For much of the history of anime, women were in charge of shiage (finishing), the tasks of inking, coloring, and cleaning up drawings. Despite its seemingly minor contribution to the creative process, shiage reflects important historical transformations in anime production, since compared to other aspects of cel-style animation, it is more subject to the influence of technological innovations as well as labor redistribution. In the late 1970s, animation work took on special appeal due to its associations with creativity, media consumption, and leisure culture. Advertisements for animation work in women's magazines reflected this changing image. These ads presented shiage as a creative hobby and a form of self-cultivation. This phenomenon shows how the convergence of production and consumption in “prosumption” supported new forms of value extraction and labor exploitation, both for the animation industry as well as for opportunistic companies that positioned themselves between would-be workers and studios.
In the one-hundred-year history of Japanese animation, perhaps no aspect of production has undergone as much transformation as the labor-intensive work of tracing, inking, cleaning up, and coloring drawings. These processes are referred to collectively as shiage (literally “finishings”) and comprise the final stages of drawing images. Such low-level tasks were among the first processes to be outsourced to contract workers instead of being completed in-house by regular employees at animation studios. In the 1960s Japanese studios began sending shiage orders overseas to Asian contractors, and in the 1980s, these were among the first jobs to be performed using computer software. Compositing, “filming,” “lighting,” editing, and postproduction have all now been digitized.
The history of who performs shiage, how and where this labor is performed, and how it is paid provides insight into cultural, economic, legal, and social forces at work in the global anime industry. Attention to shiage also sheds light on the important contributions of women workers, who for much of the history of Japanese animation provided labor for its most menial production tasks. Women were an important source of flexible labor at animation studios, even before the shift to subcontractors and increase in casualization, since they were expected to quit their jobs upon getting married or having children. The association between animation coloring and women workers persisted through periods of technological change and industrial transformation—at least until the 1990s, when it became possible to definitively say that foreign workers and computers were performing the bulk of tasks that had traditionally fallen on women. By this time, the public perception of anime had radically changed, as it had attained esteem as an internationally recognized cultural export. This altered the very definition of the term “anime,” which had formerly held negative associations due to the predominance of low-budget, limited-animation TV shows in Japan.1 The new assessment of anime reflected Japan's new position within a global market for both finished animation products as well as animation labor. Japan had transformed from a subcontractor country for American animation productions to a contractor country and major exporter of nationally branded animation products.
Shiage is helpful for tracking these transformations, since it was the form of animation labor that was most open to social, industrial, geographic, and technological change. It is important to consider how shiage was imagined, as well as how it was actually performed. The changing image of these low-level tasks reflects Japan's transition from a production-oriented economy to a consumer-oriented economy. It is in part a consequence of this cultural and economic shift that, by the 1980s, even the most repetitive, labor-intensive work in animation could be framed by consumer practices and discourses. As this essay will argue, this change also led to new forms of labor exploitation and value extraction related to anime, in the form of what Maurizio Lazzarato has called “immaterial labor.” This is found, for example, in advertisements for animation training courses in women's magazines from the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly in their appeals to female readers as both workers and consumers.
ANIME COLORING CORRESPONDENCE COURSE ADS
The rise of the contractor system from the 1960s onward transformed shiage so that it was no longer the province of women working on-site at the major studios. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that at least initially, as a result of these changes, more Japanese women were able to perform shiage from home. In particular, married women and women with children had new opportunities to take on animation work in their “free” time. Shiage could be performed as naishoku (piecework or side work), and while it is difficult to say for certain how many women performed this work, a strong association between women and shiage endured.
During the same period, popular women's magazines reflected a growing market for women's continuing education. In the 1970s an increasing number of correspondence course ads begin to appear in magazines such as Fujin kurabu (Ladies’ Club) and Shufu no tomo (Housewife's Companion). These ads were often paired with full-color photo essays showing items that women could learn to make, followed by pages of detailed instructions for readers at home. More commonly, arrays of many such opportunities, arranged in one- or two-page grids, ran in the back pages of magazines.
