Buddhism: Morality, Wisdom & Meditation

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Types of Buddhism in Asia

With over 500 million followers, Buddhism is one of the world’s major religions. Approximately 300,000 of these followers live in the United Kingdom alone, however, the majority live in contemporary Asia with the highest numbers in China, Thailand, Japan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Cambodia. Until 23rd February 2020, the British Library is exploring the spread of Buddhism, its philosophy, and practice with an exhibition containing manuscripts and artefacts, including rare treasures such as 2000-year-old scrolls and books. Full of inciteful information, the British Library breaks down the three types of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana; and reveals the consistency of the religion since the 6th century BCE.

Entering the exhibition, visitors are welcomed by the sounds of the natural world, which is a major theme within Buddhism. The songs and noises of cicadas, amphibians, oriental magpie robins and gentle streams set the scene for the first quarter of the exhibition, which focuses on the Buddha.

Born 2500 years ago in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal, the historical Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. His mother, Queen Maya, passed away seven days after his birth and he was raised by his aunt, Prajapati Gotami. His father, King Shuddhodana, arranged tutors to teach his son in the palace and kept all troubles and hard work away from Siddhartha. The king showered luxuries on his son, providing him with everything he could want. A prophecy stated that if Siddhartha left the palace he would become a religious leader, however, if he remained inside, he would grow up to become a great king. Naturally, King Shuddhodana wished his heir to be a strong and powerful leader, therefore, used his wealth to make sure his son would never want to leave the palace.

As well as all the luxuries, when Siddhartha turned 16, his father found him a wife, Yashodhara, and they soon had a son, Rahula. Yet, despite the comfortable, rich lifestyle, Siddhartha yearned to see what life was like outside of the palace.

The life of Prince Siddhartha is recorded in two Sanskrit scriptures: Buddhacarita and Lalitavistara Sutra. Both describe Siddhartha’s childhood of luxury beginning before he was born when his mother dreamt of a white elephant. Some legends say that when Siddhartha was born, he took seven steps forward and at each step, a lotus flower appeared where his foot had been. He then announced that this was his last birth, implying he had been reincarnated several times. In one of his previous lives, it is believed he was an elephant.

Desperate to escape the confines of the palace, the young adult Siddhartha went on four journeys where he saw “four great sights”. Whether or not Siddhartha got out of the palace against his father’s will is debated but the things he saw on the trips changed his life forever. The four great sights were an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man with no home. The knowledge of these forms of suffering made Siddhartha sad that he lived in such comfort when others did not. From that moment onwards, he decided to reject extravagant luxuries.

The British Library displays several illuminated pages from two manuscripts showing the story of Prince Siddartha. One volume was produced in China and the other in Burma, however, they both tell of the same events. In one picture, Prince Siddartha takes a final look at his sleeping wife and new-born son before leaving the palace on horseback. At the age of 20, Siddhartha had become a leader of the Shakya clan who were by tradition sun worshippers, however, they soon fell out with another clan and proposed a war. Siddhartha, averse to causing people to suffer, opposed this proposal and was given an ultimatum by the clan: stay and fight or leave the country and never see his family again. At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his family, his home, and his land.

The illustrations show that Prince Siddhartha became a monk and ordered his charioteer to return to the palace and inform his family that he was well. Naturally, the king tried to entice Siddhartha back by offering half his kingdom, however, Siddhartha refused, saying he had renounced worldly life. In one of the images, Prince Siddhartha is shown receiving the eight requisites of a monk: three yellow robes, an alms bowl, a razor, a needle, a water strainer and a girdle.

Like many holy men at the time, Siddhartha was an ascetic, denying himself worldly pleasures for religion and spirituality. Siddhartha may have joined a group of Jains who, amongst other things, practiced self-denial and caused themselves to suffer. They believed this would free their soul from pain and sadness. Acts of self-denial may have included eating only six grains of rice a day, holding one’s breath for considerable lengths of time, and allowing the body to become so thin as to be on the verge of death. Despite partaking in this type of ritual, Siddhartha remained unsatisfied.

