The Great Shift in Japanese Pop Culture - Part Two

Last time we looked at the decline in Japanese wages, increased demand for inferior goods, and decreased demand for luxury brands. This time we look at the effects of lower incomes on markets for explicitly cultural goods.

Part Two: The Implosion of Cultural Markets

Within Japan almost every single market for cultural goods has seen prolonged decreases in sales since the late 1990s or has headed into troubled waters.

  • Music: The music market exploded in the 1990s thanks to karaoke, mini-CDs, TV tie-ups, and female-oriented J-Pop but that growth has been completely wiped out and now sales returning to late 1980s levels, even with increased digital downloads.
  • Publishing: Revenues in the book and publishing industry decline yearly, and the manga and anime industries are in crisis. Manga magazine sales are collapsing, and even relatively stable single-title comic collections have started to drop. Consumer magazines are going under faster than new titles can be created; just in recent years, we’ve said goodbye to Esquire, Pinky, Studio Voice, and PS. Discount chain Book Off is increasingly unable to sell its cheap used books, CDs, and games. And of course, the Internet has also ravaged porn magazine sales, which kept many publishers in Japan able to support its other non-porn magazines.
  • TV: TV viewership is down — with the main broadcast channels routinely getting less than 10% shares weekday prime time — despite no serious competition from cable or satellite TV. 13.5% of young men say they watch no TV. TV sales were down 73% in October 2011, and 75% of 3D TV owners were “disatified” with the technology.
  • Clothing: Clothing sales have declined 30% since their peak in 1991, with the men’s suit market essentially halving in size since 1997. Sales are also shifting away from premium goods and onto fast fashion and low priced brands like Forever 21, Uniqlo, and Shimamura. Meanwhile “select shops” — once the main site of sales for small boutique import brands — have shifted their inventory to their own cheaper Chinese-made lines.
  • Gaming: Games sales did very well over the last decade, but the once-dominant Japanese game industry has been faltering on the global stage, and even stalwart Nintendo — who hugely expanded the audience for gaming through the Wii and DS — is beginning to see major declines. Sony now makes most of its income from its insurance business rather than its consumer electronics or gaming. Meanwhile working class hobby pachinko is also bleeding money.
  • Cars: Although automobiles are not strictly cultural goods, there has been a great decline in Japanese auto sales and part of that stems from young consumers no longer buying cars as part of a “driving” hobby.

One exception is films: 2010 was a banner year for motion pictures at ¥220 billion in ticket sales. The film market, however, is increasingly aggregating around mega-hits rather than supporting a wide diversity of titles. Some key art-house theaters, like Ebisu Garden Cinema, closed after 17 years.

Why the decline?

There are a variety of factors to blame for the declines in these markets. As suggested in Part One, lower salaries have decreased consumers’ discretionary income with which they buy cultural goods. Young workers in particular are having trouble finding work, and when they do, have very low salaries and no clear track for salary increases. Uncertainty about future earnings also means a higher saving rate, which further decreases discretionary spending in the present. Among the marketing community, Japanese millennials are known as the “generation who doesn’t consume.”

Demographics have also played a big part in hurting the cultural industries: An anemic birthrate has evaporated the youth consumer base. In 1964 — at the height of the “baby boom” — 18.6% of the top population was between 15 and 23 (18.03 million). During the Bubble Era, the Dankai Jr. generation made up a relatively high 14.1% of the population (17.47 million). Although statistics are not immediately available for the last nine years, we can assume that the number of youth is already lower than the meager 11.1% of 2000 (14.13 million) — which was already the lowest recorded since 1920. (Statistics from here.) This means that 3-4 million consumers have disappeared from the zone that in the past has been responsible for most cultural expenditure. Smart companies are thus shifting their product lines to appeal to the larger demographic swaths of older, richer consumers.

Moreover young people are increasingly entertaining themselves with free to low-priced content on mobile phones and the web, and to a certain extent (although less than the West), much material is available online in pirated form. Spending has also shifted towards paying off phone bills rather than being spent on CDs and clothing directly like in the past. Phone companies are capturing much more of consumers’ money and then distributing it to content providers themselves.

Isn’t the Internet making up for all of this cultural decline?