With anime's growing popularity as well as factors impacting the labor pool for Japanese workers performing lower-level production tasks (low wages, long hours, automation, unpredictable work schedules, and so on), animation cel coloring joined the nexus of women's continuing education opportunities (fig. 1). Ads for anime coloring, tracing, and inbetweening (the making of interstitial drawings to connect key frames) were situated alongside a variety of correspondence course ads for corporate professional skills such as bookkeeping, word processing, and penmanship; hobbies and cottage industries such as textile weaving, artificial flower making, handbag manufacturing, “laser crafts” (leather engraving), and macramé; and more “cultured” pursuits such as shamisen (a Japanese musical instrument), calligraphy, and temari (decorative balls woven with colorful patterns using silk thread). By offering instruction in what Julian Kücklich has called “productive leisure,” these ads appealed to women as both workers and consumers, addressing the desires and frustrations that arose from women's limited opportunities for employment and self-exploration.2 Grid-style layouts helped mitigate major differences between manufacturing work and white-collar jobs, making the ads visually striking while increasing their appeal to the greatest possible number of readers. Similar negotiation was accomplished through the ads’ emphasis on skill, education, culture, fashion, tradition, and travel, no matter whether the subject was training in clerical support for the health industry or learning the traditional craft of kumihimo (braided cords).3 Ads promised to enrich women's lives, allowing them to monetize leisure pursuits during the “free time” (yoka) they were otherwise unable to use productively due to domestic duties.4
Companies that advertised animation training and job opportunities included the Yoyogi Animation Academy, Yoyogi Live Academy, Tōhō Dōga, Studio Robin, Tokyo Saiga Kenkyūjo (Tokyo Institute of the Color Image), and Takara Sanrando (fig. 2). Yoyogi Animation Academy (established 1978), a popular trade school that currently has locations in eight cities across Japan, promoted animation cel coloring (anime saishoku) as a fun and steady source of income. It promised to act as an intermediary between course graduates and animation studios. In 1978, its ads estimated that trainees could make 30,000 to 90,000 yen ($500 to 1,500 in today's dollars) a month, but did not say how much training cost.5 Between 1980 and 1982, the advertised cost of the course increased from 24,000 to 40,000 yen, suggesting that this expense was not a deterrent to consumers and that demand for work could justify the higher tuition.6 Ads made references to series such as The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (Nirusu no fushigi na tabi, NHK, 1980–81) and Gatchaman (Fuji Television, 1979–80), and course enrollees were offered “complimentary gifts” such as a thirteen-page color “anime calendar” and a free Space Battleship Yamato–branded tote bag. The advertising copy read: “Make a steady income while enjoying animation.” “Recent labor shortages in the anime world have opened the way for anyone to master and make money from animation work.” “Animation has become completely entrenched in our everyday lives.”7 Animation work is both “ideal for housewives” and “stylish.”8 This language emphasized the growing popularity and ubiquity of domestically produced animation, and often stressed its relevancy to young mothers’ lives.
Education occupied an intermediary space between consumption and production—a space for acquiring new skills, which could lead to better lifestyles, novel experiences, and exclusive pleasures. By offering prospective students free animation memorabilia as well as the opportunity to contribute to new television animation broadcasts, training courses situated themselves in the space between animation studios and consumers. This reflected the then-newfound allure of Japanese animation and shows how images of labor could be shaped by consumerism and lifestyle culture. Ads emphasized the relationship between animation work and creativity, media consumption, and leisure.
By the mid-1970s, as much as 90 percent of the Japanese public viewed themselves as middle class and aspired to a corresponding consumer lifestyle. Women, especially, were socialized as consumers.9 This may explain why historical forms of piecework could be nostalgically reimagined in correspondence course ads as hobbies for the entrepreneurial housewife. Moreover, the image of working at home and the identities of working women were changing due to developments in media and technology. In 1980, the chief editor of Shufu no tomo declared the 1980s the “age of women,” while kyariaūmon (career woman) became a buzzword in Fujin kurabu.10 In the early 1980s, several prominent corporations, including the JUSCO supermarket chain and the software company Nihon System House, introduced telecommuting programs that utilized INS (information network system) technology to allow female employees to work from home. If the “three sacred treasures” (sanshu no jingi) of postwar consumer Japan were the television, refrigerator, and washing machine, in the 1980s information age, these were the personal computer, word processor, and fax machine. A flurry of articles published in Nihon keizai shinbun (Japan Economic Newspaper, today known as the Nikkei) and the Nikkei sangyō shinbun (Nikkei Business Daily) examined the phenomenon of women reentering the workforce in telecommuting jobs. Even the dark image of home-based labor transformed. In 1983, an editorial in the Nihon keizai shinbun reported on a Labor Ministry survey of homeworkers that said an increasing number of workers took on homework “because I have free time” (55.45 percent), while a decreasing number of respondents said, “I work to supplement the family income” (41.6 percent). Despite the persistence of extremely low wages and poor working conditions, the newspaper observed that “the bleak image of homework is fading.”11 It was suggested that, at least for some homeworkers, labor was proximate to or took the place of leisure, even if it could not properly be called such.
As the market for women's education and training flourished, commercial women's magazines strived to reconcile women's continuing education and employment with the powerful ideology of the “professional housewife” (sengyō shufu) that located women's primary responsibilities in the domestic sphere.12 Although married women were in charge of keeping track of family finances and controlled household spending and saving, women with children were discouraged from working outside the home. This gendered division of family responsibilities helped support the high economic growth of the 1960s through the 1980s, which was interrupted only briefly by a five-year recession caused by the 1973 oil shocks. Stay-at-home mothers provided care for children and the elderly, allowing the government to cut public spending and salarymen husbands to spend long hours on the job. But the ideology of sengyō shufu did not simply discourage women from entering the workforce; it also limited women's professional opportunities, channeling women into non-advancing, part-time, and temporary jobs.
