Looking at Minorigate and the Tokyo Loli Ban through Anime Expo 2010

I bought a poster of this game at Anime Expo. Suiheisen Made Nan Mairu?

I went down to Anime Expo this past weekend, surviving almost a week of no sleep and irritable fans. Amongst the many stories worth blogging about, perhaps what seemed most surprising to me about Anime Expo 2010 was the powerful presence of visual novels. While other blogs, such as AnimeDiet, have covered extensively some of the prominent Guests of Honor, I had the pleasure of gleaning some very useful comments from actual visual novel makers, as well as those involved in the localization process. It is my hope that through a bit more digging and scavenging, we, as fans and consumers, can come to understand the workings of game makers in Japan.

Following up on my colleague Akira’s article back in April discussing the self-imposed seclusion of game developer minori* (ef, Wind, eden*) and its relationship with the internet eroge community, I decided to look a bit more in depth at the decisions companies make in bringing their games outside Japan. Luckily, Anime Expo had two wonderful panels for discussing localization of visual novels. The first, JAST USA Bishoujo Game Panel, was held on the evening of Day 1. J-List owner Peter Payne announced a recent acquisition to publish Deus Machina Demonbane from well-known game maker Nitro+ (ChaoS;HEAd, Sumaga, Muramasa), whose game Saya no Uta NHRV has a reviewed before. One of the most interesting things I took from that evening was the difficulty in bringing over eroge.

“Japanese companies have to worry about international releases impacting sales inside Japan,” said Payne, after I caught up to him to ask a few questions after his panel.

I think sometimes it’s easy for consumers to forget such a simple principle. After all, the farthest thing from the minds of those angry at minori* is the prospect that overexposure outside of Japan could, in fact, be adverse to the companies. Admittedly, it must be a shock to know that your support is wasted on a company not interested in your business. But can we really blame a company for taking their stance? There are numerous reasons staying domestic, ranging from potential backlash due to censorship differences (we’ve seen this in pornography), to unwanted media attention and criticism. Some more famous companies just don’t want the trouble.

For that reason, JAST USA is starting small. “There’re some games that are too famous,” was the response after I asked if they had any big plans in the future. “Those are your Fate/Stay Nights or your KEY games.” Considering visual novels easily sell $70 and up, it’s hard to say that those outside Japan will buy them. Still, according to Payne, a real fan should want to buy legally to show support. “Of course we’re afraid of illegal downloads. But at our prices, we don’t give people a reason not to buy.” Reasonable prices on localized products is one step to expanding the market.

The second panel took place on Saturday evening, hosted by similarly well-known website MangaGamers. This year at AnimeExpo, they had several booths running, covering a large part of the entrance right into the Exhibitor’s Hall at the convention. For the past few years, they’ve brought over maker Circus (Da Capo series, Suika, Valkyrie Complex). However, this time they not only brought them back, but âge (Kimi ga Nozomu Eien, Muv-Luv) and OverDrive (Edelweiss, Kira☆Kira) as well. Needless to say, these are some big names, and the not only were the directors of the companies there, but so were some of their artists and singers. Minami Kuribayashi, for instance.

The first question that came to mind is: Just how many companies in Japan are willing to take the risk on selling their wares internationally? minori* has firmly rejected any possibility that they are interested in translating their products, and there’s a lot of speculation why. But compared to the seclusion self-imposed by the makers of ef, there are other companies out there interested in selling abroad. Are their business plans just fundamentally different from that of minori*?

Not necessarily.

“We’re a bit divided at the moment,” replied Tororo-dancho, director of Circus. My first question was about possibly joining artists and publishers in opposing the Nonexistent Youth Bill in Tokyo’s Metropolitan Assembly. “We have to obey the law. Deal with the flow.” The original bill and its revision were defeated mid-June, but the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan and its allies, who first proposed the bill, haven’t given up. Several other blogs have covered the recent events in detail, but essentially the bill in question is designed to label some types of creative works as harmful to children, both existent and non-existent.

The present article will refrain from delving into the arguments on both sides of the debate regarding the so-called “Tokyo Loli-ban” (amongst other names), but it’s crucial to note that these arguably progressive directors are mindful of the laws back home. This brings us back to a question that was left unanswered in the wake of Minorigate: Just how binding is the text on the box that says “for use in Japan only”?

