TOKYO — Many of the somber-suited men on Tokyo's commuter trains spend the journey deeply absorbed in lurid comics filled with sex and violence.
But these days, the man with his nose in a comic book actually may be studying economics, learning how to use computers or how to make a fortune on the stock market.
Comics dealing with serious subjects are becoming big sellers in a country where sales of thick, action-filled picture books for adults top $500 million a year.
Leading cartoonist Shotaro Ishinomori's introduction to the Japanese economy, which has sold more than 550,000 copies, explains weighty issues with only occasional excursions into sex and violence to help retain the reader's interest.
In a section explaining currency fluctuations, an American stripper dressed in little more than cowboy boots and gun holster is shown performing before Japanese executives in a Tokyo nightclub.
One of the executives, eyes bulging, exclaims: "The sharp appreciation in the value of the yen has brought unexpected guests."
In another section on the rapid changes in international finance, a Japanese banker goes to Milan to set up a link with an Italian bank. He has a cup of coffee in the home of the bank's seductive chief bond dealer.
"The financial revolution is taking place all over the world," he says.
"Yes," she croons in reply. "For our banks to have a long and lasting relationship, it is important to build a good partnership. I would like to relax tonight."
In the next frame, the two bankers are shown engaging in passionate love play.
"If people don't understand a book called the 'Introduction to the Japanese Economy,' they can read a comic version to understand complicated subjects easily and quickly while having fun," cartoonist Ishinomori said.
Other subjects treated in comic form include car maintenance, marriage and Confucian philosophy.
Even conventional comics publishers are grabbing a share of the market. Recently, the popular comic "Business Jump" put aside its usual sex-and-gore fare for a special issue pictorially explaining to college graduates how to find a job.
Mitsuru Sugaya, once a student of Ishinomori, has made a career of drawing comics about computers, trading houses, stocks, banks and other subjects.
But he is losing his respect for the medium.
"Comics don't make people think," he said. "People get the wrong impression that they understand the subject by reading comics."
He is gradually shifting from drawing comics to writing books illustrated with comics, because they will convey more detailed, specialized information and force people to think, he said.