It’s Sunday, it’s beautiful out, we’ve got deadlines.

Let’s procrastinate.

An interesting thought came up last week in the wake of the Viz Media lay-offs – that naturally led to thoughts on pirated/online content – which I had been confused about, and that is the idea that technology (hardware and software) is one and the same.

Heidi McDonald brought this to mind when she described Japan as “a society that has consistently pioneered the gadget-filled lifestylebut approaches digitizing content with such trepidation.

I tend to confuse gadgets with technology.  But there’s a mistake here in confusing the two.  Last year I read an article (can’t remember where and don’t have the link) that reported on Japan’s tendencies to focus on hardware at the expense of software.  Differentiating the two was a bit of a leap for my mind since, in America, there is a direct correlation between hardware and software, the hardware, essentially, being an outgrowth of the software.

At least, that’s the way Apple tends to do it, and it’s been a symbiotic, if not successful, relationship. The iPod to funnel content from the iTunes store, the iTunes store now open to apps that are to be funneled to the iPhone and iPod Touch.

I’m not sure that’s the way that it is in Japan.  When the iPod came out back in the 2000’s,  there were a ton of mp3 players on the market – many of them much better than what Apple had to offer.  But none of them had the software, the platform that Apple had, of iTunes. So the iPod was junk, it looked funny/ugly, and lasted about 18 months before it died and you had to go out and buy another one.  So why do so many people buy iPods if they die so easily?  If you’ve got a library of music in iTunes, and it doesn’t have to be 10k songs, it can be a measly 80-100, do you really want to go through the hassle of building that library again?

If you’re looking for a Japanese iTunes, it’s pretty much iTunes Japan.  I’m sure there’s a Japanese equivalent, but iTunes is really taking the world over.  I’m not sure that Japan is less interested in software, but more a point that Japan is heavily invested in hardware, the handheld stuff.  Gameboys?  PSP’s?  DS-lite’s?

Roland Kelts was kind enough to point out to me that craft, and handmade, is an enduring tradition.  So is process.  Japan is a process oriented country. There is a process to everything: it takes three years to properly learn how to cut and make sushi; three hours to properly dress in a kimono.  That attention to craft and attention to detail, meticulous and studied, carries over to gadgetry and physical, handheld devices like books.

Ever seen the Japanese edition of Mari Okazaki’s career-woman/romance, Suppli?  I wish I had a copy to show you.  Larger trim-size, beautiful book cover design including a mylar jacket.  It looks like a book that a woman would buy, not a teen-ager, and speaks volumes about how much value the publisher places on the content.  They put a certain amount of attention into the presentation and packaging, so that consumers will pay attention to it themselves.

So here’s the conundrum.  Japan is a country of people who read.  They read and they read and they read books.  Lots of them.  John Fuller, manager of Kinokuniya in New York City, once told me that if I wanted to read books from every corner of the world, I should learn Japanese, because so much of it is translated and available in Japan.

The problem for Japan – and for all publishing – is that e-books and reading devices like the Kindle completely flatten the content, essentially devaluing it.  Right now, the debate continues for how much content is worth.  Can you put a dollar amount against a story?  How much does the story cost the writer?  The publisher?  The distributor?  At what price can it be sold?

It’s hard to value when it’s boiled down to black typeface on a grey background.

When my friend, Ed Lin, had his third book, Snakes Can’t Run, published by St. Martin’s Press, I was so excited for the story, but saddened by the physical book itself.  Ed’s second book, This is a Bust, was published by Sunyoung’s outfit, Kaya Production, and designed by spoon+fork.  I’ve done work for Kaya in the past and am currently doing work for spoon+fork, so this may just be bragging, but This is a Bust won the American Graphics Award for Excellence in Book Design.  St. Martin’s isn’t going to win shit for book design for Snakes.

I loved reading This is a Bust – Sunyoung pays real close attention to typesetting and creates this reading experience by way of wide margins and narrow boxes of text.  A lot like manga, it focuses and directs the eye.  St. Martin’s Press…not so much.  I look at this thing, Snakes Can’t Run, and it’s like the print version is an afterthought.  I may as well be reading this on some e-reader because no thought has been put into the physical book itself.

Bryan Ong told me that he loves books – and this is why spoon+fork does book design – because it’s the last thing that people actually read, that people care enough to read.  So why not care about the packaging of the book and delivering a reading experience?

Japanese anxiety towards digital is an anxiety because digital questions and forces traditions and culture to change.  My pushback is that it change can also mean alter.  Alter, as in, alternate, not dominant.  Maybe digital will be dominant, but it doesn’t have to be.

