Will Japan follow America's lead on digital manga?
VIZManga's new digital platform.
February 14th, 2012
02:24 PM ET

Will Japan follow America's lead on digital manga?

In most cases of what's hip and new, the Japanese are ahead. Otaku worship their eye for culture for a reason, after all.

But it just might be that that same culture is what holds them back when it comes to a landscape that Americans are quickly becoming intimate with: the digital format.

As we move bravely into the digital age and face cries of "Print media is dying!" it's no surprise that manga is popping up on more iPads than ever before. And Americans love it: The more easy access we have to our favorite media sources, the better.

On the other hand, a country like Japan that is known for its deeply entrenched traditions may not be as easy to convert. After all, modern manga debuted there in the '40s, but its roots go as far back as the 18th century. It's not unusual to ride the subway in Tokyo and see people of all ages and stations in life with their faces buried in a hot-off-the-shelves copy of "One Piece" or "Naruto."

The feeling of holding that trusty book in one's hand is a habit, a groove of comfort. And replacing it with a tablet presents more complexities to some longtime fans than one might think.

Could the evolution of digital manga be a case where America's otaku take the lead, and Japan follows suit?

VIZManga has announced that it is the latest to join in the recent movement of digital publishing, debuting its "Shonen Jump Alpha" on the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch and making popular series such as "Bleach," "Naruto," "One Piece" and "Bakuman" readily available to fans.

Since Shonen Jump is one of Japan's longest-running manga anthologies (since 1968), it brings up the question of whether fans who have been reading for many years will take kindly to a format change. It seems like evolution to digital would be viewed only as an improvement, but that is not so for all consumers.

Rampant piracy of manga has been a longstanding issue for the industry's bottom line. And as major U.S. distribution studios shut their doors, such as Tokyopop in 2011, it's clear that the manga industry is forced to evolve. But is digital publishing the answer? And how will Japanese and American audiences respond to it?

To truly understand manga from a fan's perspective, you have to speak to one who has developed the habit of reading it in the same devoted way the Japanese do.

Saku, a veteran cosplayer and hardcore manga reader since 1997, is just that kind of fan. She feels that there is value in owning the physical book compared with a digital copy.

"Call me old-fashioned, but I like the feel of an actual book in my hands and having control of turning the pages back and forward. It also makes me feel closer to the actual mangaka (manga creator), because they take a lot of time putting detail into their panels."

"For instance, 'Bakuman' is a great series that shows the difficulties and struggle that mangaka go through. I feel if readers understood what a creator has to go through to create just a single volume of manga, they would prefer print also."

Saku prefers to own a physical collection rather than digital copies of the series she loves. However, not every fan feels the same way.

Illustrator and longtime manga fan Maximo Lorenzo loves the format because it helps him stay organized. "I prefer to read most of my comics digitally because I read so much and have so little space. I'd much rather save shelf space for the best of the best.

"Besides, it's really easy to whip out my iPad to show my friends good comics on the fly."

The trend of digital downloads in music, movies and gaming could work for manga if enough fans are OK with reading it and discarding it when they're finished - and fans like Lorenzo prove that. Many Americans seem to prefer this, but does this go against the heart of how the Japanese feel about manga as a medium?

Vertical Inc., a publisher that focuses on U.S. distribution of Japanese manga and novels, believes that manga may not be an exact fit for the digital vision because of Japan's outlook on the format.

"In Japan, people ignore digital content as meaningless and ephemeral," Vertical Marketing Director Ed Chavez said. "Digital comics exist, but only the titles the mainstream accept ever get any recognition. Even digital initiatives by major publishers are ignored until those comics are in print, as publishing is treated in very high regard in that country.

"In a strange way, readers on each side of the Pacific view the same digital content from a 180-degree perspective."

It's worth mentioning that the Japanese originally disliked the iPhone as well, but for different reasons. It may be that they are simply slower to evolve when it comes to manga going digital, but with time, it may become more accepted. We can only wait and see.

How do you prefer to read manga? Do you feel as if seeing the books on your shelf is important, or would you just as soon read them and delete them from your device?

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. M

    Also, what a stupid POS article!

