Pop culture or political football? Archiving manga and anime

Catching up with last week’s papers, I came across two interesting articles from the Japan Times. They show how times have changed from the days when anime and manga were regarded as disposable kids’ entertainment or low-class trash, but how some attitudes from those days still hang on – especially among the political classes.

Kabuki and bunraku were not always regarded as ‘real’ culture. Just like the works of Shakespeare and Mozart, they were seen as cheap disposable entertainment for the sentimental, ignorant masses. Only with time did we realise that not only can great artists transcend media and genres to produce something with universal impact and validity, but that we can learn a lot about a society and its people from their cheap disposable entertainment. Not everyone agrees with this approach, though.

Back in April, Japanese Government reports showed that a budget had been set aside to create a new museum, tentatively named the Kokuritsu Media Geijutsu Sogo Senta – roughly translated, the National Center for Media Arts.

The proposed NCMA, © Agency for Cultural Affairs

The proposed NCMA, © Agency for Cultural Affairs

The acronym NCMA will tempt Americans and Brits of a certain age to burst into a song-and-dance parody of the perennial Village People hit YMCA, but it’s acquired an even more derogatory name in its homeland. When Yukio Hatayama, newly-elected president of the Democratic Party of Japan, had his first debate with Prime Minister and self-proclaimed anime and manga fan Taro Aso, Hatayama dismissed the NCMA as a “State-run Manga Café.”

As the Japan Times reported, by making it a personal fight with the Prime Minister, using it to imply that his taste in off-duty entertainment is the sole justification for an ¥11.7 million charge on 2009’s budget, Hatayama has made the NCMA big news. Yet the Japanese government promoted new media and arts  for many years before the election of a manga-reading Prime Minister. The Agency for Cultural Affairs has hosted a fortnight-long Japan Media Arts Festival every year since 1997, and Japan’s Basic Policy on the Promotion of Culture and the Arts formally declared its intention of nurturing young media artists and art forms in 2002.

It’s not all about anime and manga either – technology and digital arts will be just as prominent. Labelling it as a personal project to please the Prime Minister, a waste of public resources, Hatayama seems to be dismissing the idea that building such a museum now will help to stimulate Japan’s economy and support the development of creative industries for the future.

Whatever Japan decides to spend on culture – and it currently spends a third less than South Korea and seven times less than France – it comes not a minute too soon. Japan’s rush to recovery and economic success after World War II led, unintentionally but catastrophically, to destruction on many other fronts. Natural habitats were devastated, old buildings were torn down, ancient arts and crafts struggled to survive.

Some Japanese were aware of the importance of their ’low’ culture, and made efforts to preserve it. Yoshihiro Yonezawa, one of the founders of the mighty Comiket fanzine market and one of Japan’s first manga critics, was a voracious comic collector. By the time of his death in 2006 he had amassed a huge collection of over 140,000 items. Among his treasures is the first issue of Tetsujin 28, better known in the USA as Gigantor, but the most interesting thing about his mass of material is not its value, but its breadth. He collected rental manga from the postwar era, ladies’ comics, manga sold from vending machines, supplements, manga given away as gifts and prizes, anything that caught his magpie’s eye.

Now, a team led by Kaichiro Morikawa of Tokyo’s Meiji University is sorting and cataloguing the mass of material ready for the opening of the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library of Manga and Subcultures, planned to open in Summer 2009. It will feature exhibits, a reading room and archives, and will also include doujinshi, fanzines collected by Yonezawa and another Comiket colleague, Tsuguo Iwata, also recently deceased. Morikawa has long term plans for fostering Meiji University’s involvement in popular cultural studies. He is working with the current Comiket team, which holds and archive of over 2 million doujinshi, and the Contemporary Manga Museum, whose history stretches back over thirty years.

In 1978, Toshio Naiki set up the Contemporary Manga Library in Tokyo’s Waseda district, with 27,000 books from his private collection and another 3,000 gathered from friends all over Japan. He had been lending his manga to friends since he was eighteen, and saw the need for a proper manga lending library. His was the first manga collection to analyse, classify and archive  manga and related materials and make them freely available to researchers. The collection now numbers around 2 million items and is used by over 6,000 people every year. In 1997 Naiki was honoured with a special award from the first Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize committee. But for fans like Naiki and Yonezawa, many vital strands of manga history would have vanished forever. Libraries all over Japan now collect and preserve manga – the Kyoto International Manga Museum has a useful list of links – but some official collections have their deficiencies. For example, the Diet Library, Japan’s national library, archives manga, but removes and destroys the original covers.

Other efforts were led by foreigners. Alex Kerr is a writer and calligrapher, author of Lost Japan and a longtime campaigner for the preservation of what remains of Japan’s vernacular built environment. There are agencies to preserve castles and temples, but the everyday architecture in which people lived their lives is often simply bulldozed and replaced. Kerr rescued and restored a remote Japanese farmhouse, and is part of a company that buys up old houses in Kyoto and renovates them as tourist accommodation to save them from being bulldozed.

American scholar Dr. Jeffrey A. Dym spent two years in Japan researching kamishibai, a 20th-century mix of graphic art, theatre and storytelling that was once a familiar sight on every street corner in Japan. When television took over its market, hundreds of thousands of pieces of kamishibai art were destroyed. Only in the past few years has their importance been realised: aside from its significance to students of folklore, history and social anthropology, kamishibai art was an important influence on manga and anime, and employed some of today’s manga legends to make that largely-destroyed art.

Some of these efforts have even gone outside Japan. In the chaos of the postwar years, many local publications with small print runs didn’t survive to be archived and studied. These included some of Osamu Tezuka’s early works done for the Osaka market. A clutch of lost Tezuka works, some previously unknown, were uncovered by Dr, Takeshi Tanikawa of Waseda University in the vast archives of the Gordon W. Prange Collection in the University of Maryland Library.

Prange was the official archivist to the Allied authorities occupying Japan after the war. When the Occupation ended, his papers were boxed up and sent home, and like many Americans he donated them to his old college. It wasn’t until 2005 that a Japanese team compiled the database used by Dr. Tanikawa in his research. It’s thrilling to think that on the shelves of the University of Maryland there could be lost or unknown comics, and even lost or unknown artists, whose work could add another page to the history of manga.

Until quite recently, anime and manga were regarded as ephemeral and not worth serious attention. With the recognition that they are mines of literary, cultural, social and historic information, not to mention huge sources of foreign currency, has come a greater awareness that studying and developing manga and anime is not only good scholarship and good cultural practice but also good business. ‘Cool Japan’ is a brand, a clever way to package the national identity for sale to foreigners, but research and study of manga, anime and media will help the whole world to understand and appreciate the development of one of its most diverse and engaging street cultures.

One thought on “Pop culture or political football? Archiving manga and anime

  1. Pingback: Dangerous Addictions: cautionary tales for otaku « A Face Made for Radio: Helen McCarthy's Blog

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