Unlocking Imagination in Japan

President Obama will be traveling to Yokohama, Japan this week for the APEC summit where one of the items on the agenda will be beefing up the protection of intellectual property rights. Had the summit taken place a month later the delegates could have taken a short train ride to Tokyo’s Big Sight arena and witnessed perhaps the largest gathering of intellectual property criminals ever assembled under one roof.

This gang will be coming together just as they have for over the last 35 years to participate in an ever growing event known as the Comic Market, or Comiket for short. It’s an event teeming with costume clad participants who look as if they have been ripped right from the pages of some bizarre Japanese comic book. If you look beyond the French maids, sailor suits and all the blue hair, you’ll find at the heart of Comiket you’ll find a serious group of artists who have come to showcase and distribute their independently published comic zines, known as doujinshi in Japanese. These are for the most part original works featuring a cast of cartoon characters lifted directly from between the covers of some of the most popular commercial comic book publications and put in scenarios their original creators would never have dreamed possible. They are essentially derivative works based on existing comic books, anime, etc., and in some way violate practically every copyright law on the books.

It would be unimaginable for a similar event of this magnitude featuring parodies of characters the likes of Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny to occur on US soil. When a group of artists known as the Air Pirates got together in 1971 to publish an underground comic featuring Mickey Mouse as the protagonist in a parody that had the Disney character engaging in sex, using drugs and exploring an alternative universe formed in the big bang of the 60’s counter-culture, Disney sued for copyright infringement right away. The alternative comic book, The Air Pirates Funnies, never again saw the light of day and Disney was given the right to lock the mouse away in its corporate safe. The lesson being, “don’t mess with the mouse,” or anything else real or imagined that the corporate world has laid claim to.

If you’re thinking this comic book business is kids’ stuff, think again. The comic book business in Japan is huge, raking in well over 3 billion dollars annually from men, women, boys and girls of all ages. Comiket is basically a celebration of that industry by some of its biggest fans. It’s billed by event organizers as “Japan’s largest public indoor gathering operated by a single private non-governmental group.” This winter, upwards of 500,000 people are expected to descend upon the three-day fair. Comiket is far from being kids’ stuff either. Not unlike the Air Pirates Funnies, the comic zines available at Comiket have earned a dubious reputation for depicting innocent comic book characters in pornographic poses and more. In the early 90’s concerns over obscenity in comic books and in particular its poorer cousin, the comic zine, sparked a huge public debate in Japan that culminated in police raids on a number of small book shops selling the questionable material.

While the comic zines in Japan as a whole range from naughty to nice, there is still the even more obvious question of copyright violation. Practically every single zine at Comiket infringes upon the intellectual property rights of some author or publisher, but nobody makes a fuss about it. While there have been a few court battles over copyright infringement in the past, most of the zine authors, or zinesters, have gone unscathed. Some speculate that the main reason this offense goes unchallenged is because Japan lacks enough lawyers to put up a good fight. Others claim that the publishers themselves are unwilling to rock the boat that floats their fan base.

Then there are those who see building on and transforming these copyrighted artistic works as only natural, a kind of circle of life thing. This was clearly the view in 1994 when astute viewers of Disney’s animated hit, The Lion King, noticed something interesting. The tale and its characters bore a striking resemblance to the classic animated Japanese movie, Jungle Emperor Leo, by one of the countries most revered comic book artists, Osamu Tezuka. The response at the time from Takayuki Matsutani, president of Tezuka Productions in Tokyo was just as striking. “If Disney took hints from The Jungle Emperor, our founder, the late Osamu Tezuka, would be very pleased by it,” he said. The statement was worlds away from the legal jungles where Disney and other companies have permanently set up camp to keep the control of their intellectual property out of the hands of the public.

While the Mardi Gras atmosphere of Comiket may seem just plain silly at first glance, the zinesters who come there are serious about keeping the keys to artistic expression in the public domain where anyone can have access to them. The event oozes the kind of freedom of expression we haven’t seen in the U.S. since, well since Walt Disney first borrowed the idea of Mickey Mouse from a 1928 movie starring Buster Keaton. It all just goes to prove that the work of creative visionaries is carried out in retrospect. Using the intellectual building blocks of the past they lay a foundation upon which we can build a better future. All writers, artists, engineers, scientists, stand on the shoulders of those who came before, enabling each generation to see a little further ahead and perhaps reach greater heights than ever before in fields ranging from arts and music to technology, medicine and more.

Unfortunately intellectual property rights regimes around the world have put a lock on those ideas, some of which could already hold the key to curing cancer, solving our energy woes and who knows what else. Against this backdrop, the zinesters of Japan’s Comiket stand out as more than fringe fanatics possessing nothing more than an alternative view to some imaginary comic book universe. In a world where ideas have become property to be locked away in some corporate safe, they bear the torch that will light the future. Imagine what a universe it would be if our leaders could share their vision and create an alternative legislative landscape in which ideas are held in common and used freely for the greater benefit of all.

J.T. Cassidy lives in Yokohama, Japan.


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