Chances are when you’re wandering around Japan you’ll notice something; Cartoon characters. Lots of them. In intriguing places – like the front of bullet trains. They’re characters from manga and anime – and if you don’t know what those are, our quick guide helps explain.
If you’re travelling to Japan and are planning on visiting areas like Akihabara or Ikebukero in Tokyo or DenDen Town in Osaka, you might have heard people (including this blog) talking about how they are great places if you are interested in manga and anime.
And perhaps you know that both of those are something to do with cartoon-like characters, but don’t know what the difference between manga and anime is.
Let our quick, beginners guide to manga vs anime explain.
Before we do though, a quick note. This is not aiming to be an indepth guide to either manga or anime, it’s just to explain to those travelling to Japan for the first or second time, what’s going on and who some of the main characters they might see on their trip area.
After all, it’s a bit confusing to walk into a station and see a train with a chubby-cheeked drawing on it or, wonder why so many shops seem to be selling what looks like a fluffy grey avocado with a leaf on his head if you have no idea who Anpanman or Totoro are actually are.
I therefore apologise now to any true manga or anime fans for keeping things super simple and not exploring the subtlty of either genre further (and for any mistakes I might make in trying to keep things simple). So, here we go…
Manga vs Anime -What’s the Difference?
First up, both are types of drawn art that tells stories.
Both manga and anime have heroes, villans, story arcs and plot twists, however, simply put, manga exists ‘on paper’; ie the stories are told via drawings in comic books and graphic novels, whereas anime comes from the word animation, so those stories are told in moving form in say, TV or in film.
Manga is very much a Japanese creation, anime technically can come from any country (as it just means animation in Japanese), but when it’s used as a noun, it’s most common used to describe a specific style of animation from Japan.
If you really just want to know the difference between the two, that’s all you need to discover, but if you want to understand the two a little further while you’re in Japan here’s some other information….
The Short Guide to Manga
The father of manga as we know it today is said to have been a medical student called Tezuka Osamu, the artist who created a comic called Tetsuwan Atomu – that you might known as Astroboy – in 1952.
Types of manga are often characterised by the type of person it’s aimed at.
Kodomomuke is aimed at children. Pokemon, Doremon, Kirby and Astroboy are all examples of kodomomuke you’ve probably seen or heard about.
Shonen manga is normally aimed at boys in their tween or teen years. DragonBall, One Piece and Naruto are all examples of this you might have heard about.
Shoujo is normally aimed at girls in their teens or tween years.Examples of this include Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura and Fruits Basket (although this is possibly best for older teens)
Seinen aims at an adult male market and, in some cases, it can be very adult. It can have darker themes, more violence, some very pneumatically-drawn female characters and a few other things, we won’t go into here!
Josei is the female equivalent of seinen, it tends to be more focused around romance and relationships, but again, it can get quite steamy.
While you might have the image of comic books being all superheroes, that’s not necessarily the case with manga.
Some of it can just be about normal people doing normal things and deal more with problems and growing up (rather like photostory mags used to way back when), but it is true that lots of manga, particularly the most famous manga, and that which has made its way into the international market, does have some element of good vs evil, superpowers or something futuristic or mystical about it.
In its traditional form, manga is written and read, from right to left.
At first when manga was translated into English it was swapped around but some of it just didn’t work, so even now, if you buy Japanese manga in English you might find it reads from right to left and you start at the back of the book.
If you want to start reading manga, head to your local comic book store where you’ll find passionate staff who’ll be only too happy to get you started and are far more qualified than me to suggest titles you’ll love.
If you don’t have a comic store in town, The New York Library has a good list of ‘starter’ manga that’s readily available in English and that they think represents the best of the genre.
You can then order this online – again, try and support smaller comic shops when you do this. Otherwise, they’ll disappear.
The Short Guide to Anime
Anime is basically animations, but, unlike what most of us think of when we think of as cartoons, it’s not just aimed at children – in fact, some of it definitely shouldn’t be!
Again, some anime is designed to be viewed by specific audiences, children, boys, girls and adults (and the genres have the same names as with manga), but there are also genres based on themes like robots or samauri history.
Humanised anime characters generally have quite a distinctive look that you don’t find in other cartoons. They tend to have very big eyes and/or great hair – sometimes in bright colours.
They also express emotions more than say, the superheros you might be used to and there’s a whole anime code that tells you what a character is feeling.
If you want to start watching anime, you’ll find some series like Dragon Ball that are dubbed in English, or for others like the popular anime film Your Name, you can choose subtitles in English.
Many streaming services like Hulu or Netflex offer some anime that’s dubbed or that has subtitles. You’ll also find some on YouTube.
Or, if you really want to delve deep, check out Crunchyroll who specialise in anime (and manga). You can view them via subscription, and they have a generous 14-day free trial to get you started.
To see the type of thing you might want to search for, there’s a good list on anime for beginners here.
Can Things Be Both?
Yes, if a manga becomes very popular it might turn into a film or television series. Dragon Ball, Attack on Titan and Demon Slayer are examples of this that you might have heard of.
