Shirobako is a comedy about working in the anime industry that’s received high praise from fans. Something else that has fans talking is how the characters in Shirobako have canonical income:
Here’s a translated version in USD:
As you can see Ema, the animator, doesn’t make much compared to her peers. The character of Shizuka in Shirobako works as a waitress, in addition to a part time voice actress, and makes almost double what Ema makes.
American fans have been shocked to find out that these numbers from Shirobako are close to reality and those who actually animate the shows we love are very likely to live in poverty. In fact, the average annual income for an entry-level was reported to be equivalent to $9,200 along with the average work day of 11 hours, no vacations.
Why is this?
Animators often work under contract so minimum wage laws and other things like income from government welfare don’t actually apply to them. The wages are so low because animators are not paid by the hour, they’re paid by the drawing. This policy has been common place in the anime industry for decades and wasn’t as problematic in the past. Back in the day, animators could manage to draw enough to make ends meet. Older anime art styles had fewer lines per character, and rough work was much more acceptable. Now both employers and fans demand more detailed and higher quality drawings that take longer to draw. If an animator doesn’t preform to standard then they have to do a reshoot, meaning they redraw the inadequate frames for no extra pay.
Not to mention these wages have to compete with the even cheaper cost of labor that outsourcing offers. Almost all anime is partially outsourced to countries like South Korea, leaving Japanese animators with fewer jobs and lower wages.
Just how bad is it?
The long hours and low pay results in a multitude of problems. It discourages those who are new to the industry to stay in the industry. While Ema in Shirobako has a supportive network and friendly work environment, it is actually one of places where Shirobako in not entirely accurate. Animators are not put in as happy-go-lucky environments as they were in Shirobako. Animators will often jump from studio to studio looking for a better fit and higher wages, frequently concluding to simply exit the industry.
This is bad for the industry as a whole because if it can’t hold on to young talent then the industry can’t secure a work force for the future.
It’s not just the anime industry either, Japan has been struggling with rising poverty since the 80s. So low wages, long hours and jumping from job to job is a familiar story for much of Japan’s young labor force.
However, the working conditions for animators have had the spotlight on them for being so bad. Remember, 11 hour work days, no vacations, for less than minimum wage. In addition to undergoing exhaustion and illness due to the long hours and stress, living expensiveness take their own toll as well. Most animation studios are in Tokyo, one of the most expensive cities in the world, so the cost of living for animators can be so strenuous that animators go without food.
Is it that bad everywhere?
No. Some anime studios do pay actual salaries, and as animators gain experience and rise through the ranks their pay also rises. A key animator, also known as a genga, earns an average annual income of about $23,000 and work an average of 10 hours a day.
However, the fact that new animators have such a huge barricade blocking their chances to actually make a living doing what they love is very dis-heartening both to fans of anime and those aspiring to create it.
What can be done about this?
Well, if you’re Japanese then you can lobby to broaden minimum wage laws or something of that nature. But as for all of us on the other side of the Pacific the answer is that we can’t do much, at least not directly.
It doesn’t help that many American anime fans don’t watch anime through legal means. Though, even the money making its way to Japan is not guaranteed to be significantly disturbed to the animators, it’s still better to legally consume anime so that studios will have more money to spread around.
Crowd funding has made an impact in a few ways. The Anime Mirai or Young Animators Training Project is a government funded project to help new animators train and establish themselves the industry. While most of the works produced from this project never see a legal release in America, the popular Little Witch Academia was available for streaming for a time and successfully kickstarted a sequel so that the then newly formed studio and its staff could produce the same quality of animation without the government funding.
While fans paying directly to see a specific title come to fruition is not a solution for the industry at large, other projects like the Animator Dormatory by NPO Animator Supporter provide a more long-term aid to animators. The project has had 2 successful Indiegogo campaigns that provided cheap housing for young animators in Tokyo so that they could focus on their work without sacrificing their standard of living. A third campaign launched in 2016 to expand the dorm to more animators but only raised 82% of their $10,000 goal.
The easiest method is simply remaining aware and talking about the subject matter. Shirobako’s salaries have caused lots of chatter on social media and given anime news outlets a chance to broach the topic.The more people who speak out on the topic the more likely change will ensue.
[This post was originally posted: Aug, 1st 2015 on the Otaple 1/2 Tumblr]