Of course, most countries have also seen an implosion of “analog” content in the face of a digitizing world, and Japan is no exception to this trend. Despite high Internet penetration, however, web culture has yet to establish itself as a legitimate pillar of content in Japan. Most offline cultural producers, like newspapers and weekly magazines, do not put a significant amount of material online. There are no start-up sites with the influence of Boing Boing, or the political importance of Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and the Drudge Report. There have been few D.I.Y. bloggers who rival offline cultural influencers; no 14 year-old bloggers invited to haute couture fashion shows in the vein of Tavi Gevinson. In fact, the Internet in Japan still retains a “techy” or “nerd” image, and an impenetrable otaku site like 2ch is still the central heart of Internet meme creation.

Magazines in Japan usually directed consumers towards the “proper” goods to buy and how to use them, and there have been almost no websites — at least for traditional mainstream genres like fashion — that have taken over this role from print. Magazines get the latest information and bestow a legitimacy upon their advice. An anonymous kid with a blog just doesn’t have the same effect over the market.

There have been cultural and structural barriers towards moving offline content online and creating new web content businesses (see “The Fear… of the Internet”), and the overall result is that the Internet in Japan is not picking up the slack of the traditional culture markets as they shrink. Most importantly web use in Japan is relatively passive and anonymous, and this only further questions the culture created upon it.

This means that cultural institutions still have to look at analog markets — like the number of CDs or magazines sold — as a way to gauge success and popularity. Our best understanding of a “hit song” in Japan remains a “number one” on the Oricon charts. A “hit” TV show pulls numbers that were once understood to be a “failure.”

The total effect is that as Japan’s economy declines, Japanese popular culture is not just dropping in terms of sales but also in terms of total participation as well as “visible” participation. Consumers were once engaged with pop culture most actively through the act of consumption — buying a CD, book, or video game — but not only have they ceased buying goods, they are increasingly not even participating passively when media is virtually free, like in the case of TV. And they are not building significant new cultural spaces online with the same power, influence, and legitimacy as their precedents. There are almost no barriers to creating and distributing content, and yet the amount of legitimate content with engaged consumers is decreasing.

The U.S., in particular, has seen an explosion of content from cable TV proliferation and new Internet businesses in the last decade, which has made everyone assume the universality of the Long Tail theory. Japan shows the opposite: a decrease in the amount of culture in the market, as well as the number of participants in pop culture. There may not be any parallel to this phenomenon in any other major country.

Next time we look at how the market once made its products for the middle-classes and leading-edge consumers and why it’s no longer profitable to do so.

W. David MARX
November 29, 2011

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

39 Responses

  1. Anon Says:

    One thing that these articles have made me consider is the use of the word “culture”.

    At what point do these manifestations of culture become nothing more than a commercial product? Perhaps that’s the root cause of this decline. Without commercial success, could it be called “popular”? Is there a designation between these commercially popular cultural products and something that is culturally popular with wide appreciation, like perhaps the onsen or something along those lines?

    It just seems strange to measure the health of cultural expression based on economic figures and product consumption.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    I would make case that “pop culture” in Japan has almost exclusively referred to “consumption of goods” after the 1970s. This is not unique to Japan, but Japan lacks any countervailing forces to having (contemporary pop) culture be anything other than the purchase of goods.

    Some basic proof points of this:
    • You can’t really be a “fan” of something without the meticulous and completist purchasing of an artists’ goods/works/tschotskes. This is especially true of idol culture, which has dominated Japanese pop for the last thirty years.
    • The most popular magazines for youth are shopping catalogs, most of which lack anything we would consider an “article” in the West. Fashion magazines are literally just product information and styling tips.

    So this is one of the issues at heart: If culture is just consumerism, what happens to pop culture when people stop consuming? The answer is that the “shell” remains, and that those who consume rule. I will explain this more in the next installments. And this is also the reason the Internet can’t so easily take over pop culture — it’s not based on physical product purchases.

  3. gwern Says:

    > The U.S., in particular, has seen an explosion of content from cable TV proliferation and new Internet businesses in the last decade, which has made everyone assume the universality of the Long Tail theory. Japan shows the opposite: a decrease in the amount of culture in the market, as well as the number of participants in pop culture. There may not be any parallel to this phenomenon in any other major country.

