TOKYO : Japanese illustrators strive to make ends meet even as the industry goes booming. Business has never been better for Japanese anime. And that is why Tetsuya Akutsu is thinking about calling it quits.

When Mr. Akutsu became an animator eight years ago, the global anime market - including TV shows, movies and merchandise - was a little more than half of what it would be in 2019, when it hit an estimated $24 billion.

The pandemic video in video streaming has further accelerated demand at home and abroad, as people have binge watched kid-friendly fare like ''Pokemon'' and cyberpunk extravaganzas like ''Ghost in the Shell.''

But little of the windfall has reached Mr. Akutsu. Though working nearly every waking hour, he takes home just $1,400 to $3,800 a month as top animator and an occasional director on some of Japan's most popular anime franchises.

And he is one of the lucky ones : Thousands of  lower-rung illustrators do gruelling piecework for as little as $200 a month. Rather than rewarding them, the industry's explosive growth has only widened the gap between the profits they help generate and their paltry wages, leaving many to wonder whether they can afford to continue following their  passion.

''I want to work in the anime industry for the rest of my life,'' Mr. Akutsu, 29, said in a telephone interview.

The low wages and abysmal working conditions - hospitalization from over work can be a badge of honor in Japan - have confounded the usual maws of the business world. Normally, surging demand would, at least in theory, lead to a competition for talent, driving up pat for existing workers and attracting new ones.

That's happening to some extent at the business's highest levels. Median annual earnings for key illustrators and other top-line talent increased to about $36,000 in 2019 from around $29,000 in 2016. according to statistics gathered by Japanese Animation Creators Association, a labor organization.

These animators are known in Japanese as  genga-man, the term for those who draw what are called key frames. As one of them, Mr. Akutsu, who bounces around Japan's many animation studios, earns enough to eat and to rent a postage stamp of a studio apartment in Tokyo suburb.

But his wages are a fry cry from what animators earn in the United States, where average pay can be  $65,000 a year or more, and more advanced work pays around $75,000.

The problem stems partly from the structure of the industry, which constricts the flow of profits to studios. 

But studios can get away with meager pay in part because there is nearly limitless pool of young people passionate about anime and dreaming of making a name in the industry, said Simona Stanzani, who has worked as a translator for nearly three decades.

''There are a lot of artists out there who are amazing,'' she said, adding that studios ''have a lot of cannon fodder - they have no reason to raise wages.''

The publishing continues, The World Students Society thanks authors Ben Dooley and Hikari Hida.


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