A Song of Withering Sakura: Japanese Multinational Corporations Struggling in the Global Market

Photo Credit: sofi5t

By Zerui Pan
Contributing Writer

Once as brilliant as Sakura, or cherry blossoms, the full bloom of Japanese Multinational Corporations (MNCs) in the 1980s and early 90s astonished the world. Corporations such as Mitsubishi, Mitsui, and Itochu swept the podium among the Fortune Global 500 in 1995, and nationally Japanese companies won 37 of the top 100 seats compared to the United States’ 28. Their global dominance seemed so entrenched that few felt it would wither in the future. Globalization would go on to conjure storms that challenged these corporate powers, yet they believed themselves prepared to weather them. But were they?

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RETHINKING PIRACY: EXAMINING MARKETS IN THE AGE OF INFORMATION

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By Yasmine Hung
Staff Writer

As the entertainment industry becomes increasingly globalized and digitized, so too have methods of illicit media distribution. But is this truly as damaging to content producers as we’ve been led to believe? Let’s take a moment to consider how much of the entertainment that we consume is both foreign and illegally downloaded. Regardless of your level of interest in foreign movies or music, chances are that most of us have participated in this trend of illegal media distribution in some way or another. In order to explore this in more depth, I will take a look at media piracy as a whole and then more specifically at both Nigeria and Japan.

Piracy on a Global Scale

Whether we feel guilty about it or not, we all know that piracy is an act in which we should not be involved. If we had a pure conscience as consumers, we would do everything in our power to find legal copies and purchase them through any means available. Unfortunately, foreign media is more often than not simply unavailable legally in our resident countries due to the lack of economic incentives to license content.

Exporting mass media in the 20th century required a legal infrastructure which recognized intellectual property and international trade negotiations. Governments played significant roles in regulating the content that entered its borders, giving them control over citizens’ access to information and entertainment. This is a power that particularly autocratic countries can use to censor messages that they find objectionable. In countries like China, where censorship heavily restricts the import of foreign media, movies are often banned or severely edited to remove unpatriotic messages. The introduction of new media technology has changed the ways in which media can be transported across borders worldwide.

Much of the current discourse on piracy focuses on the damage to the economy as a result of illegal downloads and the redistribution of pirated movies and films. The Recording Industry Association of America released a report saying that losses to the music industry due to peer-to-peer file sharing and the sale of pirated CDs range from anywhere between 7 to 50 percent during the late 1990s to early 2000s. The film industry is likewise heavily impacted, especially in places like China where college students consume 75 percent of their movies through unlawful channels. However, the issue with calculating lost revenue caused by piracy is that there is virtually no way of knowing whether people who download or purchase pirated media would even pay for legal versions if they were easily available. It is impossible to account for the potential earnings that are lost due to file sharing because citizens might not have been able to purchase them through legal means.

An even more radical way of looking at piracy is to recognize that the illegal distribution of copyrighted materials can help pave the way in opening potential markets. This is achieved by reaching wider audiences and creating higher demands for music and film in regions throughout the world. These new markets, in turn, serve as a popularity indicator and this framework is especially salient in the context of media globalization. While the United States continues to dominate international media output and exert its cultural hegemony over the world, the flow of transnational media and culture is not as unipolar as it would appear.

Nigeria

Second to only India’s Bollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, Nollywood, is one of the world’s most prolific film industries. It boasted earnings of $3 billion in 2014 and generates a staggering average of 2000 films a year. These movies are produced on the most threadbare of budgets ranging from $10,000 to $75,000 (compared to around $250 million in Hollywood) and sell for about a dollar or two. They also have accordingly low production values as the majority of the films are shot with VHS recorders or on digital cameras.

The industry is mostly informal with few legal regulations for distribution. In a country where few can afford to regularly go to the cinema for their entertainment fix, the majority of these films are released directly to DVD and sold for home consumption in market stalls and warehouses. As it turns out, the DVD format for these films makes it particularly convenient for pirates to reproduce and sell them on the black market. In as little as two weeks after the initial release of a typical film, pirated copies can be found being sold, often producing as many copies as those which were legitimately printed.