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Shakyamuni Buddha

Believing there was a better way to free the soul that did not involve hurting himself, Siddhartha decided to leave the monks. He found a large fig tree and decided to meditate under it. Determined not to leave the spot until he had found enlightenment, Siddhartha meditated for 49 days. During this time, his mind is said to have become pure. After practising this for a total of six years, Siddhartha became enlightened. He had become a Buddha.

The tree under which Siddhartha had meditated is known as the Bodhi Tree. Bodhi is the Sanskrit word for enlightenment, which refers to a full awakening where all limitations have been moved from the mind. The original tree is believed to have stood at the site of the Mahabodhi Temple in India. Whenever the tree was destroyed or died it was replaced by a new Bodhi tree. Saplings from the various trees have been taken to other places in India, such as Sravasti and Chennai, and across the world to Sri Lanka, Hawaii and California.

The manuscripts continue to document Siddhartha or the Buddha’s life after becoming enlightened. The Buddha now understood the purpose of suffering and how to defeat suffering. His answer was known as the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Dukkha – in life there is suffering whether we want it or not
  2. Samudaya – there is a reason for the suffering in the world
  3. Nirodha – people can be free from suffering when they no longer want things
  4. Magga – to stop wanting things, one must follow the Noble Eightfold Path
    1. Right Vision. A person should try to see things the way they really are
    2. Right Values. A person should try to turn their mind away from the world and towards the Dharma (cosmic law)
    3. Right Speech. A person should try to be truthful and kind when they talk
    4. Right Actions. A person should try to do good things. If they can not do a good thing, then they should try to not do a bad thing
    5. Right Livelihood. A person should not work at something that can hurt themselves or other people
    6. Right Effort. A person should try to increase their goodness and get rid of their evil
    7. Right Mindfulness. A person must remember the Dharma and use it all the time
    8. Right Meditation. A person must try to reach enlightenment through meditation

The illuminated manuscripts shows the Buddha teaching the Dharma to his disciples and other followers. Although he is occasionally depicted on a throne, he never pretended to be a god. He considered himself to be a man who had discovered the meaning of life and walked across Nepal and parts of India to teach people what he believed. For over 40 years he preached about enlightenment and started a Sangha – a group of Buddhist monks and nuns.

The Buddha lived to the age of 80 when he suffered a severe attack of dysentery. As seen in the illustrations, the Buddha consoled his most devoted disciple Ananda then called all his disciples together for one final message. He urged them to continue to follow the Four Noble Truths then passed away; or as the British Library describes it, he entered “Parinirvana, the final passage into Nirvana (liberation from the cycle of rebirth).” His death is remembered on the day of the full moon in May.

The Buddha’s body was cremated and enshrined in stupas (a type of reliquary), which were distributed across north India. Under the rule of Emperor Ashoka in 250 BCE, they were taken further afield to promote the spread of Buddhism. Later, during a war, the Sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Sri Lanka for safety. Every year a 15-day festival is held in memory of this event. The Sacred Tooth Relic procession includes a procession of elephants.

“You yourselves must strive. The Buddhas only point the way.”
Magga-vagga (The Path), Sutra Pitaka

Unlike western religions where there is only one God, the concept of being a Buddha is available to anyone who obtains enlightenment. Enlightenment is central to Buddhist philosophy, however, the path is not straight forward. The historical Buddha went through dozens of lives before he was born as Prince Siddhartha where he finally obtained enlightenment. Stories of the previous lives of the Buddha have been illustrated in manuscripts known as Jātakas (Birth Stories), of which a handful are displayed in the Library’s exhibition. Each story represents one of the virtues or qualities of a Buddha.

The Jātaka tales claim the Buddha lived 547 lives before coming to the end of his spiritual path. The final ten lives are generally considered to be the most important because they illustrate the Great Paramita (perfections) of a Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be). In one previous incarnation, the Bodhisattva was an elephant who stood over a skylark nest to protect the birds. Unfortunately, an evil elephant arrived and destroyed the nest, however, the skylark, with the help of a crow, a fly and a frog, destroyed him. Despite being small and powerless, they caused the death of a powerful elephant.