    I dunno. Internet contributors may be anonymous or pseudonymous, but there’s still an incredible amount of doujin stuff – even when I think I know better, I am routinely amazed how *much* there is. As an example, an old small torrent of Touhou music was something like 500GB; just the Vocaloid music I have downloaded from mikudb.net is 57GB. And Comiket etc don’t even specialize in music!

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    Yes doujin and Vocaloid are prolific genres, but confirms the “Internet is only for techies and otaku” narrative.

  5. Aeon Says:

    Though that’s the thesis of this series, isn’t it; that there is no strong “middle” culture for “normal” people left, but the marginal sub-cultures are thriving in this void left behind. I’m wondering if many of the problems in japan, underemployed lackadaisical youth, the miniscule marriage and birth rates, ect. can be mostly be traced to the dominant corporate culture. Not enough middle class jobs are available, women have a low glass ceiling in careers, and men simply are unable to be an effective husband because they have to stay at work for ridiculous hours just to please the boss. With all these problems, there’s no real chance of attaining the older view of adulthood(earning a respectible living, marriage, and children) so the phenomena of freeters and NEETs, low marriage and birth rates, et al are simply a rational response to current japanese society-if working hard gets you the same money as not really trying, and not really trying gets you more time and freedom, then why try? And with few new middle class people, the culture splits up.

  6. M-Bone Says:

    “a decrease in the amount of culture in the market”

    Have to be careful with this, however. Sales have suffered, but media like anime, manga, etc. are more prolific than ever. There were 96 anime produced in 1995 and 146 in 2011. There is ever more manga being produced, and nearly 80,000 books published last year compared to 60,000 a year in the mid 1990s.

    The tail is always getting longer, and there are also alternative sites of consumption. More and more anime steams online for free, manga kissa are all over the place, etc.

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    Yes, there is a marginal increase in amount created, but (1) less has sales making it worth continuing (2) less has legitimacy as an item “one should buy.”

    In other markets, where products do not need so much legitimacy, this is not as much of an issue. You get a nice long tail and everyone finds something they love. In Japan, you have so many consumers who want to buy “what is socially acceptable” and that means more and more products are basically out of bounds.

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    I also suspect that most of the increased culture comes from the otaku sector — and stays in the otaku sector.

    When it comes to magazines, new artists from major labels, etc., the number is way down.

  9. Aeon Says:

    >In other markets, where products do not need so much legitimacy, this is not as much of an issue. You get a nice long tail and everyone finds something they love. In Japan, you have so many consumers who want to buy “what is socially acceptable” and that means more and more products are basically out of bounds.

    That’s interesting. When people buy what’s “popular” but nothing’s really “popular”, what do they buy? It seems the answer here is they buy nothing. I wonder if the “buy popular” sentiment is something conscious or something that japanese consumers are unaware of; what would the response of a typical consumer be to the statement “there is nothing (that is very much) popular”. It seems the sub-cultural groups are doing well in this context because they have their preferences defined and are able to fend for themselves culturally to a certain degree. How do normal japanese view this, the disappearance of a middle and the bulk of cultural output for and by subcultures.

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    Hopefully I will answer this question in the next installments, but you’re on the right track.

  11. MattA Says:

    “Sales have suffered, but media like anime, manga, etc. are more prolific than ever.”

    True, but this is a BAD thing for the industry, not a good one, especially combined with the polarization of the market. Basically the winners (Naruto, Bleach, etc.) take all, and the rest fight for scraps at sub-poverty wages. There used to be a niche for mid-list manga artists who were able to eke out a middle-class existence, and I don’t think that’s possible anymore. And on the anime front, the endless race to pander to otaku is rapidly stripping studios of their ability to compete abroad.

    “The tail is always getting longer”

    Long tail necessarily implies a way to monetize older or niche-r content, but given the Japanese reluctance to embrace ebooks and other forms of digital distro, the only people profiting from older and short-run niche titles are pretty much Mandarake and Book Off and other used-book sellers.

