Manga Culture in Taiwan
The streets of Taipei are filled with shops selling Hello Kitty, Doraemon, and Pokemon merchandise. Young adults sporting hairstyles, clothing, and looks influenced by Japanese fashion walk about the city. Sony products are always among the newest electronic fads. It is obvious that Taiwanese youth are big followers of Japanese popular culture. Nothing portrays this phenomenon better than the popularity of Japanese manga among Taiwanese youth. There are countless bookstores dedicated to selling manga everywhere and manga rental stores are a common place for many Taiwanese to go to after school or work. It is a common sight for youth to be seen reading manga while waiting for a bus or friends. Various manga consistently appear on the best-selling lists in Taiwan. Some estimate that over 92% of Taiwanese youth read manga. The popularity of Japanese manga is so great that one rarely sees someone reading manga from a Taiwanese artist. How did Taiwanese manga culture develop to its current state? What exactly is Taiwan’s manga culture?
I. History of Manga in Taiwan
The origin of manga in Taiwan is debated. The Chinese term for comics is the same as the Japanese term for manga (漫畫/漫画). Yet, the Chinese term describes comics ranging from political cartoons to daily strip comics to what many consider modern manga. There are some records of Taiwanese artists publishing satirical political comics in newspapers and magazines about their Japanese rulers during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. In 1935, artist Ji Long-sheng published a highly popular comic strip that satirized the social conditions and customs in Taiwan under Japanese rule. This was remarkable considering that the Japanese ruling government kept tight censorship on everything that was published. Since the early Taiwanese manga artists grew up under the Japanese occupation, their artwork and style were heavily influenced by Japanese artists.
The first modern manga style comics appeared in Taiwan sometime during the 1950s. Around this time, publishing companies began to distribute manga periodicals. However, very few of these periodicals lasted for more than a few years, if they even lasted that long. Many of these periodicals would last only a few issues before they were stopped. This was partially because Taiwan’s economy was not it very good shape at this time, especially in the countryside. The Kuomintang government (KMT) had just inherited Taiwan from Japan after World War II and was still trying to successfully establish an independent, self-reliant economy. Since most of the children living in the countryside did not receive an allowance, the only way they were able to buy manga periodicals was by selling scavenged pieces of scrap metal and other goods to peddlers. Another factor was that since the KMT had only recently come to power in Taiwan, they wanted to limit the Japanese influence on the island. They did not want Japanese things to become too popular and remind the Taiwanese what life was under the Japanese. Yet, these manga periodicals were still mostly filled with Japanese manga. In the issue of “Manga King” that was published on July 1, 1958, seven out of the eight works were by Japanese artists. The Japanese manga that appeared in these periodicals were always bootlegged translated versions from Japan since the government banned the importation of Japanese manga. It should be noted that despite the fact that importation of Japanese manga was illegal, the government often turned a blind eye towards pirated copies of Japanese manga. Someone would bring a copy of the manga from Japan and people in Taiwan would translate it themselves. Translation quality was varied; since Taiwan was until recently a colony of Japan, there were many people who were fluent in Japanese. Yet, because the manga industry was still trying to get on its feet, the publishing companies did not always have enough money to hire the best translators. The editing quality was also poor. In order to convert the manga from Japanese to Chinese, publishing companies hired people to duplicate the works by outlining and copying. Unfortunately, these artists were not very skilled or experienced and the reproductions suffered from uneven lines and messy figures. The Taiwanese publishing companies would also try to censor some of the content in the Japanese manga. For example, the Taiwanese editors would draw bras on bare-breasted women and try to modify sexually explicit or violent panels as much as possible. The government could claim that these translated versions were not true imports from Japan and therefore allowed them to be published.
As Taiwan’s economy began to flourish, the manga industry also started to grow. From the late 1950s to mid-1960s, manga periodicals became increasingly popular and no longer disappeared after a few issues. At this time, most of the works were still from Japan, though more and more Taiwanese artists were being recruited by the publishing companies. These artists were often overworked and it was not uncommon to see them publish three or four series at the same time. Some artists even had ten series going on concurrently. This meant that many of the series would face frequent hiatuses as the artists struggled to keep pace with publishing schedules. Also, Japanese manga was still more popular among the Taiwanese as they usually had more developed stories and characters. As more and more Taiwanese began to read manga, the publishing companies started making a lot of money, especially since they never paid for the rights to publish the Japanese manga that were the staple of their periodicals.
