Fans lift J-culture over language barrier

by Patrick Macias

Global interest in Japanese entertainment continues to heat up. Quite literally.

Hardcore manga fans around the world are taking their Japanese comics off the shelf and putting them into the microwave.

“They do that so the glue melts, which allows them to take apart the volume page by page so they can be scanned easily,” explains Jonathan, 21, a journalism student at West Virginia University who did not want his last name published.

Why would folks do that to their precious and costly imported comic books? Because they are “scanlators,” a growing community of fans whose love of Japanese manga drives them to take each page, scan it into their computer, then translate the material from Japanese into English and upload it to the Internet for a wider audience to enjoy for free.

But it is not just Japanese comics that have proven ripe for amateur translations. Homemade English versions of anime shows and Japanese television series (such as “Densha Otoko [Train Man]“), along with plenty of clips featuring comedian Razor Ramon HG — Hard Gay as he styles himself, are increasingly popping up on the Internet via blogs (www.tvinjapan.com to name one), file-sharing programs known as torrents and especially the phenomenally popular YouTube site.

A little Net surfing is all it takes to suddenly find translations of everything from feature films — like last year’s hit “NANA” — to annotated versions of ancient Shinto myths (found at www.sacred-texts.com ) readily available.

There are also subbed music videos by girl-group Morning Musume and boy bands like SMAP. U.S. followers of these acts often use the Internet to trade clips and communicate with like-minded fans in Asia in places like Taiwan and South Korea, resulting in translations that are truly international affairs.

Japanese-to-English translations of both professional and amateur varieties are nothing new. But the Net allows publishing, archiving, copying and distribution on an unprecedented scale. As a result, more Japanese pop culture is spread across the globe than ever before.

Even though suburban shopping malls in Middle America are filled with officially licensed J-culture items (manga and anime, especially), Japanese companies that own these products are not keeping up with increasing global demand. Followers want the latest thing from Japan now! The fan translation phenomenon not only fills the gaps, it also shortens the time it takes for Japanese pop culture to journey around the world.

Manga fans in particular, addicted to page-turning narratives, often complain about the agonizingly slow speed at which officially translated products are released abroad when compared to Japan. In the race to keep up with new story chapters, doled out in weekly and monthly doses in Japan, a scanlator doesn’t even need to put his manga in the microwave. A razor blade is the tool favored by the scanlators over at Ignition-One (manga.ignition-one.com ), which offers free downloads of Japanese comics subtitled in English. As of March, the site, which operates on a monthly budget of $117, paid for by donations, boasted 435,768 individual downloads.

Among the 50 titles that Ignition-One has translated is Naoki Urasawa’s “Pluto,” which was awarded the 2005 Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, one of Japan’s top honors for comics. Thesite also hosts English versions of boxing saga “Hajime no Ippo [aka Fighting Spirits]” and “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure,” both well-known in Japan, but not as famous abroad.

That’s fine with West Virginia’s Johnathan, who runs the Ignition-One site. “The entire reason I joined the scanlations community is to promote manga that I was interested in and, coincidentally, that no one else would translate,” he says. “I simply want to share what I love and, as an scanner and as an editor, enjoy the manga I’m interested in to its fullest extent.”

It’s this fervor for Japanese pop culture that has led to a boom in fan translations, with anime and manga leading the way. Some 537 scanlations groups, which range from one-person operations to multiple members scattered across the globe, are listed by www.manganews.net , a major hub for keeping track of new scanlations.

“Caterpillar” of Caterpillar’s Nest (caterpillar.voiea.net ) is a 25-year-old Austrian college student in Vienna. His site is home to English translations of manga you probably won’t (or wouldn’t want to) find on the shelves of a chain bookstore anytime soon, such as the erotic and grotesque work of the notorious Suehiro Maruo. Says Caterpillar, “I started doing scanlations because I wanted to read certain manga and I knew they didn’t stand a snowflake’s chance in hell of ever getting an official English translation.”

Aided by personal computers and the Internet, fans are able to become “ministudios.” They get to choose exactly the manga they wish to read, and with the help of volunteers with the right language and computer skills, they can produce works that rival professionally translated comics for quality and accuracy. American publishers, in hopes of reaching the mass market, sometimes tone down the sex and violence in Japanese products. Fans pride themselves on creating work closer to the original creator’s intentions.

But to some, even within the anime and manga fan community, scanlations are digital-age piracy, pure and simple, and do nothing but take away profit from publishers and artists. A lot of money is potentially at stake. The U.S. market for English translations of Japanese manga driven by publishers such as Viz Media, Tokyopop, and Del Ray was estimated by the comic industry news and analysis Web site ICv2 to be worth between $155 million and $180 million at retail in 2005.

Says Johnathan, “There’s no denying that scanlations are illegal no matter how groups might spin it. But I wouldn’t consider it like the advent of the MP3 format, where sharing music damaged the music industry. I legitimately believe that scanlating manga encourages domestic publishers to license manga.”

Jason Thompson, a professional freelance editor who has worked for several major U.S. manga companies, claims that “although few or no American manga publishers ever mention them, scanlations have become extremely important to the American manga scene. They’re a way of gauging a title’s popularity. If the scanlations are popular, you know that a title has a fanbase.”

“AK of Troy,” owner and main translator of the site Toriyama’s World (www.toriyamaworld.com ) named after Akira Toriyama, creator of the much-loved “Dragon Ball” series, says, “I don’t think scanlating affects the sales of the books when they are eventually licensed because the best-selling series in the U.S. are also the ones that were scanlated the most.”

An unspoken agreement seems to exist between scanlators and manga publishers. When a series is officially licensed for English-language publication, scanlators are expected to police themselves. For instance, when three of Toriyama’s World’s most poplar manga offerings — “Bleach,” “Fullmetal Alchemist,” and “Naruto” — were due to be released in officially licensed editions, the site took their scanlations offline. But pockets of stubborn scanners refuse to give in.

That could soon change. While manga scanners still enjoy relative freedom, anime fansubbers are being directly threatened by Japan’s anime industry.

Fansubbing, an activity that predates the advent of manga scanning, originally helped to spread the gospel of anime in English-speaking countries in the 1980s and ’90s; lean years for imports of Japanese pop-culture products abroad. At first, tapes of amateur-subtitled anime were traded in person at anime clubs or sent through the mail. Now anime fansubs reach thousands daily through peer-to-peer clients on the Net such as BitTorrent, Usenet groups, or through Internet Relay Chat channels.

Daryl Surat, a freelance contributor to U.S.-based magazine Anime Insider, says, “There is a widespread idea among many fans now that ‘anime should be free,” as if to suggest that anime isn’t a commercial product. The amount of anime fans [in the United States] seems to have increased, and yet sales of anime DVDs here are down.”

On Aug. 22 this year, Bandai Entertainment Inc. issued a press release in America for their highly anticipated upcoming title “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex — Solid State Society.” The film, budgeted at $3.6 million, has already been licensed for a 2007 U.S. release. That hasn’t stopped several fansub groups from announcing their intentions to translate “Solid State Society.” Within days of the film’s Sept. 1 debut screening on Japanese TV, raw untranslated footage, which usually proves irresistible to fansubbers, was already popping up on the Internet.

Bandai’s August press release read like a declaration of war: “The creation of translated versions of ‘Solid State Society’ is considered an unauthorized derivative and constitutes infringement of the intellectual property rights in the work as well as unfair competition.” Ken Iyadomi, Bandai’s president, is quoted as saying, “We are prepared to take legal action against fansubbers and illegal download and other distribution sites if this notice is ignored.”

Surat believes Bandai is in the right to defend their intellectual property.

“But I question the effectiveness of such a measure,” he says. “Even the Recording Industry Association of America and Motion Picture Association of America are unable to do anything to curtail the unauthorized online distribution of their works due to peer-to-peer distribution networks set up outside of the U.S. Still, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is one of the most popular anime franchises in the U.S., so its financial success is virtually guaranteed regardless of how many people fansub it beforehand.”

“John,” 24, head of the fansub group Anime Classic (www.l33t-ninj4.net ), thinks that continued global interest in Japanese pop culture might lead to some solutions if Japanese companies step up to the plate. “If Japan wanted to wipe out the fansubbers, all they’d have to do is open a site like Bandai Channel up to foreign viewers, slap on some simple translations, and charge 200 yen an episode.”

Perhaps the next generation of digital playback technology will force Japan to open up even more to the international market. Most Japanese DVDs are currently “region-coded” to work only on Japanese players, but future video releases on the new HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats are expected to work on U.S. machines. While this may be great news for consumers, it may bode ill for fan translators. “They could start wiping out the fansubbers if [Japan] began to put English on their releases and brought prices down enough to be competitive. Will it happen? Who knows?”

Patrick Macias is the author of “Otaku in USA” (Ohta Shuppan) and “Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion” (Cadence Books). He can be found at www.patrickmacias.blogs.com

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