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No.6 ,Culture  Jul 26, 2011

THE FUTURE OF MANGA

It was nothing like any catastrophe you would see in a manga — the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake caused calamitous damage, primarily in the Tohoku region.

In the disaster-struck areas, filled with tension and anxiety, a growing number of people, primarily children, were still wanting to read manga. A store in Sendai was reportedly circulating a single volume of the latest Weekly Shonen Jump (“Jump”) among 100 people.

It was under these circumstances that the magazine’s publisher, Shueisha announced that it would offer a special Internet release of all titles on its March 14 release of Jump Vol. 15 for free. The company also decided to release Vol. 16 for cell phones free of charge.

Behind these decisions was the fact that some regions were unable to receive deliveries of Jump because bookstores and convenience stores had become inoperable due to the quake. Jump is a weekly magazine, so its stories develop fast. The current week’s edition was already out but people had not read the previous one. Thoughts on readers in the affected areas led to a quick decision. “Nobody in the company was against it,” reveals Sekiya Hiroshi of Shueisha’s Digital Business Division.

With Jump‘s free release, other publishers followed suit. Kodansha offered a free release of its six comic magazines, including Weekly Shonen Magazine and Young Magazine until April. Shogakukan also released Weekly Shonen Sunday and other magazines for free.

These bold decisions prompted a huge response. At Shueisha, access to the free release of Jump topped one million on the first day alone. Readers in affected areas sent in messages of appreciation, saying, “You’ve given us excitement. Thanks.” Shueisha had already been distributing free digital magazines on its website, and it was that know-how that permitted the quick action.

While this turn of events demonstrated the advantages of Internet distribution, this particular case was merely an emergency action. For now, Shueisha is not thinking about releasing future Jump issues for free.

But there were some unexpected discoveries. Some 90% of readers of the free release were, in fact, people outside the disaster-hit areas. Many commented that they were reading Jump for the first time in some time on this Internet release and were enjoying it, and some industry experts believe that this example has made the general public aware that they can actually read manga over the Internet.

In some areas where damage was comparably small, sales of comic magazines actually increased. Shibata Kyohei, researcher at the Research Institute for Publications., analyzes, “Demand for comic magazines may have grown as entertainment options were restricted due to the air of collective self-restraint and planned blackouts.”

Market halves in 15 years despite diversification and mass-titling efforts

Manga may have shone a ray of light on disaster-struck areas, but its own current state is far from bright. Estimated sales of all manga (comic books and comic magazines combined) for 2010 declined 2.3% from the previous year, to 409.1 billion yen. The figure is a drop of more than 30% from its peak in 1995 at 586.4 billion yen.

Comic magazines have suffered a particularly dramatic decline, declining for fifteen consecutive years, from 335.7 billion yen in 1995 to almost its half that number at 177.6 billion yen in 2010. The number of copies distributed have also dropped, from 1.34 billion to 550 million. Magazines need to be priced cheaply and distributed uniformly to bookstores and convenience stores nationwide, and distribution costs squeeze profit margins. Publishers cover that with high-profit comics. Many publishers position their magazines as a medium to merely promote titles that they will publish as comic books, and some “magazines” continue to run their series as low-cost, free releases over the Internet.

Factors often cited as causes for the shrinking market are cell phones and the Internet. For teenagers, cell phone charges have reduced pocket money available to spend on manga. For elementary-school children, other exciting media such as games and DVDs take away opportunities to read manga. “Probably only about one-third of the youth generation will turn into manga readers,” sees Sasaki Toshiharu, Chief Researcher at the Research Institute for Publications.. Another recent concern is the growing number of children who “can’t read manga” – those who cannot figure out the order of panels and dialogue. As manga researcher Takahiro Akita says, “You have to know the rules of manga to read them.” He says that since children today are not regularly accustomed to manga, they have lost the ability to read them.

Another factor that shrunk the market is the baby boom generation “graduating” from manga. One characteristic of comic magazines is their effort to offer titles that match their reader group as it ages, to keep readers connected.

“Take Shogakukan’s Big Comic for example. It was originally a magazine for readers in their late teens and twenties, but it gradually changed to target people in their thirties and then their forties.” (Akita) The publisher no longer had anything for younger readers. So it created a youth magazine called Spirits to fill in for that gap.

But “People increasingly stop reading manga past their forties” (Sasaki). More readers pull away from manga as they get older. In particular, with the baby boom generation that supported the manga culture from its dawn now past sixty, the trend is more notable than ever. Add the declining childbirth and aging society, and the manga population is clearly dwindling.

