Ten Myths about Manga History

1. MYTH: “The word manga means ‘whimsical pictures’”

REALITY: The word manga starts appearing in Japanese texts in the late 18th century, mostly in the titles of printed collections of sketches. The first known time that it was used in a sentence was in Santo Kyoden’s Shiji [or Shiki, both readings are possible] no yukikai, a collection of sketches of passersby on the road outside Kyoden’s house. Kyoden used the word as a verb, as in “I manga’ed those people,” which suggests that the word meant something along the lines of “sketch, draw,” since it’s more plausible that he meant “I sketched those people” than “I whimsically pictured those people.”

The etymology of the word is unknown, but there was a bird (a spoonbill) written with the same characters as manga (漫画) in Chinese, and there is at least one mention of this bird in a Japanese text around the same time (late 1700s) as the first uses of the word manga to describe drawings. The bird was called by that name because it used its beak to loosely (漫) “draw/write” (画) on the water surface when hunting for fish, so this etymology would make sense. So all evidence points to the word originally meaning something like “drawing/sketching” rather than something more esoteric like “whimsical pictures.”

The word “manga” (lower right) used in Shiji no yukikai

By the way: Though the character combination 漫画 likely originated in China as a name for that spoonbill, today’s Chinese word manhua (漫画) was derived from the Japanese word manga (as specifically denoting cartoons and comics) in the 1920s.

2. MYTH: “Hokusai (or any other particular individual) *coined* the word manga”

REALITY: As already mentioned, there’s no single known person who came up with the word, neither Hokusai nor Kyoden nor the artists who used the term even earlier than them. The most likely explanation is that the combination of characters originated in China as a name for the aforementioned bird and that the meaning of “sketching/drawing” then became an arts term in Japanese (whose meaning would change in multiple ways over the years, so it cannot be said to have a single, essential meaning to begin with).

Image from the Hokusai Manga

REALITY: Besides the word manga (which meant “drawings/sketches” at this point in time), there is no link between the Hokusai Manga and modern Japanese comics. Some writers on manga history like to point to multi-image collages by Hokusai that superficially resemble a multi-panel cartoon, but unlike modern manga, those collages never show sequences unfolding over time. For example, if you do an image search for Hokusai Manga, you’re sure to find the 6-image collage of dudes making faces (shown above) that some writers portray as a 6-panel cartoon. But it’s dudes, plural (check out the different patterns on their coats), not a sequence of the same person making different faces.

The difference between the Hokusai Manga and modern manga is further underscored by the fact that a big chunk of the Hokusai Manga is sketches of plants and landscapes. Hokusai wasn’t interested in telling stories; he simply sketched a bunch of things, some of which were funny images he thought of and which look cartoonish (like the men making faces), but there’s no evidence for a connection between Hokusai and the first Japanese comics.

Image from the Hokusai Manga

4. MYTH: “Charles Wirgman is a revered historical figure in Japan”

REALITY: There is so little research on pre-World War II manga that the vast majority of writing on manga in English is copied entirely from Fred Schodt’s Manga! Manga! Schodt’s book was hugely influential in introducing manga to many people outside of Japan, but it’s almost 40 years old and was never meant as a comprehensive history of manga. But since it’s the only source available to most people writing on early manga, many claims from Manga! Manga! have been repeated ad nauseam and embellished in the process.

One of these claims is that every year there is a graveside ceremony held for Charles Wirgman (who was buried in the international cemetery in Yokohama — you can still visit his grave!). Wirgman founded Japan’s first cartoon magazine in 1862 and is an important figure in the history of political cartooning in Japan, even if Japanese comics have little to no connection to Wirgman’s work. However, the “graveside ceremony” mentioned by Schodt was organized by a small group in Yokohama (which today appears to be defunct) and was never the huge thing that some authors cribbing from Schodt have made it out to be. The vast majority of Japanese people have never heard of Wirgman.

