:: Article

Japanamerica: Blind at home, beloved overseas

By Roland Kelts.


By now it’s no secret to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection: The gap between the popularity of contemporary Japanese culture overseas and its anemic industries at home has become a chasm.

Anime conventions in the United States continue to proliferate, not only in cosmopolitan coastal cities like New York, Boston and Los Angeles, but also in more rural areas in Ohio and Tennessee. Annual attendance at these conventions is record-breaking. Sakura-Con in Seattle in late April, the convention I most recently attended as a guest, tallied 19,040 individual attendees this year. Elmira Utz of the Asia-Northwest Cultural Education Association, a host of Sakura-Con, notes that their celebration of Japanese pop culture fed roughly 50 million dollars into Seattle’s economy from 2006 to 2010. Not sneeze-worthy numbers in post-Lehman shock economies.

Yet here in Japan, the news on the ground continues to be bleak. Anime studios underpay their younger staffers, who often quit as a result, and aging producers are desperately seeking solutions amid a diminishing youth market. Manga publishers, like all publishers, are watching print sales tank amid digital piracy.

Kodansha International, the 48-year-old English-language imprint of Japanese publishing giant Kodansha Ltd., closed in April – a move that was apparently unexpected by the imprint’s authors and, by some accounts, its own staff and editors. Kodansha International translated and published numerous works of Japanese literature and nonfiction, including elaborately illustrated guides to Japanese robots, baths and sake. It was also a crucial purveyor of books delineating Japanese popular culture to non-Japanese fans, scholars and general readers.

The pressure on U.S. distributors of manga, anime and other J-pop products has proved unbearable in recent cases. TokyoPop, a trailblazing distributor and publishers of manga and anime in the United States, responsible for global versions of the Sailor Moon series, closed its manga publishing division for good three months ago.

“I’m laying down my guns,” wrote founder Stu Levy, who built his company from scratch in 1997. “Some of it worked. Some of it didn’t.”

Levy is a friend of mine. His passion for manga and anime is palpable. If he’s quitting the biz, it’s a good bet that the biz is battered.

I returned to Tokyo last month and had dinner with friends, one of whom is a marketing manager at U.S.-based Viz Media, established by several Japanese publishers as a shared overseas branch in 1986. He was energetic but pessimistic. Even in dire circumstances after the March 11 disaster, anime studios and manga publishers remain clueless about their overseas opportunities.

What gives?

My friend Helen McCarthy, author of The Anime Encyclopedia, noted in a blog entry a few years ago that fans of artist Osamu Tezuka, the “god” of manga and anime, expected to pay for spin-off merchandise, but only after they paid for the original artwork.

Today, that model has been turned upside down: Fans will still pay for the merchandise, but no longer for the original art that spawns it.


This summer, for the second year in a row, I am conducting an anime seminar at Temple University Japan in Tokyo. We will visit and tour the Ghibli Museum in western Tokyo with a Ghibli staffer, we will have several guest speakers, and we will visit and tour Studio Pierrot, the anime veterans who produce Bleach and Naruto, among other global brand series.

My students, American and Japanese, are of the Pokemon, Dragonball Z and Totoro generation. They are engaged and committed, and they believe that Japan’s pop culture juggernaut offers rich opportunities to understand intertwined American and Japanese cultural matrices while being entertained and informed.

I agree. This month sees the largest celebrations of Japanese pop culture in the United States – Anime Expo in Los Angeles (120,000 estimated attendees) and the Comic-Con International in San Diego (130,000). Shortly thereafter is Otakon in Baltimore (70,000+), the largest East Coast celebration of Japanese pop culture.

In addition to my Temple lectures, I will give a speech at Meiji University for their newly minted Cool Japan program in late July and fly to Baltimore to speak at Otakon. The question is: Will anyone in Japan’s pop industries be listening?


Roland Kelts is a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S..

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 9th, 2011.