In another incarnation, the Buddha was a golden stag who found himself caught in a hunter’s trap. His mate offered her life to the hunter in place of the stag’s, which so moved the hunter that he spared both of their lives.

The previous lives of the Buddha have different importance between Buddhist’s sects. There are three main divisions of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Since the Buddha’s death, differing opinions have arisen concerning the correct teachings and practices of Buddhism. Theravada, meaning “way of the elders” is the oldest of the three traditions and states the best way to attain nirvana is to be a monk or nun and partake in regular meditation. They believe the path to enlightenment is a personal journey and is an individual experience. Mahayana, on the other hand, teaches people can help each other to gain enlightenment. It is not necessary to be a monk or nun but Bodhisattvas can work together to attain nirvana. The third tradition, Vajrayana, follows the majority of the Mahayana teachings, however, also believes it is possible to reach nirvana in a single lifetime.

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Twenty-Eight Buddhas

In the Theravada tradition, it is believed that twenty-eight Buddhas have attained nirvana. The history of these Buddhas is recorded in a text known as the Buddhavamsa. Although he is the most famous, Prince Siddhartha was the fourth Buddha. Preceding him were Kakusanda, Konagama and Kassapa. Despite living unique lives, each Buddha achieved enlightenment in the shadow of a particular tree.

In Buddhism, life is regarded as a series of impermanent manifestations; everything is subject to change. Although it is possible to be both a Buddhist and belong to another religion, Buddhism does not encourage belief in a creator or single deity. Buddhism incorporates cosmological theories that describe 31 realms of existence within the cycle of Samsara (rebirth). The Sutra of the Ten Kings describes the ten stages the soul passes through after death before reaching one of six forms of rebirth: hell, ghosts, wild animals, domestic animals, humans and Buddhas. Other traditions have slightly different forms of rebirth but they all agree there are a total of six. There are also 31 realms of existence: 4 formless realms, 16 pure form realms, 6 celestial realms, 1 human realm, 1 realm of jealous demi-gods and demons, 1 animal realm, 1 realm of hungry ghosts, and 1 realm of the underworld or hell.

The teachings of the Buddha were not written down during his lifetime, which is the prime reason for the different traditions that have formed. The oldest collection of Buddhist scriptures date back to over 2000 years ago, however, by then different opinions had already formed. Each Buddhist tradition has its own set of texts that differ in contents and number. A complete set of scriptures ranges between 40 to over 200 volumes depending on the particular division.

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Gandhāran Scroll

The British Library displays a variety of scrolls and manuscripts containing Buddhist texts. Dating from the 1st century CE is a fragment of the Gandhāran scrolls, which are among the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts. Written in black ink on birch bark, these scrolls demonstrate a range of Buddhist genres and styles, including poetry and stories. The kingdom of Gandhāra encompassed several cultures, for instance, Indian, Asian, Iranian, Greek and Roman, therefore, these scrolls were an important method of spreading the word of Buddhism between different societies.
Amongst the other manuscripts in the exhibition are the Kanjur: a Tibetan Buddhist canon containing the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Verses, the Sankhara: a commentary on the higher teachings, the Lotus Sutra: an influential Mahayana scripture, the Amitabha Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. The latter is written as a dialogue between the Buddha and his disciple Subhuti. It explains that people are intrinsically empty “like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow”. The Buddha is trying to help his disciple unlearn his preconceived notions of reality. An accompanying quote from the American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (b.1936) emphasises this idea:

“The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”
Pema Chödrön, 1991

As the exhibition reaches the halfway mark, the soundscape shifts from the natural world to audio recordings of rituals, ceremonies and the everyday lives of Buddhist communities across a range of geographic locations. This includes prayers being said in India, a ceremony in Cambodia, monks playing the drums in Laos and various recordings from China and Japan. These sounds signal the end of the Buddha and Buddhist Philosophy sections of the exhibition and the beginning of the Spread of Buddhism.

The spread of the Buddha’s teachings coincides with the adaptation of writing systems and printing techniques, which allowed Buddhist scriptures to reach more people than oral accounts could achieve. The manuscripts were also translated from the original Sanskrit into local languages across Asia, allowing a greater population to become familiar with Buddhism.