Grave of Charles Wirgman in Yokohama

5. MYTH: “The ‘Frolicking Animals’ chojugiga picture scroll was the first manga”

Excerpt from the chojugiga picture scroll

REALITY: The chojugiga (or any other picture scroll for that matter) has little to do with the history of modern manga. The first part of the chojugiga was created (probably) in the 12th century and while the cute anthropomorphic animals depicted in it do look very cute and cartooney, *centuries* passed between the chojugiga and modern Japanese comics, and there is no evidence of any causal link between them. The connection was made up by a Japanese cartoonist (Hosokibara Seiki) and was embraced by others in an attempt to defend cartooning as a respectable ancient Japanese tradition, but modern manga did not evolve out of picture scrolls.

6. MYTH: “Manga are fundamentally different from comics”

George McManus’s Bringing Up Father, the longest-running manga before World War II

REALITY: Modern manga, in the sense of Japanese comics, developed out of translations of foreign newspaper comic strips in the 1920s and 1930s, which were immensely popular in Japan. The longest-running manga in Japan before World War II was the American comic strip Bringing Up Father, which ran for almost 17 years in the tabloid newspaper The Asahi Graph (the second longest-running prewar manga was the Swedish strip Adamson). While Japanese comics developed a unique mainstream drawing style in the decades after World War II and prospered more than their American counterparts (due to an aggressive and successful 1950s anti-comics movement in the United States that hobbled the American comics industry), the origins of ‘Western’ comics and modern manga are the same.

Oscar Jacobsson’s Adamson, the second longest-running manga before World War II
Even Krazy Kat appeared in Japan in the 1930s

7. MYTH: “There is a continuous, essential thing called manga across history”

REALITY: As already mentioned, “manga” originally just meant sketches or drawings in general. In the 1890s, a cartoonist named Imaizumi Ippyo (who described himself as an “American manga artist” [beikoku manga-shi]), started using the term to describe multi-panel cartoons he had brought with him from a stay in the United States and which he published in the Japanese newspaper Jiji Shinpo. In fact, the first time the word manga was used for a multi-panel narrative (as opposed to non-narrative sketches) was by Imaizumi for a cartoon that was also labeled explicitly as having been copied from a foreign newspaper.

First multi-panel cartoon referred to as a “manga,” 1891

A different cartoonist, Kitazawa Rakuten, became Imaizumi’s successor at the same newspaper and started a regular cartoon section (later supplement) that he called Jiji Manga. The popularity of this cartoon supplement led to the word manga becoming a more specialized term used for humorous and narrative cartoons, rather than sketches in general. Once comic strips began to appear in great numbers in Japanese publications in 1923, the word manga was used for those as well, leading to today’s meaning of “Japanese comics.” Additionally, in the 1930s (and beyond) manga was also the term used for what we today call “anime.” So “manga” not only doesn’t have some exotic inherent meaning like “whimsical pictures,” but it also has meant different kinds of drawn material over the years.

Ads for a “manga festival” (screening of animated films) and King Kong, 1930s

8. MYTH: “Being read right-to-left is an essential element of manga”

1920s left-to-right manga Jogakko-de no Fumi-chan

REALITY: When Japanese newspapers and magazines started featuring American comic strips in the 1920s and Japanese artists started creating the first comic strips made in Japan, both the majority of the translations and many Japanese-drawn works used the Euro-American reading order and were read horizontally left-to-right. It was only in the 1930s that reading manga right-to-left became the norm.

9. MYTH: “Tezuka Osamu invented modern manga”

Scene from Tezuka Osamu’s Lost World featuring foreign and Japanese characters

REALITY: Tezuka Osamu was a huge fan of many of the foreign comic strips published in Japan during his childhood, such as Bringing Up Father and Adamson, which his father collected. By the time Tezuka began publishing his own works in 1946, modern comics had already become firmly established in Japan over the course of the 1920s and 1930s.

10. MYTH: “Big eyes are an essentially Japanese drawing style”

Large-eyed Mickey Mouse in 1930s Japan

REALITY: The big eyes of cartoon characters were originally introduced to Japan via American comic strips and animated films (namely Disney and Fleischer Studios shorts). Tezuka Osamu adopted these disproportionately large eyes for his own characters and due to the success of Tezuka’s comics, the large eyes became a fixture in Japan. But rather than Japanese manga characters’ eyes becoming larger, it’s actually American characters’ eyes that have become smaller compared to before World War II. Just look up images of Mickey Mouse then and today to immediately see the difference.

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