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Complicated Currents

Chapter 12



Jung-Sun Park, California State University at Dominguez Hills

Jung-Sun Park is Professor and Coordinator of the Asian Pacific Studies Program at California State University at Dominguez Hills. She is author of Chicago Korean Americans: Identity and Politics in a Transnational Community (Routledge, forthcoming) and co-editor of The Borders in All of Us: New Approaches to Three Global Diasporic Communities (New World African Press, 2006). Her current research themes include transnational flows of Korean/Asian popular culture and changes in south Korean citizenship.

Since the 1990s, Japanese comics and animation (manga and anime, respectively)1 have gained noticeable popularity in the US, to the surprise of even the Japanese themselves (see Kelts 2007). Given the hegemonic position that the US (represented by Hollywood) has long enjoyed in the global popular cultural realm, this development is indeed unusual and interesting. At least in the West, Japan’s reputation has been built largely upon its high-tech manufactured goods such as cars and electronics, rather than its culture, especially popular culture. Moreover, the US audience is generally not known for its interest in or consumption of foreign pop cultural products.2 Thus, the puzzling success of manga and anime poses a question about why and how it has breached the centre of global pop culture. As I will discuss, the interplay of multiple factors such as globalization, global capitalism, technological development, domestic changes in the US and content and character development in manga and anime is behind the phenomenon.

The success of manga and anime is an integral part of the increasing ‘Gross National Cool’ (GNC) of Japan (see McGray 2002), which is now globally acknowledged and is a driving force behind Japan’s growing soft power (see Nye 2004). Through the cool attraction of its pop cultural products, Japan first gained regional cultural hegemony (along with the West) in East/Southeast Asia, and has successfully expanded its cultural influence beyond the region. The popularity of Japanese pop culture (represented by manga and anime) in the US is particularly significant in the sense that it makes manifest a profound change that has occurred in the global cultural landscape – the diversification of the routes of cultural consumption, appropriation and influence – and suggests a potential challenge to the hegemony of US pop culture.

The complexity of contemporary transnational cultural flows is also illustrated by the surprising emergence of South Korea as a regional pop cultural centre in the late 1990s, as discussed elsewhere in this volume. Encouraged by their success in Asia, Korean pop culture producers have made an effort to move beyond regional boundaries and tap into new markets, especially the US. Despite these efforts, overall, Korean pop culture has not yet reached out to the general US public – its popularity and circulation are largely limited to Korean/Asian American communities and a small segment of the US population (see Park 2004). Interestingly, Korean comics (manhwa), which have not played a visible role in the Korean Wave in Asia, do seem to have entered the mainstream US consumer market, albeit on a small scale and often, when found, present in the manga section of franchise book stores. Given manhwa’s presence in the general US market and its connections with other areas such as video games, TV dramas and character goods, it has the potential to lead a soft landing of Korean pop culture. Yet compared to manga, Korean manhwa has additional obstacles to overcome, the most significant of which is the creation of an identity distinct from that of manga.

Through an analysis of the success and limitations of manga and anime and the potential of Korean manhwa and animation in the US market, this chapter will explore the increasing reach of East Asian pop culture in the US and its ramifications.


Japanese animation has had a presence in the US for almost five decades, although visible success did not occur until the 1990s. According to Fred Patten (2004: 52–53), the first three commercial cartoon features made by Toei Doga, the first major Japanese animation studio, were released domestically in 1958 (Magic Serpent), 1959 (Magic Boy) and 1960 (Alakazam the Great) in Japan. Then, in 1961, all of these ‘theater cartoons’ were introduced in the US. However, they were not commercially successful, nor were several others that followed them, leading to a long-term hibernation of the US market for Japanese theatre animation.

Despite this lack of success, US distributors continued to import Japanese animation, offering theatre anime for syndication on US television as ‘countless “Saturday Afternoon Matinee” TV movies’ (Patten 2004: 53), but, more notably, also bringing in television series, which the Japanese began to make in 1962–1963. Nine Japanese TV animation series were released in the US during the 1960s alone.3 Pinocchio was the first among them, but perhaps it is Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom), Speed Racer (Mach Go Go Go), and Kimba the White Lion (Janguru Taitei) that have left the most lingering footprints.4

From the beginning, however, the Japanese origin of these animated shows was disguised as much as possible (Patten 2004: 53–57). Patten states,

To Americans, these half-hour TV cartoons were indistinguishable from most American TV animation ... Also, several children’s afternoon programs presented a mixture of old US theatrical animation, new TV animation, and foreign animation from several European countries. So the cartoons from Japan were not thought of by the public as ‘Japanese animation’. If their origins were realized at all, they were considered to be just part of a vague ‘foreign animation’ category. (Patten 2004: 54.)

Indeed, the US distributors’ effort to erase the national origin of the products they marketed was so determined that, in 1978, a Japanese animation series, Battle of the Planets (Kagaku ninja-tai Gatchaman), was partially remade (with the creation of new characters and occasional changes in storylines) in the US in order to suit American expectations for animation, which was regarded as something for children (see Patten 2004; Kelts 2007).

