Are the declining fortunes of the Japanese comic industry threatening its once legendary diversity? That's what this article from Japanese economics website Tokyokeizai Online seems to suggest. In 1995, Weekly Jump, that cornerstone of otaku dreams, sold some six million copies every week. That number is down to 2.8 million today. And they aren't an exception: Jump is just one of many manga magazines struggling with slumping circulations and revenues.
The manga industry is structured such that weekly comic magazines are the "proving ground" for new content that are eventually collected into pocket-sized tankobon volumes. That's where the real money is made, especially when a series is turned into an animated show or film. Or at least it was. Nowadays, the hits sell like wildfire and the non-hits don't move at all, forcing editors to become far choosier about the content they select for publication.
"The industry is struggling; there's a sense that the marketable standout series have been exhausted," according to Masaharu Kubo of The Research Institute for Publications. "Now the market continues to polarize into series aimed purely at the mainstream, and series aimed purely at otaku." In other words, the niche stuff that makes the Japanese comic scene so great is becoming a much harder sell.
The situation has a trickle-down effect on those who actually create manga as well, of course. Generally speaking, a comic artist can't turn a profit based simply on the per-page rate they're paid for publishing their comics. Particularly interesting is the economic profile of artist Chin Nakamura, creator of the series "Gunjou." Although she is paid from 9,500 yen to 12,350 per page of work, crushing deadlines require her to hire numerous assistants, cutting deeply into her revenues and in some cases forcing her to borrow against her salary from the publisher.
Everyone agrees that the key to ensuring the industry's health is quality content. But the current system, which pretty much forces all published artists to take assistants to crank out huge volumes of content, is taking its toll on the creators. "If we don't take serious action," concludes Nakamura, "the system that allows so many quality manga to flourish will collapse." The article concludes that until the issue of the "working poor" artists is addressed, it will be all but impossible for the vast majority of manga artists to enjoy a decent standard of living -- but where will the money come from given the declining sales of comic magazines and books?