  12. ian Says:

    The point about the importance of “consumption of goods” reminds me of something Hajime Tachibana from the Plastics said about the early 1980s. His argument was that the postwar generation defined value primarily in terms of its material worth, but what the Plastics’ generation was all about was shifting culture towards the idea that you could pay for an “idea” even if the physical materials were cheap. To his mind, this was a key cultural shift between the 70s and 80s. Seems like part of what’s happening here is that the sense of cultural value needs to shift again to eliminate the physical product entirely (i.e. web and mobile-based products).

    Part of the problem might be that since, as Marxy says, the shell of the old model still dominates the idea of what culture has value and there is no new model to aggregate and confer value on non-physical cultural items, people are left adrift.

  13. W. David MARX Says:

    I think there is hope for a “non-material” pop culture, but there are not a lot of social antecedents that make it an easy fit. Remember, this is a perfectionist, hardware obsessed, gadget-oriented, non-DIY society.

  14. M-Bone Says:

    @ Matt

    Point taken on anime going otaku, but manga artists are doing better than ever in the last decade (perhaps it peaked around 2005). Manga magazines sold far more copies through 1985-1995, but creators have typically seen little financial reward from that. They reap more from tanko and bunko sales, which are actually less of a hitorikachi environment than they were in the 1980s when seinen work out of the mainstream often never saw the light of day after its initial serialization. There is a tendency to look at the 1980s as something of a golden age for manga, but the big winners (Toriyama, etc.) Vs. those barely scraping out a living trend was even more pronounced. The tankobon market in 1985 was approx. 1.25 billion USD and is about 3 billion USD today. The characteristics of that market have also changed a great deal with much higher sales for seinen titles now. We tend to wax nostalgic about this era because we like its pop products, but the market was small compared to today and dominated, both in magazine sales and tankobon, by a narrow range of Jump titles.

    If we are more inclined to identify the 1990s as a golden age, tankobon sales actually fell between 1995 and 2000 and picked up after that. Overall tankobon sales have increased from 630,000,000 in 1999 to 720,000,000 in 2007.

    The market for manga is insanely big, . Total sales of manga magazines and tankobon are about 7 billion USD. By comparison, the total value of book sales in the United States is 11 billion or 11 billion for Hollywood’s gross (and Japan is about 1/3 of the size of the US by population).

    It would be great if the entire market was growing more rapidly (and the 2008 recession had never happened), but the manga market has been larger and more diverse in the second “lost decade” than ever before.

  15. W. David MARX Says:

    Thanks for adding this. I do wonder how to reconcile this health among manga with a general narrative that anime is dying a slow death. It’s probably best to separate the industries — manga still has low barriers to entry (anyone who can draw can at least try it out), is cheap to produce (a guy in a room), relatively democratic (rewarded by consumer feedback, at least in the big magazines). Anime has none of these advantages.

    And this also bolsters my later point (Part Four!) that the otaku culture is healthy.

  16. M-Bone Says:

    Anime needs to die a slow death for a while to weed out all of the crap – even with a 50% increase in the number of shows being produced, there is still little to watch. Still, slow death is also relative. “One Piece” is a multi-media machine that puts Dragonball to shame, Hosoda, Shinkai, and Kamiyama all debuted in the last decade and this is arguably more “great” creators than the 1990s produced, etc. If there was less content, we might see a higher relative level of profitability (and quality). Manga enjoys all of the advantages that you list (and my earlier comment did not even include the 1.2 billion dollar Dojinshi market – showing how easy it can be to produce manga) so I don’t think that it needs the “reckoning” that anime will have to face.

    Of course, do we have numbers on anime profitability? If they keep making 50 of what looks like the same crappy harem show every year (late night TV + free streaming + 45,000 yen box sets) somebody has got to be making money?

    Concerning the coming part four point, a lot of the increase is “otaku” titles, but the manga industry is now producing more “art” manga and quirky fringe stuff than ever before. These are mico-niches, but it isn’t all loli by any means.

    I also have to wonder if the haken and freeter-ization of youth labor will actually have positive effects for manga and anime. Animators have always made poverty wages but people seem more likely to go into a poorly paying industry that nevertheless affords cultural capital (or fan cred) if there are fewer opportunities elsewhere. Ditto for manga. If you can only make 150,000 a month on your manga it still might be better than the alternatives. Hence more people might start doing what they love and hopefully producing unique titles.