US distributors’ heavy editing (to the extent of engaging in quasi-remakes) relates to differences in the characteristics and level of social acceptance of the comics and animation genres in the US and Japan. In the US, then and even now, animation and comics have to be devoid of overt violence and sexuality (or other subjects deemed inappropriate for children). Not only do audiences expect it but regulations are at work. The situation in Japan, however, is quite different: the target audiences of manga and anime vary, ranging from children to middle-aged men, and their contents vary accordingly (see Schodt 1983; Kelts 2007). Therefore, many imported Japanese animations contained material regarded as inappropriate for a child audience in the US, which led to heavy editing. Ironically, however, the diverse and sometimes provocative themes, drawings and character development of anime and manga have turned out to be what has attracted US audiences, especially adolescents and adults (see Schodt 1983, 1996; Patten 2004; Napier 2005; Kelts 2007).

Despite heavy editing, Battle of the Planets, following shortly after the Star Wars phenomenon and the consequent boom in SF-related cultural products, became a success. Unlike American animation, Japanese anime dealt with SF-style and outer space stories with complex plots and thought-provoking themes that could appeal to both children and older audiences. Hence, when demand for SF-related stories abruptly rose in the US, so did anime’s popularity, although such popularity remained confined to a relatively small circle in the ‘70s and ‘80s (see Patten 2004).

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the early young fans of anime had become adults and some were now operating small businesses dealing with anime. Thus, as Patten (2004: 63) explains,

A handful of anime specialty companies and labels appeared across the United States ... Their first products began to be seen about 1989 and 1990. Most of these specialized at first in licensing anime for lease as video for the anime and comic book fans. The exception was ... Streamline Pictures, which aimed at the general video fan markets with English dubbing, rather than subtitling. Streamline also distributed anime theatrically to the college and art film circuit.

Between 1990 and 1993, anime videos were ‘sold primarily through mail order and comic book specialty shops’. Then in the mid-1990s, video rental stores began to put anime on separate shelves under the category ‘Anime’ or ‘Japanimation’, distinguishing it from animation for children. Around this time, anime also began to appear on ‘cable television, on MTV, The Sci-Fi Channel, TNT, TBS, and others’. The signs of anime’s entry into mainstream pop culture in the US were further indicated by coverage in major newspapers such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and magazines such as Forbes and Newsweek (Patten 2004: 63).

With the increasing popularity and availability of anime and manga, some series, such as Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon, became big hits among young audiences.5 Yet what made anime and manga household names was Pokemon. Children’s fascination with the story, and demand for related items such as game cards and character goods involved their parents and grandparents in a Pokemon frenzy. During its heyday, the Pokemon phenomenon triggered interest in anime and manga even in unlikely segments of the US population.

At the same time, the fascinating stories and superb artwork of anime and manga continued to satisfy the tastes of more hardcore fans. Moreover, the release of well-made theatre anime, such as the trailblazing Akira, recruited new fans. First released in art-house theatres in the US in 1988, Akira’s unique style and visual aesthetics found acclaim with both film critics and audiences and raised esteem for Japanese animation as an art form. Many US viewers, used to Disney-style animation, were awed by this apocalyptic story filled with grotesque images, violence and social critique, and came to see new possibilities for animation.

The synergic effects of TV and theatre anime and manga (and to some extent video games and toys as well) have broadened the fan base over the years, and their continuing success is manifested by the popularity of such series as Yu-Gi-Oh!, Card Captor Sakura, Naruto, and One Piece, as well as the majority of Miyazaki Hayao’s works. It is now common to see rows of manga displayed in major book stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, and designated shelves for anime at video rental franchises such as Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. Anime and manga have indeed been integrated into US pop culture.


Several factors lie behind the success of anime and manga in the US. First, globalization has facilitated the transnational circulation of Japanese pop cultural products. With the new marketing strategies of global media industries, which ‘sectioned the world into large geo-economic regions’, the hegemony of the West has intensified, yet regional circulation of pop culture has also increased, opening new possibilities for cultural flows and power relations (Morley and Robins 1995: 16; see also Park 2006). In this context, some countries with developed media industries have exported their products regionally, emerging as power players in the cultural domain and enjoying a regional hegemony along with Western pop culture.

In the 1990s, Japanese popular cultural hegemony in much of Asia became obvious (see Iwabuchi 2002). From music to TV dramas and from animation to video games, Japanese pop culture first generated distinctive trends and then became an integrated part of local cultures. Japan’s ascent to regional cultural centre (to be followed by Korea) indicates a departure from monodirectional pop cultural flows from the West to Asia. Through these processes Japanese cultural industries have also accumulated export expertise that has aided the trans-Pacific movement of its pop culture to the US.6

Second, global capitalism has played a role in the successful trans-Pacific flows of manga and anime. In addition to US producers and distributors having had an eye on anime as early as the 1960s, many others, including Europeans, have imported Japanese anime, especially TV anime, for decades.7 This resulted in anime’s long domination of TV animation worldwide; it has been reported that Japanese products occupy approximately 60% of the world market (Napier 2005: x). Such success coincides with the strength and competitive power of the genre compared to other Japanese pop cultural fields at the global level. According to Susan Napier (2005: 19), with the decline of Japanese film after the 1960s, talented artists went into animation, enhancing its quality and creativity: ‘[i]t is clear that animation is perhaps the major area of film in Japan that has strong commercial and artistic potential’.8 Also, anime’s nexus with the TV industry helped the anime industry attract talented people (Napier 2005: 17). Understandably, this competitive edge also drew the attention of foreign distributors and investors.

