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One aspect of Japanese popular culture that everybody in the West has heard (and often only heard) about is Japanese cartoons, called manga (漫画) when drawn and anime (アニメ, short for "animation") when animated. For some people manga and anime are a primary reason for studying Japanese language, but this has never been much of a motivator for me, with the possible exception of Miyazaki's amazing movies, like Tonari no Totoro (隣のトトロ), Kurenai no Buta (紅の豚) and Mononoke Hime (もののけ姫).
But after returning from Hokkaido, I switched to commuting on the Chiyoda line, which I now take all the way to its terminus at Yoyogi-Uehara, every single day... and as it turns out, almost every single day somebody leaves their manga sitting on the luggage shelf, free pickings for scavengers like me. And so I've managed to accumulate quite a collection and in the process not only gained a view into Japanese life through the stories in the comics, but also the reading habits of the common Japanese man (for almost all comic readers are men, women tend to prefer dainty little novels).
Unlike the diminutive and overpriced Donald Ducks and Spidermen of the West, Japanese comic books are huge and cheap. Most run 300-500 pages, every single week, and cost 200-250 yen ($2.00-$2.50), a bargain at any exchange rate, and last week's manga can be obtained for 100 yen from gray-market stands springing up around major train stations. According to some figures, the king of manga, Shueisha's (集英社) Shounen Jump (少年ジャンプ), is in fact the most widely read magazine in the entire world with around 20 million copies rolling off the presses weekly.
Unfortunately, this doesn't prevent Shounen Jump from being absolute crap, even by the low standards of the manga market. "Shounen" (少年), literally "few years", means "young" and all manga whose names start with "shounen" are aimed at the grade school pre-teen market. The plus side is that all kanji have furigana readings printed, making decoding them a marginally easier task, but the downside is that the stories are all mindlessly repetitive violent fantasies involving large guns, monsters with lots of tentacles, and copious amounts of gore. Since the comics are intended for kids with the attention span of, well, kids, and who also think that girls have the cooties, the concept of "character development" is unknown, women are nearly absent and nudity is forbidden.
But most manga readers on the train are actually businessmen, which is why Shueisha publishes yet another version, called Business Jump. Don't expect to find any stockmarket data or economic analysis though, it's just more of the same, except that the tentacle monsters finally start to give way to more samurai epics, police dramas and -- who would have guessed it? -- more sex scenes. But the censor's pen is as busy as ever, and the material isn't really any raunchier than in Young Jump, except that the bikini girl no longer wears a bikini. The magazine has also recently gained some notoriety for its "Wakare no Asa" (わかれの朝) column, in which couples who have broken up are asked to comment on the other's performance in bed in extreme detail. There are lots of other competitors in this category, with names like "Allman" and "Big Comics For Men", but their fare is no different and usually worse -- although Business Jump does steer clear from the phone sex ads and illustrated fuuzoku (風俗: lit. manners, fig. bordello) reviews that fill up the gaps between the comics in the rest.
The Jump series also features Super Jump, Ultra Jump and 別冊 (Bessatsu) Young Jump, but evidently nobody reads them since I've yet to find a single one -- or they're so good that everybody takes them home. (Somehow I suspect the former.) Based on my highly scientific sample, the Jumps account for no less than 61% of the manga market, most of the rest being pale imitations like Shounen Champion. The law of the jungle prevails: the biggies have immense volume, which lets them pay artists well and keep prices low. But even the large publishers barely break even on manga! The real money comes from tankoubon (単行本), which are collections of the best stories, slim novel-sized books that sell for 500 yen and up. This adds up to an impossible situation for competitors: they can't compete in price in the manga market, they can't compete in quality since they can't afford to hire the best artists, and their tankoubon won't sell without prior exposure in the manga market. The only way to survive is to find a market segment ignored by everybody else.
And a few (more?) oddities of the manga market, at least from a Western point of view. Manga are read from right to left, but the table of contents is still the first page from the left. Panels are huge, averaging 4-6 to a page, but it is common for a particularly dramatic moment to take up two full pages. Most magazines are, more or less randomly, divided into sections printed on full-color, plain, orange and even green paper; the color pages are almost exclusively devoted to the aforementioned bikini pictures and ads though. Manga issue numbering is even crazier than magazine numbering in the West: Shounen Jump's volume "3-4/2001" goes on sale on December 19, 2000! Numbering usually goes up to 53 per year, the extra week is made up by combining several volumes into one, like the 3-4 example above, although the magazine's physical size remains the same.
There has been quite a bit of debate about the suitability of manga as a study material for Japanese. I wouldn't recommend it for beginners, as the language used is for most part very slangy and tough to understand. Still, manga has the distinct advantage of being a very visual medium, after a certain stage you can read them for enjoyment and catch almost everything even if you don't understand every word, and reading 20 pages of manga is much faster and more rewarding than struggling through 20 pages of monospaced Japanese prose with a dictionary in hand.