While campaigning for this Sunday’s election has largely focused on economic and social security issues, people in the content industry are casting a cold eye on the contest following a recent confrontation in the Diet.
The industry, which includes entertainment businesses such as “manga” comic books, “anime” and video games, became the focus of negative attention earlier this year when the Democratic Party of Japan attacked the Liberal Democratic Party for planning a “national media arts center” with a budget of ¥11.7 billion, calling it “wasteful spending.”
The DPJ strongly urged Prime Minister Taro Aso, who is known as a big fan of manga, not to build the facility aimed at collecting and exhibiting manga and animated films.
Although funding for the project gained Diet approval as part of the fiscal 2009 supplementary budget in late May, the DPJ has said that if it wins the election it will scrap the plan and shift part of the money to social relief for single-mother households. It has also said it will review the entire budget.
After drawing criticism even from some members of the LDP, who asserted that such a facility is “unnecessary,” the LDP is now refraining from openly mentioning the project or issues related to the content industry.
“It seems that it was not the best time” to bring up the idea, said Tomoyuki Sugiyama, president of Digital Hollywood University in Tokyo, which nurtures creators and designers.
Even though it is not the sort of project that needs to be implemented urgently, there has to be a place to collect and organize manga, anime and other such works before they disappear so researchers can study them, Sugiyama said.
Akira Shimizu, director at the arts and culture division of the Cultural Affairs Agency, which has been preparing for the construction of the center, expressed concern that the project has become a “big political issue.”
“Works of anime, manga and games were born and spread in the 20th century as a form of entertainment,” Shimizu said. But they were not recognized as a cultural form like kabuki and other traditional arts.
“We would like to position such media arts as an art form” like others that have museums of their own, Shimizu said, adding that neighboring countries, particularly China, are investing large amounts of money to promote their content industries.
According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Digital Content Association of Japan, the market size of Japan’s content industry, including news media and books, has reached around ¥14 trillion, the second largest in the world after the United States.
But the industry is now experiencing sluggish growth in the domestic market amid the falling birthrate and the aging population, and there is a pressing need for it to carve out new ground overseas.
“There should be an organized place for people from abroad to see the industry as a whole, and the center is likely to help the industry expand overseas operations,” said Kazushige Nobutani, director of METI’s media and content division.
The ministry is supporting the sector through legal measures, including combating piracy and improving global awareness on the protection of intellectual property, Nobutani said.
Meanwhile, people working in the industry voiced concern over the planned center’s future.
Mayu Ito, a 30-year-old creative director of Realthing Inc., a Tokyo-based company that produces computer graphics and animation, said she was surprised when she recently visited an animation studio in South Korea.
“I felt there was an ample amount of money for each staff member and they were working with the latest software,” Ito said.
She said the people who make up the core of the animation industry in Japan are in their late 30s to mid-40s, but their pay is often not enough to live on. While admitting it would be good to have a museum housing past manga and anime, she wants the government to also help improve the working environment for people in the industry so that young, talented people will be able to exert their individuality in producing work.
Meanwhile, Yujiro Funato, 28, a producer at Realthing, criticized the government for being “late” in building such a facility. “It should have built it 20 years ago. . . . Things are going in the wrong direction because they’re talking about it when there is no money.”
Both Ito and Funato expressed skepticism over the LDP’s campaign pledge to support the training of talent and to improve compensation for those working in the field, saying the LDP-led coalition government has hardly lifted a finger for the industry in the past.
“Nothing is likely to change. The private sector should make efforts on its own,” Funato said.
But Digital Hollywood University’s Sugiyama is not pessimistic about the future of the industry, even if the DPJ takes power and withdraws the plan to build the media arts center for the time being.
“When looking at the DPJ’s candidates, there are many young people who grew up with Japanese creative content. . . . They are likely to support the industry,” Sugiyama said, adding that no one can ignore an industry that has potential for growth.
At the same time, Sugiyama expressed disappointment over the current situation in which the government is mainly focused on social security and pension issues and not looking at the industry, which can give people dreams and hopes through imagination.
While such issues are of course important, it is also “important for the country to use money for things that it can be proud of, even if it is a small amount,” Sugiyama said.