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"Comics" or "Manga"? You won't believe what this bookstore did

"Comics" or "Manga"?

(Yes, I just wrote a "you won't believe..." article title. It's 2015, and it appears we're now all required by law to use that format.)

Here's an interesting addition to discussion of the terms "comics" vs "manga". As in this article, I've long pointed out that, while it's fine for speakers of English (or any language) to adopt the word "Manga" to mean illustrations from Japan or of a certain Japan-originated style, that usage happens to differ from the actual Japanese word "manga". In general usage in Japan, manga (漫画 or まんが) is applied to any sort of illustration that falls under the broad comic book / comic strip description. Action Comics #1 (introducing Superman!), a Tin-Tin comic, a thick Dragon Ball compilation, a MacNelly political cartoon, a 4-panel Kobo-chan or Garfield strip... In Japanese, it's all equally manga.

Unless it's not. The English word comics – or English-derived komikku コミック, I should say – is also a word applied to the art form in Japan, even your favorite made-in-Japan Evangelion series (or what have you). Check this out:

The image here is my own photo from southwest Tokyo, taken in a store of a major Japanese bookstore chain. The bookstore is arranged as you'd expect, with distinct sections for magazines, kids' books, textbooks, hobby books, novels, on and on. The sections' racks, naturally, are labeled with big signs to guide shoppers.

This store kindly uses bilingual signs, with English translations below the Japanese section labels. (That's not uncommon in a big city.) For example, there's the big section 雑誌, subtitled MAGAZINES below. And the section サイエンス, subtitled SCIENCE. And so on. What's interesting is how this chain labels that big section with One Piece and Sailor Moon and Weekly Shonen Jump and a thousand other comics titles old and new (probably including a selection of DC and Marvel goodies). The main Japanese label on top of the sign is... not manga 漫画, but rather komikku コミック. And below that, the English (or romaji) label for international visitors wanting their fix of print comics is... MANGA.

Yes, this chain labels its funny books komikku コミック for its everyday Japanese-speaking clientele, and MANGA for the foreign visitors.

Hm. I don't know that there's some big lesson to be gained from this, other than a reminder that people do what they do, regardless of what rules some "culture" is "supposed to" follow. So, here's the interesting (if very trivial) takeaway from this little post: When some connoisseur of the popular visual arts tells you, "Oh, the Japanese would never confuse those foreign comics with their own works; they distinguish theirs as manga", don't believe it for a second. Here's a Japanese bookstore chain that places precisely the opposite labels on its goods!


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