Media scholar Henry Jenkins describes in his book “Spreadable Media” the highly ambivalent relationship between the content producers and pirates.  The rampant distribution of pirated DVDs has a disproportionately large impact on the producers who have to work with such slim budgets.  These discs reach an estimated audience of millions throughout Africa and in select European countries.  Though pirated copies are sold in Nigeria, the majority of them end up in African nations like Ghana, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Zambia, The Democratic Republic of Congo and African supermarkets in Greece and North America. Pirated copies have great appeal among audiences due to the unique perspectives that they portray. Stories often incorporate pan-African values which illustrate the difficulties of everyday life, political debate and stress the importance of African identity in a continent that was freed from colonialism only in the latter half of the previous century.

In response to this volatile and unstable, but potentially lucrative industry, Nigerian filmmakers have attempted to coopt government authorities in order to gain control over the distribution of their work and ensure that profits from pirated copies end up in their hands. In recent years, producers have campaigned for stronger copyright laws and increased crackdowns on illicit distributors of the films. Where the Nigerian government has lacked the capability to create legal infrastructure and enforcement for media distribution, African digital startup companies have attempted to fill the gap. With the internet becoming increasingly accessible, producers have partnered with these startups to facilitate global online distribution. iROKOtv is one such example, delivering content worldwide for a subscription rate of $5 per month.  They are able to reach global audiences much easier than pirated content ever could and assist in generating profit for both distributors and producers.

 Japan

The popularity of Japanese anime is another phenomenon that has been aided significantly by piracy. Not counting popular children’s shows like “Pokémon” and “Sailor Moon,” anime has an extensive niche fandom in the US. Early fansubbing groups translated Japanese audio into English subtitles and made use of VHS tapes to circulate anime that were popular in Japan among Western fans. The legality of these circulation methods can certainly be questioned, particularly because tapes were often directly copied from Japanese ones and sent to the US. However, this was responsible for the creation of an early anime subculture in America during a time when licensed English-subtitled anime was almost impossible to find.

As internet technology developed and the number of people who used it for entertainment began to grow, fansubbers uploaded these illegal versions onto the internet in digital format and in much larger volumes than ever before. Simultaneously, fan-created works of art inspired by anime proliferated among fan communities on websites like DeviantArt. Fan-made parodies on YouTube have also grown increasingly popular.

This unlawful fan practice applies to Japanese comics as well. Scanlation groups often buy physical copies of manga, scan them into digital images, and replace Japanese text with English translations before uploading them onto manga sharing sites. The dual combination of accessibility to essentially free anime and booming fan communities gave anime a great deal of visibility and traction from the early 2000s through the current day. Certain anime series are still making a relatively mainstream impact in the U.S. today.

The proliferation of freely accessible anime and manga has caused growing alarm among Japanese animation production companies and English-language distributors alike. In response, the past few years have seen the growth of legal streaming services online in an effort to make subscriptions an attractive option to pirating. Crunchyroll has increased its services so that many on-air series can be watched at the same time they are broadcast in Japan, with the profits going directly to Japanese animation studios. The fan response to this has been, for the most part, positive. Many anime bloggers actively encourage fans to purchase subscriptions in order to support the industry in Japan, which has been declining domestically.

What sets anime piracy apart from its Nigerian counterpart is that anime pirates assist in creating part of the discourse. While the main goal of Nollywood film pirates is to make money, fansubbing and scanlation groups in Japan are often part of the fandom themselves. This engenders a greater feeling of obligation to reverse some of the damages that they have caused the anime industry. A select few fansubbing groups ask for donations in order to obtain legal copies in Japanese in order to add their own subtitles. However, the vast majority of fansubbing groups reject the idea of taking in donations or service fees for their work. Instead, they see themselves as dedicated fans who seek to make unlicensed anime more prominent and abide by an informal code of ethics. Within this pact, they promise to remove any fan translated works once licensed translations become available for purchase. Most scanlation groups include disclaimer pages with their manga uploads stating that their works will be removed once the original Japanese works become licensed for English translation. They also actively encourage manga readers to purchase their own copy if they have enjoyed it, thus effectively creating a try-before-you-buy system.

