Piracy and the Anime Industry

Have you discovered a new anime series because of a random clip in Facebook? Or have you replaying favorite moments on YouTube? If so, there is a pretty high chance you benefited from piracy. Fans like you, and not animation companies, uploaded them.

Believe it or not though, this not-so-legal practice of cutting and distributing anime on online channels has helped its global popularization especially in the digital era’s early days.

But for the Japanese entertainment industry where copyright laws are stringent and physical sales of discs are still high, this free consumption of content beyond their territories is a missed opportunity. (This is connected to why Korean pop artist, regardless of their global fame, would still bother learning Japanese to enter the music market: actual sales. But that can be a topic for another time.)

Piracy and fan culture

For the longest time, anime and manga fans outside Japan distributed pirated content in private forums. The language barrier for those who don’t understand Japanese have been solved by those who do, as meticulous anime fansubbing (fan subtitling) and manga scanlation (scan translating) did not just simply translate dialogue, but also provided side notes on nuances on Japanese culture that foreign viewers and readers might miss.

Fans worked on these translations for free. Their output only spread through peer-to-peer file-sharing methods, which is technically illegal distribution of copyrighted material. But as fans argued, nobody earned from these fansubs and scanlations. They also had little choice since anime and manga were not easily accessible outside of Japan.

Piracy, in this case, can be considered as essential in creating a foreign fanbase for anime and manga.

Japanese gatekeeping and unintentional globalization of cultural products

The shutdown of  KissAnime and KissManga is an overdue action from the Japanese government. Overdue, since it has done anti-piracy campaigns as early as 2013 and hired “human anti-piracy experts” to manually hunt for online material in 2016. But it is also a sign that Japan is quite slow in taking advantage of its products’ own popularity.

Ever since Japan’s “Gross National Cool” was pointed out by Douglas McGray in 2002, the government has taken on the “Cool Japan” maxim in using culture to help promote the country.

Yet anime and manga fans still had to do quite a lot of work to access material that were supposed to have been promoted. With rising demand of Japanese products, fans relied on piracy. Accessibility has always been an issue for global fans, and Japan seemed to be oblivious of that fact. Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto, for instance, did not know even know that his work was famous outside of Japan. Most Japanese artists and their work are known outside Japan, yet they don’t have any idea on how their reach is. And most likely, their global fans encountered them first thanks to piracy.

Japan’s (re)opening to the world

Some animation companies, however, have begun embracing their global fanbase. Gundam fans, for example, are lucky to catch the latest episode of Gundam Build Fighters Re:Rise, the most recent series of the franchise. Select previous seasons are also available on their YouTube channel, some of which were even remastered with all uploads featuring subtitles.

Netflix has also become the online home of a lot of anime: almost every known series in this era is available on the platform.

Manga publishers have also done the same. The latest releases of Shonen Jump stories such as My Hero Academia, Haikyu, and Boruto are available for free while older chapters can be accessed through membership.

This Japanese reopening, if we can call it that, doesn’t stop anime and manga. Some big Japanese record labels have also embraced the digital world and recognized that they do have a reach outside their country. Top boyband Arashi, for example, released their music online ahead of their hiatus. Other Japanese music also became available to non-Japan users of Spotify. If there is something common with fans of any Japanese cultural product, it has always been the challenge of accessibility.

But with Japan finally recognizing that there is a tangible world of consumers outside their shores, may there be no need for fans to look for private groups and get their fix from obscure links like the way old fans used to. Either way, current fans have to thank their old counterparts who did extra work so that pirated anime and manga can be enjoyed by more.

Note: We do not advocate for piracy. We are just acknowledging the fact that that overseas fans resorted to such methods for the sake of fulfilling their demand for anime and manga.

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