Technology is changing Japanese comics fans' reading habits and the whole business of the art form.
For decades, Japanese publishing companies have been, on a weekly or monthly basis, churning out thick magazines of comic strips known as "manga", with themes adapted to each age group and gender. Several of them have print runs in the millions. Manga are a treasured feature on bookstore shelves in the country, not to mention internet cafes.
But with computers and smartphones, readers now have access to countless manga. Annual sales of digital comics may surpass that of paper for the first time, according to a report released by the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Publications (Rip), which follows the publishing industry, The Japan Times reported.
Sales of digital manga books excluding magazines jumped 27.1 per cent to ¥146 billion (Dh4.18bn) last year from the year before while sales of paper manga saw a record year-on-year decline of 7.4 per cent to ¥194.7bn, Rip says. If the digital and paper formats keep the same growth and drop rates this year, e-comics will exceed their paper counterparts in terms of sales, it adds.
In its list of best-selling manga series between November 2016 and May this year, the Tokyo-based digital publisher and researcher Oricon says the top three accounted for a combined total of more than 10,000 million sales. The list was led by One Piece, which sold a fraction under six million copies. One Piece is a manga series written and illustrated by Eiichiro Oda. It has been serialised in the publisher Shueisha's Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine since July 22, 1997, with the chapters collected into 86 tankōbon, or individual, volumes to date. One Piece is also available digitally from firms such Kissmanga, Kindle and VIZ Media. This week, One Piece (Omnibus Edition), Vol. 21 was available on the Viz.com website for US$14.99.
The renowned manga critic Haruyuki Nakano, a visiting professor at Kyoto Seika University's Faculty of Manga, tells The National there are three major areas that fall under the term electronic comics (WEB comics) in Japan. One is electronic bookstores (WEB bookstores) sold for a fee. The market size combined with magazines and books is ¥149.1bn, he says.
Another is fixed-subscription fee systems such as Amazon Premium, with payment on delivery. No accurate data for this system has yet been published though.
Finally, there is the manga app, which is distributed free of charge. There are reportedly more than 30 such applications in Japan. However, since they are free, the monetary value is zero, no matter how much their use grows.
Aside from the commercial aspect, manga has also provided an unlikely avenue for support for victims of conflicts. Refugee children fleeing the war in Syria and adjusting to a new culture are drawing hope from Captain Tsubasa - a Japanese football-themed comic book - after a Tokyo-based Syrian student translated the book.
Mr Nakano says the decline of print manga magazine sales in Japan is primarily because print readership habits have changed. Print magazines normally feature several different stories, each having one episode appearing in each issue of the magazine.
But in recent years, "readers wait for individual manga episodes to be collected in a complete story in book form to buy them", he says.
On the other hand, the use of manga apps is increasing probably due to their being mainly distributed free for smartphones and tablet devices, Mr Nakano says. He points out that Japan's ministry of internal affairs and communications' white paper on "Information and Communication in Japan", reports the penetration rate of smartphones in Japan 2016 was 72 per cent.
"Because most people can read manga for free on their smartphones, there are many people trying to do so on a trial basis," Mr Nakano says.
In addition, many of the free stories in manga apps are shown in a form designed to be easily readable on smartphones, such as "webtoons" being read in vertical scrolling format. "Of course, there are also works that have been split into page units like printed cartoons, but the popular format is the webtoon one," Mr Nakano says.
As opposed to stories in print manga, those in manga apps tend to be short. Many stories take only about five minutes to read. "For those with just a little free time, that is popular as a handy entertainment that can be read for free," Mr Nakano says.
If the reader is using a mobile app to view content on a phone, the experience is qualitatively different than reading the same story in print, Katherine Dacey, a musicologist who teaches at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, USand runs The Manga Critic website, tells The National.
"Some phone apps break down the page into a sequence of individual panels for an easier reading experience, which can ruin a layout that spans two pages," Ms Dacey says.
If the reader uses a laptop or a tablet, however, the experience is more comparable to looking at a print manga, since the reader can see the whole page (or two-page spread) at once. "Some apps even replicate the page-turning experience with animation," Ms Dacey says.
However, the shift to digital media tends to be viewed as one of access - "How do I read this content?" - but the shift to app-based reading has potential consequences for the art form itself, Ms Dacey says. "How will storytelling techniques evolve to accommodate the reader? Will animation and sound be elements of future manga? And so forth," she says.
"In any discussion of manga's future, it's worth considering this interplay of technology, creation, and consumption," Ms Dacey says.
Even if digital manga does not always recreate the experience of reading the same material in print, Ms Dacey thinks the process of the digital form replacing the print one will continue to accelerate, as it is hard to beat the convenience of digital manga.
"And in a country where millions of manga readers depend on public transit, portability and access are especially attractive."