In addition, since 1961, the country's tax code has allowed two-income households a tax break of 380,000 yen (approximately $3,300 in today's dollars) if the lower-earning spouse makes less than 1.03 million yen (approximately $9,100). Up until this threshold, wives are covered by their husband's social security and health care benefits, and husbands may receive an additional allowance from employers as long as their wives’ income does not exceed the tax-deductible amount. This “1.03 million yen wall” discourages women from regular employment after marriage. Even after the crash of the asset price bubble in 1991, when post-bubble deregulation forced increasing numbers of men into irregular employment, 90 percent of part-time workers and 60 percent of temp workers (haken shain or “dispatched workers”) were female.13
One way that magazines and advertisers could reconcile women's changing education and employment opportunities with sengyō shufu discourse was to appeal to women as consumers. As John Clammer has observed, one of the contradictions of the gendered division of responsibility within the family is that many women are able to experience considerable power as consumers, even without (or with very little) economic earning power of their own.14 This control over the family purse strings was lampooned in a series of manga-illustrated correspondence course ads that depict men reacting to women's correspondence school training with envy, anxiety, and enhanced desire (fig. 3). In one ad, a man admires a woman's penmanship and her wish to keep an orderly account book, for he believes these qualities will make her an ideal wife. However, in the final frame of the cartoon, he is taken aback when she declares that she will use these newfound skills to keep her future husband's spending in check.15
This is another sense in which the correspondence course ads reflected Japan's transition, in Clammer's words, “from purely industrial capitalism, with its production-oriented ethos,” to a system of consumer capitalism, accompanied by a corresponding shift toward “a culture based increasingly on desire rather than need.”16 Although the ads promise opportunities for employment, they always make their first appeal to women as consumers of culture, fashion, and information. Thus, temari, traditional toy balls made out of recycled kimonos, find a new market as objets d'art. A representative two-page ad is emblazoned with the text “Temari—empress of the world of handicrafts. Temari lead to the fun of creating, the joy of giving, as well as side income (fukushūnyū).” One page carries thirteen paragraphs of advertising copy—a veritable essay on the joys of temari—along with testimonials from three women, the company's address, and a number of bolded statements that jump out from the page (“A traditional art resplendent with dignity and refinement” / “Now is the time to revive it with your own hands”). Besides the heading on this page, however, there is only one more brief mention of work or income in the text, which does not appear until paragraph eleven. None of the six paragraphs on the opposite page, the leading page of the ad, mention work or income. Instead, the advertising copy emphasizes the historical roots of temari, the pleasure of handicrafts, the importance of cultural tradition, the quality of the instructional materials, the attractiveness of temari in the home, and their potential as gifts for family and friends. Income is only alluded to after a long list of positive statements about temari that first interpellate the reader as a consumer, a decorator, a student of culture, an artisan, and a caring friend with refined tastes.17
Similarly, a full-page ad for a Tōhō Dōga “home animation” coloring course profiles a young mother, Yōko, and describes the various ways in which anime coloring work has enriched her life. She works two or three hours every day while her two-year-old is asleep—work that has enabled her to make sensible use of free time that would have been wasted otherwise. Now Yōko earns her own pocket money and spends less on diversions, which has taught her the value of money. Moreover, and most importantly, Yōko's newfound interest in anime has brought her closer to her child. “When I'm watching anime with my child, I can truly feel, ‘Wow, I'm involved in the art of anime,’ and that makes me happy. If you do this kind of work, work that has a relationship to culture is best—I can't help going on about things like that now.” The ad sells animation work as a panacea for every young mother's concerns—finances, boredom, bonding with one's child—while stressing the appeal of anime to “young women of the anime generation” who grew up as fans and now, as housewives, seek a “raison d’être” (ikigai). “How about living for some kind of purpose?” rather than going through life aimlessly and letting valuable time slip through your hands, the ad asks.18
Such ads, which linked creative but laborious forms of production to positive ideas about consumer culture and modern Japanese lifestyles, offer insight into the ways that shiage may have appealed to housewives, despite the long-held image of bleak labor conditions in the animation industry.
