Data Librarian, KU Leuven
From novels to anime, almost every professionally published medium in Japan has an “amateur” equivalent. Many Japanese fans create their own manga, games, and more, often on a shoestring budget and for little reward beyond the appreciation of their fellow fans. These self-published works are derivative works (dōjin sakuhin), and they are one of the most important and least understood cornerstones of Japanese popular culture.
The most well-known dōjin sakuhin are self-published manga, or dōjinshi. Dōjinshi are made by individuals or small groups of creators who distribute them in print format or online, usually for a small price but sometimes for free. At least hundreds of thousands of people are involved in making and reading dōjinshi, and they are consumed on a massive scale. Consider the astonishing size of the market for self-published works. According to some estimates, the market for dōjinshi alone—never mind other dōjin sakuhin—may be worth around 71.6 billion yen per year (Yano 2012, 79). Comiket, the biggest of thousands of dōjin sakuhin sales conventions held in Japan every year, welcomed no less than 550,000 visitors and 36,000 dōjin sakuhin sellers at its 2016 winter edition. This makes the convention one of the largest public events in the country.
Another way to understand why dōjin sakuhin matter for Japanese popular culture is to look at how many dōjin sakuhin creators go on to become professional manga artists. In 2004, around 40% of active professional manga artists in Japan said that they first began creating manga as dōjin sakuhin creators (Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry 2004, 2). Household names, such as CLAMP, Keiko Takemiya, Rumiko Takahashi, Shotaro Ishinomori, Fujio Fujiko, and Fuji Akatsuka, all learned their craft and knew their first successes as dōjin sakuhin creators (Orbaugh 2003, 116; Yonezawa 2004, 50). Another famous dōjinsh sakuhin creator who made the jump to a professional career was Minami Ozaki, a female dōjinshi artist who made her own manga about Captain Tsubasa, a sports anime that inspired a boom in dōjin sakuhin during the 1980s (Yonezawa 2004, 47). In many ways, Ozaki exemplifies dōjin sakuhin, and we will refer back to her career throughout this article in order to illustrate the place of dōjin sakuhin in Japanese popular culture.
Where did these self-published media come from? Dōjin sakuhin developed in Japan alongside the country’s media industry. The history of self-published works in Japan goes back centuries, but many point to 1975 as the year when the modern history of dōjin sakuhin began. In 1975 a group of manga fans held the first Japanese convention focused entirely on self-published works: the aforementioned Comiket, also known as Comic Market. Throughout the 1980s, Comiket’s visitor numbers increased exponentially, and numerous other dōjin sakuhin-focused conventions mushroomed around the country. Some were organized by fans, others by interested commercial parties, such as print shops specializing in printed dōjinshi. More and more enthusiasts were drawn to dōjin sakuhin thanks to a string of extremely popular media that became fodder for “fanworks.” Fanworks are fictional media that tell new stories using characters or other elements from existing manga, films, novels, and the like. Japanese dōjin sakuhin creators made works based on Captain Tsubasa (which inspired Minami Ozaki), Neon Genesis Evangelion, Urusei Yatsura, Sailor Moon, and many other hit manga and anime. Today, most published dōjinshi are fanworks that spin new tales about characters from famous titles, such as Attack on Titan and Naruto.
The first question many will ask about such fanworks is: Is it not copyright infringement to sell self-made manga, novels, or games that use someone else’s intellectual property? It is indeed. Dōjin sakuhin are usually created without the authorization of the copyright holders of the media whose characters and settings they use (Tamagawa 2007, 14). Depending on how widely these works are distributed, such unauthorized use is plainly illegal under Japanese law (Mehra 2002, 27). However, in Japan, professional manga artists, publishers, or other media companies rarely sue fan creators for copyright infringement. Take, for example, Minami Ozaki’s dōjinshi and professional manga. Ozaki started out as a dōjinshi creator who made manga using characters from Captain Tsubasa, a manga that is credited with fueling a massive boom in fanworks in the 1980s. When her first commercial work Zetsuai 1989 began serialization in 1989, followed by its sequel BRONZE, the resemblance between the main characters in Ozaki’s tragic romance and her preferred Captain Tsubasa couple was unmistakable. Nevertheless, Ozaki never received any trouble from Captain Tsubasa’s copyright holders, either for her Captain Tsubasa-based dōjinshi or for her commercial work.
