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Can Cartoons Save Japan's Regional Economies?

July 2, 1999

Municipal governments across Japan are trying hard to come up with ways of stimulating their local economies by enticing visitors to their towns. Their finances are tight due to the prolonged economic slump, however, and they cannot afford to spend a long time studying viable options in detail. The splendid buildings that went up during the bubble period in the late 1980s and early 1990s now stand empty and are the targets of much criticism. Clearly what is important is the creation not of new infrastructure but of entertaining content that will attract tourists. In the last few years a dozen or so towns and villages have turned to manga (cartoons) as the medium for their revitalization campaigns.

The Magnetism of Manga
Manga are virtually immune to the recent tendency among children to buy and read fewer books; they account for a good 70% of all publications in Japan. Spin-offs of popular works--such as animated TV series or movies and merchandise carrying images of characters--never fail to bring in good sales. And recent years have seen an explosive increase of manga cafes, where customers can browse through hundreds of comic books over cups of coffee. Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that municipal governments looking for an effective stimulant have turned to manga for salvation.

The town of Kawakami in Okayama Prefecture is in the vanguard of these efforts. Its manga museum, opened in 1994, houses inaugural issues of comic magazines from several decades ago, originals of such popular classics as Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) and Tetsujin 28 go (Gigantor), and other valuable and rare material. Kawakami sponsors a manga contest as well. Both of these endeavors are bringing about impressive results, a town employee says.

The Anpanman Museum, opened in 1996 in Kahoku, Kochi Prefecture, features a popular cartoon hero whose head is a bun filled with sweet bean paste. The character was brought to life by a native of the town. Indeed, most of the manga-related public facilities across Japan commemorate cartoonists who were born locally. The city of Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, operates a museum dedicated to Osamu Tezuka (1926-1989), the famed author of Tetsuwan Atom and many other well-known works. Masuda, in Akita Prefecture, where the author of Tsurikichi Sanpei (Fishing-Crazy Sanpei) was born, also has a manga museum. And a street extending 800 meters (875 yards) through the city of Sakai Minato, Tottori Prefecture, is lined with 80 bronze statues of supernatural creatures that appear in the series Gegege no Kitaro, written by a native of the city.

Also in Tottori Prefecture, Daiei, the hometown of the cartoonist who wrote Meitantei Conan (Detective Conan), is promoting a project to make a "Conan Avenue." When municipal shopping coupons were distributed nationwide in March 1999, moreover, Daiei printed an image of Conan on the purchasing coupons issued to the townspeople. The town received so many inquiries about these coupons that it has decided to issue imitations. The cartoon hero has thus provided good advertisement for Daiei.

Can Manga Provide a Real Solution?
More manga museums are expected to follow soon. Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture is working toward the 2002 opening of a museum commemorating Shotaro Ishinomori (1938-1998), one of Japan's most famous cartoonists, who was born in the prefecture. A shopping district association in the city of Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, has submitted a plan to the city government for a museum that would specialize mainly in the cartoon Chibimaruko-chan (Little Miss Maruko), a semi-autobiographical series written by a cartoonist who grew up there.

Manga and anime (Japanese animation), the "champions of subculture" that Japan boasts to the world, are two of the most familiar forms of entertainment for many Japanese. But the downside of this trend is that the more similar schemes are put through, the less novel and less popular they become. And even if these facilities draw more tourists to the towns, the question remains as to whether they will have any substantial effect on issues facing the regional economies. The success of city revitalization utilizing manga hinges on the ongoing efforts of municipal governments to harness them with other measures.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.