Japan’s Animation Industry Failing to Cultivate Next Generation of Talent


With blockbusters like Shinkai Makoto’s Kimi no na wa (Your Name) making waves around the world, the Japanese animation industry would appear to be bursting with vitality. Yet behind the scenes at the nation’s animation production houses, the working conditions are little short of wretched, and the long-term future of made-in-Japan anime is anything but assured.

The Dark Side of the Surging Japanese Animation Market

The value of Japan’s animation market reached a record ¥1.8 trillion in 2015, including foreign sales and revenues from DVDs and other video formats. It is estimated to have topped the ¥2 trillion mark in 2016, buoyed by the Shinkai Makoto blockbuster Kimi no na wa (Your Name). After premiering in theaters in Japan in August 2016, the film scored box office revenues second only to Miyazaki Hayao’s 2001 runaway success Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away). Kono sekai no katasumi ni (In This Corner of the World), directed by Katabuchi Sunao and released in Japan in November 2016, has also become a long-running hit for its nuanced depiction of a young woman’s life in a navy base town in Hiroshima Prefecture during World War II.

In another bright spot for the industry, director Yuasa Masaaki’s Yoake o tsugeru Rū no uta (Lu Over the Wall) took the Cristal Award for best feature at the prestigious Annecy International Animated Film Festival in June 2017, making it the first Japanese production to receive that honor in 22 years. In This Corner of the World also received the festival’s Jury Award.

Yet despite the Japanese animation industry’s growing market and the global popularity and acclaim for its products, working conditions for young animators are miserable. Low wages and long working hours are the norm for these employees, who are essential to production. The industry lacks the wherewithal to cultivate the new talent it needs to continue to flourish and grow.

Ghibli’s Search for New Recruits

In May 2017, legendary Japanese animation director Miyazaki Hayao—who declared in 2013 that he was retiring from feature-length production for good—announced to the delight of fans both at home and abroad that he was gearing up to produce a new feature-length film. At the same time, Studio Ghibli began advertising for new recruits, offering three-year contracts with starting salaries of ¥200,000 a month. The Ghibli recruitment ad was posted not only domestically but also in English on Facebook alongside ads from animation companies around the world. It drew numerous comments from outside Japan that Ghibli was offering inferior employment terms to its animators.

According to Irie Yasuhiro, representative director of the Japan Animation Creators Association (JAniCA), the criticism was based on a misunderstanding. “A portion of the original text, which said that the listed conditions were for new artists in training, wasn’t translated when the employment conditions were posted overseas,” says Irie, “and people thought Ghibli was trying to get professional animators for just ¥200,000. I think it’s unusual outside Japan for new artists to undergo a training period and receive a fixed salary in that range during it.”

At one time, says Irie, the big Japanese animation production houses such as Tōei Animation or Telecom Animation Film—where the likes of Studio Ghibli directors Takahata Isao and Miyazaki once workedhad on-the-job training programs in which experienced animators directly taught incoming artists. At present, though, few Japanese studios are able to devote resources to such programs.

Inbetweening: A Training Ground for New Animators

JAniCA was founded in 2007 with the primary mission of improving the status of animators and their working conditions. According to a recent JAniCA working conditions survey, average annual earnings for new animators (called “inbetweeners” in the industry) are on the order of ¥1,110,000, with monthly wages running less than ¥100,000. Across the industry as a whole, working time averages 10–11 hours per day, with an average of only 4.6 days off per month. Animators’ average annual earnings came to ¥3,330,000 in 2013, significantly below the average wage in Japanese industry overall of ¥4,140,000.

The term “inbetweener” refers to the animators who draw the pictures that go in between the key frames. If, for example, a senior animator draws the first and last pictures in a flipbook for an animated production along with other key scenes, the inbetweeners are responsible for connecting them to provide a sensation of smooth, unbroken movement. It is standard procedure in the animation industry around the world for new animators to start their careers as inbetweeners.

“Wages are undeniably low,” says Irie, “with inbetweeners, who are mostly young, paid a standard rate of only ¥200 for each drawing. While this means they could theoretically earn ¥1,000 an hour or more if they drew five or more images an hour, the actual average is only about two an hour.” Compensation for the inbetweeners at practically all of Japan’s anime studios is provided on this commission basis, Irie says, although a small handful of studios do offer fixed salaries of ¥50,000 a month. And that is only the half of it. “Another problem is long working hours,” Irie says, “on the order of 12–18 hours a day.”

Irie is now a successful anime director who has worked on such popular television animation series as the 2009–10 Hagane no renkinjutsushi furu metaru arukemisuto (Fullmetal Alchemist). Yet, he too got his start doing inbetweening.

“I worked for about two years as an inbetweener, starting when I was 18, before I progressed to polishing ‘layouts’ [rough sketches] into key animation frames,” Irie recalls today. “After learning the basics of animation over the course of several years as an inbetweener, I was finally ready to make the move up to key animation. Nowadays, though, many new animators are put straight to work cleaning up the key frames simply because they know how to draw clean lines. But they haven’t picked up any of the essential background knowledge of how animation is actually done that you learn as an inbetweener. And thus, they’re left at sea when they’re assigned to actually do key animation themselves.”

Inspired by the works of Miyazaki Hayao, Irie Yasuhiro moved from Yamaguchi Prefecture to Tokyo right out of high school in 1989, dreaming of becoming an animator himself. Beginning as an inbetweener, his career has spanned such projects as Tenkū no Esukafurōne (The Vision of Escaflowne) (1996) and Tekkonkinkurīto (Tekkonkinkreet) (2006). His latest anime production as a director is Shakunetsu no takkyū musume (Scorching Ping Pong Girls) (2016).