  17. zoltan Says:

    Its always very hard to have a critical analysis about Japanese culture because there is always somebody with a very unreal positive view of things.

    I remember the neomarxisme days when articles such as this will illicit haters comments but now…………. sheer indifference.

    And i think that sums up Japanese culture at least on a international level. Nobody cares anymore except for fashion types and Japanophiles

  18. Jeffrey Says:

    Among the marketing community, Japanese millennials are known as the “generation who doesn’t consume.”

    * * * * *

    This is the case because they simply don’t have the disposable income that 20- and 30-somethings did up through the Bubble and because Japan is, thankfully, still not a credit card society like the U.S. The predilection to run-up revolving consumer debt isn’t all that prevalent.

    As for the relative health across the pop culture spectrum, the declining number of younger consumers, the primary market for this, means that even if it was all magically good over night, there would still be a decline. In fact, if it weren’t for increased foreign consumption off anime and such, the decline would be all the more that dramatic.

    * * * * *

    And this also bolsters my later point (Part Four!) that the otaku culture is healthy.

    You are speaking, of course, in the financial and “creative” sense, right? : )

  19. gwern Says:

    > It’s probably best to separate the industries — manga still has low barriers to entry (anyone who can draw can at least try it out), is cheap to produce (a guy in a room), relatively democratic (rewarded by consumer feedback, at least in the big magazines). Anime has none of these advantages.

    The weird thing is, all these ‘advantages’ ought to be massive *dis*advantages for manga.

    When people say creators no longer get paid well, that’s another way of saying their profits are going down; and orthodox economics tells us that when you have a market with very low barriers to entry, low fixed costs, next to zero marginal costs, and a highly democratic (read: competitive) market, you ought to see profits driven almost instantly to zero.

    Manga ought to be far worse to work in than anime, which has very high fixed costs (getting on air or on large DVD runs), high marginal costs (every additional episode you make costs 15m yen or whatever), significant barriers to entry (only a few TV channels or movie distributors, highly inbred magazine and other publicity sources, etc.) and so on – all of which ought to foster a pretty profitable oligarchy which is nice to work in if you can get in at all. But instead…

  20. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > Concerning the coming part four point, a lot of the increase is “otaku” titles, but the manga industry is now producing more “art” manga and quirky fringe stuff than ever before.

    I need some kind of review site, magazine, or other aggregator to point me to interesting fringe stuff to read, while avoiding all the cliche harem stuff. Recommendations?

  21. W. David MARX Says:

    This is a good point — nobody really gets an enthusiastic picture of manga a la M-Bone from the titles that they’ve heard of. M-Bone needs to start a manga review blog.

  22. Claire Says:

    >> Concerning the coming part four point, a lot of the increase is “otaku” titles, but the manga industry is now producing more “art” manga and quirky fringe stuff than ever before.

    >I need some kind of review site, magazine, or other aggregator to point me to interesting fringe stuff to read, while avoiding all the cliche harem stuff. Recommendations?

    I am not a big manga reader, but I picked up the first couple books in the shinya shokudo (深夜食堂 by 安倍夜郎) series and I really like it. A story of a guy who runs a restaurant that is only open from midnight until 7am, and his customers.

  23. M-Bone Says:

    One of these years, I just might…. However, the online anime/manga crowd is even less easy to deal with than the J-Pop Vs. K-Pop thing that you had to put up with about this time last year….

    Some good titles:

    Yamikin Ushijima-kun (anyone interested in the contemporary Japanese underclass should check this one out)

    Tsumi to Batsu (ditto for this one, it feels a bit like “Breaking Bad” for me – somewhat cartoonish and overwrought scenarios coupled with a realistic psychology of relationships)

    Historie (great history title)

    Thermae Romae (Lives up to the hype, a quirky manga that went big. Isn’t afraid to be ludicrous and ends up working)

    Ultra Heaven (Excellent art, great storytelling)

    The Yanagita Kunio Corpse Delivery spinoff

    Suiiki (very atmospheric, great followup to Mushishi)

    Igarashi Daisuke manga – Kaiju no Kodomo and Saru

    Boku no Shokibo na seikatsu – one of the best contemporary manga about manga, also a great slice of life

    Mama ha tenparist – funny if you have kids

    Otoyomegatari – great art, good anthropological sense

    There are actually some mainstream fighting type manga that are worth reading these days as well – Vinland Saga, シュトヘル (don’t know how to put this in English), Virtus, Drifters, and Shingeki no Kyojin.