INDUSTRIAL BACKGROUNDS: CEL TECHNOLOGY AND THE MULTI-CONTRACTOR SYSTEM
Before the introduction of cels in Japan in the 1930s, Japanese animation was largely an artisanal endeavor, involving only one or a handful of skilled animators in every step of the process. Animators generally used cut paper or images drawn on white sheets using ink with a turpentine base. Cels were first used in the film In the World of Power and Women (Chikara to onna no yo no naka, 1933) by Masaoka Kenzō, “the father of Japanese animation” and creator of Japan's first animated talkies.19 Animation cels became more affordable in Japan in 1934, when Fuji Film began manufacturing celluloid domestically.20
The use of animation cels originated in the 1910s in America with the Bray-Hurd process, which was patented several times between 1914 and 1916.21 Cels helped introduce scientific management principles into animation production, reducing the required amount of time and labor.22 Drawings could be made more quickly, since animators could isolate the moving components of the image and draw these on separate sheets. Sheets were then stacked to create a composite image, so that it was no longer necessary to redraw elements of the composition that remained unchanged from frame to frame. Cel technology made the division of labor in animation possible, allowing for the separation of low-paying, low-skilled work from more complex or creative jobs. Breaking down animated images into cels also made possible a corresponding specialization of tasks, with distinct responsibilities for background artists, key animators, inbetweeners, tracers, and colorists. In this sense, cel technology gave rise to the fundamental characteristics of studio animation, including not only the basic technology and style of commercial animation, but also its production stages and even business practices.23
The participation of women workers in Japanese animation began in earnest after the introduction of cels. From the 1930s through the 1950s, women filled the lower ranks of major animation studios. During the wartime animation boom, tracing and inking were done by an all-female staff at J. O. Studios. The regular production of color animation did not begin until after World War II, when acrylic paint became widely available in Japan.24 However, according to film director Ichikawa Kon, even during the wartime period, female inkers at J. O. Studios experimented with color animation, painting individual film frames by hand with red, yellow, and blue paint.25
The division of labor, deskilling of low-level production processes, and reliance on women as a flexible source of labor cannot be separated from the medium's aesthetic development. In the 1930s, Walt Disney's innovative experiments with full animation required low-paid inkers and colorists to keep costs down. Likewise, in the late 1950s, cost-saving measures allowed Tōei Dōga (which was organized according to the Disney model) to create Japan's first full-color animation feature film and the first Cinemascope animation feature film. Tōei Dōga's trainee program justified paying paltry wages to the lowest-level workers under the pretense that these were not true employees but employees in training. And without these underpaid workers (who revolted in a 1961 strike), the company would not have been able to adapt quickly to the demands of television animation. This system allowed Tōei Dōga to take on more projects while developing human resources without spending money to hire experienced animators at a higher cost. When it came to female employees, animator Okuyama Reiko, who started as a colorist at Tōei Dōga, says the studio used women's short careers as an excuse not to invest in training them or paying them as much as their male counterparts.26 In 1959 Tōei Dōga formalized gender tracking by writing term limitations into female workers’ contracts that required them to quit after marriage or children.27 Under such conditions, very few women were able to become full-fledged animators, whereas men typically began their careers as inbetweeners and worked their way up.
The 1961 Tōei Dōga labor disputes drew the public's attention to poor working conditions in Japanese animation studios. Animators were considered at risk for “anime syndrome” (anime shōkōgun): health problems caused by long days and nights of labor-intensive work in cramped spaces with poor diets, no breaks, and no sleep. Production cycles were defined by periods of very heavy workloads (satsujin shūkan or “killer weeks”) that alternated with lulls.28
A 1959 article on women animators at Tōei Dōga held the low-ranking female workers accountable for growing labor unrest, blaming “the troubles” on girlish and undisciplined dispositions. At the same time, the studio's large number of female workers (fig. 4) inspired the journalist to write, “Most of this animation is made by women. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that if you aren't a woman, you can't do this work.”29 Of the 136 animators who worked on Tōei Dōga's Magic Boy (Shōnen Sarutobi Sasuke, 1959), Japan's first Cinemascope feature-length animated film, 120 were women. Male veteran animators, some with twenty years of experience, drew the film's key frames (genga), which served as guides for male inbetweeners, who made the interstitial drawings (dōga) to connect these images. (Incidentally, these roles are referred to as “genga man” and “dōga man.”) In contrast, young women, many of them art school graduates, did all of the tracing and coloring—a total of 78,654 cels.30 The article notes the usefulness of colorists’ and tracers’ schoolgirl imaginations and strong emotional attachment to their work: they “adore the animations they have painted as if they were their own living children” and are “sustained by maternal affection” for the characters they create.31 Jonathan Clements has also suggested, “A general, industry-wide belief, still extant today, held that women were simply better colourists than men, with sharper instincts for differentiation.” Such gender biases were also used to keep women in colorists’ jobs and deny them promotions.32
Labor conditions on the lowest rungs of the animation industry worsened with the emergence of the multitier contractor system. The rise of television anime in the 1960s brought about massive structural changes to Japanese animation production. With the wild success of Japan's first domestically produced half-hour TV animation series, Tezuka Osamu's Mighty Atom (Testuwan Atomu, Mushi Productions, 1963–66), the TV series format became the focus of animation production. In order to keep up with the staggering number of labor hours required to produce thirty minutes of animation every week, animators at Mushi Pro developed labor-saving techniques that became the basis of the limited animation style that still dominates today.33 Tezuka undersold the TV series to Fuji Television in order to incentivize the purchase, figuring he could make back the money he lost through the sale of character goods. And so, anime's transmedia system, known as the “media mix,” was born.34
The TV anime boom generated fierce competition among studios and created labor shortages.35 Studios came to rely increasingly on subcontractor companies and freelance workers to fill orders during peak production periods. Well-trained, experienced employees took advantage of these industry conditions, quitting their jobs to join other studios or to form independent ventures. This period saw the rise of senmon sutajio (specialty studios), which offered specialized services to major studios, and thus the emergence of anime production networks.36,Senmon sutajio sprouted up near the existing major studios, most of which were located in the wards of Suginami and Nerima in Tokyo. This geographic proximity (known as agglomeration) facilitated the quick turnaround of production assignments, as well as close supervision and quality control.37 In the process, major studios such as Tōei Dōga and Mushi Pro transformed into “primary contractors” (moto uke) that served as the first point of contact for TV stations and sponsors seeking to develop new shows. Following the initial planning stages (including character design, storyboarding, scripting, and setting production schedules), much of the actual production work was passed on to subcontractors (shita uke) and subcontractors’ subcontractors (mago uke).
