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

Oda Eiichirō, One Piece, volume 62 (May 2011), cover.

Let me close with a couple of related stories from the press. On March 26, the Asahi Daily News reported about how children and teens in Tohoku were starved and desperate for the newest issues of manga magazines. Small children, it was said, went home crying after not being able to buy Korokoro Comic. The most coveted magazine was of course Shōnen Jump, whose weekly per-print-run of 3.5 million is tops in the industry. It’s lead title, Oda Eiichirō’s pirate adventure One Piece, is also industry tops. And more, it is Japan’s all-time best-selling book. Its most recent volume (no. 63, released August 4) had a record first printing of 3.9 million. The previous high was 3.8 million, held by its own vols. 61 and 62, the latter released on May 4, the first since the earthquake. Apparently, paper could be had by those publishers able to sell it. According to the Asahi article, fans searched Tohoku high and wide to read the newest chapter of One Piece in the March 19 issue of Jump. To find a copy, one man drove from Sendai to Yamagata (over an hour by car when roads are clear and fuel plentiful), bringing it back to Sendai, and lending it to a bookstore owner, who posted on his shop window a sign saying “Read it here!! Shōnen Jump March 19th issue, no. 16. One copy available.” Word spread quickly. Kids biked in from over 10 kilometers. More than 100 kids came to read that single issue.

Oda Eiichirō, One Piece Strong Words, volume 2 (April 2011), cover.

On April 3, the Asahi ran another article about One Piece in relation to Tohoku. This one was written by Sasaki Toshinao, a fairly well-known media and technology writer. It’s an appraisal of One Piece Strong Words, a collection of inspirational scenes from the manga. The book is divided into five sections: “Leaving Home,” “Fighting Spirit,” “Readiness,” Wisdom,” and “Parting.” Sasaki cites a few scenes. For example, “If I don’t fight side by side with these guys with all my strength, I have no right to ride the same ship as them!!! I have no right to laugh with them!!!” And, “May your ship never get lost at sea!!! May you never lose your way to this island even in a storm!!! I will wait for you until the bell tolls!!! May we meet again!!! My friend!!!“ Imagine a screaming mouth for every three exclamation points. “In the atmosphere following the earthquake,” Sasaki writes, “the words collected here truly are strong. What we have learned in a time of peace does not come in very handy in times of never-before-experienced crisis. Thus, people feel beaten and powerless. It is at such times that these sorts of frank words strike directly to the heart.” He continues, “Looking back, strong words used to be the butt of jokes during the bubble era, when an hedonistic, dried-out individualism came to maturity with a mass consumer culture. “Friendship” and “solidarity” only came to be taken seriously at the turn of the century, when middle class communities disappeared, and life became difficult. Solidarity between persons has become earnestly sought after once again, and during ‘00s was often expressed as longing for lost ties. Perhaps One Piece, which began serialization in Shōnen Jump in 1997, has served as a medium for those sentiments.” And finally, “During the recent disaster, such solidarity continues to be revived. In these times, the words of this book will surely reach many, and take on new meanings.” This is the kind of free publicity that only multi-decade multi-million weekly print-runs and multi-media multi-billion dollar properties can buy.

At the time of the Asahi article, volume one of Strong Words had gone through three printings and 330,000 copies. Volume two was released in late April with a first run of 300,000. This volume too was covered in the mainstream press. “In the severe conditions following the earthquake,” writes top business paper the Sankei News, trying to account for the book’s popularity, “it would seem that people are looking for ‘strong words’ to keep them going.” Are these writers really so naïve? First, this book would have sold well regardless. Themes of friendship, hard work, and success have been wildly profitable for Jump manga since the late '60s. Second, as with online Jump’s readers, I find it hard to believe that the majority of people who bought Strong Words were victims of March 11. That is not to say the book is unrelated to the post-tsunami moment. Its sections are as follows: “Freedom,” “Love,” “Bonds,” “Evil,” and “Parting Words.” The third, “bonds” or “kizuna,” smacks of post-tsunami pep slogans, visible everywhere on billboards, in train cars, on television, urging the country to support their brethren in Tohoku. The political resonances here are I think telling. The conservative Liberal Democratic Party has adopted the same “kizuna” as its own post-3.11 party slogan, as opposed to the explicit anti-nuclear platform of the Communist Party and groups on the left. The sentiments in Strong Words, like Jump and One Piece in general, might have imparted some fighting spirit to those displaced by the tsunami. The web might have enabled them to get there quickly, when inspiration and comfort was most needed. But this call to national unity is essentially a conservative palliative to what is (especially once the Fukushima meltdown is figured in) a politically explosive situation.

Let’s credit Shūeisha only for what it really deserves: business acumen. One of the biggest boosts to Japanese publishing after March 11 were sales of books and magazine covering the earthquake, the tsunami, the Fukushima meltdown, and related topics. Publishers have made a bundle particularly on tsunami-related photobooks. If manga has suffered since March 11 and is looking for a way to recover, perhaps it could learn a lesson here: the disaster in Tohoku is a commercial opportunity. Whoever edited Strong Words vol. 2 at Shūeisha probably recognized this, as presumably did those who pushed for free web access after the earthquake – a move that received a suspiciously large amount of news publicity. Tokuma also knows this, keeping “The Day Japan and I Shook” going while Comic Ryū is recuperating. The publishers reviving post-Three Mile Island manga, post-Chernobyl manga, and works treating the prehistory of the Fukushima problem – they all know it too. Saitō Takao also knows it, because his post-earthquake Survival (1976-78) has been getting lots of web coverage and increasing shelf space in bookstores. Hopefully smaller publishers will follow suit. It could be to everyone’s benefit. They could use the sales and publicity. We could use better artistic responses to the disaster.