Friday, July 08, 2011

Manga: legitimately digital at last?

SOFT POWER HARD TRUTHS / Can fansites help industry's digital survival?

[From the Daily Yomiuri]

Last summer, manga fans worldwide were jolted by the advent of the Digital Comic Association (DCA), a hastily formed 39-member coalition of Japanese and U.S. manga publishers bent on squelching so-called scanlation sites--fan-operated Web sites that translate, scan and post manga to stream or download for free.

DCA membership comprised the mighty: Shogakukan Inc., Shueisha Inc. and Kodansha Ltd. in Japan teamed up with Viz Media, Hachette Book Group's Yen Press and the now-defunct TokyoPop in the United States.

Their announcement was followed by sporadic arrests in Japan. A 14-year-old in Nagoya and two teens in the Kansai region were among domestic fans accused of posting manga for free via file-sharing sites like YouTube and Nico Nico Douga and reaping personal profit from ads on their sites.

Two of the largest scanlation aggregators, MangaFox and OneManga, responded in short order. Operators of the former pulled hundreds of manga titles from their site, and the latter closed down completely.

Meanwhile, conservative Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara was busy ramming through deliberately vague legislation that would enable the government to restrict sales of manga deemed "too sexually stimulating" in an "antisocial manner" (or something like that) without consulting anyone in the manga industry's artistic or publishing community.

A host of manga luminaries staged a press conference protesting the legislation and submitted a petition to the government--all to no avail. The bill was passed just before Christmas, prompting 10 major manga publishers to pull their wares from the Ishihara-chaired Tokyo International Anime Fair (TAF) set for late March. They announced they would hold their own alternative anime and manga trade show, the Anime Contents Expo (ACE), on the same weekend.

But the much anticipated TAF-versus-ACE showdown this spring never happened. The effects of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake led to both events being canceled.

Still, if Ishihara's crude legislation threatened manga creators, and if the DCA's declaration of war against piracy last year sent chills through some manga readers, the real scare for everyone was in the numbers.

As I have recorded in this column, by the summer of 2010, manga sales that had seen sharp drops in North America suddenly began slipping at home. The real problem, a Kodansha editor confided to me over dinner, was that uploads and piracy had recently spiked inside Japan. What was formerly deemed a foreign problem by the industry had fast become a domestic crisis.

There is an oft-repeated cliche about Japan's approach to change: It may be a long time coming, but once change begins it can spread like wildfire.

As the North American "con season" kicked off last weekend with the Anime Expo convention in Los Angeles, the DCA announced its long-awaited digital manga Web portal,, would be officially unveiled at the July 21-24 Comic-Con International in San Diego. A midday panel discussion on the state of the manga industry, featuring heavyweights from Kodansha, Shueisha, Kadokawa Group Publishing Co. and Futabasha Publishers Ltd., will be followed by an evening reception and a "sneak peak" at the first major legitimate gateway for digital manga.

While long overdue, the project marks a revealing convergence., the former fansite turned legit in 2009, has helped the DCA with system development of the Jmanga site via a partnership with Bitway Co., a Japanese e-book company launched by neolithic printing giant Toppan Printing Co. In other words, guerrilla-style, close-to-the-community fansite staffers were tapped by some of the biggest industry veterans to create an official digital portal for manga.

The DCA-Crunchyroll partnership is not the only industry-fansite tie-up on the horizon., currently in beta and planning to go live in August, seeks to work directly with manga artists who want to reach an international audience, bypassing Amazon, Apple and possibly even publishers.

"We don't want to kill publishers," a Mangareborn developer told me. "We want to help decrease their risks by creating a fan base they can use as a focus group."

The emphasis is squarely on community. While the manga industry has taken wayward stabs in the dark to find its overseas audience, amassing too many misses amid the hits, fansites have cultivated a far more intimate relationship with their visitors.

A former fansite operator puts it this way: "We're the risk-takers. We take the first step in evolution. In the world of piracy, the competition is not about 'free' content, it's about service. And that's what the industry lacks."

He pauses, palms outstretched to state the obvious: "We know our end-user, because we are our end-user."

Kelts is a lecturer at Temple University, Japan, who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S." (, now updated and out in paperback.


ArthurFrDent said...

heh, guess I'll have to live tweet from the panel, so you know what's going on... :devil:

sounds interesting, I may start reading manga online once it's more legit. It's not be with my phone 4" screen, though it depends on how much writing is jammed in the page...

Roland Kelts said...

Please do. Will you be on hand? If so, take my pass to the reception and indulge.

Arthurfrdent said...

Yes, I will be there, " lord willing and the creek don't rise." as they say.