Friday, 6 May 2016

Why Are Anime and Manga So Popular in Japan?

A black and white anime drawing.Why are anime and manga so popular in Japan? I've seen this question asked several times online. In this article, I'll provide my own answer to the question. Before I do though, I will address an assumption underlying the question itself. Additionally, I want to preface this by saying that what is written below is just my opinion. I'm not a sociologist or any type of cultural expert. There are a lot of variables involved when you consider any type of human activity on any scale, be it at an individual or group level. So don't look at this (or any similar article online) as the definitive answer to this question. Nobody is able to offer that.

The Underlying Assumption

The first thing that I want to address is that people assume something when they ask this question. Namely, that anime and manga are indeed popular in Japan. I don't think that this is entirely true. While it is true that a lot of cartoons are coming out of Japan, it doesn't mean that people are reading/watching all of them. In fact, if you take a look at this guy's experience, you'll see what I'm talking about. Based on his 7 years in Japan, he noticed that anime isn't as mainstream as many people think it is. According to him, most Japanese people only know about the famous shows like the Evangelion series and Studio Ghibli anime. I think the same can be said for most people living in the United States. For example, how many of you living in the United States have seen (or even heard of) all of these cartoons? Probably nobody.

An image of Studio Ghibli's logo. It depicts the name of the company alongside an image of the character Totoro.

What I think a lot of people are doing is assuming that anime and manga are these big things over in Japan because so many of them get made. Additionally, anime and manga are probably the only point of contact between the average Western fan and Japanese culture. As a result, a lot of them, unknowingly, create this mental model of Japan in which anime and manga are key components. And they do this because it's the only aspect of Japan that they know about in any great detail.

But it's still popular right?

Despite all that I've written above, it cannot be denied that a lot of cartoons are made in Japan. In that sense, it is popular. It's a popular product to create and market to people. So the question is, why? I think that there are a couple of main reasons for this.

The Historical Reason

The first key factor in the success of anime and manga is, in my view, a historical one. The Japanese have been creating cartoon-like imagery for centuries. Early examples of this are ukiyo-e, woodblock prints that depict a variety of different subjects (from sumo wrestlers to pictures of flowers).

An image exemplifying Ukiyo-e. It depicts a witch beside some samurai and a giant skeleton looming over them.

Fast forward to the 20th century and we have actual anime that is starting to be created around the 1910s. The anime in the first half of the century served both innocent artistic and more nefarious purposes (e.g., war propaganda).

The creation of these animations have continued to the present day. So one might ask why a similar thing failed to happen in the West. After all, there were U.S. war propaganda cartoons too. And comic books have been around for a while, but don't seem to be as mass-produced as manga are. Why is that? To be honest, I don't know. My own view is that the Japanese seem to be able to hold onto things longer than Western countries can. Arcades are dead in the United States, but they're all over Japan. Comics likewise aren't as popular as they used to be in the West, but in Japan manga is always being produced. So there are similarities between the East and the West in terms of the history of cartoon and cartoon-like imagery. It's just that media in general seems to have a longer lifespan in Japan than it does in the U.S. (and I'm not really sure why).

The Issue of Genre

The other thing that I wanted to talk about is the genre issue in anime and manga. Most cartoons in the U.S. appeal to one audience only: children. The same goes for comic books except they're targeted at young adults. There is only really one exception to this rule and that is comedic cartoons directed at adults (think Family Guy or South Park).

With anime and manga, the story is quite different. You can find any type of genre that you want to (more or less) and they appeal to a broad range of demographics. They even have specific names for anime and manga that is targeted at specific demographics.

A collection of panels containing stills from various anime. The image is being used to show the diverse amount of anime genres that exist.

I think you can see where I'm going with this, but allow me to conclude. A broader range of genres appeals to a broader range of people. This is why anime and manga are more popular than cartoons are. Because adults can enjoy them as well.

Final Thoughts

So that's basically what I think about the popularity of anime and manga. I know that I probably didn't touch on all of the possible reasons for the prominence of these forms of media in Japan. As I said at the start though, I don't think anyone can. Hopefully this was helpful in some way to you. If any of you want to chime in on this issue, feel free to leave a comment below. I'll be more than happy to discuss it with you.

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