To follow up from our manga readers survey, KAORI met with Ratna Sari Abubakar, Managing Editor for Comics of Elex Media Komputindo, one of the prominent publishers of manga in Indonesia, and talked about manga publishing in Indonesia. Our report of the discussion will be divided into three parts. The first part will mainly concern about the history of manga publishing by Elex Media, the second part will mainly concern about the process and challenges of licensing manga series for publication in Indonesia, while the third part discuss various things about manga readers in Indonesia, and other activities beyond publishing manga books.

Popularizing Manga in Indonesia: A Brief History

Elex Media Komputindo is one of the publishing units in the media conglomerate Kompas Gramedia group. The group also includes the largest circulating newspaper in Indonesia, Kompas; Gramedia bookstore chain; Gramedia printing company; various regional newspapers, tabloids and magazines; six book publishers; Kompas TV; and many others.

Elex Media Komputindo itself was founded in 1985 as a publishing unit for books on electronics and computers. How Elex Media got into manga publishing, as Ms. Sari explained, began with Jakob Oetama, one of the founders of Kompas. During a visit to Japan in the late 80s, Mr. Oetama became interested with manga, thinking that there is a business opportunity to publish manga in Indonesia. The first manga that Elex Media published was the shoujo manga Candy Candy, the one that Mr. Oetama brought back from Japan. After Candy Candy, Elex Media then followed it with Doraemon, Kung Fu Boy, and Dragon Ball through the 90s.

“Doraemon” still on print after two decades

The opportunity was present because, Indonesian comics at the time was disappearing. To give a little context, a talkshow in an Indonesian comics exhibition in 2015 had discussed that the main reason Indonesian comics disappeared in that period was because Indonesian comics in the past were published by small-scale publishers that discontinue their operations when their owners passed away. The 90s also provide another opportunity to raise the popularity of manga in Indonesia, when the New Order government allowed the operations of private TV stations. At that time, Indonesia’s TV industry still lacked experience and funds to self-produce many programs. Thus, the TV stations licensed many programs from other countries, including animated TV series from the United States and Japan. Among those animated TV series are titles whose manga are published by Elex Media, such as Doraemon, Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, and Detective Conan, which allows for the print and TV sides to promote each other.

The early manga published in Indonesia were followed by the airing of their animated adaptations in the 90s by newly established private TV stations 

In the beginning, Elex Media published manga in Indonesia using Western binding, so the pages of the manga were flipped to allow them to be read from left to right. The reason for this, as we can take from our conversation with Ms. Sari, was because books published in Indonesia in general are publised with Western binding, with the major exception being the muslim holy book, the Koran, which uses Arabic writing that is read from right to left. References to Japanese locations, organizations, or even names of minor characters were also used to be modified into localized references and names. That was also partly because of the use of Western binding, as writings on signs would have gotten reversed when the manga were flipped, thus they were instead replaced with localized signs.

Comparison between western binding and Japanese binding. Top: “Detective Conan” is read from left to right as it still uses western binding since the 90s; bottom: “Sweetness and Lightning” is read from right to left as it is originally published in Japan

The practice of using Western binding, as Ms. Sari recounted, began to change when Elex Media published Samurai X (Rurouni Kenshin). The manga’s author had requested that the main character’s X-shaped scar on his left cheek is maintained that way. Since it was impractical to modify the position of the scar in the whole manga if the manga was flipped as usual, it was decided to publish the manga using the original Japanese binding. Despite some initial scepticism, the manga still became a best-seller, proving that readers can accept the use of Japanese binding. Currently, most of the manga published by Elex Media are published with Japanese binding, with some titles like Detective Conan and Q.E.D. being exceptions, since the titles have been published continuously by Elex Media since before the switch to Japanese binding.

“Rurouni Kenshin” paved the way for the use of Japanese binding to be the standard for manga publication in Indonesia

As time goes on, references to Japanese culture are also maintained in Elex Media’s manga releases. “Readers now are already aware that the comics are from Japan anyway, and with the spread of the Internet, it’s easier for readers now to know and learn about Japan,” Ms. Sari said. “In a way, it makes the job of translating easier, since we don’t need to modify Japanese references or names. Readers are also more active and critical; they may complain about changes.”

Since 2005, Elex Media has launched a label for adult comics, Level Comics. In addition to that, Elex also began to adopt age rating for the comics they release. In the beginning, all comics rated “dewasa (adult)” are published by Level Comics label, while other comics published by Elex Media are rated “semua umur (all ages)” or “remaja (teen).” Recently, Elex Media has changed its age rating system with numerical categories. The reason for that, Ms. Sari revealed, is because the use of numerical age rating is required by the National Library of Indonesia, which is the national ISBN registration agency for Indonesia. The rating system now used by Elex Media is as follows:

SU (semua umur): suitable for all ages
12+: late elementary school to middle school range
15+: high school and college student range
18+ (Level Comics only): adult

Examples of age ratings used in manga released by Indonesian publishers in 2018

In deciding the rating, Elex Media does not follow the Japanese categorization of “shounen,” “seinen,” or the like, but rather, considers the suitability to Indonesian standards. Ms. Sari gave the example Attack on Titan, which is serialized in Bessatsu Shounen Magazine in Japan, is published under Level Comics label with adult rating in Indonesia, because of the depictions of violence in the series. In addition to violence, other factors that may determine the adult rating include sexually suggestive contents or the difficulty of the story to be understood by younger readers. Elex Media does not publish outright pornography.

Some titles published under the adult Level Comics label

Whein compared to other countries such as the US or Japan itself, manga in Indonesia are comparably very cheap, even though the price has risen several times over the years. Currently, for regular release, a single volume of manga is still sold for less than US$ 2.50. “Readers are very sensitive about price; even a raise of Rp 1,000 (about 8 US cents) will incite a lot of protests.” To keep the price affordable for Indonesian readers, Ms. Sari explained, the cheapest type of paper is used to keep printing costs down. Colored pages are also printed black-and-white; though, if only for the front pages, they could still be kept colored. Elex Media also no longer releases manga with dust jackets, which is a move appreciated by readers as they tend to damage or lose the dust jackets anyway.

For select, popular titles, though, Elex Media may release “deluxe” or “premium” editions with better paper. A recent example is the premium edition re-release of Fullmetal Alchemist, based on the Japanese kanzenban edition. Despite being two times more expensive than the usual manga releases, the premium edition has been selling well, according to Ms. Sari.

The premium edition re-release of “Fullmetal Alchemist” has been well-received

Popular titles in Indonesia are not always the same as the ones that are popular in Japan, Ms. Sari told us. Titles like One Piece and Naruto may also be popular everywhere, but in Indonesia, Naruto notably outsells One Piece, unlike in their home country. Other popular titles from Elex Media include Detective Conan and Kung Fu Boy. Another massively popular title in Indonesia is Hai, Miiko! (Kocchi Muite, Miiko!), which is published by m&c!. Ms. Sari said that their Japanese business partners are often surprised when they are told how popular Miiko! Is in Indonesia.

In the next part, we will discuss about the process of licensing and translating manga, the challenges, with a bit of discussion outside of manga concerning licensing light novels.

See also:

Is Scanlation Killing Manga Publishing in Indonesia? – KAORI Nusantara Manga Readers Survey


To be continued in part 2

The Indonesian Anime Times | Reporting by Halimun Muhammad, Dody Kusumanto and Videtra Reynaldi | Photography by Halimun Muhammad

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