In the Theravada tradition, Buddhist scriptures were usually inscribed on carefully prepared palm leaves and held together by a cord. A carved wooden cover was attached either side to protect the fragile leaves, turning the manuscript into an early form of a book. This is known as pothi. Ink made from soot and plant oils was applied with a metal stylus. This technique was used up until the early 20th century. Other materials were also used, although very rare, for example, gold and silver plates. The British Library also displays a pothi made from ivory.
Folded and bound paper books came much later, however, they were still individually written by hand. This was usually done by a Buddhist monk who would use a special calligraphy set consisting of brushes, paperweights, ink sticks, ink stones, seals and seal paste. Although tradition is a very important aspect of Buddhism, monks are not afraid to embrace new technologies, therefore, by the 6th century CE, manuscripts were being mass-produced using wood-block printing. As a result, Buddhism began to spread more rapidly across the continent.

The British Library is fortunate that so many of these early manuscripts have survived to date. This is largely thanks to the monastic libraries that played and continue to play a central role in Buddhist education. Due to the Asian climate, the fragile manuscripts needed to be stored carefully to avoid damage from the changing weather, humidity, mould, insects and rodents. Special furniture and containers were designed specifically to hold these scrolls and books.

“When the mind is not trained, it is like a monkey. Meditation helps you focus.”
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, 2018


The final section of the exhibition focuses on Buddhist practices, particularly the lives of monks. Buddhist life revolves around Karuna (compassion) and Metta (loving-kindness), which are to be expressed through behaviour and generosity to reduce the suffering of others. Buddhists must reject natural egotism and self-centeredness to demonstrate these practices. Buddhists achieve states of awareness and mindfulness by participating in meditation, which heightens concentration and insight. Mantras and chanting help to focus the mind and protect it from negative thoughts. Many of these techniques have been incorporated into everyday non-Buddhist life through activities such as yoga.

Although many Buddhists do not believe in the notion of gods, they use a variety of shrines. Many of these are used in ceremonies and often depict the historical Buddha, however, there are a few that are reserved for specific practices. The shrine of Jizō Bosatsu from Japan, for example, is a representation of the guardian and saviour of the dying, deceased and stillborn. The shrine, therefore, is used only when appropriate.

Portable shrines, such as amulet boxes, offer the bearer protection when travelling. An example on display is ornately decorated and contains a small window where a figurine or picture of a respected lama (teacher) could be displayed. Inside the box, Buddhists keep items that are deemed to carry blessings.

Buddhists occasionally wear protective clothing, such as a silk jacket, that they believe will protect them from physical and spiritual harm. The clothing is usually adorned with hand-drawn images and written texts from Buddhist mantras.
Emphasised by the figure of Sitatārā or White Tara, both males and females can receive enlightenment. Although Buddhist monks seem to be more common than Buddhist nuns, Buddhism is not a religion that alienates anyone based on gender. They believe everyone can reach nirvana if they strive hard enough.

Visitors are invited to strike a gong on exiting the room in a similar way one might exit a Buddhist monastery. Thus ends the multi-sensory exhibition. Decorated with red drapes and walls, the exhibition room resembles a contemporary Buddhist monastery or temple. Low lighting emphasises the preciousness of the artefacts and manuscripts plus causes people to talk in respectfully hushed voices. With so much information accompanying all the exhibits, the British Library has done a phenomenal job piecing together the exhibition.

The Buddhism exhibition is open until 23rd February 2020. Tickets are priced at £14 although concessions are available.

Manga マンガ

“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

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The kanji for “manga”

Manga are comics or graphic novels that originated in Japan during the 19th century. They combine images and words to tell stories of a whole range of genres, including action, adventure, comedy, history, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy. In Japanese, the characters that make up the word “manga” translate literally as “pictures run riot”. Whilst people would be correct in arguing manga is no different from any form of cartoon or comic, the term “manga” refers to comics originally published in Japan.

