If you hang around manga geeks long enough, there’s one word that you’re almost certain to hear at some point, “doujinshi”, but what is it? How does one obtain these fabled texts? And what the heck is a Comiket, anyway? All these answers and much more are awaiting you below.
Doujinshi is the term for any self-published reading material in Japan whether that be a magazine, manga, or something else that doesn’t start with M. While there are doujinshi that have original stories created by amateurs or professionals, most of them are derivatives of established works or characters and many of them have sexual themes (though there are plenty of others which are perfectly suitable for underage readers).
Essentially, let’s say that you’re watching an anime or reading a manga and you want to see two characters hook up, but the series refuses to bend itself to your whims and desires. The odds are good that there is an amateur doujinshi out there which pairs up your favorite characters and have them do this and that to each other within its pages.
Despite what you might think, doujinshi is not actually a new thing in Japan that appeared within the last 50 years. In fact, my research for this feature taught me it actually first appeared during the Meiji era and has since become so intertwined within Japanese pop culture that it would be impossible to remove without a seriously concerted effort from all the publishers in the industry and that will not happen in our lifetimes. It’s also worth noting that while it was first introduced in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until photocopy technology became more prevalent in the Showa era that doujinshi really hit its stride and found widespread popularity, though that isn’t to say that they weren’t incredibly popular before that point.
Perhaps the biggest sign that doujinshi had reached a feverish pitch though was when the first Comiket (short for comic market) was established in 1975 with only a few hundred attendees and less than 100 creators (or circles) participating. Held twice a year, Comiket eventually grew so large that it moved into the Tokyo Big Sight building (which you’ve almost certainly seen if you’ve watched enough anime) where 20 acres worth of tables are set up and literally hundreds of thousands of attendees buy, sell, and trade their favorite doujinshi despite the event taking place in unforgiving heat and cold.
Copyright law in Japan is very different from it is in many western countries. I can’t speak for every country but I know that if you were to create an amateur comic using established (i.e. famous) characters and attempt to sell that comic for even a small profit in the United States, you’d have lawyers appearing on your doorstep in no time flat serving you with a nice little cease and desist.
However, in Japan, you can do this with almost no fear of repercussions because it’s only illegal if the original copyright holder complains and they will rarely complain. There are certainly examples of companies in Japan being protective of their IPs (studio Khara is the most recent example of a company that went out of their way to announce that they would prosecute anyone who violated their copyrights with anything they deemed unsuitable) but for the most part, copyright holders are fine with doujinshi of their characters. Why is this, though?
Well, let’s look at it this way… let’s say you’re a creator and you create a new IP that gets published and finds a few fans. Yay, go your team! However, wouldn’t it be better if there were more fans of your IP? What would be a good way to go about doing that? How about if your fans created their own unique works that use your characters or world and share it with other people, thus exposing them to something that they might not have been aware of before?
But what if that amateur author puts your characters into compromising situations or settings? Well, you have a choice. You can either sue them and potentially turn that fan off from ever participating with your IP ever again, or you can let them go and see it as free advertising for your characters or world which could potentially bring more eyes to your original product.
Obviously, there are pros and cons to both options and this feature isn’t trying to tell anyone which one is the better option but rather just explain what the thought process is behind this concept. It should also be obvious that this is the most basic explanation possible for why and how these amateur comics exist in Japan, as there are many more reasons for why copyright holders turn a blind eye to parodies of their own works.
Studies and surveys have been conducted over the years to determine who is powering the doujinshi market and the results are actually rather interesting. According to one survey, most doujinshi creators are students who don’t even make a living from the sales of their creations, though there are also others who have side employment and create their works in their spare time.
In that same survey, it was revealed that only 2% of those polled sell over 1,000 copies of their works, while almost half of those polled say that they sell less than 30 copies of their works. Very few artists are making boatloads of money off these sales (there are exceptions to that rule naturally) and only a small percentage of these artists make it as professional manga artists at any point in the future though, as I just mentioned, it happens as some very popular artists including Kiyohiko Azuma (Azumanga Daioh, Yotsuba), Rumiko Takahashi (Ranma ½, InuYasha, Rin-ne), Ken Akamatsu (Love Hina, Negima) and manga group CLAMP (xxxHolic, Code Geass) have all produced doujinshi at some point in their careers.
Up until recently getting your hands on authentic doujinshi was something that you could only do if you knew a guy who knew a guy or you stumbled across them at a convention and even then the odds of them being translated into English were somewhere between slim to none.
Luckily, the times are changing and companies are realizing that there is actually a market for these materials. One company, Irodori, has launched an online store to sell doujinshi that has been translated into English in the west but as of this article being published, they are the only ones making an effort to expose audiences outside of Japan to what these bite-sized manga are capable of so show them some support if you are interested in more of this unique piece of Japanese pop culture.
Doujinshi is a unique thing within Japanese pop culture that could probably never be truly replicated to perfection outside of their borders. While it’s a wonderful age we live in that thanks to the internet we’re finally seeing these materials make their way into the west, it’s been a long time coming, to be honest.