On Thursday, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” premiered. On Friday, Wizard World Minneapolis Comic Con opened at the Convention Center, and it was “Superhero Night” at Target Field. On Saturday, it’s Free Comic Book Day at many retailers. These concurrent events, and so many others, reflect the mainstreaming of comic culture in America.

But we’ve got nothing on Japan.

In Tokyo, it’s quite common to see a suited “salaryman” reading Japan’s version of a comic book — called manga — on the subway. Manga’s cultural, economic and even diplomatic impact is palpable. It plays an important role in how Japan perceives and presents itself. Manga and animé — a video version of the art form — are also big business in Japan, where entire stores and even shopping districts are dedicated to the comics. Manga’s a significant export, too, and in some cases is even a bridge between Asian nations increasingly at odds over political and territorial issues.

Manga is part literature, part graphic novel and part comic book, said Yukari Fujimoto, associate professor at the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University in Tokyo. During my March trip to Japan, organized by the independent Foreign Press Center of Japan, Fujimoto explained how the unique culture of manga matched Japanese society.

“Very complex emotions are shown by facial expressions,” she said. “Japanese people don’t clearly speak about their emotions in words, so therefore in daily life as well Japanese try to read each other’s expressions.”

Like Kabuki and Noh, Japan’s timeless theatrical art forms that use masks to unveil emotions, manga draws out meaning with images as well as words.

Beyond Japan, manga makes hard currency and acts as what diplomats might call “soft power.” Fujimoto recalled lecturing in China the first time tensions rose over East China Sea islands that both Japan and China claim. The severely strained Sino-Japanese relations led to most cultural exchanges being canceled, but Beijing University still had Fujimoto speak on manga to a capacity crowd, with hundreds more trying to get in.

“Chinese people love Japanese manga, and I don’t think there has been any degradation of that love because of the conflict,” Fujimoto said. And that’s not because manga avoids current events. When asked if manga would eventually reflect the latest flare-up regarding the islands, Fujimoto replied: “Not eventually — right now.”

And it doesn’t seem to be hurting business. In fact, market share is stable in other Asian nations newly angered by a regional re-examination of Japan’s World War II-era history, said Sam Yoshiba, executive director of the international business division of Kodansha, one of Japan’s major manga publishers. Speaking from his sleek Tokyo office, with walls lined with global versions of multigenerational manga, Yoshiba explained that the manga market is more threatened by local economic conditions and pirated versions.

And just like in other areas of publishing, including newspapers, the Internet creates challenges and opportunities.

Many subway passengers in Japan read manga, but others can be seen scrolling smartphones for social media feeds. Since some posts and tweets may be about manga, publishers are taking note. “A lot of future content will be born digital,” Yoshiba said. “But the expression itself stays the same.”

That expression is essential to understanding today’s Japan, said Yoshiba. “I’ve heard from many friends in the United States that a certain group of people are familiar with Godzilla and other aspects of Japanese pop culture,” he said, laughing. But he believes that the picture is incomplete without manga, which he says is different from the globalized, ubiquitous U.S. pop culture because it focuses on daily life, not “superheroes and mutants.”

Yet Yoshiba quickly noted that there’s plenty of sci-fi and fantasy manga, too. Pokémon started as a game, became animé and then manga, reflecting the long and lucrative life span of a hit concept.

Fujimoto noted that manga has a huge impact on young people around the world. But nowhere is that impact as great as in Japan.

That was apparent when I interviewed Tomohiko Taniguchi, councilor in the Cabinet Secretariat of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government. In an elegant office at the prime minister’s residence, Taniguchi moved from macroeconomics to microeconomics — really micro — as he reminisced about when every kid would rush on bikes to the neighborhood book store on the day the monthly manga magazine would arrive. As a 10-year-old, those trips taught him independence and how to be a “little consumer.”

Taniguchi spoke of manga, but he could have been describing the power of pop culture worldwide when he added: “People tend to focus their attention on the creative talent of well-known manga producers. But more important is the societal infrastructure that was created.”


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.