Culture | CULTURE SMASH

Will digital piracy ruin the future of manga?

by Roland Kelts

Contributing Writer

Author and manga translator Frederik L. Schodt once pointed out to me that many of Japan’s cultural products are embraced abroad just as they are declining at home. Ukiyo-e prints became the rage in Europe in the late 19th century, nearly 100 years after they’d peaked in Edo and Kyoto. Sake sales have been climbing steadily in overseas markets, with the value of exports doubling over the past five years and hitting a record in 2017, as they continue a decades-long slide in Japan. And now: manga?

According to a survey by the Research Institute for Publications, domestic manga sales were flat last year, but the big reveal in the numbers was that digital outsold physical for the first time, rising 17.2 percent while print slipped 14.4 percent. Weekly manga magazines saw the steepest drop in sales, to below a third of what they were in 1995. A lot of digital manga content is cheap or costs nothing at all, with some of the larger, more-established apps, like messaging service Line, offering free titles to entice readers to make in-app purchases.

The North American market for manga peaked in the mid-2000s, when it breached the $200 million threshold, according to Chigusa Ogino, director at Tuttle-Mori Agency, Inc., Japan’s largest and oldest literary agency. But in 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (known in Japan as “Lehman shock”) and the resulting financial crisis, followed a few years later by the bankruptcy of the American bookstore chain, Borders, dealt severe blows to the industry.

“A lot of publishers left the market,” Ogino says. “We saw the bottom.”

Ogino has seen most of the highs and lows of the international manga market in her 27 years managing licenses for Japanese publishers. Petite, casually dressed but pointedly well-spoken, she combines a studied world-weariness with vigorous humor and enthusiasm — particularly when it comes to presenting market research. During our conversation at Tuttle-Mori’s Tokyo offices, she dashes out of the room and returns brandishing pie charts and statistics. “Aren’t these just beautiful,” she says, opening a page of graphics on global media assembled by Ruediger Wischenbart, an Austrian consultant and journalist. “So much care went into these designs.”

In 1991, Ogino felt like she was the only person in Japan who cared about the overseas demand for manga, and even then she happened upon it almost by accident. At the time, she was signing up English-language mystery writers for agency co-founder, Tom Mori. A caller from Japan’s largest manga publisher, Shueisha Inc., asked if she would stop by and read some English-language faxes for them. She discovered heaps of paper. The faxes had been sent over a period of months from Barcelona, Spain, and they kept asking the same question: How can we get the rights to “Dragon Ball”?

“Those faxes changed my life,” Ogino says, laughing. “A lot of foreign publishers wanted to publish manga before 1990, but Japanese publishers just didn’t reply. The domestic market was big enough that no one felt the need to respond. But also, there wasn’t any capacity. If you received a fax in those days that you could not read, what would you do? Throw it away.”

Email and video calling have long consigned tossed faxes to the bin, and the massive international success of manga franchises like “Dragon Ball,” “One Piece” and “Naruto” proved that Japan’s intellectual properties can spin gold. But the shift to e-comics in the domestic marketplace has alarmed publishers for several reasons, from shuttered bookstores to failing distribution companies. Aside from Japan’s notoriously low birthrate, which is shrinking the total number of future readers, many younger manga consumers also no longer experience manga on paper in the first place.

Most Japanese publishers now get the point: Manga needs digital platforms and overseas fans. But managing those distant markets requires a focused and disciplined approach to research. The manga markets in France and Germany have had four to five years of steady growth, explains Ogino, whereas recent concerns over the health of U.S. chain booksellers Barnes & Noble have resulted in a slight dip in North American sales.

Earlier this month, a Japanese publishing industry study session focusing on China revealed that a full 90 percent of print publications in that country are sold online. Fewer than 10 physical bookstores opened last year across the country, which, while a meager figure, still marks a 2 to 3 percent increase over the previous year.

“There were more than 150 people on hand (at the China session) from over 50 Japanese publishers. That’s the level of interest in the Chinese market. It’s intense,” says Ogino.

Yet the interest in China’s book market is as spectacular as its many challenges are daunting. Manga is considered children’s fare and subject to heavy state censorship. The government grants only 10 licenses to foreign comic publishers per year. Japanese publishers receive an average of four or five; the rest go to France and the U.S. Meanwhile, piracy remains so rampant, Ogino says, “that everything is available to everyone anyway.”

She is more optimistic about manga’s future in Europe and North America, where some of the publishers who survived hitting bottom in 2008 have been restructured and revived.

Yen Press, LLC, a joint venture between Kadokawa Corp. and Hachette Book Group, last year inked a global distribution deal with Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. Tokyopop has reemerged as a digitally focused manga media brand, launching a new International Women of Manga series to promote female artists. Meanwhile, Dark Horse Comics is celebrating its 30th anniversary of publishing manga in the U.S. by releasing a gallery edition — a reprint using original artwork reproduced at full size in a large-format book — based on the final chapter of Kazuo Koike’s classic series “Lone Wolf and Cub,” which the publisher introduced in English 18 years ago.

“We’re nearly back to $150 million,” Ogino says of her latest U.S. manga sales stats. “Not quite $200 million.” Not yet.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.