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Anime Power: How Japan’s Creative Class Opened Asia To The World

Anime Power: How Japan’s Creative Class Opened Asia To The World

Japan’s creative industries first opened the world up to Eastern culture. How did they crack the West? Why is South Korea kicking their ass?

School’s over. I pack my backpack and walk across the black top where other students line up waiting for their parents to pick them up. I walk past them, past the church, up the street, then cross the street at the stoplight. My bus pulls up and I get on.

Less than an hour later, I’m home. No one’s in yet. My backpack hits the floor, I grab the remote and turn on the TV. Time check says it’s 4:30pm, and right then, the title track comes on.  It’s the empowering Japanese anime, Sailor Moon.

I watch female superhero Usagi Tsukino, or Serena (as Americans call her), prance around the screen. She’s the ultra klutz, air-headed romantic but fierce warrior for good and justice. Her’s is a world of adventures and I am drawn in from my couch. Together, we vanquish villains. Her on-screen, me in her mind, cheering her on, and drawing strength from her battles.

Her story, along with other examples of powerful women, would seep into my soul and give me comfort for years to come. She came from nothing, and rose to the top. I connect with that. A lot!

How Sailor Moon managed to get to my screen didn’t matter to me. My 13-year-old self was too young to think about distribution strategies, marketing, target audience and international treaties. I didn’t care about duties, and dubbing. I wasn’t interested in the industry that built anime or the business people that sent her to the other side of the world. All I knew was that she made me feel less insane in an insane world.

Now as an adult, the impact of Japanese anime on American youth growing up in the 90s and early 2000s is everywhere. The manner in which Japanese anime commercialize Japanese culture is brilliant, and has had positive economic consequences. It won over a generation of paying fans and demonstrated the value of cultural goods. It’s also empowered the local creative industries. How did they do it?

In the early 90s and 2000s, if you turned your television to Disney, Cartoon Network, UPN, or SyFy in the afternoon and evenings near bedtime, you would meet a host of animated imports from Japan. It was either Dragon Ball, Rurouni Kenchin, Yu-Gi-Oh, Death Note, One Piece!, Sailor Moon, or Pokemon. It was a conveyor belt of Japanese content, bringing you their finest creations. From manga (Japanese comics), to cuisine, and even music (J-pop), Japan cultural exports managed to hit the right note and had foreigners consuming feverishly.

The rise of anime in the US is interesting. Entertainment content in America is often dominated by Western culture that anything from another territory that takes hold is captivating. Additionally, the surge in consumption of Japanese creative content contributed to their economic development, growing a $20 billion dollar industry and an increase in soft power. Today, policies like Cool Japan  are pushing to institutionalize private sector activities that drove the foreign commercial success of Japanese creative content.  But these intentional initiatives might be too little too late. Had it happened earlier, Japan’s global impact—no matter how influential they already appear—could have been bigger. Now, they have serious competition from neighboring South Korea.

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Anime Power: How Japan’s Creative Class Opened Asia To The World
Image from nippon.com

The Birth of Style

Japanese animation began in 1917 during the silent movie era. It was created with a combination of simple illustrations and cutouts to create intriguing narratives. The Blunt Sword, created in 1917, is the oldest example of Japanese animation that you can still view today. Unfortunately, many early animated works were lost to the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo. This first wave of Japanese storytelling was about: Telling traditional stories with modern technology, or in a modern medium. This would continue to be a theme with Japanese content as the artform evolved.

While the medium was growing locally, Disney’s Western heavy machinery would overshadow the Japanese style for a long time. A large part of the problem was Japan’s inability to adapt quickly to the technological advances pushing the film industry. In 1929, the talkies rose to prominence. Color films took over in 1932. In that time, a prominent Japanese animator, Ōfuji Noburō, made a mark. He won international acclaim for The Thief of Baguda Castle, which was created by cutting and pasting Japanese colored paper, chiyogami.

Then war came to Japan and supplies became scarce. In the ruins of Tokyo, there was an effort to bring animators together to create democracy focused content. But that didn’t work. Incidents of in-fighting brought in discord amongst the community. Soon after, Ōkawa Hiroshi, the President of the Tōei film company, would watch Disney’s Snow White. The film would inspire him to start Tōei Doga, now Tōei Animation, to become the Disney of the East.

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For their first project, they would tackle The Legend of the White Snake. To achieve this, local researchers were sent to the United States. They were tasked to carry out a deep study of the Disney approach to animation. Western experts were also invited to Japan, to serve as mentors to the fledgling animation company. This was the beginning of a new style.

Tetsuwan Atomu, created in 1951, known in the US as Astro Boy, would turn the tide for the animation industry demonstrating that the medium could bring together an audience. However, the studio, Mushi Productions, earned a very low franchise fee which forced them to become creative about how they produced the show and they were diligent about additional streams of income. One key way was to start licensing the character to corporate sponsors. With this strategy, merchandising became an invaluable part of the television anime business model.