Recently, the largest exhibition of Manga outside of Japan took place at the British Museum. Attracting people of all ages and backgrounds, the museum introduced newbies to the global phenomenon and excited avid fans. Manga’s popularity in the western world grew through its expansion into anime (animation) and gaming, becoming a multi-billion-dollar industry. Today, manga are celebrated throughout the world at Comic Cons and other conventions. The Museum, however, took visitors on a journey from the distant past to the present day through original drawings and interviews with various artists who brought the art of manga to life.

 

The roots of manga can be traced back to the 12th or 13th century. A set of handscrolls known as the Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals (Chōjū giga) are thought to be the foundation of modern manga. Attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525), a Japanese artist and founder of the Tosa school of Japanese painting, these painted handscrolls show simple illustrations of anthropomorphic rabbits and frogs wrestling and participating in other human-like activities. These scrolls were discovered in Kōsan-ji, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. Today, there are many copies and graphic reproductions.

In the 1500s, an anonymous set of comical illustrations showing monkeys acting out human situations were produced, most likely in response to the older handscrolls. Unlike the earlier form, these drawings included the first examples of fukidashi or speech bubbles. These were not written or drawn out in the way we perceive speech bubbles today, however, they aided the narrative of the visual story. Whilst at first glance it appears there are dozens of monkeys on the scroll, there are actually only a few characters, appearing multiple times across the page, showing a visual progression and storyline.

By the 18th century, Japanese artists were combining pictures and words in illustrated novel formats (kibyōshi). These were usually produced for the rich, elite Japanese citizens and often satirised society and politics. An example of work from this era is the poet Santō Kyōden’s (1761-1816) publication Small Change from a Gem-grinding Wheel.

 

Those who went to the British Museum’s Manga exhibition were guided from display to display by a white rabbit named Mimi-chan. The young rabbit looks very similar to the creatures in the Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals, which is where the manga artist Fumiyo Kōno (b.1968) borrowed her ideas. She has recently written and illustrated the book Giga Town: album of manga symbols (2018), which helps the reader understand how to read manga. There are many signs and symbols known as manpu that convey movement and emotion, however, there has never been an instruction manual to help people understand them. Kōno’s book is the first dictionary of manpu.

On one page of Giga Town, the heroine Mimi-chan is racing a tortoise in a retelling of Aesop’s (620 – 564 BCE) The Tortoise and the Hare. Kōno uses lots of manpu, such as spirals to express speed, dizziness or the movement of an object or character. In other frames, readers are introduced to manpu that indicate surprise, deep thinking, fear, movement, anger, sadness, tiredness and sleep. The latter two are usually shown through the use of the letter Z. This is a symbol that is also used in western comics, for example, Charles M. Schulz’s (1922-2000) Peanuts comic strip.

As well as manpu, Kōno provides other instructions on how to read manga. The most important is perhaps the reading direction. Unlike the majority of the western world who read from left to right, the Japanese read from right to left, top to bottom. Manga are divided into frames (koma), which begin in the upper right-hand corner and finish in the lower-left koma. When compiled in a book, the story begins on the back page and finishes on what we would consider the first page.

As mentioned already, speech bubbles or fukidashi are used to contain spoken words and thoughts. Whilst usually round, these change shape depending on the tone, mood and context. A daydream may be indicated by a cloud-shaped bubble, whereas an exclamation of surprise may have several jagged edges.

As well as speech, there are symbols and markings to represent other sound effects. These are called either gitaigo or giseigo and are usually embedded into the illustrations. They help the reader to comprehend the drama, mood and tone (tōn) of the scene.

 

Despite evidence that the idea of manga is over 800 years old, the father of manga, or at least modern manga, is often said to be Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), the designer of the famous print, The Great Wave. A series of picture books titled Hokusai manga was published in 1814. The title was chosen by the artist himself in reference to the original meaning “pictures run riot” or “brush running away with itself”.

Although Hokusai’s “manga” is amusing, for instance, Buddhist’s monks partaking in all sorts of activities, there is no narrative. Nor is there any text or dialogue; the illustrations appear to be completely random, light-hearted images. Nonetheless, the manpu that Fumiyo Kōno described in her book published last year, is evident in Hokusai’s drawings. There is an atmosphere in Hokusai manga that is similar to modern manga. His characters are caught in a “freeze-frame”, mid-movement, which is a technique used by nearly all manga and comic strip artists today.

