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Global Japan
JUN 25, 2014

Japan and Belgium: The Empire of Manga and the Kingdom of the Comic Strip

By Saskia Rock
The Belgian Comic Strip Center in Brussels iStock photo/omersukrugoksu

Comics have a longer history than most people realize. Beginning as narrated illustrations called comic strips, they first appeared as daily installments in newspapers. The Flemish stripverhaal and the French bande dessinée both literally translate as “illustrated story sequence.” While Japanse manga and American comic books arguably reign supreme today, Belgium and France each have a long history in comic strips. In fact, artists have collaborated across borders on well-known series since the 1920s.

Brussels boasts the Belgian Comic Strip Center right in the center of the city in a fabulous Art Nouveau building designed by Victor Horta. Permanent and visiting collections tell the fascinating story of the comic strip in Belgium, as well as the rest of Europe. But that’s not all – take a walk through the city center and you’ll see scenes from famous comic strips painted right on walls and in doorways.

©www.visitbrussels.be, photo Jean-Pol Lejeune

While Belgian art goes back a long way, Japanese manga has certainly influenced Belgian artists, as attested by the creation in 1991 of the series Kogaratsu by Michetz and Bosse, which introduced the Belgian comic strip audience to the Japanese ideal of honor.

Before coming to Japan to study at GLOBIS, I founded the Japan Cultural Centre to further knowledge of Japanese culture and business practices in Belgium. One day in late 2009, I was invited to take part in the Made in Asia trade fair. Our center would give classes in wadaiko (Japanese drumming) and other arts and crafts for free in return for expo space and media exposure.

Little did I know what I was getting into…

The gates opened at 9:30am, and in stormed a mass of young (and not-so-young) people in an array of fantastic costumes. Some of the most wonderful outfits were hand-made, some of them the result of months thinking about characters and scenes from favorite manga, followed by many more months of work by hand.

Best costumes in the 2012 Made In Asia show ©It’s Art bvba

Our wadaiko and other cultural classes ended up being quite out of the ordinary, to say the least, what with us being right in the vibrant heart of Belgium’s cosplay community.

Call them manga, comic strips, stripverhaal, or bande dessinée. These narrated illustrations have the power to cross borders and conquer hearts and minds across the world. Japan and Belgium both have a hand in transforming this rich tradition into a vibrant industry. May the cross-pollination we have enjoyed long continue!