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What is Manga?: The Influence of Pop-culture in Adolescent Art

Masami Toku
California State University, Chico

The cover page of the March issue of
the Journal of NAEA
©The Journal of NAEA

*This paper was published in the March issue of the Journal of National Art Education Association in 2001.


One of the major problems facing art education is the loss of children's interest in art as they get older. This loss of interest may be due to internal struggles of adolescence or to external stresses, often times in the art classroom itself. Artistic developmental theories explain this loss of interest in art as a universal, cross-cultural tendency. However, recent research (Toku 1998, 2000, Wilson, 1997, 1999, 2000) has suggested that Japanese children may be an exception to this tendency. Japanese children tend to continue to acquire skills to express visual narratives through this difficult period in the form of comics, or manga. This brings up an important question for art educators: how can this interest in comic books be utilized as a teaching tool in Japan or even extended to countries like the U.S.?

Internal and external disruptions in children's artistic development

Piagetians, including Lowenfeld and Brittain (1970) describe children’s artistic development as a hierarchical linear progression called the stage theory of cognitive development. However, there is an argument that children’s artistic development does not always show a linear progression and artistic ability often stops during the transition period from child to adolescent art. For example, Read (1958) explains that most children’s artistic ability declines around 11 to 14 years old due to the loss of interest in and motivation to create art. He called it "the period of oppression." Gardner (1980, 1990) and Davis (1997) also explain the tendency of decline during middle childhood in the pattern of a U-curve of cognitive development. Why do children lose their interest in art at a certain age?

There is no simple answer, rather complex internal and external factors. Internal disruptions relate to issues of self-awareness; children start to realize their own limitations in producing realistic art. They also start to compete with their peers and to judge the relative value of their artwork. External disruptions relate to the social environment. Art is often undervalued as an academic subject. Children may be sensitive to criticism from art teachers. Art curricula are often developed without regard for students' interests.

But do all children really tend to lose their interest in art due to these internal and external disruptions? Is there no hope for teachers to support artistic development through this difficult period? Cross-cultural analysis of children's artistic development in the U.S. and Japan may suggest just such a hope.

The influence of manga in children's artistic development in Japan

Recent research conducted by Dr. Brent Wilson and myself has found an impressive movement of young amateur Japanese comic book, or manga (pronounced “mahngah”) artists, whose sheer numbers suggest that Japanese children may be less vulnerable to the "period of oppression." Many of these artists participate in the phenomenon of the Japanese comic markets, which were developed to provide young people with an opportunity to exchange their ideas by creating and selling their own original manga magazines. By reflecting Japanese young people's desire to depict their own stories in manga and communicate with peers through these original manga, the comic market has rapidly expanded since 1975 to become a huge market. During three days of summer 2000 in Tokyo, more than 300,000 young people from all over Japan participated in the market, with more than 20,000 booths selling original manga magazines. The large number of young people involved in these amateur publishing ventures is one example of their continued interest in graphic narrative. It appears that while attending and after graduating school, Japanese children continue to acquire skills to express visual narratives through this model of pop-culture, rather than through art education in schools. Instead of ceasing to express themselves through art, they develop their problem-solving skills and learn visual techniques to replicate their thoughts in the visual narratives of manga (Wilson, 2000). From the early elementary school period through secondary school, it is easy to find the influences of manga, which strongly appear in their graphic narratives (Toku, 1998, Wilson, 1988).


Figure 1: A playing scene in a schoolyard by
a 4th grade boy (1997)

Figure 2: A playing scene in a schoolyard by
a 6th grade boy (1997)

Many questions emerge concerning the particular phenomenon of manga. Why are Japanese children attracted to manga? What are the characteristics of manga? Are they different from comic books in the USA? What are the advantages and disadvantages of manga’s influence? If there are advantages to the influence of manga, is it possible to adapt them into art educational curricula? In the following pages I would like to discuss some answers to these questions and the possibility of creating an attractive art curriculum to encourage children's motivation for art. By understanding the mechanism of influence of this element of pop-culture in Japanese children’s artistic development, it may be possible to predict trends in American children's artistic development in the near future. Nowadays, it is impossible to ignore the influence of pop-culture in children's artistic development regardless of the culture; the visual attractions of mass media including TV, movies, and computer games are omnipresent. This tremendous influx of visual information could be a great resource for creating art educational curricula in the U.S. and could be more attractive to students and possibly more effective.

The characteristics of manga as the original style of Japanese comic books


Figure 3:Animal caricatures (Choju-giga): The contest between the Rabbit and the
Frog (scene from the first scroll). Second quarter of the 12th century. Handscroll, ink
drawing on paper. (Height 12 1/2") Kozan-ji, Kyoto 1a

Figure 4: Hokusai manga (Hokusai Sketch). Early 18th
century, Kyoto

Manga - literally meaning "humorous picture" - originally started as a simple caricature, just as in other countries such as the U.S. The origin of manga possibly goes back to the 12th century "Chojugiga (the Animal Scrolls)" - literally, "humorous pictures of birds and animals" which was depicted by an artist-priest Kakuyu, or Toba (1053-1140) (Akiyama, 1990, Schodt, 1983). Manga developed as a graphic narrative through the work of Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849), who depicted the Ukiyoe or "Floating world." With the expansion of manga's readers' age from children to adolescents and adults, manga gradually developed into an original style of Japanese comic books reflecting the needs of depicting the complexity of human dramas in graphic narrative. The trend was especially notable after World War II with the influence of American comic books and Disney animation and reached the peak development of the original style of Japanese manga from the 1980s to the 1990s. (Yonezawa, 1997).