The manga industry has countered these trends with diversification and mass-titling efforts. Synergy with animation, TV dramas and movies are highly effective, as the higher attention would increase sales of comics. Some publishers like the Kadokawa Group diversify to animations and novels to expand the fan population.

But the market is “already saturated.” (Research Institute for Publications.) The Institution counted approximately 160 titles associated with manga-to-film projects for last year alone. This was a marked increase from approximately 100 four years ago in 2007. Some titles these days do not yield the anticipated effects even when made into film.

Mass-titling is another industry trend. The number of new titles released was 11,977, close to double the figure of 1995, when it was 6,721. This appears to give manga writers more opportunities to release works and invigorate the industry. But with the overall market shrinking, it means sales per title is declining. It could almost be said that the industry mass-produces to sustain market scale, since no one title turns out to be a major hit.

One reason why titles don’t normally make it big is that new works tend to follow the footsteps of previous hits. Writers produce new titles working off of a sort of success formula, and while this prevents works from flopping, it merely produces small works that all look alike.

Diversification strategy also cuts both ways. While it does lead to businesses such as animation and merchandise, it has its drawbacks. For instance, it makes it difficult for the publisher to bring a series to an end.

Going digital and eying markets overseas; the challenge is in smartphones

That said, the manga industry does boast a title that is an outstanding hit. The title is One Piece, by Oda Eiichiro. The series started running on Jump in 1997. Today, its comic books sell close to 4 million copies on first print alone for every release. Accumulating total sales of over 200 million copies over all volumes, it is “a monster” (an industry expert) of a title. Katsuragi Hiroko, editor-in-chief of Original Confidence analyzes the reason behind the hit: “Its rise in the past several years has been stunning. Besides the fact that the story is accessible to women as well, it has become something that is almost embarrassing not to know about in this time when strong content really sells.”

So, does this manga industry driven by One Piece have a future? The keys to its survival are digital media and overseas markets.

Manga went digital earlier and developed faster than other publications like novels and business books. According to a survey by Impress R&D, the market scale of digital comics was 45.7 billion yen in 2009, and this has sustained the manga market. Particularly significant is the spread of content geared to cell phones, which, adding to the fact that it can be purchased casually with just one click, is “noted for purchases from female consumers who are hesitant to buy at bookstores,” according to Takahashi Hirokazu, Executive Producer at Akita Shoten. Some who would not normally read manga do actually read it on their cell phones. But the majority opinion on the digital manga market is that it will face tough conditions this year. The reason is in the spread of smartphones. “Cell phone content can be charged on the phone bill, but smartphones are like PCs. We need to reconsider our charging methods.” (Takahashi) On the flip side, if the industry finds a solution for charging methods, it can expect the digital market to expand. The industry faces a critical crossroads.

A case is made even for how digital comics should look. “Until now, it was produced as an Internet version of the original paper title. From now, we need to create panel layouts and presentation methods specifically for digital media.” (Takahashi) Success depends on whether or not the industry can come up with innovative presentation methods that break conventional ideas. Akita also sees that, “People around the world read manga on PCs. There’s strong demand for Internet-exclusive manga.”

Hopes for foreign markets are also high. President Ando Takuro of Torico, which runs “Manga Zenkan dot com,” is one persons who says, “We get a lot of access from abroad via Facebook. There’s particularly high interest in Mexico,” and feels confident about the business potential of Japanese manga overseas.

The industry has also established a Digital Comic Association comprising 39 comics publishers. It discusses methods of expanding manga overseas using digital media, including how to counter piracy.

Sekiya of Shueisha says, “We need to use both paper and the Internet wisely as means to promote appealing works to as many people as possible.” He has high hopes for the future of manga, believing that the industry should not only aim for official distribution overseas but also “spread more content around the world that work from Japanese manga and offer people more variety to enjoy.”

Efforts targeting children that are increasingly detached from manga also continue. “KoroKoro Comic runs the Doraemon series of the past. To have children learn how to read manga, we need to let them read the basics,” says Yokota Kiyoshi, Chief Producer of Comics Division 2 at Shogakukan. He is ambitious to “create titles that take up themes that interest children and provide thrill and excitement.” They may be for children, but will never lack detailed research, he insists. As long as creators maintain the desire to let readers read exciting manga, the future of manga remains bright.

Translated from “Manga no Mirai,” Shukan Toyo Keizai, May 14. (Courtesy of Toyo Keizai, Inc.)

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