There are various reasons why Japanese copyright holders tolerate these unauthorized derivative works based on their intellectual property. First of all, it is important to note that while many dōjin sakuhin are sold between fans for money, Japanese publishers and other media companies generally do not see these “amateur” works with their small print runs as competition for their own commercially published media. On the contrary, they often use dōjin sakuhin as a form of free, grassroots marketing for the media they are based upon. Companies also believe that the creators of those dōjin sakuhin are the biggest and most engaged fans of commercial media (Pink 2007). If dōjin sakuhin are free marketing rather than competition, there is no financial incentive to crack down on them. Why would companies risk angering their most ardent consumers?
Secondly, media companies see dōjin sakuhin as a valuable space where new manga talent can emerge and grow until they are ready to advance into a professional career. As mentioned earlier, many professional mangaka cut their teeth as dōjin sakuhin creators. Some dōjin sakuhin creators who turn pro even continue to publish fanworks alongside their professional work, getting booths at conventions such as Comiket. This helps the artists maintain strong relationships with their fans, boosting their professional careers and the fortunes of the manga industry. Minami Ozaki, for instance, continued to publish dōjinshi while working as a professional (Noppe 2014, 255–56).
Thirdly, dōjin sakuhin are considered to be an incubator, not just for new talent but also for new kinds of content. As dōjin sakuhin artists become professional creators, they bring fresh ideas from dōjin sakuhin with them to their commercial careers. These innovations are vital for professional manga publishing (Kitabayashi 2004, 6). Indeed, dōjin sakuhin are often seen as a space where all kinds of expression can be published, even—or especially—expression that cannot or will not appear in commercially published manga. One famous example is a genre that achieved mass popularity in dōjin sakuhin before making the leap to commercial media: yaoi, stories about romantic or sexual relationships between male characters. Yaoi began as a dōjin sakuhin genre popular among female fans before it inspired “boys’ love” or “BL,” a commercial manga genre for which big-name publishers bring out original manga (Yonezawa 2004, 48). Minami Ozaki was at the vanguard of moving yaoi from a fannish to a commercial genre: She published professional manga using the tropes and storytelling techniques developed in her “fanwork” dōjinshi and was one of the first yaoi dōjinshi creators to do so.
Fourthly, as the example of yaoi also shows, commercial media companies use dōjin sakuhin as a site for valuable product testing and market research (Kitabayashi 2004, 6). Market research is expensive, and pouring time and money into an untested genre is always financially dangerous. However, a Japanese manga publisher who wants to know what content consumers are willing to pay for only needs to walk into Comiket and look for the booths that have the longest lines of waiting buyers (Pink 2007). If publishers had not seen how popular yaoi was among fannish creators and readers, they might never have tried publishing male-male romance works. Dōjin sakuhin thus allow media companies to figure out what sells without having to take large commercial risks.
In short, the professional manga industry in Japan is actually reliant on dōjin sakuhin in numerous ways. Publishers do not merely “tolerate” dōjin sakuhin; they need them. With publishers’ motivations out of the way, let us look at why dōjin sakuhin creators do what they do. Enumerating the benefits of dōjin sakuhin to media companies almost makes it sound like dōjin sakuhin exist in service of commercial publishers—an “amateur” version of the manga industry in which fans sharpen their skills so they can make the jump to a professional career. The fact that many dōjin sakuhin are sold for money at conventions, shops, and through online stores may also give the impression that fans create these works because they want to profit from them. However, neither of these things are necessarily true. The vast majority of dōjin sakuhin creators never become professionals, and most have no strong desire to publish professionally (Tamagawa 2006, 71–72). The vast majority also make little to no money from their efforts. In 2010, no less than 65% of all dōjin sakuhin creators participating in Comiket reported that they actually lost money from their creative activities (Comiket 2011, 1324).
What, then, motivates dōjin sakuhin creators? In 2011, half of all creators surveyed by Comiket reported that they sold dōjin sakuhin primarily for reasons of self-expression (ibid.). This should come as no surprise, given that the very reason for Comiket’s founding was to provide all creators with a space for free expression. For someone who is interested primarily in telling the story they want to tell, dōjin sakuhin are an ideal medium. Dōjin sakuhin creation is cheap, and since creators are not beholden to editorial departments or commercial concerns, they are free to make exactly what they want. Ozaki is, again, a great example of this. After her professional debut, she continued publishing dōjinshi—not about other artists’ works but about her own manga. Ozaki often used dōjinshi to publish stories about her characters that her publisher could or would not print, most notably explicit sex scenes featuring her characters. These could never have been shown in Margaret, the young-girls-oriented magazine that was publishing Zetsuai 1989 and BRONZE. However, in dōjin sakuhin, Ozaki had a space for self-expression that let her share her stories with fans.
