Interview with Seo sensei

Kaori Harakawa

About Hiroshi Seo

Hiroshi Seo is an illustrator who is active in various fields, including manga production and web direction. Based on the wealth of experience and skills he has cultivated over the years, he continues producing works with unique creativity. In this interview, we will delve into how he began his career as an illustrator, what he values in his work and the appeal of the artwork he produces.
Interviewer Kaori Harakawa:
Thank you for your time today! After working in a web-related job, you set your sights on becoming a serialized manga artist and won a serialization, and later taught manga and illustrations at various places. Today, we would like to take a deep dive into sensei’s childhood, how he honed his skills and how he got his job, and so on! Thank you in advance!

First of all, may we go back in time and ask about your childhood? At what point did you decide to become a manga artist?

My family was a single-parent family, and my mother was a hairdresser, so I spent most of my time alone at home when I was a child. I was the kind of boy who just stayed at home reading manga. So I was an indoor person, kind of like a “natural born hermit”. Whenever I read manga at home, I would draw by myself.
By the time I was in elementary school, I had a serialized manga in my “Japonica Gakushu-Cho”* that I would show to my friends. I still remember titles like “Oh Masked War!” which, (although I was an elementary school student) sounded like something that a Chuunibyou** would name. I also had one called “Hiroshi Holmes”. *** In “Hiroshi Holmes”, the characters wore berets and flew with their capes. It was probably a rip off of “Perman”. ****

*Japonica Gakushu-Cho: A standard notebook used in Japanese elementary schools
**Chuunibyou: A Japanese slang term which translates to “middle school syndrome”. It’s used to describe a delusional behavior (for example, convincing themselves for having super powers when it’s not true).
***「Hiroshi」is Seo sensei’s first name
****Perman: A manga by Fujiko F. Fujio about a child transforming into a hero

Are there any works that you liked at the time?

When I was in elementary school, it was the golden age* of “Shonen Jump”. I loved, “Kinnikuman”, “Fist of the North Star”, and “Fuma no Kojiro” at that time. I believe the manga I was drawing were influenced by these works. Since then, I have wanted to be a manga artist. I can’t exactly remember “when” I wanted to be a manga artist, but ever since I was a child, I always wanted to become one. Whenever I get asked about my dream job, apparently I answered something along the lines of, “I want to be a manga artist!”

*A period from the 1980s to the 1990s when a lot of popular mangas were published and number of publications also grew dramatically.

Did you prefer manga more than anime?

I was watching anime as well! But when I was a kid, anime wasn’t as accessible as it is today, and we didn’t even have VCRs back then. Shows like “Gundam” and “Urusei Yatsura” were airing around that time. I didn’t own a VCR so I had to watch it in real time. Whenever I felt the need to preserve something, I would record the audio using a tape recorder. CDs came out around the time when I was in middle school so we were still using tape recorders back in elementary school. For shows like “Doraemon” and “Urusei Yatsura”, I would sit in front of the TV eagerly waiting for it to start. The first “Doraemon” movie came out when I was around second or third grade in elementary school and I recall being deeply touched by it when I saw it. I remember talking to myself and repeating the story so that I wouldn’t forget it. It was called “Doraemon: Nobita’s Dinosaur”.

Did you draw manga during middle school and high school as well?

I used to draw in middle school all the time and in high school, there was a manga club. There weren’t any manga related clubs when I was in middle school, but when I found out that there was one in high school, I joined. When I joined in, it was like a modern harem thing where all the members were girls except me! I was the president of the club. What’s more interesting is that the girls in the manga club were the officers of the student council, so I felt like the club was ran by them. So in a way, I felt like I was standing at the top of the student council (laughs).

That experience you had at that time lives on in sensei’s “Ubunchu!”* right?

Yes, I think there might be! But to tell the truth, being a club president was like a puppet. For example when we would get a budget, I would submit an application to the student council. But instead, they would tell me stuff like “use this method for the budget request” or to “be sure to address this at the budget committee” and so I was just doing what I was told (laughs). There were a lot of bold girls there.
*A school slapstick comedy of a “system-admin club” at a prefectural high school. It’s based on “Ubuntu”, one of the Linux distributors. You can read it here.

After that, you enrolled in university. Did you study IT there?

I enrolled in Waseda’s first facility of Humanities and Social Sciences. I majored in Humanities which was an unusual specialization. But since I was in the Humanities and Social Sciences department, I could take units in chemistry, physics or mathematics. It was like a mixture of things, but in a good way. But in reality, I was solely doing judo as part of my club activities during my college years. My graduation thesis was on a philosophical interpretation of medieval history, which had nothing to do with IT or anything like that.
My first encounter with IT was actually around middle school, and it was through a manga. It was when I came across a manga called, “Hello, Microcomputer” by Mitsuru Sugaya. The story is about a character from Sugaya sensei other manga called, “Game Center Arashi”, programming microcomputers. It’s a well-known masterpiece amongst the programming community. Many people have actually got into IT because of this manga. I, too, got a computer in middle school and started programming. From there, I have been programming and playing video games on my computer ever since.