For the future of publishing, I’m going to look to Japan for cues.  Digitizing the bellyband, the book jacket, trimsize (somehow).  And a continuation of the buyer incentive.  The beautiful book, the mylar covers, the paper stock, the french-flaps.  We like to pretend that we don’t live here, but we do.  We still live in a physical world.  We love the convenience of things, but we also still love the thing itself.

We still love the thing itself.



  1. […] Cha ponders why Japanese publishers are so resistant to digital media and e-books, and she sees the answer in cultural factors such as the attention paid to craft and process, as […]

  2. In my discussions with mangaka, it comes down to craft – they are creating art to be seen on paper and, rightly, feel that something is lost when turned into a 300dpi Flash page, or online reproduction.

    To me, it looks like the publishing companies aren’t resisting change, they are simply having a hard time keeping up with it in a way that is meaningful and profitable for them, as well as the readers.

    Short of giving everything away for free and hoping a few will still pay for the printed material, electronic publication is seen by the fans as a challenge to break, crack, destroy and otherwise force the IP to be worth nothing to the company that still has to pay to get it published – even if it’s only online. It’s a hard nut for the companies to crack and I feel as if they are doing their best against change that is coming so quickly, they can barely keep up.



  3. Heather said

    Quality has always been an issue with manga here in America. There are several Japanese manga I have continued to hold onto that I picked up in Tokyo and here in the US that is far superior to the American editions. My love for the look and feel of books has been one of the main reasons I have not jumped onboard to the Kindle/Nook/E-reader notion, but I have enjoyed the Shonen Sunday and Ikki online sites. I would love to own all the manga available in the US, but space and cost is already a problem electronic readers may be able to solve. Unfortunately it’s the American publishers that must decide how to design and release the manga they license. The Japanese have the option of cheap first hand versions of the majority of manga through anthologies. The online format may be the American solution for more distribution, since the few print anthologies here have not lasted, while the popularity of manga has grown immensely this last decade. Hopefully based on regular feedback American publishers can better market and print various titles.

    But the biggest factor here in America is online content, from piracy or legal websites. If you have never tasted Swiss chocolate, slept in 400+ count sheets or driven a BMW you may be inclined to say chocolate is chocolate, a sheet is a sheet or a car is a car. Thus manga is manga, but on a flat screen. Unless said person see their favorite manga presented in a superior format, they will be happy to enjoy and be satisfied with a flat screen version for most manga. Money also comes into it. I wish I could afford a BMW or Mercedes, but I have driven some and know the difference. I do save money for the best sheets these last 10 years and I sometimes treat myself to a small piece of Swiss chocolate, instead of my usual Almond Joy. The appreciation of quality is learned and taught, not a given. Hopefully with more avenues of legal online content American publishers will teach people how much creativity and labor go into publishing each manga.

    American literacy also needs to improve. Manga is where the Japanese start, but the love of reading continues into adulthood. A decade has now pasted since Harry Potter lite up the children’s lit world and brought hundreds of thousands of young readers into the bookstores. The manga boom also occured. There are thousands of more readers of manga today then when I began during those first days in the late 80s. Unfortunately during these last 10 years America has seen record high school drop out rates and a huge change in our workforce away from blue collar jobs to white collar ones. I sincerely hope this is just a transformation time period and the future, thanks for online format and popularity that manga can help with the literacy problems.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Erica!

      You’re absolutely right about fans and the internet – it’s really become a tool to flatten the value of content and the publishing process. Now, with information so democratically chosen and distributed, there’s this removal from the reality of craft and labor.

      With technology making life less physical, the value that’s placed on the labor that’s put into creativity – like manga – is diminished. Not to assume that sweat equity has ever been paid it’s true price, but this idea that creativity+sweat equity=free really gets my Irish up.

      The New York Times Magazine this past weekend had an article on journalism today and online journalism start-ups, where the question asked is “How much does this article cost us?” but can you really put a price on it?

      Currently, everyone and anyone can be a journalist, and everyone and their mother can make comics – and that’s empowering. But it still takes an incredible amount of skill to do it well.

    • Hi Heather,

      Thanks for stopping by! You bring up really good points on the matter of taste. Unfortunately, as you said, it’s a matter of opinion. Once TokyoPop and Borders introduced the digest format – which worked – few publishers (with the exception of Vertical and Viz for it’s Signature and Viz Big editions) have strayed from that.

      As you point out, we don’t have much of a market in the way of readers for mature manga and that’s a shame.

      But manga has been wildly successful in libraries – that’s where much of the boom began – and it’s brought in kids and teens and reluctant readers across the board.

      check out this link for more: http://tinyurl.com/MangaLibQueens

  4. […] that seems odd in a society that is so technologically advanced, read Kai-Ming Cha's comments on the Japanese resistance to digitization and e-books: They view hardware as separate from […]

  5. […] Handmade: Japan resistance to the digital age […]

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