Comics Mirror Japan's Soul

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 Rintaro and Shima? 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 play 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 fantastic, such as Doraemon the robot cat, to realistic, such as businessman Shima Kosaku, to educational adventures. Their stories often blend real news events with outlandish fantasies, unsayable words, and -- for a best seller -- graphic sex scenes.


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.


Although comics existed before World War II, they were considered a children's medium. But amid Japan's horrible postwar poverty, today's manga industry was born.


"After the war, there was a big gap between what the Japanese people wanted and what they had," says Hiromichi Moteki, a private publisher with a passion for manga. "Movies were too expensive to make, but manga allow you to make a high-quality product cheaply."


Manga are compact and entertaining and require little concentration. Publishers also throw in large doses of porn to woo readers: Huge, sexually insatiable white women are often the subject of sexual attentions from mighty Japanese manga heroes.


And as the manga generation began to reach top posts in the Education Ministry, a society-wide transformation in attitudes occurred, elevating the comics from an entertainment medium to an educational tool.


"While people are laughing at manga, they are also unconsciously learning how to behave and what not to do," says Dr. Masahiko Ito, a pediatrician who co-wrote a book psychoanalyzing one of Japan's most famous manga heroes.


Why do comic books exert such influence in Japan? Society's demands here may often exact such a steep psychological price from its members that manga can be essential in maintaining a mental balance, experts say.


"Everyone is extremely controlled from a very young age, so fantasy is extremely important," Ito says. "We are a managed society, and there are psychological bruises from that experience."


Apart from manga, and "enka," the maudlin Japanese folk songs that businessmen croon at karaoke bars, the stoic Japanese lack ways to let these feelings out, he says.


Manga provide the Japanese with the heroes their society rarely produces in real life.


"Here, heroes are manga characters," Ito says. "In the 1960s, there were no real heroes, and there aren't now either. ... If there are no real heroes, you turn to manga."