Weekly Shonen Jump, the manga magazine for boys with Japan’s largest circulation, may have recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, but soul-searching goes on for staff as they face a dwindling market and competition from online media.

The weekly, published by Shueisha Inc., was once described as a “monster” when it set a sales record for a manga magazine.

A 2011 study by the Research Institute for Publications showed that nine manga titles had been published in more than 100 million copies in book format in total. Five of these--“Kochikame,” “Dragon Ball,” “Slam Dunk,” “One Piece” and “Naruto”--were serialized in Shonen Jump.

“JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure,” another Shonen Jump serial, has also topped 100 million copies issued in book format, according to Shueisha officials.

A “Weekly Shonen Jump Exhibition,” hosted by the Mori Arts Center Gallery in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, is currently pulling in crowds of fans, including non-Japanese tourists.

Shonen Jump was first issued on July 11, 1968, nine years behind its competitors Weekly Shonen Magazine and Weekly Shonen Sunday.

Being a late starter, Shonen Jump could not get contributions from big names of the time, such as Osamu Tezuka and Tetsuya Chiba, and only had rookie manga artists to turn to. By its second issue the magazine was already holding a manga competition for rookies, the first of its kind in a boys’ manga magazine, to call for contributions.

The reliance on newcomers was a last-resort measure, but the magazine’s rookie award attracted many aspiring souls, and ended up producing a number of hit manga works. The authors of the six works, with more than 100 million copies published, all debuted through Shonen Jump’s manga awards.

“Shonen Jump set a clear-cut motif for an audience of boys, under a leadership of the editors, precisely because it was a late starter and was hiring rookie artists,” said Takahiro Akita, a 53-year-old scholar of manga culture. “That culture, which has been carried on to this day, was also the driver of the magazine’s golden age.”

Shonen Jump attracted adult readers after it produced a number of successful works. Those serials gained further popularity through fan fiction, which earned the magazine female readers as well.

In late 1994, Shonen Jump set a record of 6.53 million copies in circulation.

Akita said, however, that enthusiastic manga amateurs tend to place a low value on Shonen Jump. The magazine’s distinct style means its content tends to be standardized, as seen in a plethora of battle stories. There has also been a tendency since the 1990s, its most successful period, for popular stories to remain serialized over long stretches of time.

“I hope the magazine will produce more works of distinctive styles, such as ‘Death Note,’ a suspense story, although it may not be easy for the magazine to change because of the success it has had to date and a need for maintaining a large circulation,” Akita said.

The situation is also worsening for the industry at large.

Total sales of manga magazines plummeted from the 1995 peak of an estimated 1.343 billion copies to only 265.98 million copies sold in 2017, according to figures of the Research Institute for Publications. E-books now beat hard copy books in sales of manga in book format, but the sales of manga e-zines are less than 5 percent of those of their paper counterparts, far from enough to make up for the drop.

Shonen Jump’s latest, official circulation number is only 1.76 million, less than 30 percent of its peak level, according to figures of the Japan Magazine Publishers Association.

“The spread of cellphones has diversified the forms of children’s entertainment,” said Kyohei Shibata, a researcher with the Research Institute for Publications. “Shonen Jump remains a big presence in the manga industry, which, however, is itself declining in status.”

EDITOR IN CHIEF SPEAKS

In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Hiroyuki Nakano, editor in chief of Weekly Shonen Jump, had the following views to share on the state and future course of his magazine.

“Rookie artists and new works of manga represent our leading content,” Nakano said. “That editorial policy has remained unchanged for 50 years. For our 50th anniversary, we solicited works from artists who ran serial stories in our magazine in the past. Our editorial staff members agreed that they should be requested to provide new works, instead of sequels to, or extra episodes of, their successful works. Sequel stories would do better if we were only concerned about providing fodder for talk, but we attach more importance to new works, which could get a failing mark but also has the potential of getting a 120 percent mark.

“YouTube is our rival; Shonen Magazine and Shonen Sunday are our comrades on a united front. Weekly manga magazines used to be a cheap means of entertainment that had a sense of speed, but in this online age, children no longer keep the habit of waiting for the day when a new magazine issue goes on sale. We are in the middle of a trial-and-error process. For example, we opened ‘Shonen Jump Plus,’ a manga webzine with daily updates, in 2014.

“Also, a growing number of manga artists have ceased to see an advantage in debuting in a commercial magazine, because individuals now have the means for publishing their own works on the Internet.

“This year, we have added new manga awards to our old lineup: a ‘vertical scrolling manga award,’ for works to be read on a smartphone, and a ‘Jump Start Dash manga award,’ which calls only for an opening part of a work, with submittals possible via Twitter. We really wish to strike new talent by any means necessary.

“Responding to this digital age is certainly unavoidable, but manga artists are designing their frame allotments on the premise that their works will be read on paper. Only on paper can you get the real thrill out of manga.”