Comics in Thailand and Indonesia


Fusanosuke Natsume


Thai comic books can be categorised into traditional Thai comics, sold at stands for 5 baht, and comics of Japanese origin targeted at children of the new middle class. The latter are sold at bookstores and convenience stores in large cities. gBoysf Loveh type comics are now popular among schoolgirls, and this has been reported by television as a gbad Japanese influenceh.

A professor at Chulalongkorn University showed interest in my work and arranged a meeting for me with Thai people who are interested in comics. At that occasion, I was interviewed by the staff of Comics Quest, a comics information magazine. They had met at a Japanese language school after graduating from college and started the magazine in June this year with a circulation of 10,000 copies. Comics Quest sells for 45 baht, nine times the price of popular Thai comics and is even more expensive than comics of Japanese origin, which sell for 35 baht.

The magazine features a top-ten ranking of comics sales, based on their own survey of bookstores around Bangkok. As it turns out, high ranking comics are all of Japanese origin. The top three are Detective Conan, GTO and BERSERK.

In short, Japanese-origin comic books are supported by the rich middle class and are distributed as part of the fashion culture of young people. Indeed, new wave Thai comics are also fashionable. Similar to the Heibon Punch in Japan in the 1960s, comics are a part of fashion or merchandise information.

I also did some investigations at Siam Square, a fashionable area like Roppongi or Aoyama around the Chulalongkorn University. In this area, comics of Japanese origin have captured the youth market. Some of the new-wave Thai comics for youth, which show heavy Japanese influence, use this local as their setting.

In Thailand, eighty per cent of sales of published books is in Bangkok. This is probably reflected in comics sales as well. Like Japan in the 1960s, there is a huge gap in income between rural areas and large cities, as a result of rapid economic growth.

Upon reading this, most Japanese may take Thai comics very lightly, saying gOh, still at that level?h That would be a big mistake. Although I cannot go into details, some of the Thai comics are sent by e-mail and effectively processed by Macintosh. This is a convenient system for translating Japanese comics into Thai.

A concern shared by information magazine staff was that they were dependent on reprint of information obtained from the Internet without permission, but they were conducting market research more actively than the publishing companies. If you could support and help them grow, it may contribute to market development. I hope that both the Japanese side and Thai publishers may consider the matter from a long-term strategic standpoint, rather than going strictly by the rules and rejecting merely for protection of rights.

In Jakarta, there is a magazine, Animonster, providing information on comics and animation. The editors are young people in Bandung. The magazine prints information obtained from Japan via the Internet. They would like to ask for permission but donft know how to contact the Japanese publisher. This is the same problem shared by comics information magazines in Thailand.

They have a strong curiosity for Japanese mass culture as a whole and sometimes carry historical articles, too. They are more enthusiastic about cultural exchange than publishing companies. They also carry valuable historical articles on Indonesian comic books.

Indonesian comic books were rental comic books distributed through a rental library called Taman Bacaan. They carried serial stories and had about 50 pages per issue in B6 size. Ten issues were collected together and published in book form. These comic books first appeared in the 1950s but were adversely affected by American comics and disappeared in the 1980s.

What I found interesting were the stories told by Mr. Agus, a Javanese friend of mine who runs a cottage in Bali. He has been a big fan of the Indonesian version of rental comics since childhood, and is quite a collector of them. The way he spoke so joyfully of comics, proudly displaying his collection, is similar to Japanese rental book fans. He told me that when he was a child, he befriended a rental library owner who let him read new books before they were wrapped with vinyl (as in Japan, rental books are wrapped to avoid damage).

He also talked about how he used to make a reservation for comics he wanted with a rental library and, since the address of the publisher was unknown, he would place an order with a wholesale dealer-bookstore in the town. After rental libraries folded, he hunted for old books piled under the shelves at old bookstores. This is similar to how we used to go to rental libraries and look for secondhand books in Japan.

It is interesting that many of the heroes in Indonesian comics have strange appearances; a hero who is a blind swordsman; a hero who is dumb when awake but tough in his sleep; a boy (resembling the rental book version of Kitaro) learning martial arts, who is ugly but not a villain. These characters remind me of Japanese rental comic books. The comics also had erotic scenes close to rape or violent scenes. Readers were adolescents or older, not children. This was similar to rental comics in Japan!

Rental comic books are still popular in Korea, but perished in Japan in the 1960s and in Indonesia in the 1980s. What accounts for this difference?

If comparative research is conducted on this point, comics may be studied in terms of eastern Asian culture and the enigma of the development of Japanese comics may be revealed, indicating how the revolution in expression in the 1960s rental comics led the way to the subsequent shift of Japanese comics toward young people and its diversification.


The author is an API Fellow, 2001-2002, from Japan and a well-known comics columnist. He went to Thailand and Indonesia for the research under the API Fellowships.The above is a composite and re-write of two articles which originally appeared in the Mainichi Shimbun of July 27 and August 3, 2001, after he completed his research trips to two countries.