When Piracy Becomes Promotion

How unauthorized copying made Japanese animation profitable in the United States.

The global sales of Japan’s animation industry reached an astonishing $80 billion in 2004, 10 times what they were a decade before. It has won this worldwide success in part because Japanese media companies paid little attention to the kinds of grassroots activities—call it piracy, unauthorized duplication and circulation, or simply file-sharing—that American media companies seem so determined to shut down. Much of the risk of entering Western markets and many of the costs of experimentation and promotion were borne by dedicated consumers.

Japanese animation was exported to the Western market as early as the 1960s, when Astro Boy, Gigantor, and Speed Racer made it into local syndication. By the late ’60s, however, Action for Children’s Television and other groups had used threats of boycotts and federal regulations to rein in programs they saw as inappropriate for American children. Japanese cartoons increasingly targeted adolescents and adults and often dealt with mature themes. Consequently, the American markets for these cartoons dried up in the early ’70s, and discouraged distributors dumped their cartoons on Japanese-language cable channels.

With the rise of videotape recorders, American fans could copy shows off those channels and share them with their friends. Soon they were sending American shows such as Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica to Japanese fans and American GIs in exchange for Japanese programs such as Getter Robo. These tapes toured a circuit of science fiction conventions in the late ’70s and early ’80s, often shown without translation. In a format much like a radio broadcast of an opera, someone would stand up at the beginning and tell the plot, often drawing on what he or she remembered from another recital of the plot at another screening. Japanese companies were vaguely aware of such screenings but didn’t try to stop them. They didn’t have permission from their mother companies to charge these fans or provide the material, but they wanted to see how much interest the shows attracted.

By the late ’80s, student organizations were building extensive libraries of both legal and pirated material. The early ’90s saw the emergence of “fansubbing,” the amateur translation and subtitling of Japanese anime. Time-synchronized VHS and S-VHS systems allowed fansubbers to dub tapes while retaining accurate alignment of text and image. The high costs of the earliest machines meant that fansubbing would remain a collective effort: Clubs pooled time and resources to ensure their favorite series reached a wider viewership. As costs fell, fansubbing spread outward. Soon clubs were using the Internet to coordinate their activities, divvying up series to subtitle and tapping a broader community for would-be translators.

Beginning in the early 1990s, large-scale anime conventions brought artists and distributors from Japan, who were astonished to see a thriving culture surrounding content they had never succeeded in marketing in the United States. They went back home eager to try to tap this interest commercially.

The first niche companies to distribute anime on DVD and videotape emerged as fans went pro, acquiring the distribution rights from Japanese media companies. The first material to be distributed—titles such as Akira and Bubblegum Crisis—already had an enthusiastic fan following. Interested in exposing their members to the full range of content available in Japan, the fan clubs often took risks no commercial distributor would have confronted, testing the market for new genres, producers, and series. Commercial companies followed their path wherever they found popularity. The fansubs often ran an advisory urging users to “cease distribution when licensed.” The clubs were trying not to profit from anime distribution but to expand the market; they pulled back from circulating any title that had found a commercial distributor. In any case, the commercial copies were of a higher quality than the unauthorized dubs.

The first commercially available
copies of series such as Sailor Moon were often dubbed and re-edited as part of an effort to expand their potential interest to casual consumers. The Japanese cultural critic Koichi Iwabuchi has used the term “de-odorizing” to refer to the ways that Japanese “soft goods” are stripped of signs of their national origins to open them for global circulation. In this context, the grassroots fan community still plays an important role, using their websites and newsletters to teach American viewers about the cultural references and genre traditions that define these products. The fan clubs continue to explore potential niche products that over time can emerge as mainstream successes. If the first anime series to reach the market were mostly boy-oriented science fiction, fans later discovered a whole tradition of romance stories (including same-sex romance) aimed at young girls.

The Japanese media companies’ tolerance of these efforts is consistent with their treatment of fan communities at home. The underground sale of fan-made comics (known as dojinshi), often highly derivative of the commercial product, occurs on a massive scale in Japan, with some comics markets attracting 150,000 visitors per day. Rarely taking legal action, the commercial producers sponsor such events, using them to publicize their releases, recruit new talent, and monitor shifts in audience tastes. In any case, they fear the wrath of their consumers if they take action against such a well-entrenched cultural practice—and if they did pursue infringers, the legal penalties in Japan are relatively light.

Many media companies in the U.S. would have regarded all this underground circulation as piracy and shut it down before it reached critical mass. Instead, we have moved from a world where Speed Racer operated on the fringes to one where Pokémon is better known in the United States than many of its American counterparts.

Henry Jenkins is director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and author of Convergence Culture (NYU Press), from which this article was adapted. He would like to acknowledge the help of MIT alumnus Sean Leonard, whose research on fansubbing has appeared in the International Journal of Cultural Studies and The UCLA Entertainment Law Review.

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