    March 6, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  2. Hans

    I liked the way Timo Vuorensola (Director of Star Wreck) put it IIRC: Piracy is bringing cahgne to the industry. And not just bringing, but forcing it, with a gun pointed straight at its head. If you don't adapt to the situation, you will die. It's us, the consumers, who have the power now. Yes, the rightsholders might sue you and they have all the legal right to do so. However, at large, on the long run, that doesn't cahgne anything. People are going to pirate everything they can, unless the industry can offer something better, something that is so much better (or something that cannot be copied) that people are willing to pay for it, instead of downloading a pirated copy from the Internets. That's the point we and the industry is at.The funny thing is, the media industry has fared much better in twisting the legislation to its whims than other industries. Think of the Finnish paper industry for example factories being closed down because they haven't adapted to cahgne of lower demand for paper (not that the paper workers' union would accept those cahgnes anyway). However, they haven't been able to lobby for legislation that helps their cause, unlike the media industry.Anyway, I digress. Change is coming, like it or not. And that cahgne is in the form of a very big gun being held at the temple of the media industry. Adapt, or be destroyed.

    March 5, 2012 at 3:30 am |
    • Maty

      Your post suggest its okay to pirate stuff. I wholeheartedly disagree! The biggest problem thus far with digital is the perceived 'worthlessness' of digital content on the part of the pirates and the end user. Manga, music, etc. all cost money to make- if no one is getting paid, there will no longer be quality content. Sometimes I think people deserve SOPA.

      March 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
      • Andrei Cantey

        Support those companies that create your favorite heroes and items. I always do. Justice!

        May 9, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Michael

      I did too the JNTO doesn't quite call it an otaku map, rather they call it an anime map (probably bceause of the negative connotations of otaku , obviously) but the article I linked to at Forever Geek did call it otaku . Hence my use of quotation marks.

      September 14, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  3. Maty

    Print for me. I read several of the monthly manga mags digitally, but overall, I prefer the heft of a thick, square, black, white and backwards book.

    March 4, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Kavya


      July 3, 2012 at 2:29 am |
  4. santa

    Harry made an important point about how hard it is to give up smoking. I couldn't stop either , til I started researching about the mind and how it gets addicted so easily. Seriously you can quit you just need a little help. Anyway I found this vid and it's free. Hope tghis helps someone else. http://tinyurl.com/FreeGregoryHypnosisVideo
    Thank you

    February 20, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  5. macphile

    I didn't know manga was online...is it legal? I might read it. I'm awfully lazy and just watch anime.

    February 16, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  6. 程开宇


    February 16, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • M

      I think I know what you mean- I've had trouble with my print subscription transforming to digital (Shonen Jump Alpha!)- I think it'll work out if we all decide the content is worth it!

      March 5, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
      • M

        I prefer print, anyways.

        March 5, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • Anji

      / no one in either group wants to work togeehtr. we are doing our own high quality releases because in our opinion, using the public raws available isn't good enough.

      November 15, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  7. Catherine44123

    I read tons of online manga but only out of necessity. If I want to be up to date with my favorite manga then I have to. I prefer the actual book though and I have several print manga.

    "Otaku" is actually an offensive term that not only applies to anime superfans but any other obssesive fandoms. There are anime otakus as well as idol otakus. It's not limited to anime and manga, it has a pretty bad connotation.

    February 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  8. Shannana

    I'm not buying my son an iPad just so he can continue to get his subscription of Shonen Jump. We will cancel our subscription.

    February 15, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • M

      Ketsu! Metsu!

      March 5, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  9. binky42

    Digital manga? Oh, you mean those things that used to be called "Scanlations" that were available online for free? Then the manga distributors sent "cease and desist" letters to all the scanlation websites, and manga sales promptly dropped by 15%? What they didn't realize is that free scanlations = free advertising. They shot themselves in the foot.

    February 15, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • macphile

      Are scanlations gone? It's not been that long since I last saw such a site, I think, not that I frequent them (see my other post about being too lazy to read, LOL).

      Anyway, what I want is my favorite anime. All of it. And that's hard to achieve. The legal copies are WAY behind. The less-legal copies are awful. Ideally, I want to just download the whole mess to my hard drive. Not watch it streaming–I want to own it. And I'll pay and all that. I just want it.

      February 16, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • M

      Scanlations are crap that were basically crappy stolen pirated versions of stuff. If you prefer that to actually PAYING the artists- then you're no fan of manga.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
      • Andrei Cantey

        I support that comment!

        May 9, 2012 at 4:21 pm |