Could Japan’s latest and most passionate obsession, cryptocurrency, threaten the existence of its biggest cultural export, manga?
As strange as it may seem, a bizarre twist of fate appears to have pitted the cryptocurrency industry up against the manga business, bringing the latter to its knees – and the government desperately looking for ways to help.
Things should – and could – be so very different. Indeed, manga and anime are arguably natural bedfellows for blockchain enterprises. And should the country’s cryptocurrency entrepreneurs and its manga producers manage to get on to the same page, the effects could be very intriguing indeed.
But for now, Japan’s so-called “manga crisis” appears to be very real indeed – and crypto is playing a very real part in its apparent decline.
Fewer readers than ever are now paying for manga and anime titles, instead seeking out pirate sites that offer free access to online downloads – a massive hit among younger fans in particular. Manga revenues tumbled 13% last year from 2016, and researcher Video Research Interactive claims almost half of Japanese teenagers now regularly visit pirate manga sites.
Per Japanese IT experts, the crypto connection comes in two undesirable forms. Firstly, many pirate sites ask users to make donations in Bitcoin or altcoins, and fund their ventures with cryptocurrency-paid banner ads – much like South Korea’s webtoon pirates.
And a second, much darker reason is the widespread prevalence of cryptojacking software on pirate manga sites. One Japanese security company said that many sites force browsers to mine the Monero cryptocurrency for servers and accounts in North Korea, helping fund the hermit state’s oppressive regime. In fact, many manga sites’ raison d’etre appears to be cryptojacking – luring unsuspecting users in with the promise of free manga access.
The manga industry has attempted to fight back, petitioning Google to remove pirate sites from search engine results under copyright laws. Even the government has got involved, asking Japanese internet providers to block connections to pirate sites.
Many – including some prominent pirate site operators – say the government’s mission is doomed. As soon as the Japanese government shuts a site down, it simply reappears elsewhere on the net under another name. And with so many sites operating on overseas servers – and making their money through hard-to-trace crypto transactions, fighting pirate manga is as much a fool’s errand as attempting to eliminate music piracy.
Gina Kim, a security expert at a South Korean software company that also does business in Japan, said:
“A decade ago, people used to say music piracy was so prevalent that only an idiot would actually pay for music downloads. Now they are saying the exact same thing about manga and online comics.”
And that, perhaps, is the reason why many anime and manga creators are now thinking that working in collaboration with cryptocurrency and blockchain ventures is a better strategy than trying to fight fires all over the internet. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, as the old adage goes.
Leading the way is Monacoin, Japan’s first and most successful crypto-manga crossover. The coin was launched way back in 2014 by an anonymous figure known only as Mr Watanabe. From its very outset, Monacoin aimed to blend cryptocurrency and manga – with the launch of MonaComi, a Monacoin-themed manga comic. The MonaComi universe has expanded since 2014, with a range of collectables and online issues.
Earlier this year, Arc PC, a computer retailer that accepts Monacoin payment, teamed up with Mr Watanabe to offer limited-edition snowboard-shaped key rings featuring MonaComi artwork – available only to the store’s Monacoin customers.
Other artists have followed suit. A group of blockchain and manga enthusiasts has recently unveiled a platform that will allow artists to trade exclusive works via a blockchain platform – promising to ensure direct payments to artists, and offering manga fans using the platform access to limited-edition titles.
Tokyo Otaku Mode, meanwhile, has developed the Otaku Coin cryptocurrency (“otaku” can be roughly translated as “geek”), a coin that it says is “exclusively designed for geeks.” The company says it plans to issue an initial coin offering (ICO) later in the year. The coin is based on the Ethereum ERC20 standard, and the company says Otaku Coin will allow manga, anime and gaming fans, as well as artists, developers and distributors to trade via decentralized blockchain-powered ledgers.
Otaku Coin has some powerful backers, including Tadashi Sudo, the former CEO of Anime! Anime!, the manga business’ leading information portal. Taro Maki, a leading anime producer is also on board, and so are the makers of the hugely popular Kizuna AI “virtual” YouTube channels.
Yokohama-based anime fan and cryptocurrency consultant Takahashi Sato told Cryptonews.com:
“These are very early days for Japanese cryptocurrency startups. Manga has been around in one form or another for generations. Integrating the two industries won’t be easy. But as manga is now predominantly digital, it makes sense to think about how crypto-communities and blockchain developers can work together with artists.”
Fans of manga, anime and cryptocurrencies will be cheered to hear that international projects are also starting to emerge. Julian Lai-Hung, the former head of anime at Netflix, an internet television network, and a former vice president at Warner Bros, an American film studio, recently co-founded a “blockchain entertainment studio” in Singapore named BlockPunk.
Earlier this month, BlockPunk struck a deal with Japanese anime producer Zunda Horizon. The Singapore-based company claims it is now “conducting the world’s first ever sale of digital crypto art collectibles based on Japanese anime and powered by blockchain technology.”
BlockPunk says its platform allows traders to buy and sell “rare and unique” digital anime artwork in Ethereum – with all revenues to set to be donated to tsunami relief charities.
In South Korea, meanwhile, the country’s own digital answer to manga, the webtoon industry, is also set for a crypto-revolution of its own.
Ddengle, the country’s largest online cryptocurrency community, is planning to launch a crypto-payment platform for digital contents early May. Ddengle says it will begin allowing webtoon trading first, with videos, music and games to follow. The community has teamed up with crypto startup Genercrypto to allow webtoon trading in the startup’s Ethereum-based ESN token.
The biggest market for Japanese manga and anime – young, urban, relatively affluent males – is Japan’s largest crypto demographic. Although logic dictates that at some point, manga and all its derivatives will meet in the middle with cryptocurrency ventures, teething problems appear to be hard to shake off.
Indeed, a number of Japanese manga and anime titles – as well as several hit South Korean webtoon series – now focus on the lives and exploits of cryptocurrency traders. Crypto-fraudsters are now common anti-hero characters, and the trials and tribulations of East Asia’s volatile cryptocurrency marketplace provides fertile ground for the imaginations of artists in this part of the world.
The two industries have massive potential to develop in tandem, and their relationship could become symbiotic. The idea that cryptocurrencies may somehow choke the manga industry out of existence before manga-crypto crossovers have the chance to go mainstream seems almost unthinkable. And if that is indeed what ends up happening, it truly would be the cruelest of ironies for all involved.
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