Earthquake Rattles Japanese Animation Industry

Along with sushi and Toyota vehicles, one of the best-known Japanese exports is anime -- the Japanese term for animation.

The distinct anime style originated in post-war Japan – first in manga, the so-called graphic novels or comic books. But by the 1960's, anime television programs were being broadcast in North America, Australia and Europe -- shows like Astro Boy and Speed Racer. And today, as many parents know, anime programs like Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z -- along with their related merchandise -- have been hot items with children for years.

Anime Studios "At a Standstill"

Japan's recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor crises are taking their toll on the nation's population and industrial sector -- and Japanese anime, an industry that brings in an estimated $2.5 billion annually, has suffered as well.

"The whole thing is having a pretty significant effect right now," says Christopher Macdonald, CEO and publisher of Anime News Network. "70% of Japan's animation studios are in the suburbs of Tokyo, and those are . . . the areas being affected by the rolling blackouts. That means it's very hard for people to do work. They don't know when their electricity is going to be turned off for three to six hours; the offices start shaking every 15 minutes [from aftershocks]. For the most part, most of those studios are at a standstill when it comes to their animation work."

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Macdonald says some popular anime programs may end up having shortened seasons in Japan due to the disaster, but a lot of that programming has already made its way to international markets. "At this time we don't foresee any production delays for our series," says Jane Lui, publicity and events manager for San Francisco-based VIZ Media -- the largest North American distributor of anime -- in an email. "That fact . . . of itself is a testament to the incredible work ethic of our partners in Japan."

That being said, the situation at the anime studios remains in crisis. "Our parent companies, Shogakukan, Shueisha, and ShoPro (all based in Tokyo) and the studios . . . are extremely supportive of their staff," says Lui, "many of whom may be searching for missing loved ones, or taking care of those displaced or affected by the disaster. It will take a while for normal day-to-day business to stabilize."

An Industry Already in Crisis

The disaster is just the latest setback for Japan's anime industry. While demand for anime is growing internationally, Japanese anime is being challenged by animation from other countries. A lot of the manually-intensive animation work by Japanese studios is also being outsourced to countries with cheaper labor costs like South Korea, China and Thailand.

"Production budgets have been slashed because of the economic slump, and young workers on the margins are bearing hard burdens," Hisako Sasaki, the head of anime studio Wish, recently told the national newspaper Asahi Shimbun. "Young workers have fewer chances to accumulate experience and improve their skills."

There's also an ongoing international slump in the sale of DVDs, anime and otherwise. Internet piracy of anime programs, meanwhile, is rampant -- with some of the more popular shows illegally available online with hours of their first broadcast in Japan.

Grueling Entry-Level Work

As an important cultural icon, the Japanese government is taking the anime crisis seriously. The nation's Agency for Cultural Affairs is providing nearly $500,000 in subsidies for a program where experienced animators collaborate with novices to educate the next generation on key anime techniques.

But there's a high burn-out rate among Japanese trying to break into anime. Employees at the bottom of the anime ladder are expected to do the grueling "in-between" work, and are paid by each cell or drawing they complete. "And even though they produce a lot of drawings every month, their salaries are pretty crappy," says Macdonald -- who estimates the average salary of an anime "in-betweener" runs from $8,000 to $18,000.

"The talent pool for creating new visionaries, new directors, is shrinking," he says. "Like most industries, the animation industry is shaped a bit like a pyramid. If the base shrinks, the top shrinks."

And there are now concerns the earthquake and tsunami could create a worse-case scenario for Japanese anime. With work at home interrupted by the disaster, Macdonald says, "some of the studios might decide we need to get this work done, so we're going to hire some more Korean studios to fill in temporarily. Once a season is off-shored for a couple of weeks, it's not coming back. And if you lose a complete season or two seasons of salary in Japan, these people are going to find work in other industries, higher paying industries, like video gaming."