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Japan Punch

Manga first became known in the western world when Japan opened its doors to international trade in 1858. A foreign settlement began to grow in Yokohama, now the second-largest city in Japan, and it was here that Japan’s first newspaper was published. One of the first newspapers was called Japan Punch by Charles Wirgman (1832-91), which was published between 1862 and 1887. This was a satirical comic magazine based on the British weekly periodical Punch or The London Charivari established in 1841. Japan Punch included illustrations that mocked local westerners and the struggles they had in building relations with the Japanese. As the magazine’s popularity grew, the journal began to target Japanese government policies and concerns about Japan’s rapid modernisation.

 

Taking up seventeen metres of wall space at the British Museum’s exhibition was a curtain produced for Tokyo’s Shintomi theatre showing kabuki actors as monsters and ghosts. Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889) produced this stage curtain within four hours on 30th June 1880, albeit after consuming several bottles of rice wine. The illustrations depict the Japanese folklore tale Hyakki Yagyō (Night Parade of One Hundred Demons). Despite the spontaneous (drunken) style, the Japanese population would have recognised the individual characters from books and paintings. Modern manga was yet to develop but it is thought this curtain provided roots and inspiration for contemporary artists.

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Jiji Manga

Modern manga can be dated to around the 1880s. Modelled on the comics sections of American newspapers, Kitazawa Rakuten (1876–1955) launched the humorous newspaper Jiji manga (Topical Manga) as a supplement to the pre-existing Jiji shinpō (News of Current Affairs). After proving popular, artists began producing manga magazines for a younger audience. Shōnen manga was developed for young men, which focused on action and adventure. For young women, shōjo manga focused more on relationships and romance. Later, shōjo manga expanded to include material for homosexual males.

During the 1910s, manga magazines suitable for children became widely available. Publications such as Shōnen kurabu (Boy’s Club) and Shōjo kurabu (Girl’s Club) featured various novels and poetry. After the Second World War, there was an influx of American comics, including Disney, which had a significant impact on manga artists. Soon, Japanese children’s characters began to emerge.

 

Tezuka Osamu (1928-89) was one of many artists influenced by Disney and earlier Japanese manga. His first manga book, which shaped the future of manga, was titled Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island) based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-94) Treasure Island. This was the first manga to be produced in book (tankōbon) format. Produced in 1947 when Tezuka was only eighteen years old, it quickly sold 400,000 copies. Based on this success, he produced more books for both boys, such as The Mighty Atom (1952), and for girls, Princess Knight (1953).

Princess Knight was a unique concept at the time it was published. The main character Sapphire was born with both a male and female soul. Since Japanese princesses had no right to the throne, Sapphire was raised as a boy. The story was also unique because it was written for girls at a time when manga was predominantly a male scene.

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Astro Boy

Astro Boy, known as in Japan as Mighty Atom was one of the first mangas to be commercialised. Figurines and other merchandise were produced and continue to be produced of the main character Atom (Astro Boy). Atom is a robot boy who was created to replace the son of a scientist who had died in a car crash. The robot boy disappoints the scientist because he is not fully human and cannot grow and develop like a human child. As a result, Atom is sold to a robot circus where he is saved by Professor Ochanomizu who helps him learn how to live like a human. By striving to learn how to understand human emotion, Astro Boy became a hero amongst manga readers and has influenced the genre to this very day.

 

With a similar appearance to Astro Boy is the protagonist of Dragon Ball (1984-95) Son Goku. Created by Akira Toriyama (b.1955) and later turned into a Japanese anime television series produced by Toei Animation, Son Goku is on a quest to locate seven dragon balls that will summon Shenron the wish-granting dragon. Later in the series, the storyline turns to martial arts and discovering the strongest fighter in the universe. By the end of the 519 chapters, the characters are focused on protecting Earth from extraterrestrial enemies.

