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Japan's Comic Book Export

"Otaku" warrior at the 2002 Anime U.S.A. convention in Northern Virginia.
Susan Stone, NPR News /
"Otaku" warrior at the 2002 Anime U.S.A. convention in Northern Virginia.

From Speed Racer to Sailor Moon, Japanese comic books and animation have long enjoyed a cult following in the United States. A few years ago, little pocket monsters -- Pokemon -- arrived and quickly became one of the most valuable animated properties in history. Now, there's a new monster on the block. A U.S. version of Shonen Jump -- Japan's most popular comic -- is poised to take American teens by storm.

NPR's Susan Stone joined dedicated fans of "anime" -- Japanese animation -- and "manga" -- comic books -- as they gathered at a recent Anime U.S.A. convention in Northern Virginia. They are known as "otaku," and populate such conventions dressed in costumes modeled on their favorite stories. At the convention's "cosplay" -- short for costume play -- and masquerade, there are broad-winged angels, space-age samurai and kimono-clad kittens. The players perform earnest monologues and ironic skits, based on themes from manga and anime.

In Japan, much of the population reads manga and watches anime. But otaku is a negative term, connoting an obsessive coach potato. Yet American fans such as 15-year-old Philippe Barreyro wear the name as a badge of honor. Barreyro tells Stone that for Otaku, anime influences the way they talk and walk, they slang they use, even the food they eat.

For American Otaku, anime conventions are a chance to be steeped in an anime lifestyle. And since any lifestyle needs its own magazine, Shonen Jump hopes to fill that bill.

"We thought it was very necessary for the magazine to really reflect and reinforce and even define this new lifestyle that's emerging in the U.S.," says Rick Bauer, marketing director of Viz Communications, which markets the American version of Shonen Jump.

The original sells 3 million copies every week in Japan. Bauer thinks manga await similar mainstream acceptance in the United States.

It's all tied to a shift in the audience. Until a few years ago, anime and manga fans were older and consumers of a clearly foreign product.

Pokemon changed all that, says Chris MacDonald, editor-in-chief of the Anime News Network. "The fans of Pokemon, as they grew older, fell right into the demographic of Yu-Gi-Oh," he says.

Yu-Gi-Oh, a storyline and card game about kids who play magical games, may be Shonen Jump's not-so-secret weapon. MacDonald says kids who bought Pokemon toys and games are now watching the Yu-Gi-Oh series on the WB network six days a week. They're likely customers for Shonen Jump.

MacDonald says anime is ultimately a multimedia empire, not a way of life. But others say that beyond a world of toys, comic books and video games, Shonen Jump seeks to teach about Japanese culture. That makes the magazine groundbreaking, says Susan Napier, a Japanese culture professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The magazine aims for a mainstream American market and is published in English, but it reads Japanese style -- back to front, right to left. And unlike fans of Star Trek or Lord of the Rings, says Napier, anime fans are compelled by a real culture with a real language. American Otaku are embracing a global world, not a fictional one.

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Susan Stone
Susan Stone is a contributing reporter/producer for NPR based in Berlin, Germany. Before relocating to Germany for a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship in 2005, she was a producer, editor, reporter and director at NPR’s headquarters in Washington for 10 years. Most recently, Stone was a producer and director for the weekend editions of NPR's award-winning news magazine All Things Considered, where she created a signature monthly music feature for the show.