Takeshi Matsui’s paper on the diffusion of manga in the US

From the Princeton Unviersity Centre for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies comes an intriguing working paper from Takeshi Matsui, “The Diffusion of Foreign Cultural Products: The Case Analysis of Japanese Comics (Manga) Market in the US.”

Manga represents 56% of the US graphic novel market, a statistic that surprised me given the appeal of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and the likes; further, as Matsui argues, manga even exerts an element of “soft power” as an influence on American college students taking up Japanese as a second language.

Altbough there are numerous accounts from industry players, fans, librarians and journalists, Matsui’s paper is apparently the first overtly academic treatment of the rise of manga in the US market. His paper stresses two broad themes: path dependency of market growth, and stigma management of the negative image of comics in the US market:

The first is the path dependency of market growth created through marketing differentiation  behaviors by the US major manga publishers. The US manga market was created in the late 1980s by Viz, owned by two major manga Japanese publishers, the currently largest manga publisher in the US.

While anime such as Speed Racer was distributed on national TV network in the US since the 1970s (Cha 2008; Kelts 2006) and had became popular before manga, very few people in the US were exposed to manga before Viz started their business in 1987. Therefore, Viz had to adapt manga to suit traditional American comics’ format in order to attract comic readers who were not familiar with manga. Such marketing efforts, which are called localization by international marketing theorists (Levitt 1983; Ryans, Griffith, and White 2003), increased American manga readership gradually. Following Viz’s lead, other publishers adopted this Americanized manga format and it became de facto in the 1990s. However, after 2002, Tokyopop, the second largest publisher, started to launch “authentic manga,” which retains original Japanese format at affordable prices. Tokyopop’s strategy, called standardization—the selling of identical products in foreign markets—has worked very well since 2002 and has accelerated the growth of the market. In referring to path dependency, I mean that without Viz’s pioneering effort in the localization of manga in the 1980s, Tokyopop’s standardization in the 2000s would not have been able to boost the market expansion that has lasted five years to date; on the other hand, without Tokyopop’s standardization, Viz’s localization effort would not have resulted in the market growth. Although it is a truism for economists that competition is essential for the growth of markets, the case analysis here shows that there is an appropriate order in the marketing efforts employed by competitors.

Another key finding, which is relevant to the first, is the stigma management by local publishers to prevent the stigmatization of manga and establish the legitimacy of manga as acceptable form of entertainment (Goffman 1963; Lopes 2006). The manga publishers have sought to avoid the stigma attached to comics in the US in order not to ruin their efforts to market manga. This is a problem faced by foreign cultural products when their counterpart has been sold for many years and established a stereotypical image in the market where the foreign cultural products will be launched. Lopes (2006) argues that American comics remains stigmatized as serving masculine superhero or serving immoral desire in comic books with sexually explicit material (p. 403). In a society in which people views comics as stigmatized media, early manga publishers were forced to choose titles carefully and sometimes modify the contents. This kind of modification was unthinkable for Japanese creators/publishers, as due to the fact that Japanese manga is owned by creators. The US manga publishers’ censorship made it difficult for them to get the license of popular titles from Japanese creators/publishers. This problem finally forced the US manga publishers to create systematic age rating systems, which Japanese publishers never had. In addition, preexisting stigma in the US led manga publishers to face the view of manga as boys’ entertainment, decreasing chances of a broader demographic market. This stereotype makes it difficult to sell mangas to girls and adults, groups which have considerable share in the Japanese manga market historically.

The Diffusion of Foreign Cultural Products:
The Case Analysis of
Japanese Comics (Manga) Market in the U

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