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Manga's Working-Class Heroes

Manga's Working-Class Heroes

Historian Yoshikuni Igarashi explains how two celebrated Japanese comic book characters embodied the hopes and fears of Japan's postwar middle class.

Vincent Lim Email VincentLim

Ikki Kajiwara created the protagonists of two of his classic manga comics, Kyojin no Hoshi (Star of the Giants, 1966-1971) and Ashita no Joe (Tomorrow's Joe, 1968-1973), in response to anxieties about Japan's changing social order in the decades after World War II.

"The cultural realm became where this anguish, anxiety...was registered," said Yoshikuni Igarashi, an associate professor of history and the director of the East Asian Studies Program at Vanderbilt University. "These works are...part of the responses to the large social economic changes."

Igarashi discussed the two manga at a May 5, 2008, event at UCLA sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. The focus of his current research is the transformation of Japanese society in the 1960s and 1970s.

The decades witnessed the growth of Japan's middle class and the dramatic decline of the poverty rate, which fell to 1 percent in 1970, down from 30 percent in 1955 and 17 percent in 1960.

Marginalized farmers joined mainstream Japanese society with the help of a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that created agricultural policies to protect them. The introduction of the seniority and life-long employment systems in the workplace also contributed to growth in the middle class. Meanwhile, television began to fuel middle-class desires to consume products.

In this setting the protagonists of the two classic manga works, Hyuma Hoshi and Joe Yabuki, struggle to come to terms with their working-class roots.

"Hyuma and Joe reacted with extreme responses to the new social condition of 1960s and 1970s Japan," Igarashi said. "That they became national icons attests to the contradictory desires for and against the fruit of high-growth economy within Japanese society."

Kyojin no Hoshi tells the story of Hyuma Hoshi, a talented young baseball pitcher who attempts to realize his father's dream of becoming a star in the Japanese professional league. His modest, working-class father was a third baseman in the league at one time, but was forced to retire because of an injury suffered in World War II. Hyuma eventually joins the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's most famous team, and must deal with the expectations of the being in the national spotlight. Although he attempts to embrace mainstream society, he finds difficulty in reconciling his humble beginnings with stardom.

In Ashita no Joe, Joe Yabuki almost completely rejects mainstream society. Joe runs away from an orphanage and wanders the Tokyo slums until he meets a former boxing trainer and takes up the sport. Training in a dilapidated shack, Joe nevertheless becomes the rival of a boxer named Rikiishi who possesses access to the best trainers and equipment in the sport.

The manga weeklies became an integral part of Japanese youth culture in the postwar period and evolved to cater to older audiences as Japan's baby boomers grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Kyojin no Hoshi and Ashita no Joe are still celebrated today in Japanese video games and cartoons on television.

"The persistent adoration for the two heroes in Japanese society suggests that these anxieties remain unresolved today—still motivating searches for an alternative history," Igarashi said.