By John E. Ingulsrud and Kate Allen
In a recent entry in the blog, The Manga Critic, Katherine Dacey begins a discussion on what titles to include in a manga canon.(i) She raises the questions of how to judge esthetic quality and whether a canon is appropriate for manga. These questions were also considered by cultural studies researcher, Yokota-Murakami Takayuki.(ii) He uses canonicity as a kind of litmus test to distinguish high culture works from those of low culture. He points out that few people are praised for reading manga, while many people are praised for reading canonical literary works, thus emphasizing the notion of a canon being a community’s body of valued or privileged works. In our book Reading Japan Cool, we raise the issue of authority: Who should compile a manga canon? Should it be the commentators, the researchers, or simply the readers in terms of popularity? As decisions are made on the content of the canon, the compilers have the power to include and exclude works and thus determine “good taste.”
These concerns of esthetic assessment and authority obscure the basic motive for having a canon. Historically, canons were developed from a need to teach and consequently to test. The Old Testament canon was developed for teaching and the authority was reflected in degrees of canonicity, with the Pentateuch or the Torah at the center and the Apocrypha on the periphery. The New Testament canon was compiled from a concern to maintain a correct understanding of a focal question: Who is Jesus? While these canons served to define the identities of communities, other canons served to define competencies. Beginning in 5th century China, civil service examinations were administered based on the knowledge of canonical works that spoke to the human condition, thus providing wisdom and morals. After all, successful candidates were assumed to be those who had integrity and the correct values. This idea of testing knowledge of the literary canon to select appropriate personnel was adopted widely in the 19th Century with the training of bureaucrats, such as the colonial Indian civil service.(iii) It also became the basis for centralized school curricula.
In the same way, a manga canon will develop out of a need to teach and to test. A symposium on manga in the university was held in June at the annual conference for the Japan Society for Studies in Cartoon and Comics. Speakers addressed the question of why manga should be taught as an academic subject. They also discussed how such courses could be taught. Yet no one dealt with the issue of what manga should be taught. As English literature professors could simply teach the works they liked, before testing was developed in the 19th Century,(iv) professors of manga studies also make their own personal selection. It is only when a common curriculum across institutions is sought, or when the media industry begins to demand personnel with “broad” and “conversant” knowledge of manga that the question of a manga canon will be addressed in earnest. Perhaps competing lists will be compiled, but eventually a manga canon will evolve. Already the argument has been made to teach manga and indeed several universities in Japan offer these courses, so the next logical question is the choice of manga to teach. This question opens up the knotty question of criteria. Will the manga works be chosen for their esthetic qualities? Or will the works be chosen for their capacity to speak to the human condition?
- Katherine Dacey, The Manga Critic,(accessed September 25, 2009).
- Yokota-Murakami Takayuki, Manga wa Yokubō Suru (Manga do desire) (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2006), 176-180.
- Christopher O’Reilly, Post-Colonial Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 17.
- John C. Mathews, Examinations: A Commentary (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985), 13-14.