In which HD takes issue with an article recently published in the News section of the Japan Times, under the title “Porn ‘anime’ boasts a big US beachhead”.

Dear Sir,

I would like to comment on several percieved ommissions and inaccuracies in your article Porn ‘anime’ boasts a big US beachhead in the July 11, 2006 edition of the Japan Times (registration necessary once the article is archived).

I’d like to start with the image included with the article. It is a photograph of an assembled and painted version of this resin garage kit, produced by sculptor Vispo and featuring the character Ayanami Rei from the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. While certainly “provocative” it is hardly pornographic, and its relevance to the thesis of your piece is questionable, as it is for sale at a Japanese specialty shop and not on the international market.

Also worthy of further inquiry is the price point the item in question commands, as your emphasis implies it to be unreasonable or somehow abnormal. 73,500 yen (roughly USD $640 at today’s exchange rate) is certainly expensive, but what goes into that cost? First there is the cost of production of the base resin kit, from which the sculptor must derive a profit. A kit of that scale would be sold at between 10,000 and 20,000 yen, unpainted and unassembled, and would only be available on a limited basis at events specially sanctioned for the sale of works featuring such copywritten characters. It would then have to be painted and assembled, a laborious process consuming potentially dozens of man-hours. Assuming a fair rate of compensation for a skilled artisan (perhaps 2,000 yen an hour) the price more than doubles; a conservative estimate for reselling by an after-market painter would be 40,000 to 50,000 yen. The rest of the price would be made up in Mandarake’s profit margin, as they become the third point of sale for the original kit.

The larger point here is that if you have 73,500 yen to drop on a scantily-clad statue of an anime character, this puts you in a small and select group of hobbyists who have chosen to pursue this particular avenue of fandom with a passion. It is not reflective of the majority of casual anime viewers, either here in Japan or abroad.

On to the actual article content:

    “a growing boom in the genre’s pornographic segment is raising eyebrows among the world’s fans of Pokemon and other less-graphic content.”

The world’s fans of Pokemon and other less-graphic animated content have been raising eyebrows at animated porn since Urotsukidoji was released in the US in 1993, if not before. That and other early examples of “hentai” were what led to both the adoption of the term in common English parlance and the common misconception that “all anime is tentacle porn”, a notion that the recent international boom has done far more to dispel than to reinforce.

    “The best-selling product overseas now is a pornographic makeover of ‘Gundam Seed,’ “

This quote needs further explanation. There is no way that Bandai, the children’s toy company and production force behind Gundam Seed, would officially sanction a pornographic anime version of it; if anime (Japanese animation) is the focus of your article it is vital that you clarify this point. Instead, what the Mandarake employee is referring to is probably an unofficial, amateur “doujinshi” publication, or fan comic. In addition, the “best-selling” designation can be explained by the fact that much more widely-consumed media (mainstream anime and manga) are readily available via other distribution routes; it is not surprising that Mandarake, a niche store targeted at hobbyists and one of the few outlets to ship doujinshi internationally, has one of its specialty products as a best-seller.

    “The company and similar shops have seen overseas sales of sexual “anime” grow in the last couple of years.”

Again, this is because “the company and similar shops” don’t sell anything else that can’t be readily obtained via cheaper, domestic channels. The reasons their overseas sales of sexual “anime” (probably not anime at all, but doujinshi and games, as pornographic anime is also widely licensed by domestic distributors in the US and elsewhere) have grown is because international markets have matured, and there’s no longer a need to import what used to be “specialty items” from Japanese stores such as Mandarake.

    “The general intolerance toward pornographic animation and comic books in the West is another factor for overseas fans to seek out Japanese products, Furukawa said.”

While Furukawa is no doubt an authority on the runnings of his business, whether he should be seen as a quotable reference on international social norms is questionable. The fact is that there is no special intolerance toward pornographic animation and comic books in the West beyond an intolerance for pornography in general, though Furukawa’s misconception could have been sparked by knowledge that Western animation companies are much quicker to protect the use of their intellectual property (characters, etc.) in pornographic parody form. In this sense the Japanese companies should be seen as more permissive, but this is not reflective of social norms in either case.

Likewise, the incentive to seek out Japanese pornographic products is the same whether they are animated or not; Asian porn is a ubiquitously popular niche market within the sum of pornography, and Japan produces a whole lot of it.

