This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of the essay collection Japanese Popular Culture (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co.), which contained what I believe are  the first two English-language scholarly essays on Japanese comics. As with the other chapters in the volume, both are actually translations of articles that had already previously appeared in Japanese; nonetheless, they can be treated as marking the “origin” of anime and manga studies.

Now, sixty years later, “anime and manga studies” encompasses numerous publications (such as various recent monographs, essay collections, and the almost 30 individual book chapters and journal articles on anime/manga and related topics that have appeared so far this year), academic conferences, classes at colleges and universities around the U.S., and perhaps even the beginnings of an institutional structure, via the establishment of an Anime Studies Special Interest Group within the Society for Animation Studies.

Nonetheless, one thing that anime and manga studies does not yet have is an actual definition – and I would argue that presenting one is crucial to the further development of the concept – and its evolution into something more – into an actual academic field.

Based on trends and directions in scholarly activity involving anime/manga, I would, then, propose the following definition:

Anime and manga studies is

“the exploration of Japanese animation and comics as creative works, their historical, cultural, sociological and economic dimensions, their production, distribution, global reception, and related topics.”

This definition is, of course, not comprehensive. But, at a minimum, it presents an “idea” of what falls under the “anime and manga studies” label. An essay that is a straight-forward visual or textual analysis – like Superflat and the Postmodern Gothic: Images of Western modernity in Kuroshitsuji is an obvious example. It does not need to be limited to anime/manga in isolation – comparative approaches that examine anime/manga along with other types of creative works, whether Japanese or not, certainly do as well. So is one on how readers actually react to an anime series or a manga, on the translation process, or on fan activities. On the other hand, would it be appropriate to extend the definition to also apply to research that certainly involves using anime or manga in some context, but is not primarily concerned with them as either texts or objects of production and distribution and subjects of audience response, and rather, places anime/manga in another context. Examples here are essentially technical studies such as Building a bibliographic hierarchy for manga through the aggregation of institutional and hobbyist descriptions , and those that are firmly grounded in another area, like Delivering knowledge of stroke to parents through their children using a manga for stroke education in elementary school and Japanese manga in translation and American graphic novels: A preliminary examination of the collections in 44 academic libraries. Here, I would argue that precisely because at this point, “anime and manga studies” is a broad field that extends across different subjects, yes, it would be.

One more issue to address is what turns out to be a surprisingly difficult part of the process of coming up with a definition for “anime and manga studies” – not the definition itself, but figuring out exactly how to characterize the concept. If it is an academic field – what exactly is an academic field? Alternately, is anime and manga studies an academic discipline, an “area of interest”, or even just merely a term that is convenient but vague?

Scholarship and commentary on academic fields, generally in the nature of essays proclaiming that a particular academic field exists to begin with – are not uncommon. Some examples include The field of American media sociology: Origins, resurrection, and consolidation, “The rise of Internet Studies as a new field of global significance” (in The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies), and, perhaps with the most relevance for anime and manga studies specifically, “Animation studies as an interdisciplinary teaching field” (in Pervasive Animation). Through these, it becomes possible to at least identify the features or frameworks that are necessary for a topic to be called a field.

Characteristics of an “academic field”, then, are first of all, an established object of study, or several such objects, and at least several general research questions – that are explored across a developing body of published scholarship, including essay collections and journal special issues, with research and other scholarly activity possibly supported by actual established centers or programs. An important question to consider in this context is the difference between an academic field and an academic discipline. As Naomi Baron notes, in Who wants to be a discipline, the key features of a discipline include “a public presence (through clearly identifiable journals and conferences)” and “a professional organization that is recognized as setting the ‘gold standard’ for expertise”; having these in place can then lead to “funding for physical real estate and
for supporting research endeavors”. Similarly, The emerging academic discipline of knowledge management points out that it in fact be considered one because it is supported by a number of degree programs and concentrations, with research advanced in an expanding number of Ph.D. dissertations. With these examples in mind, referring to anime and manga studies as an academic field is appropriate, although subject to some tension given the relationship between anime and manga studies specifically, and Japanese popular culture studies – itself called a “field in formation” by Alisa Freedman and Toby Slade in the introduction to Introducing Japanese Popular Culture.

In any case, sixty years in, a definition – even if an imperfect and “in progress” one – is necessary, and hopefully welcome. Will it be the only one – I don’t think so; for that matter, I actually hope that anything I propose will be debated and discussed further. If nothing else, debate and discussion will mean that it is actually being noticed, considered, and used. So, I look forward to using it in my own work, and look forward to seeing it expand and evolve – along with the evolution and further development of the field of anime and manga studies itself.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *