:: Article

Japanamerica: Galapagos vs. Global

By Roland Kelts.


Japan’s ‘Galapagos syndrome,’ a phrase first used to characterize the nation’s highly evolved but globally incompatible cell phones, is lately being applied to other isolated industries, even to its people. “The Galapagosization of Japan continues,” trumpeted one US newspaper last month, when a survey of Japan’s white-collar workers revealed that a full two-thirds of them never want to work abroad.

Such attitudes won’t surprise anyone involved with Japan’s producers of popular culture, whose minimal and often blinkered efforts to capitalize on the global appeal of their products have resulted in the downsizings, pinched margins and scant optimism plaguing Tokyo. Most of them are overworked, understaffed and underfunded; they don’t have time to look up from their desks, let alone pay attention to the rest of the world.

Galapagosization is a two-way roadblock: insiders can’t survive outside, outsiders can’t get in. Almost every one of those overburdened staffers is Japanese. “We have nothing to offer [foreign artists] here,” says Shogakukan‘s Masakazu Kubo, veteran manga editor and Executive Producer of Pokemon. “That’s shameful.”

In 2007, Yukari Shiina set out to breathe new life into an industry she saw growing stale and self-absorbed. She founded the World-manga.com agency with the goal of introducing non-Japanese artists to domestic manga publishers, negotiating contracts and publicity between them. “I really wanted to bring some diversity into the Japanese industry,” she says. “Diversity is one of the keys to survival. It’s strange that we have tons of translated novels and films here, and Japanese love those works, mystery novels and Hollywood movies and Disney. But for some reason, we don’t like the comics that others [like].”

Shiina surveyed the US industry and found variety galore: comics by non-American artists are commonplace on the shelves and at conventions, and numerous non-native born artists and employees work for US publishers. Why not create a similar scenario in Japan?

It hasn’t been easy. The language barrier, she says, is huge, “much bigger than I thought.” In addition, the domestic manga business is strongly driven by fads and trends, with rapid turnover. The Internet may provide the illusion of greater proximity and transparency for overseas fans and artists, but trend spotting from thousands of miles away is inadequate. “People think that with the Internet, you can follow everything, but that’s just not true.”

Thus far, the number of non-native artists World-manga.com has managed to import and publish matches its years of operation: exactly three – hardly a trend of its own. Nevertheless, at least one of them has garnered considerable attention and praise, and his resume reads like a roadmap of diversity.

Felipe Smith was born to a Jamaican father and Argentine mother in Ohio, raised in Buenos Aires, trained at Chicago’s Institute for the Arts and discovered while living in and creating comics about Los Angeles. At 32, he has lived in Tokyo for two and a-half years, publishing his series Peepo Choo (Pikachu rib-poke) first in Japanese with Kodansha, then in English with Vertical, Inc.


It helps that he walks the walk: Smith is an autodidact who learned to speak Japanese fluently in Los Angeles via a Japanese roommate, a job in a karaoke bar, and sheer will. Now he writes at least some of his original text in the language, the rest of which is translated by Shiina.

Smith discovered manga in a Japanese bookstore in L.A., attracted to the size of the books and the scope and range of the stories, though he’s hardly an avid fan. “What drew me to manga was that there wasn’t this template,” he tells me. “It wasn’t so much the content, but the diversity of styles. There is no single drawing style for manga. That’s why I’m here. What’s being sold to the rest of the world is very limited, but here [in Japan], you can do all kinds of things.”

In 2003, Smith won the Rising Stars of Manga contest, the brainchild of US publisher and distributor TokyoPop‘s CEO and founder, Stuart Levy. “Felipe’s art really stood out,” Levy recalls. “Each and every page was filled with details, from the backgrounds to the characters’ facial expressions, and his line-work was polished.”


TokyoPop published Smith’s first series, the three-volume MBQ (which he now describes as a seinen, or young man’s, manga set in L.A.), in 2005, garnering the attention of agent Shiina, who helped land his current editor at Kodansha.

Smith’s is an exceptional story, to be sure, as is the story of Peepo Choo itself – a US-Japan culture clash comedy mocking and celebrating pop culture fans in both countries, drawn in riveting and sometimes surrealistically violent graphics. His achievement would seem many a foreign manga fan’s dream.

But unlike the salarymen in his adopted homeland, Smith is determined to transcend Japan’s Galapagos mentality. He wants his work to be read and appreciated worldwide. “We have to get beyond these silly classifications of manga and comics, Japanese or American. The hardest thing is trying to make it a global thing, not just for the reader here, but everywhere. It’s definitely possible, though, and I think it’s necessary. It’s just really hard.”

At least he and Shiina were willing to leave home to make the effort.


Roland Kelts is a Temple University, Japan Campus, lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.. This article is hosted by 3:AM and Daily Yomiuri.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 4th, 2010.