The involvement of US (and Western) capital has been critical to anime’s global success, especially in terms of distribution.9 Even if Japan creates great anime works, without access to appropriate distribution channels overseas it can only reach a limited audience. For example, with the success of Akira, several other high-quality anime, such as Ghost in the Shell, were released in the US; yet most have not been able to reach the general public because they were primarily shown at art-house and college theatres. In contrast, the effective distribution of Miyazaki’s anime by a major US media player has enabled a wide and successful penetration of the American market, making him the best-known Japanese animator in the US/West. From My Neighbour Totoro to Spirited Away to Princess Mononoke to Howl’s Moving Castle, his works have enticed both children and adults (many of whom were the children’s parents) at home and in theatres. In 1996, Miyazaki’s animation production company, Studio Ghibli, signed a contract with Disney to have its works distributed in US theatres and on video (see Kelts 2007) – quite ironic considering the competition between the two studios in the global theatre animation market. Yet, in the US market, they are business partners: Studio Ghibli solved the problem of its limited access to US distribution channels while Disney saw an opportunity for financial gain in marketing Ghibli’s products. This situation, of course, reflects the inferior position of anime’s marketing power vis-à-vis Disney (and US) animation, but it also illustrates the increased power of anime even in the US, the centre of global popular culture: Disney, not Studio Ghibli, first suggested the deal. Although Ghibli’s case is unique, collaboration between anime studios and US/global capital generally has been increasing (see Kelts 2007).

Third, the development of media and communication technology has fostered the popularity of anime and manga in the US. The number of US anime fans grew with the availability of the VCR in 1975, as it enabled recording of anime aired in Japan or on US television (Patten 2004: 55). More recently, the Internet has enabled US consumers’ easy access to anime and manga and broadened the base of Japanese pop culture in the US because many online products, including fansub anime, can be accessed free. Also, the Internet has played a critical role in expanding the manga and anime subculture by providing American fans with easy entry to it. Numerous websites and web communities connect fans and keep them informed and interested by providing information on favourite stories and characters. The organization of an important part of anime and manga fan culture – conventions – is also facilitated by the Internet. Thus, the engaging and sustaining power of the Internet fan community has become a crucial foundation for the success of anime and manga in the US (see Levi 2006).

Additionally, as Internet penetration has spread and provided improved services, a wider range of consumers (young and old, rich and poor, black and white) has come to enjoy Japanese pop cultural products. Napier’s study (Napier 2005) illustrates that the demographics of anime fans have shifted significantly: in the past, Asian Americans predominated, but current anime fans are very diverse ethnically and racially. Gender is also more balanced now, with an almost equal number of female fans.

The overlapping nature of Japanese pop cultural fields also increases US audience exposure to manga and anime. For example, successful comics may be made into TV and theatre animation, video games, TV dramas, movies, musicals and novels. Hence, the original story is disseminated in multiple forms and reaches a wide variety of audiences in diverse media. Individuals who are not initially interested in manga and anime may become drawn to them through interest in related areas. Since the Internet generation is exposed to a plethora of images that make reference to anime and manga and easily navigates different pop cultural areas, the penetration of manga and anime is further facilitated.


The increasing popularity of anime and manga also reflects significant social and cultural changes in the US. Most critical of all, perhaps, a noticeable improvement in the image of Japan has fostered acceptance of Japanese pop culture. While US perceptions of Japan and the Japanese have been complex (and sometimes internally contradictory) and have transformed over time, the prevalence of positive images of Japan in contemporary US culture is a relatively recent development. Of course, American fascination with traditional Japanese arts and certain customs is a longstanding phenomenon and at times Japan has enjoyed preferential treatment in the US relative to other Asian nations in terms of political alliance, economic collaboration, and even immigration policies. But, at the same time, as racial Others and, in some epochs, military and economic foes, the Japanese have also been subject to negative images. The World War II years witnessed the peak of the negative portrayal of Japan and its people as demonstrated by wartime propaganda and the internment of Japanese Americans. After the war, with the Allied Forces’ victory and the US-led Occupation of Japan between 1945 and 1952, Japan’s image improved, but even in the 1970s and 1980s, impressions of the Japanese as incomprehensible and, at times, untrustworthy, did not disappear. Indeed, the rapid economic recuperation of Japan and its success in the global market alarmed many Americans and brought back negative stereotypes. In the 1980s and early 1990s, fears and accusations proliferated as the Japanese were once again depicted as enemies eager to take over the US (and the world). Japanese businesspeople were portrayed as modern-day samurai warriors or robot-like workaholics who devoted their lives to Japan, Inc.

Considering this history, the current predominance of positive images of Japan in America is remarkable. Japanese arts, traditions and, of course, electronic gadgets are often objects of admiration among Americans (especially youth) and Japanese pop culture is regarded as ‘cool’. This change is intertwined with political, economic and social factors such as the close political and military alliance between the US and Japan, the ‘Americanization’ of post-war Japanese (pop) culture, and Japan’s continued (but no longer threatening) economic importance. Perhaps equally important is the effort that both the Japanese government and civil sectors have made to improve their country’s image in the US (and the West) over the years via tireless attempts to promote Japanese culture, food, and products. The overall improvement in Japan’s image provided a suitable environment for anime and manga’s acceptance by Americans. But anime and manga are not mere beneficiaries of such favourable changes; they are also key players in enhancing Japan’s image, particularly among youth, through their popularity and ‘coolness’.10

The appearance and success of American TV animation series geared toward adolescent/adult viewers, previously not the typical target for animation, also suggests US cultural change. Shows such as The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead and South Park proved that animation can be aired in a prime-time slot. The popularity of these shows, with their rather abstract, simply drawn characters, also implied that ‘American audiences could become engaged by the most basic graphic – as long as the writing was captivating’ (Kelts 2007: 220). The drawing styles of anime and manga are relatively simpler than previous American counterparts, with less elaboration of detail, and look very two-dimensional; yet the success of the above-mentioned series indicates changes in US aesthetics, which may be conducive to the acceptance of anime-style drawings and narratives by a broader audience (see Kelts 2007: 220–221).


Although the above-mentioned structural and sociocultural factors provide us with a contextual understanding of the success of manga and anime, it is, above all, their content and style that appeal to consumers. Many of my students point out that the characters and storylines of anime and manga are what interest them most. In contrast to their American counterparts, Japanese comics and animation have numerous sub-genres, targeting different consumer groups (see Schodt 1983). Consequently, their content is wide-ranging, which interests US consumers who desire more sophisticated stories and characters. Unlike American storylines, which generally make a sharp distinction between heroes and villains, Japanese stories often feature more morally ambiguous characters.11 Manga and anime characters embody various aspects of human nature, and protagonists can show a vulnerable or even vicious side. These characterizations and storylines seem fresh and unique to US consumers who are tired of happy-ending plots with straightforward, binary characterization.

The overseas success of Japanese cultural products is often linked with their ‘odourlessness’ or ‘mukokuseki’ (without a national identity) quality (see Iwabuchi 2002).12 Iwabuchi argues that the erasure or softening of Japanese ‘bodily, racial and ethnic characteristics’ in cultural products eases entry into a foreign market (Iwabuchi 2002: 28). This argument has validity in the case of anime and manga, especially because their ‘mukokuseki’ quality is often transposed to Western characteristics. Many Japanese comics and animation characters do not have typical Japanese facial and bodily features. In fact, as Schodt pointed out, they rather resemble those of Westerners with non-black (often blond) hair, long limbs and big ‘saucer’ eyes (see Schodt 1996, 1997). Although scholars such as Napier (2005) consider such depictions ‘anime style’ instead of ‘Western style’ configurations, audiences (including both Americans and Asians) typically perceive these characters as looking more Western than Japanese regardless of the creators’ intention.13 When this drawing style is combined with stories, characters and settings that use Western or pseudo-Western names, the Western association is reinforced. This association, in turn, may enable Western audiences of anime and manga to find them more familiar.

At the same time, some may be drawn to anime and manga because of a distinctive ‘Japaneseness’, which may be presented in the form of period background (Edo, Muromachi, etc.) or draw on well-known cultural elements (samurai, geisha, ninja, etc.). The exotic may be alluring. The seemingly contradictory coexistence of odourlessness and Japaneseness may have contributed to the success of anime and manga because they can satisfy desire for both the exotic and the familiar.

The marketing strategies of Japanese comics and animation, which stimulate capitalistic desire, also contribute to their success in the US. Kelts (2007: 73–74) argues that Japanese animators ‘used to rely on the so-called golden triangle of anime, toys, and video games – a structure of Japanese origin that meant that at any given time you needed popularity of only two out of the three to create and whip up a market for the third’. Overseas, however, such a tried-and-true domestic marketing strategy may not work. Yet, in the case of Pokemon, the synergic effect of related fields – animation, toys, card games, video games and comics – proved to be the key to its phenomenal success. The continuous addition of new characters and ceaseless competition amongst them tantalizes consumers because they can never finish the game or complete their card collection. Hence, unsatisfied desire sustains interest in Pokemon, elongating its life-span (see Allison 2006).