In the eyes of the Japanese companies, it may be absolutely binding. Admittedly, I myself am no specialist in regards to Japanese law, but should this clause prove to be legally binding, then third party exporting of such products internationally may constitute a breach of copyright law. Of course, we can claim that (in the U.S. at least) the first-sale and exhaustion doctrine covers this product, but take pause for a moment and note that the said doctrine should apply to copyright within the United States. An exporter of Japanese goods purchasing the items in Japan has potentially violated domestic law once they send the goods for use internationally, before the said doctrine has a chance to set in for the third-party exporter and consumer. Thus, minori* is absolutely right in insisting that even the purchasing of a product meant for use in Japan only is a violation of the law. And companies don’t want to lose PR because they’re condoning foreign distribution of a product that potentially could be criminal in another country. It would cause them to potentially lose sales within Japan.

Or perhaps put them in a legal quagmire. Controversy spurred by both domestic and international criticism of the Japanese eroge market has caused domestic re-evaluation of Japan’s child pornography laws. If minori* wanted to prevent something like this, it’s too late.

On the other hand, localizations exist in order to make sure that the said product is fit for international consumption. And not only are there economic and legal problems, but cultural and religious ones as well. “To be honest, we didn’t think there would be understanding from foreigners,” said the chief executive officer of âge, Hirohiko Yoshida. Similarly, Tororo-dancho responded: “There’s a difference in morals.”

They’re referring to the different perception of morals between Japan and foreign countries. After all, this isn’t the first time that the West has attempted to force its sense of ethics onto Japan. For the same reason these companies were hesitant at first, minori* may have decided to hide itself and prevent trouble.

As I finished up my questions for the directors, outside a closed convention center around 12:30 AM, there remained a beacon of hope for overseas fans of eroge. The MangaGamer’s panel was filled with fun events, giveaways, and a raucous crowd led by OverDrive representative Hiroshi Takeuchi that cheered “Moe!” periodically throughout the 2 hour long event. “After tonight, I really think we can be understood,” continued Yoshida. “We’re trying to take small steps. It’ll take a long time, maybe 10-30 years.” MangaGamer has plans to provide a way to digitally tour Japan through a bishoujo game; this is an important first step.

“We need to go with the flow, since it’s hard,” commented Tororo. Indeed,  localization of visual novels must first overcome several barriers, both in Japan and abroad.

“It’s possible, though. After all, American movies are one of my influences. Having localized products is good,” interjected Takeuchi.

In the end, it might come down to a cultural problem after all. Yoshida lamented: “It’s sad that there are people demanding regulation without understanding.” Perhaps the source of economic and legal problems alike is simply a lack of understanding. But at a time like this, as foreign fans of a niche market operating in Japan, maybe we should be willing to accept and understand the position of the companies on this issue, instead of criticizing them for abandoning us. More than ever, they need our support.

Wrapping up with the questions, I thanked the directors for their time, as well as making the trip over to the U.S. However, I was corrected on one point. “You’ve got it backwards,” said Yoshida. “We didn’t come just to visit fans. We can be here because of the fans themselves.”

It’s good to know those of us outside of Japan are appreciated.

Notes:

I refrained from touching too much on the topic of illegal downloading and the internet in this article. I’m hoping to tackle the subject in an article in the near future, also based on my experience at Anime Expo. The topic is quite complex, and I am hoping to focus on one part of the issues for now.

Minorigate and the original article belong to Akira.

The links to other blogs regarding the Tokyo Nonexistent Youth Bill are some of the places where I have read and obtained information. Much thanks to the excellent work of Dan Kanemitsu, Icarus Publishing, and mt-i.

All questions and responses for interviews during Anime Expo were conducted in Japanese by me. I have transcribed from recordings and notes into English for this article.

The image is uploaded by Radioactive on moe.imouto.org.

