Guest Post by Nele Noppe:

‘Comiket’ has about the same connotations as ‘El Dorado’ among many fans of Japanese pop culture, both inside and outside the country. This fanworks-centric event is said to be the largest regular public event in Japan, and it’s easily the largest comic convention in the world. The edition I attended this summer, Comiket 80, welcomed about five hundred and forty-thousand visitors, thirty-five thousand fan creators come to sell their works, and a small army of three thousand volunteers there to direct the rivers of people through Tokyo’s flagship Big Sight convention center.

One’s first Comiket is a bit of a rite of passage, and I’d like to celebrate by giving a quick overview of this iconic event for those who may have heard about it as a massive fanworks market but are a little unsure of the details. The sale of paper dojinshi – zines, most often in manga format – is still very much an intrinsic part of fannish life in Japan. Dojinshi shops and dojinshi conventions have only become more popular as online fandom developed. Between forty and ninety large and small dojinshi conventions are held throughout Japan every month; Comiket, which has taken place every August and December since 1975, is only the biggest and most famous.

Socializing is a large part of the Comiket experience, but most visitors come to snap up the latest dojinshi by their favorite creators and discover new artists and fandoms. The fannish move onto the internet only seems to have made Comiket even more of an important showcase event for creators. Fifty-two thousand dojinshi creation teams, or ‘circles’, took part in the lottery that determined who could have half a table for one day at Comiket 80. Circles of two or more people are very common, but technological advances and the rise of support services like specialized dojinshi printing companies have leveled the playing field and made it easier and cheaper for single-person circles to create dojinshi as well.

The scale of circles’ activities and sales varies wildly. A majority of circles report that they sell up to a hundred dojinshi while at Comiket and generally lose money on their fannish activities, but some of the more famous and successful circles sell over a thousand dojinshi during Comiket and earn several hundred thousand yen (one thousand yen is about 1300 US dollars or 970 euros) over the course of a whole year of attending conventions. Dojinshi circles that can actually make a living with their fannish activities are highly exceptional. The general sentiment is that dojinshi should be made out of love for their source works and nothing else, so there’s little tolerance for circles who are perceived as deliberately trying to turn a profit.

Exact numbers about the size of the dojinshi market are hard to come by; it’s very much a shadow economy, untaxed and unregulated. Japanese copyright law forbids the sale of unauthorized derivative works, and most scholars and fans agree that what takes place at Comiket is probably illegal. However, rights holders turn a blind eye to the sale of dojinshi at conventions and in dedicated resale shops because they believe that a flourishing dojinshi scene nurtures up-and-coming artists and serves as free publicity for commercial offerings. There have been a few clashes involving individual dojinshi that media companies considered both too popular and too offensive, but on the whole, there’s a tacit understanding that the fans who buy and sell dojinshi are the industry’s biggest supporters and should be left alone.

At Comiket itself, nothing shows that tacit understanding better than the official presence of about a hundred and fifty companies, ranging from manga publishers to anime production houses to dojinshi resale shops and other fan-oriented companies, like Pixiv, the Japanese equivalent of deviantART. To preserve the fannish atmosphere of Comiket, the company booths are located on a separate floor entirely and have to make their own little catalog. (The official Comiket catalog, which has blurbs about all participating dojinshi circles, puts most phone books to shame.) It’s perfectly possible to attend Comiket for years and see nothing more of the company booths than the signs pointing towards the stairs, and some participants report doing just that.

Comiket’s ever-increasing popularity among both fans and companies has caused some new problems of its own. Some fans feel uncomfortable with the media attention that’s invariably drawn by half a million people converging on Tokyo Big Sight. There are security concerns about overcrowding inside the center, and Comiket is unable to control turnout simply by switching to a Comic Con-like system of advance registration. Participation in the event has always been free of charge with no registration required, and any changes that may lead to some participants being privileged over others will probably be seen as a violation of Comiket’s strong code of egalitarianism.

But Comiket’s biggest headache right now is Bill 156, a recent law that aims to prevent the distribution of explicit material to minors in Tokyo. As soon as it was first proposed, this piece of legislation was widely reviled as a possible source of censorship by manga publishers, fans, mangaka, rights activists, and academics alike. These broad protests succeeded in watering down the proposal significantly, but it still passed, and there’s real concern among fans that it could have an impact not just on commercial manga but on dojinshi culture as well. One Comiket staffer I spoke to urged me to spread the word about Bill 156 among non-Japanese fans, and remind fans around the world to remain vigilant about obvious and non-obvious threats of censorship.

[META] Comiket as a market for fanworks
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