It is Japan Week at KU Leuven, my university, for the fourth time! A symposium with lectures is held, as well as workshops, documentaries and presentations of Japanese (from Kansai University) and Belgian students. I attended the first day of lectures that dealt with the theme: “Japanese Media Culture: between Globalization and the Galapagos Syndrome”. Very diversified topics were introduced by speakers from different specializations. Especially (digitalized) Japanese pop culture and its appeal throughout the world was discussed. I will briefly review three of these lectures.
First of all, KU Leuven professor Dimitri Vanoverbeke, who teaches us Politics and Economics of Japan, talked about “Japanese Studies in Belgium in the 21st Century: Framing the Impact of Popular Culture”. It is hardly known, but Japanese Studies at KU Leuven are currently more popular than other Language and Area studies, like Chinese Studies or Slavic Studies. When I was in first year, 120 other people started Japanese Studies as well (in third year now, there are roughly 40 students left, though…). Altogether, the number of students in Japanese Studies increased from 78 (2005) to 211 (2011), recorded as the peak year. By 2010, Japanese Studies even became the third largest undergraduate section at the Faculty of Arts.
Japanese Studies has to deal with three paradigms: 1) the language and area 2) economics and politics 3) pop culture. These paradigms were not regarded as equal in the past. Since the 1980s, parallel with Japan’s “bashing” economic period, student’s interest was especially incited by Japan’s miraculous economics. Language and culture were of subordinate importance. It was of course no surprise that the number of students decreased in the 1990s, as Japan’s “passing” period announced the end of “Japan as number one”. So why still study Japanese if the Chinese economy has become more important nowadays?
Yearly enquiries point out that students’ main motivation to enroll in Japanese Studies is in many cases the Japanese pop culture. Especially in 2009, when about 75% of the students’ choice was influenced by manga, anime and Jpop (music). Nevertheless, Japanese pop culture is not the only reason, as the students expressed to have interest in history and economics as well. It is more like a combination of different aspects wherein Japanese pop culture forms the bridge between our daily life and the Japanese world. This tendency can also be observed in other European countries.
An example of the globalization of Japanese pop culture is the success of Japan Expo, a 3-day festival hold in Brussels. This year, around 232.000 people attended the festival, and enjoyed 125.000 m2 of stands and stages. This indicates that Japanese pop culture is in fact doing very well. It is a general phenomenon in Europe, instigated by globalization.
To improve this spread of Japanese culture, professor Vanoverbeke draws attention to the importance of social sciences. KU Leuven offers services like sites, a Japanese-Dutch dictionary and projects (e.g. Let’s Manga). All of these digital devices do not only provide passive knowledge, but expect students to participate in the learning process, and stimulates an active knowledge exchange.
The next speaker was professor Naoko Mori from Kansai University with “International Circulation of Japanese Comics (Manga)”. She talked about the change in distribution routes of Japanese manga in China. In the 1990s, Japanese manga and anime grew more popular there. Its distribution was controlled mainly in big cities, what resulted in the distribution of pirated editions in the rural areas. In recent years, we see a decrease in Japanese anime broadcast, as the Chinese government wants to protect domestic animation products. There are also regulations on pirated editions, but these cannot stop the increase in illegal scanlations. As soon as one day after the Japanese release, Chinese translation can be found on the Internet.
Fan culture is booming as well in China. In the 1990s, the first Dōjinshi 同人誌 (self-published manga works) emerged. In the 2000s, comic cons were held and manga clubs were established at schools. At Beijing University in 2011, no less than 800 students were members of the manga club! In recent years, Dōjinshi has evolved into real, popular Chinese comics.
Professor Mori then shifted to another topic, that is the gender difference of expressions. In comics for girls (shōjo 少女), there is a complex frame. Thought bubbles are used more often, and characters look like fashion models. These features express rather feelings and topics like love, human relationships etc. Comics for boys (shōnen 少年) make more use of a flat frame and action sounds. Characters look like action stars, and therefore express motion. These manga contain themes like battle, sports etc.
Yaoi (love between men) dōjinshi mixes these things. They are written by and for girls, but are original inspired by comics for boys. According to professor Mori, yaoi indicates the spread of manga culture.
I conclude this post with reviewing the lecture “Business and Government Engagement with the Anime Boom in the United-States and its Decline” of professor Michal Daliot-Bul of the university of Haifa (Israel). Since the 1960, Japanese anime shows have become very successful around the world. However, it was only since the late 1990s, these shows were also labeled as “made-in Japan”. In 2000, we observed a peak in the anime bubble, but the boom is now over. It was clear that no recuperation of investments could be gained.
The globalization of anime did not work out so well because of structural obstacles. If we compare the Japanese and the American situation (Disney, Nickelodeon), we can see that in Japan there are no conglomerates who control the whole production and distribution process. The Japanese anime industry is decentralized, most companies are independent and small-scale, and the production process is fragmented.
The Japanese tend to orient their production domestically, and shun negotiations because of their fear to encounter language and culture barriers. In the beginning (and still), Japan sold their copyrights to the USA, making use of a minimum guarantee system. Once launched abroad, the Japanese had nothing to say about it anymore. Strategies for globalization are insufficiently developed: less than 10% of all revenues of anime are collected oversees. Take Pokémon for example. It became a world-wide success, but almost nothing of the revenues went back to Japan.
There are global distribution channels (e.g. Animax), but these are all launched in the USA. Online streaming is popular, but 1) hardcore fans prefer to pay a fair amount for their anime, 2) downloading is way easier. Television has obviously been replaced by the internet.
Could the Japanese government provide better support to the globalization of Japanese anime? Strategic plans for digitization have been made, but execution of them is not really visible. In 2013, the market has changed drastically compared to 10 years ago. The government hasn’t taken this chance into account, and has overlooked a big opportunity to control media-distribution. What is missing, is a flexible, agile and proactive approach to globalization.