Wandering back to our hotel from a countertop ramen shop in Kyoto, we came across a sign that read, “Kyoto International Manga Museum.” Finding it serendipitously surprised us since we had told the tour group arranging our trip that manga and anime topped the list of what our grandson wanted to explore in Japan. Suggestions on what to do with our free time in Kyoto mostly involved geishas, kabuki and cherry trees (not in bloom).
We followed the sign into the museum, and then manga became my top attraction in Japan. The one and most important activity in the museum is reading. On the day we were there, the museum had guest speakers talking about manga as a cultural phenomenon, but mostly visitors were there to read some of the more than 300,000 volumes of manga, which are ways of telling stories through drawings and words: graphic novels, or, some would say, comic books.
What better place to hold a museum dedicated to reading than a former elementary school. The Tatsuike Primary School opened on November 1, 1869, after the nation’s capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. That brought about the threat of economic decline, but the citizens of Kyoto turned to education to stave off a downfall. The citizens around the Tatsuike school raised money to build it, taking no money from the Kyoto government.
In recent years, as people moved out of the city’s center, the student population fell from 800 in the 1950s and 1960s to 110 in 1994. Five schools were consolidated into one school in 1995, leaving the Tatsuike building vacant.
However, the school is in the central part of the city, the building is attractive and has a rich history and tradition. So, the school was converted into the Kyoto International Manga Museum “intended to serve as a new center for promoting lifelong learning through maximum use of the Museum’s functions as both a museum and library. The Museum is also expected to become a new sightseeing spot where people gather to enjoy the richness of manga culture.”
How best to tell the story of the school? Through manga, of course. Those volumes are in the museum.
At one time, manga “was misunderstood as harmful, and, at another was something people were ridiculed and thought to be stupid for reading,” says a sign introducing Aramata Hiroshi, the executive director of the museum. “But we have left those days behind us, as manga has begun to be valued as one of the coolest cultural media.”
Hiroshi, 76, worked as an assistant editor for an encyclopedia while writing an award-winning novel, “Teito Monogatatari” (Tale of the Imperial Capital). As a writer and translator, he has produced 350 books and once sought to become a manga artist. He says he has been reading manga for more than 60 years.
One guide on our trip told us that manga dates back more than a thousand years, starting with a story about a rabbit and a frog fighting each other. The unlikely winner was the frog. But he was a sumo frog. Anyone fact-checking that tale would probably find more Pinocchios than in a Trump campaign speech. This history of manga is probably more reliable.
The museum does include a few ancient drawings, but the goal of the museum is to preserve modern manga, which is still being produced in reams and reams of paper.
“This museum handles printed items (mostly magazines and books of manga) that were published from the modern age. . . . manga magazines have shaped the diversity of Japanese comics and manga is not only about stories, but also conveys knowledge and makes complicated information easily accessible thanks to their expressive devices.”
The museum’s “Hall of Fame” dates from 1912, and what is there is for people to read.
Given my love of comics (see https://madcapschemes.com/2023/03/11/as-papers-kill-comics-a-museum-is-saving-them/), finding another museum devoted to them filled my suitcases and emptied my wallet. Manga covers everything from children’s stories, adventure tales, science fiction, fantasy and non-fiction topics such as history.
Told in comics.
My cup of oolong tea.
I purchased three volumes on the history of Japan from 1926 to 1989 and ordered the fourth and final volume when I got home.
“Showa: A History of Japan” refers to the era when the late Emperor Hirohito reigned, from 1926 to 1989. The author, Shigeru Mizuki (1922 – 2015) lived through that era. In the earliest days of Showa, the nationalism, militarism and extreme worship of the emperor, led to bad things for Mizuki, Japan and the world. Mizuki spent World War II on New Britain Island, now part of Papua New Guinea, where an artillery barrage took off his arm. He was not a good soldier and fell victim to the beatings common in disciplining the Japanese armed forces.
He grew up in poverty, starved during the war and returned to poverty after Japan’s defeat. The wars (World War II and the Second Japanese-Sino War from 1937 to the end of WW II) left few yens for most Japanese. But war also had a part in spreading wealth across Japan as their country was the center of resupply for both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Those U.S. dollars helped Japan rebuild after the devastation from WW II.
Mizuki tells the Showa story in three ways: using old photos printed in stark black and white to tell the general history of international events and how Japan fit into them. He draws his own life story in cartoons and uses another of his manga creations to narrate. Nezumi Otoko (“Rat Man”) is there to introduce important personalities in Japanese politics, identifying who were the Japanese commanders in WW II battles (amazing how many committed suicide when their country was defeated – or were hanged by the Allies) and explaining the restrictive laws enforced before the war, such as the Public Security Preservation Law of 1925, under which anyone “altering the national identity” could be imprisoned (sounds like a model for DeSantis legislation). Nezumi Otoko is part of yokai, or Japanese supernatural beings such as ghost, goblins and monsters. Mizuki used them extensively in his manga, and besides, Morgan Freeman can’t narrate everything. Lots of footnotes also help.
In a recent column, Maureen Dowd bemoaned the dwindling enrollment in humanities as students fled history, art, philosophy, sociology and English into the fields of tech and science.
“I find the deterioration of our language and reading skills too depressing,” she wrote. “It is a loss that will affect the level of intelligence in all American activities.”
With artificial intelligence about to let loose with all kinds of things in every activity, Dowd wonders if we will be able to deal with it “unless we cultivate and educate the non-artificial intelligence that we already possess.”
Manga might not restore the level of Americans intelligence, but it’s better than “the kinetic world of . . . phones, lured by wacky videos and filtered FOMO photos . . . flippant, shorthand tweets and texts.”
There’re words on those manga pages. Best to have a museum dedicated to reading, first manga and eventually on to “slowly unspooling novels” such as “Middlemarch” and “Ulysses.” I’m one for two on that front. One more Showa book and then, maybe, I’ll try again to meet “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” and the rest of the Irish gang. Maybe.