Educationists in Asia are overcoming traditional opposition to cartoon strips by using them to encourage children to read
The huge popularity in Asia of imported Japanese comics, once derided for their facile plots and violence, has spurred a rethink on their educational value.
Educationists in the region are now looking at how to channel the apparently insatiable demand for comics into helping children keep up the reading habit in the absence of a children's book culture.
Several countries that condemned Japanese comics, and their Taiwanese and Hong Kong imitations, as corrupting and harmful to children's reading and for spreading sadistic aspects of Japanese and Chinese culture, now see comics as a valuable teaching tool. Realising the vast influence they can have on children, a number of governments are promoting homegrown comic books modelled on the Japanese versions.
This is partly because of the wider range of comics produced, including less violent comics for younger readers. But the quality of comics has improved all round. In the past a typical Japanese comic was meant to be read in less than 20 minutes. But now their artistic and written content is much higher. Japanese manga, as the comics are known, have matured says Kosai Ono, a Tokyo-based cartoon critic.
In the past two decades, Japanese comic characters have reached the whole of south-east Asia, invading the classrooms. There is the leggy, starry-eyed Sera Moon (Girl Warrior), the karate-power of the monkey-like hero of Dragonball Z and the cutesy charm of the gadget-loving blue feline Doraemon (Robot Cat), targeted at younger children.
Japanese physical humour has wide appeal across several cultures, compared to the more verbal American comic book humour, and it deals with issues of interest to youngsters - sports, love and jealousy.
More than 100 million copies of the Dragonball Z series have been sold across Asia since 1985 and that does not include pirated versions. While many comics contain sex and violence, other tamer comics intended for pre-teenagers filled a niche and created a children's sub-culture.
Whatever the views about Japanese comics, the huge impact on Asian children cannot be ignored. Cambodian educators have praised Doraemon for setting good examples of behaviour, good manners, love for parents, care for friends and concern for the environment.
Chow Ping-yan, principal of SKH Keu Sum primary school in Hong Kong, says he stocks comic books in the school library to lure youngsters to read. Once children have the reading habit, they can be guided to more serious material, he says.
Frederick Schodt, author of Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, says the Japanese government is now issuing educational materials in cartoon form. "There are manga about very serious subjects and they are often an ideal format for the transmission of information in an easy-to-understand, concise format, " he added.
A study carried out last year by Dr Sze Man-Hung of Hong Kong's Lingnan College found that most schoolchildren turned to comics: "Books for children tend to be rather poor in content, while comics are interesting."
The change in how comics are viewed is a far cry from the days when Asian governments sought to ban them as a cultural threat. In South Korea, which has had a love-hate relationship with Japan stretching back centuries, censorship of Japanese comics ceased only in 1992. Japanese comics were also banned in Taiwan and even locally produced comics (often pirated Japanese versions) were censored.
In Malaysia, comic book importers must submit titles to the Home Ministry for approval. In March 1996, China banned sales of Japanese comic books following tensions over the rise of right-wing militarism in Japan. But as Japan moves into more educational manga, Asian comic book producers are expected to follow suit.