However, Taiwan’s manga culture was almost decimated by stringent laws established in the mid-1960s. Taiwan was under martial law during this period and after the KMT government passed a law restricting the topics and ideas that could expressed in manga in 1964, almost all manga had to pass a screening by the government. It is rumored that this law was passed because Chiang Kai-shek was dismayed by what was popular among the youth. While he was strolling the streets one day, he became excited when he saw many children sitting together reading intently with a pile of books stacked besides them. When he went over to see what they were reading, he was disappointed to find out that they were reading manga, or “evil books.” In order to insure that the future generations were reading correct works, Chiang ordered stricter laws governing what was allowed to be published. At first, it seemed like the manga industry did not care about the new law. In 1967 a total of 2844 manga works were sent to be screened; this number would increase to 4815 in 1968 and 5114 in 1969. These numbers represent the amount of Taiwanese manga works submitted since it was not yet legal to import Japanese manga. However, the government began to enforce the law in a stricter manner and it became harder and harder for works to pass the screening. Since it was increasingly difficult to publish manga under this new law, the manga industry shrunk and manga production dropped even though pirated Japanese manga was still prevalent. In 1971, only 2437 works were sent for screening. When the law was finally repealed, along with martial law, in 1987, only 84 works were sent to be screened that year. People during this time were less inclined to read manga because of the negative image attached to it. During this time, with the strict laws regulating manga and the government’s banning of the legal importation of Japanese manga, piracy became the only way for many Taiwanese to read manga. Therefore, since many of the future Taiwanese manga artists grew up reading Japanese manga, their style and drawings have a distinctive Japanese influence in them.
Towards the end of martial law, the manga industry started to slowly rebuild. In October 1985, the “Happy Manga Bi-Monthly” periodical was published. Spurred by the end of the stringent laws regulating manga, many other periodicals sprung up across Taiwan. Publishing companies tried to outdo each other by cutting the prices of their periodicals. This, combined with Taiwan’s now booming economy, led to both increased demand for manga and a larger readership as well. Since the prior laws regulating manga discouraged Taiwanese from entering the manga industry, very few Taiwanese manga artists were available and the periodicals were mostly filled with Japanese manga. There was also a lack of Taiwanese artists because many of them were unhappy with how the government had stringently regulated Taiwanese manga yet somehow turned a blind eye towards the piracy of Japanese manga. Even though it was no longer illegal to import Japanese manga, the publishing companies still preferred to publish pirated manga as it was cheaper for them. It was also easier to pirate Japanese manga because the government no longer restricted Japanese imports. During this period, some companies would distribute over fifty pirated Japanese series a month. Because of the increased competition during this period, many manga periodicals were unable to survive and ended quickly. Yet, due to the allure of the market for manga, publishers continued to put out new periodicals in hope that it would become popular. This rise and fall of periodicals would continue until 1992, when a crackdown on manga piracy changed the nature of Taiwan’s manga industry.
In June of 1992, the government banned all pirated manga for good and started to truly crackdown on offenders. This was in conjunction with many other Asian nations who were facing the same problem as well. The government set new laws that emphasized the importance of intellectual property and demanded that all publishing companies purchase the translation rights of the Japanese manga they were publishing. Therefore, the various publishing companies in Taiwan fought with each other in order to obtain the translation rights of the most popular Japanese manga. During this struggle, many publishing companies were forced out of business because they were unable to compete with some of the bigger companies. In the end, only seven manga publishing companies survived, though some of the companies received barely enough translation rights to stay in business. The biggest winner was Tongli Comics, which continues to be the biggest manga distributor in Taiwan today and controls over fifty percent of the manga market. In fact, when many of the smaller publishing companies collapsed later on, Tongli Comics would almost always buy the now-available translation rights and reissue the manga under their name.
Since the companies were now required to buy the translations rights, the price of manga in Taiwan went up. However, the quality of the translations went up as well. Since 1992, periodicals continued to be common, but single-volume-books, or tankōbon, grew in popularity. Eventually, more and more people favored tankōbon over periodicals. There was still a shortage of Taiwanese manga artists and most periodicals were filled with Japanese manga. In fact, the manga that was popular in Taiwan was closely correlated with what was popular in Japan. So what is manga culture in Taiwan like today?
II. Taiwan’s Present Manga Culture
To understand the current manga culture in Taiwan, one needs to look at the types of manga available, the readership of manga, and the perception of manga in general. In Taiwan, manga are sold in both the periodical and tankōbon format, though the tankōbon format is generally more popular. One rarely sees manga sold in the small booklet format that one commonly sees in many American comics or some non-mainstream Japanese comics and dōjinshi. Each tankōbon generally costs around $90 NTD and the costs of periodicals commonly range from $80 NTD to $120 NTD. Some tankōbon can cost up to $150 NTD, but these prices are usually limited to specialty, less mainstream, and niche manga. The pricier periodicals are also usually those that contain manga that are not considered mainstream. This is probably because mainstream manga aims to reach as large an audience as possible. With lower prices, a casual reader will be more likely to pick up the manga and give it a try. If the reader likes what he or she reads, they would then continue to follow the series and buy more volumes. On the other hand, niche manga are aimed at specialized audiences. It is less likely that a casual reader who picks it up will end of following the series; therefore these manga rely on readers who read it because they like it and are willing to pay the higher price. Prices for manga have gone up consistently for the past few years due to both inflation and the rising cost of paper. Less than ten years ago a tankōbon would cost only $75 NTD.
One can buy manga from many places in Taiwan. First of all, there are stores that specifically sell manga and anime. These stores are generally not too big and are usually filled late in the afternoon when students get out of school. Stores that are close to train stations or bus stops are usually more crowded because many students are looking for some quick reading on their way home. The entire store is often filled with shelves of manga that are sorted by publishing company and genre. Normally, there will be little signs that tell customers where the most popular series are located. These stores will also sell products that are generally considered complements to manga such as anime, figurines and merchandise of manga and anime characters, and even trading cards such as Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering. There are also many manga rental stores in Taiwan. These stores charge interested people a basic membership fee at first, usually around $100 to $200 NTD. Once someone is a member of the rental shop, they can choose to rent manga by the book or by the hour. These stores will provide places for members to sit down and read their manga. Therefore, if one rents by the hour, one would usually stay in the store and read. During this time, members can read however many and whatever manga they desire since they pay by the hour; magazines, newspapers, and popular novels are also available at these stores. Some of the fancier rental shops have small cafés within them that allow customers to order drinks and snacks; they even have personal rooms for those who do not want to be disturbed by others and provide free wireless internet as well. Prices range from $25 to $50 NTD per hour and $10 to $15 NTD for each book. One can see how these shops have become a popular place for youth to go to after school and during the weekends, especially during the summer months when the heat and humidity in Taiwan makes hanging out outside prohibitive for youth.
All regular bookstores in Taiwan have a special section for manga as well, though they usually only sell the most popular series. One of the most common places for Taiwanese to buy manga is at a convenience store. Convenience stores such as 7-Eleven are extremely popular and play an important role in Taiwanese life. One can do almost everything at these convenience stores, which are everywhere in Taiwan. There is an average of one convenience store for every 2800 people in Taiwan. It is joked that if one is standing in front of a convenience store, one is assured to reach another store if one walks one minute in any direction. These stores are open twenty-four hours a day and not only sell the usual food, drinks, and daily necessities but also allow people to pay their credit card bills, parking tickets, and utility bills there. Under certain conditions, people can even pay their taxes at these stores too. It is common for people to utilize the fax machines, copiers, and ATMs provided. One of the most interesting features of these convenience stores is that many online sellers offer the option of sending one’s order to a local convenience store. Instead of paying online, the buyer would pay at the convenience store. It is very convenient for people to either buy manga at the store itself or buy it online and have it sent to the store. The convenience stores carry most of the periodicals available and the newest volumes of certain popular series. It has become so that if someone is looking to buy the newest periodical or volume of a popular series, the person would probably go to a nearby convenience store and get it there. If someone is trying to get some older tankōbon, they would go to a manga bookstore or a manga rental shop.
Currently, the most popular manga in Taiwan are unquestionably Japanese ones. Of these Japanese manga, shōnen manga are the most popular, though shōjo manga are not far behind in popularity. If one only looks at the sales rankings of manga, one might not get the sense that shōjo manga are popular. Look at the statistics of Book.com.tw, the most popular online book-ordering website in Taiwan, eight of the top ten best-sellers for Tongli Comics are shōnen manga. Interesting enough, the number one best-seller is a shōjo manga, the newest volume of the well-liked series Nodame Cantabile. The other shōjo manga in the top ten was Skip Beat!, another long-lasting and popular shōjo series. If one looks at the best-seller list for books sold in a bookstore in Taiwan during August 2007, one finds that fourteen of the top twenty are manga. Of those fourteen, only one, Skip Beat! again, is shōjo; one has to go down to number twenty seven before one finds another shōjo manga, a volume of Nodame Cantabile. Similarly, only one of the fourteen was drawn by a Taiwanese artist. The fact that twelve of the top twenty books sold during this period show how well-received shōnen manga is in Taiwan.
Seeing how poorly shōjo manga does sales-wise, one could think that not many people read shōjo manga in Taiwan. Yet, when one goes into a manga bookstore, one sees that even though they are usually at the back of the store, at least one-third of the shelves are filled with shōjo manga series. The reason is probably that shōjo manga are more of a niche manga in Taiwan. Shōnen manga are the more mainstream manga that are designed to draw in as large an audience as possible. Not only do they attract most male readers, they are also able to appeal to many female readers too, especially since that many of the popular shōnen manga in Japan have started to increasingly contain various stereotypical shōjo characteristics such as an emphasis on relationships. On the other hand, shōjo manga are usually not considered mainstream and tend to rely on groups of fans for their readership. Not only are shōjo manga unable to attract a majority of females, they do not always appeal to male readers either. While this means that shōjo manga are not able to achieve high total sales, they do have a strong enough fan-base that allows them to remain profitable for the publishing companies. That is why there are many shōjo manga series in Taiwan even though they usually do not top the sales charts. Also, as seen earlier, there are manga classified as shōjo that have achieved good sales. One reason is because both Nodame Cantabile and Skip Beat! are long running series. The longer the series is, the longer it has to gain a respectable following. The fact that is it long-running is a testimony of its popularity since unpopular series are almost always canceled quickly. Another reason is that although both series are classified as shōjo, they have characteristics that go beyond the typical shōjo manga. While it does contain shōjo characteristics such as the development of relationships, Skip Beat! focuses on a girl’s revenge against a boy who jilted her. Many consider the main protagonist’s desire for revenge and overall craziness as hilarious and entertaining, something more commonly associated with shōnen manga. Nodame Cantabile also has shōjo characteristics but it also closely fits the slice-of-life genre that has been gaining popularity in the past few years. Works within the slice-of-life genre depict the lives of ordinary people as they struggle through life. Unlike many shōnen manga, they do not have to deal with dramatic events. This genre is popular because people are more likely to relate with the characters in these stories. Shōnen manga continues to be the most popular genre in Taiwan and shows no signs of slowing down. However, shōjo manga has its own group of loyal followers and with more and more shōjo works expanding beyond the boundaries of stereotypical shōjo manga¸ these works will become increasingly mainstream.
The general perception in Taiwan is that manga readership is limited to the youth. While it is true that a large amount of manga readers are youth, the number of adults who read manga has progressively increased. Taiwanese youth love reading manga and many of them see it as a form of entertainment. In an informal survey of Taiwanese manga readers conducted by the author, seven out of the eight respondents stated that they read manga in order to relax or for some sort of entertainment. Many pointed out that a well-crafted manga made for an enjoyable read and that the combination of art and story could make the work superior to a well-written book. Some also admitted that manga sometimes served as a form of escapism, though this was usually when they were facing hardships in their life. Many mentioned that they are unable to read manga as often as before because of an increase in schoolwork or responsibilities. However, most of them concluded that even though they would probably read less manga in the future, they would definitely continue reading even when they were adults.
