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

The destruction of actual books and magazines, however, was the publishing industry’s biggest blow. This segment is Suzuki’s strongest, combining hard facts with useful diagrams of how the industry functions in Japan. He opens by citing a May report from the Japan Publication Wholesalers Association (Nihon shuppan toritsugi kyōkai). It details the following losses just for distributors: 440 million yen (5.5 million USD) in warehoused books, 960 million yen (12 million USD) in uncollectible receivables (unsold stock deposited at retailers on consignment), and 1.7 billion yen (21.3 million USD) in accounts receivable (books sold but not yet paid for). Suzuki does not explain what all this industry jargon really means, and I imagine it would be unclear to the mainly teen and young adult readership of Comic Ryū. Adding other costs like building repairs and reconstruction, the losses for distributors alone totaled 3.8 billion yen (47.5 million USD). Most of these losses stem from earthquake and tsunami damage at 787, 104 of which were destroyed either entirely or partially. You might be imagining inundated bookstores and toppled shelving units, photographs of which exist online. But an equally representative image would be a wrecked convenience store, the largest mover of magazines in Japan, comics included. Total industry damages, as stated earlier, are approximated at 5 billion yen (62.5 million USD).

Suzuki Miso, "The Day Japan and I Shook," Comic Ryū online (July 29, 2011).

As Suzuki points out, the question is who will cover these losses. The answer is not obvious because the Japanese book and magazine trade operates almost wholly on consignment. Suzuki explains the fix through a series of helpful diagrams. In Japan, distributors (who double as wholesalers in certain cases) buy the entire print-runs of books and magazines from publishers outright, with the right to refund if they do not sell within a given timeframe. This provides publishers with enough capital for the next publication, but it also creates a situation where the more a publisher does not sell the more they are compelled to print, in order to cover expenses from the previous loss and keep things running. Retailers meanwhile only pay for what they sell, and only after they sell it. Thus the large loss above in accounts receivable. Weekly magazines can typically be returned within forty days. Monthlies within sixty. Other sorts of publications vary on both the type and the publisher. Suzuki says that comics are not returnable, but I don’t think is true. What booksellers in Tokyo have told me is that only very few manga are unreturnable, like those with dated inserts. Some publishers even allow returns up to six months after delivery. What happens afterwards also depends on product and publisher. Books typically end up stocked at publisher warehouses. Sometimes they are recirculated, sometimes with new covers. Sometimes they are pulped, which is what happens to almost all returned magazines. Publicized print-runs, therefore, are typically not a reliable gauge of a book or magazine’s true popularity in Japan. Overall industry return rates average around one-third, and about 8% of this eventually gets pulped.

The tsunami, by destroying unsold bookstore stock as well as books at distributors both on their way to retailers and on their way back to publishers, has created a serious problem for this state of perpetual inflation. Suzuki’s companion describes the situation as “shoplifting by the gods.” He doesn’t expand, but I assume the idea is simply that, as retailers are not liable for books lost to theft, so now they are not liable for the books lost to natural disaster, so therefore presumably distributors are forced to foot the bill for books they typically would be able to return to publishers. As a result, one imagines, the distributors are not financially able to buy publishers’ next run of books and magazines. Suzuki reports towards the end of the chapter that a deal will probably be reached before the end of the year detailing how publishers and distributors will share the losses. He asks, “Will publishing be able to survive this tide?” The answer, of course, is yes. One reason big publishers rebounded as quickly as they did after March 11 is precisely because manga is not just part of the publishing industry. It is also an integral part of a wider and much bigger entertainment industry that might get many of its ideas from stories first appearing in print, but does not rely solely on book and magazine sales for revenue or market penetration. Presumably those publishers without such transmedia properties, whose business is literally water soluble, will end up suffering the most from March 11.

Suzuki Miso, "The Day Japan and I Shook," Comic Ryū online (July 29, 2011).

Suzuki starts to explore this question when he turns to e-publishing. But humor here gets the better of serious analysis. Suzuki dresses himself up like Ken from Fist of the North Star, changes the scenery to that comic’s post-apocalyptic wasteland, and is visited by a prophet in robes bearing an i-phone. The prophet declares a future free from ink, paper, bookstores, distributors, and the labor of distribution. “The seed of electricity will rescue publishing,” he promises. Presumably, Suzuki is referring here to e-publishing’s potential as an alternative to Japan’s inflationary consignment system, as well as to how digital asserted itself as a stopgap after March 11. According to the Japan Magazine Publishers Association, 234 different magazines had to postpone their release date in the weeks immediately following the earthquake. Sixteen magazines were cancelled outright. As stated earlier, a number of magazines decided to temporarily make their content accessible for free online. However, Suzuki answers the question of motivation somewhat contradictorily. The economic dimension, on the one hand, is stated more frankly here than it has been in the press. In response to Suzuki’s dreaming of an e-comic future, his editors explain that the real reason Comic Ryū and “The Day Japan and I Shook” has been made available online is because Tokuma expects to make back costs by selling the serial as a printed book. The thinking reflects the common sense about manga magazines. As scholar Nakano Haruyuki has written, “magazines are tools to create books”: feeding authors, keeping production regular, maintaining a regular relation between editors and artists, making artists and characters a regular part of a reader’s life, and publicizing lesser known artists and titles. The post-earthquake decision to go digital was likely informed by some or all of the above. The desire to further popularize digital platforms, quickly rising in Japan and dominated by comics, was certainly also a factor.

Yet, as with Disney, here too Suzuki plays mouthpiece to the voice of corporate benevolence. Against Suzuki’s vision of an e-future, Tokuma’s editors explain how hard they worked after March 11 to ensure readers got their beloved manga. They ran about to secure gas and transport. They made deals on ink and paper. They slept at printers to make sure deadlines were met. The passage ends with a group of children delighted to finally get their hands on Shōnen Jump (as well as Comic Ryū), all thanks to the sweat and sacrifice of the manga industry. Even though Suzuki touches on it later, no mention is made at this point of why such hard work was necessary given the material and financial situation after the earthquake and tsunami. One is left to discover the contradiction for him or herself. Instead, he ends his thoughts on e-publishing with the following naiveté: “Here I thought that everything would go digital after the earthquake, but on the contrary people rediscovered print by passing books around.” No doubt, book and magazine donations made life in Tohoku’s refugee camps more tolerable. But I doubt print was given new life in the process. What fans want is “content.” The envelope is simply a matter of necessity and convenience.