Article Submission

The Power of Girls’ Comics:
The Value and Contribution to Visual Culture and Society

This paper is presented at a forum of “Visual Culture of Childhood: Child Art after Modernism (November 11 - 13, 2004)” at Pennsylvania State University and published at the 2nd Asian-Pacific Art Education Conference (December 28 - 30, 2004) at Hong Kong Institute of Education.


A super robot, Atom, from “Astro Boy” (originally created by Osamu Tezuka in 1953)

Masami Toku
Department of Art and Art History
California State University, Chico
Chico, CA 95929-0820


The issue of visual culture has become a big issue in the area of art education in the USA, especially in the last 5 years (For example, Freedman, 2003, Smith-Shank, 2004, Tavin, 2003, Wilson, 1999). Many educators and scholars have discussed the power of visual culture historically and conceptually; however, not many educators have succeeded in showing the possibility of implementing the lesson plans in schools which support the development of children’s visual literacy. One reason is that there are more complicated and diverse issues in visual pop-culture than in traditional art. It is not so simple to define what visual pop culture is based on a traditional art educational approach. Therefore, it is difficult to create effective art educational curricula to support children’s visual literacy and artistic ability. As a result, art educators are forced to develop interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary art educational curricula in conjunction with the theme of visual culture. Now is a good time to analyze the quality and diversity of visual pop culture. For example, Japanese manga (comics) is no longer just a phenomenon of visual pop-culture in Japan. It has become a world phenomenon. It may not be an exaggeration to say that manga is the center of Japanese visual culture with the proliferation of manga related animation, toys, TV series, computer games, and film. There is no doubt at the beginning of the 21st century that the popularity of Japanese manga has spread all over the world through comic books, animation, and merchandise However, not many people really understand how and why Japanese manga became so popular in the world and why children are so attracted to Japanese visual popular products. It may be worthwhile to explore the role of visual pop-culture that impacts US society through the phenomenon of manga in Japan.

There are two purposes of this significant visual pop-culture project, Power of Girl’s Manga: the value and contribution to visual culture and society. One is to examine the worldwide phenomenon of Japanese comics (Manga) not only in Japan but also other countries (including the US). The second purpose is to enlighten audiences - teachers, students, and community- to develop their media and visual literacy. These purposes will be accomplished through cross-cultral research, a related touring exhibition, and a symposium examining the cultural and historical backgrounds of the Japanese visual popular culture that exerts such an influence on US society. The significant goal of these exhibitions is to examine the treatment of gender roles in Shojo manga (girls’ comics) and how female mangaka (cartoon artists) have been contributing to the development of a unique style of visual expression in their narratives, which have seldom been discussed in the world of Japanese comics. There have been many worldwide manga exhibitions due to the popularity of manga; however, there has been no manga exhibition focusing on girl’s manga in spite of the fact that shojo manga contributed highly to the development of an original Japanese manga graphic style. Also, the influences appear often in mass media including TV animation, and toy products. In brief, there has been no manga exhibition focusing on the value of girl’s manga which is a unique of characteristic Japanese manga, not found in other countries. This will be the first significant touring exhibition of girls’ manga and discussion of the gender issue in manga as a visual popular culture in the world. The exhibition will travel to California State University, Chico, Pennsylvania State University, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and possibly The SF Cartoon Art Museum during the academic year of 2005 - 2006.

The Power of Japanese Manga

The popularity of manga is more significant in Japan than it is in any other culture, appealing to all ages and demographics. In contrast to the US, where comic books are only for children or collectors, in Japan manga has a popular status, which influences the entire Japanese society. Manga's readers cover a wide range of ages from preschoolers to adults. The influence of manga appears in visual culture throughout Japan in commercials on TV, advertisements, billboards, and even at bank ATMs.