Because of the interconnectedness of multiple fields in Japanese pop culture, manga and anime can be highly ‘interactive’. Readers of comics can play their favourite characters in a video game of the same story, for example. Further adding to this interactivity are fan art and cosplay (see Schodt 1996; Winge 2006; Kelts 2007). In Japan, some fans are not just passive recipients of products – they proactively participate in remaking favourite stories by writing fiction and drawing art themselves. Such fans, called dojin, even publish and sell their own creations at comics/animation markets and conventions. Others, interested in personifying a favourite character, dress and act like them in cosplay (costume play) activities. Such practices, significantly, have crossed the Pacific Ocean, and have done so for a variety of reasons: American fans are emulating Japanese models; American culture has a foundation for such activities in, for example, Star Trek conventions,14 and, most of all, young fans are enamored of the interactive aspects of manga and anime. Anime conventions are now regularly held in American cities, and are filled with costumed fans of various backgrounds (see Winge 2006), their racial/ethnic composition reflecting the ethnic/racial make-up of the wider US population and thus signaling the wide penetration of Japanese anime and manga into the American market.


Nonetheless, manga and anime face limitations in the US. First, their reliance on local business partners has been a serious impediment from the beginning. As exemplified by the virtual remaking of anime shows in the ’60s and ’70s, American distributors’ influence on how anime is presented to US audiences has deep roots. Although increasing fan taste for Japanese originals has reduced such influence, US partners still exert high levels of control. For example, both Japanese animators and the institutions that support them are increasingly aware of the tastes of Western audiences, and this awareness has begun to affect the development of storylines and business collaborations. As Kelts points out (Kelts 2007: 200–202), some companies, such as GDH (Gonzo Digimation Holdings), collaborated on products with American partners and cast American film stars for voiceovers to broaden appeal.15 He argues that such co-productions could turn anime into an outlet for Hollywood-style production and storytelling, thus jeopardizing the allure of anime that initially attracted much of its US audience.

Second, the increasing significance of exports may become a burden as producers now have to consider the tastes of overseas consumers. If Japanese comic artists and animators must satisfy both domestic and overseas fans, their own unique sensibility may suffer, individually and collectively. This issue raises an important question: what is unique about Japanese comics and animation? Thus far, Japanese comics and animation have maintained a distinctive and readily recognizable style, but given the widespread imitation and modification of this style by not only other Asian artists but also Western artists, how can Japanese comic artists/animators maintain their niche? In a sense, emulation of the Japanese style highlights Japanese soft power: just as the Japanese learnt from the West (especially Disney) in the earlier years of manga and anime’s development, now they influence others. Given the ubiquity of hybridity in the contemporary world, such borrowing is neither new nor necessarily problematic. Rather, the question is whether Japanese manga and anime are as firmly established as Disney; if not, they might find their identity and niche jeopardized both by appropriation of their style by others and by excessive efforts to cater to the presumed tastes of foreign audiences.

Third, the utilization of stories and characters across multiple media, which generally helps to increase sales, can in fact discourage creativity, as artists often face demands from business partners to change characters or storylines. Since toys and games generate substantial revenue, artists and animators often must compromise with economic imperatives, which potentially dampen motivation and may ultimately drive away fresh ideas and talent (see Kelts 2007).

Fourth, the issue of intellectual property and the Japanese cultural industry’s ability to handle its rights and profits overseas, especially in the US, poses another concern. Kelts (2007) argues that Japan’s relative inexperience regarding intellectual property has cut into its profits in the US market. For example, the American company, 4Kids, which distributed Pokemon in the US, made a fortune while its Japanese creator, Nintendo, naively settled for a flat fee rather than royalties (Kelts 2007: 78). This case illustrates both that even a well-established company can stumble when dealing with the US market and that distribution channels are crucial not only for the dissemination of products but the acquisition of profits.

Such early experiences have better prepared Japanese companies to defend intellectual property, but they still face a dilemma in the importance of dojin fan art to anime and manga’s popularity (see Kelts 2007). Fan art lends itself to ambiguous interpretation: it can be construed, as in the US, as a breach of copyright or, in Japan, as a positive sign of the original work’s popularity. If Japanese manga and anime industries abide by US copyright rules, they have to ban (or charge for) fan art activities – a practice that might prove detrimental to the popularity of their products because of the importance of fan art to the subculture.

Fifth, potential controversy over content could jeopardize the success of anime and manga in the US. In Japan, controversy typically revolves around sex and violence; similar debates could occur in the US as well. Before manga and anime became popular in the US, US fans had access to limited genres of manga and anime, one of the most prevalent and readily available of which was hentai, which is overloaded with violent and distorted sexual fantasies (see Napier 2005; Kelts 2007). Many of my students professed familiarity with the genre, and some noted that their initiation into anime more generally came as a result of it. Another potentially problematic genre is Lolita, which depicts a love for underage girls. Recently, further sub-genres such as moe have emerged, connected to video games through which audiences can live out sexual fantasies in a very realistic manner. These genres run the risk of drawing public criticism and having a negative impact on manga and anime’s popularity in the US.