While these conditions made it possible for ambitious animators to change companies or start their own, it also led to the widespread casualization of animation labor and weakened the status of animators within the system as a whole. These industry changes contributed to the system we know today in which television stations, sponsors, and primary contractor companies control budgets, time schedules, and intellectual property rights, a major source of revenue. Today, most TV anime series are initiated by production committees (seisaku iinkai) that consist of various media companies, including broadcasters, publishers, music publishers, distributors, and advertising firms. Animation studios are merely contractors who take on orders from production committees. The production committee system allows participants to minimize their investment in a specific production, spread risk across multiple projects, and maximize profits from the licensing and distribution agreements that constitute anime's most profitable revenue streams. Meanwhile, animation studios, contract workers, and subcontractor companies occupy a more precarious position, struggling with insufficient production budgets and unpredictable work orders. Yoshimi Tomofumi observes that, although the cost of producing a single episode of animation has grown, the typical production budget has not seen a corresponding increase. In the early 2000s, for instance, production budgets were still roughly the same as they had been for twenty years.38
ANIMATION AS HOMEWORK
Correspondence course ads for animation coloring used anime's growing popularity in order to make shiage into an attractive commodity, softening the dark image of exploitative labor conditions in the Japanese animation industry. However, in 1981, many of these training-cum-employment opportunities were exposed as inchiki naishoku (shady side work) scams. Part consumer fraud and part labor exploitation, these scams took advantage of working housewives by charging for training and equipment, and for work that never arrived or was never paid. These stratagems point to the new forms of exploitation made possible by the increasing convergence of production and consumption, and highlight the risks and expenses carried by flexible workers who are vulnerable to exploitation on multiple fronts.
Homework—typically piecework performed by women on an informal basis as a secondary source of household income—is especially risky. Homework is performed in the home, without supervision, on an irregular schedule that is often subject to interruptions or constraints tied to “primary” home responsibilities. Homework has the apparent advantages of autonomy, freedom, and flexibility—it appears that homework can performed at one's own convenience, as one prefers, or in one's “free” time. These positive associations may explain why some workers are motivated to take on homework despite substandard wages and a lack of standard labor protections, such as workers’ compensation insurance. Like other irregular workers, homeworkers lack the benefits and protections of full-time salaried employees unless their benefits are provided by the husband's “family wage.” In contrast, regular employees can expect steady increases in salary, regular bonuses, health insurance, and pensions. Even casual workers are visible and capable of organizing in ways that homeworkers are not. Homeworkers are dispersed and often solitary. This invisibility presents a hurdle for reforms.39
According to Labor Ministry statistics, in 1983, the women who made up 93 percent of homeworkers could make, on average, the equivalent of 322 yen per hour (about $3.35 in today's dollars) doing homework, a rate lower than the lowest minimum wage in Japan at that time. In comparison, women working part-time in the manufacturing industry in 1983 could expect to make 525 to 597 yen per hour. The statistics showed that 91 percent of women homeworkers were engaged in side work, 7 percent of homeworkers worked full-time and provided their household's main source of income, and the remaining 2 percent used homework to supplement income they made at another job. Despite poor wages and, for some, health risks associated with the materials they worked with, 80 percent of these homeworkers, many without insurance, said that they wanted to continue working at home.40
In 1981 the Labor Ministry became alarmed at the growing number of inchiki naishoku scams that targeted homeworkers and subjected them to consumer fraud. These scams were said to appeal especially to the emotions and psychology of women. In 1982 the Nihon keizai shinbun (Japan Economic Newspaper) observed, “These methods have been around for a long time, but in the last few years there has been an especially remarkable incidence of scams that use advertisements in women's magazines or inserts in newspapers, types of ads that seem to take advantage of the psychology of housewives who crave a convenient source of cash.”41 In 1984 the same newspaper opined that housewives are particularly susceptible to clichés such as “Learn a skill while also making lots of money.”42 In response to the epidemic of shady side work scams, the Labor Ministry embarked on an multi-day PR campaign from January 21 to 31, 1982. The campaign targeted married women and warned predatory businesses that the 1971 Domestic Labor Law (Kanai Rōdō-hō) would be enforced to its full extent. The campaign was carried out in partnership with local governments and included the nationwide distribution of fifteen thousand posters and twenty thousand pamphlets.43 One of the campaign slogans was “There's no such thing as easy cash.” During the campaign, the Ministry received more than 2,060 reports and inquiries, 70 percent of which pertained to animation coloring scams.44 Examples of these scams were reported by national newspapers:
Example (2) = “A” in Ibaraki Prefecture learned about “animation coloring” through a newspaper advertisement and paid 20,000 yen for a training course held in the prefectural Industry and Culture Center. However, after the training course was over, “A” was not contacted by the employer, and it was only after “A” made persistent inquiries that they were sent 14 key frames. In spite of advertising copy that said “complete one sheet in 30 minutes,” each sheet required at least three hours. “A” managed to finish all the frames anyway, but when “A” sent these to the employer, the employer said that “A” had done a poor job and would only be paid 3,000 yen. All this while, “A” spent their own money on the necessary painting supplies and ended up paying the employer more than 30,000 yen. For someone who doesn't have an easy life, “A” said, 30,000 yen is a lot to spend on classes.45
One notable example of predatory advertising practices came from the Takara Sanrando company, which placed ads in magazines such as Shufu no tomo (Housewife's Companion) and Josei jishin (Women's Own) and collected fees of between 14,000 and 19,500 yen in exchange for correspondence training, materials, and equipment.46 One ad reassured readers that “99% of trainees make income from this work.”47 As it turned out, the price per piece for work assignments was never clearly determined, which caused numerous disagreements over wages and claims of unpaid labor. More than 349 claimants eventually sued the company for more than 46.72 million yen (approximately $550,000 in today's dollars).48
In general, it seems that correspondence course ads exaggerated the amount of income that could be earned doing animation coloring. The Yoyogi Animation Academy claimed, “Monthly income will be different depending on the person, but the average amount is around 30,000 to 90,000 yen.”49 This number seems implausible compared to other reports of shiage workers’ actual earnings. In addition, Labor Ministry statistics show that the vast majority of women homeworkers only worked part time—in the early 1980s, an average of around six hours a day, twenty days a month.50 It seems highly unlikely that the average female homeworker engaged in shiage would be able to make the monthly income promised by Yoyogi Animation ads.
Indeed, actual working conditions in the animation industry were nearly as disadvantageous to workers as the “shady side work” scams. In a 1981 interview, Inoue Etsuko, head of the shiage department at Mushi Productions, made revealing comments on inchiki naishoku and actual labor conditions in the animation industry. The scams were obviously fraudulent, she said, since in the first place, animation budgets were so constrained that the cost of postage alone made the prospect of outsourcing shiage to Japanese workers outside Tokyo implausible. Her own workers were paid so little that, at 60 yen per piece, even veteran housewives who had the skill and speed to complete three hundred drawings a month could only take home 18,000 yen. Inoue disclosed that she herself had once supervised an anime correspondence course for a company that eventually went bankrupt, and she strongly warned women away from these courses.51 Her comments, and her experience working under both models, suggest that there was a murky area of overlap between actual conditions in the animation industry and animation scams, which made it difficult to distinguish between illegitimate companies exploiting the popularity of anime for their own profit and legitimate companies with onerous working conditions.
An exposé on working conditions in the anime industry published in the mainstream weekly entertainment magazine AERA in 1990 featured an interview with a young male animator named Hioki Seiji, age twenty-one, who worked more-than-ten-hour days, twenty-five days a month, for a monthly income of just over 40,000 yen. On this income, he could not even afford a cramped one-room rental apartment, food, and fees to use the public bath. After paying for these essentials, he was 20,000 yen in debt every month. The only way he could continue as an animator was to dip into his savings from working as a meat-packer for two years. Nevertheless, he said, as long as he could survive by living off his savings, he would continue working in animation “because it's work I love.”52 In the same article, an employee at a large animation studio blamed the plight of struggling workers on television stations that force studios to survive on meager budgets. In a cascade effect, these budgetary limitations were inevitably passed down from the financially strapped primary contractors to the animation industry's most disposable workers. The anonymous studio employee explained: “There is nothing we can do about the television stations except boycott them altogether when we cannot produce on these budgets. But we aren't going to get them to double the budgets, and even if they did, we wouldn't break even. It's like throwing water on a house that has already burned down.”53 For Ishida Yasumi, president of Studio Korumi in the Tokyo suburb of Higashimurayama, these economic limitations explained why contract workers were paid by the piece: “Even if we wanted to offer a fixed salary, we couldn't provide the Tokyo city minimum wage. Under these conditions, we can't even post help-wanted ads.” Ishida may have justified poor wages as the reality of industry-wide deprivations, but this reasoning did not prevent outraged protests. After one new employee received their first paycheck, Ishida received an angry call from their parents, who demanded, “What's the meaning of this?”54 Even in recent years, more than half of fledgling animators in Japan quit before the end of their first year due to low wages and poor working conditions.55
LABOR OF LOVE
As the AERA article shows, the immiseration of animation workers gave rise to a discourse on “love” that attempted to explain workers’ adaptation to exploitative conditions, not unlike the idea of “the starving artist.” As Julian Kücklich points out, the problem is how to analyze the relationship between creative individuals (or communities) and media industries “from a political economy perspective, without disregarding the pleasures and rewards [that individuals or communities] may derive from their work.”56 This is especially an issue when fandom, free labor, or affective labor are involved.57 “Love” is invoked to explain animation workers’ dedication to jobs that otherwise seem physically, emotionally, and financially depleting. AERA reported that the vast majority of people working in animation were “paid by the piece, no raise, no bonus, no health insurance, no pension.” Nevertheless, the article grimly noted, “The anime industry is sustained by the pride and resignation of ‘I do it because it's work I love.’”58 More recently, the anthropologist Ian Condry has argued that an analysis of labor in the animation industry must make room for understanding this work as a labor of love and pride. He contends that critiques of neoliberalism are far too quick to dismiss free labor and collaborative creativity as forms of capitalist exploitation.59 However, the discourse on love is problematic when applied to flexible workers, especially women who already face enormous pressures to prioritize unpaid work and affective labor performed in the home. Lack of access to childcare is still one of the primary reasons that women who wish to work cannot work in Japan. It is crucial to situate the discourse on love within the context of the history of gendered labor and with awareness of the limited opportunities that women have in the workforce.
Studies of “free labor,” “prosumption,” “playbor,” and the “gig economy” offer critical frameworks for thinking about the overlap between leisure and labor in post-Fordist or advanced capitalist societies. These studies show how volunteers, fans, and hobbyists are subsumed into capitalist regimes of value extraction that blur the line between leisure and work by utilizing “play” as unpaid labor. For instance, Tiziana Terranova and Julian Kücklich discuss internet chat room moderators and game modders, whose free (unwaged and voluntary) labor contributes to the creation of business infrastructure and the generation of value on multiple levels—from products to services to advertising—as well as the production of such intangible values as “community” and “cool.” Terranova notes that the digital economy is part of an ongoing reconfiguration of production and consumption in post-Fordist capitalism:
In the overdeveloped countries, the end of the factory has spelled out the obsolescence of the old working class, but it has also produced generations of workers who have been repeatedly addressed as active consumers of meaningful commodities. Free labor is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited.60
Terranova argues that the plight of precarious knowledge workers—self-employed, freelance, part-time, unwaged, or otherwise “flexible”—challenges the class model of understanding the relationship of labor to capital. In the first place, this labor often involves what Maurizio Lazzarato calls “immaterial labor,” or “activities that are not normally recognized as ‘work’—in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.”61 In the second place, as observed in the case of social media “influencers,” these workers often perform traditionally “feminine” forms of self-exploitation: commodifying themselves, creating personal brands, relying heavily on personal networks and interpersonal interactions, managing desire and affect, and developing personal (often domestic) interests or expertise into professional skills.62 This shift toward flexibilization, self-exploitation, personalization, and forms of unwaged or unemployed labor—often referred to as the so-called “feminization” of labor in late capitalist societies—gives new salience to feminist histories of labor that shed light on unwaged forms of work and value creation.
So how did low-level, labor-intensive animation work come to be represented as a desirable commodity and advertised as a pleasurable or worthwhile pursuit in women's magazines? The advertisements that I analyze are instances of how immaterial and unremunerated forms of labor, such as affective labor, became increasingly valuable to the anime industry as it entered a new phase in the last decades of the twentieth century, becoming increasingly reliant on fans not only as consumers but also as knowledge workers and “playborers.”
The show Tetsuwan Atomu marked the emergence of character merchandising as an important business strategy, producing new forms of interrelationality among anime, advertising, and commercial goods, and creating the basic features of anime's “media mix.”63 The TV anime series format plays an important role in promoting the anime source text (typically a manga or light novel) and selling branded goods such as toys, T-shirts, games, and plastic figures. TV anime is also a convenient source of cheap programming that broadcasters can use to fill the least desirable time slots in their schedules. Kusakawa Shō and Marc Steinberg have argued that Tetsuwan Atomu not only gave rise to such constellations of animation, advertising, and goods, but also symbolized Japan's postwar shift from a manufacturing economy to a service-oriented economy. Thus, for Steinberg, the anime media mix inaugurated by Tetsuwan Atomu in the 1960s was “synchronous with, inflected by, and indeed formative of global transformations associated with the term post-Fordism (the increasing prominence of media in everyday lives, the rise of worlds as a fundamental aspect of consumption, and media convergence as a guiding logic of contemporary capitalist accumulation).”64
Steinberg does not deal extensively with labor, but he examines how the media mix system uses consumers to generate economic value by channeling their affective investments. Thus the anime media mix is an example of “the reconceptualization of consumption as a form of productive activity or work, entailing the real subsumption of life, work, and consumption under a post-Fordist regime of image circulation and capital accumulation.”65 Steinberg shows how fans’ discursive activity and imaginative interactions with branded goods sustain the media mix world, creating a “media environment” that includes “both the media ecology as a system of media and its lived experience by human subjects” that transcends any specific text or product.66 This kind of activity is key to the production of what Gabriella Lukács has called “image commodities” or “intangible commodities” that are particularly available to “intense cross-genre and transmedia circulation.”67 This potential allows for less investment and more flexibility on the producers’ side. Lukács argues that it is social labor, rather than capital investment or the working of raw materials, that produces the value of intangible commodities. This value emerges through the circulation of the commodity and its reception, rather than as part of the production process: “In fact, the ability to seamlessly blur the line between production and consumption intensifies the value-producing capacity of intangible commodities.”68 In this sense, labor is a key component of both the production and the consumption of image commodities. Social labor on the consumer side complements the flexibilization of labor on the production side, enhancing the value of cheaply made products so they are able to return a profit. Attention to the labor side allows us to see how the same factors driving increased fan participation in anime culture have also undercut animation workers, rendering regular employment in the animation industry extremely precarious.
After the Tetsuwan Atomu–inspired boom of the 1960s, a 1980s anime boom was inaugurated by the spectacular success of the theatrically released film Space Battleship Yamato (Uchū senkan Yamato, 1977), which was based on a popular animated television show. This period ushered in a new phase in anime production and consumer practices. Space Battleship Yamato contributed to an increase in anime's popular appeal and the flourishing of an enthusiastic specialist fan culture. The first Comic Market (Komiketto) was held in 1975, the first VHS videocassette recorder was introduced to consumers in 1976, and Animage, the first anime magazine, debuted in 1978. The rapid diffusion of VCR technology in the 1980s enabled time-shifted viewing, repeat viewings, and the buying, selling, and trading of anime episodes among fans, all of which contributed to critical activity and the development of an active fan culture. It is generally accepted that the VCR gave rise to otaku culture, a male-centered, collector-fan culture that values discernment, knowledgeability, and attention to detail. Indeed, Okada Toshio has called otaku the “vanguard of information capitalist society.”69
While this boom was under way, computerization transformed training and employment in the animation industry. This included not only digitization but also the use of telecommunications technology and personal computers, which made possible more flexible working conditions (for instance telecommuting). In the early 1980s, software companies such as JCGL, the first computer graphics company in Japan, began partnering with animation studios to automate production tasks and develop 3D animation technologies. Such partnerships led to the production of inexpensive animation software that could be run on PCs.70 Whereas in 1983 only 10 percent of graduates from Yoyogi Animation Academy went on to work for computer game and software companies, by 1988 that number had risen to 30 percent.71 Computers steadily replaced cel-based techniques, while foreign outsourcing was used to keep production costs low. Although key frame drawings were still done by hand by lead animators in Japan in cel-animation style, inbetween drawings were increasingly produced overseas. By 1988, 60 percent of inbetweening and 40 percent of backgrounds were subcontracted abroad. At the end of 1995, Fuji Film, which had manufactured cels for more than sixty years and supplied nearly 80 percent of the cel materials used by Japanese animation studios in the 1990s, decided to discontinue cel production. During this same time frame, anime's participatory fan cultures became more visible and central to the industry's commercial strategies, and automation and the offshoring of many “entry level” animation tasks has steadily progressed.
ANIMATION LABOR ON THE BRINK
Despite a growing body of scholarship on female anime and manga fans, as well as greater attention to female-oriented drawing styles and genres, much of the writing on anime and “prosumption” (the convergence of production and consumption) has focused on male otaku who translate their knowledge and passion for anime into amateur creations, new forms of sociality, and even careers.72 Otaku have been alternately been imagined as dangerous obsessives or as advanced practitioners of “a new set of relations to … images and image flows” in highly mediated, information-rich societies.73 In general, anime fan studies emphasize the creativity, connoisseurship, and skill involved in the creation of so-called “derivative works” (nijisōsaku) based on existing intellectual property. This focus on participatory fan cultures has meant less attention to how workers have been affected by new forms of overlap between production and consumption.
Although it may seem that shiage workers make a very minor contribution to the creative process, shiage reflects important historical transformations in anime production, both aesthetic and institutional.74 Compared to other aspects of cel-style animation, shiage is more subject to the influence of technological innovations, such as the introduction of xerography in the early 1960s and digitization in the 1980s. Shiage workers are also more vulnerable to changes in labor distribution such as local and international outsourcing. Attention to the vicissitudes of how shiage has been performed allows us to better understand changing business practices and methods of the animation industry.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, new consumer discourses, together with the improving image of anime, were harnessed to aestheticize and commodify rote tasks involved in anime production in order to extract additional value from would-be anime workers. The images projected by these ads contrasted starkly with the realities of homework, and ever since, problems with the distribution of labor in the Japanese animation industry have become increasingly difficult to ignore. Overproduction, complex production networks, labor shortages, and staff attrition caused by poverty-level wages came to a head with the so-called “crisis of 2016,” which involved industry-wide postponements of TV anime series’ new seasons as well as, in some cases, fewer than expected new episodes. The future of Japanese animation workers is uncertain, with as much as 90 percent of entry-level jobs being performed overseas. According to the Japan Animation Creators Association (JAniCA), a workers’ advocacy group, such overseas outsourcing is a standard tactic used by anime studios to resolve “labor shortages” caused by erratic production schedules, long working hours (sometimes twelve to eighteen hours per day for inbetweeners), and subpar wages.75 These conditions devalue the contributions of low-level workers, with repercussions for the future of animation production in Japan. One wonders if the production impasse has finally irreparably damaged the image of animation training and entry-level work, for instance by eroding the associations with creativity, media consumption, and leisure that were formerly used by animation correspondence course ads to make repetitive, low-paying animation labor attractive to consumers. What will the future hold for Japanese animation workers? Right now it seems that no one can say.