Amaterasu by Suzue Miuchi
Shojo Manga: Girl Power!
Japanese girls’ comics exhibit launched from Chico
By Masami Toku
Japanese manga (comics) are no longer just a phenomenon of visual
pop culture in Japan. At the beginning of the 21st century, the
popularity of Japanese manga has spread all over the world through
comic books, animation, and merchandise.
But not many people really understand how and why Japanese manga
have become so popular in the world and why children are so attracted
to Japanese visual popular products. For this reason, I undertook
a project that would bring together artists, scholars, teachers,
and fans of shojo manga (girls’ comics) to explore this phenomenon.
The project was funded by the Japan Foundation; the College of
Humanities and Fine Arts; the School of Graduate, International,
and Sponsored Programs; and the Department of Art and Art History
at California State University, Chico.
There are two purposes of the visual pop culture project Shojo
Manga: Girl Power! One is to examine the worldwide phenomenon of
Japanese comics (manga) not only in Japan but also in other countries,
including the United States. The second purpose is to help audiences—especially
teachers, students, and community—develop their media and
These purposes will be accomplished through a touring exhibition,
which debuted on the Chico campus in fall 2005. The exhibition
examines the cultural and historical backgrounds of this Japanese
visual popular culture that exerts such an influence on U.S. society.
It examines the treatment of gender roles in shojo manga and how
shojo mangaka (girls’ manga artists) have been contributing
to the development of a unique style of visual expression in their
narratives, a contribution that has seldom been discussed in the
world of Japanese comics.
There have been many worldwide manga exhibitions, yet, until now,
there has been no exhibition focusing on girls’ manga. Japanese
girls’ comics are unique in the world of comics. Their influence
pervades Japanese mass media, including TV animation and toy products.
This will be the first significant touring exhibition of girls’ manga
and discussion of the gender issue in manga as a world visual popular
culture. The exhibition will travel to the following sites in the
United States and Asia: University of New Mexico; Columbia College
Chicago; Teachers College, Columbia University; Moore College of
Art and Design; and in China, Taiwan, and Japan.
What is manga?
Historically, many great comics have existed in cultures all over
the world. It may be, however, that in Japan the popularity of
manga and its impact on visual popular culture and society are
more significant than in any other culture. In contrast to the
United States, where comic books are only for children or collectors,
in Japan manga have a popular status that influences the entire
Japanese society. Manga readers cover a wide range of demographics
and ages, from preschoolers to adults. The influence of manga appears
in visual culture throughout Japan in commercials on TV, advertisements,
billboards, and even school textbooks. One indication of the popularity
of manga is that it comprises nearly 40 percent of all publications
In responding to the diverse demands and expectations of manga
readers, the contents of manga have developed from simple to more
complex stories in diverse subjects, both fiction and nonfiction.
Blockbuster anime (animated films) and video games are frequently
created based on manga, and it is well known that anime have spread
worldwide, as have Japanese video games.
Japanese popular culture first became a phenomenon in Asian countries
in the 1980s through pirated versions of manga. Even in the United
States, Japanese animation like Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom) has been
popular as children’s entertainment since the 1970s; however,
few knew that these animations were made in Japan or that they
were based on manga. This is changing, with a Pokemon center across
the street from Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, and TV Guide announcing
in 2002 that the most popular cartoon among 9- to 14-year-old boys
was Yu-Gi-Oh, which was created based on the manga. Japanese animated
series and their connected merchandising are a powerful influence
in the world of U.S. children at the beginning of the 21st century.
In the United States, about $300 million worth of Pokemon-related
products were sold in 1998, while about $500 million worth of Yu-Gi-Oh
merchandise was sold in 2002 (TV Guide, Feb. 1–7, 2003).
The world of boys’ and girls’ manga
There is still controversy over the origin of Japanese manga. The
general belief is that manga began with “Chojyu-giga” (literally, “humorous
pictures of birds and animals”) depicted by the monk Kakuyu
(1053–1140), also called Toba-sojo. Aristocratic society
was ironically depicted in contrast to the commoner’s world
using anthropomorphic animal caricatures in four traditional scrolls.
The term “manga” was originally used in the printed
illustration books of Hokusai Manga depicted by Hokusai Katsushika
(Ukiyoe-shi, 1760–1849) at the beginning of the 19th century.
This Hokusai Manga (literally, “Hokusai’s humorous
pictures of everyday life”) comprised 15 chapters, and was
published serially from 1814 to 1878 (even after his death, due
to its popularity). Hokusai Manga served as an illustrated textbook
of everyday life. Thus, the contemporary meaning of the word “manga,” which
is now used in Japan to describe graphic novels, is different from
Hokusai’s manga, which were simple caricatures.