Even if Korean comics (manhwa) and animation have not yet gained a great deal of attention or commercial success, they have the potential to become popular outside Korea given their history. Manhwa celebrated its 100th birthday as a form this year and the animation industry has been producing numerous TV and theatre animations for decades (see official homepage of the Korean Manwha’s 100th Anniversary; also see Maliangkay in this volume). In fact, Korean animators have participated in the production of many well-known Japanese and US TV animations as sub-contractors. But because of this invisible role, few Korean animators have received sufficient credit, and the majority have not produced work independently, mainly due to a lack of financial support and poor working conditions. Thus, despite its experienced and talented labour pool, Korean animation has largely been ignored overseas. However, in recent years, Korean animators have produced works that have received international acclaim, such as My Beautiful Girl, Mari (Mari Iyagi, Lee Sung-gang 2002) and Oseam (Seong Baeg-yeop Seong 2003), signaling the beginning of a new phase for Korean animation.

Similarly, Korean manhwa has mostly been confined to the domestic market, even though many older Korean manhwa artists have long been read by the Japanese and others, as a result of sub-contract work on manga. The internationalization of Korean manwha artists’ own work occurred recently and they are now available in the US, Europe, Japan and further afield in Asia).16 However, volumes available overseas are limited in quantity and often identified as Japanese manga, especially in the West. Of course, if readers pay attention to the artist’s name and publication details, they can figure out the origin of a given manhwa. Yet few casual (Western) readers do so or have sufficent knowledge of Korea to distinguish Korean manhwa from Japanese manga.

The success of manga and anime in the West provides motivation for the Korean manhwa and animation industries to pursue the overseas market and take part in the broader Korean Wave phenomenon. Considering the experience and talent in these industries, they, too, could successfully enter the un(der)explored overseas market. Yet Korean animation and manhwa have obstacles to overcome before they can carve out a niche in the international scene, especially in the US.

The most challenging task is establishing a unique identity. Although a small yet increasing number of manhwa is available in the US, as mentioned earlier, they are rarely distinguished from manga and more often placed in the manga section of stores and marketed as such. For distributors, riding on the popularity of manga may make sense, but it creates a critical problem for the long-term future of manhwa. Some distributors have made an effort to develop a separate identity for manhwa by keeping the Korean title next to the translated version. Nonetheless, such a subtle message can easily be overlooked by casual readers.

As with manga and anime, access to distribution channels is crucial for manhwa’s success in the US. While overshadowed by manga, however, such access is limited for manhwa, and they are either treated as an auxiliary by major manga publishers or imported by small-scale, more obscure companies. The manhwa titles available in franchise bookstores also raise questions about distributors’ choices. Compared to the wide availability of popular manga titles such as Full Metal Alchemist, Fruits Basket, Nana, Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, etc., which show up-to-date, professional knowledge on the part of the publisher, the few Korean manhwa translated into English tend to be minor even in Korea.17 Who, then, selects the manhwa? Are the decision makers familiar with the Korean market?

Content is another critical issue. Needless to say, in order to attract consumers, the storylines and drawings have to be alluring. Korean manhwa and animation generally do not have a problem with drawing style, but storyline is a different matter. Korean animation, in particular, has suffered from poor storytelling, which has become a major cause of some big-budget works’ failure (see Maliangkay in this volume). Although manhwa is faring much better than Korean animation in terms of character development and storytelling, poor working conditions in the Korean comic industry still hinder its development. For example, unlike their Japanese counterparts, Korean comic artists have to conduct multiple tasks in addition to drawing such as story and character development and research. Japan has a much better division of labour. Usually, comic artists collaborate with writers, and story development is aided by multiple assistants, who gather necessary background information. Drawing is also shared through the long-established apprentice and master system, and famous and established manga artists can even have foreign sub-contractors do the basic drawing and background painting. Most Korean manhwa artists do not have such luxury.18 Having apprentices who can help with drawing is a small privilege, enjoyed almost exclusively by successful Korean artists, but professional assistance for information gathering and story development is unattainable for almost all.19 Consequently, the quality and diversity of Korean manhwa content, so critical for success, particularly in the overseas market where competition is fiercer, is affected.

The prevalence of Japanese drawing styles among Korean manhwa artists and animators is another issue. The long history of sub-contract work as well as young artists’ voluntary imitation of Japanese drawing styles has resulted in the wide dissemination of such styles, which creates a significant identity question overseas. Many young Korean comic artists and animators are aware of the problem and have tried to develop a unique style different from Korean as well as Japanese peers.20 If such conscious efforts to build their own style continue and spread among comic artists and animators, the identity issue regarding drawing style can be resolved in the future.

