Utrecht City lies at the heart of The Netherlands and acts as a central HUB for its public transport network. It’s a large, historical city; home to so many interesting places and fantastic shops. Anybody passing through the country ought to visit it at least once.
It has also long been a great city for geeks, thanks to the many unique shops that offer games, manga, comics, and boardgames, all within close walking distance of its central train station. However, journey just a little beyond the bustle of the inner city, walk along Utrecht’s atmospheric canals, and in the Pauwstraat you’ll find the MangaKissa. The Netherlands’ very own manga library.
I have visited this place several times before to read manga and hang out, but today its head volunteer Erwin agreed to talk with me about the MangaKissa’s history & mission, as well as their views on manga’s growing popularity in our tiny country.
Casper: Could you give a quick introduction of who you are and what kind of anime/manga are your favorites?
Erwin: My name is Erwin, I am an IT professional by day, an immobile sleep beast by night, and somewhere in-between I am the chairman of the MangaKissa Foundation. That means I run this joint and try to keep everyone in line as much as possible. Mostly though I enjoy building a place where people can be themselves.
As someone who runs a library, I have difficulty finding time to actually enjoy manga. I have given up on anime—not in the sense that I don’t like it—I just can’t find the time. So for anime I am more interested in movies because I can take an evening off to watch one. As for the manga that I do have in my (own) room, I would say Barakamon, Yotsuba, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, and Oyasumi Punpun. I also like Saint Young Men, which is about Jesus and Buddha who are on a staycation in Japan, experiencing the country as two totally different religious figures.
We are united in our love for Yotsuba then.
That’s good to hear! I also really like Moyashimon. These manga are based on exploration and discovery, which I think are great themes; people discovering stuff and being excited about what they find. Moyashimon is a good example of those because it’s about microbiology. It’s about a person who can see microbes as his weird superpower and the setting is a university for microbiology. Kinda like Wageningen University here.
Is it on the shelves here?
No I’m afraid not. Moyashimon is one of those unfortunate works that got translated for a few volumes and then the publisher went down. Since then the license has been in licensing hell. I imported it from Japan at some point… for a lot of money.
So, you mention being the chairman, but that doesn’t mean you are also the founder of the MangaKissa, right?
I am not the founder, no. Though I have been involved with the MangaKissa since very early on. I think it was founded in 2007 and that would be when I was 16, so I wasn’t in the picture yet. I don’t remember when I joined formally, but informally I joined around my first year of university, so around 2009-2010.
The founder asked me: “Hey, we have known each other for a while now. How about we go to the Comic Book Days in Haarlem and run this joint for 2 days straight, 10 hours a day, and just have a great time.”
And I was like: “Yeah, why not? I am a student, I have loads of spare time. I mean, I am not studying, so why shouldn’t I?” So that was my introduction and I really liked it. I even bought my first manga there, One Piece.
If not you, then who created the MangaKissa?
Basically, the two most important people, in the sense that they came up with the idea, are a husband and wife. They had a lot of manga in their living room and, at a certain point, they got children from all over the neighborhood congregating at their house to read their comics. Not just manga, but also English and, I believe, French comics, translated into Dutch.
So they were like: “This is cool, but also slightly worrying. We need to externalize this from our private lives.”
And that’s how the MangaKissa was formed as an idea; so they could reclaim their house, but also so that the kids could still have a place where they can express their passion about comics and manga.
It is nice to hear children having so much interest in our hobbies.
Oh yeah, children are very interested in comics in general. That was never even in question here in the Netherlands, although our comics selection is a bit, I would say, slim. You have your Disney stuff like the Donald Duck, you have your Belgian variants like Suske & Wiske…
Exactly. Then as far as mainstream comics go, it dries up really quick. If you go a bit deeper then you get into the French stuff, which is great but… slightly niche. At least here in The Netherlands, you’re already well into comics if you’re at that level.
Manga’s popularity, meanwhile, owes a lot to dedicated children’s TV like Fox Kids from the ’90s. You know we got Pokémon in the beginning, Digimon, Flint the Time Detective, at one point we had Gundam Wing, I believe. Cardcaptor Sakura on Yorkiddin’, which is now RTL7. And all they had in common is that they were all from Japan. Fun fact, Alfred Jodocus Kwak is also from an anime. A lot of the old cartoons were actually produced in Japan, even if they were for the European market.
So as kids from my generation, so let’s say 20 years ago, we noticed a trend where subconsciously we linked series we liked to the place where it came from, Japan, and then the fascination came afterwards. I don’t know if that’s still the case for kids, but nowadays anime & manga has become more generally accepted. So I don’t know if it’s still the same reasoning or if we now view it the same as Western animation.
