An Introduction to Japanese Comics

Manga in Japan

Manga ("comics") is a tremendously popular medium in Japan, and is often exported worldwide along with its upstart cousin, anime. But manga differs from American and European-style comics, wherein the medium often presupposes audience and content.

Manga sales amount to over five billion US dollars annually in Japan. For the past twenty years, at least a third of all books and magazines published in Japan are manga. Popular manga magazines have regular circulation of over a million.

It's a huge business.

Manga is published primarily in magazines - usually weekly or monthly - containing over 300 pages of comics. A magazine will be targeted at a specific audience, such as boys, history buffs, homemakers, or businessmen, and a single issue will contain new episodes of ten to twenty ongoing stories.

Presumably because of high postal rates and the low quality printing of most manga, subscriptions are marginal. Most manga magazines and books are sold in special bookstore sections or public kiosks.

Tankoban are usually called "graphic novels" in English. They are compilations of a dozen or so episodes of a single story, printed on higher-quality paper than the pulpy magazines. Tankoban are popular with collectors - they receive best-seller status after having sold around two million copies, as opposed to 100,000 copies for non-manga books.

Popular manga are also translated and distributed worldwide, making the market even wider.

Manga Translation and Sales Around the World

Manga is usually translated with an eye towards pop-culture appeal; as such, it tends to be clearly and engagingly translated. Furthermore, many manga are footnoted or otherwise annotated to explain references to Japanese history and culture that may be unfamiliar to its non-Japanese readers.

In addition, translated manga is easily accessible in chain bookstores and specialty comic shops; many manga have also been translated into other European languages, primarily Spanish and French.

All About Flipping

Because written Japanese is ordered differently than most European languages, books are organized and comics are drawn to be read in a different fashion than might be expected.

Japanese text is generally read from top to bottom and then right to left. For this reason, books are held with the binding on the right-hand side and pages are turned to the right instead of to the left. In addition, the default mode of perception is first vertical, then horizontal.

Due to the innate marriage between drawn space and perceived time in a comic, Japanese manga cannot be intuitively scanned by people accustomed to European languages. While the images will look fine, an English-speaking (or any other left-to-right reading language) reader will tend to follow the progression of panels in the wrong order.

To combat this, most manga is flipped horizontally when it is translated and published outside of Japan. Generally, this allows for an intuitive reading of manga. However, the artwork does suffer a little bit. Some styles of foreshortening and dramatic lighting can look a little bit silly when flipped.

Recently, there has been a trend towards publishing manga in English translation that has not been flipped. The right-to-left orientation of the artwork is preserved, and with a little bit of practice, it's possible to train the eye to scan the page 'backwards'.

Unfortunately, some manga is also translated in a cruder fashion, wherein the panels are rearranged so as to be read from left to right, but the illustrations themselves are not flipped. This results in very awkward-looking pages that are really hard to read.

Examine scans of non-flipped, flipped, and partially-flipped manga to see the difference for yourself.

Card Captor Sakura manga - completely flipped Blade of the Immortal manga -  partially flipped Fake manga - not flipped
From a Flipped Manga
Card Captor Sakura)
From a Partially Flipped Manga
(Blade of the Immortal)
From a Non-flipped Manga
-Brian Kerr Click to learn more about Brian


Ito, Kinko. "Sexism in Japanese Weekly Comic Magazines for Men." Asian Popular Culture. Ed. John A. Lent. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.

Mangajin Magazine. Mangajin's Basic Japanese Through Comics. New York: Weatherhill, 1998.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Paradox Press, 1993.

McCloud, Scott. Reinventing Comics. New York: Paradox Press, 2000.






For comparison's sake, US book sales for 1999 totalled $24 billion.

(Source : Association of American Publishers)












The manga Blade of the Immortal, by Samura Hiroaki, is partially flipped. For most of the English-language version, the original panels have actually been cut out and repasted in left-to-right order, to avoid mirroring the artwork.


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The University of Michigan Japanese Animation Group
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