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Nothing comical about Japan's manga moving online

Once enticed, apps charge fans who want to read more via an in-app currency

Visitors look at at Japanese manga comic books, at Tokyo International Book Fair. Everett kennedy Brown/ EPA
Visitors look at at Japanese manga comic books, at Tokyo International Book Fair. Everett kennedy Brown/ EPA

In the past few years, many Japanese firms have launched manga apps that let users read chapters or some volumes for free.

Their business model is such that if people want to read further, the apps charge them via an in-app currency often called "coins" or "tickets".

The research firm Nielsen Company Japan data shows Line Manga topped its rivals in terms of the number of users with 2.7 million in February, followed by Comico, run by NHN comico, and Manga One by Shogakukan, The Japan Times reported.

Line Corp, a messaging app major, is one of the front-runners with its Line Manga launched in 2013. Most titles in Line Manga’s app are from other publishers, while Line also produces some original works. By taking advantage of some 70 million messaging app users in Japan, the company “can promote what manga titles are free to read now within Line’s services”, the Line Manga editorial team manager Tomoyoshi Murata says.

To read Manga One, readers use "tickets", a virtual currency valid only in the app that can be purchased at Apple Stores or Google Play Stores. The service is basically free, but to read more than eight episodes a day, one will be charged about ¥20 (Dh60 fils) per episode, the Manga One app deputy editor Yuki Wada tells The National. Ms Wada says the manga stories reap sales of about ¥2.5 billion a year.

NHN comico does not publicise sales figures, company public relations officer Tadashi Nakaji tells The National. Mr Nakaji says the app service is basically free, with the latest edition being payed for by "points" bought in-app or from the Web version.

The Kodansha publishing house says readers can choose from two systems to read its electronic manga. At ¥840 per month, fans can read Weekly Shonen Magazine within one month after the date of application. Readers can also buy individual issues from the app's "shelves".

The manga critic Haruyuki Nakano, a visiting professor at Kyoto Seika University's Faculty of Manga, tells The National that South Korea's manga business is ahead of Japan in the shift to app because of the country's economic crisis in the 1990s, when many traditional paper publishers went bankrupt.


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So the digital boom has opened Japan to foreign competition, with South Korea being at the forefront. The manga app called Piccoma, produced by the South Korea-based IT firm Kakao’s Japan branch, is one example. Since its debut in April 2016, the app has quickly grown in popularity, recording about 3.7 million downloads and ¥10 million in daily sales, The Japan Times reported recently.

“If this was in 2019 or 2020, we wouldn’t be doing this business, but the turning point of the Japanese book market is now,” the Kakao Japan head Jay Kim told the newspaper.

Like Line Manga, Piccoma also borrows most of its manga content from Japanese publishing firms, but it also introduces original South Korean titles published in Kakao’s Web manga service in South Korea that are translated into Japanese. Mr Kim said Piccoma is planning to provide more original titles by collaborating with Japanese publishing firms, since they have expertise in making good manga.

Even if Japanese print publishers do not enjoy the monopoly they had in the past, Mr Nakano says he does not think the paper-based manga business in the country will any time soon become like in South Korea, where apps rule supreme. With printed magazines, there is a mission of nurturing manga artists and collecting contents for making books and it will be possible to upgrade that role to comic books, he says.

"Assuming that will be the practice, I believe that the 'webtoon' format without framing will never become mainstream" in Japan, Mr Nakano says.

Updated: September 20, 2017 02:42 PM



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