But yeah, the MangaKissa was founded because there were too many darn kids in someone’s living room.
In your own words, how would you describe what the MangaKissa does?
What I always tell people is that the MangaKissa is a place that was created so that geeks can be geeks. It doesn’t matter what you like, you should be able to express that passion with others, likeminded or not. That’s one of the core purposes of The MangaKissa, I would say.
The books are a backdrop. They are a medium by which we can talk the same language. In that sense, 10 years ago if you were into manga & anime, you were REALLY into them. These days that has integrated more into a concept of being a geek. The Marvel films have certainly helped a lot to make nerd stuff more accessible, Game of Thrones too, and also gaming in general. Nowadays it’s more part of being a geek, but at that point, when we started this, we had a focal point on which we could focus to allow people to express their passion.
A good example of that is that we had a very active Brony subculture when that series was at its peak. Personally I am not interested in My Little Pony, but that doesn’t matter. It matters that Bronies had a place where they could express their love for the series, the characters, whatever they found interesting about it, and that they were not ridiculed for it. We tried to provide that space for them.
I find that many people in this subculture are generally introverts, so providing a space where they can be open can really help them express themselves. Also, there is a higher concentration of people on the autism spectrum in nerd culture and this also helps them get comfortable with social interactions.
We do books, but we really are just geeks.
Does that always interface well? People who come to the MangaKissa for expression and people that want to treat this place as just a library?
People start coming here to read, they stay to talk. That’s not always true. Some people come here just to read, but most of the time we see that people start interacting with others, especially if they have a set day where they come, become friends, or are already friends and just meet up here. It becomes more of a social thing over time.
On the MangaKissa website and also when doing introductions, there’s frequent mention of the words “audiovisual culture”. That instantly reminds me of Genshiken. Was that series an inspiration for The MangaKissa?
Genshiken is one of the founder’s favorite series and it was indeed part of the inspiration to actually open this place. When you’re inundated in The MangaKissa, you need to swear on Genshiken volume 1 as if it were the bible. Fun fact: in America, if you don’t want to swear on the bible, you can swear on any kind of text you want. So maybe ask for Genshiken volume 1. If you’re comfortable with that.
Genshiken really captured the time and the spirit of when it came out. Japan was transitioning from analog to digital and so the fandom was transitioning with it. It was a really interesting time and I think Genshiken really captured how geeks interface with media and personal relationships. For me, that was eye-opening. I was really introverted during high school. Still am, but I am more comfortable with myself now that I am older, or maybe I care less about what others think.
I would personally recommend, especially to parents: If you want to understand your kid, read Genshiken.
Do you think Genshiken’s story is still relevant to today’s world?
Of course, at its core, it’s still relevant. It is getting a bit dated, certainly with some of the old-fashioned references they made. The idea of smartphones wasn’t fully formed, nor how integral they would become to everyone’s daily lives. You didn’t have Facebook and other social media, so that won’t translate well.
But to understand the core of the hobby and to also understand the way those people in Genshiken interact with each other on a personal level, I think that’s still very relevant. I don’t think people in that sense have changed so much over the years.
You mentioned kids and that they have always been interested in the medium. We can relate because we had Fox Kids growing up and eventually linked that experience of the shows we enjoyed to Japan, so we went to see what else they have there. Since joining the MangaKissa in 2009-2010, have you seen a shift in the kind of people that visit The MangaKissa? Like has the age stayed consistent or has it moved up/down?
If we look at what we have here on the floor, it has been consistent. Teens and early-20s, I would say, are the main part of the people who come here. We sometimes have kids who come with their parents on a day out, but also people who are far older. This one specific guy—I hope he is doing well because we haven’t seen him in a while—is very advanced in his 80s. He’s a Japanese expat currently living in Germany and he just enjoyed coming here.
So we have a variety of people, but mostly I’d say in the range of 15 to 25. People who come here tend to stay here, so there’s been a bit of a shift upwards as they grow older, but it’s still mostly teens and students.
I do think that’s fun, especially when you go to conventions. I am growing older myself, but when you go there you also see younger people who still cosplay and still have an interest in the same hobbies.
Yeah, at conventions I notice the crowd growing maybe a bit younger, but that may also be me growing older and becoming an angry old guy who doesn’t know what the kids are into these days.
