Doujinshi have evolved incredibly since their emergence as amateur “literary coterie magazines” in the 1970s. What was once a near equivalent to the English term fanzine has now become, in many cases, a word that describes product distribution methods more than the nature of the product itself. Read on for a brief overview of the current doujin environment, followed by a look at a few specific cases at work in the brave new world of professional doujinshi.

I started thinking about this recently when looking into procurement options for a few items related to doujin soft maker Lilith. I was trying to figure out why it is that no online shop (other than Mandarake Edit: and Nippon Export, thanks Ialda) will ship Lilith’s Kagami artbook Nuye internationally, and secondly, why Lilith’s doujin game Uchuu Kaizoku Sara is available for mail order at Getchu.com, while Crepe’s similar Kaizoku Ouki Alfiana is not.

To answer these questions takes a new understanding of what the word “doujinshi” means, so I set about looking over the recent history of the term to find out.


Lilith-published Kagami ero artbook Nuye

Kagami artbook Nuye, published by Lilith

What is Doujinshi?

The word doujinshi (同人誌) translates roughly as “publication of liked-minded people”. I’m not going to bother tracing the etymology of the term or its emergence in common otaku parlance (more information is available at Wikipedia); instead I want to identify what consensus has determined the salient characteristics of doujinshi to be, and how they have changed over the years.

In its most basic form, a doujinshi is:

  • Made of paper / printed material. this is the “shi” part of doujinshi.
  • Produced by a group of people with similar interests, known as a circle. this is the “doujin” part of doujinshi.
  • Produced by individuals outside their official line of employment – in other words, as an amateur hobby.
  • Sold / distributed directly by the creator at special events designed for the purpose (doujinshi sales conventions, 同人誌即売会).

Topically doujinshi can cover any area imaginable – from academic essays to novels, parody manga, pornography, art, games, music, and more – virtually no arena of human endeavor is not somehow reflected in the doujin world. That said the most commercially successful doujinshi tend to carry erotic themes, and among those the most popular are often parodic.

Technological innovations and cultural changes in the late ’90s began to alter the nature of doujinshi in several important ways that broadened its initial definition, both in terms of media and distribution.

  • The internet emerged, allowing niche cultures to proliferate. This increased doujin artist exposure online and provided a new vehicle for mail order sales directly from the artists.
  • The availability of cheap digital media (CD-Rs) allowed for new genres of doujin to emerge, including doujin soft (software) and doujin music.

Over the first years of the new millennium these trends continued, with a robust market emerging that combined improved distribution with wider interest to generate revenue for some circles that could no longer be termed “amateur” in any meaningful sense.

  • The doujinshi market grew steadily via promulgation through the internet and pop culture media.
  • This resulted in the viability of the doujin as a means of part time and increasingly full time employment.
  • “Kojin circles” emerged, consisting of a sole creator (kojin) who handled all aspects of production and received all the benefits of income from publications.
  • Larger circles formed semi-professional units to produce doujin software that would compete with professional releases.
  • Otaku goods shops expanded their scope as doujin vendors, acting as proxy sellers for hundreds of circles both via brick and mortar outlets and via online mail order.
  • Online-only doujin shops such as DLsite emerged, selling digital copies of doujinshi via download.
  • Advances in printing technology and cheap, high quality labor (mostly Chinese) allowed for the proliferation of doujin items to media beyond the traditional books (and less tradtional CD-Rs), including towels, pillowcases, fans, cups, trinkets, and figures.

It is this progression that brings us the breadth of doujin culture we have today; one that has come a long way from its roots in the amateur fanzines of the 1970s. While there are still circles that exist in much the same amateur capacity as those that populated the first Comic Market in 1975, the expansion of the market as well as the explosion of diversity in media, ease of production and distribution have enabled a new class of semi-pro and professional creators who nonetheless operate under the banner of “doujinshi”.