In comic books of other countries (such as American comic books), there is a composition of visual story in the two-dimensional surface. Manga also has what is called the elements of manga or the grammar of manga: 1) picture (depicting objects and figures), 2) word (including onomatopoeia), 3) balloon (indicating words), and 4) frame (surrounding pictures) (Natsume, 1997). The function of each element of manga is a little different from those of the American comic book since manga developed from a simple caricature or good vs. evil story into a complicated story which contains diverse themes including politics, religious, historical, social, cultural issues, and many other themes.

In manga, each element has an important function to explain the meta-levels of space and mind in response to the complicated story. The picture is the content of manga’s expression, which is basically constructed of lines. It is generally divided into positive shapes (figures) and negative shapes (background). The word including onomatopoeia in manga is generally divided into the outside voice (sound), which comes directly from subjects, and the inside voice, which appears only in the mind. Word also appears independently outside of the frame with or without balloons as a directional connector between frames. The balloon (“fukidashi”) used to be the container of the inside voice of the mind or an outside voice from subject/object differentiated from the narration. However, it developed to support the expression of manga on the meta-level, which means both the inside and the outside voice/thought of the subject/object could be shown simultaneously in the same frame, differentiated by the shape of the balloons. The frame (“koma”) has a role as a container, which includes the picture as the content, and the word, which is namely “format.” It also has a function to integrate time and space. Frame used to be simple square or rectangle shapes displayed in alignment on a page: however, it developed into diverse shapes aligned dynamically to express different psychological situations (Natsume, 1995, 1997, Yomota, 1994).

Thus, the roles of picture, word, and frame have and created the unique characteristics of Japanese manga. Put simply, the complexity and drama of the story is the reason young people are strongly attracted to manga. As a result of reading manga and discussing it with their peers, young people's literacy is growing (Nakazawa and Nakazawa, 1993)


Figure 5: An example of manga's grammar
- a traditional usage of frame (read right to
left and top to bottom), p.9. in Shonen Jump
a boy's weekly manga magazine).
No. 52-53, 1999. © Yumi Hotta/Ken

Figure 6: An example of manga's grammar
- a spatial usage of frames depicts one
scene simultaneously from different
directions (a boy is looking at a girl's picture
and another girl asks who she is), p. 27. in
Ribbon (a monthly girl's manga magazine).
December, 1999.

Figure 7: An example of manga's grammar
- Voice and thought in balloons (thoughts
are depicted in a typical balloon and spike
balloons), p.29, in Shonen Jump. No. 52053,
1999. © Yumi Hotta/Ken Obata/Syueisha

Figure 8: An example of manga's grammar
- Space, time, and mind with/without frames
(a scene where a boy had a traffic accident
- the situation and the time progression are
depicted with progressively smaller frames,
and a girl's thoughts are depicted without a
balloon in a big space, "If I have a chance to
see him, I will try to say good morning"
..... when he is going to die because of the
accident.), p.114. in Ribbon. December 1999.

Figure 8: An example of manga's grammar
- Space, time, and mind with/without frames
(a scene where a boy had a traffic accident
- the situation and the time progression are
depicted with progressively smaller frames,
and a girl's thoughts are depicted without a
balloon in a big space, "If I have a chance to
see him, I will try to say good morning"
..... when he is going to die because of the
accident.), p.114. in Ribbon. December 1999.

The development of more complex stories in manga is related to the expansion of the age range of readers. Regardless of the country, comic books are generally assumed to be for children who eventually progress beyond childish habits generally after high school. Usually, children stopped buying and reading when they graduated elementary school. However, Japanese children did not stop even after high school because manga was more attractive than other media, such as TV and movies. A new manga generation, which did not stop reading manga when they became adults, emerged during the1960s. The new generation exposed to manga started to have high expectations of the story as they got older. With the reader’s expectations, the story of manga developed to express more human drama than a caricature or a simple strip. As a result, manga started to produce many different types of stories, fiction and non-fiction: science fiction, sports, love stories, history, and so on, to please readers (Yonezawa, 1997). The manga market started to publish monthly manga in the mid-1950s and weekly manga by the end of the1950s. For example, the first boy’s weekly magazine was published (The Shonen Magazine) in 1959.With the development of the economy in Japan in the1970s and1980s, the manga market rapidly developed and manga itself became a popular culture in Japan. In 1994, the circulation of one of the boy’s manga of about 500 pages, The Shonen Jump, finally reached six million (Nakano, 1997).

