The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the emergence of fansubbing, the amateur translation and subtitling of Japanese anime. What enabled such efforts was the introduction of a devicecalled a genlock, for generator lockingthat allowed a television set to accept two signals simultaneously and that synchronized an incoming video signal with computer output. Time-synchronized VHS and S-VHS systems made it possible to dub the tapes so that they retained accurate alignment of text and image. The high costs of the earliest machines meant that fansubbing would remain a collective effort: clubs pooled time and resources to insure their favorite series reached a wider viewership. As costs lowered, fansubbing spread outward, with clubs using the Internet to coordinate their activities, divvying up what series to sub and tapping a broader community for would-be translators.
Beginning in the early 1990s, large-scale anime conventions brought artists and distributors from Japan, who were astonished to see a thriving culture surrounding content they had never actually marketed here and who went back home motivated to try to commercially tap this interest. Some key players in the Japanese animation industry had been among those who had aided and abetted U.S. grassroots distribution a decade earlier.
The first niche companies to distribute Anime on DVD and videotape emerged as fan clubs simply went pro, acquiring the distribution rights from re-engaged Japanese media companies. The first material to be distributed already had an enthusiastic fan following. Interested in exposing their members to the full range of content available in Japan, the fan clubs had often taken risks that no commercial distributor would have confronted, testing the market for new genres, producers, and series and commercial companies followed their path where-ever they found popularity.
The fansubbed videos often ran an advisory urging users to cease distribution when licensed. The clubs were not trying to profit from anime distribution but rather to expand the market; they pulled back from circulating any title that had found a commercial distributor. In any case, the commercial copies were higher quality than their multi-generation dubs.
The first commercially available copies were often dubbed and re-edited as part of an effort to expand their potential interest to casual consumers. Japanese cultural critic Koichi Iwabuchi used the term, deodorizing, to refer to the ways that Japanese soft goods are stripped of signs of their national origins to open them for global circulation. Anime and manga now rank at the top of these cultural exports. In Japan, manga constitute 40 percent of all books and magazines published and more than half of all movie tickets sold are to animated films. More than 200 animation programs are aired each week on Japanese television and about 1700 animated films (short or feature length) are produced for theatrical or straight-to-video distribution each year. Japanese media producers had created a complex set of tie-ins between comics, animated films, television series, toys, and games that allowed them to capitalize quickly on successful content. They are increasingly eager to export this whole apparatus internationally. In this context, the grassroots fan community still plays an important role, helping to educate American viewers to the cultural references and genre traditions defining these products through their websites and newsletters. The fan clubs continue to explore potential niche products that over time can emerge as mainstream successes.
Many U.S. media companies might have regarded all of this underground circulation as piracy and shut it down before it reached critical mass. The Japanese media companys tolerance of these fan efforts is consistent with their similar treatment of fan communities in their local market. As Temple University law professor Salil K. Mehra notes, the underground sale of fan-made manga, often highly derivative of the commercial product, occurs on a massive scale in Japan, with some comics markets attracting 150,000 visitors per day; such markets are held almost every week in some parts of the country. Rarely taking legal action, the commercial producers sponsor such events, using them to publicize their releases, to recruit potential new talent, and to monitor shifts in audience tastes. In any case, they fear the wrath of their consumers if they took action against such a well-entrenched cultural practice and the Japanese legal structure would provide for fairly small legal penalties if they did pursue infringers.
More generally, as Yuichi Washida, a research director at Hakuhodo, Japans second largest advertising and marketing firm, has argued, Japanese corporations have sought to collaborate with fan clubs, subcultures, and other consumption communities, seeing them as important allies in developing compelling new content or broadening markets. In courting such fans, the companies helped to construct a moral economy that aligned their interests in reaching a market with the American fans desires to access more content.
Many have argued that cultural rather than legal, technological, or economic solutions are crucial in resolving the bootlegging crisis hitting American media companies. Rather than suing their fan base, perhaps they should study how their Japanese counterparts profited from this first wave of underground circulation, seeing it as promotion rather than piracy.