The Death of Manga: Failure to Adapt

Like all print media, Japanese manga might just be a victim of the times we live in. Manga, or Japanese comic book, sales peaked in 1995, at the end of the Dragon Ball saga in

Shounen Jump, and haven’t risen to comparable levels since [1]. For a short while, although domestic manga sales were falling, the manga market was able to find new life in the West, especially in American markets, but that well of consumers has dried up since its peak in 2007 [2]. Until about 2012, Western manga sales dropped 43% among consumers [3][4]; this decline in sales wasn’t helped by the collapse of Borders, one of the biggest manga selling chains in the US, or by the financial crisis of 2008. Manga is in a unique situation, both at home and abroad, where it is a form of print media suffering the same ailments as most print media, but is having difficulties adapting to a digital form.

Cause of Death

What was once manga’s greatest strength, is now perhaps one of its greatest weaknesses: its young audience. The population decline in Japan is slowly draining the pool of potential readers for manga, and youngsters abroad can’t afford the higher prices of manga when it’s easy to find for free on the internet. While some publishers have taken to targeting older and older audiences, such as with Weekly Comic Bunch’s publication of the Fist of the North Star sequel, it’s simply unsustainable as the readers begin to die off [2]. It’s also impractical and



environmentally irresponsible to spend money on physical copies of manga, often printed with cheap ink on cheaper paper, when living spaces are becoming smaller and smaller. Some consumers complain that many manga are all the same, and that few new artists dare to break the mold of a genre [1], but it’s difficult to hire talents you aren’t sure are going to do well in such a tight market. The current magazine model itself is outdated and broken, relying on people to buy 400-500 page magazines every week or month just to read one or two currently running manga that they like so that less popular authors will receive spillover readership. But perhaps, this isn’t the death of manga, just the death of manga as we know it.

Cellphone Manga

While print manga sales are declining, the cellphone manga industry is booming. Sales hit ¥4.6 billion in 2005, doubled in 2006 [5], and reached sales totals of ¥42.8 billion in 2009 [6]. Part of the boom can be explained using the usual reasons digital media is outgrowing print media in the West: convenience and price, but another huge reason is its discretion. The most popular genres of cellphone manga are pornography, romance and comedy [6], and there’s an obvious gender imbalance in who’s buying these manga. Keitai Shueisha reports a readership of 70% women, 30% men [6], and one of the biggest selling genres in cellphone manga is the boys’ love genre. Cellphone manga cuts out the embarrassment of having to buy the manga in store, as well as the risk that someone might catch you reading it in public. Of course, there are drawbacks to cellphone manga, such as the difficulty of printing full manga pages on small cellphone screens, and it still doesn’t solve one fundamental problem in manga publishing: how to showcase new talents.


While many traditional publishers are stagnating, the self-publishing or doujinshi industry is booming. While a great many doujinshi are pornographic in nature, there have been several mega-hits, such as Hetalia and One Punch Man, and many less-popular web comics are finding their own loyal readerships. Some popular comics, such as Kyo no Nekomura-san, Boku OtarymanTonari no 801-chan and the two mega-hits stated above have all received anime adaptations or have one planned for the near future.

New Wave: 4-panel Manga

One of the fastest growing genres in manga is the yon-koma or 4-panel style manga. Chapters tend to be a series of four panel long stories that play off gags, geekiness and fanservice. They’re popular among more casual readers, since they have no long, drawn out plot like Dragon Ball or One Piece, and the reader can start reading from any point in the story.

Shounen Jump begs fans not to upload scans of their manga online

Shounen Jump begs fans not to upload scans of their manga online

They also have the benefit of being easy to read on computer screens and smartphones. While many critics have doubted the ability of 4-panel comics to be a hit abroad, due to their difficult to translate jokes that often rely on cultural context [2], this is reputed by the popularity of Azumanga Daioh, K-ON!, Lucky Star, Sunshine Sketch, and Hetalia, both domestically and internationally.

Legitimizing Fan Translators


It’s no surprise that manga publishers hate fan translators, but one solution to the stagnation of the manga market is to try and reincorporate its former Western audience by integrating fan translators. Several attempts have been made, specifically by Ken Akamatsu, creator of j-comi, a website devoted to legally digitizing out of print manga by encouraging Japanese pirates to upload their scans. The most ambitious project, Digital Manga Publishing’s Digital Manga Guild, invites fan translators and typesetters to localize titles in a profit-sharing agreement, but they lack the draw of big name publishers.


 The problem is that most publishers lack any kind of digital strategy, and one or two websites with mid-tier obscure titles isn’t going to have the draw that huge aggregate scanlation sites have. Manga isn’t going to disappear—despite its stagnation, it’s still a much larger industry than the American comics industry, it just might have to learn to adapt or face a far smaller variety of titles in publication in the future.



Discussion Questions:

1. Two concurrent trends are happening in manga: the growing popularity of four-panel slice of life comics and increased nostalgia for 70’s and 80’s sci-fi manga. Overall, do trends in the manga industry point to a move towards or away from Azuma’s database model?

2. Due to the drop in sales abroad and domestically, is Japan losing some of its “National Cool”?

Related Links:

“The Anime Economy” by Justin Sevakis:

Kentaro Takekuma and Ken Akamatsu: “The role manga editors should take in the e-publishing era”


[1] Wiseman, Paul. “Manga comics losing longtime hold on Japan.” USA Today. 18 October 2007. Web. 26 April 2015.

[2] Thompson, Jason. “Why manga publishing is dying (and how it could get better).” io9. 23 January 2012. Web. 26 April 2015.

[3] ICv2. “A second bad year in a row for manga.” ICv2. 16 April 2010. Web. 26 April 2015.

[4] Hudson, Laura. “ICV2 projects graphic novel sales down 20%, digital comics up over 1000% in 2010.” Comics Alliance. 7 October 2010. Web. 26 April 2015.

[5] Hall, Kenji. “Mobil-phone manga storms Japan.” Bloomberg Business. 9 April 2007. Web. 26 April 2015.

[6] Akimoto, Akky. “Possibilities are endless as Japan’s manga fans turn cell phones into libraries.” Japan Times. 17 November 2010. Web. 26 April 2015.