  24. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    Heh, I guess you too must have developed some taste for this current “historical manga” subgenre. I was first attracted to them because I figured that, inevitable innacuracies aside, I´d at least learn something (come to think of, edutainment seems to be much more well-established as a valid, “real” genre in Japan, isn´t it?). But it wasn´t that educational value in itself that caused me to find myself actually enjoying them (I mean, Tomehane is a treasure-box of insider info on calligraphy studies, but it´s frankly awful as a manga). When I think of the way the authors of these manga portray the Greeks and neighbor peoples in Historie, or the Norse and Saxon in Vinland, or the Asian steppe-nomads in Otoyome, I feel that underlying the “gritty” æsthetics there´s a certain enthusiasm, even glee in the rich, detailed descriptions. And I think this glee is nothing else than a remnant stream of kokusaika—I think it´s an honest desire to learn about other people; not painting them in broad strokes as “The West”, but each in their particularity.

    Of course, my speculation has nothing to do with strenght of plot or characterization, but I find that this joyful interest, like the unbelievably detailed textiles drawn by Kaoru Mori, significantly add to my enjoyment.

    (But I couldn´t get past the moeness of Spice & Wolf, despite being curious about the economic stuff. An older manga that I´ve been exploring and am very conflicted about is Discommunication: Seireihen—on the one hand, probably the best treatment I´ve ever seen of magical thinking and anthropologically-aware occult themes; on the other, in-your-face, blatant loli fetishism.)

    > However, the online anime/manga crowd is even less easy to deal with than the J-Pop Vs. K-Pop thing that you had to put up with about this time last year….

    Well, there´s an easy solution to this particular problem: Make a blog without comments. Hey, we all know moderation can be exhausting, and it´s better than no blog. At least, consider yourself encouraged to tweet about manga you like. I haven´t heard of most of the titles in that list & I appreciate it a lot :)

  25. MattA Says:

    >but manga artists are doing better than ever in the last decade (perhaps it peaked around 2005).

    According to what metric? Low per-page prices and crushing deadlines have always been the case, but it was a little easier to stomach when manga was considered trash/outsider culture. Now that manga is considered a cornerstone of the government’s “Japan Cool” efforts it’s a little embarassing that the average manga-ka is considered working poor:

    http://altjapan.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/11/manga-manga-poverty-poverty.html

    And did you see these figures from 2009? 5,300 artists published tankobon. Top 100 artists averaged seventy million yen in royalties. The remaining 5,200 artists averaged just 2.8 million yen in royalties. Considering how many manga-ka need to hire assistants to make deadlines, this is not a lot of money. I think a little “survival of the fittest” makes the industry go around but when 99% of artists are working at or below the poverty line it doesn’t give me the warm and fuzzies about the medium’s future.

    http://media.yucasee.jp/posts/index/7782

    >Hence more people might start doing what they love and hopefully producing unique titles.

    I sure hope so. I also hope the industry will support it. There is really only so far you can really go as a dojinshi author. The problems facing the manga industry are less acute than those facing the anime industry because the barriers to entry are so much lower but you can’t deny it’s hurting.

  26. ian Says:

    Isn’t there some sort of structural problem with the anime industry where the pay for animators is so abysmally low that the only way a lot of people can survive is by living with their parents, which then deters any but the most starry-eyed otaku from applying, thus cutting the industry off from the sort of talent that it needs to grow? Or am I misunderstanding the situation?

  27. M-Bone Says:

    @ Matt

    Those figures are indeed not rosy. A few questions, however. Was it ever that different? How many of the other 5300 are hiring assistants (I’ve heard anecdotes that it isn’t that common for lower tier artists and porn artists on monthly serialization)? Some manga artists who publish tankobon work as assistants themselves. Do royalties include the original page fees for serialization (which could top a manga artist earning 2,800,000 up to a solidly middle class income)? I don’t think that they do.

