As manga enthusiasts like to say, there’s a manga for everyone. Whether you want to read about teenage athletes, serial killers, anthropomorphic cats, nuclear clean-up workers, powerful librarians, or homeless deities, you’ll find a work of manga about them. And London’s British Museum is currently exploring that variety in the largest exhibition of manga ever to take place outside of Japan, looking at the visual narrative artform’s global appeal and cultural crossover, and showcasing its influence around the world.
Manga and anime (Japanese animation) offer the first formative exposure to the culture for many non-Japanese people around the world. This is true of Korean cartoonist Yeon-sik Hong, who documented his family’s attempts to achieve work-life balance in the graphic memoir Uncomfortablyy Happily. Hong says: “When I think of the Japanese culture, the first things that come to my mind are manga and animation. Many Koreans who don’t have any knowledge about comics and animations will think in the same way. I think those two represent Japanese culture.”
This is a positive association, Hong believes, even though Korean-Japanese relations are complex. After all, “most Koreans still remember well Japanese invasion of the country and its colonial rule. So we call Japan a country that is so close, yet so far.” The closeness includes geographical proximity, as well as an understanding fostered by pop culture.
Of course there has been some resistance on both sides. Korean comics in Japan tend to be localised, or scrubbed of Korean design and language elements, for the sake of a Japanese audience accustomed to reading homegrown content. Notoriously, the 2005 Japanese Manga Kenkanryu (“Hating the Korean Wave”) expressed a minority view in Japan of Korean cultural inferiority. Manga Kenkanryu was followed by similar books in Korea, taking aim at Japanese culture. The tension was prompted in part by a growing rivalry in pop culture exported around the world, including Japanese manga and Korean manhwa.