10 Responses to “Looking at Minorigate and the Tokyo Loli Ban through Anime Expo 2010”

  1. Kylaran, you are tackling an infinitely difficult issue spawned by the internet/information age, but so have we. On the one hand, there are evidences that the stricter laws that are being proposed in Japan is partially due to Japan’s overall effort to make its face internationally friendly (US Conservatives Friendly?), because if none of your average/traditionally unregulated (much) Japanese anime/manga/eroge is being played worldwide, most likely the politicians would just turn a blind eye, not to mention jack off to some of these products themselves (lol). The widespread of internet has brought upon somewhat of a disaster to the Japanese companies but a blessing to us in the community. One can indeed argue that the companies have gained exposure. However, how much of that has translated into actual, hardcore, bottomline sales is questionable.
    As for cultural differences, at the end of the day, the crazy conservatives on this planet (read: in the US) will attack all the non-essential issues that seem to be paramount. But the basic issue for them is their hypocricy and lack of an evolved, updated view. Aside fro that, there’s always politics involved. What’s in vogue in a parliament/congress/etc will be cooked up in order to take the public’s attention away from the real critical issues such as bad economy, jobless claims or homelessness, to which a Japanese politician promptly denied.
    My bottomline is that these in the entertainment industry are being the scapegoats being sacrificed for a complex-tangle threads-bunch-thingy that has been sprung upon everyone of us, planet-wide. The best thing, if one is a fan of eroge, or just renai game (love game), is to support as much as possible. As for us at the Anime Diet, we’ll stay on the katana’s edge and bleed. :)

  2. There’s this disparity between what fans want and what companies can deliver. These articles by bloggers like Akira, mt-i, yourself and several others are invaluable, because they go a long way towards bridging the understanding about the climate that visual novel companies work in, that necessitates moving at a slow pace. We, as anime fans, have become used to things being delivered very quickly, but here we have people talking about up to three decades being the timespan over which international acceptance of the medium might begin to become possible. I guess you just have to compare how far the internationalization of anime has come in thirty years. Would fans, thirty years ago, ever have anticipated that the West would have access to the deluge of anime we get today, almost all of it unedited?

    To me, the difference in attitudes between the people interviewed in this article and minori* is a difference in optimism and pessimism. Both, however, are footed in reality. This was a good read, great work, Ky.

  3. Thanks for the article, Kylaran.
    I’m not really into visual novels, but it was disappointing that minori was put into a no-win situation over the past few months. Living in the US, I question if even three decades is enough for these anti-art, anti-progressive fails. :\

    At least I can take comfort in knowing my children’s children will play eroge to their heart’s content.

  4. These days I’m not sure how you can sell something that is not mass market entertainment in the US. Yes, there are niche markets, but the internet is quickly eroding this small market to nothing. Add to that the consideration that those people who actually have an appetite for eroge are exceptionally tech savvy, then you have to conclude that this market is even smaller than any other niche.

    I suppose eroge creators can try to give out content for free (perhaps by making their games easier to hack and code into English; an implicit acceptance of piracy) in hopes to increase demand for their paraphernalia goods, but this will leave out most eroges since they aren’t big enough to have such products.

  5. @Shadowmage – you’re absolutely right in the aspect that more eroge fans are tech savvy. Most of the time, it’s only the hardcore Japanese fans are buying the products. Most people in the western and other countries usually don’t shell out the necessary bucks to buy anything. At the same time, because of the (unwanted) international exposure, eroge makers are under political pressure. It’s really an unfortunate situation. The Internet is really crazy in that it breaks all existing boundaries that were set before the 2000’s.
    Ky, nice article. I see this is your strength so stick with it! Good job!

  6. I really have to question of the sheer severity of the degree in which sales inside Japan will be affected by legal issues or releases outside of Japan.

    The assertion that the legality of titles outside of Japan will severly impact sales INSIDE Japan is probably the most illogical and poorly-concieved . The companies have made little effort to market these titles outside of Japan, and have shown little interest in an international audience–Many Japanese retailers don’t ship to non-Japanese addresses. As long as a title is being distributed, why would fans inside Japan care if a title is illegal in the US as long as it’s allowed in Japan?

    Japanese companies might not want people to inadvertantly let someone have a title that may be illegal in their own The assertion that the legality of titles outside of Japan will severely impact sales INSIDE Japan is probably the most illogical and poorly-conceived argument I’ve ever seen from these band of idiots.

    The companies have made little to no effort to market these titles outside of Japan, and have shown little interest in an international audience—Heck, even Japanese retailers don’t ship to non-Japanese addresses. Why would they even go as far to assume that they are condoning releasing products that are illegal to another country if they don’t block them out?

    From a humane perspective, the Japanese companies might not want people to inadvertently let someone have a title that may be illegal in their own jurisdiction, but using that an excuse to censor or restrict their products in their own country makes about as much sense as an American TV networking company pulling a show from American TV because it happens to show something that’s exclusively illegal/offensive in a country like Iran. Everyone seems to forget that these companies are acting with the intention of making and distributing their titles for their own audiences in their own country. Nobody can’t possibly make everyone happy–Why waste time complying with the attitudes of some foreign feminist when they aren’t even interested in selling it outside of Japan?

