TOKYO -- Many Japanese look to Kosaku Shima to teach them the impeccable corporate etiquette that will take them to the top of the business world.
Many also look to Rintaro, a visionary, idealistic bureaucrat in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, to teach them about the secret machinations of the nation's ministries and to share his insights on energy policy.
Rintaro and Kosaku Shima boast social influence, enormous salaries and celebrity. Never heard of them? That may be because they aren't real. They are characters in Japanese "manga," or comic books.
Manga are a billion-dollar industry. Sales of these hefty comics, which go for about $3.50 each, account for close to a third of the total output of Japan's publishers -- 553 million copies of comics a year. This medium may be more influential than television or newspapers and plays a vital social function, supplying the flamboyant heroes that a highly controlled society can't produce.
The comics offer a rich fantasy world in a society where conformity is deemed a necessity, assertion of individual will is unacceptable and life itself is often eye-glazingly predictable -- all this, while gently reinforcing the values of working hard and supporting the status quo.
"Among Japanese media, manga are unquestionably the most powerful," says the creator of Rintaro, who uses the pen name Kuzu Haruo. In their subject matter and approach, manga range from fantastic, such as Doraemon the robot cat, to realistic, such as businessman Kosaku Shima, to educational, such as the world-famous "Japan Inc.," a 1,000-page tome on the labyrinthine ways of the country's corporate economy.
Their stories often blend real news events with outlandish fantasies, unsayable words, undoable feats and graphic sex scenes. So ubiquitous are their characters that for millions of manga maniacs, the line between comics and reality often blurs.
For them, the characters take their places alongside real people, capturing headlines, offering testimonials for advertising and winning the public's love and respect. There are manga with soap opera plots intended for female office workers. There is a branch of manga with an emphasis on mysticism and science fiction, aimed at girls in their early teens. There is a sports and adventure branch targeted at young men.
"Manga made me what I am today," says Haruko Sato, 30, a self-proclaimed manga nerd. "After I read the manga on the French Revolution -- liberty, equality, fraternity and all that -- I knew what I wanted to do. I was 13, and I thought, 'Wow!' " He works for a think tank on Japanese-European relations.
Critics call manga Japan's postwar literature, its social commentary and a repository for its most creative minds. They also call them a window into the Japanese psyche, shedding light on what motivates, inspires and titillates readers. Universities teach manga. Psychologists analyze them.
VTC Unlike comic books in the United States, which are mostly populated by superheroes, Japanese comics present characters who are psychologically developed. Their lives chronicle the trials and tribulations of all Japanese -- whether they be children, "salarymen" (office workers), bankers, politicians or underworld figures.
Nobotta Oyama is the hero of the series "I Am a Man," about a dispossessed student who has not found a university to accept him. He lives in a tiny apartment, owns 64 pairs of striped boxer shorts and subsists on a diet of instant noodles and mushrooms that grow in his closet.
Hamasaki, the hero of "Diary of a Fishing Freak," is an unambitious salaryman whose wife and boss try to cajole him to work harder. He despises drinking with his cohorts and playing golf, essential for any Japanese corporate drone who is trying to move up. Instead, he develops a passion for fishing.
To readers, behind these jokes is a gentle admonition to maintain the status quo and embrace traditional values of discipline and self-sacrifice.
Comics existed before World War II, but they were considered a children's medium. The modern manga industry was born amid Japan's horrible postwar poverty.
"After the war, there was a big gap between what the Japanese people wanted and what they had," says Hiromichi Moteki, a private publisher with a passion for manga. "Movies were too expensive to make, but manga allow you to make a high-quality product cheaply."
As the manga generation began to reach top posts in the Education Ministry, a society-wide transformation in attitudes occurred, elevating the comics from an entertainment medium to an educational tool. "While people are laughing at manga, they are also unconsciously learning how to behave and what not to do," says Masahiko Ito, a pediatrician who co-wrote a book psychoanalyzing one of Japan's most famous manga heroes.
Why do comic books exert such influence in Japan?
"Everyone is extremely controlled from a very young age, so fantasy is extremely important," Dr. Ito says. "We are a managed society, and there are psychological bruises from that experience." Apart from manga, and "enka," the maudlin Japanese folk songs that businessmen croon at karaoke bars, the stoic Japanese lack ways to let these feelings out.
Manga heroes are often pure, principled men who must defend traditional values against countrymen who are selling out to foreign influences. Manga provide the Japanese with the heroes their society rarely produces in real life.
By featuring the most average salarymen or bureaucrats, some authors say, they are trying to offer silent encouragement to the millions who probably believe that their efforts go unrecognized by bosses, spouses and children.
"Here, heroes are manga characters," Dr. Ito says. "In the 1960s, there were no real heroes, and there aren't now either. If there are no real heroes, you turn to manga."
When asked in a newspaper survey in 1995 whom they hoped to emulate in their professional lives, almost 30 percent of new company employees named Kosaku Shima -- the manga teacher of corporate etiquette. Japanese companies use manga characters to sell products because, in the words of one ad executive, the comic figures do not age or get embroiled in embarrassing scandals.
Manga also influence public policy and help people chart the inner workings of government and business, almost like another arm of the media. Because the publications are a hybrid of fact and fiction, manga writers can probe sensitive topics with a vigor and a thoroughness that Japan's conservative media can only dream of.
And they are more fun. Rintaro's creator, Kuzu Haruo -- actually a government employee who employs a nom de plume -- long had written substantive pieces on energy policy. Then an editor told him he could increase his readership from several hundred to 900,000 if only he would write manga.
Now he says he can write far more freely.
Every episode in his series is based on actual events and important ministry publications. He just changes the names.