I have had my shounen period of course. I started with Naruto and I liked it, but then I’ve kinda bounced off the serialized, weekly, action-packed anime. I know what series are popular and I can appreciate the quality of them. When I look at My Hero Academia I can enjoy the production values of it. You know, the scening and staging of it, the animation. I just can’t get interested in the storylines any more. But that’s not their fault. My tastes have just changed, so if kids today have different tastes than me, then that’s fine.
Getting back on the topic of the actual library, where do all these books come from? Are they donations, are they bought, are they given to you by vendors?
The core of the library came from the founders; that was the starting point. Since then, there have been a lot of donations, mostly by private individuals. We accept donations at all times. We don’t even check what they are, we just take what they offer, and we pick what we can display. Sometimes we get a copy of a series we already have ten times, you can’t judge that.
A part of our collection is sponsored by Archonia, so that’s how we tend to get the relatively-new manga. Normally those don’t get donated until they have been out for a few years. So to introduce more current manga, we work with Archonia.
So none of these manga are bought directly?
I am in charge of the collection, so once in a while—before corona I did it twice monthly—I made a selection of manga and did an order. We’d have 200 euros worth of manga every 2 months, sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less, depending on the season and what’s out. That’s how we rotate some of our collection. The collection (on display) is stable in numbers, so when new stuff comes in we tend to look at the numbers and see what doesn’t get read anymore.
Generally, older series, so then we then judge if that manga is relevant for another reason. Something iconic we would still keep on display for illustrative purposes or if someone wants a recommendation, so we can be like “Well, we have this. This is maybe a bit before your time, but it’s still very, very good.”
But if you have this many books just lying around in storage, isn’t that a bit of a shame? Do you have any plans to grow so you can display more?
We want to, of course. It’s just simply space and, unfortunately, money. We are a foundation, so we work with donations. There are a lot of gracious people who give a monthly amount of money, which keeps the light running and volunteers fed with coffee. Unfortunately, at the moment, that’s not enough to expand.
We got quite lucky here in Utrecht that we could get a good deal on this space, but real estate at the moment, this last decade actually, and especially in such a central place as Utrecht, has been unreal. We are financially comfortable so we’re not going away anytime soon, but growing, as much as we’d like, is not in the cards at the moment.
Unless of course we can set up a campaign where we get a lot of donations. We are trying to reinvigorate our campaigning to see if we can grow our bank savings and expand in the future. It’s always in the back of our minds. We now have a great Patreon PLUG PLUG, but with the housing market being what it is, that’s just way too expensive to actually realize. It’s unfortunate, but we work with what we have.
You do have a lot of extracurricular activities, I noticed. I’ve seen streams go live on your discord, I’ve seen all kinds of events on your website like board game nights. Does that help or is just fun for the existing members?
It’s a bit of both. We work with volunteers and those volunteers have passions themselves. As much as we provide a space for people who visit to express their passions, we also allow our volunteers to organize things that they are passionate about.
Everyone is into games, I myself am into computer games, but can’t find the time anymore. So every Friday night we make time and stream them, so then it’s a commitment. We don’t really care about the viewers we get or if we make any money from it. It’s just a way for us to get back into gaming and share that with whoever is interested. Since we have a platform—The MangaKissa—we can do that. Same goes for board and card games. We have a subset of volunteers who are really into Magic: The Gathering, so we can organize events for likeminded people here. And if that attracts new people, great! But that’s never the main goal, just a side-effect.
Last September we were at Camera Japan Festival in Rotterdam, which gets a totally different crowd compared to anime conventions. There we met a lot of people who are passionate about a very different aspect of Japan. They are, in general, more interested in Japanese culture than they are in anime and manga. That also leads to other creative people being there to organize workshops, for example. Through these connections, we can then set up new events here in Utrecht.
You bring in a new subset of people; they get introduced to the MangaKissa, we get introduced to a whole other world through those organizations, and then you get cross-pollination.
Speaking of income, what are your thoughts on and experiences with those who pirate their manga?
I wish I could show you a presentation we had for the museum in Leiden, but unfortunately the presentation is quite boring without the actual person speaking about it.
But anime and manga in the West, as a sub-culture, basically only exists because of piracy. It started with people with just video tape recorders in the early-90s, who would just start recording these weird series they’d encounter and share them with their university mates. Then, of course, we had UseNet where these could also be exchanged. In that sense, piracy has helped get anime and manga to where they are today. Because those geeks were technologically-inclined people and would later go on to found Crunchyroll, for example. They went on to become some of the greater players in the localization industry.
Am I against piracy? I can’t stop people from doing it. I won’t stop people from doing it. The only rule I have about it is that, if you want to pirate manga, don’t do it here in The MangaKissa. Not in the actual, physical library where we have legal alternatives readily available. That’s just a bit of bad form.