Despite this additional source of income, the industry as a whole went into recession in the 1970s. Japan was changing. Labor unions became a force in the animation space. Japanese economic policies took effect focusing on bringing up the median household income, thereby impacting what studios were required to pay their staff. All these changes would coincide with the consistent decrease in attendance at manga festivals, a major distribution point for animators at the time.

Somehow, experimentation continued in the industry. It was during this time that Japanese animation wandered outside the universe of children’s content and into young adult content. It led to titles like Space Battleship Yamato, which was released as a TV series in 1974.  It then became a feature film in 1977.

Anime Power: How Japan’s Creative Class Opened Asia To The World
Image from factsd.com

Rise of anime in US 

While Japanese animation was navigating the unique economic conditions in Japan, an international audience began to grow in the US. At the time, the content was known as Japanimation. NBC partnered with Mushi Productions to air Astro Boy in the US in the late 60s- 70s and it continued its syndication at other networks through the early 2000s. As distribution and licensors increased, Japanese animation began to find success in the other markets including France and Canada. Young audiences were eating the content up.

In the late 80s and 90s some of the most revolutionary animation was created. Major titles like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Dragon Ball (1986), Yu Yu Hakusho (1990), One Piece (1999), and more began to favorably  alter the market. One of the most well known animators, Hayao Miyazaki launched Studio Ghibli with his long time colleague, Isao Takahata. They were former trainees at Tōei Animation. Their first film, Laputa: Castle in The Sky was released in 1986. Then, In 1996, Pokemon, the gift that never stops giving, was made. It is the highest grossing media franchise in the world coming in at $92 billion dollars.

For more expansion, animation and video games would come together in the 80s.  Game company Sega would use anime as a marketing ploy to release video games like Red Photon Zillion.

Dubbing also had a major role to play in the increased consumption of anime in the US. For those who remember Saturday morning anime, weekday afternoons on UPN, or Cartoon Network’s Toonami, content was not subtitled in English language. Rather, it was dubbed over in English for a direct impact on the growing American audience. For those, like myself, who went back to watch the subtitled version of their favorite anime as an adult, you’ll know that dubbing was a subtle way that US distributors would edit Japanese culture to suit American palates. Entire subplots were changed when English dubbing was involved. Generally speaking, subtitled translations typically have more literal translations. But dubbed content was focused on interpretation. So, for those who didn’t know that Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus were an openly gay couple on Sailor Moon. If you watched Sailor Moon dubbed, you would have no idea. This is only one example of the ways in which Japanese content was made more ‘America’ when it came stateside.

Coming from constant comparison with the West and the art of Disney, to commanding international respect, Japanese anime became a cultural storm. All it did to achieve this growth was telling Japanese stories in a truly Japanese way. Ushering foreign attention on the island nation. Inspiring curiosity about its customs and traditional ways.

READ ALSO:  Popcorn, Data, and World Domination
Anime Power: How Japan’s Creative Class Opened Asia To The World
Image from pri.org

The perfect storm blows in a generation of fans

About a decade or two ago, you would be forgiven for thinking that comic books, manga, anime and all things sci-fi were for nerds. At that time, the content wasn’t yet to hit mainstream consciousness, despite a growing audience. The young people enraptured by Japanese content were not old enough to pull out their own money to spend on it. Namely, my generation. For a few years we have been incubating, biding our time, and holding on to our experiences with anime, our favorite manga, and playing our video games. Today, most of us are grown, most of us are working, and we have money to spend.

In the beginning Japanese companies were making money from the distribution of the content they created at home locally. As the industry grew the business end needed more progress. Creatives were still being screwed, and TV stations and merchandisers were making a lot of money. The entire industry was about to get a significant boost.

Comiket, also known as the Comic Market began in 1975 with 600 people. Now, it is the world’s largest doujinshi or self-published magazine fair, held twice a year in Tokyo. Each year, the convention brings approximately 1 million people from all over the world to Japanese shores. Imagine the economic impact on the city and country over the course of three days!


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Much of the local culture that attendees come to experience, is as a result of early exposure to anime content. A love of anime can quickly and easily lead to a love of other related works. This is so big that there is a term coined for it: Anime Pilgrimage. This experience allows fans to visit cities or locations that have been memorialized in their favorite show or manga. So fans can go and take pictures where their favorite characters met, where they ate in a particular scene, where someone went to school. Anime Tourism also includes anime museums, studio tours, and themed hotels or cafes that capitalize on the larger pilgrimage.