Another recognisable character is from Fujio Akatsuka’s (1935-2008) The End of Unagi-inu (or Eel-dog). Eel-dog is a cross between a dog and an eel. He has a canine-like head and legs but an elongated body and fishtail. The story relates the fate of this poor animal who goes into fits of hysterics after hearing something from a police officer, which ultimately leads to a heart attack and death. With minimal words, Akatsuka uses readable images and playful characters to invite the reader to wonder what the police officer could have said to Eel-dog to cause such a reaction.

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Chi’s Sweet Home

Animals are popular characters in manga, particularly cats. The recent children’s manga Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata (b.1958) follows the adventures of a lost kitten adopted by the Yamada family. The story is told from the kitten Chi’s perspective, who expresses her frustration when humans do not hear her but eventually finds the love and attention she seeks.

“Kittens give me a great deal of pleasure every day. I began drawing them in a way that would be fun for readers to experience the energy I receive from them, in manga.” – Konami Kanata

Chi’s Sweet Home was originally drawn and printed in black and white. After it was translated into other languages, including English and French, its popularity grew and Kanata began adding colour to her illustrations. It has recently been adapted into a three-dimensional anime series and has a large following of English speaking fans on Amazon Prime.

There are many genre’s of manga in production today. Each artist has a different style of illustration and tackles different subjects, themes, ages and identities. Remaining popular in Japan, manga has rapidly spread across the world and is being enjoyed by people of all nationalities. In essence, there is a manga for everyone.

 

For sports fans, there are a number of different manga available. Often, sport is used as a metaphor for life; there are themes of persistence struggles, failure, defeat, triumph, strong friendships and rivalry. By including sports that are popular in western countries, there has been a rising interest in particular sports in Japan, such as football.

One of Japan’s most iconic sports manga is Tomorrow’s Joe, which was serialised in the Weekly Shônen Magazine from 1968. Produced by Tetsuya Chiba (b.1939) and Ikki Kajiwara (1936-87) under the pseudonym Asao Takamori, Tomorrow’s Joe tells the story of the orphaned ex-convict Yabuki Joe’s fight to become a champion boxer. This was a metaphorical tale of Japan’s status in the world. The nation was fighting to hold some power in a predominately western world.

“Sport” is a very loose term in Japan, whilst it includes baseball, basketball, tennis, golf and football, it also embraces ballet and karuta or traditional card playing. The latter is explored in the current best-selling manga Chihayafuru by Yuki Suetsugu (b.1975). It is about a school girl, Chihaya Ayase, who is encouraged by a new classmate to take up competitive karuta. The manga has been adapted into an anime television series, which began airing in 2011. Between 2016 and 2018, there have also been three live-action films.

 

Love is another broad topic that manga covers. Whilst it covers desire and sex, a lot of which is erotic, it also explores social attitudes to same-sex relationships, freedom of expression and the less explored maternal love. Moto Hagio (b.1949) is a manga artist who chose to focus on the latter. Her short story The Willow Tree (2007) tells the story of a woman standing under a willow tree, watching a young boy pass by. In each frame, the seasons change, the boy gets older and eventually becomes a man. The woman, however, remains the same. On the final page, the man approaches the woman under the tree and the reader learns that she is his mother who passed away when he was a child. She has been watching over him all this time. When her son reassures her that he is fine, the woman finally disappears.

Moto Hagio used the willow tree as a metaphor for maternal love. Although the seasons changed and the years sped by, the tree stood steadfast, sheltering the woman lovingly watching her son evolve through the passage of time.

 

In Japan, the main two belief systems are Buddhism and Shinto. Manga artists have explored the influence of religion in contemporary Japan, making religious figures accessible in new ways. Some artists have even explored foreign religions, such as Christianity. Imagine what would happen if Jesus and Buddha were flatmates.

Hikaru Nakamura (b.1984) began publishing her Saint Young Men gag series in the magazine Morning 2 in 2006. It explores the lives of Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ living together as flatmates in Japan. The pair are visiting Earth on vacation but are determined to keep their identities secret so that they can discover and learn to understand modern Japanese society. They try out all sorts of everyday activities, such as sightseeing, drinking beer, blogging, playing video games and even drawing manga.

