After years of speculation about its plans, Kodansha, the largest publisher in Japan and a prolific manga licensor to U.S. publishers, is establishing an office in New York City to publish and sell manga directly in the U.S. market beginning this month. The new line of manga will be called Kodansha Comics, which will be published under Kodansha USA Publishing and distributed by Random House.

Kodansha USA Publishing is headed by Yoshio Irie, v-p and board member at Kodansha, and general manager Tomoko Suga, a familiar figure in the U.S. manga market and U.S. comics conventions through Kodansha’s relationship with Random House. Kodansha Comics will launch with two classic manga titles, the postapocalyptic sci-fi epic Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo and the metaphysical sci-fi police thriller Ghost in the Shell by Shirow Masamune. The two series have been published in the U.S. by Dark Horse Books, and both offer an extended array of multimedia franchises that include animated films, video games, prose novels, merchandising and more.

Irie said Kodansha Comics will begin gradually and announce more titles for its list later in the year. While the new line will focus on translating Kodansha’s prodigious backlist of bestselling titles into English, he did not rule out original publishing. “It is one of our eventual ambitions,” said Irie.

Kodansha is one of the most important licensors of manga in the American market and under a 2003 copublishing agreement with Random House, Del Rey Manga, Random House’s five-year-old manga publishing unit, is one of Kodansha’s biggest licensing partners in the U.S. In recent years speculation over its plans have grown as Kodansha allowed many of its American licenses to expire. Indeed, in recent weeks Kodansha announced that it would not renew any of its licenses to Tokyopop—among them such hit series as Love Hina, Chobits, Rave Master, Beck, Initial D and Sailor Moon.

Nevertheless, Irie said that Kodansha will continue to license some of its titles in the U.S. “Kodansha Comics doesn’t aim to be the exclusive label for titles from Kodansha,” he said. Although Irie acknowledged the challenges Kodansha Comics faces launching in a distressed U.S. economy and into a manga market that has reached a plateau in recent years, Irie was optimistic about Kodansha Comics’ future. “We’re confident in the long term there’s room for more growth,” he said.

See PW Comics Week (Oct. 6) for a full transcript of PW’s interview with Irie.