.

[4] Japanese names in this essay are presented in the Japanese style: Surname first, given name last.

[5] Tsuge, 2000 : 446

[6] Nagai claims that Garo circulation first reached 80000 copies by the end of 1966 (Nagai, 1982: 236).

Léopold Dahan is a research student at Kyoto Seika University, Japan. He earned his M.A.s at Paris Diderot University in France in Japan Studies. His researches are dedicated to “alternative” and avant-garde in relation to manga, and comic’s media specific narration possibilities, focusing on the 50’s-70. He also translate manga and write for the French comics magazine KABOOM

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Posted by on 2015/07/13 in Manga Studies


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The Bi-Monthly ComFor Update for June 2015 by Laura Oehme

As Stephan Packard stated in his last update, the abundance of comics-related events, publications, and exhibitions has become overwhelming. As a member of the ComFor online editing board, I know first-hand how much we are struggling to keep up with the numerous announcements of upcoming events that are received almost daily. This, of course, is not only a good sign for the future of comics studies, but also hints at the fact that the public perception of comics continues to grow.

I would like to start off this month’s column by congratulating Stephan Packard for receiving the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize 2015. The prize is awarded each year by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The ComFor’s much-valued President received the prize on May 5th in Berlin and is, after Daniel Stein, only the second comics scholar to receive it yet.

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Posted by on 2015/06/26 in ComFor Updates



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