One proof of this popularity is that manga comprises nearly forty-percent of all publications in Japan. It is still fresh in our memory that the circulation of one of the weekly boy's manga magazine of about 500 pages, The Shonen Jump, finally reached six million in 1994. In responding to the diversity of manga readers' expectations, the contents have also developed from simple to complex stories in diverse subjects, both fiction and non-fiction. Furthermore, anime (pronounced "ahneemay") - animated films - and video, are frequently created based on manga. It is well known that anime have spread worldwide, as have Japanese video games. Wilson (2000) calls the phenomenon of manga's influence rhizomatic, or a complex relationship of non-hierarchical systems.

Likewise, the phenomenon of Japanese visual pop-culture is no longer restricted to Japan. It is now a worldwide phenomenon. At first, Japanese popular culture became a phenomenon in Asian countries in the 1980s through pirated versions of manga. Even in the US, Japanese animation like Astro boy has long been popular as children’s entertainment since 1970s; however, few knew that they were made in Japan and no one seemed to care in those days. However, this is changing, with a Pokemon (Pocket monsters) center across the street from Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, and the 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 is a powerful influence in US children’s world at the beginning of the 21st century. For example, in the US about 300 million dollars worth of Pokemon related products were sold in 1998, while about 500 million dollars worth of Yu-Gi-Oh merchandise was sold in 2002. The US is also not free from the power of the phenomenon of Japanese visual-pop culture (TV guide, Feb. 1-7, 2003).

Regarding the phenomenon of Japanese manga in the world, many questions arise. For example, what are the differences between Japanese manga and American comics? What are the characteristics of manga? Why are children attracted to manga? What are the advantages and disadvantages of manga for children? Why has manga become part of popular culture in Japan and elsewhere? What is the origin of manga? Where is manga going in the future? Japanese manga has become one of the most attractive research themes not only for cross-cultural studies but also in art history, economics, psychology, and education.

The History of Japanese Manga: Traditional to Contemporary Manga

There are still many controversies 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 a monk, Kakuyu (1053 - 1140), also called Toba-sojo, in the 12th century. The hierarchical aristocratic society was ironically depicted in contrast to the common world as personalized animals (animal caricatures) in these four traditional scrolls (Akiyama,1990). 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”)” was comprised of 15 chapters (1814 - 1878), and was published from 1814 to 1878 even after his death due to its popularity. “Hokusai Manga” had a purpose as an illustrated textbook which indicated picture examples of everyday life for his students. Thus, the contemporary meaning of the word manga, which is now used in Japan to describe graphic novels, is different from the meaning of Hokusai’s manga, which was simple script and/or caricature.

Then when did Japanese manga develop into its contemporary form of graphic novels? It took almost one millennium until manga became contemporary Japanese Manga in the middle of the 20th century. Contemporary Japanese manga developed with the strong influence of American pop culture including American comics and Disney animation after World War II. In those days, manga was only an inexpensive entertainment for children, dreams that made it easier to live in the devastated post war society in Japan. Thus, manga has been publishing healthy entertainment for children to support their dreams. It gradually developed from simple script and/or caricature to complicated stories in response to readers’ expectations.

In the 1960s, Gekiga (“Visual Novels’) were developed, story manga with diverse fiction and non-fiction themes including: SF, sport, love story, history, and so on. The first boy’s weekly magazine was published (the syounen magazine) in 1959 and the first girl’s weekly magazine was published in 1962 (Yonezawa, 1991). Children who supported the manga market were born around 1947 - 1950. When the first weekly magazine was published, those children reached the end of elementary school. In the past, children had stopped buying and reading manga when they graduated from elementary school. However, this generation of children did not stop even after high school, because manga was more attractive than other media, such as TV and movies. As a result, the number of magazines published grew in response to readers’ diverse expectations so that the age of manga readers spread from children to adults regardless of gender during 1960s - 1970s. As a result, after the 1970s, diverse manga was aimed at different ages, genders, and addressed favorite themes and subjects. Likewise, after the 70s, Manga was no longer a sub-culture, but rather became a part of popular culture for the entire Japanese society, a part of popular culture that thrived with the development of the economy. Manga still has the power to impact the entire society in Japan, and this phenomenon has spread from Japan to the rest of the world at the beginning of the 21st century.