The lack of resources in the animation and manhwa industries is also a serious factor. Unlike Korea’s movie industry, animation has not been able to attract large investment, especially after the commercial failure of some major works. Without appropriate financial support, creating a quality animation work is difficult, not least because the incorporation of new technologies is costly. Many Korean manhwa magazines have folded; hence, many comic artists have suddenly lost venues for publication, and major publishers will not publish their work. Indeed, Korean publishers often produce more Japanese comics than Korean comics, and major Korean bookstores carry more licensed Japanese comics than Korean comics. For several years, I have had a hard time purchasing Korean manhwa because they are not available, while Japanese comics fill bookshelves in the comics section.21 Such a situation has discouraged many Korean comic artists, which, in turn, has reduced production of quality manhwa. Even if many manhwa-related schools and college departments have been established, the reality is more discouraging than encouraging. Training comic artists and animators is important, but equally important is the availability of outlets for publication.

The difficulties in the existing market, exacerbated by the need for new technology and space, have led to the proliferation of Internet manhwa in Korea.22 Only a small number of Internet manhwa have become successful, but more and more aspiring manhwa artists are trying to publish work online. Also, following manhwa rental store-style marketing, many printed Korean manhwa are now available online, and can be viewed by the reader for a fee, a distribution method that may not only help publishers and manhwa artists to survive in a harsh environment but also offer a new way for manhwa to reach out to overseas readers (if they can provide English versions and resolve a few technical issues).

In Korea, some successful manhwa have been blended with other pop cultural fields and been made into games, TV dramas, and movies. Kim Jin’s Kingdom of the Wind (Baramui nara), for example, became a successful game and was remade as a musical and a TV drama. Since Korean TV dramas have successfully reached overseas audiences, manhwa can also potentially be introduced as dramas first. Such synergies may prove a sensible way to expand the horizon of manhwa.

Yet, all of these new attempts are still bound by the national image of Korea, whose ‘Gross National Cool’ quotient is not as high as Japan’s – certainly not in the West, at least. Therefore, the demand for and reception of pop cultural products from Korea cannot be the same. In order for Korean manhwa and animation to be successful in the West, a simultaneous effort to enhance the national image and brand power of Korea is required.


As I hope to have illustrated, Japanese comics and animation make manifest critical aspects of East/West power relations, such as the evolving directionality of influence, imitation, stereotypes and domestication. From the beginning, the forms and styles of anime and manga have been strongly influenced by relevant Western genres, and part of their success in the US is related to their ‘Western’ or ‘non-Japanese’ elements (see Schodt 1983). Indeed, the intra-Asian success of Japanese and, later, Korean pop culture relies in part on their ability to ‘reinterpret’ Western pop culture to suit Asian neighbours’ tastes (see Park 2006). At the same time, Western comic artists and animators have increasingly appropriated and imitated ‘Japanese styles’. Even well-established Hollywood filmmakers, such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, are reported to be planning films based on manga and anime (see Kelts 2007). Manga and anime thus represent an interesting nexus where East and West meet through experiments and collaboration as well as through raw capitalist desire and calculation.

When Korean manhwa is placed in this picture, we find further complexity and possibilities in global cultural flows. Korea’s emergence as a source of pop culture is remarkable given its long experience as a recipient of cultural influence, and demonstrates critical changes in the contemporary global cultural landscape, especially in terms of the availability of interstitial spaces of new cultural flows and influence. But carving out a niche based on uniqueness and originality remains an issue for Korean pop culture, and in this regard manhwa is no exception. Because of its introduction as manga, establishing a distinctive identity will be of utmost significance for its long-term development in the US. Despite the many difficulties manhwa faces domestically and in the US, it has great potential to provide interesting new narratives, aesthetic sensibilities and even worldviews. Its experiments with new IT-related business models may suggest new ways of pop cultural dissemination and consumption as well. Overall, both Japanese and Korean comics and animation illustrate new possibilities for transnational cultural flows by challenging Western hegemony in the pop cultural realm and opening doors for Asian popular culture.


Acknowledgement: Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the annual meetings of the Korean Society for Cultural Anthropology (in Korean), the Korean Studies Forum at Yonsei University and the Yang-Wol Special Lecture Series on Cultural Studies at Hanyang University (in Korean) in November 2008. I thank the organizing committee of the Korean Society for Cultural Anthropology and Professors Hyuk-Rae Kim and Do-Young Song for their kind invitation. I also express my gratitude to the participants of the seminars for their interest in the topic and lively discussion. A slightly different version of this paper will be published in Korean Studies Forum (Volume 4, forthcoming).


1   I will primarily refer to Japanese comics as manga and Japanese animation as anime in this chapter, although occasionally terms such as Japanese comics and Japanese animation will be used interchangeably.

2   Of course, there are avid fans of foreign pop cultural products in the US. However, proportionally speaking, they are in the minority. Indeed, American film viewers are known for their dislike of subtitled films.

3   Fred Patten (2004: 54) writes that eight Japanese TV animation series were shown in the US during the 1960s, enumerating Pinocchio, 8th Man, Gigantor, Kimba the White Lion, Prince Planet, Marine Boy, The Amazing 3 and Speed Racer. But he does not count the landmark piece, Astro Boy, which was aired in the US in 1964.

