Manga/Manga? Renaming the medium, Ishinomori-style

The accepted form for "manga" and Ishinomori's proposed rewriting

Most manga fans know that the word gekiga, or ‘drama pictures’, was coined in the late 1950s to distinguish a new wave of angry young manga from the rest. I thought that was as far as renaming manga went.

There are names for the many subdivisions of Japan’s comic industry – shonen, seinen, yaoi and so on – and despite the efforts of a generation of young artists, gekiga is another. Manga – the ambiguous conjunction of kanji whose translations sound so awkward in English – remains unchallenged as the worldwide name for all Japan’s comics.

Then I found this page on an artist’s website.  In 1989, thirty years after the arrival of gekiga, the great Shotaro Ishinomori also tried to create a new and more accurate name for manga – but not by inventing a new word. He decided to remake the existing word, with a change of kanji to give it a new, more relevant emphasis.

Ishinomori was one of the wave of schoolboy manga fans influenced by the work of Osamu Tezuka to seek a career in comics. He was born in 1938, coincidentally on the same day as fellow Tezuka fan and manga artist Leiji Matsumoto, and made his professional debut in 1954, aged 16, with Nikyu Tenshi (Second-Class Angel). Before he died in 1998, he created Cyborg 009, Kamen Rider and the TV shows starring colour-coded hero teams which eventually became Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

In terms of output he was almost as prolific as Tezuka, and actually published more individual comic titles. In 2008 the Guinness Book of Records named him world record-holder for “most comics published by one author” with 770 individual titles. It was another point scored in his lifelong competitive relationship with his mentor. He and Tezuka were good friends and sincerely liked and admired one another. Tezuka even found a bride for him in 1964. But they were also competing professionals.

Tezuka’s unexpected death in 1989 left the manga and anime industry in a state of shock. In March that year, Big Comic Spirits ran an article entitled “The Memory of The Late Osamu Tezuka Works Like The Wind,” summing up the Tezuka era. The prospect of a new era for manga, and a strong feeling that Japanese history education placed too much emphasis on rote learning, seems to have inspired Ishinomori to consider the role of comics in the late 20th century.

In a lecture at Tokyo Kaikan, reported in a July 1990 issue of Asahi Newspapers’ weekly magazine AERA, Ishinomori gave his reasons for the “Manga Declaration”, the proposal he made in 1989. He pointed out that comics were effective educational tools, encouraging the use of imagination rather than just memory. He also noted the diversity and breadth of both the manga medium and its audience. No longer simply ‘cartoons’ or ‘funny papers’, manga had developed in many ways.

The first kanji of the word manga means involuntarily or at random. Ishinomori felt it didn’t properly reflect manga’s diversity, development and potential. He proposed switching it for another kanji read as ‘man’. Though it has the same sound, this one stands for a big number or group. It’s most often read as ten thousand. Ishinomori translated his amended ‘manga’ as ‘million art’, pictures with infinite possibilities.

Name changes were obviously on his mind. In 1986 he had marked his 30th anniversary as a cartoonist by changing his pen-name from Ishimori to Ishinomori. His birth name was Shotaro Onodera. When choosing a pen name he always intended to be called after his hometown, Ishinomori. But reading Japanese names is fiendishly difficult even for the Japanese. Everybody read  the rookie cartoonist’s kanji as Ishimori.

Thirty years on, the manga megastar finally got the reading he originally wanted. His company, established before the change, is still Ishimori Production Inc., but both museums devoted to him bear the Ishinomori name.

Unfortunately, his attempt to change the reading of ‘manga’ was less successful. He hoped that his new way to write the word would spread, or at least encourage others to try their own ideas.  “I will start to use this kanji for my manga, and if other manga artists and readers endorse this, I want the kanji to take hold. (If there is a better generic name for manga, I will endorse that.)” Nobody has come up with a better generic name, but the old kanji are still in  use.

Was the “Manga Declaration” a failure, then? I don’t think so.

It shows that a forty-something at the top of his profession can be as passionate about its value and as engaged with change as any teenage newcomer. It shows manga as a living medium, still capable of challenge and change. It marks an acknowledgement that when giants and heroes and founding fathers die, those left behind must carry on breaking new ground and responding to a changing world.

Twenty years on, Ishinomori’s idea still has a lot to offer.

8 thoughts on “Manga/Manga? Renaming the medium, Ishinomori-style

  1. Thanks for a most fascinating post. It made me think that a similar thing happened with the word ‘karate’. The old kanji meant ‘Chinese hand’, but when Funakoshi introduced the art to the Japanese mainland (from Okinawa) in the 1920s, he changed the ‘kara’ kanji so it read ’empty’ – empty hand. Another martial artist (Chomo Hanashiro, I think, from memory) had done this before, but it was Funakoshi’s that stuck. At that time the Japanese were not too fond of the Chinese, hence the change!

    • That’s interesting. Names are very powerful, even in this sceptical age – and the notion that the label you assign to something can enhance or limit its power is, of course, absolutely irresistible to a writer!

  2. Pingback: Yen Plus poll, Mushishi, and renaming manga « MangaBlog

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  6. Hello, greetings from Venezuela.

    I mention that I loved the review you wrote about Ishinomori sensei.

    much more than a mangaka and voice of a generation.


  7. Pingback: Celebrating Shotaro Ishinomori (because someone has to.) | Blog of the North Star

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