    The equivalent of $36,000 USD can’t be considered a poverty line wage in this day and age. How is that average calculated? We don’t see much indication. It could include a bottom 1000 making less than 100,000 and a top 1000 (of the 5200) making over 10,000,000 and still average out to 2,800,000. It is really impossible to say that 99% of artists are working at or below the poverty line.

    The average novelist in the United States has to work a second or third job and the average actor in Hollywood is at the poverty line. Scifi and fantasy novelists, are like manga artists in that they are divided into an upper tier of big earners and a bulk of writers who need to turn out 2000+ published pages a year to make $50,000. It doesn’t say much about the relative health of those industries, however, just the type of insane competition that people face these days. Even more grim, 50% of university courses in the United States are taught by adjunct professors who are often paid just $2000 a course ($16,000 a year at a realistic full course load compared to an average of $80,000 for a newish tenure track professor in the humanities). In effect, people in cultural value added areas are going to face this kind of environmental – manga is no different. While I share your indignation (especially concerning the wages of animators who are essentially slaves on the projects of others), I don’t see how this can chance and I don’t see how this will stop people from assuming that they will be one of the lucky 1% or 20% or whatever. At least we don’t hear stories about manga artists going $150,000 in debt chasing their dreams like English lit professors.

  28. M-Bone Says:

    @ Leonardo

    I like history manga a lot. Generally, I find that the ones with a Western or East Asian (apart from Sangokushi) setting are better as they resist the tendency to cameo a whole parade of real historical figures and focus on fresh drama and the richness of material culture.

    I’m not a big fan of twitter. I also tend to binge on manga 4-5 times a year rather than reading weekly so I’m not sure that I could keep things up consistently.

    Spice and Wolf didn’t do it for me in any of its versions. The economics are solid in theory but not in practice (most of it is set up as typical shonen battle stuff, really) and the lack of any willingness to develop the central relationship is fairly ridiculous. This is where I end up differing with fans. Where they see incremental steps in a tsundere relationship as extremely meaningful, I’m just confused at how adults who are obviously into each other could travel around for together years without intimacy. Of course, I can explain this in terms of fan psychology (otaku typically reject consumation in favor of infinitely repeatable hi-jinks) but the psychology of the characters falls flat. Decent backgrounds and music in the anime.

    Have you checked out the anime Seirei no Moribito or Kemono no Sojya Erin, BTW? What about Sugiura Hinako’s manga?

  29. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    The problem for me is, it’s even worse than an adult relationship—it’s an adult/600-year-old-fertility-goddess relationship. Why the hell does she look and act 15? (But the Western otaku reaction to that pulp-fantasy Yen Press cover is enough to illustrate the reason why…) I kept expecting a Gaiman-style awe-inspiring, otherworldly otherness to surface in Horo, to no avail.

    I hadn’t heard of those titles either (I’m kind of away from these things) but I will check them now. Sugiura seems certainly right up my alley.

  30. M-Bone Says:

    I’m pretty down on Gaiman’s “Death” too, actually. I think he got a lot of credit for the design but didn’t do much with the character apart from a certain aloof and sarcastic cuteness that quite reminds me of Horo. In any case, I don’t think that anyone has ever accused Gaiman of being great with relationship writing.

    The Western otaku response to the cover is typical, I think, and a good indication that the 14-17 year old body type and personality is a selling point for this crowd all over.

    The Moribito anime is quite exceptional, you should check that out first. It is fantasy, but the original novel was written by an anthropologist and it has all of the texture of daily life of the history manga discussed above and even works as an allegory for the formation of the Japanese state and destruction of minority cultures ala Amino Yoshihiko. Add high production values for the anime, a great adult female lead, and Ghost in the Shell TV’s Kamiyama at the helm and you have what is certainly one of the best anime of the 2000s.

  31. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    I was thinking of American Gods and its brethen, actually. Might not be high literature, but the gods at least feel like “gods” to me (and that ‘ifrīt felt, hm, hot :))

    Death certainly does the now-tired “perky goth girl” type, but from time to time she does display a Virgin Mary-like compassion for the pathos of everything which (I think) brings her more to the godly side of things (though the Endless aren’t exactly gods, but you know). It’s not my favourite character, but even then I can’t picture her having S&W-style romantic hijinks; whenever a deceased mortal hits on her she reacts like a teacher talking to a lovestruck child.

  32. M-Bone Says:

    Was there actually a developed female character in American Gods apart from zombie wife?

    In a way, it is good that Gaiman gives female characters the narrative role of commenting calmly on the often absurd action (except Delirium, who is just annoying – you don’t need someone to comment deliriously on absurd action). It doesn’t make them very interesting, however.

  33. MattA Says:

    @M-Bone

    I’m not sure how it’s calculated, but if assistants are involved the actual net has to be far lower. And realistically, I don’t think it’s possible to make weekly magazine deadlines without them.

    Your points about methodology and the general dog-eat-dog nature of working in the entertainment industry are taken, though. If we lumped all of the aspiring actor busboys in with the Tom Cruises we would see an equal or even more horrible income gap, I suspect. But I still don’t buy that things are “better” for the AVERAGE manga-ka today as compared to the Seventies. They’re certainly better for those at the top of the heap, but for those at the mid-to-low echelons? This is something I would like to look into and try to quantify, even if only anecdotally, myself.

    Incidentally, Oricon posted the top selling manga of 2010. One Piece sold thirty-seven million copies, far and away the most out of any on the list. So far and away that the others don’t really even compare. The drop off between numbers one and two, let alone one and twenty, is really telling. This isn’t a ramp up; it’s more of a cliff face.

    http://alfalfalfa.com/archives/4913488.html

  34. Troy Says:

    The music market also exploded in the 1990s due to the baby boom echo:

    http://tfw.cachefly.net/snm/images/nm/pyramids/ja-1990.png

    being aged 15-19.

    but there is no echo echo.

  35. Troy Says:

    ^ oh yeah, which is why they market to “AroFo”s now.

  36. M-Bone Says:

    “And realistically, I don’t think it’s possible to make weekly magazine deadlines without them.”

    I agree. Weekly serialization, however, is mostly for the big run shonen and shojo titles that are also the most profitable, so I think that it evens out for many. This is just a hunch, but I’m guessing that if there are 5000 tankobon published, fewer than 10% are from weekly serializations.

    “But I still don’t buy that things are “better” for the AVERAGE manga-ka today as compared to the Seventies.”

    As late as 67-68 people like Mizuki Shigeru were literally drawing 15 hours a day and skipping meals to make poverty wages with virtually nothing from tankobon. There was something of a shift in the 1970s, but in my understanding just about everything brutal about today’s industry has deep historical roots. Just think – how many manga artists working in 1972 were still working in 1982? We only know of a handful of “survivors” form this time that are canonized, but there was major bloodletting in the industry, particularly in what was becoming Seinen.

    Maybe it isn’t that qualitatively better for individual manga artists today, but a bigger industry can support more people at a living wage and there is more potential for creators of minor and alternative works to carve out a niche living. There is also more chance for rapid success in a developed industry, I can’t think of anything from that time to match a Cinderella story like Arakawa Hiromu (magazine prize in 1999 while working on her parents farm, year and a half as an assistant, 2001 – starts Full Metal Alchemist one of the biggest hits of the decade).

  37. M-Bone Says:

    Looking at some numbers – over 60 manga tankobon sold over 500,000 copies in 2011. Even huge 1970s hits like Blackjack weren’t doing these kinds of numbers. It is possible that a top seller in 1975 wouldn’t crack the top 100 today. (Although each Blackjack volume has sold in the millions over the subsequent decades in different versions).

  38. M-Bone Says:

    I took another look at the 2009 numbers cited above and have another concern – the royalties listed are only for tankobon released in that year. While manga, like many media, see the majority of their sales within two weeks of the original release, most creators will continue to see inzei from older titles, reprints, etc. or at least from last year’s products. I know of a few artists who have turned out a cult hit and seen their back titles take off. Once again, not roses, but not total poverty either.

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