Online Extra: A Tsunami of Japanese Pop Culture

Cartoon- and comics-related products are flooding into the U.S., boosted by online communities and an exploding fan base

Pokemon, Power Rangers, Hello Kitty, Yu-Gi-Oh!. It's hard to leave home -- let alone watch TV on a Saturday morning -- without getting bombarded by some new Japanese entertainment import. As Japan's star rises as a cultural trendsetter, it has been greatly aided by technologies that help it spread the word.

"With the Internet and e-mail, there's way more of a global culture now," notes Ken Miller, editor of Tokion, an eight-year-old magazine devoted to U.S.-Japanese culture that's published in New York City. "When we started out, we were telling kids in the U.S. what was cool in Japan. Now it's a global dialogue. Stuff is just bouncing around the world really quickly."

UNDERGROUND SPREAD.

  You don't have to tell that to Peter Payne, a California native who moved to Japan to teach English in 1991. He now runs Jlist.com, a Japanese pop culture e-tailer. The entrepreneur, who bills his site as "your friend in Japan," says he sells $4 million a year worth of Japanese T-shirts, DVDs, comic books, and toys.

Payne writes a thrice-weekly "postcard from Japan," which he e-mails to interested parties. The letters update them on cultural trends and bring news from the U.S. expatriate community. "We actually get complaints from readers if they're removed [from the e-mail list] accidentally," Payne says.

Or consider Susan Hale, whose job is to promote the sale of Japanese comic books -- called manga -- of which her employer, TOKYOPOP, is the largest U.S. importer. She spends much of her day dealing with Web sites such as Popcultureshock.com and Mangabits.com. But Hale admits her work is made a lot easier by the legions of enthusiasts who get the word out via e-mail, blogs, or other Internet initiatives. "Our underground is still very important," Hale says. "The word really gets spread by the fans."

"FANSUB" WAVE.

  It helps that the Japanese themselves are so technologically proficient. An estimated 97% of Japanese teenagers own a cell phone, typically one equipped with Internet and e-mail capability. A key to the movement of trends across the Pacific, notes Ian Condry, assistant professor of Japanese cultural studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the so-called fansub community.

These are groups of high schoolers, college kids, or other fans who either tape Japanese cartoons (anime) off the TV in Japan or work from imported DVDs in the U.S. In either case, they add English subtitles just for the fun of it, often using translation software. Within 24 to 48 hours of airing in Japan, the newly translated shows are available on the Web for free through various file-sharing programs.

While fan distribution existed before the Internet, the advent of cyberspace and digital recording have greatly accelerated it and done much to popularize anime in the U.S.

Sean Leonard, a researcher and student instructor of Japanese animation at MIT, estimates that in 1989, perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 devotees were watching anime taped off Japanese TV and mailed to the U.S., with only a handful of fans adding English subtitles to them.

Today, almost all fansubs are transmitted over the Internet, and there are far more of them. Leonard estimates that the 500 established fansubbing groups have 2,500 members. And the anime fan base itself has exploded to somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 active enthusiasts.

WELCOME TRADE-OFF.

  Without this grassroots movement and its technological push, it's unclear whether those hundreds of thousands of fans would have ever found their passion. "It's a cottage cultural intermediary," Condry says.

Traditional attempts to reach the U.S. market in the late 1970s and 1980s had floundered, and Japanese entertainment companies had largely given up on the market. "Americans pulled anime from Japan through this massive copyright infringement," says Leonard. "It's the interest of these fans that allowed a new wave of Japanese anime companies to license this legitimately."

So far the Japanese owners have tolerated the infringement in light of the market it has created: Last year Japanese anime and related character exports outstripped the value of steel exports from Japan. With fans like these, it's no wonder Japanese entertainment products are so ubiquitous now.

By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles and Nanette Byrnes in New York

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE