Manga 3.11: The Tsunami, the Japanese Publishing Industry, Suzuki Miso’s Reportage, and the One Piece Lifeboat

Since July, the number of manga authors making work about the March 11th earthquake and tsunami has increased noticeably. There seems to be a new book every week or so on related topics, and numerous spot treatments in periodicals. Short diaristic accounts are most typical, narrating the day of the disaster, trips north to be part of the relief efforts, or warm remembrances of a pre-disaster Tohoku (Northeast Japan). In most cases the artists have donated writing fees to charity or have written for charities directly. Prominent artists have participated in charity book signings. Original artwork has been sold at fund-raisers. Major and minor artists alike have visited schools, community centers, and refugee camps to conduct volunteer manga drawing classes for displaced schoolchildren.

The publishing industry in general has donated generously. On March 22, for example, various industry organizations came together to form the Earthquake Response Center (Daishinsai shuppan taisaku honbu). Its initial purpose was to organize information about disrupted distribution and supply channels for those in the industry. Its main public contribution has been the Book Donation Project, through which hundreds of thousands of volumes have been collected and delivered to heavier hit communities. Another group of some 350 publishers, distributors, and retailers were hoping to deliver more than 100,000 donated books and magazines to Tohoku children by “Reading Day” on April 23. Amongst them were Doraemon, Kamen Rider, and two hundred other titles for a total of 20,000 volumes from Shōgakukan. Kōdansha, at the request of the Ministry of Culture and Science, donated 30,000 volumes of children’s books, young adult material, and comics at the end of March. As for manga specifically, in May Tezuka Productions and Takarazuka City (site of the Tezuka Osamu Memorial Museum) together donated ten sets of 87 volumes of the author’s work, including Phoenix and Black Jack, to cities in Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures. In June, Aoyama Gōshō, author of the popular Detective Conan, began a manga donation drive through newspapers and the internet, collecting more than two-thousand books in just over a month. Half of them were given to refugee centers in his home prefecture of Miyagi, and the other half to the Meiji University-run “Manga Terakoya,” a free comics reading space in Urayasu, an area of reclaimed land on the north side of Tokyo Bay badly damaged by the earthquake. Famed gekiga author Saitō Takao, whose studio is in Tokyo but who lives in Iwate Prefecture, donated 5 million yen to IBC Iwate Broadcasting’s charity fund. At 80 yen to the dollar, that’s roughly 63,000 USD.

Weekly Shōnen Jump, no. 15 (March 14, 2011), cover. One of the Jump issues made available for free online by Shūeisha after March 11th.
Weekly Shōnen Jump, no. 16 (March 19, 2011), cover. One of the Jump issues made available for free online by Shūeisha after March 11th.

The manga industry, like the publishing industry in general, now appears as a community that “makes a difference.” This public image boost is certainly merited, having raised both money and spirits for the victims of March 11. Yet sometimes I think the press has been a little overgenerous. For example, in the weeks immediately following the quake, many of the top comics magazines – including Shōnen Jump, Shōnen Magazine, Young Magazine, Morning, and Shōnen Sunday – could be read for free on the web and in some cases on cell phones. Shūeisha was first with Jump. Kōdansha made available six comics titles. Shōgakukan nine. A number of non-comics publishers did the same. This was most immediately an answer to the difficulty of distributing printed matter because of road damage, track damage, and fuel shortages. However, the press has consistently framed particularly manga publishers’ decision to go digital as an act of selfless giving to displaced and distraught Tohoku youth. Indeed, the Shūeisha site for Shōnen Jump, which reportedly had one million hits on the magazine’s release date alone, did receive messages of thanks from readers in afflicted areas. However, if you don’t have a home you probably don’t have internet, and cell phone distribution implies a target of teens, young adults, and older. Given the concentration of the Japanese population, most of those million-plus readers were presumably in Tokyo or further down the archipelago. Tellingly, the big three (Shūeisha, Kōdansha, and Shōgakukan) all pulled their free online content at the end of April, which is to say once transportation networks to Tohoku’s main cities became reliable again, and once the larger book and magazine retailers in the area reopened – which is to say, once the market was operating well enough to absorb the print-runs of magazines.

Given the economic troubles caused by March 11, it is hard to believe that the short experiment with free web content was not motivated primarily by self-interest. Publishing after all is a business, and the big houses are all corporations. This business, like many others, was hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami. Major paper and ink producers were incapacitated by the tsunami. Publisher and distributor warehouses suffered heavy losses of stock from the earthquake. Infrastructural damages slowed or blocked deliveries. Some 787 retailers were reportedly damaged or destroyed, leading to over three billion yen (38 million USD) in lost books and magazines. Total industry damages, including stock losses at distributor warehouses and projected retail outlet repair costs, are approximated at 5 billion yen (62.5 million USD). Sadly, the public school system, just before the new school year (which begins in April), lost 504,399 textbooks worth 250 million yen (3.1 million USD).

All of this is salt in an open wound. Things have leveled out recently, but since the mid 1990s the Japanese publishing industry has been contracting a few percentage points per year. For certain segments of the market, that rate increased after March 11. One top publisher reported that sales in Tohoku and 23 wards of Tokyo dropped 15% in the month following the earthquake. In and around Tokyo, electricity cuts, shorter business hours, reduced train and bus schedules, and fear of leaving the house are said to have been some of the reasons for the slackening of consumption in general. In publishing, most severely affected have been magazines, the market of which has shrunk by almost 7% over the past year. The total print-run of manga periodicals dropped 13.3% over the same period. Compare this with a contraction of 7.3% over the course of 2010. As an industry that depends on magazines for both revenue and publicity, this does not bode well for Japanese comics. It’s not clear yet to what extent the earthquake and tsunami themselves are to blame for these numbers, but combined with the losses on March 11, it has made business very difficult, especially for smaller publishers. Most of the large houses rebounded quickly, but many smaller ones remain in danger.

The Japanese publishing industry itself does not claim a significant portion of the national economy. Grossing 1800 billion yen (22.5 billion USD) in 2010, it is less than half of one percent of GDP. The comics market is about 400 billion yen (5 billion USD), not quite one fourth of publishing. However, if one considers how books and comics provide “content” for entertainment industries (movies, animation, video game, et cetera) the publishing industry’s role in the economy is much greater than book and magazine sales suggest. Such a more widely defined “manga industry” underlies approximately 3000 billion yen (37.5 billion USD) of entertainment product. Needless to say, its impact on culture and society is profound. That said, one would think the publishing industry’s trials since March 11 would be prominent news. But there’re not. There were a few newspaper articles in late March and early April about the immediate damages. For developments since, one has to dig in trade publications. Information specifically on comics is even more rare. The public has been reminded many times over how manga is helping Tohoku, but there is almost no one writing about how the industry itself has suffered and changed. Of course, it will probably be a year before the dust settles and a full picture can be had. Still, enough time has passed since the first blows for at least a sketch.