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Smoking in Japanese comic books: Is it a problem?

December 7, 2012
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(This is the first story in a three-part series about Japan. A longer version first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of the II Journal, published by the International Institute.)

One of the longest running Japanese comics – or “manga” – features an international sniper known and feared among all governments and spy agencies alike. His code name is Gorgo 13, and little is known about him, only that he is of Japanese descent, can shoot a target from an impossible distance and is a master of every martial art known to man. Naturally, he is stoic and extremely self-disciplined, constantly training to improve his fitness and skills. Oh, by the way, he also smokes a cigar.

Turn the pages of any manga, and you will probably notice scene after scene of what you rarely see in American comics:  characters lighting up a smoke. It’s not limited to anti-heroes like Gorgo. Another long-running manga, Cooking Papa, about a family that loves to cook, depicts the portly matriarch warning her expecting daughter-in-law about the perils of eating too much eggplant while pregnant, while she puffs away on a cigarette in front of her.

Neither of these manga is widely read in the U.S. So, it really doesn’t matter what the comic readership across the Pacific Ocean is exposed to. Or does it?

A cartoon gangster, or yakuza, puffing on a cigarette.

A cartoon gangster, or yakuza, puffs on a cigarette.

Cigarette smoking among children and adolescents is one of the top U.S. government health concerns because the majority of new smokers are children and adolescents. It is a significant public health problem because smoking causes more preventable deaths than any other hereditary and behavioral risks. Previous studies provide clear and strong evidence that children and adolescents are more likely to view smoking favorably and to begin smoking as a result of exposure to smoking in the media.

However, most of these studies have been done with television and movies. Little data exist regarding the depiction of smoking in comics. It is notable, however, that when Joe Quesada was editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics from 2000 to 2011, he had banned major characters (e.g., Wolverine of the X-Men series) from smoking, citing the death of his relatives from smoking-related diseases as the reason.

Similar steps have not been taken in the manga world, however.  Indeed, a preliminary study from the University of Tokyo showed that, of the top four selling boy’s comic magazines (each magazine typically carries 20 titles of serialized manga stories) in Japan, smoking depictions appeared in 20 of the 87 titles. Teenage smokers accounted for 17.6 percent of the smoking depictions. Thus, there is a significant concern that Japanese children and adolescents receive greater exposure to smoking depictions than their American counterparts.  Some have tried to stop it but with little success.

The increasing popularity of the manga as a form of entertainment among American children and adolescents raises concerns that they are exposed more often to smoking depictions than their counterparts who do not read them.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Center for Japanese Studies at U-M, we were able to launch a content analysis study. Multiple search engines (e.g., Google, Yahoo) were used to determine the 10 top-selling manga in Japan and the U.S., respectively, in 2011.  Similar methodology was employed to identify the 10 top-selling American non-manga comics in the U.S. in 2011. Ultimately, we decided to compare the 10 top-selling manga in Japan and the 10 top-selling non-manga comics in the United States, because the manga popular here were generally the ones popular in Japan.

Ten top-selling manga (in order of popularity):

1. One Piece: Epic saga about a band of ragtag youths with special powers (akin to the X-men) aspiring to be the best pirate band ever. A runaway No. 1 selling manga in Japan.

2. Naruto: A story about young ninjas in training in an imaginary world with some similarities to Japan.

3. Fairly Tail: A fantasy about girls growing up to be sorceresses in one of many sorcery guilds in the world.

4. Bleach: A fantasy about a boy who is accidentally turned into a death god who is destined to battle evil spirits.

5. Kimi Ni Todoke (Let It Reach You): A story about a high school girl who comes of age through friendship and love.

6. Gintama: A science fiction tale set in the Edo Period, about a boy maturing into a samurai in a world dominated by extraterrestrials.

7. Bakuman: A story of a young boy aspiring to become a manga creator.

8. Hunter x Hunter: A story of a boy training to be a “hunter,” a licensed professional who specializes in fantastic pursuits such as locating rare or unidentified animal species, treasure hunting, or hunting down lawless individuals.

9. Shingeki No Kyojin (Attacking Giants): Future dystopia in which humans must protect themselves against marauding cannibalistic giants.

10.  Toriko: A fantasy about food fighters with supernatural powers.

Ten top-selling American comics (in order of popularity):

1. Amazing Spider-man

2. Batman

3. Green Lantern

4. Uncanny X-Men

5. Action Comics (Superman)

6. Uncanny X-Force

7. Ultimate Comics Spider-man

8. Batman and Robin

9. Detective Comics (Batman)

10. Fantastic Four

We are currently reviewing all of the above Japanese manga and American non-manga comics that were issued in 2011. Two coders are independently examining the presence of tobacco-related events, including smoking (e.g., getting out and holding an unlit tobacco product or packet; lighting, consuming, stubbing, and discarding a tobacco product), paraphernalia (ashtrays, and cigarette packets not held by smokers), and conversations about smoking; type of tobacco products; smoker characteristics (gender, estimated age, and role); and how smoking was depicted (positively, negatively or neutrally). Smokers will be considered to be teens only if clear indication of their age, such as being a high school student, was described.  When two or more smokers are depicted in one panel, each smoker will be counted as one depiction. We plan to utilize both descriptive and statistical analyses.

We are in midst of accumulating data, so no official conclusions have been reached yet. But one thing is clear: The depiction of smoking is prevalent in manga. And it’s not censored here. Look at the cover of One Piece translated in English at a local comic store. One of the major protagonists, Sanji, a French cook and an expert in French kickboxing, or savate, is in all his smoking glory.

Once we get the final results, we hope to present and publish in primary care and public health arenas.  What comes after that?  Advocate for regulatory oversight on smoking scenes in manga?  In the first place, why are there so many smoking scenes in manga?

Contrary to what one may assume from reading manga, contemporary Japanese are not overly excessive smokers. True, 36.6 percent of Japanese men smoked in 2010, a much higher percentage than American men (21.5 percent). But Japanese women actually smoke less than the American women (12.1 percent vs. 17.3 percent in 2010). And the percentage continues to decline over the years.

There are no official figures, but there is anecdotal evidence that a high percentage of the Japanese manga creators smoke.  Perhaps that is where the problem begins. But that will be another research project.

Masahito Jimbo is an associate professor of family medicine and urology.



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