With huge benefits to the economy, it is no wonder why the Japanese government would prioritize the creative industry.  They are trying to create policies that formalize or institutionalize the results of their creative power. According to the UN Report on the Creative Economy, the country exports $6.6 Billion in creative goods and imports a reported $18 Billion. The transition from accidental soft power, to intentional strategies would begin.

Anime Power: How Japan’s Creative Class Opened Asia To The World
Image from Grammy.com

Cool Japan meets the Hallyu Wave

In his 2002 article, Japan’s Gross National Cool, in Foreign Policy, Douglas McGray argued that Japan had risen to superpower status. The small island has managed to spread its influence internationally through its fashion, video game, audio-visual content and franchises like Hello Kitty and Pokemon. McGray wasn’t the only one who had taken notice, and Japan decided it was time to be more deliberate.

Surprisingly, Japan had never had an expansive cultural policy. In post-war Japan, focus was placed  on protecting and promoting traditional Japanese culture. The government wanted to share Japanese culture to combat lingering anti-Japanese sentiments in the region and abroad. This was under the purview of the Agency of Culture. The growth of media cultural industries in Japan, was in large part, due to the innovation of those particular industries stakeholders. Now government interest has crystallized in the creative and cultural industries because they were real money makers. Thus the Cool Japan Fund was created in 2013 to address the shift in focus.

What is that focus? According to the Cool Japan Fund website: “Cool Japan Fund was founded in November 2013 as a public-private fund with the aim of supporting and promoting the development of demand overseas for excellent Japanese products and services. Cool Japan Fund aims to commercialize the “Cool Japan” and increase overseas demand by providing risk capital for businesses across a variety of areas, including media & content, food & services, fashion & lifestyle and inbound.” This initiative, housed under the  Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), focuses more on the exportation of Japanese creative and cultural goods and services.

Since its inception, Cool Japan has come under increasing fire. Creative and cultural industry practitioners feel that METI is ill-equipped to promote the industries. Many believe that the rise of Japanese soft power and creative exports came about due to the ingenuity of the private sector and the government’s hands-off approach. This point is underscored by what many believe is the fund’s under-performance. According to locals, METI has  little to show for their efforts. The first few years saw no activity at all.

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Others go a step further and argue that the agency is engaged in corruption instead of exposure. There are allegations that contracts are going to little known corporations, while well known actors and productions get little or no government funding or support. The alleged mismanagement and misalignment of government efforts and industry needs, has slowed growth. In that time, South Korea took the chance, and has pulled ahead and might be taking Japan’s place as a cultural superpower.

Parasite is not the only Korean export that is taking the world by storm. K-pop has risen to global acceptance. K-pop stars sell out massive stadiums, command millions of loyal fans and have even risen as a force in the recent Black Lives Matter movement. Korean dramas have also risen to global consciousness with more and more viewers consuming the popular shows outside of South Korea’s shores. Unlike Japan, South Korea has been on the forefront of their cultural rise and is incredibly intentional with government support. South Korea has a dedicated goal to become one of the world’s leading exporters in popular culture. This country of 51.64 million people has the same box office as India. $1.6 billion. Let that sink in.

In a world that is fast recognizing the power of content to export culture, there are some nations that have dedicated their efforts to grow these industries. Some others fortuitously fall into it. Many will argue that although it had a head start, Japan is coming late to the party. As their influence plays second fiddle in the wake of South Korean culture, is it too late to implement policies that create an enabling environment?

For countries that are intentional like South Korea, it will be interesting to watch how they continue to capitalize on the Hallyu Wave. If they can build a creative and cultural industry that the world is happy to consume, then it will show that a large local population is not the only way to win at the content game.

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‘Africa to the world’, but what does that really translate to? For countries on the African continent, there are no governments exploring the potential for soft power. With examples like South Korea and Japan, it’s not always about foreign policy. The economic impact alone of soft power can be traced through the growth and consumption of creative industries. Imagine the impact intentional policies could have on many of the continent’s developing nations. That would be a different Africa entirely.



The Content Biz Bailout

  1. Several examples of early Japanese animation can be found here
  2. Here’s an article that take a look at the Pokemon franchise
  3. Check out this presentation from the Comic Market Preparations Committee from 2014. It has detailed statistics on the growth of this unique self-publishing market
  4. The policy at the heart of controversy: Cool Japan. Take a look at the website and how they discussion the Cool Japan Fund. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which is the overseeing body, has a page dedicated to reports on the Cool Japan initiative.
  5. The UN Report on the Creative Economy can be found here for your reference.
  6. These  reports takes a look at the creative industries in the last decade and the declining trends since the implementation of Cool Japan
    1. Economic Research Institution for ASEAN and east Asia
    2. GRIPS National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies


Article written by Chinwe Ohanele, Esq: tech-savvy, business-legal professional, entertainment law consultant, international speaker and IP writer.

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