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Japanese Are Crazy for Comics

Graphic novels, or \o7 manga, \f7 are a billion-dollar industry, with fans of all ages and subjects ranging from fantasy to economics. Experts say they also supply the heroes that a highly controlled society can't.


TOKYO — Many Japanese look to Kosaku Shima to teach them the impeccable corporate etiquette that will take them to the top of the business world. When this young, hard-working, irresistibly debonair Hatsuba Electric worker was promoted to division chief in 1992, it made national headlines.

Many also look to Rintaro, a visionary, idealistic bureaucrat in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, to teach them about the secret machinations of the nation's ministries and to share his insights on energy policy. Now politicians in Washington want to hear what he has to say.

Rintaro and Shima boast social influence, salaries and celebrity that Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Los Angeles Dodgers star Hideo Nomo would envy.

Never heard of them? That may be because they aren't real. They are characters in Japanese manga, or comic books.

Manga are a billion-dollar industry. Sales of these fat comics, which go for about $3.50 each, account for close to a third of the total output of publishing houses here and amount to a whopping 553 million copies a year.

More than 500 categories of manga are released each month. Some playful commentators once estimated that the Japanese use more paper for the telephone-book-size comics than for toilet paper.

Many analysts say this medium is more influential than television or newspapers. Manga perform a vital social function, supplying the flamboyant heroes that a highly controlled society can't produce, experts say.

The comics also offer a rich fantasy world in a society where conformity is deemed a necessity, assertion of individual will is viewed as unacceptable, and life itself is often eye-glazingly predictable. All this, while gently reinforcing the values of working hard and supporting the status quo.

"Among Japanese media, manga are unquestionably the most powerful," says the creator of Rintaro, who uses the pen name Kuzu Haruo.

In their subject matter and approach, manga range from the fantastic to the realistic to the educational. There's Doraemon the robot cat, businessman Shima Kosaku and the world-famous "Japan Inc.," a 1,000-page tome that lays out the corporate ways of the country's labyrinthine economy.

Their stories often blend real news events with outlandish fantasies, unsayable words, undoable feats and--for a bestseller--graphic sex scenes.

So ubiquitous is their cast of characters that for millions of manga maniacs the line between comics and reality often blurs. For them, the characters take their place alongside real people in everyday life, capturing headlines, offering testimonials for advertising and winning the public's love and respect.

"Manga made me what I am today," says Haruko Sato, 30, a self-proclaimed manga nerd. "After I read the manga on the French Revolution--liberty, equality, fraternity and all that--I knew what I wanted to do.

"I was 13, and I thought, 'Wow!' " says Sato, who works for an international think tank on Japanese-European relations.

Window Into National Psyche

Cultural critics call manga Japan's postwar literature, its social commentary and a repository for its most creative minds. They also call them a window into the Japanese psyche, shedding light on what motivates, inspires and titillates readers.

Universities teach manga, psychologists analyze them and there is even a museum in Osaka to memorialize them.

Professor Tomofusa Kure lectures on manga at Tokyo Rika University, teaching students to study these graphic novels the way American students study classic literature. To him, manga are a unique literary form that has thrived untainted by foreign influences.

"In England, they have the study of Shakespeare. In America, perhaps you study the Greek tragedy," he says. "Here we have the study of manga. "

In Tokyo's bustling Shibuya district, mecca for the city's twentysomethings, manga superstores abound.

At the two-story Mandarake,employees dress as famous manga characters. A futuristic robot rings up purchases, while a space girl in a red vinyl dress checks bags.

Down the street at Comic City, fans comb through the neon-pink-green-and-blue-covered comics.

Store managers say their clientele ranges in age from 10 to 50 and that sales trends closely reflect broader social changes.

Most recently, says Yoshiiki Wada of Comic City, young women moving into the workplace have started reading manga about the legendary, job-consumed, stereotypical office employee--the "salaryman"--to try to glean information about the "logic of male Japanese society."

Junko Shimizu, 31, a Comic City regular, says she picked up the comics before she could read.

She estimates that each week, she devours 10 manga, which are several hundred pages apiece. For her, they are pure fantasy, she says, an escape from daily life.

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