Although it is meant to be a comedy, Saint Young Men contains religious facts and is not deliberately harmful to either belief. Jesus is portrayed as a passionate person, living out his Great Commandment through his love for all – a love which includes shopping. Buddha, on the other hand, has a calm and frugal persona but also visibly shines when he is excited. This is a reference to bodhi or enlightenment, which is the knowledge or wisdom of Buddha. In one comical scene, Jesus turns the water of a public bath into wine.

Other manga genres include Science-Fiction, which explores other worlds in the past present and future, Horror, including traditional Japanese ghost stories, Adventure, and Transformation. In manga, the impossible can become possible, for instance, ordinary people can transform into super-humans. Lines between good and evil can become blurred when superpowers provide people with the opportunity to save the world or become weapons of misery and destruction.

 

One of the most expressive examples of manga shown in the British Museum’s exhibition was Blue Giant Supreme by Shin’ichi Ishizuka (b.1971). The story follows Miyamoto Dai as he travels to Germany in the hopes of becoming one of the world’s best jazz saxophone players. On his journey, he forms a band with international musicians and the art frames reveal their experiences on tour buses, in run-down hotels and performing in clubs. As well as telling a story, the music scenes show manga at its best. Through the use of lines and symbols, we can almost hear and feel the sounds of the instruments.

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Today, publishing manga is a big business and three years ago, in 2016, the estimated income of the Japanese manga industry was three billion dollars. Four of the top publishers – Hakusensha, Kodansha, Shogakukan and Shueisha – control a large share of the market, however, they are in constant competition with other publishing companies, magazines, artists and editors. Manga has also superseded the paper format with characters becoming figurines, toys, computer games, anime, films and fancy dress costumes.

Twice a year, manga fans travel from far and wide to attend a three-day comic market in Japan. Known as Comiket, artists and publishers congregate to sell books, merchandise, fanzines and so forth. Over half-a-million people attend each event, often dressed in the outfits of their favourite characters. Comiket began in 1975 and the idea has spread across the world. In the United Kingdom and the United States, there are similar events known as Comic-Con, however, these tend to celebrate western comics rather than manga.

In 2006, the Kyoto International Manga Museum opened in Japan to preserve, display and research manga culture. The British Museum began collecting manga over a decade ago, which lead to the recent Manga exhibition. Displaying original manga drawings is a challenge because the paper is thin and the ink quickly fades when left in certain light. Often it is safer to display reproductions, therefore, it is a unique opportunity to view the originals at one-off exhibitions.

 

Museums have also become the subject of manga, for instance, Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure (2011) by Yukinobu Hoshino (b.1954). Professor Munakata is a fictional ethnologist who is determined to unravel the mysteries of Japan’s past. Whilst conducting his research, the professor becomes entangled in a criminal plot at the British Museum. The drawings show recognisable rooms and artefacts at the museum.

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Today, characters that originated in manga exist across multiple platforms. One of the greatest success stories is the Pokémon franchise. Originating in 1996, the series began as a video game for Game Boy, which involved catching and training “pocket monsters”. This was closely followed by Pokémon manga and anime. Today, the franchise covers video games, trading cards, toys, television and film series, books and comics. This year, the first live-action film premiered and in the past few years, the mobile phone game Pokémon Go took the world by storm.

The majority of the UK and Europe get their “manga-fix” through films. Japan’s Studio Ghibli has produced some of the most influential animation films, including Spirited Away (2001), which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. Although people are missing out on the original manga, the Japanese publishers have benefitted greatly from multi-media.

Whether you are a manga fan or not, it is easy to appreciate the dedication the Japanese artists and publishers have for their native form of visual narrative art. The influential art form has crossed over cultures with stories covering everything from gender to adventure in both real and imagined worlds. Whatever format you are familiar with, it is both important and interesting to learn about where the roots of manga began and how it became such a global phenomenon.

The British Museum put on a wonderful exhibition. Sadly, it has now closed, so keep an eye out for future displays and events involving Japanese manga. For now, sayonara (bye-bye).