The New York Times Asks Why Japanese Animators Are Underpaid

The famed Akihabara area in Tokyo, Japan is famous for manga and anime. Picture credit: Kanpai-Japan.com

Ealier this month, I pointed out that Americans wouldn’t likely take interest in becoming animators in Japan, seeing as how they get paid very little. Since then, the New York Times has published an article examining the difficult life of Japanese animators.

As the article points out, animators in Japan can make as little as $200 per month drawing up anime frames, which obviously is far beneath what one can realistically expect to pay for an apartment in urban Japan.

Not that many of them even bother renting an apartment, as many studios allow their workers to sleep at their desks after working shifts as long as 16 hours. If you think that sounds insane, then you apparently don’t have a Japanese animator’s tenacity.

You might wonder just why a Japanese man would accept such conditions. There’s a few, so let’s go over them.

For one thing, the anime market is flooded with young men who have long dreamed of making an anime of their own, and would happily accept working long hours for little pay, for a chance to make it happen. When many employees are willing to accept extreme conditions for the few jobs they want, there’s a lot less pressure on the industry to provide work environments that are much better than what they’re willing to settle for.

Here’s a sweet anime GIF to take the edge off. It gets harder from here.

Another point to consider is the principle of supply vs. demand. I know that there may be a lot of poorly-paid service industry employees out there that might not like hearing it, but if anyone could do what you do for a living, to the point that people could be easily taken from the street to do your job, there’s not much expectation of making a lot more than minimum wage to do it.

What does this have to do with Japanese animators? While it may be hard work, the fact is, it’s low-qualification work. And it’s easy to find many, many young people in Japan who are willing to do it. And it so happens that many people in Japan are willing to settle for less money.

For the employer, if someone could do the same job as someone else, but for less money, to hire the one that asks for less money would be a more practical choice. In some cases, the stakes are high, as many smaller animation studios in Japan make this choice because their budgets aren’t that great.

One might point out that if a person works long hours, day after day, with little rest in between, a person could easily wind up in the hospital. This happens frequently in Japan. In fact, the Japanese consider it a badge of honor. When a person works so hard that they end up at the hospital out of sheer exhaustion, the Japanese consider it a sign of just how dedicated that worker is.

So, do I have a solution to this problem? Not really. When so many young people are so eager to get involved in anime that they’re willing to accept the difficult life that comes with producing it, it’s hard to discourage them. What they produce makes people happy, they know it, and they are willing to put the work in to make that happen.

In time, however, they may come to more strongly want a house, a car, and to start their own family. When it comes to that point, a person may come to realize that throwing themselves at burnout for a pitiful amount of money doesn’t seem like it’s bringing them to their goals.

Here’s another kawaii booster. Hang in there.

While life is somewhat easier for a mangaka (Japanese comic artist), the fact is, producing Japanese manga comes with challenges of its own. I’ve heard stories about mangaka who worked a month just to produce what they pitch to a publisher, and if the publisher accepted, they usually wanted a comparable amount of content on a weekly basis. The author of Naruto, Masashi Kishimoto, has gotten so tired from his art that he actually hired someone to help him with it.

So no, taking the manga route doesn’t guarantee an easy life.

But then, the makers of video games have it difficult, too. The fact is, most outlets that produce entertainment in Japan aren’t held in as high regard in Japan as we might imagine.

The Japanese have a culture that’s so career-oriented, and they value hard work so much, that anything that comes with the risk of being called frivolous (such as entertainment) has a high likelihood of being underrepresented in the culture. While people in the west identify themselves with their favorite movies and shows, the Japanese are hesitant to bring it up at all, due to the perception that if anyone consumes any amount of entertainment media, they’re likely fanatical about it to the point that they allow it to consume their life.

While an American who works at Pixar might proudly tell their family about it, those who watch anime in Japan usually just keeps it to themselves.

Considering this, one might think that the animation industry in America hires on teams of animators that are paid a decent living wage. There might be some that do, but largely, if an American media company wants something animated, they’d just send their storyboard to Asia, where they can get the animation done cheap.

I doubt that you’re surprised.

Considering all this, it’s important to remember that the reason why so many Japanese people accept the difficult conditions associated with the Japanese entertainment industry is because they decide to. They’re not compelled to do it, and those who make manga, anime, and video games generally enjoy doing so.

With how challenging it is for them, it’s hard to imagine that they don’t.

Thanks for hanging in there.

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