That’s the whole point: as long as legal alternatives are available, generally people are okay with that. We have seen it with streaming music, Netflix, so if anime and manga is accessible in that same way, then piracy will drop off as alternatives become more affordable.
What’s stopping that from happening?
In my opinion, Japanese companies are very protective. They tend towards the opposite of making things available, so instead of noticing “this gets pirated a lot, let’s do something with that” they prefer to send cease and desist letters.
It’s fine, but not necessarily a productive way of exploiting your IPs. Because of that, piracy keeps happening. Especially here in The Netherlands, due to how our laws around copyright are constructed and enforced. I can’t say that I am fine with it, but I understand why it happens. Just don’t do it here.
Right behind us now, we have the naughty corner with the yuri, the yaoi, and several other series that have been labeled as adult. Yet there’s currently also a lot of manga in the main library with ample fanservice & violence. Doesn’t it feel strange to have Berserk tucked away while Dance in the Vampire Bund is on the shelves?
It’s openly available, but separated. This is what we are legally required to do: by law we need to protect people under 16 from sexually-explicit imagery. But what is sexually explicit and what is just a character being naked, for whatever reason, is a grey area. It can be that there’s nakedness in our collection that isn’t necessarily determined “naughty”, but we judge that on a case-by-case basis.
It’s a best effort thing. We can’t 100% guarantee that a young person won’t see some form of nudity in a manga, but we can make it as obvious as possible that there will be nudity in some form in the media they can consume here. So yeah, Dance in the Vampire Bund is in the main section. If you can make an argument as to why it shouldn’t be there then I’ll happily port it over the naughty corner, but that’s all a case of judgment.
This is how we solved it within the limited means that we have, given that we only have so much room.
Does somebody actually come over to check if you are separating the manga properly?
No, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
Fair. Then, do you ever deal with parents who are concerned about the kind of books their kids can read in The MangaKissa?
In general, we have parents who try to understand why their kids are interested in what they can find here. There has been a general misconception that anime and manga are either very violent or sexualized. Because when anime was introduced here in The Netherlands, it was Dragon Ball Z, it was Pokémon, which could be seen as animal cruelty. And, of course, some parents have heard about hentai.
It becomes a case of engaging the parents and tell them that manga, for the Japanese, is the same as how we approach short novels. It’s a very consumable product that can have any kind of content. Violence and sex sells, so plenty of manga are about that. But manga can also be about the origin story of Buddha, it can be about the history of World War 2 pertaining to Japan, which is of course violent, but has historical value. It can be about a little girl discovering the world around her, Yotsuba. It can be about raising an autistic child, which can be a very relevant discussion to have with a parent.
As long as we can engage parents in that conversation, so long as we can contextualize what their kids are doing and why they are doing it, we notice that parents better understand why their kids are interested in manga. I have never met a parent who wasn’t okay with it in the end.*
*Side-note: the MangaKissa foundation has also published a booklet explaining the appeals, tropes, and history of anime and manga to parents.
Final question. You’re here in the heart of Utrecht nearby all manner of geek stores like Whoops and Blunder. Does it ever feel like the MangaKissa is in competition with local retailers and big webshops?
Disregarding the scale of operations, because I don’t think we have any kind of influence on the volumes a Bol.com will sell… let me reverse the question: do you think a normal library impacts the sale of books and other literature?
I don’t think so…? Normal libraries tend to serve a different audience from the kinds of people who buy their own books.
Yeah, so I ask you this question, because I discussed it before with another person. We came to the conclusion that there are different types of people who are very into reading, who approach it differently. You will have people who buy their books and who have towers upon towers of books waiting at home to be read. Then you have the people who are voracious readers, but don’t want to buy them or don’t have the space to store them. Or, option C, people who read a book and forget about it, never want to see it again. They have finished it, so why would they need to do so again?
That’s the same for anime and manga. I like to buy my manga, but I really don’t buy a lot because I have limited space. So if I want to read something we have in the collection here, then great!
It’s a matter of convenience in certain ways. If The MangaKissa is actually competing with comic book stores, we haven’t heard it yet. In fact, we have a very good relationship. Because people come here and read their manga, then ask where they could buy the manga, so we happily refer them to the stores. Same way around, a comic book store will refer them to us if they can’t provide a manga, but know that we have the manga here publicly available.
That’s it for today. I’d like to thank Erwin for making time to talk with me and answer our questions about the MangaKissa foundation. If you get an opportunity to visit this fantastic library, then I wholeheartedly recommend it. Relevant links are listed below.
MangaKissa website with directions