Contemporary Japanese manga developed with the strong influence
of American pop culture, including comics and Disney animation,
after World War II. In those days, manga was only inexpensive entertainment
for children, dreams that made it easier to live in the devastated
postwar society in Japan. Thus, manga started as healthy entertainment,
a way for children to buoy up their dreams. It gradually developed
from simple caricatures to complicated stories in response to readers’ expectations.
The first boys’ weekly magazine, Shonen Magazine, was published
in 1959, and the first girls’ weekly magazine, Shojo
was published in 1963. The children who supported the manga market
were born between 1947 and 1950. When the first weekly magazine
was published, these children were reaching the end of elementary
school. Before this period, children had stopped reading manga
after elementary school. However, this generation of children did
not stop even after high school, finding manga more attractive
than other media, such as TV and movies.
The number of magazines published grew in response to readers’ diverse
expectations, so that the age of manga readers spread from children
to adults during the 1960s. As a result, after the 1960s, diverse
manga were developed for different ages and genders, and addressed
favorite themes and subjects. One example is the development of “gekiga” (“visual
novels”), more serious and realistic story manga with diverse
fiction and nonfiction themes, mainly in adolescent male manga
magazines. Subjects like sex and violence were no longer taboo
in manga from that point.
In the mid-1970s, “ladies’ comics” were published
in response to female readers’ demands that manga reflect
their growth from girls to women. These manga depicted the realities
and obstacles of life after marriage, unlike shojo manga, which
concentrated on the process of finding true love. The themes in
manga reflect changes in Japanese social and cultural conditions.
This dialogue between manga and society is nowhere more apparent
than in the phenomenon of the amateur comic market, a type of market
created in 1975 as a communicative forum for hundreds of thousands
of artists and fans to exchange ideas and distribute their manga.
Thus, manga grew from a subculture to become a part of popular
culture for the entirety of Japanese society, a part of popular
culture that thrived with the development of the economy. Manga
continues to have an impact on Japanese society, and this phenomenon
has spread from Japan to the rest of the world at the beginning
of the 21st century.
Characteristics of manga
What are the characteristics of Japanese manga that are different
from those of, for example, American comics? One of the main differences
is that manga are depicted mostly in black and white (except for
the cover page), unlike American comics with mostly full-color
pages. Ironically, due to the limitations of black and white, the
use of the basic elements of manga—and comics in general—has
developed in Japan with rich semiotic (philosophical theory of
signs and symbols) and semantic connotations. Manga are filled
with semiotic signs that readers understand, an imagery shared
among the mangaka and readers. At first, manga were a simple combination
of picture, word, and frame that told a simple story. However,
with readers’ growing expectations, the story of manga has
developed into graphic novels that express human drama rather than
caricatures or simple comic strips. As a result, the use of composition
is original in manga.
Picture: The picture is the content of manga’s expression
and basically consists of lines, similar to American comics. However,
mangaka have created semiotic graphics to indicate particular meanings
and signs with limited color use. For example, black hair indicates
Japanese people, and white hair outlined by black lines indicates
foreigners, especially Westerners. Also, the aesthetic value of “cuteness” (big
eyes and tiny noses in girls’ manga and spiky hair in boys’ manga)
has possibly replaced the imported Western aesthetic values of “beauty” and “realism” for
young people not only in Japan, but also in other cultures.
Words with and without balloons (including onomatopoeia): Words
appear in the picture and also independently outside of the frame,
either inside balloons or free floating. Words function as a paste
that connects frames in the story. Words also support expression
at the meta-level, meaning they can reveal the inner thoughts as
well as the voice of the subject/object. The different shapes of
balloons have functions that also indicate the speaker’s
Frame (“koma”): It has a role as a container that includes
the picture (as the content) and the word (namely “format”).
It also has a function to integrate time and place. Frames of different
shapes, sizes, and directions are used, especially in girls’ manga,
to depict the psychology of a character in the favorite theme of
the conflict of love. This girls’ manga characteristic has
been a great influence on boys’ manga.
Understanding the phenomenon of manga in Japan leads not only to
an understanding of contemporary society in Japan, but also leads
to an understanding of the relationship between visual pop culture
and children’s artistic and cognitive development. I strongly
believe that U.S. audiences will be enlightened as to the role
and diversity of visual pop culture through this touring cross-cultural
To learn more about the exhibition, go to www.csuchico.edu/~mtoku/vc/Exhibitions/girlsmangaka/girlsmangaka_index.html.
Order the catalogue at www.csuchico.edu/~mtoku/vc/OrderPage1.htm.
About the author
Masami Toku is an associate professor of art education at
CSU, Chico, and the general director of the project Power of
Her research interests include the cross-cultural study of children’s
artistic and aesthetic developments in their pictorial world and
how visual popular culture influences children’s visual literacy.