Porn, Piracy and Manga’s Revolutionary Summer

Posted by on August 19th, 2010 at 7:06 AM

summer of manga

In the annals of manga, the print-based comics medium that is now roughly 60 years old and a primary driver of Japan’s pop culture juggernaut, the summer of 2010 has been revolutionary, though the season launched long before last month’s brutal humidity simultaneously smothered my two hometowns, Tokyo and New York.

As reported earlier in this column, the sentencing in February of American manga collector Christopher Handley to six months in prison for possession of obscene materials (an Iowa court cited seven manga titles) sent ripples of anxiety through fans of Japanese pop culture worldwide.

Shortly thereafter, the Tokyo metropolitan government announced its proposal of legislation that would protect the welfare of children from violent or erotic depictions of what it called “nonexistent youth” (read: drawings). The proposal sought to amend child welfare protection laws already in place in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan.

Whether the events in Iowa and Tokyo were related remains debatable, but the Tokyo proposal was met by an unprecedented formal protest. A lengthy roster of otherwise reserved or even reclusive manga artists, including veterans Tetsuya Chiba, Fujiko Fujio A, Moto Hagio and Rumiko Takahashi, gathered for a press conference to deliver a petition and declare their opposition to the bill. This was followed by opposition from corporate IT heavyweights like Google, Yahoo and Rakuten, and members of the Japan P.E.N. Club, part of an international association of authors.

Manga artists protest porn law in Tokyo

With suspicions rising about the political motivations behind the proposal and its vague language and goals, its eventual rejection in June was hardly a surprise. Controversial arch-conservative Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a supporter of the bill (also a former novelist who in the past explored such taboo topics as incest and rape in his fiction and plays), wondered aloud if the term “nonexistent youth” made people think the legislation was aimed at prohibiting ghosts.

Ishihara has vowed to redraft and resubmit the law as early as next month. And while many in the manga industry publicly breathed a sigh of relief when the bill was shot down, a number of artists, editors and translators later confided to me off the record that some sort of action must be taken to curtail the burgeoning number of erotic manga, especially those featuring very young-looking characters.

Late last month, Sweden and Canada joined the chorus of moralists suddenly appalled by the libertarianism of Japan’s popular arts.  A translator in Sweden was harshly fined for possessing 51 manga drawings deemed to be child pornography in the Swedish courts, and a young manga fan in the Great White Northern district of Ottawa was sentenced to 90 days in jail with three months’ probation–and a compulsory sex-offender registration lasting 20 years–for downloading manga images on his personal computer.

As I suggest in my book, Japanamerica: the Western world may eventually frown upon Japanese creativity, in part because–broadly speaking, of course–Western culture often appears to struggle more strenuously to balance freedom with civility.

Meanwhile, and perversely, much more ominous news darkened the manga industry this past spring: Print manga sales are in a downward spiral, both in Japan and overseas.

North American sales fell by 17 percent from 2007 to 2008, then dropped a further 20 percent from 2008 to 2009, for a total loss of one-third.

Yukari Shiina of World-Manga.com, an agency that brings the work of international artists to Japanese publishers, tells me that overall manga sales in Japan dipped 6.6 percent in 2009, with manga magazine sales sinking 9.4 percent. Research suggests the proliferation of manga cafes, where readers may peruse without purchasing as many manga as they like for roughly five dollars an hour, and the dearth of hit series in recent years may be hurting Japanese sales.

In the North American market, Shiina believes the depressed economy and exaggerated expectations (i.e., oversaturation) are key factors behind collapsing sales. But she doesn’t ignore the digital elephant in the room.

Scanlations: help or hindrance?

“I’m not sure exactly how much [they are] contributing to the declines, but scanlations are a problem,” Shiina says, referring to the unauthorized posting and translation of manga titles on the Internet. “I don’t buy scanlation groups’ argument that they promote manga in general. It might be true with some obscure titles, but it can’t be with hits such as Naruto.”

Over dinner in Tokyo, a Kodansha editor suggested that the real damage posed by scanlations over the past three to four years was the direct result of manga uploads spiking in Japan. “Before, it was mostly non-Japanese kids in the US, China, Korea and Russia posting and translating manga. But the kids in Japan finally caught on, and now all kinds of manga are available for free as soon as they hit the shelves [in Japan],” he said.

A week later, the 36-member Japanese Digital Comics Association, with Japanese publishing giants Shogakukan, Shueisha and, yes, Kodansha on board, announced it would be teaming up with U.S. counterparts Viz Media, TokyoPop and Yen Press (part of the mighty Hachette Book Group) to form an international coalition seeking legal action against scanlators and aggregator sites.

“It’s definitely necessary,” says U.S. distributor TokyoPop’s CEO and founder, Stuart Levy. “Piracy plagues the industry. The industry has to offer a reasonable alternative to fans as well, but without the support of our Japanese licensors, we’re stuck. Things [in America] will collapse.”

Suddenly, news broke here in Japan that a 14-year-old boy had been arrested for allegedly posting manga on YouTube, with local police wildly estimating the damage he caused at 22 million dollars.

The message hasn’t been lost on scanlation purveyors in the United States and elsewhere. Two of the largest scanlation aggregators, MangaFox and OneManga, responded in short order, with the former pulling hundreds of manga titles from the site and the latter closing down completely at the end of last month.

Fan reaction has been immediate and varied, though rarely dispassionate. And while it remains to be seen if manga publishers can resurrect sales at home or abroad amid rapidly transforming digital media and publishing markets, it’s a safe bet that for publishers, fans and distributors, these are not merely evolutionary steps, but revolutionary salvos. In 2010, as the sun shines more fiercely into the corners and crevices of Japanese pop culture, summer keeps getting hotter.

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4 Responses to “Porn, Piracy and Manga’s Revolutionary Summer”

  1. «In the North American market, Shiina believes the depressed economy and exaggerated expectations (i.e., oversaturation) are key factors behind collapsing sales. But she doesn’t ignore the digital elephant in the room.»

    Just to add another take on this topic to the debate, I’d like to point to my analysis following the call to arms of Japanese and US publishers targeting the major aggregators. I have the impression that a lot of commentators on this issue have a lot of difficulty going beyond “it’s illegal” in trying to understand how scans in general could be dealt with in a way that would benefit everyone.

  2. Chris Reilly says:

    Has anyone seen these weird videos? This one “???????????????? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fh7iRUJf2bE which when translated reads “Osouji the room of your sexy quiet.”
    I guess a lot of people want manga porn given its 3,200,000 hits.

  3. Chris Reilly says:

    I guess word press turns Japanese into question marks. I hate word press.

  4. […] Over at The Comics Journal, Roland Kelts reflects on recent developments in the war on digital piracy. [The Comics Journal] […]