History of Manga - Manga Goes to War

Comics in Pre-War, World War II and Post-War Japan 1920 - 1949

Norakuro Suiho Tagawa manga
Norakuro by Suiho Tagawa. © Suiho Tagawa

Ganbatte! The Fight for Children's Hearts

In the years leading up to World War I, Japan’s leaders had ambitious plans. Once isolated from the world, the island nation set its sights on extending its influence into Asia, especially nearby Korea and Manchuria.

Against this backdrop, magazines inspired by Western comics including Shonen Club for boys and Shojo Club for girls were established in 1915 and 1923. These popular publications included illustrated stories, photo features and light-hearted fun for young readers.

However, by the 1930’s, these same magazines featured heroic tales of Japanese soldiers, and showed its cheerful characters holding guns and preparing for battle. Manga characters such as Suiho Tagawa’s Norakuro (Black Stray) the dog took up arms, to instill values of sacrifice on the home front and valor on the battlefield in even the youngest Japanese reader. "Ganbatte", meaning "do your best" became the rallying cry for manga created in this period, as Japan and its people prepared for the conflict and sacrifices ahead.



Paper Warriors and Propaganda Messengers


With Japan’s entry in to World War II in 1937, government officials cracked down on dissident artists and artwork that was counter to the party line. Cartoonists were required to join a government-supported trade organization, Shin Nippon Mangaka Kyokai (The New Cartoonists Association of Japan) to even be published in Manga Magazine, the only comics magazine to be published regularly amidst wartime paper shortages.

Mangaka who weren’t fighting on the front lines, working in the factories, or banned from cartooning drew comics that followed the government’s guidelines for acceptable content. Manga that appeared in this period included gentle, family-style humor making light of the shortages and ‘make-do’ inventiveness of wartime housewives or images demonizing the enemy and glorifying bravery on the battlefield.

Manga’s ability to transcend language and cultural barriers also made it a perfect medium for propaganda. As Tokyo Rose’s radio broadcasts encouraged allies to give up the fight, illustrated leaflets created by Japanese cartoonists were also used to undermine the morale of the Allied soldiers in the Pacific arena. For example, Ryuichi Yokoyama, the creator of Fuku-chan (Little Fuku) was sent to the war zone to create comics in service of the Japanese military.

But the Allied forces also fought this war of images with manga, thanks in part to Taro Yashima, a dissident artist who left Japan and resettled in America. Yashima’s comic, Unganaizo (The Unlucky Soldier) told a tale of a peasant soldier who died in the service of corrupt leaders. The comic was often found on the corpses of Japanese soldiers in the battlefield, a testament to its ability to affect the fighting spirit of its readers. Yashima later went on to illustrate several award-winning children’s books, including Crow Boy and Umbrella.



Post-War Manga: Red Books and Rental Libraries


After Japan’s surrender in 1945, American armed forces began their post-war occupation, and the Land of the Rising Sun picked itself up and began the process of rebuilding and reinventing itself once again. While the years immediately following the war were filled with hardship, many restrictions on artistic expression were lifted and manga artists found themselves free to tell a variety of stories once more.

Humorous four-panel comic strips about family life such as Sazae-san were a welcome reprieve from the harshness of post-war life. Created by Machiko Hasegawa, Sazae-san was a light-hearted look at daily life through the eyes of a young housewife and her extended family. A pioneering female mangaka in a male-dominated field, Hasegawa enjoyed many years of success drawing Sazae-san, which ran for almost 30 years in the Asahi Shinbun (Asahi Newspaper). Sazae-san was also made into an animated TV series and radio serial.

The shortages and economic hardships of the post-war years made purchasing toys and comic books a luxury that was out of reach for many children. However, manga was still enjoyed by the masses through kami-shibai (paper plays), a kind of portable picture theater. Traveling storytellers would bring their mini-theater to neighborhoods, along with traditional sweets that they’d sell to their young audience and narrate stories based on the images drawn on cardboard.

Many prominent manga artists, such as Sampei Shirato (creator of Kamui Den) and Shigeru Mizuki (creator of the Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro) made their mark as kami-shibai illustrators. The heyday of kami-shibai slowly came to an end with the arrival of television in the 1950’s.

Another affordable option for readers were kashibonya or rental libraries. For a small fee, readers could enjoy a variety of titles without having to pay full-price for their own copy. In the typically tight-quarters of most urban Japanese homes, this was doubly convenient, since it allowed readers to enjoy their favorite comics without taking up extra storage space. This concept continues today with the kissaten or manga cafes in Japan.

After the war, hardback manga collections, once the backbone of mainstream comics publishing in Japan were too expensive for most readers. Out of this void came a low-cost alternative, akabon. Akabon or ”red books” were named for their prominent use of red ink to add tone to black and white printing. These cheaply-printed, pocket-sized comics cost anywhere from 10 to 50 yen (less than 15 cents US), and were sold at candy shops, festivals and by street vendors, making them very affordable and accessible.

Akabon were most popular from 1948-1950, and gave several struggling manga artists their first big break. One such artist was Osamu Tezuka, the man who would forever change the face of comics in Japan.