    How did we come to this assumption that the PR created by a fringe title being distributed outside of Japan has will affect sales inside Japan? Well obviously, the feminists in the west have been riled up because someone was selling RapeLay on Amazon. Illusion voluntarily ceased their sales of the title. Despite this, the feminists attempted to contact the eroge companies and politicians to prohibit titles containing such content from ever being released. Aware of a possible new legislation, the EOCS revised its rules that restrict certain types of content (at least on paper).

    But I have to ask: What were the eroge companies doing all this time? If these companies are were capable of blocking off foreigners from their websites, why were they responding/complying to the countless letters the feminazis sent them instead of ignoring them? If they were capable of pooling their resources and forming organizations such as the EOCS or the CSA in the past, why didn’t they pool their resources and lobby to get the politicians to oppose any further legislation?

    The pressures of foreigners may have make an impact on what happens in Japan, but everybody seems to be forgetting about the fact that the Japanese companies LET the foreigners push them around. The foreigners may pressure the Japanese, but they can’t run for government or change anything directly without any cooperation from the Japanese—it’s ultimately up to the Japanese themselves to decide whether the foreigners’ attitudes should play any role in their decision to restrict themselves. The companies’ inaction, their incompetence, and their inability to handle potentially negative PR played just as much of a role in this charade as the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of the foreigners who wish to have their products.

    Since when did foreign PR affect Japanese sales that much? Minori already has terrible PR with foreign fans because they locked us out, but has that negative PR deterred fans in Japan from buying their games? No. The only reason why companies such as Illusion can no longer sell titles with questionable content is because they themselves decided not to do sell it anymore. There are so many things the eroge companies themselves could’ve done to prevent this current situation, but the only action they chose was to give up and censor themselves—I don’t know about you, but I have ZERO sympathy or empathy for people who give up without making any attempts to resist whatsoever. They let themselves be pushed around, yet you expect us to have any understanding for Minori when they irrationally point the finger at all foreigners? They whine, they moan, but they didn’t do shit about it.

    On the flipside, do you think the “Tokyo loli-ban” would’ve been rejected if all those mangaka decided not to get off their asses and make an organized effort to actively oppose the bill?

    Their williness to let foreign attitudes affect how they do things inside Japan while expressing little to no interest in selling to foreign countries shows that they are suffering from major priority issues, and Minori’s own blanket-blaming of foreigners shows that the companies suffer from a blatant lack of willingness to be accountable for their own actions. Ignoring that angry feminazi may make her bitchier, but that isn’t going to make that otaku want to buy that rape/loli/guro/whatever game any less so as long as it’s still being sold by the company. They have to realize that nobody can decide what they do in their own country except for THEMSELVES.

    “Deal with the flow”–There’s their problem right there.

  7. *have their products censored.

    (eighth paragraph, last sentense)

    Silly me, how did I forget to put in something like that?

  8. @Ray

    In all honesty, this kind of issue was bound to happen. You don’t just see eroge being targeted anymore — you see manga and anime equally being hated on by some members of the international community. But you’re right in that entertainment has -always- been used as a scapegoat in countless eras, and we never cease to blame it throughout the ages. Hundreds of years ago a woman just showing skin was considered absolutely scandalous (in some areas of the world, it still is!) and now we’re at an age where we’re dealing with even (questionably???) darker stuff: BDSM, rape, lolis.

    There’s one big problem here though. Rape, BDSM, and lolicons lie on the border of what can be considered simply sex. For example, Rape is considered by international standards to be a crime against humanity, on the level of murder and things. Similarly, an interest in potentially very young girls is considered damaging to the potential victims, at a psychological, biological, and moralistic point of view. And there’s a lot of real research that makes us fear for our children.

    I just can’t see moral-fags backing down on something like this.

    @Sorrow-kun

    I do think that in a time where connectivity and technology are “speeding up” our exposure, understanding, but also misunderstanding of things from other areas of the world, perhaps we need to really slow down and take a break.

    On another note, what’s interesting is how slow laws and business happen relative to the speed at which the information and data is traveling. 30 years ago, fans of anime probably would find it hard to really imagine how easily obtained anime is nowadays. I suppose the real question is whether or not these companies and the medium will be around long enough after 30 years, and what changes will really come.