Characteristics of Manga: The gender role in composition

What are the characteristics of Japanese manga that are different from that of, for example, American comics? One of the main differences is the usage of the basic elements in manga that compose comics in general. Like American comic books, Manga has a language of composition in it called the elements of manga which is composed of three elements: 1) Picture, 2) Word, and 3) Frame (Natsume, 1995). At first, manga was a simple combination of picture, word, and frame to tell a simple story. However, with the reader’s expectations, the story of manga has developed to express more human drama as graphic novels than caricatures or simple comic strips. As a result, the usage of composition is quite original in Manga.

1) Picture: The picture is the content of manga’s expression and basically consists of lines, similar to American comics. However, manga has created semiotic graphics to indicate particular meanings and signs with limited color usage. Unlike most American comics which are depicted in color, manga in general is depicted in black and white except for the front page. For example, black hair indicates Japanese people and white hair outlined by black lines indicates foreigners, especially Westerners.

2) Word with and without Balloons (including onomatopoeia): It appears in the picture and it also appears independently outside of the frame with or without balloons. It has a function as a paste that connects frames in the story. It can also support the expression of manga at the meta-level, which means it can be the inside or the outside voice/thought of the subject/object. The different shapes of balloons have functions which also indicate the speaker’s emotion regardless of the words in it.

3) Frame (“koma”): It 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 which integrates time and place. Especially, the usage of frames of different shapes, sizes, and directions is significant in girl’s magna to depict the psychology (e.g. conflict) of a character in their favorite theme of the conflict of love. This girl’s manga characteristic has also influenced boy’s manga.

The Power of Shojo Manga: The value and contribution to visual culture and society

Many different kinds of manga have been published for different ages, genders, and fans’ favorite themes since the 1970s. One of the major characteristics of Japanese manga is that manga has split into Boy’s (Shonen) and Girl’s (Shojo) manga, each developing in its own way. Based on readers’ expectations, each boy’s and girl’s manga has its own theme. Regardless of the subject, the main theme in boy’s manga is competitive fighting, how the hero(s) become men by protecting women, family, country, or the earth from enemies. Girl’s manga’s theme is simply love. In brief, the most important thing for girls is how to find love through a process of overcoming obstacles.

As I mentioned earlier under the characteristics of manga, the grammar of Japanese manga was highly developed with semiotic and semantic usage of composition which seldom appeared in US comics after the 1960s. Furthermore, the role and the value of Shojo manga became significant in Japan. What is the cultural and historical background behind the development of Shojo manga? The history and role of shojo manga is mainly divided into four major generations since World War II.

1. The first period of Shojo manga: Dawn of shojo manga

A Girl's Mangaka(cartoonists) is a comic artist who creates manga for girls and women in general; however, girl's mangaka are not always female. Some male mangaka also create girl's manga. Right before, during, and after World War II, most girl’s manga was depicted by male’s mangaka. In other words, in most cases male mangaka started as girl's managaka early in their careers in the early 1950s and then switched to boy's manga with the development of their career .The following four male mangaka (Tezuka, Chiba, Ishinomori, and Matsumoto) are well known as great mangaka for boy's and male manga with their big successes with hit manga and animation, but Chiba and Matsumoto started their careers as girl's mangaka. Tezuka and Ishinomori also created great girl’s manga.

Ribbon no Kishi (1953)
by Osamu Tezuka
Ryujinnuma (1961)
by Shotaro Ishinomori
Shimmakko (1964)
by Tetsuya Chiba
Gin no Kinoko (1961)
by Reiji Akira & Miyako Maki

2. The second period of girl’s manga: Love and tears in shojo manga

Girl's manga were first depicted by female mangaka in the 1950s. Watanabe, Maki, and Mizuno are the most successful girl's mangaka who visualized girls' dreams and desires in their graphic novels. The major theme of girl’s manga in those days was how girls grow up under severe circumstances, fight obstacles, and finally get happiness. The themes and gorgeous visual images encouraged Japanese girls to live in the harsh post war world and gave them dreams and hopes for their future.

