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Pop Culture in Japan: Manga and Muji

All types of drawn cartoons, from comic strips to magazines, are known as manga, and together they constitute a multi-billion yen business that accounts for around a third of all published material in Japan. The bestseller is Shukan Shonen Jump, a weekly comic for boys (but read by all ages and sexes), that regularly shifts five million copies, but there are hundreds of other titles, not to mention the popular daily strips in newspapers such as Chibi Maruko-chan, about the daily life of schoolgirl Maruko and her family.

Although there are plenty of manga that cater to less wholesome tastes, with sexual violence against women being top of the perversions list, comic books are frequently used to explain complicated current affairs topics, such as trade friction problems between the US and Japan, and to teach high-school subjects. Manga are targeted at all age groups and it's common to see a cross-section of society reading them.

More than big business, manga have become a recognized art form, many incorporating a startling quasi-cinematic style of close-ups and jump cuts. Top artists are respected the world over. The "god of manga" was Tezuka Osamu, creator of Astro Boy and Kimba, the White Lion in the 1960s, who went on to pen more challenging fare such as the adventures of the mysterious renegade surgeon Black Jack and the epic wartime saga Adorufu ni Tsugu (Tell Adolf) . Successful manga artists, such as Miyazaki Hayao, have also helped boost the enormous popularity of animated movies ( anime ). Miyazaki's biggest hit has been Nausicaš, a sci-fi series set in a post-nuclear holocaust world.

One of Japan's top retail success stories is Muji, short for Mujirushi Ryohin (No-brand quality goods), an offshoot of the giant Seiyu supermarket group, with over 200 branches now around Japan and Europe. Launched in 1980, the stores, which stock practical household goods, clothes, stationery and foods in simple packaging and monotone colours, prospered from the backlash against the designer-label craze that gripped Japan during the boom years of the 1980s. The irony is that the starker economic realities of the following decade, plus a rediscovery of the beauty of simple design, have made Muji's goods desirable commodities in their own right.

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