You probably know the answer is “a lot more than Americans read comics.” But for those of you who would like to know just how much is “a lot,” here’s the latest data. The Mainichi Newspaper has been conducting a survey on reading practices every year since 1947. The last survey was taken September 7-9, 2007, and the complete results were published in March of this year. The polling method was a two-stage, stratified random sample of 4,800 men and women 16 years or older. Pollsters visited the randomly selected homes (in 300 areas in large cities, mid-size cities, small cities, and small towns all over Japan), gave the selected individual the questionnaire to fill out, then came back to collect it later. There were 2,685 valid responses (a response rate of 56%).
The survey is about reading practices in general, and not specifically about manga, so from the point of view of somehow who has spent many years trying to perfect ways of asking people about their manga-reading habits (that would be me), the manga-specific questions seem flawed, but Mainichi’s been doing this a long time, and if nothing else the survey gives us an idea of how much Japanese think they’re reading manga.
As you may know, manga is generally first serialized in thick anthology magazines printed on cheap paper, and then individual works are gathered into paperback form. The magazines are commonly B5 size (about 7 x 10 inches), and the paperbacks tend to be about 102 x 176 mm (about 4 x 7 inches) or A5 (about 6 x 8 inches). The magazines, unlike American comics, are not collected, but are rather tossed into the recycling bin. Paperbacks, on the other hand, are for keeping on your bookshelf.
The two survey questions I’m going to focus on here are about how much people read these two different manga formats. First, let’s look at magazines. The question asked translates something like, “What genres of magazines do you read. (Mark all that apply.)” They then offer 16 types of magazine genres (such as “general,” “fashion/trends,” “economy/business/money”), one of which is manga. And here are a couple of slick graphs I made using iWork’s Numbers:
As you can see, there’s a big gender gap here. This might lead you to assume that fewer women than men read manga, but compare these two graphs with the two below. (I’ll get back to why women read manga magazines less later.)
The second question is about manga paperbacks. (In the survey they just call them “manga books,” but in reality only a tiny fraction of manga books sold are hardcover.) The questions translates, “What is the average number of books, magazines, and videos you read or watch per month? (“Weekly magazines” includes weekly photo magazines and weekly manga magazines, “Monthly magazines” includes quarterly and semimonthly magazines, and monthly manga magazines.) Here are the response by sex for “manga books”:
I should note that the questionnaire goes into more detail, allowing respondents to choose from 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 or more. Here I’ve lumped together everyone who chose 1 or more. As you can see, there’s still a gender gap, but it’s far smaller than that for magazines. So why the difference? Well, it’s complicated. Really complicated. Most Japanese use public transportation to get to work and school, and whereas men feel no inhibitions about reading manga magazines on trains and buses, women do. The magazines are bulky and have gaudy, colorful covers. Most women simply don’t want to be seen reading them in public, so women who do buy them tend to read them at home. Looked at the other way, a lot of men buy them just to kill time on the train or bus. Another factor is the nature of the content. Almost by definition, manga for women tend to focus on relationships, are often deeply moving. So a lot of women prefer to read in privacy where they don’t have to worry about being moved to tears. Another major factor is money. Women are stingy, because they generally have more things to spend money on (clothing, cosmetics) than do men. They would rather not spend money on a magazine they are going to dispose of as soon as they finish reading it. (A lot of women read manga magazines in bookstores and put them back on the shelves without buying them.)
Paperbacks are a different story. Women buy manga paperbacks by their favorites manga artists and will keep them for years, rereading them occasionally or lending them to friends or family to read. They are also less inhibited about reading paperbacks in public, because they are much smaller, and most bookstores put generic paper covers on them if you ask them to. Looked at the other way, a lot of the men who read manga magazines to kill time during commutes are satisfied after one reading, and don’t bother to buy the paperbacks of stories they have read. (By the way, this analysis is mostly my own original analysis based on two decades of research, so if you refer to it somewhere, please cite me.)
But just how accurate the above numbers are is debatable. First, it is self-reporting, not objectively observed behavior. Women may be more inclined than men to underestimate the amount of manga they read. The fact that the questionnaire asks for “averages” doesn’t help. Do you know how many books, magazines, or comics you read on average per month? I don’t. In my own surveys, I found it was more productive to ask “About how many manga paperbacks (magazines) have you read in the past 30 days?” That’s a question most people can answer fairly accurately, because they can remember specific books they’ve read recently. This questionnaire’s results show clearly that there’s a problem with the question about “manga books”: the number of non-responses to the question rises dramtically with the age of the respondent. Here’s the percentage of respondents who didn’t anwer this question, by age bracket:
late teens: 3%
60s: 49 %
70s and up: 55%
This no-response rate is considerably higher than that of any of the other non-manga genres asked about. Clearly, older respondents either 1) didn’t understand the question, or 2) understood it, but didn’t know how to answer it. They may not have been sure what was meant by “manga book.” They may not have been sure if they should only count books they actually bought themselves. They may simply have not been able to come up with an “average.”
But any way you slice it, you can see that “a lot” of Japanese adults read manga. Roughly three-quarters of late-teens, two-thirds of those in their twenties, two-fifths of those in their thirties, a quarter of those in their forties, and a tenth of those in their fifties read at least some manga every month.
Mainichi also did a survey of school-age kids. Maybe I’ll introduce that one sometime soon.