A teenage romance, the star-studded appearance of a celestial messenger, the Annunciation in orbs of white light: On every page, the five-volume Manga Messiah Bible series depicts the gospel with engaging cartoon visuals, reaching younger and traditionally less-accessible audiences worldwide.

The series has been well received the world over, with more than 8.3 million books in print in more than 37 languages and with 5 more translations on the way. The popular illustrated Jesus Storybook Bible, by comparison, has sold 2 million copies in nine years.

Yet the books—written by Japanese for Japanese—have not been as effective of an evangelistic tool in Japan.

Manga is a style of cartooning wildly popular among both adults and children in Japan. One-third of all publications in Japan are in manga form, according to Roald Lidal, founder of the Christian graphic novel producer NEXT. Even Japanese security, health and safety, and emergency evacuation information and signage are done in manga.

“That’s what people read,” he said. “The top three manga magazine publications in Japan sell 10 million copies weekly.”

Usually, presenting the gospel in a popular medium is good evangelism, said Paul Nethercott, a longtime TEAM missionary to Japan and social media coordinator for NEXT. “One vitally important aspect of effective cross-cultural mission work is a contextualized expression of the gospel. [This] series contextualizes the gospel for Japan as well as anything I know of.”

Since 2010, NEXT has distributed about 250,000 manga books and more than 700,000 booklets in Japan—where other Christian literature by comparison barely breaks the 10,000 mark. But not all of those numbers are sales. Distribution got an unexpected boost when early volumes were included in relief packages handed out in evacuation shelters following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan.

The series is seeing much more success outside the Japanese context. Sixty percent of the books have been distributed outside Asia. More than 150,000 copies have been sold in the United States; in Australia, 25 “episodes” are being animated for distribution through a Bible app. And 63,000 copies of Manga Messiah have been distributed among refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and throughout Europe.

Despite the wide distribution, the mostly conservative evangelical churches in Japan don’t see the series as a slam-dunk evangelistic tool.

That’s not unusual for the majority-Buddhist and Shinto country, Nethercott said. Christianity is associated with the West, and it seems to lose some of its appeal when contextualized for Japanese culture.

“It is why Japanese churches are built to look like Western constructs, and most songs sung in church are translated from other languages,” he said. “In the hearts and minds of most Japanese, including Christians, Christianity is a Western religion. If the gospel is contextualized, it makes devout Christians feel uncomfortable.”

Will Thompson, a Fellowship of Christian Athletes missionary in Japan, agreed.

“Christianity exists as a Western organization of religion where Jesus is at the center, but he is surrounded by layers of Western tradition and religion that make it hard [for] a Japanese person to get to Jesus.”

But Western evangelism, which often hinges on sharing the gospel by giving information, doesn’t work in Japan, said Dorrie Takazawa, Asian Access’s training coordinator for Japan.

Many Japanese adhere—at least culturally—to the major tenets of Buddhism. “It is about relationships,” she said. “Christianity is not seen as being about relationships but . . . individualism. It’s Jesus versus your family, which is not good news here.”

Takazawa said she has given some of the manga Bible stories away, but “more to manga-obsessed Americans” than to Japanese. In a culture that has at times been contemptuous of the West, and where only 1 percent of the population is Christian, manga Bibles aren’t enough to catch widespread attention.

The series reads “like a manga world history,” said Ikuo Takizawa, a translator at Kurume Bible Fellowship. “It may be helpful for you to review history as a storyline with the help of pictures to get better scores in the term-end exams. But for spiritual or salvation purposes, you need to be touched by the living Word of God.”

However, Andy Game isn’t giving up on the Manga Messiah series. “The gospel has to be communicated in local language and with clear concepts,” said the CEO of 7Media.org, a Japan-based team that seeks to reach young people with the gospel through new media.

“Culture, and especially Japanese culture, is changing and adapting all the time,” he said. “So we need to be developing ways that are relevant and creative [to share] the gospel.”

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