A Vicious Circle of Offshoring

Irie says the main reason young animators cannot accumulate enough experience today is the Japanese animation industry’s dependence on offshoring.  He estimates that 80%–90% of the inbetweening work in Japanese animation is now being outsourced overseas, primarily to China and South Korea.

“The reason for this is that more TV animation titles are being produced today than before,” says Irie, “and that more and more of these titles are being produced in quarterly blocks.” Whereas in the past most TV animation titles ran for a whole year, he says, nowadays practically everything is produced in three-month cycles. “Starting over every three months is an inefficient way to work,” says Irie. “It scatters your workforce, and you end up filling the gaps in your inadequate staffing by outsourcing overseas.”

Many of the droves of young Japanese who dream of becoming animators end up quitting the field because the unit rate for inbetweening is too low to live on, Irie says. Most of those who remain are the ones lucky enough to get some of their expenses covered by remittances from their parents. “There must be many talented young people who give up on animation because they don’t get that kind of support,” he says. “And as young Japanese quit inbetweening simply because they can’t make ends meet, the work then gets outsourced overseas due to a so-called ‘labor shortage.’ As a result, Japan’s animation industry is losing its ability to cultivate new talent. It’s a vicious circle.”

Even now, Irie says, “There are people who aspire to be animators after high school, vocational school, or college, and sometimes even after they’ve already been out in the working world, and those first two years in the industry are crucial. Japan would be fully capable of cultivating more new talent, if only these people could make a decent living at inbetweening.”

Training Young Animators at the National Level

Irie recently had an opportunity to describe the current state of affairs in the industry at a general meeting of a nonpartisan legislators’ alliance on manga, animation, and video games and at the Liberal Democratic Party’s own committee on promoting the government’s “Cool Japan” strategy. On these occasions, he says, some of the attending legislators said they did not see anything wrong with letting overseas workers do what could be done overseas, just like in any other industry.

Dismayed, Irie tried to get the politicians to understand that animation is not just any industry. “Outstanding animators are being trained in South Korea and China by doing inbetweening work based on the best of Japanese key frames,” he explained. “That amounts to Japan cultivating future animators overseas. At the same time, there’s no opportunity for aspiring Japanese animators to work on superior key frames as inbetweeners here at home and learn how to do animation themselves.” If nothing is done, he warned the legislators, Japan’s animation industry could soon find itself dependent on offshoring even for its all-important key animation. “Even if we still call it Japanimation, there might be no Japanese involved in drawing it.”

JAniCA is calling for more favorable tax incentives for animation companies, as well as grants, subsidiaries, and other financial assistance to improve the lot of animators. At the same time, a proposal for a National Center for Media Arts—which first emerged in 2009 during the administration of unapologetic manga fan Prime Minister Asō Tarō, but quickly faded away in the face of mocking criticism that it would amount to a state-run “manga café”—has come back to life in the new guise of the “Manga National Center,” with legislation already being drafted in committee.

Irie describes his ideal vision for such a center as being not merely a showcase facility for Japanese manga and anime. Instead it should be “an educational institution where beginning animators can study various aspects of animation. It should also incorporate instruction by invited lecturers, and study groups on animation industry skills like photography, inking and painting, and sound.”

Anime Production Houses Under Threat

Even as the Japanese animation market continues to grow by the year, the budgets per production have leveled off over the past two decades. “Everybody knows that bigger budgets would make the work easier,” explains Irie, “but it seems that no one can bring themselves to ask for more money because they’re afraid that they’ll lose work to the competition.”

There are other, systemic reasons as well. The majority of Japanese animation today is produced on the “production committee” model, in which multiple anime, publishing, and other concerns pool funds to produce the movie or television show. For example, if a production company asks for more money, and one firm among five on a committee is ready to provide it, the other firms all have to give their consent before there is any money forthcoming. “The purpose of the committee system is to distribute risk,” he explains, “but it’s also considered undesirable for one firm to try to outdo the others in financial backing. That doesn’t necessarily make the system a problem in and of itself, but it does mean that conditions on the production side don’t get communicated to the money people. The production companies need to make themselves heard.”

Presently there are some 400 major anime production houses in Japan, and a cull could be coming soon. MAPPA, the company that produced In This Corner of the World, recently began taking applications for new hires. The company’s terms are strikingly generous for the Japanese industry: initial hiring on a contract basis, but with the possibility of regular employment down the line. “Production houses which offer conditions as good as MAPPA has will be able to attract a lot of talented staffers,” says Irie. “On the other hand, even if they still get work orders, the studios that stick with the status quo and newly emerging outfits alike may well find themselves unable to attract the personnel they need. We could even see old, established firms losing their top producers, managers, and production runners, to the point that they can’t stay in the business.”

Enabling Beginners to Pursue Their Dreams

If new animators were able to make a decent living, they could lay the foundations for long-lasting careers. They could also look beyond their present jobs to dreams of working with admired animators, directors, and character designers, and ultimately making their own original works.

Irie aspires to produce an animated version of Harouin pajama (Halloween Pajamas), a manga he drew himself. He says he wants to offer his inbetweeners a rate of ¥500 per drawing when animating what will be his first original work.

“What I want is for new animators to approach their work with a sense of purpose,” Irie declares. And for that to happen, he says, the industry needs to pull together and improve working conditions for its staff across the board.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 20, 2017.)

art anime manga film Studio Ghibli