Garasu no Shiso (1969 - 1971)
by Masako Watanabe
Maki no Kuchibue (1960 - 1963)
by Miyako Maki
Honey Honey no Stekina Bouken (1966 - 67)
by Hideko Mizuno

3. The third and the forth period of girl’s manga: The diversity of girl’s manga and the new generation

Many female managaka followed after their successes as girl's mangaka. With the arrival of 24-gumi (female mangaka who were born around 1949 and contributed the development of the style of girl's manga), the world of girl's mangaka flourished with diverse sub genres of Sci-Fi, Love, History, Adventure, and so on with visual inventions as graphic novels in 1970s. Satonaka, Ikeda, Takemiya, Hagio, Yamgishi, and Oshima are the major contributors to the diversity of shojo manga and the high quality of themes and content. These female mangaka continue to depict and develop manga in response to readers' expectations and their own aesthetics as graphic/visual novelists. In response to the aging of readers, shojo manga split into girl’s and lady’s in the 1980s. If this trend continues, we may soon see senior’s manga.

Akiko (1986)
by Machiko Satonaka
Versailles no Bara (1972 - 73)
by Riyoko Ikeda
Versailles no Bara (1972 - 73)
by Riyoko Ikeda

Hyakuoku no Hiru to Senoku no Yoru (1977 - 78)
by Moto Hagio
Hiizuru tokoro no Tenshi (1980 - 84)
Amagaeru (1996)
By Yumiko Oshima

Another trend in Shojo manga is the influence of the amateur mangaka of the Comic Market. The comic market, which started as a communicative place for amateur mangaka (comic artists) to sell their own original manga, has become a worldwide phenomenon, appearing not only in Japan and other Asian countries but also in the US. The original Tokyo comic market, which started in 1975, has grown at the beginning of the 21st century to be a biannual event with 25,000 dojinshi (fanzine) groups and 350,000 participants over 3 days (Toku, 2001). One of the significant phenomena of comic markets is the parody of boy’s love between men and men in manga and novels called YAOI, which is depicted by female manga fans as their fantasy (Wilson and Toku, 2004). When this phenomenon appeared in the 1980s, major publications totally ignored the popularity. However, the theme of boy’s love became a major theme in the world of shojo and lady’s manga. Boy’s love has begun to appear in mainstream Japanese visual culture (such as TV series) at the beginning of the 21st century. The influence of the manga movement continues to spread as translated comics and animation and other merchandise. Likewise, Shojo manga is also growing in popularity.


Popular visual culture is a global phenomenon. Perhaps there is no society with a visual culture quite as complex as contemporary Japan. It provides its young people with an amazingly vivid array of options both to consume and to create. Almost 15 years ago it was discovered that Japanese children’s drawings were strongly influenced by the visual pop culture of Manga (comics) in Japan (Wilson, 1998). In response to the power of this Japanese visual pop culture, which has affected children’s artistic and cognitive developments, the Ministry of Education and Science mandated the adaptation of visual culture into the national curriculum of art education in 1998. The purpose of this was “adapting visual pop culture (manga, illustration, photo, video, computers) to express students’ thought and ideas of what they think and what they want to be” (Toku, 2001). Art educators created art educational lessons theoretically and practically incorporating the issue of visual culture to support children’s visual literacy skills, and those lessons were introduced in national textbooks in 2002. However, even Japanese art educators do not know about the value and the contribution of Japanese manga to the entire visual cultural world. It is urgent to examine the mechanism of visual culture that impacts children’s artistic and cognitive developments.

Looking at 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 mechanism of the relationship between the influence of visual pop-culture and children’s artistic and cognitive developments in general. I highly believe that US audiences will be visually enlightened as to the role and the diversity of visual pop culture through this cross-cultural research and touring exhibition.


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• The total twenty major girl's mangaka (comic artists) from Japan including the above fourteen mangaka are involved in this touring exhibition, and the following are examples from the show.

• Those visuals are all from the front page of the manga and/or cover page from the book form.

• The actual exhibition will be organized with front cover visuals (color) and content pages in sequential frames (black/white) to introduce the innovations in visual composition that were invented in girl's manga to depict psychological expression.

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