Japanese Young and Old Turning to Manga for Their History Lessons After “Biri-gyaru” Success Story

How all future scholars will come to know the history of Japan.

As an anime and comic geek dating back to age 10, I’ve never been a fan of separating “low-brow” and “high-brow” pursuits. A work doesn’t have to be dry to be informative – and just because it’s entertaining doesn’t mean that it’s worthless. This attitude seems to be gaining traction in Japan, where more kids are fine-tuning their knowledge of their nation’s history by turning to manga.

Asahi Shinbun reports (Japanese) that there are signs this trend is accelerating since the movie ビリギャル(Biri-gyaru). (Biri means “the bottom” or “last on the list”, so  an approximate translation would be “Loser Girl” or “Barrel-Scraper”.) Biri tells the story of a college good-for-nothing who decides she’s going to gain entrance to Keiou University – which means achieving a high score on Japan’s dreaded national entrance exam. To help her bone up on Japanese history, her tutor hands her the full run of the manga series 少年少女日本に歴史 (shounen shoujo nihon no rekishi; Japanese History for Boys and Girls).

Slogan: “The story of a last-place student who raised her mean score 40 points and was admitted to Keiou University.” Quote bubble: “A loser can’t do it? Ya don’t know ’til ya try!”

The ビリギャル story is not without controversy. The movie is based on a story originally published on the Web site Storys.jp, and after the book and movie came out, questions about the tale’s authenticity abounded. That didn’t stop it from inspiring people – and it didn’t stop a mini-boom in the historical manga market.

Since the movie’s release, according to Asahi, the history manga series featured in the film has seen a 10-fold increase in sales. (And yes, Yours Truly also just bought Volume 1. Sigh…another one to add to the pile.) In general, juvenile manga sales have been on the decline, experiencing a 5% slump in the prior fiscal year. However, after the success of Biri, other historical manga such as Kingdom has also seen an uplift, resulting in a 6% increase in the past fiscal year. And it’s not just the young who are buying up these series – it’s the young at heart as well. According to one seller’s data, sales among those in their 50s and above are up 10-fold.

History has always fascinated me, and I’ve always marveled at how schools can take something so fascinating and sap all of the life out of it. Manga is a great format for teaching history. It allows its authors to document not just the facts of what happened, but to bring the excitement, danger, and drama of the times alive. A similar phenomenon has happened recently in the United States with the hit musical Hamilton, which has managed through a great score and diverse casting to make American history relevant to the Internet generation. Critics in both countries may turn their noses up at the idea of pop culture educating their kids, but if it gets kids excited about history, then the more, the better.


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