Many adults in Taiwan seem to have a negative perception of manga. Many Taiwanese parents are heavily influenced by Confucian thought and believe that their children need to be constantly studying in order to get a good education and ultimately a good job. This is mostly because back when China still employed the civil service examinations, the only way for men to move up the social ladder and become rich and famous was to pass the examinations and become a scholar-official. When numerous Taiwanese parents see children reading manga, their first reaction is that the children are wasting their time and not putting as much effort into their studies as they should; they see reading manga as a frivolous hobby that is a marker of a poor student. Also, many believe that unlike sports, which trains the body, or cooking, reading manga does not provide its readers with skills that can be of use later on. Also, many Taiwanese, especially of the older generations, are rather conservative and are influenced by the Confucian values of modesty, propriety, and chastity. Therefore, many are offended by the presence of numerous sexual and violent situations in Japanese manga. Yet, this negative perception of manga is gradually changing. More and more adults are starting to read manga, especially ones that deal with adult situations such as seinen and special interest manga. It is not a common sight to see a parent get hooked on manga after picking up a volume left behind by their children. With globalization occurring, less and less Taiwanese are brought up under traditional yet conservative Confucian teachings. When the current youth of Taiwan grow up, it is likely that they will continue to support manga and the negative perception of manga in Taiwan will lessen, if not disappear.
The most popular manga in Taiwan are overwhelmingly Japanese. Very few people prefer manga drawn by Taiwanese artists and there is an overall lack of original content in the Taiwanese manga market. One reason for this is the different art styles. The most popular manga series are by Japanese and many Taiwanese manga readers are used to Japanese-style artwork and artists. The Taiwanese art-style is distinctly different and therefore, many readers are not used to it and dislike it; most consider the Taiwanese style choppy, full of jagged lines and ugly in general. There are also Taiwanese artists whose art styles are influenced by Japanese artists. However, the quality of the artwork of these artists is often considered subpar. Some readers believe that even though these Taiwanese artists try to draw like Japanese artists, they simply do not have the experience or practice to be able to create the same kind of quality artwork. Taiwanese artists are also generally not as good at developing their stories. The storylines in Taiwanese manga are often considered flat and generic while the characters are seen as one-dimensional and uninteresting. Some of the most successful Taiwanese manga are adaptations of popular computer and video games and not original creations. The lower quality of Taiwanese manga is partially because of the strict rules regulating manga from the mid 1960s to the late 1980s. These rules stunted the development of Taiwanese manga artists as they discouraged participation within the manga industry.
Another reason is that Taiwan has a very poor support system for its manga artists. The profession is not held in very high regard, especially since there is the aforementioned negative perception of manga in general among adults. Currently, the profession does not pay very well, principally because the works of most Taiwanese artists are not very popular. The government does not try to help out the industry and very few Taiwanese artists are able to make a living out of drawing manga. In Japan, many manga artists start off as assistants to well established artists; this allows them to learn under professionals and hone their skills before they publish their own work. Since there are currently very few professional Taiwanese artists, Taiwanese who wish to become manga artists are denied the same opportunity. This causes the work of Taiwanese artists to suffer as they are unable to obtain the same manga education Japanese artists are able to. This unfortunately causes a vicious cycle as the gap between Taiwanese and Japanese artists continues to widen. Readers prefer the Japanese manga because they are perceived to be of higher quality. It becomes harder for Taiwanese artists to develop their skills because their work is not as highly acclaimed and they are therefore unable to catch up to Japanese artists. Regrettably, there is also a widely-held belief that all Taiwanese manga are of lower quality. Because of this stereotype, even when a Taiwanese artist creates a good manga, it is difficult to get the public to read it because it is seen as a lower-quality work.
However, various publishing companies are attempting to counteract this trend by promoting Taiwanese artists. These companies hold numerous manga contests and the winners’ manga often appear in various periodicals. Right now, most of the contestants are amateurs who see drawing manga as a hobby and not a possible profession. This is mostly because parents discourage their children from striving to be a manga artist because the parents see the profession as being unstable, unpredictable, unorthodox, and not very lucrative. They often question whether a manga artist can truly support a family, further degrading the perception of the profession in the public’s mind. As one can see, Taiwan lacks a support system that would help Taiwanese manga artists succeed and compete with Japanese manga artists.
