Influence of Pop-culture in Children's Art:
Possibilities of implementing manga in art educational curricula

Masami Toku
California State University, Chico
May, 2000



Why donít some people like art, in spite of the fact that they used to love art when they were children? Why do many people stop making art when they reach certain ages? One of the major problems facing art education is the loss of children's interest in art as they get older. Is there no hope for teachers to support artist development through this difficult period? In this article, I would like to discuss the mechanism of the loss of children's interest in art based on children's artistic developmental theories. I would also like to discuss the possibility of recapturing children's interest by implementing pop-culture into art educational curricula based on the recent study of the influence of visual culture in children's art.

Internal and external disruptions in children's artistic development

When, how, and why do children tend to lose their interest in making art and interest in art itself? There are two different types of disruptions, which do not allow childrenís artistic ability to develop in a linear progression with age, which we may call 1) internal disruptions of self-awareness and 2) external disruptions of environment, especially during adolescence.

Piagetians, including Lowenfeld and Brittain (1970) explain childrenís artistic development as a hierarchical linear progression called the stage theory of cognitive development. However, post-Piagetians point out the weakness of the stage theory in terms of the lack of the explanation for the transition period from child to adolescent art, which we may call the period of losing interest in art. It starts from middle childhood, around 14 years old. Thus, childrenís artistic development does not always show a linear progression since their own internal disruptions cause them to lose their interest or motivation to create art. Some researchers indicate that it is an unavoidable period of the process of making self (ego). For example, an English art educator, Read (1958) explains that most childrenís artistic ability declines around 11 to 14 years old. He called it the period of oppression. American psychologists, Gardner and et al (1993) also explain the tendency of decline during middle childhood in the pattern of a U-curve of cognitive development. The most understandable reason for the phenomenon is that children themselves start to realize the limitations of their artistic skills for producing realistic art. In spite of the fact that children can see whatís going on in the real world, they cannot draw what they see. They struggle when they know the limitations of their skills. As a result, most children start to reject making art at that point. Only a few people who are identified as gifted will go beyond this period and keep making art or making self through their art activities. In other words, childrenís artistic development is ironically disturbed by their self-awakening, which is an internal disturbance.

   Concerning external disruptions which surround children in their environment, there are at least three possible cases of how and why they start to lose their interest in art: 1) the lack of teacherís encouragement for studentsí artwork (misunderstanding the value of studentsí artworks), 2) the lack of studentsí understanding of the value of art in life, and 3) the lack of teachersí understanding studentsí real interests for art.

For instance, when I asked my friends who do not like art very much why they do not like art, some of them said that they disliked art teachers rather than art itself. They seemed to lose their interest in art because of art teachersí insensitive words or attitudes toward their artworks. Why do teachersí attitudes often inhibit childrenís motivation to create art? One of my friends explained that the reason she lost her interest in art was that her teacher did not appreciate her expressive artwork due to her lack of skill. Likewise art teachers often unconsciously judge the value of studentsí artworks based on the teacherís preference reflecting the value of traditional art. Secondly, many people not only students but even adults like parents and classroom teachers, believe that art is not important compared to other academic subjects, since art is not important to their everyday lives. Some people might say that they could live without art. Why do they think that art is not important in their life? In reality, art educational curricula were not successful enough to support the development of childrenís making mind in spite of the fact that art should be a strong communicative tool to develop our critical thinking skills. Finally, teachers donít often realize how the art curriculum is developed while ignoring studentsí real interests or preferences for art. As a result, teachers tend to teach art based on the value of "high art" (that which is admitted as art by art society), not by children themselves. One day, one of my 8th grade students asked me to teach a more fun project rather than traditional art projects such as drawing a self-portrait with emotional expression with the concept of elements of art including line, shape, color, texture, and so on. Simply, he asked me if he could draw a cartoon like Pokemon. Of course, I gently rejected his request. "No, you canít draw such a cartoon character since you cannot learn the concepts of art from cartoons or comic books."
There is a Japanese saying that there are many talented racehorses, but only a few good trainers who can find and encourage their talent to become a racehorse. I also feel that there are many talented children (even though they do not realize it), but only a few good art teachers who know why, what, and how to teach. I may not be an exception since I could not go beyond my old traditional concept of what is art and what I should teach through art education in those days.

Thus, if children start to lose their interest is due to the above internal and external disruptions, do we still have hope to encourage childrenís artistic development? Can we draw their interest towards creating art even during such an oppressive period? Can we support the development of their making mind through art education? It is time to reevaluate the value of art for especially secondary grades, which face the crisis of losing interest in art. What should we teach and how should we teach art education to support their artistic interests and to encourage their making sense as Bruner (1990) said?
I would like to discuss the possibility of creating an attractive art curriculum for secondary grades based on one facet of Japanese pop-culture, Japanese comic books, called Manga (pronounced "Mahngah"). By understanding the mechanism of influence of pop-culture in childrenís artistic development, it should be possible to incorporate mangaís characteristics into an art educational curriculum for secondary education.

