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Japanamerica: Create & Play, Anime Avatars in the USA

By Roland Kelts.

tinierme

A few months ago in New York, I got wind of an enterprising new virtual reality game called TinierMe. The principal developer, the Japanese gaming company GCrest, a division of CyberAgent Inc., opened an office in San Francisco earlier this year for the U.S. launch of its virtual reality portal featuring anime-style visuals.

Imagine Second Life with avatars that look like anime characters, giving American and other English-speaking fans a chance to cosplay, to create their own anime-inspired avatars anytime they want, rather than waiting for the next area anime convention.

Amid the dissonance of declining anime DVD and manga book sales abroad and at home and the escalating numbers of overseas fans attending conventions and expos, entrepreneurs are beginning to see an opportunity: reach the fans via new networks of accessibility, and you might just survive.

“We see tremendous opportunity for growth,” says Masaru Ohnogi, who heads GCrest America in San Francisco and is overseeing the launch of TinierMe. We met in the parent company’s Shibuya headquarters during his brief Tokyo business trek last month. “Our goal is to become a virtual Disneyland,” he says. “We want to entertain people all over the world, with music, games, anime…everything.”

“Most people have compared us to Gaia online, which is an American version of anime characters,” Ohnogi adds, citing the California-based enterprise. “But that look remains foreign to us. It doesn’t really look like anime, Japanese-style. So we’re taking a uniquely Japanese approach.”

Ohnogi’s enthusiasm and knowledge are exceptional: few Japanese content companies seem to possess the confidence and ambition necessary for reaching out to overseas fans – or to even bother finding out who they are – at a time when most industry insiders use the word “crisis” to define their dire straits.

“Over 70 percent of social networkers are under 20 years old,” Ohnogi says, pointing to a page of colorful statistics and graphs on his netbook. “Around 63 percent of them are female. You have to know your audience in order to reach them.”

Ohnogi concedes that most Japanese companies are vacating their U.S. offices in 2010, cutting back on expenses, turning inward just as their Asian competitors may be usurping them. Anime producers are hemorrhaging money, and manga publishers are trying to stamp out Internet piracy in an effort to stanch the losses.

But Ohnogi proffers an alternative approach: instead of attacking overseas fans for their seemingly limitless and illegal access to anime visuals, why not join them? “The whole country of America is a venture company,” he says, smiling and spreading his arms expansively, “always needing money, desperate, but willing to grow. I have that spirit.”

Viz Media, Funimation and others are working the Internet to offer value-added sites that can beat the piracy that has hobbled the Japanese industry. Providing participatory experiences is just the first step. Entrepreneurs like Ohnogi understand the new need to involve fans in a process of active engagement, wherever they’re physically located.

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For TokyoPop, the LA-based manga and anime distributor and brainchild of American entrepreneur Stuart Levy, physical location does matter, at least for the next two months. Levy and his staffers embarked last weekend on the TokyoPop Tour, crisscrossing the United States by bus and hitting 28 cities in 54 days to get facetime with fans.

“With social media facilitating the necessary communications to make a tour like this successful,” Levy said from his launchpad in L.A., “I decided we should take the plunge this year and make it happen. The goals are simple: to reach out to fans nationwide to meet them and see how ‘otaku culture’ in America has evolved.”

The move is rich with irony: a heavily internet-invested producer and retailer using online social networking to turn back into old-fashioned traveling salespeople.

But Japan needs more mojo to sell its stuff these days. “We take down the site for maintenance twice a week,” Ohnogi notes, “because part of what we’re selling is Japanese-style quality. I believe that can sell to American fans, who trust the quality of the Japanese product. We give them both free access and paid options. Lots of choices. You really need to understand both cultures to make it work.”

Making it work is no easy proposition – but grasping the character and demands of your audience at least gives you a shot at capitalizing on them.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland Kelts is a Temple University, Japan Campus, lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.. This article is hosted by 3:AM and Daily Yomiuri.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 10th, 2010.