For Japanese children, manga was attractive as a visual means to live their dreams and be anything and anyone they wanted to be in the virtual reality (Wilson, 1988, 1997). For adults, manga were visual textbooks that satisfied their curiosity about the world (Toku, 1998, 2000).


Figure 9: The front page of Weekly
boy's manga magazine, Shonen Jump
(No. 52-53, 1999). © Yumi Hotta/Ken

Figure 10: The front page of Monthly
girl's manga magazine, Ribbon
(December 1999). © Yumi Hotta/Ken

Implementing manga in art educational curricula

How can this children's interest in comic books and the advantage of visual literacy through manga be utilized as a teaching tool in Japan or even extended to countries like the U.S.? In response to this pop-cultural phenomenon, the Ministry of Education in Japan decided to adapt the benefit of pop-culture to the national art educational curricula for 8th and 9th grades in compulsory education in1998.

In a course of study of the national art educational curriculum for secondary grades which will be implemented in April, 2002, the Ministry of Education proposes, "adapting pop-culture (manga, illustration, photo, video, computers) to express students’ thoughts/ideas of what they think and what they want to be” (Spring, 1998). In Japan, the Ministry of Education has changed six times (1947, 1951, 1958, 1968, 1977, and 1989) in theory and practice in the field of art education since World War II. Through more than 50 years of educational history, this seventh reform (2002) is the first art educational reform that considers children’s preferences for the subject matter in the curriculum.

In responding to this proposal of the course of study in art education, art educators have started to look for art educational programs with manga’s techniques and contexts. For example, Izumiya (2000) proposes a visual comprehension test as the first step of implementing manga’s technique in secondary art education. The test involves drawing objects by memory in order to communicate a common subject or situation to a second person. The purpose of this practice is to make students realize that they tend not to pay attention to such common subjects and how drawing simple subjects is not so easy. As the second step, Izumiya also recommends drawing a common situation in ordinary life by using manga’s techniques of composition such as close-ups and distant views in diverse alignments of frames on a single page. Izumiya recommends utilizing manga's visual grammar as a visual communicative tool to encourage children's visual literacy in art education.

On one hand, the techniques of manga give art teachers an opportunity to support the development of students’ visual thinking skills such as observation, articulation, and critical thinking skills. By drawing a scene of ordinary life in sequential frames, students will pay attention to life and nature around them. These manga activities make art more meaningful to students and will give them a chance to find their identity by depicting themselves in a narrative story. On the other hand, it is also true that adapting manga in art educational curricula brings controversial issues from mangaka (cartoonists) and art teachers themselves. Mangaka and editors have fear that young people may lose their interest for manga if manga is taught through art education in schools. Why manga is so popular among young people is that manga has contextual and expressive freedom in narrative apart from the constraint of art education in schools. By implementing the techniques in art education as a communicative tool to express their thoughts, manga ironically may lose the attraction and the quality. This argument may never be resolved (this is a destiny of adapting any new methodology into a school system). Nevertheless, the most important thing for art education is that this is the first attempt to adapt children's preference into art educational curricula and teachers are beginning to consider the value of pop-culture and the advantages and disadvantages of manga. Art teachers in Japan have begun to reevaluate the role of art education to encourage children's interest and motivation for art.


Internal and external disruptions cause the loss of interest and motivation in creating art, especially during the middle of their artistic development in the adolescent period. In spite of the fact that art education is developed under the belief that art is a communicative tool to find one's identity to make it meaningful to live in one's life, it appears that this objective is not being met.

The role of the art teacher is not just how he/she can teach either the techniques of art making or the absolute value of art by making or looking at art, but rather how to draw students' interest and motivation to create art to find themselves in their own ways. While thinking of what the artwork is through the process of art making and critique of artworks, they will find how art is meaningful for themselves in their lives. In other words, it is important to make students realize how art is meaningful to live in their lives. To do so, we have to introduce diverse ways to create art as self-expression by including diverse values from different cultures.

This may be easier said than done, since teachers themselves often have difficulty implementing the proper art program to encourage students to make it meaningful for them. Especially in secondary education, many teachers struggle to face the imbalance between students’ physical growth and mental growth. Their physical ability reaches almost the level of adults, but their mentality is still in the process of developing. As a result, we tend to bring our own values to art without thinking of students’ own preference and aesthetics for art. It’s time to open our eyes to look at what’s going on in this world to know what are the most attractive artistic themes for students, although they may not necessarily be the same for us. If there is a pop-cultural phenomenon that begins to attract children, we should learn the advantages and the disadvantages of the particular pop-culture to look at the possibility of implementing it in art education.

The Japanese critic of pop-culture Natsume says, “when we learn something, we need a motive power, which should be to like something, to be interested in it, and for it to be fun” (1999, p.8)

For students who are in such a period of losing interest/motivation for art especially during secondary grades, we should find something to provide the motivational power of learning and to develop students’ critical thinking skills. By using the mechanism of manga, it might be possible to help students find their own identities through narrative art. It’s time to reevaluate pop-culture to give students motivation to create their own values and identities through making and criticizing art.


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