By now, we have reached a more nuanced understanding of the role dōjin sakuhin play in Japanese popular culture. Fans of media want to create their own stories, and overall, it suits the interests of Japanese copyright holders to tolerate and even encourage a well-developed fan culture based on dōjin sakuhin creation and distribution. After all, dōjin sakuhin support the manga industry. And in Japan, being a support pillar for manga actually means being a support pillar of the entire popular culture industry, because other media are so heavily reliant on manga to provide new popular content (Pink 2007; Yonezawa 2004, 44).
A slightly less obvious reason why dōjin sakuhin are important to Japan’s popular culture is that they appear to offer a model for media creation and distribution that is much more suited to the twenty-first century than more traditional systems. In an age when everyone has access to the technology to create and distribute media, copyright owners around the world are struggling to make their products coexist with the ubiquitous but often illegal “user-generated content.” These struggles lead to legal battles, “lost” sales, and lost trust between copyright owners and fans of media. Dōjin sakuhin represent a system in which media companies and amateur creators have learned to work together. In many ways, dōjin sakuhin form a kind of “hybrid economy” that bridges professional and amateur spheres of cultural creation, allowing them to coexist to each other’s mutual benefit (Lessig 2008, 177; Noppe 2014, 332).
All this does not mean that dōjin sakuhin are a beautiful participatory utopia where media creators can do whatever they want, free from any form of censure, in a system that perfectly balances the interests of copyright holders and fans. Fans and scholars alike frequently debate issues that are perceived to plague dōjin sakuhin, such as the ethical aspects of content that depicts fictional underage characters in sexual situations (McLelland 2013), the disdain some fans show toward other fans who favor certain kinds of content, such as yaoi (Okabe and Ishida 2012), and the apparent contrast between some yaoi fans’ love of fictional gay characters versus their lack of enthusiasm for LGBT activism (Hori 2013). The outward appearance of a balanced system in which fanwork creators and companies cooperate in blissful harmony is also deceptive. Conflicts between fans, professional creators, and publishers are rife, even if they almost never lead to legal action. Legal issues related to copyright, content restrictions, and taxation of dōjin sakuhin creators’ earnings persist (Ajima 2004, 279).
While these issues have long played out in the shadows, industry and government entities alike have recently become aware of the economic value of dōjin sakuhin as a pillar of Japanese popular culture. This has led to more scrutiny of dōjin sakuhin, as well as to more recognition and to increased willingness by those involved in dōjin sakuhin to come together as a community to defend it. Take, for instance, the copyright issues always hanging over dōjin sakuhin like a dark cloud. One simple reason why dōjin sakuhin creators rarely get sued is that there is a loophole in Japanese copyright law: Copyright infringement can only be prosecuted if the copyright holder actually files a complaint. Professional creators and media companies, wanting to let dōjin sakuhin creators continue their activities, simply choose to never file complaints against fans. This unspoken agreement came under threat around 2015, when Japan began taking part in negotiations for an international trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). The TPP seemed to be steering Japan toward a tightening of its copyright laws, which would include closing that crucial loophole. However, a broad coalition of fan creators, professional manga artists, publishers, and scholars lobbied until the Japanese government agreed to exempt dōjin sakuhin from some of the new restrictions. This activism may point to a growing role for dōjin sakuhin as a source of inspiration for new systems of media creation and distribution.
Inside the broader landscape of Japan’s popular culture, dōjin sakuhin provide a space for free expression and experimentation. They represent a mode of creation and distribution that welcomes a wide variety of creators at all skill levels, that is open to all kinds of content, and that prioritizes self-expression over commercial concerns. Dōjin sakuhin also showcase the creative and economic potential of works that explicitly build upon existing content, a form of creation that has long been virtually criminalized by antiquated copyright laws. As systems of media creation and distribution evolve, in Japan and beyond, it seems likely that dōjin sakuhin will continue to play an important role as a cornerstone of Japanese popular culture.