Acton Institute Powerblog

Japanese Comics and Cultural Economics

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

A few weeks ago I was listening to a very engaging American RadioWorks documentary, rebroadcast from last October, “Japan’s Pop Power.” The show focused on the increasing cultural imports to America coming from Japan, which by some estimations will soon dwarf industries typically associated with American-Japanese trade like automobiles, technology, and electronics. Japan’s economic success is a sure sign that human creativity and inventiveness are more important factors in human flourishing than mere material concerns or natural resources.

Some of the commentary expounded the typical pattern and dynamics of a sub-culture movement becoming mainstream. A great deal of the program focused on Japanese art, film, and media products, including the form of Japanese comic known as manga. Beginning with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the growing Japanese dominance of programming oriented toward youth is especially noteworthy (I’m a Yu-Gi-Oh! fan and my wife likes Ninja Warrior).

One portion of the program interested me especially because we have been discussing the importance of narrative here lately. As Chris Farrell and John Biewen spoke with an American teenager, it became clear that in part what draws our youth to contemporary forms of Japanese storytelling, beyond the inherent exotic elements, is the disjointedness of the narrative. It’s often a challenge to figure out who the main characters are and what they are doing. Some of the attraction is no doubt the mental agility that is required to induct a logical flow from the sometimes confusing morass.

But on another level, the attraction is undoubtedly a reflection of a post-modern mindset, which isn’t so concerned with logical plot progression. Japanese shows are renowned for their emphasis on glitzy effects, explosions, and action (oftentimes at the expense of sanity) such that they’ve become a staple of American parody:

It’s always a challenge for Christians to determine when and how to engage cultural movements. Some businesses and industries are without a doubt beyond the realm of moral permissibility, and the Christian is barred from licit participation. The message to those who are involved must be only, “Go and sin no more.”

But other times keen discernment is called for, and Christians at different times and places have come up with very different answers about how to engage the broader culture. At some point soon, for instance, we’ll look in more detail at the Christian Reformed Church’s synodical reports from 1928 on “Worldly Amusements” and from 1966 on “Film Arts.”

One approach I’m familiar with in a professional capacity is the attempt by some Christian publishers to transform the manga genre into something that is a positive and constructive influence, conducive to Christian piety, rather than one that celebrates moral depravity (for which manga is infamously renowned).

Zondervan, for example, has newly available a number of new manga series aimed towards youth or “tweens” audiences (full disclosure: I provided theological review services for a number of these products). On example is a series that follows the fictional exploits of Branan, the son of the biblical judge Samson. Other series follow a team of time-travelling flies and relate the biblical narrative in the form of a Manga Bible (the latter produced by a Korean author/illustrator team).

Whether such ventures are judged to be successful depends on the standards applied by individual Christians. No doubt many will be thankful for offerings in a pop culture genre whose contents are sincerely counter-cultural.

What is certain is that there is no better place to address the needs for a new generation of readers eager for meaningful narrative than to rely upon mythopoeia and, indeed, the greatest story ever told, the “True Myth,” the biblical drama of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Japan (where I worked for five years) does not have a strong religious culture. Only 1% of Japanese (about 1 million people) are Christians, unlike Korea where Christian churches have experienced significant growth. While everyone in Japan is nominally involved in Shinto (the native animism that reverences natural phenomena like Mount Fuji, and is represented by a family shrine to immediate ancestors, attached to the wall in the home of the eldest son), as well as Buddhism (imported through Korea, which handles funerals), other than the specific acts ofd worship each entails, they have virtually no ethical dimension, and what is inherent in any version of those religions is not observed. No Japanese businessman or government official, faced with a difficult moral choice, is thinking to himself “What would Buddha do?”

    The behavior standards that a Japanese person turns to first are centered around the duty of loyalty and honor for one’s family, one’s school, one’s business or profession, and one’s nation. One does not avoid becoming a streetwalker through a desire to present oneself morally pure before God’s judgment, but rather to avoid embarrassment and dishonor to one’s family, that they would allow you to engage in a career so tawdry and low class. Much of the psychology of feudal loyalty to one’s liege lord is carried over in the social duties toward one’s school and classmates and one’s employer. One of the brilliant ideas of the men who transformed Japan during the reign of the Meiji Emperor was to displace loyalty to feudal lords with loyalty centered on the emperor as national leader, creating a cult of “State Shinto” that emphasized the legends of divine origin of the first emperor. There was no belief by the soldier, and especially the kamikaze pilot, in an afterlife of glory, but rather of making an honorable and glorious sacrifice of life for one’s family and nation, symbolized by the divine emperor, who was made mythical even as a living being, who was kept from direct contact with his subjects, much like the distant and inscrutable sovereign god of the Nicene Creed. A belief system that orients social praise or condemnation to an overall north star can be a powerful control on behavior, even without belief in an afterlife, heaven or hell. Such a belief system that forms a lens for understanding reality and giving meaning to one’s own life, can also be created around a central doctrine, such as Marxism. These cultures can have all the fanatical aspects that American journalists usually associate only with a “fundamentalist” religious belief.

    The end of World War II, and the surrender of Japan, was dictated by the Emperor, so it was an affirmation in many ways, rather than a repudiation, of the cult of loyalty to the emperor. It was only with the dropping of active government campaigning for the emperor cult that loyalty toward the nation as a whole was substituted for loyalty to the emperor and his delegees in the military. The new constitution, drafted by Macarthur’s occupation team which emphasized personal freedom and rights, was another milestone.

    Thus, Manga and Anime (animated motion pictures, often just as R-rated as the original graphic novels) grow out of cultural soil where loyalties are understood and the tragedy of conflicts recognized, as in Oedippus Rex, but there is no a priori “right” or “wrong” standard against which behavior is compared. Without orientation in a larger, fundamental narrative, a “Big Story”, the little stories don’t mean much.

  • Jordan, you definitely make some valid points here. With pop culture there is an opportunity for Christians to work both creatively and redemptively. With Zondervan’s offerings, we’ll need to watch and see how accepted they are outside of the Christian bookstore to see if they are competitive with other manga offerings or merely be relegated to a minor subgenre of “Christian manga.” Even though manga has achieved mainstream significance and attention in the publishing world, consumers still see it as counter-cultural in its own right. Will manga with strongly Christian themes be able to compete? I think it can, but not if Christian artists limit themselves to the narrow and shallow moralizing limits that are common in popular Christian art and literature. Manga has to be understand as its own artform in its own right, and the attraction that people have to its themes and non-cookie-cutter plots will have to be taken seriously by the Christian artist who wishes to create something that is engaging.