The Kojin Parody Model

The profile of the professional doujinka (doujin creator) is as diverse as the media landscape that doujin now covers. While individual authors who make their living entirely from self-published doujinshi are few and far between, an increasingly large class of professional creators uses doujin sales as a substantial segment of their income, acting as freelance illustrators, mangaka, and designers when they’re not doing doujin work (and vice versa). Examples of such creators include:

The list goes on and on. Perhaps the biggest issue raised by the emergence of this group of professional and semi-pro doujinka is that of intellectual property rights and copyright infringement. Many of these authors do original creative work when they’re freelancing on a project (doing game designs, book illustrations, etc.), but turn to their kojin circles when they want to produce parody material based on popular anime or games. Parody books from famous authors often sell several thousand copies over the course of a day at Comiket, profiting in a very grey market from the creative work of others and the popularity of the franchise being parodied.

While the increased commercialization of parody doujinshi would make it seem that a confrontation with copyright holders is inevitable, it’s important to note that in many instances the people producing the doujinshi are the same as those producing the original works being parodied. The doujin scene is so interbred with that of professional anime, manga, and game creators that it would be impractical for all but the largest IP holders to crack down on the parody doujin scene.

The Soft Circle Model

The second class of professional doujinka operates not as individuals but in groups, and is perhaps the most divorced from the traditional definition of the term. These are the groups that form to produce certain types of doujin software. When doujin soft first emerged in the mid-90s it was primarily conceived as a digital offshoot of paper doujinshi, allowing amateur creators to play around with new media that was formerly inaccessible.

However in the early 2000’s several groups were formed that were more production houses than amateur circles, operating on a wider scale with more professionalism and efficiency than that typically associated with the doujin world. These were the “soft circles”, including such units as:

It is the case of Lilith Soft in particular that illustrates just how far the term “doujin” is being stretched. They produce roughly a game a month, fully voiced with high production values given their price point (2,100 yen per game, a price they nearly singlehandedly proved was viable) and sell their games right alongside major professional releases. They register their games with the CSA, one of the two computer software ratings groups that are the gatekeepers to sale via mainstream eroge shops (as opposed to doujin shops). Unlike the majority of eroge brands however Lilith distributes its games directly, doujin style, not via a distribution company or wholesaler. This allows them much greater flexibility in their distribution options, which combined with their choice to register with the CSA grants them unprecedented market saturation. Lilith products can be purchased online, via mail order from shops that sell other mainstream eroge, in brick and mortar doujin shops, eroge shops, and ero bookstores. One could possibly go as far as saying that Lilith’s business model is the culmination of doujinshi as commerce – small, versatile, ubiquitous, and high quality.

If this is the case, then returning to the initial questions that informed this piece, why is it so blasted hard to get ahold of Nuye outside of Japan? The answer is simply that for whatever reason, companies that export books from Japan have not entered a direct relationship with Lilith. While an international retailer can usually just dial up their distributor and order a stack of artbooks from its wholesale warehouse, Nuye will not be among them.

The answer to the second question can be found in the following images:


pirate vs. pirate

pirate vs. pirate

Uchuu Kaizoku Sara Getchu.com download sales info Kaizoku Ouki Alfiana Getchu.com download sales info

Images censored because I was originally planning to make this a non-ero post… hah.

As we can see, both Lilith’s Uchuu Kaizoku Sara and Crepe’s Kaizoku Ouki Alfiana are available for sale via download from Getchu’s new doujin download division, and according to their descriptions they are nearly identical in terms of content. Only the former is available in a package version from Getchu’s standard eroge side, however, and the reason is the shiny CSA sticker on the box, the sticker that definitively puts the lie to any pretense of amateur doujin quality the software might otherwise possess.

In conclusion (if there is any point to this rambling piece), the world of doujinshi is no longer truly encompassed by the term’s literal meaning. It is not the exclusive province of coterie groups (“doujin”), as the monad kojin circle unit has risen to prominence over the past several years. Nor is it exclusively composed of printed material (“shi”), with the rise of the soft circle as a unit of doujin software production. The doujin world now spans works from the rank amateur to the polished professional and everything in between, and has become a market within the otaku sphere that is a potent force to be reckoned with.

As Comiket approaches I’m hoping to have the time to write specifically on how the the current doujin market works in relationship to what is now known as the biannual “manga matsuri”, the doujin world’s focal point and single most important event.

editor's desk logo

Shingo is a wannabe doujin artist who realizes that he is yet another unintentional byproduct of the internet age now blighting Japan’s doujin landscape. He hopes he doesn’t spoil its carefully manicured lawns when he makes his Comiket debut this December.