Early Origins of Japanese Comics

Choja Gigu handscroll

Burstein Collection / Getty Images

The tradition of narrative art or telling stories with a series of sequential images has been a part of Japanese culture long before Superman ever put on a cape. The earliest examples of pre-manga artwork that influenced the development of modern Japanese comics are commonly attributed to Toba Sojo, an 11th-century painter-priest with a whimsical sense of humor.

Toba’s animal scroll paintings or choju giga satirized life in the Buddhist priesthood by drawing priests as mischievous rabbits, monkeys engaging in silly activities including farting contests, and even depicted the Buddha himself as a toad. While there are no word balloons or sound effects in Toba’s paintings, they do show a progression of events, happening one after another as the scroll is unrolled from right to left. This tradition of reading images from right to left continues today in modern manga.

In later years, Toba’s influence on manga was acknowledged with the introduction of Toba-e or “Toba pictures,” an 18th-century style of humorous images bound in books, accordion style. Created by Shimoboku Ooka, Toba-e relied on visual humor and used few words.

The Funnier Side of Hokusai

Another influential artist in the development of modern manga was Katsushika Hokusai, the famous 19th century ("floating world pictures") artist and printmaker. While Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print images of 36 Views of Mount Fuji are known the world over, his manga sketchbooks are also some of the best early examples of humor in Japanese art.

Hokusai was also the first artist to use the term "manga" or "playful sketches" to describe his humorous images. Hokusai’s manga includes irreverent images of men making funny faces, sticking chopsticks up their noses and blind men examining an elephant. Originally intended as sketches for his students to copy, Hokusai manga was distributed throughout Japan.

Shunga — the Erotic, Exotic and Outrageous

Shunga, or erotic art is another popular genre of Japanese prints and painting that has influenced the development of modern manga.

The exaggerated eroticism of shunga ("spring pictures") imagery often included suggestive metaphors for genitals such as long eggplants or mushrooms and even depicted outrageously large penises engaging in intercourse. Shunga’s influence continues to be seen in contemporary manga, especially hentai or sexually explicit manga.

Yokai — Gruesome Ghosts and Monsters

Another example of influential pre-manga Japanese artwork includes prints of yokai or mythical Japanese monsters.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi created several popular prints featuring yokai, as well as scenes of ghosts, warriors committing seppuku and true crime stories. His exquisitely rendered scenes of graphic violence have made him popular with contemporary art collectors and has influenced modern horror manga masters such as Maruo Suehiro (Shojo Tsubaki, or Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show) and Shigeru Mizuki (Ge Ge Ge No Kitaro)

Political Satire — Kibyoshi to the Japan Punch

Manga has a long and strong tradition of poking fun at society and mocking the rich and powerful. Kibyoshi or "yellow cover books" satirized Japanese political figures and were very popular in the 18th century (whenever they weren’t banned by the authorities).

After Commodore Perry opened up Japan to the West in 1853, an influx of foreigners followed along with the introduction of European and American-style comics. In 1857, Charles Wirgman, a British journalist, published The Japan Punch, a magazine modeled after a popular British humor publication. George Bigot, a French art teacher, started Toba-e magazine in 1887.

While both publications were originally intended for the non-Japanese expatriates living in Japan, the humor and artwork in the pages of The Japan Punch and Toba-e caught the attention of native Japanese readers and artists. Ponchi-e or "Punch-style pictures" began to appear as Japanese artists were inspired by Western-style comics and began the evolution toward the uniquely east-west style that is modern manga.

East Meets West and the Beginnings of Modern Manga

At the dawn of the 20th century, manga reflected the rapid changes in Japanese society, and the influence of Western culture in this once isolated nation. Manga artists responded enthusiastically to imported artistic styles and began mixing Western comics with Japanese ideas.

Rakuten Kitazawa was one such artist who embraced this East meets West sensibility. Inspired by popular comic strips such as The Yellow Kid by Richard Felton Outcault and The Katzenjammer Kids by Rudolph Dirks, Kitazawa went on to create popular comics features, including Tagosaku to Mokube no Tokyo Kenbutsu (Tagosaku and Mokube’s Sightseeing in Tokyo). In 1905, he founded Tokyo Puck, a magazine showcasing Japanese cartoonists.

Kitazawa is considered to be the founding father of modern manga and his artwork is displayed at the Omiya Municipal Cartoon Hall or Manga Kaikan in Saitama City, Japan.

Another early pioneer was Ippei Okamoto, the creator of Hito no Issho (A Life of a Man). Okamoto was also the founder of Nippon Mangakai, the first Japanese cartoonist's society.

Kitazawa, Okamoto and many other artists of this late Meiji — early Showa period tapped into the excitement and anxiety felt by many Japanese people as their nation left their feudal days behind to become a modern industrial society. But this was only the beginning of even greater changes for Japan because the Land of the Rising Sun would soon go to war.