Taiwanese readers face another dilemma, the question of whether they should support Taiwanese manga simple because it is Taiwanese-made. Many Taiwanese want Taiwanese manga artists to succeed as they feel that it is always good to support your countrymen. However, many of them are put off by the lack of quality works and the minimal support the Taiwanese manga industry receives. They realize that there are a few good manga out there but feel that until Taiwanese artists are able to consistently draw quality manga that can compete against Japanese manga, it will be incredibly difficult to challenge the public perception that Taiwanese manga is inferior.
III. Future of Taiwan’s Manga Culture
Currently, Taiwan’s manga culture is commonly seen as a miniature version of Japanese manga culture. Taiwanese readers follow Japanese manga series and what is popular in Japan is usually popular in Taiwan. The manga culture in Taiwan lacks its own distinct identity and originality that would separate it from Japan’s manga culture. This is complicated by the fact that there are so few Taiwanese manga artists; it is hard to be your own if there is almost nothing that you can claim as your own. Publishing companies have tried to differentiate Taiwanese manga culture from Japan in the past but these efforts have failed. During the 1970s and 1980s, Taiwanese publishing companies initially tried to Chinese or Taiwanese-ify Japanese manga by editing them. Not only did they edit certain parts to make the content seem more Taiwanese but they also changed all character names to Chinese. One example is the popular series Captain Tsubasa, where the main character’s name Ozora Tsubasa was changed to Lai Guo-Liang. Through these changes, the publishing companies could say that these manga were different from the Japanese originals, which was also handy in evading the KMT ban on Japanese manga imports during this time period. However, the public was not supportive of these attempts to localize the manga and the publishing companies eventually changed their policy and started to stay true to the original manga. Instead of trying to change the Japanese product, the publishing companies should have tried to create and improve their own.
Presently, publishing companies try to recruit new Taiwanese artists by hosting various manga contests. This is a step in the right direction but unless the current conditions and perceptions surrounding the Taiwanese manga artist occupation change, the effects of these manga contests will be limited. The negative public perception of Taiwanese manga must be eliminated in order to Taiwanese manga culture to break away from the shadow of Japanese manga culture. The publishing companies should push for more governmental support of Taiwanese manga artists and continue to spend money to develop potential manga artists. Until the Taiwanese public can accept manga artists as a sensible profession and the readership can recognize the quality of Taiwanese manga, there will not be a unique Taiwanese manga culture. However, with the current group of young adults and youth supportive of manga in general, the future for Taiwan’s manga culture does not look too bleak.
 Chinese Television System, “Taiwan’s First Manga was Created 72 Years Ago!,” http://www.cts.com.tw/Default.aspx?ch=News&cp=NewsPage&date=2007/11/05&source=9611051200&NewsSNO=20071105A024&bw=2 (accessed May 14, 2008)
 Dōjinshi are self-published works by artists. These works can be originals or parodies of existing works.
 The New Taiwan Dollar (NTD) has an exchange rate of around 31:1 to the U.S. dollar.
Book.com.tw, “Tongli Rankings,” http://www.books.com.tw/exep/prod/books/editorial/publisher_chart.php?pubid=tongli (accessed May 14, 2008)
 Ko-Lu Rental Book Shop, “Booking Sales Rankings,” http://tw.myblog.yahoo.com/nbook_tw/article?mid=245&sc=1 (accessed May 14, 2008)
 Emily Chang, “Manga Survey,” April 15, 2009, personal email (May 15 1996)
 Kenneth Jeng, “Manga Survey,” April 15, 2009, personal email (May 15 1996)
 Jessica Yang, “Manga Survey,” April 15, 2009, personal email (May 15 1996)
 Jonathan Jou, “Manga Survey,” April 15, 2009, personal email (May 15 1996)
 Crystal Shiau, “Manga Survey,” April 15, 2009, personal email (May 15 1996)