This post will go into highly speculative, possibly even fictitious waters. However, staying true to a philosophy of saying whatever rather than saying nothing at all out of fear of being wrong, I’m going to go ahead and present my thoughts.
Are the yakuza involved in the anime industry? This is a recurring question on my mind, one that has resurfaced due to a betting scandal in the e-sports world. I’d love to rant on that subject as well, but let’s leave it for another time. First, a bit of premeditation …
That Japanese animators are vastly underpaid shouldn’t be news to anyone who has been diligently following the anime scene. Eventually, people come across an interview with a ranting industry old-timer, or a show like Shirobako that visualizes the problematic for the disinterested. The series presents newbie animators as often malnourished individuals, riddled with sickness, that rely on the good will of their families or lovers who support them in their creative ventures. The industry is being held up by these passionate workaholics, oftentimes destined to burn out and leave the industry in a couple of years’ time. I posit those that remain are beings that live on passion alone.
The reason for such bad working conditions is supposedly a very skewed distribution of production financing, with most of it going toward advertisers and broadcast companies. Those in need of a good reference, the chart presented below comes from the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which has been sitting on zepy’s retired blog for over six years now. An archived copy of the blog post can be found here.
The chart illustrates a simple dynamic: sponsors fund anime productions, with most of the money going into advertisers’ and broadcasters’ pockets. What little bread crumbs remain are left to the companies actually making anime. How this situation came to be is a question for which I don’t have the time to properly answer, but I think we can all agree some seriously corrupt shit is going on in there.
We can come up with a reasoning that follows the cynical route: market forces compensated for the fact that there is high supply of people willing to work in the anime industry. I imagine it’s the same for most aspiring musicians out there–they get paid shit because everybody and their mum wants to be a singer. But we can also say that the industry should realize sooner than later that exploiting the health of their workers, weakening their mindset, and putting off real talent only strengthens competing creative industries. Twenty years from now, who’s to say anime will still be the main advertising tool for media mix projects? Free-to-play games are in a position to usurp the role.
That anime shows are now more popular globally than they have ever been is mainly a result of increased exposure. Sure, quality is rising, but so is in other creative mediums and entry barriers keep falling down. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the growth curve of anime profits could have been curvier had they only managed to keep talent at bay. If nothing else, the notion of kaizen has completely escaped their capacity.
Why don’t production committees reform their system and give more money to production companies? Has it been tried, tested and proven that giving more money to a bunch of otaku creators doesn’t better their health or increase quality or profits? It could be the case that more money doesn’t fit into anime’s manufacturing model. Perhaps creators simply have to suffer to produce something substantial. I am not sure. But every time I am reminded of the bad state of creative workers from the anime industry I get ashamed for supporting it.
That conglomerates like Dentsu get to keep most of the profits is sickening. It’s even been alleged that they are in bed with organized crime, which seems to claw its way into every industry where there’s money to be made. They allegedly established ties to the Japanese movie industry in the 1960’s, then spread all over Japanese mainstream entertainment. In recent years, their involvement with the idol and visual-kei industries has fueled fan speculation. Given how much the anime industry has grown over the last decade, would it be too presumptuous to think that yakuza have finally warmed up to the idea?
A cursory internet search on their involvement with the anime industry came up with only two links to somewhat credible English sources. The first one is an editorial from the now-defunct Anime News Service’s editor-in-chief Jonah Morgan. He centers his point around a talk he had with a colleague at some party who alleged that anime and manga industries are being funded by yakuza. He then proceeds to speculate along the same lines as this post does. The other one is an ANNCast episode with Jake Adelstein, who is an investigative journalist responsible for writing various yakuza stories published in English. He claims yakuza might have missed the boat on the anime industry, then in the same breath says sooner or later they’ll find a way to make money in it as well.
Adelstein mentioned several other intriguing things. First, the increased presence of seedy sex shops in Akihabara that serve as a platform for yakuza business activities, and second, yakuza’s efforts to infiltrate the Japanese IT industry. In Akihabara’s case, which one do the yakuza prefer more? The growing IT industry or the seedy sex shops? There is a concerned effort to reinvent Akihabara’s international image by evicting anime shops and replacing them with high-rise buildings meant for IT businesses. In doing so, urban developers are hoping to wash away with seedy backstreets related to otaku businesses. In any case, one of these has to take priority for the yakuza.
Before I go further off tangent, I’ll just end this and ask what do you guys think? Am I overthinking this, since hey, there’s not much I can go on anyway? Or maybe we don’t hear anything about it because it’s much easier for the yakuza to control fiction rather than dissatisfied entertainers consisting of flesh and blood. Or maybe, just maybe the yakuza haven’t touched the industry directly, still we’ve been looking straight into the abyss for decades. Does the massive funding cut production companies take have anything to do with organized crime? Or are there other ways for the industry to be exploited?
If nothing else, with their influence the yakuza were able to infiltrate the ranks of high-profile voice actors.