Millions of tourists, both domestic and foreign, visit Kyoto each year. It’s a beautiful city with a long history and scores of temples and shrines to visit. Yet one site that should not be overlooked is the Kyoto International Manga Museum, the first of its kind in Japan that celebrates manga as a global art form.

Housed in a renovated elementary school in the center of Kyoto, the Kyoto International Manga Museum is part library, part exhibition hall, and part research center. The museum’s manga collection is in the neighborhood of 300,000 volumes, with about 50,000 of those on display to the public at any one time. Visitors to the museum are free to read any manga seen on the shelves at their leisure and can even read books outside on the lawn if the weather is appropriate.

The manga collection is not limited to Japanese publications. A selection of foreign editions of manga translated into other languages is available, along with manga and comic books native to that region.

The foreign manga section is right in front, making it the first area visitors see once they enter the museum. Clearly the museum makes a point of putting its “international” foot forward.

Superman, Batman, Tintin, Charlie Brown, and Harvey Pekar all on one shelf.

Even the gift shop has a foreign-language section. It wasn’t easy to pass up that English edition of JoJonium.

With such a large collection, it’s hard to know where to begin. This shelf near the front entrance highlights a selection of Osamu Tezuka Award winners as well as manga that has recently been adapted into other mediums. Included on that shelf was Doctor Strange, which opened in Japanese cinemas earlier this year.

Most of the manga out on the shelves are relatively recent publications from the last forty years, but this shelf features works from the early Showa era, around the time of World War II (and earlier). A research room is available by appointment to view materials from the museum’s older collection.

You can’t have a museum full of comic books without making a kid’s section. No shoes allowed in this area, either. Grab a book and roll yourself into that crater.

Elementary schools in Japan double as community centers, so the museum makes an effort to retain some features from the building’s past, like this collection of self-portraits made by the graduating class of 1980.

The museum keeps an entire room dedicated to the history of the former Tatsuike Elementary School, which first opened in 1869 and closed in 1995. The museum opened in 2006, and recently celebrated its tenth anniversary last fall.

The video monitor loops footage and audio recordings made of the school. Naturally, a manga based on the school’s history is also available for visitors to read.

Image copyright: ©Tezuka Productions Co., Ltd.

Some modifications to the school had to be made during renovations: There was no second-floor walkway across the entrance hall or a giant, wooden model of Osamu Tezuka‘s Phoenix back in 1869.

Apart from the “Wall of Manga” main collection, there is a central exhibition that lays out the history of manga in Japan. This timeline shows the medium’s growth from the early 20th century through to today.

The shelves lining the walls of this room highlight famous manga year by year. One of the oldest characters in the room (who’s still in print!) is Golgo 13.

The manga are sorted by the year of their first publication but include later volumes, such as this complete set of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure on the 1987 shelf. Steel Ball Run and JoJoLion remain shelved in the main collection, alongside Hirohiko Araki’s other works, such as Baoh.

Manga has never been exclusively aimed at kids. As seen here, there’s a comic book for people in Japan of all ages, birth to death.

As adaptations and licensing agreements increase, the world of “manga” must include products derived from manga like these pachinko/slot machines (although no, gambling inside the museum is not allowed).

A rough guide showing how a manga artist makes a comic and makes a living, both as a creator and as a collector of royalties. The amount of wine in the glass represents how much the artist actually receives.

As piracy standpoints go, the museum has a rather progressive take on a controversial topic: Without pirates bringing manga to new countries, no one in those countries would discover they like manga.

As manga and comic books spread internationally, artists take inspiration from sources they would not otherwise have access to.

Speaking of crossing borders, the Gaiman Awards are co-sponsored by the museum to honor foreign comic books and garner interest for them in Japan. “Gaiman” (pronounced “guy-mahn”) is a portmanteau of gaikoku (“foreign”) and manga and is thus unrelated to Neil Gaiman. The staff was very surprised to learn that their awards share a name with a famous comic book creator, though.

Last year’s Gaiman winners are all on the shelf, all translated into Japanese. I laughed when I noticed All-Star Superman sat adjacent to Lobo.

Not all parts of the museum are reserved for quiet entertainment. The museum hosts regular kamishibai shows, a Japanese performing art that uses a series of manga-esque panels to tell stories. Ikkyu, seen above, is just one artist among a group of people who perform in the museum. When I asked how many kamishibai stories are in the collection, she explained that they could not be counted as the museum hosts workshops that encourages visitors to help write new stories.

From Traditional Street Performances to Late-Night Horror Vignettes

In a different sort of performance, artists come to the museum on weekends to demonstrate to the public how manga is drawn, step by step. Caricature artists are also on hand to draw manga-style portraits of visitors.

When a famous manga artist visits the museum for an event, the museum creates a cast of their hand and displays it to the public. Seen above: casts and drawings from Golgo 13 creator Takao Saito and Lupin III creator Monkey Punch. Other names I recognized in the room: Anpanman creator Takashi Yanase, Akira‘s Katsuhiro Otomo, and Mœbius.

Kyoto is already a great place for anyone to visit, but the Kyoto International Manga Museum warrants your attention if you have any interest in comic books or animation. While much of the experience is limited to reading, I can’t think of a better way to both preserve and showcase the history of manga other than maintaining a large library for the public in multiple languages. Books need to be read, not just viewed, and the museum provides a comfortable atmosphere to do that.

Comments (2)
  1. This was one of the unexpected highlights of my trip to Japan this past summer. I went there on a bit of a lark, but it was a super cool trip. I really liked the gift shop too. There was a lot of Shirobako stuff there, which makes sense.

  2. Awesome! Will visit that some day! Too bad we can’t see what is exactly on the Manga Media Chronology

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