Autism in Japanese Manga and its Significance on Current Progression in J-pop Culture

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Updated: Jan 11, 2019
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In this paper I will explore and examine Autism in Manga, the social and cultural context of Autism in Manga, its movement, and importance of Tobe Keiko’s, “With the Light.” Manga is a huge part of Japanese culture and can be appreciated by so many different people. There are different types of Manga that have been specifically produced for that type of audience. In this paper, I will address the less talked about, women’s Manga or also known as “Josei Manga.” This Manga was mostly read by housewives and Mothers in Japan. At the time, there were not many topics of interest that can relate to the everyday challenges of being a stay home Mother or raising a child with special needs. Many of the more popular Manga at the time were based around fantasy fictional characters that were unrealistic to everyday life. These highly popularized Manga were great for an escape, but many Mothers and wives were in need of something more relatable that had the potential for community and support. Tobe Keiko’s Manga has led to a great significance in raising awareness of Autism and disabilities in the Japanese mainstream Manga scene.

Keywords: Autism, Autism spectrum, Autism in Manga, Disabilities, Japanese Manga, Awareness, diversity, inclusive settings, acceptance, visual literacy

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Autism in Japanese Manga and Its significance on current progression in J-pop culture

I first grew an interest in Japanese pop culture when I was in Middle school. We never had cable growing up, so I used to watch a Japanese channel 18. This channel had exposed me to some of the first Anime that I could remember watching. Not understanding the language, I was drawn to the artistic style and characteristics of the anime I would see on the television screen. Soon after I started taking Japanese classes in Middle school. My teacher throughout the years had shown us films and Manga that she was interested in. Some of these manga included, Chibi Marico Chan, My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Mononoke, this was just the start of my new obsession at the time. Having learned much of my early drawing skills from manga, I would also practice my Japanese alphabet by learning to read the character’s dialogue throughout the pages.

After my first nephew was born, he wasn’t like all the other kids growing up. He didn’t crawl, he didn’t speak until he was much older, he didn’t really like to socialize with the other kids. He always seemed tired and was very particular about what he wanted and the order of things. I started volunteering in his pre-school class and later came to find out that he was on the Autism spectrum. Most people have their stigmas and judgments with Autism. He had been first in our family on the spectrum so much of his condition was really unknown to me at the time. I have learned about Autism over the years through my interactions, care, and love for him. Autism is ever changing and progressing. He is now 8 with a love for comics, video games and anything animated. This brings me to the topic of why I have chosen Autism in Manga. I have witnessed first-hand what Manga can do for Autism and what Autism can do for manga.

Cultural and Social Backgrounds of Autism in Japan

To address Autism in Manga we first have to disclose the events that led up to the results of inclusion of Autism and other disabilities in Manga and Japanese culture. The cultural and social history of Autism and other disabilities in Japanese culture have a significance on its own that have caused changes in current society. As well as the Western world, Japanese culture have also had its discriminatory views about Autism and disabilities. Many other countries and nations have had these similar issues with discrimination and bias with diversity. Our country till this day is continuing to work on its own issues with race, religion and socio-economic status of our fellow Americans. Japan has had an incredibly complicated past with disability and figuring out the balance of harmony within it. Since Japan was a country founded on harmony, the relationship between disability and harmony in Japan have continued to be a complicated one. The original ideas and philosophies of Japanese culture have originated with the aspects of harmony and coexistence. “Japanese fundamental cultural philosophy was based upon the ideas of harmony and coexistence with nature rather than domination” (Murakami & Meyer, 2010, p. 204). As the country began to develop and grow, those who had disabilities were unable to do the tasks that were necessary for the community to thrive. In return, those who had special needs were seen as outcasts and also considered a waste of food or a good for nothing (Murakami & Meyer, 2010). This was hard information to learn about, but not surprising because our history as Americans have similarities as well. It was difficult to learn and research about the mistreatments of Japanese people who had disabilities be treated as anything less than human. Such difficult topics create more opportunity for change and awareness in society. Even though history can at times be desolate and woeful, it can allow reflections and ways that we can implement new ideas that haven’t worked in the past. Being able to address history can make way for brighter ideas that can help us from repeating the past. New notions of how society can be developed in ways that can include all of its members and communities. One of these ideas that set a cultural staple in Japan was and continues to be, Manga.

Development: Time line of cultural/social context, autism in manga

Manga, before the war, consisted of the first know cartoon characters that were illustrated by artist, Katsushika Hokusai (Figure 1.1). Hokusai’s famous cartoon faces, and humorous comedic scenes were Japan’s first known manga at the time (“A Short History of Japanese Manga.” Widewalls, 2016, Fast-forward years after and after the war, Japanese manga started to really take off. Japan was occupied by the United States after their defeat and many people were exposed to American comics and visual art. Influences from American comics and Japanese traditional drawings had created a hybrid of cultural influences that resulted in the Manga art drawing style. This style was created by artist, Osamu Tezuka, the created of Astro Boy (Figure 1.2). After the success of Astro Boy, the rest was history and manga had cemented its way in Japanese pop culture. Manga was created for different types of audiences, men, women, young boys and young girls. This kind of creativity and visual literacy really allowed its readers to explore their own imaginations into the world of Manga. These visual comics not only promoted reading comprehension, it also created these fantasy worlds that readers could explore. Because of Manga’s quick and committed following, these grew more opportunities for many other artists to create their own work. A wide range of Manga were created for specific reasons and genres depending on who was reading them. This led many artists to focus on issues that they felt more significant to bring change and awareness. One of these artists was Tobe Keiko, famously known for her With the Light series that was created for a women’s magazine called, For Mrs (Toku, 2015, p. 50). While others created stories about superheroes and mystical lands, Keiko wanted to focus on the heroines of Motherhood and being a Women and the challenges females often faced in their lives.