Is Studio Ghibli Anime?
Studio Ghibli is one of the most successful Japanese animation studios in the world..
If you develop any kind of love for Japan you will soon come across one of their movies be it Spirited Away or, My Name is Totoro and, if you join any kind of Japan planning group, you’ll hear a lot of people talking about the mvoies or trying to get tickets to the wildly popular Studio Ghibli museum.
By the dictionary definition, yes, Studio Ghibli is anime in that it’s animation from Japan. But, the creator of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, doesn’t feel that the films are anime.
There’s a few reasons why. The style of drawing isn’t quite as exagerated as other anime and themes of the movies also don’t fit the traditional anime mould in that the characters are often overcoming problems in their own lives rather than saving the world.
This doesn’t make them mundane though, you’ll find spirits, sprites, demons and imagination a plenty in their two most famous films. (See a piece talking about the differences between Studio and Ghibli and other anime in more detail here)
Characters You Might See on Your Trip
Even if you never set foot in some of the areas renowned for things to do with anime or manga culture in Japan, you still might be surprised how often you see the characters around Japan’s cities.
Take this fella – Ampanman – this is him on the front of his own Shinkansen that we spotted at Okayama station.
You’ll also often see characters drawn on metro trains or monorails, you’ll also see huge posters around town for many characters, some even have restaurants and if you’re going to Universal Studios Japan you might find pop ups dedicated to characters or even limited-time overlays on some of the rides that give them a new anime or manga story..
This can be a bit frustrating if you don’t know who anyone is (or at least leads to you googling phrases like ’round-faced cartoon with red cheeks’ when you should be looking out of a train window at the scenery) so, who are some of the characters from manga, anime and Studio Ghibli that you might spot when you’re in Japan, even if you don’t go searching for them…
Let’s start with him, while we’re here. Anpan is actually a type of Japanese bread filled with red bean paste – as such, Anpanman effectively means bean bun man and yep, his face is a bun!
He’s part of an anime series for children called Soreike! Anpanman where he fights an evil germ.
If you go to Sendai, a city about two hours north of Tokyo. he has his own museum. but you will also see buns based on his face in cute bakeries in a few different places around Japan.
You might also have heard about Anpanman via another means. The character is also very popular in Korea which is why KPop boyband BTS wrote a song including him!
As we said, Astro Boy is often regarded as the first modern manga cartoon – and in Japanese his name Tetsuwan Atomu translates to the Mighty Atom.
Astro Boy is an android boy created by an inventor after his son dies. After being sold to a circus, he’s rescued and his stories follow the adventures of him and his rescuer.
If you go to the Yanaka part of Tokyo, you’ll find the Atom Bakery an entire bread shop decked out with Astro Boy memorabilia on Yanaka Ginza.
Also, if you listen carefully at Takadanobaba station in Tokyo, you’ll hear the Astro Boy theme-tune played as the station jingle. That’s because his creator, Tezuka Osuma, came from here.
There are also two Astro Boy murals outside the station.
This little blue cat with a white face and red nose is actually a robotic cat from the future.
He has been sent to look after a boy called Nobita Nobi who has a problem with bullies. Together they overcome all sorts of obstacles.
You’ll see Doraemon’s face on all sorts of things in Japan as the francise, which started as manga but has also turned into a successful anime series, is incredibly popular.
Doraemon’s creator Fujiko F, Fuijo was born in Takaoka in Tayoma Prefecture and there’s a lot of Doraemon sights in the town.
You’ll also find a museum dedicated to his work in Kawasaki.
With his spiky black hair and orange jumpsuit, Goku is the main character of the Dragon Ball series.
Originally he was sent to earth to destroy it, but a head injury wiped his memory and his job now is to defend the planet.
There are have been a few attractions including Dragon Ball in Tokyo over the years, but as I write this there isn’t one spot for Dragon Ball fans to visit. As soon as that changes though I’ll update it.
You will find merchandise in lots of shops though including the fantastic Kiddyland in Harajuku (don’t expect to get out without buying something) or, Character Street near Tokyo station (see below).
Gundam are giant roboticsuits controlled by a pilot.
They first appeared in the anime series Kido Senshi Gundama (Mobile Suit Gundam in English).
The series is set in a future world where humans now live in space and the Gundam are used as combat vehicles.
These giant robots crop up in some unexpected places in Japan. You can be walking down the road quite happily and suddenly one will appear outside a shopping mall.
The biggest one though is outside the Diver City Mall in Odaiba.
This model stands nearly 20 metres high and is of a type of Gundam known as a Unicorn, and four times a day it changes into its Destroy mode in a show that draws big crowds.
Monkey D. Luffy
With his straw hat and red jacket. Luffy is the lead character from the One Piece manga series. He lives his childhood dream of being a pirate leading a band called the Straw Hat Pirates – oh, and he also has the ability to stretch after eating the fruit of a rubber plant.
