Japanese Culture through Manga Comics

Learning things is always rewarding, but sometimes it’s hard to continue. You might encounter difficulties, lose interest in the subject matter, or find something more appealing and important to your life. However, there is a Japanese saying “Keizoku wa chikara nari,” which means “Persistence pays off.” Introduced here are selected manga titles that deal with Japanese cultural subjects and share the power of persistence. They are a good introduction to Japanese culture and serve as encouragement for your studies. Some have English versions, but some don’t. But since they are manga, plenty of illustrations will support your understanding.

Hikaru no Go

Go or Igo is a popular board game that originated in China and spread worldwide. Hikaru no Go deals with this centuries old board game through its protagonist, Hikaru Shindo, a coming of age boy who happened to find an old Go board in his grandfather’s attic. The board he found actually entrapped the spirit of ancient Go master, Fujiwara-no-Sai, and Hikaru became possessed by his spirit. He starts pursuing the game and competing in tournaments. Originally appearing in Shonen Jump from 1999-2003, this classic hit has been made into a computer game, TV anime and novel. There is an English version available.

San-gatsu no Lion (March Comes in Like a Lion)

Described as Japanese chess, Shogi is another popular board game in Japan. The protagonist of San-gatsu no Lion, Rei Kiriyama, is a young professional shogi player who still goes to high school. While he strives to win competitions as a pro, he also has to deal with his complicated life as an adolescent. These two storylines intertwine, making the manga elaborate. It’s been an ongoing series since 2007, and it received numerous awards including the prestigious Kodansha Manga Award and the Osamu Tezuka Culture Award. San-gatsu no Lion has also been made into a TV anime series, which aired in Japan from 2016-17.

Chihayafuru

Chihayafuru sheds a light on the Japanese classic Hyakunin Isshu card game. This unique game is based on an anthology of one hundred waka poems (5-7-5-7-7 syllables) by one hundred poets that was compiled by Fujiwara no Teika in the 13th century. Players of the game sit circling around the cards on which only the last 7-7 syllables of the waka are written, and pick up the right set of waka cards upon hearing someone start reading the first 5-7-5 part of the poem. Players need to memorize all 100 waka, and are required to pick a card as fast as possible when reacting to the reading. Chihaya Ayase, protagonist of the manga, has the dream of winning the national title in the Hyakunin Isshu competition. This ongoing series started in 2007 when Chihaya was a 6th-grader, and she is now a high school student. Chihayafuru has been made into a TV anime series and live action movies.

Chabashira Club

Japan has a profound green tea culture, not just a tea ceremony that uses matcha green tea, but also in terms of perfecting regular green tea. In Chabashira Club, Suzu Iida, an heiress of a time-honored teashop, happened to help an old lady and received tea in return. The tea was the best tasting she ever had, inciting her to find delicious tea nationwide. She opens a movable teashop and takes a journey to explore the world of tea and look for the old lady who gave her the tea. This manga ran from 2010-15, and it includes stories and practical information about Japanese tea so it is a great introduction to tea for beginners.

Hyouge-mono

The protagonist of this unique wartime story is an actual warlord, tea master, and art collector/ producer, Oribe Furuta (1543-1615). He had great influences from legendary warlord, Nobunaga Oda (1534-82) and tea master, Sen no Rikyu (1522-91), both of whom had contrasting aesthetic senses, and he developed his own aesthetics, now known as Oribe-style. Translated as “a man who fools around”, Hyouge-mono humorously depicts Furuta’s life in the period in turmoil, and touches upon the way of tea, ceramics, tea utensil, architecture, arts and crafts through Furuta’s eyes. The series started in 2005 and is ongoing. It received prestigious awards, and the TV anime based on this manga was aired from 2011-12 through Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK), Japan’s public TV.

Natsuko no Sake

Running from 1988 to 1991, Natsuko no Sake is a true classic of sake manga. Natsuko Saeki, a copy writer at a Tokyo ad agency, decides to succeed the dream of her deceased father, a sake brewmaster who wanted to make the best sake in the world by using a rice variety that seemed impossible to grow. Through her struggles to grow the sake rice and brew sake with it, the story touches upon discourses in Japan’s agriculture and sake industries. The manga was made into a live action TV series in 1994, and it enjoyed high ratings.

Kono Oto Tomare!

Koto is a traditional Japanese flat-bed stringed instrument, consisting of 13 or 17 strings attached to a wooden body and 13 or 17 movable bridges to change the strings’ pitches. Kono Oto Tomare features stories of a high school koto club that was about to disband due to lack of applicants. The lone member of the club, Takezo, is somehow joined by Chika, a koto beginner and a boy with bad manners, and Satowa, a genius koto player and an heiress to a prestigious koto school. This odd koto club gradually attracts more members, and they work hard to enter a competition where they strive to become national champions. The series started in 2012 and is ongoing.

Asahinagu

Once used as a weapon during Japan’s Warring States period, a naginata is a long pole with a blade attached. When the war was over and things became peaceful during the Edo period (1603-1868), it was developed into use for martial arts and mainly for females. Today it is used by both sexes. The story of Asahinagu surrounds Asahi Tojima, an artsy, geeky girl who has no athletic sense. She joins the naginata team at Futatsuzaka High School to become strong. But her lack of coordination makes it tough. The series originated in 2011 and is ongoing. A theater performance based on this manga was produced earlier this year, and a live action movie scheduled to be released in Japan in September is in production.

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