You didn’t really get into IT until after you graduated from university. After that, you were able to have your manga serialized as well. Please tell us how that came about!

Originally I had always wanted to become a manga artist so I had been drawing for a long time. But when I graduated from university, it was around the “Employment Ice Age” period.* Despite it, I told myself that I was “going to be a manga artist!” and yet I didn’t look for a job at all. I was a rather crazy person if you look at it from another person’s perspective. In the end, I graduated university without finding a job.

*Employment Ice Age: A period in Japan when people had a difficult time finding a job after the bubble economy burst.

I thought about trying for a part-time job so I joined a subsidiary of Recruit*, which was really interesting because it was when the Web was being created and was basically the start of everything. I completely forgot about manga and continued to work at a web shop until my late twenties. That’s when until one day, it occurred to me. I thought, “Hey, didn’t I want to be a manga artist?” (laughs). So I made up my mind and said, “I’m going to do it! I’m going to become a manga artist!” I declared that to those around me, and quit my job. For the next two years I just kept submitting my work to manga awards. Luckily, during those two years, I received an honorable mention and a runner-up award. There was one manga that I drew in mind with the intention of winning the grand prize. When I showed it to my editor, he said, “Let’s make this a serialization!” and all of a sudden, it became serialized. That was “Akibashou! (Akihabara Police-Station!).” I had no intention of making it into a serialization, but it suddenly became one so it was unexpected.

* Recruit Co., Ltd: a human resources company headquartered in Japan.

Two years of submitting manga! Wasn’t it difficult to stay motivated?

Of course unlike before, I didn’t feel like I was drawing for fun. Since I decided to quit my job and “become a manga artist!”, it wouldn’t sit right with me if I don’t actually become one. I felt like I had my back against the wall. It was a feeling where “if I didn’t win an award right away, I would die!” I’ve had this irritating, tense feeling for a while and I felt like I was going crazy. I even thought to myself that if I won an award within the next two years, I would stop drawing manga. But it got serialized so I was like, “we’re still doing it!?’ (laughs). It was pretty stressful. Just when I was already done thinking about manga, the serialization began. It was like a soccer game where you thought it was overtime, a new game starts. I felt that I had no HPs or MPs left.

Eventually I worked on “Akibashou!” for about 3 years. I thought that this was the perfect opportunity to quit my manga career just when Sato-san, a famous editor at Weekly ASCII (which at the time was before ASCII Media Works merged with Kadokawa) read my manga. He was going to publish a magazine about Ubuntu (an open source operation system) and I was asked if I can draw a one-shot there. That was “Ubunchu!” When I first heard about the magazine I thought, “I can understand if it was about Linux, but a magazine only about Ubuntu, like for real?!” But to my surprise, the magazine was well received which ran for a long time and the manga was serialized along with it.

That’s definitely a manga that can only be drawn by someone who used to run a web shop!

It was a time when the Internet was becoming popular, and even if you got your own line, you could only get speeds around 3MBPS or so. It was popular to build your own server amongst the IT community, so I’d set up my own server as well. I think that experience is what made it useful for “Ubunchu!”

Did you ever get together with other artists?

Actually, I had friends who wrote novels but even after I became a professional manga artist, I didn’t have many friends who drew manga. Unlike back in the day, it seems easier to connect with people now because of the internet and social media. You can say something like, “Hey, we’re serializing in the same publisher/company.” Back when I was drawing my commercial manga, social media wasn’t as popular as it was, so the chances to meet other manga artists were only occasional launch parties. It would be nice if there was something like the Tokiwa-so.* Since I live nearby, I can ask Osama Tezuka to look at the manuscripts that I drew. It would be so nice! I wouldn’t be able to do this if I live at home in my room.

*Tokiwa-so: An apartment where famous manga artists such as Osamu Tezuka, Fujio Fujiko and Shoutaro Ishimori lived when they were young. The exchange between talented manga artists had a positive influence on the creation of many masterpieces.
There’s a non-profit organization called the “Tokiwa-so Project” that lets you rent several apartments and tries to build a community and I think it sounds interesting. If I was in my teens or twenties, I definitely wanted to join! I wouldn’t do it now because I have a family.
I used to do doujin circles. I had a group of friends who wrote novels and friends who were aspiring manga artists that I met at a drawing club, and we would each create our own works, and put them together as a zine. We also published it at Comiket! One of the teachers at the drawing club was teaching at another school and asked me if I wanted to teach there. From there on, I also started working as an instructor. So many activities have led me to where I am today. One of the schools called “Otona no Bijutsutsushitsu”, was independently established by teachers who used to teach at active or previous manga vocational schools. My experience there led me to opportunities to teach at other vocational and cram schools. I ended up teaching at Sozoroo as well.
I also work in IT, creating websites and managing them for several companies. When people ask me, “What’s your main job?” I don’t even know how to answer that myself (laughs). But to make a living as a freelancer, I thought about choosing manga, web production and the English language as the three pillars of my work. That way, I could never starve myself (laughs).

