Why is manga not colored? When Japan values practicality over aesthetics

If you grew up reading black-and-white Japanese manga and colorful DC and Marvel comic books from the United States, you might have asked yourself a couple of times why the Japanese manga was printed that way.

It is definitely not because black-and-white looks so much better or that the publishers want you to use your imagination – rather it has more to do with the Japanese choosing practicality over aesthetics. 

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How so?

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Why manga is not colored

Just like the sun always rises early in Japan, since its conception in the 16th century, Japanese manga issues have always been published in black-and-white. 

At first, it was primarily because colored inks were not readily available during the time the first manga was published and circulated. 

But why did they keep it that way when colored inks became more available?

Although there are some manga pages published in full color, these are mostly in very few pages and are exclusively used for special edition issues. Regular manga issues are printed in black-and-white for valid reasons. 

There are three main reasons why manga are published in black-and-white even up to this day: tradition, cost, and deadlines.

To better understand how these three affect the monochrome color used for the publication of manga, let me cover each one in detail. 

Manga is steeped in tradition

Similar to its floor culture, Japanese manga is steeped in tradition.

The first manga, titled Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga (Scrolls of Frolicking Animals) is said to be crafted by various artists and appeared sometime between the 12th and 13th centuries.

Commonly shortened to Choju-giga, it was a set of four picture scrolls drawn in black-and-white depicting animals moving about, playing, and having fun, with some enacting a Buddhist ceremony. 

What’s interesting about this scroll is the masterful use of ink, delicate brush strokes, and simple but bold lines giving the picture movement and action highlighting the country’s culture and Japanese calligraphy.

This style of drawing is very uncommon to the traditional motionless or stationary drawing of objects and scenery.

From there, other similar publications were made featuring the same visual storytelling techniques, concise pacing, and panel layout that allowed the storyteller to convey complex issues, views, and emotions.

Fast forward to the 19th century, manga became widely popular, as the editions were published weekly and first given to the Japanese army to boost their morale while defending the country during World War II. 

So as not to disappoint their avid fans who are in much need of a break during this chaotic period, the mangakas or manga writers decided to retain the monochromatic theme to ensure they keep up with the regular weekly publication of the manga issue.

Thanks to these mangakas who made sure they get issues out at regular intervals and to the soldiers who introduced manga to a wider readership, Japan gave birth to a new form of art that is now known to the world as manga. 

To honor and show appreciation to those responsible for the popularity of manga, modern-day mangakas kept new manga publications to their monochromatic style. 

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Keep manga affordable to its wide readership

Unlike comic books from the West that typically contain between 32 to 48 pages, a published manga book the size of a large book has about 300 to 600 pages. 

To make the manga affordable to all types of audiences- from young children to young adults, up to older readers – the publishers have to print manga in one ink color. Different colors and shades cost more than black ink.

They do not use photos printed from expensive cameras that can be bought in Japan.

Furthermore, to keep the production costs low, they use cheap recycled paper that does not allow for vivid-colored printing. 

Beat deadlines

Mostly, the mangakas are also the artists responsible for drawing the characters, the background, and everything needed to publish an issue.

What makes it challenging besides crafting a story and drawing images is the lack of assistants to help them finish their work on time.

Some mangakas have one or two assistants to help them work on their stories, while some have to work on their series alone. 

You may think that having assistants means mangakas will have more time on their hands. 

The truth is, it does not really lessen the workload since the creator is held solely responsible for the quality of their work, so most decide to do it themselves or closely supervise the work of their assistants. 

Besides that, there is also the short deadline they have to contend with. 

With a few days’ deadline hanging over their heads, mangakas find it more prudent to spend their time writing stories and drawing the images needed for the issue, than use their precious time coloring each page.

Furthermore, if not done correctly, the colors could mess up the drawing requiring them to redo their work from scratch.

With mangakas taking the utmost pride in their craft, they make it a point to turn in their high-quality work ready for publication – no matter how short a time they were allotted to finish an issue.