One Piece (Oda Eiichiro)

Actionable Ways to Improve Working Conditions in the Anime Industry

(and Why Buying Discs/Streaming Subscriptions Isn’t One of Them)

In recent months there has been actual awareness raised towards the substandard working conditions in the animation industry in Japan.

About damn time.

The poor conditions range from low wages, lack of long term benefits from full employment as many in the industry are employed as freelancers, and cultural expectations to work long intense hours. None of these issues are unique to the animation industry, they are systemic to many industries throughout the entire world. Luckily, that makes addressing these issues straightforward as they have been examined for decades in all cultures. What follows below are actual, actionable steps that can be taken to address these issues.

But first, we have to debunk one specific misunderstanding. Dig the wax outta your ears and listen very closely:

Working conditions can never be improved through capitalist instruments.

In simpler words, this means that no consumer action can ever bring about positive change to labor, by the very definition of capitalism. To do so would directly contravene the central purpose of capitalism. Let me state this even more directly:

Buying discs and streaming subscriptions will not and cannot help workers.

Consumer action will do nothing. Citizen action, on the other hand, will.

These labor issues are systemic, not individual. Therefore, they have to be addressed systemically, not individually. Revenue raised from any particular project through disc sales, streaming subscriptions, even merchandising, will only go to those involved with that particular project, with a number of capitalist bodies (the production committee) divvying up the revenue among themselves. Here’s a short explainer on the production committee from @animatorsupport:

Purchases do not force the improvement of working conditions. Even a massive windfall from a project that achieves meteoric success does not obligate companies to share the increased revenue with workers. They may choose to, but they are not obligated to do so by any means. Don’t be tricked by neoliberal ideology into thinking that markets are the fix to capitalist problems. All that bluster by PR about supporting the industry through legal channels is a smokescreen; yes, it funnels money to companies, but fails to continue through to workers beyond the most minimal compensation. Blaming piracy for hurting workers is a misdirection tactic designed to shift the onus for employers to treat their workers ethically onto consumers, taking no responsibility themselves. To use this as an excuse for cutting compensation or laying off workers is morally reprehensible.

By that same metric, even purchases directly from workers cannot fix the systemic issues, that only addresses increasing the income of the individual workers in question. Buying artbooks, prints, contributing to patreons; these are good for allowing individual workers to take more personal control over their income streams, but they’re not systemic in any way. Only participating workers can benefit. That requires those workers to be both willing and able to produce artbooks, prints, etcetera in the time they have not spent in their usual production work. It’s also biased in favor of those workers who labor in ways that produce things desirable to a market, like animator illustrations, and do significantly less for other positions, like production assistants, that do not produce art assets.

There are also small projects like the Animators Dormitory, which are excellent, yet small in scope. They aid the particular individuals participating in the program, but again, are not systemic. They’re band-aids, helpful in healing small cuts, but do not address the health of the system as a whole.

Yet! There are ways to address these systemic issues, and they are citizen actions, not consumer actions. You have to act as an engaged citizen, not a consumer, not by spending money on products. Let’s list those ways now.

A Non-Exhaustive List of Actions

Political Strategies

Worker-Owned Production Companies: Production companies could be owned by the workers, rather than by a capitalist owner or corporate board. The workers would be in direct ownership of their own labor and could make production and management decisions themselves, through democratic processes, rather than dictated to them from above.

These have a number of existing options for worker ownership; worker cooperatives, collectives, ESOPs, etc. It might also be possible to create a new sort of company that hasn’t yet manifested. There are a number of organizations that promote and support these options; The International Organisation of Industrial and Service Cooperatives (CICOPA), The International Cooperative Alliance (COOP), The National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) [US], The Japan Workers Cooperative Union (JWCU).

A few examples of companies operating under these models are Kantega, Mondragon, & John Lewis.

Unionization & Collectivization: Trade Unions and Labor Unions have over 100 years of history backing them up with general success, stymied by attacks that have reduced their participant numbers and complacence leading to bloated organization.

Unions are worker’s organizations that allow workers to pool their resources in order to counteract the power imbalance between themselves and capitalists in traditional corporate structures. They bargain for rights, benefits, and wages by holding strikes, refusing to work until demands are met. Negotiations result in compromise between the workers and owners.

Unions first made their appearance in Japan around the turn of the 20th Century, the late Meiji Period. They remained weak until after WWII, when the US occupation encouraged their growth. In the years since, however, membership numbers have declined — 55% in 1949 to 18% in 2010 — mirroring much of the rest of the world as employment shifted industries. Look here for a presentation by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare on the current state of labor unions in Japan.

There are currently three major labor union federations active in Japan: RENGO, Zenroren, and Zenrokyo. International trade unions include The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). More specific to the entertainment industry is The International Arts and Entertainment Alliance (IAEA). If workers joined a union, they would have collective power to bargain for better rights. However, due to the freelance nature of most of the animation industry, a majority of workers would need to join a union, otherwise those not part of the union would be hired for work instead, depending on how it is structured as current Japanese law bans the use of strikebreakers. That gives more power to labor compared to the US, where a Supreme Court decision in 1938 allowed the use of strikebreakers.

There are a few animation industry specific organizations operating and I am always on the lookout for more. One is AEYAC, a non-profit organization that focuses on helping young workers who are starting out in the industry. Another is the Japan Animation Creators Association, or JAniCA. This is the first labor union dedicated to improving working conditions in the animation industry and only formed in late 2007. They are the group that launched the Young Animator Training Project, known for a few years as Anime Mirai, now called Anime Tamago. Two of their founding members were the late Toyoo Ashida and Satoshi Kon. A third is Animator Support, which runs a small dormitory for newcomers to the industry. Yet there’s a long fight ahead; many employment opportunities come about through personal connections so if leadership isn’t in favor of unionization, they won’t hire members of a union. In cases like that, the leadership needs to be deposed and replaced with ones more amenable to labor.

One action that can be taken in the US is for employees of licensing companies to unionize as well. An animation-specific union could be formed, or take advantage of existing organizations. Some vocal performers are already covered by the Screen Actors Guild, translators could possibly be a part of the Writers Guild of America or the more specific American Translators Association or the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters. Unionization may become more difficult as companies grow and are acquired by large media conglomerates — like Sony’s acquisition of FUNimation — but that makes the fight for labor rights even more critical.

Elections & Lawmaking: Political parties can have workers rights at part of their platform, some even have it as their core. Voting for elected officials that run on a platform of improving labor conditions can contribute to improving the working environment. In the pre-WWII era, there were many labor movement and socialist parties in Japan, but now there are fewer. One is the Japanese Communist Party (Nihon Kyōsan-tō), the oldest political party in Japan. Another is the Social Democratic Party (Shamin-tō), which was the largest political party following the first post-WWII election in 1947. Other smaller parties with similar platforms also exist.

By supporting political parties with labor as part of their platform, new laws protecting workers could be written and passed. Laws already on the books can also be more strictly enforced if they aren’t already. One example is minimum wage, the lowest employers are legally permitted to pay employees. In Japan these are set regionally and by industry, with the average falling around ¥823 hourly in 2017. This is about $7.50USD, close to the $7.25 US minimum wage, last adjusted in 2009. This is nowhere near enough to stay out of poverty and there are movements in Japan campaigning for ¥1500, similar to the Fight for $15 in the US. Wage theft and other labor law violations are endemic in Japan, particularly in terms of overwork and illegal overtime, tied to cultural expectations to remain at work for long hours even when work is not being done. Japanese labor law limits work to 40 hours a week, with required overtime beyond that, but those hours can be difficult to verify in a freelance environment, particularly if workers are pressured to report fewer hours. @animatorsupport explains:

A few existing laws that protect workers rights are the Labor Standards Act (1947) and the Trade Union Act (1949). The former sets standards for wages, hours, etc, while the latter enshrines the rights of workers to join unions. The Japanese Constitution also contains protections for workers. These and other laws are detailed at the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training.

Political parties that platform around workers rights generally support improvements to welfare programs as well. The rapidly aging population is putting stress on the system, leaving relatively fewer benefits for the youth need public assistance. The dwindling workforce also will take on a greater load as more people age out of employment.

Cultural Strategies

Work Culture: In addition to political change, cultural changes also need to be implemented. There are strategies to be deployed in both the work environment and the consumer environment. In the work environment, a culture that fosters worker wellbeing must be established. Overwork is endemic in Japan, even when pressure from management is absent, workers often spend excessive time working. There are cultural expectations to spend lots of time with coworkers, even outside the office. There are also complex social conditions surrounding the collectivist culture that some peoples exhibit compared to individualist cultures. Additionally, the harmful nature that capitalism has wreaked around the globe has led to suicide being used as a means of providing for one’s family.

Having a strong network of worker protections will help alleviate some of these issues. When workers are better valued they won’t be afraid that not overworking will lead of job loss or reduced wages, no longer afraid that they won’t be able to care for themselves of their families without working beyond the healthy amount.

Leaders that encourage workers to take care of themselves and that it’s okay to not overwork need to be established across the industry. The rapid pace of production needs to slow down, whether that means fewer projects with longer deadlines or more people in the industry, probably both.

The latter may come with better working conditions; that may have the effect of attracting more workers than just the die-hard fans. More general people diluting the pool of die-hard fans will likely have the subsequent effect of easing the part of the culture that is invested in the project as a means of expressing their identity as lovers of animation. When the culture consists of only die-hard fans, it has the effect of all of them wanting to pour their all into the projects, beyond the point of self-care, and that atmosphere multiplies. People who aren’t die-hard fans feel less of a personal need to put too much of themselves into work and can cut that atmosphere to healthier levels.

The former needs leaders to take a stand and agree to fewer projects, consumers to be less demanding, and distancing from media conglomerates and other capitalist corporations with profit maximization as their driving force.

Consumer Culture: Consumer desire is a ever growing, vociferous beast, craving more and more as it eats. This needs to be tempered for the well-being of workers. The culture of anime consumers has grown so much in the last several decades, spreading beyond the borders of Japan to engulf the entire world. The increased demand has far exceeded the supply, and this has contributed to unhealthy environments for both workers and consumers.

I feel that the largest issue in the consumer handbasket is misinformation. Average consumers know little about the production environment, hindered by how opaque the industry has been until relatively recently. Until the last couple years so much misinformation has flown around online that now there are hordes of people with no idea how production happens, yet believing they do. The most common false statement is a generic bleat about “budget” whenever any flaw manifests itself in the end product, even praise about “high budget” for when production turns out great. Historically, the few western news organizations covering the industry put most of their efforts into acting as third-party PR for selling projects, rather than as journalists holding companies to account for their actions, aided and abetted by the fact that these same companies were the ones buying advertising in their publications.

Misinformed people also throw around names of studios as if they are living entities that create animation, rather than the humans that work inside them. This fosters the impression that the company has some sort of primacy, at the expense of real humans. This is dangerous as it dehumanizes people, making companies seem like machines churning out projects. I feel that counteracting this danger is the primary goal of sakuga, the celebration of animation technique. The celebration of technique is tied inexorably to the artists themselves, humanizing them, giving names and faces to the work itself, fostering a healthier relationship between consumers and producers. If consumers can see producers as individual humans, not as faceless companies, it’s more likely that they will be more supportive of their rights, not just demanding product to be consumed. It will hopefully encourage consumers to fight for rights alongside workers, putting pressure from both sides on companies to improve working conditions.

Another action that needs to happen on the consumer side is to temper the obsession with analyzing facets like sales figures and licensing agreements and other industrial processes without also always including the human factor. Nerd culture often hones in on facts and figures and memorization and the like, but neglects the human cost of capitalist processes. I call on those prone to performing these types of information acquisition to leaven their study by pausing frequently to consider how human people are impacted by these processes. Don’t automatically yield to the “this is how things work” mindset; realize that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, that to engage in this field is to participate in the exploitation of workers, and to counterbalance that by fighting nonstop for worker’s rights. Question the status quo with every breath, look for any and all opportunities to disrupt the power hierarchy.

I also call on those who use the content of the animation industry to develop their own content to understand their own role in exploitation of workers and to take steps to mitigate the damage. Participate in the strategies listed above. Always give credit to all humans involved in the creation of the work you’re using, not just companies. If you’re making money, try to give compensation as well. These humans are the ones you rely on, you couldn’t exist without them, so don’t become another exploiter. This includes the people working for licensing companies; contracts don’t free you from the moral obligation to support the humans who you rely on for your very existence, you need to fight for their rights alongside your own.

What you, the ordinary person, can do to help these strategies come to fruition is multi-fold. Support the use of them in your own local area, participating in them yourself if possible. Suggest to others to participate as well. Study them to learn more about them and share that information with others. Put pressure on the elected officials that represent you to support unions, labor rights, etc. Ask them to introduce new laws, support laws already on the books, etc. Join organizations, or donate money or time to them. Create your own party or organization. Join in protests, petitions, boycotts. Write letters to newspapers and other publications encouraging support for workers rights. Labor improvements in one locale or industry can impact others, particularly seeing the number of national and international organizations that umbrella over smaller ones, joining small pockets of power into larger masses of power.

Here are a couple of the most accessible actions you can take. Follow organizations like Animator Support, AEYAC, and JAniCA through social media, sharing their missions online and offline, donating money if you can. Join labor organizations and political movements in your area, such as the DSA in the US. Read trusted sources to remove misinformation and replace it with correct information. I recommend Sakuga Blog for accurate animation information, and for better understanding capitalism, Labor and Monopoly Capital, by Harry Braverman. I also recommend putting pressure on US companies by writing letters, actual physical letters. Emails and social media can easily be ignored or lost in the fray; hand written letters — or typed if your handwriting is illegible like mine is — will grab attention, especially if we write lots of them. A list of addresses of animation/manga licensing companies is at the end of this post. Be firm, but polite, and demand better working conditions for employees both in the US — and in Japan if their company is part of a production committee.

None of these are perfect or flawless actions, but that doesn’t invalidate implementing them. I sometimes see complaints about flaws in solutions used as justifications for abandoning them which is quite frustrating. No single one of these strategies will solve the issues because that’s not how it works. There is never a sole savior to swoop in and make everything better. Solutions are jigsaw puzzles; no one piece completes a puzzle on its own, and a puzzle needs all its pieces to be completed. All of these strategies and more need to be implemented. These, and hundreds, thousands more, working in tandem, will fill in the picture bit by bit. Because that’s what life is, humans working together to achieve what any lone individual cannot.

Licensing Company Addresses

Aniplex of America: 2120 Colorado Avenue, Santa Monica, CA
Crunchyroll: 835 Market St, 7th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103
Dark Horse: 10956 SE Main Street, Milwaukie, OR 97222
Digital Manga: 1487 W 178th St, #300, Gardena, CA 90248
FAKKU: 101 SW Madison St, #9009, Portland, OR 97207
FUNimation: 1200 Lakeside Pkwy, Flower Mound, TX 75028
Kodansha USA: 451 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016
NIS America: 4 Hutton Centre Dr, Suite 650, Santa Ana, CA 92707
Right Stuf: 512 N. E. Main Street, Grimes, IA 50111
Sentai Filmworks: 5373 West Alabama St, Suite 640, Houston, TX 77056
Seven Seas: 3463 State St, Ste 545, Santa Barbara, CA 93105
Vertical, Inc: 451 Park Avenue South, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10016
Viz: 1355 Market Street, Suite #200, San Francisco, CA 94103
Yen Press: 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017