    But that’s from the technical side. From the moral side, in my response to Ray, I think I pointed out some potential barriers and reasons for self-censorship that Japan might feel the need to impose on the more extreme games that are being released and have been released. Not that I particularly agree with the censoring, but the problem really is just that complex.

    @AuroraFlame

    I love being American, but some of the things we do are just so useless and strange. And anti-progressive. Like our damn 21 drinking age is really retarded. And so is statutory rape. But that’s what happens when your country is founded by Puritans.

    @Shadowmage

    I’m not too sure. I think people are willing to buy format still, if not for content. Real fans would like to support the companies, their artists, and things like that. I think niche markets can survive even better now that we do have the internet. You can buy English translated doujinshi much easier than before now (thanks to Icarus Publishing!), and I think those things are here to stay.

    The main problem is that buying these games is too f***ing expensive. If they could find a way to reduce the price on the games domestically, I would expect even more Japanese fans to start buying the games.

    @Ray

    Tech savvy or not, the main question is whether people will continue to pay for format vs content, the former of which you buy physically and the latter of which you can obtain online. Of course, with software and data now, our perception of what constitutes a good format is changing, and raw information data is becoming ever the more crucial as our technological horizons expand. Unfortunately, I do think that, at the moment, the foreign exposure might harm domestic sales, like you said.

    @grgspunk

    Wow, lots to respond back to. Where do I start?

    First of all, I’m not sure just how much knowledge you have of Japanese lawmaking and Japanese culture. From the way you seem to espouse your principles, you sound very Western, particularly American if I may hazard to guess. (Shoot me if I’m wrong). Let me provide several points that will debuff your argument that the companies are the ones being incompetent.

    1.) The West has always sought to push its morals onto non-Western societies. Do we forget that Christian missionaries and what they’ve done throughout the world? The process of the West pushing its nose into Japan is hundreds of years old, so it’s not surprising that it’s happening now. Japan has, in the past, even adopted some of these morals. The question now is whether or not Japan should adopt the same values as others internationally in the current age. And by Japan, I mean the general population.

    2.) Japan has, always, been somewhat behind on these moralistic laws. It passed its first anti child pornography law in 1999, back when there were vending machines that sold used panties and what not. Even now, prostitution occurs in a lot of message parlors and delivery health services, receiving tacit acceptance from the local law enforcement. Last I heard, enjokousai (compensated dating) still occurs regularly.

    The fact is, Japan doesn’t feel the same urgency as other countries (I suppose here America would be a good example) to create all the laws that moral-fags may want to see in place. And this means that all the policy makers within Japan will jump at the opportunity to gain popularity by pouncing on this ethically gray area.

    If you think this is purely a matter of Japanese companies submitted to international pressure, you’re wrong.

    3.) Hiring a lawyer, putting effort into fighting the law, requires time and money beyond what these companies have. Forget not that eroge companies are small, and that they don’t even make profit off of what they sell a lot of times. If they lose their current balance, and laws begin limiting what they can sell, then they’re going to be affected very severely domestically. In comparison, manga artists and publishing companies have much stronger influence on the general public and have much more money. Manga publishing is billions of yen. In comparison, I’d expect the visual novel market to be less than a million yen. (No hard data to back this claim up, but the relative difference between these two industries is clear.)

    If you think the companies don’t give a damn about their own products, you’re wrong. Of course, artists hate being censored. It affects their job and what they want to say. These eroge companies are no different. Maintaining the status quo is one way to “win” when it comes to policy making, so that they can keep doing what they need to. And if that means shunning foreign fans, then some companies may see the need to.

    4.) Not everyone in Japan plays visual novels, watches anime, and reads manga all the time. If you’re making eroge, you’re under immense pressure locally to not become a target for political and moral controversy. In fact, I’d say there would probably be more support for attempting to limit and censor this stuff than there would be to support it. That’s why these companies created the EOCS to self-regulate. It’s an attempt to shield themselves from the most problematic of enemies: domestic law makers.

    Quite simply said, foreign PR can negatively affect domestic sales very easily because the situation within the domestic market itself is volatile. These games, which were once much more underground than they are now, are receiving more attention everywhere. It once was small enough to escape much controversy, but soon we may have to see it regulated fiercely like they attempt to do with pornography.

    It’s not just between the companies and foreigners. The real threat comes from domestic politicians.

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