This is a sentiment that I’ve been seeing a lot over the past few months, that Shonen Jump, the king of the Japanese shonen magazine pile, is dying. Ok, maybe not dying, but on the way. If not now, then in the next few years the magazine is going to be in a dark place unless it can pull another big hit out, something to run for a decade and then end, assured of its place in the sun as one of the classics. Declining sales, changing tastes, and shorter series runs seem poised to kill off Shonen Jump sometime in the future, but the success the magazine is having right now is unquestionable. So is it dying?
Well, really, the answer is both a no and a yes. Article over. Go read something else.
Except I wouldn’t have an article without the long answer:
So Shonen Jump is one of Japan’s premiere Shonen manga magazines. It’s run some of the most popular manga of all time, such as Dragon Ball, Fist Of The North Star, Kinnikuman, Slam Dunk, Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, Yu Yu Hakusho, Saint Seiya, and you can get mad at me for skipping one of your favs since I am not going to list out its whole catalogue. It’s the best selling comic magazine of all time, having moved 7.6 billion issues from its start in 1968. It’s run by massive book publisher Shueisha, that same publisher that has seen manga volume sales going very steady and plenty of new smash hits such as Demon Slayer over the past few years. Yeah, no, Shonen Jump isn’t dying, and so it doesn’t matter.
If it weren’t for one big thing. Shonen Jump, as a manga anthology, has always lived and died on the quality of the manga that it is, uh, anthologizing. Usually, it’s a somewhat even mix of long running, popular, well regarded series and newer series that haven’t yet found their footing or audiences. But over the last few years, we’ve seen many more long running series end in Shonen Jump, leaving more and more of the magazine to new things. Looking at the numbers: Out of all 20 series that regularly run in jump (and so excluding Hunter X Hunter and Burn The Witch, which are both on hiatus), 16 have started in 2018 or later, meaning around 80% of the regular magazine is less than 3 years old. Of those 16 recent series, 13 started in either 2020 or 2021, adding up to 65% of the magazine. To add onto that, many of Jump’s newer hits, like the immensely popular Demon Slayer, Promised Neverland, or Chainsaw Man have either already ended or have moved to other magazines (more on that last one in a bit). So Jump has a ton of new series which have yet to find their audience, while already many of its new hits have ended. Looking at it in the long term, there has also been a trend of declining circulation ever since the 90’s, when Jump had its peak circulation in 1995 with 6.53 million copies a week. Since that peak, it has fallen, first to 4 million by the late 90s, 3 million by the mid 2000’s, and now 1.5 million as of 2020. It leaves Jump in an awkward position, where if this trend continues, the worst case scenario is a magazine anchored by only one or two old series, while you have a revolving wheel of new ones that struggle to find their footing under a declining readership. Even with manga volume sales going steady, unless something changes significantly soon, it seems the doomsayers could be right.
This does leave a bit of a puzzle – if manga volume sales have been going good, and even seeing plenty of smash hits like Promised Neverland, Chainsaw Man, and Demon Slayer, why is it that the Shonen Jump magazine itself is on the outs? Well for one, It isn’t just Shonen Jump, but every manga magazine has seen a decline in readership since the 90’s. As you can see in the chart above, Shonen Jump, having been the number one magazine during that time due to hit series such as Dragon Ball and Slam Dunk (among others), saw the steepest declines, but all magazines have seen circulation declines.
What happened? To put it simply, it’s print media. Nothing specific to Comic magazines specifically, but this happened:
Magazines such as Shonen Jump are, as print media, always linked pretty heavily to newspapers and the rest of print media. They are sold in the same places, often to the same people, and so the decline of newspapers since the 1990’s with the rise of 24-hour broadcast news and then the rise of the internet has led to a decline in readership for magazines as well. I mean, when’s the last time you went to a newsstand? Beyond that, when people do buy print magazines, they are more specific now – hobby magazines have been going stronger than your generalized big national magazines because they are tailored to more reliable, specific, audiences (we see this online too – if you are a movie buff, for example, you probably read one of the billion movie websites, not the movie column of The Times or The Tribune). This fragmentation of audiences can be seen as acting as a counterweight for comic magazines against the decline of print media, but ultimately a decline in the industry hits them too. Old school print media is on the decline, and so to stay ahead magazines have to adapt or die.
And for the most part, Jump has adapted incredibly well. Rather than looking towards the past and trying out things that would pump a declining fanbase of collectors for more money, Shueisha has focused on promoting their online services, such as Jump Plus, which is a kind of free online magazine that Shueisha runs. It’s already had a few big hits on it’s own, such as Spy X Family, and it seems that they are intent on promoting it even further, as the second part of Chainsaw Man is going to be running in the magazine instead of in the regular Jump (see, I said I would get back to that). And it’s a strategy that works, distributing comics digitally and in bookstores. Spy X Family sells ridiculously well, while here in the west, the extremely cheap Shonen Jump Vault that Viz runs has probably really helped manga continue to dominate in comic sales here in America, with a an almost 44% increase in sales last year. Shockingly, when people can try things for free, they end up buying a lot of those same things too. Shonen Jump, the physical magazine, might be dying, but it doesn’t matter because Shonen Jump, all the series it runs, will continue. It might be different, but this won’t be the first – or last – time that things have changed for comics. Embrace the future.
Besides, the real scary thing is the possibility of all those smaller magazines going away, not the big Shonen ones. Jump might have given us plenty of classics, but those small magazines are just as important and influential.