Back in March 2002, I had the opportunity to visit Japan as a guest of the University of Library and Information Science in Tsukuba Science City (yes, that's right: "Tsukuba Science City"!) to make a presentation at one of their Digital Library Workshops. (If you're interested, the paper based on my presentation can be found here.)
Like most American comic book fans, I had this image of Japan as some sort of Paradise of comics. It was a place where manga was available on every street corner, where men, women and children all sat in the park or on the subway reading comics, where comic creators were exaulted like sports heroes or rock stars.
As it turned out, the truth was far different. I only once saw manga anthologies on sale at a newsstand, and I never saw anyone reading manga in public.
Granted, I only spent a little over four days in Japan--three days in Tsukuba and one day in Tokyo--and I didn't have much time to go wandering off on my own. So it is possible that I just completely missed all the manga, though it was fairly obvious that comics weren't as all-pervasive as we are often led to believe.
It wasn't a completely comic-free visit though. On my trip into Tokyo my guides were two female Korean graduate students of my host professor's, and on the bus ride back I got into a discussion about manga with one of the women (a discussion somewhat hampered by my not knowing the original Japanese titles of many of the things I had read in English). The impression that I got from her was that comic reading wasn't at all unusual, that just about everyone read manga occasionally.
The one other time I did see manga was in a rental store; alongside videos and music cds one could also rent books, including some manga collections.
Other interesting pop culture observations from that trip:
At a dinner with two of the Professors from the University, we got off into a discussion about television. They asked which if any Japanese programs made it onto American television. I said that back in my youth we got Ultraman, Johnny Socko and the like, and that we got a good deal of anime. BUt that the only other Japanese show that was on American tv was Iron Chef--they were horrified.
Speaking of television, my hotel room (very small!) only got two stations with any English-language programming: one was BBC News, and the other had various American TV shows which could be listened to either in English or dubbed into Japanese (chosen by a switch on the remote). But no matter which option you chose, all the the promotional advertising was in Japanese, and some of the ads were very odd. The spots for Babylon 5 in particular made the show look very unlike the show I was familiar with, and more like an anime space opera with an almost fetishistic attention paid to the various spacecraft.
At one point one of the non-English stations was showing a press event from the promotinoal tour of on of the Lord of the Rings movies. They would show the questions by the press being asked in Japanese, edit out the translation of the questions into English, then show the responses in English and the translation back into Japanese. So essentially I could only understand the responses by the cast without knowing what questions precipitated the responses, which sometimes made things a bit baffling.
(I was inspired to finally write this post after reading a post by Shawn Fumo.)