That’s a very new or rather unique life strategy. Do you have any kind of tips on how to get your dream career?

I think it’s similar to Steve Jobs’ “Connecting the Dots” speech. What we have experienced by chance has led us to where we are today. Of course there’s an element of luck involved, but there are also things that I’ve consciously made connections with. And through a combination of things that I like to do and things that happened by chance, a network get created. I’ve been approached by people through those networks and have been having a lot of fun so far.

In Japan there’s an old folktale called, “Warashibe Choja” (Straw Millionare) and it’s exactly like that speech. If you’ve been fighting with the weapons you have at hand, every time you cross the rough sea, connections and opportunities for work will gradually expand before you know it. What kind of people you’ll meet depends on luck, but I think it’s a good idea to take advantage of that. I believe people who’ve achieved great success in the world have seized their opportunity for luck as well. I might not have achieved such great success, but I have been able to do so in my own way, so I think I can be confident in “leaving things to luck”.

The number of Japanese manga and anime fans have been growing worldwide, partly due to lockdown and stay-at-home orders during the COVID pandemic. What do you think will happen to this trend in the future?

This may already be the case, but I think anime/manga will become a “world culture” rather than just “Japanese manga and anime”. When I was little, things like anime/manga were only drawn in Japan. In the last 20 years however, countries like Korea and China had stopped creating “exact copies” from Japan and started emerging their own unique expressions. This is the next step, isn’t it? Places like France and Europe had comics called Bande dessinee for quite some time, but recently there has been an increasing number of people who draw in the Japanese manga style. There’s even a French manga that features a high school girl in a sailor outfit. What had previously been a context understood only in Japan is now understood in many parts of the world and has become a daily routine within manga. In the U.S., Marvel and PC Comics holds the center of traditional American comics but, Japanese manga is also selling well to the point where they are surpassing American comics. During this trend, more and more people are drawing Japanese manga style. So I get the impression that a lot of people yearn for Japanese manga style tutorials like Sozoroo. Japanese-style manga characters also appear in American comics. For example, “Big Hero 6” is an American comic but I feel like they were influenced by Japanese manga style.

I think the influence of Netflix doing a worldwide release of various animes is also significant. Japanese anime can now be seen in real time and the number of otakus are increasing as well. I often talk with Filipino teachers when I study English, and many of them love Japanese manga. Until now, the shows they were watching were what was airing on TV at the time. But now with Netflix, they can go back and choose whatever shows they like and watch it. Due to the global crisis in COVID, I don’t think it’s surprising that the number of people watching anime is increasing at a fast rate. I believe the number of people who want to draw is also increasing at the same rate.

What do you want to do in the future in response to the changes in the world as described above?

The primary mission of my company “Kakuusen” is to provide and share it in English. To make that happen, we’re working on our overseas expansion this year as our first priority. In fact, “Ubunchu!” was actually translated into various languages at the time of its serialization. Since Ubuntu is an open source software, I thought the Ubuntu manga should be open source as well. With Kadokawa’s approval, we published it under the “Creative Commons License”, which is one of the several public licenses. We released the files with layers (so that it can be edited) and also made it downloadable from the website so that anyone can translate it. It caught the attention of the overseas open source community and was translated in English, Spanish (in multiple dialects), and Chinese (simplified and traditional). Manga culture has attracted fans around the world and I thought it was very interesting how the world can be connected from, Japan to the world through manga. When we incorporated “Kakuusen” which was an active circle club, we’ve set this mission of “connecting Japan and the world through manga”. We’re currently preparing a lot of things, so we hope we can announce it sometime around this year! Stay tuned!

Please give us a message to those who are trying to learn Japanese manga and anime from overseas!

I look forward to the next steps that will be taken by those of you who are currently studying manga and anime. I hope that they’ll immerse themselves with Japanese manga/anime and add their own unique cultural interpretations to it. I would love to read them! As I mentioned earlier, I think that manga is a condensation of Japanese culture and by having those who were born and raised outside of Japan add their own colors to it, I believe that the Japanese readers can learn about foreign cultures. That sounds like a lot of fun!
On the other hand, I hope that Japanese manga artists and aspiring manga artists will read a lot more manga from other countries and keep publishing their own works overseas. I believe services that translate manga into multiple languages will be more common in the future, so I think it would be a good idea to quickly release it in overseas first, instead of it in Japanese.
As manga culture is influencing each other, number of works are increasing. And for the first time, I believe manga will convert completely into a global culture.

Thank you very much! We’re looking forward to sensei’s future overseas project!

Seo sensei's courses