 Where Do We Go from Here?

Whether piracy will continue to serve as a pioneer for transnational media distribution in other regions of the world remains to be seen. That doesn’t deny the undeniably important role it has played in the burgeoning popularity of places like Nollywood. Piracy as a new business model is, of course, far from perfection. While it has increased the visibility of otherwise niche forms of entertainment, the distribution patterns still remain unbalanced. Nollywood has virtually no presence in the English-speaking film sphere and online anime distributors operate mainly in English which leave a vast majority of non-English speaking fans around the world without any means to watch licensed content. But, with more and more people accessing entertainment online, it is inevitable that the traditional means of media distribution will have to adapt to the changing demands of the future.

Image by Paul Keller

COMFORTING “COMFORT WOMEN”: A LOOK INTO THE “COMFORT WOMEN” ACCORD BETWEEN SOUTH KOREA AND JAPAN

By Bruce Fan
Staff Writer

Recently, South Korea and Japan have managed to resolve the decades-long issue of “comfort women.” To elaborate, “comfort women” refers to the sexual slavery that the Japanese military imposed upon the women of foreign countries like Korea, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, and more during WWII to help “revitalize” Japanese soldiers. This issue is controversial because Japan and South Korea and other victimized countries disagree over the history and various narratives associated with the term. For instance, South Korean activists claim there to be up to 200,000 Korean victims who endured as “comfort women” or sexual slaves for Japanese soldiers during WWII, while Japan and some scholars have at times claimed there to be only up to 20,000 victims. It should be stated that this agreement resolving this controversial topic is highly important between the two nations, often being a point of conflict as the two allies have criticized each other in various parts of international society. Specifically, South Korea criticizes Japan for its lack of a direct apology and reconciliation to former “comfort women”, while Japan maintains that it has done enough to compensate and apologize to such victims. Indeed, there is controversy even with the accord; some South Korean activists and former “women” are protesting it, calling it unfair and humiliating.

First to discuss the terms of agreement between the two nations, Japan will supply 1 billion Yen (or 8.3 million dollars) to support surviving comfort women and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will apologize for the women’s treatment while South Korea will consider this issue resolved. By apologizing, Prime Minister Abe is going further than any previous Japanese government; his apology was “expressed both in a statement by his foreign minister and in a telephone call with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.” In exchange for these terms, South Korea says that it will consider the issue “irreversibly resolved,” meaning that the two governments will refrain from criticizing and blaming each other in international society. Once again the significance of this deal is highlighted by Shinzo Abe’s statement that he is glad that “we did our duty for the current generation by reaching this final and irreversible resolution before the end of the 70th year since the war.

This deal, however, does not come without criticism. Specifically an advocacy group, The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery, and other protesters are calling the deal a “diplomatic humiliation”. First off, the two former comfort women who represent the group argue that they and other fellow survivors were not even consulted by the South Korean government before it accepted the deal on their behalf. Specifically, “the group said Seoul ‘gave a bushel and only got a peck [of returns in the agreement];”’ they are most likely referring to how South Korea has allowed Japan to avoid the full brunt of responsibility for creating “comfort women” in this treaty. In regards to Japan’s terms in the accord, the former “comfort women” are enraged at a multitude of terms that all revolve around the fact that the Japanese government still hasn’t directly acknowledged that the Japanese government itself was the one that actively initiated the systematic sexual slavery, as its claim of just being simply involved.

To begin, the Japanese government has still refused to directly compensate victims in this treaty as the 1 billion Yen is being directed toward a fund as a humanitarian gesture toward the victims not as a direct apology. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/26/former-sex-slaves-reject-japan-south-koreas-comfort-women-accord) Japan has attempted creating funds for sex slaves prior, “but many surviving sex slaves refused money unless it came directly from the Japanese government…[as a result] the fund was disbanded in 2007.” (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/26/former-sex-slaves-reject-japan-south-koreas-comfort-women-accord) As so put by CNN, this lack of direct compensation by Japan has prompted “activists and former comfort women to say Japanese leaders were avoiding officially acknowledging what happened.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/28/asia/south-korea-japan-comfort-women/index.html)

Next, the advocacy group and its two former comfort women Lee Ok-sun and Kang Il-chul take issue with apology made by the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Specifically, the two former comfort women and eight other fellow survivors, call the apology too indirect and demand a face-to-face apology. Specifically what these women and other activists want is for Japan to give “a sincere apology like the one that Willy Brandt [Germany’s ex-Chancellor] gave at the Holocaust memorial,” the women state that they want to be healed like the Holocaust survivors said they were after Willy Brandt’s formal apology. With this in mind, such an event is unlikely to happen. This lack of a direct apology by Japan’s Prime Minister is interpreted once again as Japan’s avoidance of history; this avoidance leads many to think that Japan is simply waiting for former “comfort women” to die alongside their narratives as only 46 survivors remain of the 238 women in South Korea who came forward in the early 1990s. All in all, such revisions in the accord is important as it clarifies the history and narratives of comfort women who were exploited not by sex traffickers or some various third party but by the Japanese government itself and puts the full blame on the Japanese government.

To add further controversy, there is the issue of the statue symbolizing comfort women placed in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Japan insists that part of the conditions of the accord was that the South Korean government remove this statue placed in front of its embassy in Seoul. However, South Korean protesters have “objected to Seoul’s promise that it would consider removing the statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul that commemorates the women’s suffering.”  For some context, the statue was placed in 2011 and is simply that of a barefoot teenage girl meant to symbolize the tales of “comfort women” under the Japanese imperial army. To Japan, this statue’s removal is important as they believe it to be a symbol of South Korea’s unwillingness to settle the issue; thus it believes that South Korea removing the statue will demonstrate South Korea finally resolving the issue. In brief, this statue is another term of the agreement between South Korea and Japan that is arousing protests by South Korean activists.

To recap, the agreement between Japan and South Korea on the historic “comfort women” issue has been met with controversy. This controversy can be shown by the complaints lodged by Lee Ok-Sun and Kang Il-chul against the terms. As stated earlier, these two former “comfort women” and South Korean activists still interpret the treaty as signifying Japan’s continued dodging of its historical role through Shinzo Abe’s avoidance of a direct apology to the women himself and Japan’s creation of a humanitarian fund for the survivors instead of a real admission of legal responsibility. With this being said however, there are other former “comfort women” who are accepting of deal, specifically telling Korean media that “they would accept the compromise.” As this controversy continues, the significance of the treaty cannot be left unnoticed. Historical differences have often translated to strains in the relations between Japan and South Korea. In one instance, such “strains between Japan and South Korea have prevented them from signing an agreement to share sensitive military information.” By resolving this issue at least between the two governments, this accord will allow two of America’s most important allies in East Asia to cooperate and work better together to better stabilize the regional balance of power in East Asia amidst a developing China. Thus such an accord is important not only in regards to the two nations themselves but also for determining the balance of power in East Asia and across the globe.

Sources:

  1. CNN: (http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/28/asia/south-korea-japan-comfort-women/index.html)
  2. Reuters: (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-japan-comfortwomen-idUSKBN0UD0I520151230)
  3. Wall Street Journal: (http://www.wsj.com/articles/japan-south-korea-reach-comfort-women-agreement-1451286347)
  4. The Guardian: (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/26/former-sex-slaves-reject-japan-south-koreas-comfort-women-accord)

Image by Joonyoung Kim