    “Fans in America seek something special in this anime, and reading them is cathartic,” he said.

“Reading anime?” I think this is the source of the issue addressed above, namely that Mandarake doesn’t sell pornographic anime to an international audience, rather exporting doujinshi. Again, I don’t think it is appropriate to quote a Mandarake manager’s speculation on the motives behind American fans’ taste for doujinshi – why not try asking the customers themselves? We’re out here, and some of us even read the Japan Times.

    “hentai began to gain currency overseas around 2001 and online shops saw a corresponding growth in sales of adult products.”

Funny, that year also corresponds with the growth of mainstream anime presence on the internet, its featured broadcast on American cable TV channels, the boom in US anime convention attendance, and the beginning of my own personal anime fandom. Is it possible that the growth in interest in porn is merely a proportional reflection of the growth in interest in anime in general over the past five years? It certainly seems likely, but we can’t tell, given the lack of information in the article.

    “Fukuda said there will be, and should be, tighter rules against adult anime.”

What does this have to do with the article? Dropping a line like this with no explanation is irresponsible from a journalistic standpoint in the currently charged political climate surrounding the issue. Your later quote from the Harvard anime club president, while a welcome addition, doesn’t do enough to balance this little bombshell – I suggest you invite comment from Japanese parties concerned with freedom of speech and expression as well if you plan to weigh in on the moral debate.

    “According to a report by the Japan External Trade Organization, the number of Japanese anime DVDs exported to the United States increased from 2.1 million in 2000 to 12 million in 2005.”

Not only does this have nothing to do with pornography, it reinforces the impression that anime is a filmographic medium sold on DVDs, where earlier in the piece it was a medium to be “read”. Without a coherent definition of the term you risk confusion at best and misunderstanding at worst on the part of the casual reader.

Also, I doubt this statistic is referring to DVDs directly exported to the United States. At an average price of USD $40-50 per disc (at Japanese rates) this would imply a 500-million dollar yearly market for the import of Japanese anime DVDs, which is absurd; why import the Japanese DVD, without English subtitles, at a price several orders of magnitude higher than the domestically produced, subtitled and dubbed US equivalent? Almost every anime airing on Japanese TV these days makes its way to a US release within a year, so the only people importing region 2 (Japanese) discs these days are the abovementioned hobbyists.

This fact, coupled with the quotes from Mandarake’s sales figures (“adult products account for 30 percent of its international sales”) earlier in the article, paint the picture of a 500-million dollar direct import market from Japan, of which thirty percent (150 million dollars) is pornography; I doubt this is what you intended, but if it were really the case I’d be making a tidy sum in the export business right now and not typing this here.

    “Ryusuke Hikawa, a critic who has collaborated with NHK in producing anime programs, explained that there has been a market for Japanese pornographic anime in the United States since the late 1980s.”

If you had lead with this instead of the Mandarake interview I might not have felt compelled to write in response to your article. As it is, it seems you are using the increased popularity of anime as a whole to disproportionately target an increase of interest in its seedy underbelly. While I agree the increased international interest in two-dimensional erotica from Japan is a topic worth addressing, sensationalizing it in this way does little to add to reasonable dialogue on the subject.

    “In April, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors in California ordered the anime reference book “Manga: Sixty years of Japanese Comics,” to be banned from the county’s libraries, because the book contained “reproductions of pornographic cartoons depicting sex acts, including sex with animals.”

This anecdote, while historical fact, should not be left without critical inquiry if it is to be cited responsibly. It raises questions as to whether the book in question actually contains the objectionable material cited by the Board, and it is at least possible that they misinterpreted the content. Frederick Schodt‘s work is widely regarded as professional, scholarly, and an indespensable part of the canon of literature on the history of modern Japanese art; as it is, the presentation here casts aspersions both on the nature of his work and the character of the author.

I wouldn’t feel compelled to write this were it not for the potential for misunderstanding and harm that could result from a misreading of this article. I believe it could benefit from further research and elaboration, though at its core – the notion that interest in “porn anime” is expanding beyond the rate of adoption of its more innocuous (and vastly more popular) all-ages counterpart – I believe the article’s thesis is spurious, and should be rethought.

Thank you for your time.

Shingo note: I went ahead and sent this to the “letters to the editor” section of the ‘Times, so we’ll see what happens…