One Piece and Dragon Ball are both part of what’s known as the Jump group of manga and so like Goku, there’s no one place for One Piece fans in Tokyo right now, but you will find lots of merchandise around and a dedicated store in Character Street (below).
One of Studio Ghibli’s most recognisible characters, No-Face aka Kaonashi: is recognisible by his long black cloak and white sad face face mask.
He appears in the film Sprited Away as a spirit who eats other spirits taking on their emotions.
You’ll stumble across stores selling Ghibli merchandise all over Japan.
We found a great one in Kyoto, but I’m really sorry, I was tired and not paying attention to exactly where it was while my friend Kendall bought, I don’t know how many pairs, of character socks.
But I think it was Donguri Kyowakoku in Higashiyama. It’s marked on google maps.
This manga series aiming at teenage girls follows the adventures of a schoolgirl who, after meeting a special black cat, transforms into Sailor Moon to lead her Sailor Guardians to search for a magic crystal.
You’ll recognise her by her blonde pigtails and red, white and blue sailor-inspired outfit.
There’s a huge Sailor Moon shop in the Laforet Store in Harajuku.
There was also a cafe in Tokyo, but it had to close during the pandemic. The franchise is so successful though there’s a good chance there will be another one once travel picks up again.
Lead character of the Demon Slayer manga series, Tanjiro and his sister Nezuko are on a quest to find a cure for her after his family was killed by a demon and Nezuko was turned into one.
Tanjiro has lots of brown hair and big brown eyes, and wears a green and black diamond checked coat.
You’ll often see him carrying a sword – in Demon Slayer, one of the few way demons can be killed is through decapitation by specific sword.
The aformentioned grey avocado-shaped creature, Totoro is the star of Studio Ghibli’s My Name is Totoro and you’ll see his pear-shaped form in many shops.
If you love Studio Ghibli, you’re definitely going to want to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo (see here for tickets which you must book in advance), but, you might also want to visit the Shiro Hige Cream Puff Factory near Shimokitawaza where you can buy a very cute edible version of Totoro!
Did I Miss Anyone?
The above list a few characters that you might now recognise as you walk around Japan, but this list doesn’t even touch the surface of the thousands of characters that appear in anime and manga.
Depending what is coming out at the time you’re there will influence who you might see on posters, on the side of trains and buses or, in figurine form in shops.
You might also come across other characters if you’re in a town, or area of a city, where a famous manga creator was born or lived.
For example, the first thing I saw when I exited Kokora station (Kokura is in Western Japan, close to Fukuoka) trying to find my hotel were statues of Captain Harlock and Tetsuo from the Galaxy Edge series.
Apparently creator Daisuke Ishizuka Leiji Matsumoto lived in Kokura and so there are a few statues around town.
With my list I’m just trying to cover characters I remember seeing a lot of places on my trips that other people might notice too.
However, I’m sure I’ve missed out characters who perhaps should be in here so, please, if there’s someone else really well known that people might spot around Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka and wonder who it is, that I haven’t included, please drop me a note in the comments explaining who it is and how people might recognise them so other people can recognise them too.
Where to Go if You’re Just Getting Started with Anime and Manga
While we’ve highlighted a few suggestions for fans of specific characters above there are also a few more general places that you might want to check out if you’re just starting to dabble in the worlds of manga and anime.
Tokyo Character Street: This row of shops under Tokyo station is a one stop shop for lots of character merchandise.
Many popular franchises have shops here like Jump, Pokemon and a Ghibli shop.
Find an up to date list of brands here. It’s not a place for serious collectors, but it’s great for beginners.
The Big Areas: In Tokyo, Akihabara, Nakano Boulevard and Ikebukero are good places to find more collectible anime and manga merchandise.
In Osaka, DenDen town is the place to go. Stores like Mandrake, Animate and Village Vanguard are good starting spots (VV has lots of other fun things to look at if some of the family aren’t so interested in collectibles).
Oh and if while you’re here you see shops full of machines packed with plastic capsules, you’ve found a Gachapon shop. These are super fun and make great budget souvenirs from Japan – see more about collecting Gachapon here.
Namja Town: Located in Sunshine City, Ikebukero, this explosion of colour and noise is somewhat incomprehensible if you know nothing about manga or anime, but if you do, you’ll find themed-areas with rides and games, cakes and ice creams based on all sorts of popular characters.
Kyoto International Manga Museum: I’m mentioning this because it seems like the obvious place to go to learn more about manga, but, a common complaint about the museum is that unless you speak Japanese a lot of the exhibits won’t mean a lot to you.
So, there you have it, our beginners guide to anime and manga and hopefully you’ve now got a better understand of who is who and some ideas of the basic difference between anime and manga.
And, as I said, if I’ve missed anyone, or make any mistakes, please drop suggestions in the comments.
Who Writes This Blog?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a journalist and author. My travel articles have appeared in publications including The Australian, RAC Horizons, Jetstar Magazine, Sainsbury’s Magazine and more.
I’ve travelled to Japan seven times before, both solo and with my partner – and am just planning trip number eight