Friday, June 10, 2011

Latest Yomiuri on TokyoPop, SakuraCon, Kodansha International--and the chasm

SOFT POWER HARD TRUTHS / Japan's pop industries: blind at home, beloved overseas

By now it's no secret to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection: The gap between the popularity of contemporary Japanese culture overseas and its anemic industries at home has become a chasm.

Anime conventions in the United States continue to proliferate, not only in cosmopolitan coastal cities like New York, Boston and Los Angeles, but also in more rural areas in Ohio and Tennessee. Annual attendance at these conventions is record-breaking. Sakura-Con in Seattle in late April, the convention I most recently attended as a guest, tallied 19,040 individual attendees this year. Elmira Utz of the Asia-Northwest Cultural Education Association, a host of Sakura-Con, notes that their celebration of Japanese pop culture fed roughly 50 million dollars into Seattle's economy from 2006 to 2010. Not sneeze-worthy numbers in post-Lehman shock economies.

Yet here in Japan, the news on the ground continues to be bleak. Anime studios underpay their younger staffers, who often quit as a result, and aging producers are desperately seeking solutions amid a diminishing youth market. Manga publishers, like all publishers, are watching print sales tank.

Kodansha International, the 48-year-old English-language imprint of Japanese publishing giant Kodansha Ltd., closed in April--a move that was apparently unexpected by the imprint's authors and, by some accounts, its own staff and editors. Kodansha International translated and published numerous works of Japanese literature and nonfiction, including elaborately illustrated guides to Japanese robots, baths and sake. It was also a crucial purveyor of books delineating Japanese popular culture to non-Japanese fans, scholars and general readers.

The pressure on U.S. distributors of manga, anime and other J-pop products has proved unbearable in recent cases. TokyoPop, a trailblazing distributor and publishers of manga and anime in the United States, responsible for global versions of the Sailor Moon series, closed its manga publishing division for good two months ago.

"I'm laying down my guns," wrote founder Stu Levy, who built his company from scratch in 1997. "Some of it worked. Some of it didn't." [more here]

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