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Imitations, Fakes and Piracy in Manga and Anime

by Takumi Furusato,

150 million copies; 39.6 billion yen (US$364.67 million) of box office sales; 28.7 million viewers.

The numbers above are all related to Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. Since the manga debuted on Weekly Shonen Jump in February 2016, this dark action fantasy has attracted a lot of attention from the public, including companies. Dydo Drinco, a Japanese beverage company, released a limited-edition canned coffee featuring a Demon Slayer design in October 2020 and sold 50 million drinks within only three weeks. The final profits of Dydo in January 2021 was 3.2 billion yen (US$29.5 million) – 180% of the last year in the same term.

Dydo canned coffee with Kimetsu design

Needless to say, such remarkable success has brought massive amounts of wealth to property rights holders. In general, the royalty ratio for manga artists working under Japanese publishers is 10% of each copy sold. At a rough estimate, the creator of Demon Slayer, Koyoharu Gotouge, has earned 5 billion yen (US$46 million) from comic sales alone. A certain comic editor commented that the income for SHUEISHA from the Demon Slayer franchise as a whole must be 50 billion yen (US$460.4 million), at the very least.

Ironically, this “Demon Slayer phenomenon” brought the underlying problem of piracy to the forefront of public perception. On February 18th, SHUEISHA released an official statement confirming their awareness of certain sellers who listed unauthorized comics on online marketplaces like Amazon and Merucari. It's worth noting that nowadays, cases such as this, where illegal physical manga is distributed in public, are rare, and generally only occur when bookstores do not carry enough stock. What's more, bookstores usually order in large enough quantities from middle sellers and publishers that even best-selling titles such as One Piece do not face this problem. However, the demand for Demon Slayer manga turned out to be truly exceptional, and scores of Japanese bookstores put sold-out notices on their entrances as a result. Consequently, illegal distributors marked those who couldn't get their hands on a copy as a profitable target and used e-commerce platforms to sell scanned manga. In response to this situation, SHUEISHA have asked their business partners to work together to terminate pirated manga copies.

Warning notice for pirated Kimetsu manga

It should be noted that e-commerce plays a very important role in sustaining piracy in Japan. In October 2020, Ibaraki prefectural police arrested a man who sold pirated Demon Slayer DVDs on e-commerce sites. The investigation revealed a hidden distribution channel between Japan and Malaysia. Within the same month, Tokyo Metropolitan police found unauthorized collectable figures and smartphone cases on internet auction websites and arrested the perpetrator, who admitted that he bought them from foreign e-commerce sites and sold them to more than 200 domestic customers.

In early 1950s, the Japanese manga market was filled with imitations, fakes and pirated volumes. Since demand for manga is thought to be largely stemming from children, big publishing companies such as KODANSHA or SHOGAKUKAN didn't realize the potential of the manga industry at the time. In those days, the primary manga distributors were small publishers, manga rental shops, and dagashiya – local candy shops. Manga volumes were called kashi-hon (rent book) or aka-hon (red book). They produced and sold thousands of copies, including ones that used American cartoon characters from Disney and Hanna-Barbera. Even well-known manga artist Osamu Tezuka started his professional career as an aka-hon creator. Years later, Tezuka Productions, the IP management company of his works, didn't take any legal action when Disney's Lion King was released in theaters, even when a number of critics pointed out its similarities with one of Tezuka's work, Jungle Emperor Leo. Takayuki Matsutani, CEO of Tezuka Productions, even commented in the San Francisco Chronicle that “Tezuka would be so delighted if he knew that his work inspired the Lion King team.” He must have been aware that some of Tezuka's own works would come under scrutiny if they did bring the case to court.

Pinocchio by Osamu Tezuka

The birth of weekly and Sunday magazines in 1959 was undoubtedly one of the most important moments in manga history, even for publishers who released pirated volumes. The widespread availability and low prices of weekly manga magazines made them the primary form of entertainment among children. Who would buy fake manga if one could buy real ones at a low price? As a result, fake, imitation, and pirated manga volumes gradually vanished from the overground market. Kashi-hon publishing was considered effectively dead in the late 1960s.

Let's take a look at the anime industry in those days. When the world's first TV anime series Astro Boy aired in 1963, piracy mainly manifested in merchandising. The economic success of the series was largely attributed to the sale of various kinds of character goods. Mushi Production, an anime studio of Tezuka, succeeded in securing merchandising rights to Astro Boy. As a result, it brought a huge influx of revenue to the studio and its workers. It is no surprise, then, that smaller toy companies and stationary makers jumped on the bandwagon. However, the income that Mushi Production received from its royalties at the time was large enough that the sale of unauthorized items from nameless companies ended up being overlooked.