4   Titles in parentheses are original Japanese titles. Lingering fascination with these early anime series can be witnessed in the following: Hollywood’s Wachowski brothers made Speed Racer a feature film in 2008, and Astro Boy will be reproduced as a computer-animated 3D film in a collaborative Japanese and American effort. The controversy over Disney’s Lion King’s appropriation of elements in Kimba the White Lion is well known (see Kelts 2007).

5   Although not an anime, Power Rangers was also an important and popular Japanese pop cultural import.

6   Although the Japanese cultural industries have benefited from export expertise accumulated in Asia, being well aware of cultural differences, they have used different marketing strategies in Asia and outside of Asia.

7   Overseas demand for Japanese TV anime was partly a matter of simple economics: it was cheaper to import than to locally produce a TV animation. This issue was a key reason why Korea aired so many disguised TV anime despite there being a ban on Japanese pop culture until 1998 (see Maliangkay in this volume).

8   According to Napier, about 40 per cent of Japanese studio releases were animated features in 1988. By 1999, the proportion reached at least 50 percent (Napier 2005:15).

9   See Hannerz (1992) regarding the importance of securing distribution channels in the dissemination of cultural products and information.

10  Daniel Black (personal communication) suggests that the Japanese cultural industry attempted to break into the US mainstream with anime, utilizing Americans’ perceptions of Japan as a cool and futuristic society. In his reading, Akira and Ghost in the Shell were both planned as attempts to reach audiences in the West, and their high-tech, cyberpunk style and subject matter clearly sought to play on late twentieth-century images of Japan as a futuristic society reminiscent of Bladerunner.

11  Consider Cowboy Bebop’s Spike, for example: a former member of a criminal organization, he is now a bounty hunter. Although cool and possessing noble characteristics, his behaviour is not necessarily motivated by ethical causes, and his personality is cynical and complex. Shinji of Neon Genesis Evangelion, full of self-doubt and psychological trauma, resists his role as defender of the Earth and comes across more as neurotic coward than heroic saviour.

12  Iwabuchi describes mukokuseki as ‘literally meaning “something or someone lacking any nationality,” but also implying the erasure of racial or ethnic characteristics or a context, which does not imprint a particular culture or country with these features’ (Iwabuchi 2002: 28).

13  A question I commonly receive from students in my Japanese comics and animation class is why anime and manga characters look Western even though they are made in Japan, a clear indication of how the anime drawing styles are perceived in the US. In fact, because of the perceived Western look of the characters, some students did not realize the Japanese origin of anime they watched when young.

14  It has been argued that Japanese cosplay in the US draws on the tradition of the Star Trek convention where fans dress as favourite characters. The American celebration of Halloween has also been considered as a source of inspiration for cosplay.

15  Consider, e.g., Afro Samurai starring Samuel Jackson.

16  Some manhwa artists have published their works in Japan, as was the case with Hwang Mi-na’s Yunhee. Yun In-wan’s Sinamhangeosa was simultaneously published by both Japanese and Korean publishers in each country and exemplifies one of the new approaches that manhwa artists have been experimenting with.

17  For example, during a recent visit to Barnes & Noble and Borders in my neighbourhood, I found the following Korean manhwa among volumes of manga: The Color of Water (Hwangtotbit Iyagi) by Kim Dong-hwa, Mijeong by Byun Byong-jun, and Evyione: Ocean Fantasy by Kim Young-hee. With the possible exception of The Color of Water, deemed to be a representative work of well-known manhwa artist Kim Dong-hwa and first published in 1995, these are not famous titles in Korea. The Color of Water was likely selected because it deals with traditional Korean life.

18  Some manhwa artists are known for mass production known as factory-style (gongjanghyeong and yangsanhyeong) manhwa. They work with multiple apprentices, but the quality of their work is often subject to criticism (see Choo in this volume).

19  The division of labour between manhwa artists and writers appears to have increased in recent years, however.

20  For example, a comparison of Kim Hye-rin’s drawing styles in Star of the North Sea (Bukhae-ui byeol) and The Sword of Fire (Bul-ui geom) illustrates a dramatic transformation from Japanese-style drawing to her current unique style. Some other comic artists, such as Yu Shi-jin and Chun Kye-young, have also established a unique style, clearly differentiated from typical Japanese-style drawings. The works of Lee Sung-gang (Lee Seong-gang) are a similar illustration in the animation field.

21  Although a wide variety of Korean manhwa is available for online purchase, acquiring older classics remains difficult even online because many of them are out of print.

22  Internet manhwa are free of charge, while a fee is charged for access to online versions of printed manhwa. Internet manhwa artists are paid by portal sites that carry their works. These portals, in turn, make a profit by eliciting clicks on a variety of their sites by providing free manhwa as an enticement. This new business model has been criticized for creating consumer expectations of free access to Internet manhwa.


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Cite this chapter as: Park, Jung-Sun. 2010. ‘The success and limitations of Japanese comics and animation in the US: Can Korean manhwa and animation follow suit?’. In Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia, edited by Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 12.1–12.15.


©Copyright 2010 Jung-Sun Park

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Complicated Currents

   by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita