The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is filled with Japanese works that nearly became the Meiji-era equivalent of bubble wrap. Ukiyo-e, the famous woodblock prints that define the traditional image of Japan for so many, were being used as wrapping paper, and because Japan didn’t value its native art 150 years ago, the work was almost lost to history. Fortunately, much of it was taken out of the country and preserved by organizations such as the MFA.

Today, new forms of art—animation commonly called anime and comics known as manga—face a similar fate. To prevent another loss of cultural history, the government of Japan is considering steps to preserve what it considers “treasures of Japan,” a term used by Keiji Furuya, chief of the House of Representatives Steering Committee.

In the wake of the 1853 visit by Commodore Matthew Perry and his squadron of “black ships,” Japan realized it could no longer remain walled off. As the Tokugawa shogunate gave way to modernization and the Meiji Restoration 15 years later, what was once terrifying encroachment from foreign barbarians became must-have technology and fashion. Members of the Imperial Family were pictured wearing Western clothing, and Japan embraced everything from photography and classical music to Western industrial technology, which was used for smelting iron, building ships, and mass producing a variety of exportable products.

As the new came in, the old was at least partially pushed out. This included ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world, an art form in which painters and makers of woodblock prints depicted beautiful women, kabuki actors, and natural scenes such as Hokusai’s famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa and numerous depictions of Mt. Fuji. As this art fell out of step with the times, artists lost interest in producing it and the quality declined.

But just as Japan was rejecting ukiyo-e in favor of Mozart and Michelangelo, this uncool art became all the rage in the West.

“Older Japanese people are very aware that they lost massive amounts of now very attractive and artistically valued ukiyo-e during the Meiji Era, when they cast them off together with the Edo Era,” according to David Case, chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) Intellectual Property (IP) Committee and an experienced IP and commercial disputes lawyer.

“Westerners saw them and said, ‘Wow, these are really great!’ and snatched them up and preserved them. I have read that the ukiyo-e were even used as packing materials in boxes for things that were made in Japan and shipped out of the country. Now, they grace the walls of the Boston Museum and other archives.”
A hundred years after Japan’s cushioning material became the global art world’s next big thing, history seems to be repeating itself.

Over the past two or three decades, anime and manga have built up a large fan base overseas. Anime, in particular, is a profitable business in the United States and other Western countries, and fan conventions focus on it to the exclusion of Western animation (except for Japanese-style animation produced by Westerners).

The popularity of anime and manga has led to valuable cultural artifacts—such as first-edition manga and materials used in the making of anime—being scooped up by foreign collectors through online auction sites such as eBay.

The majority of anime-making materials are, of course, from traditional animation rather than the more recent works that are made digitally. Celluloids—or cels—are one item often cited as streaming out of Japan into foreign collections. Each cel is a single frame of action in a scene, painted onto the back of a piece of celluloid and then shot from the front. According to the Japanese popular culture eMagazine Nihonden, “With the spike in computer animation and specialized graphics software, traditional cels are losing their application in mainstream media.”

As manga creator Nao Yazawa told The ACCJ Journal: “Many cels show just eyes or just a mouth, or just the tips of fingers. Something like that is not much of a collectable item. Basically, collectible items are of very good quality, or an important part of a cel. In the old days, when you finished making animation almost all of the cels were just disposed of. So, fans might go to the garbage bin and get some cels. But now this has spread into a worldwide thing.”

Particularly valuable are key cels. These are the most important frames showing a character’s movement and are drawn by more experienced—and likely more famous—animators. The frames in between are drawn by less-experienced subordinates.

Also attractive to collectors are genga, drawings made by senior animators as reference images for their staff. Genga are not usually available for sale, which adds to their allure. “The genga and drafts of genga are the most valuable, since they’re drawn by senior, highly skilled artists and are often not used in the animation itself, making them even more special and rarefied,” said writer Roland Kelts, best known for his book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US.

Is it true that the majority of valuable anime and manga items that make it to eBay are leaving the country?

“My impression is that foreign collectors are more eager,” said Yazawa. “In the old days, collecting cels really, really mattered for Japanese; and many people wanted to collect cels. But, nowadays, not so much.” She added that she does see cels available through online auction sites. “While the attraction to collecting cels was primarily to have images of a favorite character, today one can simply take a screenshot from a DVD,” Yazawa said.

Kelts’s take is slightly different. “The practice of collecting and curating such items as memorabilia has not been as big a pastime in Japan as in the West—largely, I suspect, because both manga and anime were long considered at home to be lowbrow, relatively disposable art forms, like ukiyo-e before them. That began to change over the past decade or so, largely as manga and anime were recognized abroad as distinctly Japanese cultural and aesthetic artifacts. And, of course, the internet helped make awareness and accessibility grow fast and far beyond Japan’s borders.”

In response to the concern about cultural treasures leaving the country, the government is considering official measures. On January 6, The Japan Times published a report by Jiji Press, Ltd. that a group of lawmakers from several different parties would be introducing legislation to the Diet this year for “the building of a national media arts center to collect and store original editions of manga and anime cels to prevent them from being taken out of the country.”

The report noted that a similar idea was funded in 2009 under then-Prime Minister Taro Aso, but opposition lawmakers tarred the idea as a project to build a “state-run manga café.” Those lawmakers also noted that several private manga and anime museums already exist, making a publicly funded facility unnecessary. This resistance, along with other factors, led to the idea being shelved.

In addition to keeping these cultural artifacts in Japan, there is also the need to prevent the materials from disintegrating with age. “The US movie industry has been dealing with this issue for more than 30 years,” noted Case. “Where old film is degrading, there’s really no way to preserve it other than digitizing it. But so many films have been created over the past century and the cost of digitizing all films would be prohibitive. Consequently, foundations have been set up—sometimes subsidized by government—to digitize movies shot on film.” Obviously, animation cels would be subject to the same types of deterioration as celluloid film.

However, in Japan, efforts to preserve intellectual property run into another issue. The Jiji report noted that the current group of lawmakers supporting a nationally funded facility has argued that private facilities are “constrained by copy­right laws that work against the digitization of celluloid materials to prevent their deterioration.”

“In the United States, under the Copyright Act, we have a doctrine called ‘fair use’ which allows for a certain amount of reproduction without infringing on the copyright owners’ rights,” Case said. “It’s narrow—you can’t just do it for any purpose—but we do have safe harbors. The copyright safe harbors under Japanese law are narrow and specific.”

As for whether the proposed center will actually be scanning anime cels, Kaichiro Morikawa told The ACCJ Journal, “I think such specifics are to be formulated after this bill to erect a national center has passed.” Morikawa is an associate professor at the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University. “So, at this moment, I think no one can say for sure whether this facility—if established—will or will not actually do digital scanning of cels on an archival scale.

“What can be said is that the bill states one of the functions this center is to serve is to collect and to preserve materials related to manga, anime, games, etc. and that it is to be an annex of one of the branches of the National Diet Library of Japan.”

Morikawa also noted that the Basic Act for the Promotion of Culture and the Arts “was amended last year to address the preservation of production materials of media arts—a term used by the Agency for Cultural Affairs to address manga, anime, and video games, together with media art. ‘Production materials’ presumably would include anime cels.”

How would the existing private facilities be affected by the establish­ment of the center? According to Kazuma Yoshimura, vice president of Kyoto Seika University and an advisor to the Kyoto International Manga Museum, the response to a successful bill would be different than it would have been had the 2009 bill resulted in a facility.

“The question of preserving materials was a big motivation in considering how we would develop the museum. But this plan is coming out nine years later, and in the intervening years we’ve made progress in our discussions on how a national facility would affect us.”

Since 2009, a network has been formed between the Kyoto International Manga Museum and a number of similar facilities around Japan. Within the network, “discussions are ongoing about what a big center in Tokyo might lack and what responsibilities we could take on.”

It’s unclear if the facility will be approved this time—or even what functions the center would take on. But, with any luck, when it comes to preserving these artistic heirlooms, this time Japan will be able to improve on its ukiyo-e track record.

Tim Young is a freelance writer based in Tokyo.
The popularity of anime and manga has led to valuable cultural artifacts . . . being scooped up by foreign collectors.