Astro Boy anime

It is impossible to talk about the history of Japanese media piracy without mentioning the comic market in South Korea. Under the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, Korean publishers were forced to lower the price of their publications as much as they could. As such, much like the scanlation sites of the 21st century, they re-released Japanese manga to the Korean market in their own language. Since the publication of Japanese content was deemed illegal in those days, Korean publishers also altered the storylines and names of the characters. From the 1960s to early 1990s, scores of “fake” Korean manga which originated from Japanese ones were published.

Korean fake comic based on Slam Dunk and Ironfist Chinmi, early 90s

The relationship between Korean animation and Japanese anime is much more complicated. For instance, some critics pointed out the similarities between Mazinger Z and Taekwon V, which was released in 1976 and was one of the earliest icons in the history of Korean animation. Though the director of Taekwon V admitted that his work carries influences from Mazinger Z, he adamantly denied plagiarism. Still, Korean animators clearly had access to Japanese anime even under the information control at the time. Since Toei Animation and Tatsunoko Productions outsourced some of their works to subcontractors in Korea, it is quite likely that Japanese anime at least inspired Korean animators between the 1960s and '80s. It was in 1998 that the Korean government finally gave the green light for importing Japanese manga into Korean market. Two years later, anime movies were approved officially.

Taekwon V poster art, from 70's to 80's

It should be noted that manga piracy spread not only in Korea but also in other Asian countries and regions such as Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Thailand. However, Japanese publishers and anime companies didn't take any legal action towards international piracy, deeming it too costly and focusing instead on domestic efforts – until the '90s.

Like other businesses, the rise of the internet in the mid-90s had huge repercussions for Japanese media companies, both positive and negative, that few understood at the time. Still, they gradually realized the burgeoning opportunities for their properties in the international market. In 1996, Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell reached the top of Billboard's video sales chart, becoming the first piece of Japanese media to do so. It was a revelatory moment for Japanese content creators and business developers. Unfortunately, they weren't equipped with the experience and knowledge needed to distribute their titles overseas since they had only been focusing on the domestic market for decades. The huge overseas demand for Japanese media products led to a boom in scanlation and illegal fansubbed anime distribution sites. In 2000, the first modern scanlation group, Mangascans, was founded. Six years later, a group of graduates from the University of California, Berkeley started the service now known as Crunchyroll to host unauthorized Japanese anime.

It was not until the mid-2000s that property rights holders finally took organized action against those illegal websites. In 2006, Copyright Network for Comic Authors in the 21st Century, a group made up of manga artists and publishers wanting to protect their IPs, sued online second-hand bookstore “464.jp” for copyright infringement. In the same year, the joint manga publisher's organization Digital Comic Council was founded for the purpose of investigating scanlation websites. In 2011, the DCC launched translated digital manga distribution service “JManga.com” to compete with illegal websites.

The members of Copyright Network for Comic Authors in the 21st Century and prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, 2004

Unfortunately, even after a decade, they are still playing a cat-and-mouse game with administrators of those websites. Even when the notorious manga upload site “Mangamura” was shut down and its administrator arrested, similar online services can still be accessed very easily. To deal with the current situation, the Japanese government modified its existing copyright law in 2020. Under the modified law, those who willingly and knowingly consume illegally-uploaded manga or magazines will be held accountable. In addition, the Japanese judiciary recently passed a landmark judgement: on March 31st, the Tokyo District Court ordered the server administrator of a "spoiler website" to disclose information of the sender after the mangaka of Kengan Omega accused the website of reprinting all dialogues of the manga without permission. Japanese publishers expect this decision to be a great weapon against this new form of online piracy that emerged after the shutting down of Mangamura.

However, it's obvious that legal action against illegal uploaders and users is not enough to deal with the problem. In a 2019 survey by Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs, only 6.2% of the respondents admitted that they downloaded manga, novels or documents illegally. However, data gathered from self-report studies can often be unreliable. In fact, under an indirect questioning technique developed by a joint research group between the University of Tsukuba, the University of Tokyo and Waseda University, 57.0% of the respondents answered that they consumed pirated content.

In the future, Japanese content producers might need to develop new relationships with platforms that are hosting unauthorized contents. A good example is Crunchyroll, which opened a Tokyo office in 2006 to establish relations with Japanese content rights holders. The company received recognition as an international business partner among publishers and anime companies. Years later, Sony announced the acquisition of Crunchyroll with US$1.18 billion dollars. Other streaming platforms such as Niconico and bilibili are also distributing a number of anime officially under a contract with rights holders. Such cases could pave the way for Japanese property rights holders to monetize their manga or anime in the 21st century.

Takumi Furusato is the COO and researcher of Ludimus, a Japan-based consulting firm for partners in the media industry that collects information related to entertainment content from all over the world, including developing countries.

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