The Hard Realities of Make-Believe

Special to The Times

The starting pay can be less than $500 a month in this, the world’s most expensive city, but becoming an illustrator in Japan’s famed anime industry remains the fantasy of thousands of young Japanese.

In scores of cramped studios, largely clustered in two small districts of western Tokyo, young illustrators lean over desks, producing page after page of drawings that eventually will be turned into cartoons for broadcast in Japan and, increasingly, overseas.

Despite the huge popularity of the industry and its growing cachet internationally, even big studios typically pay recruits between $1,200 and $1,800 a month. Their counterparts in Tokyo office jobs earn up to twice as much, including benefits such as subsidized accommodation and train passes. Even convenience-store work pays $8 an hour.

Although “anime” simply means animation, the product differs from U.S. cartoons and animated films in that it is not geared mostly to children. Like its printed counterpart, manga comics, anime is a diverse field, producing everything from cute children’s programs such as “Sailor Moon” -- a superhero schoolgirl with impossibly long legs and big eyes -- to violent and sexual images for Japan’s otaku, or “nerd,” subculture.


Many foreign fans have been won over by the imagination and intelligent story lines in the genre’s most celebrated works. Others are drawn in simply by the vivid colors, fantastic characters and surreal landscapes common in anime.

Masaru Muto, a 20-year-old student, is among those willing to accept low pay to be part of the phenomenon. He will start as an intern at a Tokyo television animation company this month.

“Of course, my parents would prefer me to find a regular job, but I wanted to draw since childhood, and my fascination with animated films became deeper and deeper as I went through school,” he said. “I decided that whatever happened, I wanted to give it a try.”

Like many anime devotees, Muto is an admirer of director Hayao Miyazaki, who created the acclaimed films “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke.”


“To become so great, Miyazaki had to work hard,” Muto said, “so I think I will have to fight and to suffer even more than him to become famous.”

But many of the young enthusiasts quickly become disillusioned with the long hours and meager salaries. Yoshitake Ogata of the Anime Union, which represents freelance illustrators, said: “However keen they are when they come in, the reality is that they cannot live on the pay. There are animators with 10 years’ experience earning less than $20,000 a year. In the end, they have to quit.”

The union’s informal surveys suggest that 10% of the animators have no health insurance and that as many as one-quarter haven’t joined the state pension program, although it is meant to be compulsory. Often, anxious parents pay for their children’s health insurance and, in some cases, lodging.

The main factor holding down pay is the availability of cheap labor in East Asia. Japanese production companies now rely on illustrators in South Korea, the Philippines and China to do much of their routine work. Ironically, just as Japanese anime is becoming more famous overseas, it is becoming less Japanese.


Nippon Engineering College in Tokyo is one of several high-tech institutions in Japan that train aspiring animators, including Muto. The school attracts technically gifted students who spend two years learning the art of creating anime and character-based computer games. Most graduates go on to work in the industry.

But teachers stress that talent alone is not enough.

“Of course students need strong powers of observation and have to be good drawers, but they also need to have passion,” teacher Masataka Kawai said. “To stick it out in anime, you can’t just like drawing, you have to love it.”

Kawai worked for eight years in one of Japan’s most famous studios. During deadline periods, he would barely leave it for nearly three weeks on end, sleeping under his desk. It is widely believed that most animators work 12 hours a day or more, often working weekends as well.


A 30-minute cartoon typically requires 3,500 pages of drawings. New illustrators usually draw the movements in between the “key frames” done by their seniors. A team of illustrators typically produces a cartoon in about three months. The contribution of any one illustrator might last just 10 seconds for an action scene or as long as 10 minutes when movement is limited, as in a conversation scene.

Despite the long hours, Kawai has happy memories of his days as an illustrator.

“There’s no doubt it is hard work, but when you see one of your cuts and it goes well, that is real happiness,” he said. “Personally, I felt happy when a small girl from my neighborhood said she enjoyed a cartoon I had worked on.”

Many illustrators say they want to give children the same joy they experienced watching cartoons such as “Doraemon,” featuring a talking cat who looks after his hapless schoolboy owner, and “Gatchaman,” about spaceship superheroes. Today, cartoons such as “Pokemon” reach a worldwide audience.


Tokyo’s Suginami ward, where 71 of Japan’s estimated 430 anime studios are based, has expressed concern about the damage the working conditions could do to its most famous industry. The ward recently launched a program to sponsor apprentices to work for six months as animators.

But many in the industry say anime’s crisis lies not in hiring talent, but in retaining it.

“All the famous directors, including Miyazaki, developed their skills working on anime for television. But now the industry isn’t rearing animators with the talent to create new characters or the experienced hands to draw the crucial key frames,” Ogata said. “The conditions are so poor that the next generation is not coming through.”

Rie Sasaki in The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.