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By BIANCA BOSKER
August 31, 2007
Wide-eyed superheroes, latex-booted heroines and wild-haired supervillains might seem like unlikely international goodwill ambassadors, but Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs hopes they will be just that. The politicos are gambling that manga and anime -- distinctive forms of comic books and movie animation, respectively -- and the diehard fans who dress up as their favorite characters in homemade costumes to attend conventions (the practice is called "cosplay") will spruce up Japan's image abroad. It's a risky bet.
Manga got its start in post-World War II Japan when cheap entertainment was in short supply. But it wasn't until the late 1980s that Japanese comics gained notice abroad. Now the U.S. market for anime is worth approximately $4.35 billion, according to the Japan External Trade Organization. Annual manga sales in North America have more than doubled since 2002, totaling $200 million in 2006 according to research firm ICv2.
The Japanese government wants to capitalize on this growing popularity. Japan's cultural diplomacy has generally focused on more traditional Japanese art forms, such as kabuki and noh theater and okiyo-e woodblock prints. These days it's doubling down on cartoons.
In June, it awarded the first International Manga Award. Recognition went to four non-Japanese cartoonists from Malaysia, Australia and Hong Kong for their help in advancing manga abroad. Grand prize: a government-sponsored 10-day visit to Japan. This autumn, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will introduce an Anime Ambassador program to boost interest in anime films overseas. Tokyo anticipates spending at least 20 million yen ($175,000) a year on this new "manga diplomacy campaign."
But while Japan's use of manga and anime relies on their proven market appeal, the content and fan base of these trendy products make them ill-suited for Japan's public relations campaign.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the highly sexualized nature of the form, which can be exceptionally seedy, if not illegal. Earlier this year, 13 manga comics, including "Rape Me in My School Uniform" and "Pedophile's Banquet II," were labeled "harmful books" by the Kyoto Prefecture for featuring excessive sexual acts involving girls under the age of 13.
Anime and manga also tend to perpetuate negative images of daily life in Japan. Madeleine Rosca, one of the International Manga Award winners, notes that the cartoons did nothing to sell her on the country. "Japan comes across as a bit scary culturally—terribly formal and deeply strict," she explains. "Most of the stories we get tend to be stereotypes showing heavy workloads and strictness, and a super-adherence to tradition."
Nor are the cartoons immune from the politics that color Japan's international relations more generally, and especially with its neighbors. As Ming Wan, director of the global affairs program at George Mason University, cautions, there is a limit to how much Tokyo can push its cultural products before manga and anime are viewed as government propaganda. This is especially true in China, where some already see Japanese manga as a tool of indoctrination. An article published by the Chinese paper Global Times in June 2006 accused manga of trying to "retell history" to cover up Japan's war crimes and infect Chinese children with Japanese values.
And there's a certain weirdness factor. The nearest American counterpart to anime-inspired costume play may be Star Trek and Star Wars conventions, whose participants also dress up as their favorite characters. Those gatherings have entered the broader cultural consciousness more as a source of late-night television humor than as a viable goodwill export.
Despite these drawbacks, at Ani-Com Hong Kong, a comics fair held in late July, it seemed that Sailor Moon, Detective Konan and the other stars of Japanese cartoons have been making friends for Tokyo. Cosplay competitors at the convention said their attraction to manga and anime had developed their interest in Japan. Many had taken up study of the language, and others were saving up to visit manga's homeland.
If capturing the youth "vote" is the goal, Tokyo may be on to something. At the Hong Kong convention, a group of five 18 year-olds dressed as ninjas from the Japanese video game Tenchu posed for photographers. "Arigato!" they called to their fans, brandishing their fists and samurai swords. "We love Japan!" But will their parents?
Ms. Bosker recently completed a Robert L. Bartley Fellowship at the Far Eastern Economic Review.