The Influence of Manga in Children's Artistic Development in Japan

Nowadays, the Japanese manga has become a cultural phenomenon all over the world. It is no longer possible to ignore the influence of Japanese manga in the USA. Also, the influence has started to appear in childrenís artistic and cognitive development in not only Japan but also the USA. Japanese manga and animation are infiltrating the USA. For example, there are the Pokemon (Pocket monster) characters in computer games and. In the USA, cartoons are being replaced with Japanese animation.
Many questions emerge concerning the particular phenomenon of manga. Why are children attracted to manga? What are the characteristics of manga? Are there any advantages and disadvantages of mangaís influence? If there are any advantages in manga, how can we adapt them into art educational curricula in secondary education?

The Background of Manga in Japan

The origin of Japanese manga (originally meaning "humorous pictures) possibly goes back to the 12th century "Chojugiga (the Animal Scrolls)" - literally, "humorous pictures of birds and animals" which was depicted by an artist-priest Kakuyu, or Toba (1053-1140) (Schodt, 1983). Manga developed as a graphic narrative through the work of Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849), who depicted the Ukiyoe or "floating world." Japanese manga originally started as a simple caricature as in other countries. However, it developed into an original style of Japanese comic books called manga during the middle of the twentieth century, especially after World War II with the influence of American comic books and Disney animation (Yonezawa, 1997)).


(Chojugiga-"Animal scrolls")                                                                (Hokusai manga)

Regardless the country, comic books are generally assumed to be for children who tend to graduate from such a habit generally after high school. However, in Japan, a new manga generation, which did not stop reading manga when they became adults, emerged during the1960s. Why did they not stop reading manga? There are a couple of reasons: one is the growth of the economy in Japan, and the other is the development of the quality of manga itself. The manga market started to publish monthly manga in the mid-1950s and weekly manga by the end of the1950s. For example, the first boyís weekly magazine (the Syounen magazine) was published in 1959.With the development of the economy in Japan in the1970s and1980s, the manga market rapidly developed and manga itself became a popular culture in Japan. Usually, children stopped buying and reading when they graduated elementary school. However, they did not stop even after high school because manga was more attractive than other media, such as TV and movies. As a result, the number of magazines increased. In 1994, the circulation of one of the boyís manga of about 500 pages, the shounen jump, finally reached six million (Nakano, 1997).

How did the original style of Japanese comic books develop and attract adultsí curiosity? The new generation exposed to manga started to have high expectations of the story as they got older. At first, the story was a simple caricature of good and bad. However, with the readerís expectations, the story of manga developed to express more human drama than a caricature or a simple strip. At the same time, manga started to produce many different types of stories, fiction and non-fiction: science fiction, sport, love story, history, and so on (Yonezawa, 1997). As a result, manga became very popular in Japan.
For Japanese children, manga was attractive as a visual means to live their dreams and be anything and anyone they wanted to be in the virtual reality (Wilson, 1988, 1997). For adults, manga were visual textbooks, which satisfied their curiosity about the world (Toku, 1998, 2000).

The Characteristics of Manga

When the manga began to emphasize the story more it developed the characteristics which other comic books did not have. Like American comic books, Manga also has a language of composition, or the elements of manga, which are picture, word (including onomatopoeia), balloon, and frame (Natsume, 1997). However, the function of each element of manga is a little different from that of the American comic book since manga developed from a simple caricature or good Vs, evil story to a complicated story which contains diverse themes including politics, religious, historical, social, cultural issues, and so on.
In manga, each element has an important function to explain the meta-level of space and mind in responding to the complicated story. First, the picture is the content of mangaís expression, which is basically constructed by lines. It generally divides into positive shapes (figures) and negative shapes (background). Second, the word, including onomatopoeia, generally divides into the outside voice (sound), which comes directly from subjects and the inside voice, which appears only in the mind. Word also appears independently outside of the frame with or without balloons and it has a function as a paste which connects frames. Third, the balloon ("fukidashi") is used to be just the container of the inside voice in mind and outside voice from subject/object differentiated from the narration. However, it developed to support the expression of manga on the meta-level, which means the inside or the outside of the voice/thought of the subject/object depending on the shape of the balloon. Fourth, frame ("koma") has a role as a container, which includes the picture as the content, and the word, which is namely "format." It also has a function which integrates time and space. Frame used to be simple square or rectangle shapes displayed in alignment: however, it developed into diverse shapes which align dramatically to express psychological situations.
Along with the complicated story in manga, the visual expression in manga developed in a complicated way in order to express complicated stories. Thus, the roles of picture, word, and frame have changed and the relationships among picture, word, and frame have changed.