The intentions and Purposes – Addressing autism through manga

Keiko’s manga shined much light on the challenges of motherhood. This was extremely important for Women to read. Having a manga that was able to change its content from just fantasy stories to real social issues is what made For Mrs more unique. “for Mrs. began to change its manga content to incorporate works dealing with social issues such as health care and social welfare” (Toku, 2015, p.52). This in particular was a comforting read for Women. Having been going through the social changes in Japan, they had nothing else they could read and relate to. Sometimes it’s nice to read stories that are fictional but sometimes its’ also nice to read material that one can relate to. This allowed Women to feel more connected with similar issues that they were going through and build community. It was also nice to learn about how this magazine not only had manga but had different sections that were written by professionals who had significant experts in various fields. “The magazine also contains several articles written by professionals about nursing parents, childrearing advice, legal problems in civil affairs, and how to deal with familial conflicts, such as conflicts between wives and their mothers-in-laws, an issue that commonly occurs in Japanese extended households” (Toku, 2015, p. 53). This gave readers the opportunity to submit any type of situation of support that they needed. Disabilities have always been a challenging topic to face in Japan, but Tobe’s Manga made it possible to discuss and address. Knowing that Manga was such an easily accessible tool for communication, the timing was right. Giving people with disabilities or those caring for someone with a disability the platform to express these hardship and challenges created a chance to bridge a divide that had been far overdue. Finally, being able to see others who have similar disabilities or who are going through the same thing was a wonderful feeling of community and understanding (see figure 1.3). Change was on its way and the benefits of addressing Autism through visual work would start to pave the way for awareness.

Visual structures and organization- The Benefits of visual literacy for Autism

Addressing Autism through Manga was not only beneficial for Women and families but benefited those on the spectrum as well. May people have a preconceived notion about Autism, but there is so much more yet to learn. Manga is a form of visual literacy that can be extremely beneficial for those on the spectrum. Some people think in pictures and can make connections with words and emotions. Manga is very helpful is connecting all of the above. It not only has pictures but words that describe the exact emotion that the characters are feeling. This is what made With the Light so helpful. It described the characters feelings and the feelings of the mother with words and facial expressions. Manga has a beautiful way of representing and marrying the two, the ability of literacy applied with aesthetically pleasing characters. “iconography unique to manga (which employs set artistic conventions, including facial features and other character design traits, to express emotions or communicate internal character states) together seem uniquely suited to provide a more complex, heterogeneous, and interactive literary experience of autism.” (Foss, 2016, p. 2). Autism is complex and can changes varying on a wide range of the spectrum. For some pictures may not work as effectively as words do and vice versa depending on the person. These benefits are only for some people who find it helpful, not all who are autistic feel this way. Autism should never be generalized, its’ not linear and simplistic (see figure 1.4), its more radial in characteristics (see figure 1.5). Every individual is different and therefore may need specific needs. Keiko’s Manga did set in motion that we need to bring more awareness to Autism and disability. Manga not only helps Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) buy visual literacy but also with time and motion. Manga are all created during a specific time and its design, borders and page layouts help people with ASD differentiate the periods of time that are taking place. “In their sequence and inside their borders, panels allow readers to perceive and control the flow of time” (Rozeman, 2015, p.63). In addition to page layouts resembling time, another benefit in Manga is the representation of motion. Motion is often drawn by large marks around characters to express their range of motion. These types of literal representations really help ASD, it’s representations can help with the perception of time and motion (see figure 1.6). This is what makes Manga so revolutionary, it hasn’t been used to its full capacity in the way that it can benefit so many people with ASD.

In conclusion, I have learned throughout the research about Autism in Manga that there is limited out there for those with Autism. There is little representation in Japan and Tobe Keiko was a pioneer to openly create Manga with the challenges of raising a child with Autism. Even after so many years with the creation of Women’s manga and the creation of With The Light, there are no known Manga that carry the similar messages. Keeping in motion what Keiko paved the way for, we can continue to study Autism and how Manga can be a teaching tool in the matter. There are not enough Manga that openly addresses diversity and disability. It’s unfortunate that there hasn’t been a more open acceptance with Autism and disability. What we can do is continue to learn and grow within special needs. Manga can be a great way to help create more awareness towards Autism. This paper has not only taught me about the history of Manga and Autism in Japan but how I can continue to learn how much it can progress within Japanese pop culture. It has allowed me to expand my perspectives with ASD in Manga and the improvements that can be made mobbing forward. Autism has played such a significant role in the progression of current Japanese pop culture and how it can continue to move forward in positive ways. What first started out as just a few amusing facial expressions grew into a whole movement that changed Japanese pop culture. From Hokusai to Osamu Tezuka to Tobe Keiko, the legends of Manga live on through their legacy and ability to continue to influence the progression of Japanese pop culture. As Manga continues to change and evolve, there is no doubt in my mind that it will continue to grow with the representation of disabilities throughout its process. As Autism and special needs continue to grow in Japan, the Manga will flourish along with it. We just have to remind ourselves of the impact that Manga has, appreciate what it is and admire the possibilities of what it can continue to be.

Word count: 2,195

Writing System: APA (American Psychology Association) Style Report ( 6th edition ).  

Autism in Japanese Manga and its Significance on Current Progression in J-pop Culture essay

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Autism in Japanese Manga and Its significance on current progression in J-pop culture. (2019, Jan 11). Retrieved from