:: Article

Japanamerica: Rebellion & dissent

By Roland Kelts.


Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara‘s successful passage last month of legislation targeting manga, anime and video games for vaguely defined “morally offensive” imagery has been recorded in this column, as has the strikingly vehement opposition to the bill on behalf of artists, publishers, producers, translators and fans, many of whom question Ishihara’s motives. Rebellion and dissent are not usually associated with conflict-averse Japan, where wa, or group harmony, is king. But the stakes in the battle of the anime industry versus the Tokyo metropolitan government over Bill 156 have risen conspicuously over the past few weeks, and cooler heads are hard to find.

The bill does nothing to address the production or possession of live-action depictions of rape or child pornography. After failing to pass it last summer, Ishihara and his ilk rushed the vote in December without once asking industry leaders or artists to discuss or compromise on the issue.

Still, in the wake of Bill 156’s passage, the decision by 10 of the nation’s top manga publishers to boycott this year’s Tokyo International Anime Fair (TAF) came as something of a surprise. TAF’s executive committee is chaired by Ishihara, making the decision and its message understandable. But TAF is the single major showcase of new titles and licensing deals for an industry already struggling with declining revenues at home and abroad. Or at least, it was.

Last month, media companies Kadokawa Group Publishing and Animate jointly announced they were taking their toys away and hosting their own anime fair.

The Anime Contents Expo (ACE), as it was swiftly branded, will take place simultaneously with TAF, on March 26 and 27, but at the Makuhari Messe International Convention Complex in Chiba. This venue is actually closer to Narita Airport than the TAF location at Tokyo Big Sight in Koto Ward, and thus is more easily accessible to international licensors, media and fans.

Other participating companies in ACE 2011 include Aniplex, Geneon Universal Entertainment Japan, Marvelous Entertainment and Media Factory – owners of such mega-successful global properties as Naruto, Pokemon, Neon Genesis Evangelion and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

Their absence from TAF this year has already prompted fans via blogs, Twitter and SNS feeds to rally around ACE and vow to skip Ishihara’s TAF entirely, to which the governor has reportedly replied with a shrug: Big deal.

Assuming all of this comes to pass, it’s hard not to imagine the ordinarily noisy and colorful aisles of this year’s TAF more closely resembling those of a looted department store, barren and eerily silent.


Meanwhile, fan artists and collectors in Japan piled on in their own fashion. December’s biannual Comiket dojinshi fan art convention saw the release of a bilingual (English and Japanese) publication cheekily titled An Idiot’s Guide to Tokyo’s Harmful Books Regulation, created and compiled by manga author Takeshi Nogami, anime producer Takaaki Suzuki and veteran translator and writer Dan Kanemitsu.

Already into its second printing, An Idiot’s Guide is a lighthearted parody in the vein of Koji Aihara and Kentaro Takekuma‘s Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga that seeks to explain in genre-oriented manga format the meanings and motivations behind Bill 156 – and what fans can do to oppose it.

Other Japanese fan artists distributed similar titles at Comiket mocking Ishihara, the bill, or both, and angry reactions on the otaku-heavy Internet bulletin board 2channel have been vitriolic. All of this is occurring at a time of ongoing crisis in the anime and manga industries, whose sales are declining at home and overseas, and whose products are being digitally pirated at a dizzying rate.

Earlier this month, a major Japanese newspaper ran an article about anime creator Yutaka Yamamoto, the force behind hits including Haruhi Suzumiya and Lucky Star. Yamamoto bemoans what he calls the “inward-looking” insularity of the anime industry, its reliance on cheap labor, outsourcing and a glut of similar series often in the moe (hyper-cute character) category aimed at hardcore otaku, and its failure to provide interactive human exchanges between and among creators and fans. Even in Japan, Yamamoto notes, “the bubble has burst” for the industry.

The 2011 anime convention and expo season is beginning to heat up here in the United States, where attendance records for such events are broken annually. Live-action film projects like Naruto and Akira have been joined by a recently announced reality TV series based on Pac-Man (don’t ask). Even the Japanese live-action movie Gantz, based on a popular manga and anime series, received its world premiere in the United States this week.

Meanwhile back in Japan, it may be now-or-never for Japan’s pop culture creators to rehabilitate their industries and reach out to their audiences – even if they have to do so in Chiba.


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: Monday, January 24th, 2011.