Ö Place Figure 2, 3, 4, & 5 (the elements of manga) about hereÖ

Implementing Manga in Art Educational Curricula

 In Japan, many art educators have been ignoring the phenomenon of mangaís influences in childrenís art since they believe that manga cause negative effects which disturb proper artistic development. In brief, art educators worry that manga disturb childrenís observation skills and their imagination. However, we should open our eyes to see the fact that children read and understand much visual and psychological complexity in the story of manga. As a result, children unconsciously develop their cognitive and artistic abilities by reading manga and imitating manga in their drawings. There is no doubt that manga stimulate childrenís artistic ability and the influence of manga appears in childrenís drawings. It is no longer possible to ignore the phenomenon of mangaís influence on childrenís artistic and cognitive development in Japan.


(Japanese 4th G. boy's drawing)                                        (Japanese 6th G. boy's drawing)

 In response to this pop-cultural phenomenon, the Ministry of Education in Japan decided to adapt the benefit of pop-culture to the national art educational curricula for 8th and 9th grades in compulsory education in1998. In a course of study of the national art educational curriculum for secondary grades, which will be implemented in April, 2002, the Ministry of Education proposes, "By adapting pop-culture (manga, illustration, photo, video, computers), to express studentsí thoughts/ideas of what they think and what they want to be" (Spring, 1998). In Japan, the Ministry of Education has changed six times (1947, 1951, 1958, 1968, 1977, and 1989) in theory and practice in the field of art education since World War II. Through more than 50 years of educational history, this seventh reform (2002) is the first art educational reform which considers childrenís preference/aesthetic in the curriculum.
 In responding to this proposal of the course of study in art education, art educators have started to look for art educational programs with mangaís techniques and contexts. For example, Izumiya (2000) proposes a visual comprehension test as the first step of implementing mangaís technique in secondary art education. The test involves drawing something by memory in order to communicate a common subject or situation to a second person. The purpose of this practice is to make students realize that they tend not to pay attention to such common subjects and how drawing simple subjects is not so easy. As the second step, Izumiya also recommends drawing a common situation in ordinary life by using mangaís techniques of composition such as close-ups and distant views in diverse alignments of frames. Furthermore, before and after the Ministry of Education proposal, many manga technique books were published. In spite of the fact that those books are not offered for the educational purposes, they started to be used as textbooks especially at the university level as great reference books to learn to create attractive characters and stories.

In the U.S., Hobbs and Salome (1995) encourage drawing a four-panel cartoon based on a joke, event or story, using visual cues and sequences of frames to suggest movement. They believe that the experience takes advantage of studentsí interest in comics as a means of introducing them to sequence and implied movement. Students can apply these concepts to art criticism and aesthetic appreciation (pp. T120).  Interestingly and coincidentally, Wilson (1989) gave Japanese children (K-9th grades) a visual test to create a sequential story in six frames. In his collections, there is no doubt that the influences of manga appeared strongly regardless of age differences. The children effectively use manga's techniques of exaggeration and movement to create attractive stories in six frames. At California State University, Chico, a professor of Japanese language, Nomura, has his students draw a 4-frame comic to use the Japanese that they learn in class.


(Japanese 2nd G. Boy's drawing)                    (College student's manga story drawing for Japanese class)


Likewise, the techniques of manga give art teachers an opportunity to support the development of studentsí visual thinking skills such as observation, articulation, and critical thinking skills. By drawing a scene of ordinary life in sequential frames, students will pay attention to life and nature around them. These manga activities make art more meaningful to students and will give them a chance to find their identity by depicting themselves in a narrative story.
The role of the art teacher is not to just teach either the techniques of art making or the absolute value of art by making or looking at art, but rather to encourage students to create art to find themselves in their own ways. While thinking of what the artwork is through the process of art making and critique of artworks, they will find how art is meaningful for themselves in their lives. In other words, it is important to make students realize that there are diverse ways to create art to express themselves by including diverse values from different cultures.

This may be easier said than done, since teachers themselves often have difficulty implementing the proper art program to encourage students to make it meaningful for them. Especially in secondary education, many teachers struggle to face the imbalance between studentsí physical growth and mental growth. Their physical ability reaches almost the level of adults, but their mentality is still in the process of developing. As a result, we tend to bring our own values to art without thinking of studentsí own preference and aesthetics for art. Itís time to open our eyes to look at whatís going on in this world to know what is the most attractive artistic theme for students, while not necessarily for us. If there is a pop-cultural phenomenon, which starts to attract children, we should learn the advantages and the disadvantages of the particular pop-culture to look at the possibility of implementing it in art education.
The Japanese critic of pop-culture Natsume says, "when we learn something, we need a motive power, which should be to like something, to be interested in it, and for it to be fun" (1999, p.8)

For students who are in such a period of losing interest/motivation for art especially during secondary grades, we should find something to provide the motive power of learning and developing studentsí critical thinking skills. Manga has a wonderful communicative function. By using the mechanism of manga, it might be possible to find our own identity in the narrative art. Itís time to reevaluate pop-culture to give students motivation to create their own value and identity through making and criticizing art.


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