How did the Japanese Manga Tradition Evolve?

Japanese manga goes back as far as the 12th century and is believed to be the origin for the country's right-to-left reading style. However, the word 'manga' was not widely used until the 18th century.

Wide eyes (especially for girls) and a somewhat androgynous look are common features of manga.

Wide eyes (especially for girls) and a somewhat androgynous look are common features of manga.

Pre-World War II

While manga has existed in various forms since the 12th century, it is generally thought that kibyoshi picture books from the 18th century acted as the world's first comics. These shared various themes with modern manga and while there is some debate as to whether these were forerunners to modern manga, they definitely influenced the modern medium.

The late 19th century saw the rise of illustrated magazines featuring Western-style cartoons aimed at Western expatriates. In 1900 the Jiji Manga made its debut as part of the Jiji Shinpo newspaper, which marked the first use of the word 'manga' as it's used today. By the 1930s, serialised comics that were distributed through magazines and then collected into volumes had become common.

One particular style associated with manga is the wide-eyed way in which characters are commonly drawn. This style began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in shojo (or "young girl") magazine illustrations. This is because one of the early artists, Jun'ichi Nakahara, also worked as a doll creator and brought influences from that practice into his illustrative work.

Post World War II

During the occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952, artists began to experiment with their own unique styles. Before the war, the country had been heavily influenced by ultranationalist ideas but the events of the war left these ideas shaken and the occupying forces specifically forbid any material that glorified war or Japanese militarism. These policies mostly left manga artists to create as they wished.

Sazae-san's family and Mighty Atom (Astro Boy) are iconic manga characters.

Sazae-san's family and Mighty Atom (Astro Boy) are iconic manga characters.

When the Japanese Constitution was written in 1947, Article 21 stated that all forms of censorship were forbidden. This lead to a period of artistic growth across multiple media. During this time, two manga series rose to prominence and these would play pivotal roles in influencing the works that came later. One was Mighty Atom (better known in the West as Astro Boy) created by Tezuka Osamu and the other was Sazae-san by Machiko Hasegawa.

Astro Boy featured a storyline centred around an incredibly powerful robot who had the mind and personality of a little boy. The author never explained why he created a character with such a strong conscience, but it was a strong departure from the pre-war views focused around Japanese imperialism and Emperor-worship. Astro Boy was and still is incredibly popular in Japan.

Sazae-san was a different kind of work. It was created by Hasegawa in 1946 with the intention that the lead character would represent all of the people, especially women, who had their homes taken away by the war. Sazae-san, like Astro Boy, looked to the future and the strength of her character stood in defiance of the ideals of meekness, being a good wife, and perfect motherhood that had predominated under the pre-war government.

Both of these works were stylistically innovative. Tezuka put a lot of emphasis on placing the panels so that they would match the reader's viewing speed to make reading feel like watching a film. This lead to a practice where the person who decides where the panels are placed is credited as the author, while a lot of the drawing to fill those panels is carried out by assistants. This visually dynamic style has been carried on to today and can be seen in every style from sports manga to general shonen (or "young boy") manga or the casino related mangas on this page. In particular, The Liar Games, Kakegurui and Akagi are some mangas with a strong gambling theme. Hasegawa's work paid specific attention to everyday life while focussing on the experience of women, and this practice has become a central component of modern shojo manga.

From 1950 to 1969 manga was largely separated into two categories. Shonen manga was targetted at boys and shojo manga was made for girls. This lead to massive growth in popularity for the medium. Despite the fact that the shojo genre was pioneered by a woman, adult men still created the majority of the artwork for it until 1969.

Shojo has evolved since 1975 and has gone on to include themes of romance, superheroines and other ideas, bringing many works closer to traditional shonen in terms of ideas and contents. As women grew up with these stories and entered the job market they began to create works aimed at people more like themselves. This lead to the rise of various sub-genres within shojo aimed at women in their 20s to 30s, and now shojo manga is designed for women of all ages and types.

Shonen underwent a similar transformation. Originally, the works were aimed at boys up to 18 years old. However, as these boys grew and matured they wished to continue creating manga that was suitable for people of their age. Now, shonen encompasses stories of many genres from high school comedies to gritty stories about war or science fiction.

Related content