Born and raised in the US, having studied in Japan about 5 years ago, and currently living in the Netherlands, I consider myself quite fortunate to have been on three different continents for long periods, enough to say that I wasn’t simply a tourist. The benefits have been many, but the one that is perhaps most important to me is that I’ve gained a bit of perspective on how things work differently from country to country. As an otaku, this of course applies to my pursuit of anime and manga as well, and so I want to just talk about my own firsthand experiences in this regard.
Before I go into detail though, I think it’s important to highlight a few points about myself:
First, my English is my native language, and I have studied Japanese for a number of years and am reasonably fluent in it. I cannot read any other languages to any decent extent, and I can only understand one other when spoken.
Second, my available “access points” varied from place to place, meaning television, internet, etc. Also, I was in Japan before streaming anime became a big deal, whereas currently I am living through the age of the official streaming simulcast alongside everyone else. Well, sort of, but I’ll get into that later.
Now because I’m native to the United States, I’ve seen my fair share of how anime/manga and its surrounding fandom and industry have changed over time, but as I’m not looking to make this a history lesson I’m going to mainly focus on the state of obtaining anime from about 2005-2010. In that period, whether it was in college or back home, I had cable television and high-speed internet, as well as the fortune of living in a city with Japanese book stores (or at least a Japanese grocery when it came to college). I used the TV and internet to varying degrees to satiate my desire for anime, and as my Japanese improved I was encouraged to start buying manga in Japanese as they tended to be less expensive even with import mark-up, especially if they were used books.
Even ignoring the untranslated titles, anime and manga have been quite accessible, whether it’s through downloading, Cartoon Network’s (increasingly sparse) anime line-up, or just going to the Barnes & Noble to pick up a volume of something. Companies are currently trying to increase their internet presence, with more and more titles, including older ones that are no longer available otherwise, being streamed on sites such as Hulu and Crunchyroll. The genres available were and are surprisingly diverse, particularly when it comes to manga, though they don’t cover everything Japan has to offer, just because some things simply do not sell in the US (and some titles that were released certainly did not either).
It’s important to note that anime took quite a long time to get big, and it was only really with the advent of Pokemon that it became such a big deal. While it’s come quite a long way, it’s still considered quite a “niche” thing, and a lot of works which can survive in Japan based on overall higher readership there will most likely tank in the US. Anime as “anime” is still quite young compared to the rest of the world. Anime and manga are definitely accessible in the America, it just takes a bit of effort to really sink yourself in, and although it takes a while to feel the limitations in genre, you may eventually feel it. Also remember that the US is big, and that my experience can be quite different from someone living in, say, the Midwest.
In Japan I had television but no reliable internet, and while I hear that most otaku in Japan use a Tivo, I unfortunately did not own one, which meant that I had to follow the official schedule in order to keep up. While it could be trying at times, there was a certain thrill in planning my days around the TV broadcasts. The fact that Futari wa Pretty Cure Max Heart and Zoids: Genesis ran simultaneously on two different stations meant I had to choose, which is something that has never really been an issue with anime fandom in the US, at it was rare that two stations would be showing anime at the exact same time. I myself didn’t have to deal with this since the days when Pokemon would chase Digimon out of its time slots. If there was a show on late at night that I really wanted to catch, say, Glass Mask, I would go to sleep early so that I could wake up at 1 or 2am, watch it, and then go right back to sleep. I also remember getting home from a trip to Akihabara, pedaling hard as I could so that I wouldn’t miss the beginning of Gundam SEED Destiny. That also reminds me of when I had faith in Gundam SEED Destiny. Those were innocent times.
(By the way, I chose Pretty Cure).
Manga though, it’s hard to live in Japan and not see comics available for sale. In addition to larger bookstores and specialty shops, you could find the latest manga magazines in convenience stores, your Jumps and Sundays and such. While those stores didn’t carry everything, you could still find some surprising titles; it was through a convenience store that I found the Hulk Hogan manga. The ubiquity of manga was especially advantageous for just sheer exposure: by buying just a few magazines you could get a pretty wide range of works, from good to otherwise.
One unique advantage I had while in Japan was that I had access to the library of the school at which I was studying abroad, which meant access to their extensive collection of anime on DVD. Nowadays it’s not that hard to go online and find all these obscure titles, but back in 2005 this library’s DVD collection went well beyond what was fansubbed (and probably still does today), with series such as Zambot 3 and Tetsujin 28 in their entirety. I know I just picked two robot titles too, but trust me when I say there was more.
So when it came to anime or manga, despite my internet situation I probably had more titles available to me than I ever had before or since. The only trouble of course is that it’s all in Japanese, and while my Japanese is good I’m still not comfortable with it, let alone comfortable with it five or six years ago despite the rapid improvement that living in Japan itself caused. In any case, the main point to take away here is how easy it was to just be surrounded by the stuff.
A few months ago, Irish anime podcaster Eeeper wrote this letter where he pointed out the difficulties in being a European anime fan, particularly in this current age where anime is officially streamed. Before I arrived in Europe, I could see his point and could agree, but it was only after I actually started living here that I could really feel it.
Having high-speed internet but no TV here, online is mainly how I watch things. When it comes to the streaming of anime, Europe seems to get left out pretty often. The entirety of Hulu is off-limits save for a single, terrible-looking show (not anime in case you’re wondering). Funimation’s video site automatically redirects to a generic company page. This is something I previously only really experienced when I couldn’t watch the official Japanese-only episodes of Bakemonogatari on their official site. It’s not all bad, as some shows on Crunchyroll work just fine. However, others do not, and you get these really odd situations, like how Naruto Shippuden is available for me to watch but the original Naruto is region-blocked. The fact that I just came from the US, where I recently watched all of Kekkaishi and Slayer Revolution (and Evolution-R) on Hulu, makes me very aware of this disparity. That said, internet here is quite fast and what I can watch I get in a flash.
Manga is a bit of a different situation. In terms of the internet, no official sites as far as I can tell have blocked their manga from European access. In terms of actual physical books, comic stores aren’t amazingly common in the Netherlands, but cities are generally small enough that you don’t need too many, and cities with more comic stores are only a short train ride away. Going to Amsterdam takes about half an hour, which is longer than it took me to get to Manhattan, and the selection of manga (as well as European comics) can be surprisingly extensive, usually taking the form of English-translated titles imported from the US or Dutch-language books. One interesting thing to note is that some titles get translated into Dutch before they are translated in English, possibly owing to the fact that manga and anime have had a strong presence in Europe way before the “anime boom” ever hit the United States. In fact, a friend told me that Urasawa’s works were available in Dutch way before they were in US bookstores. It might also have to do with the proximity to Belgium, which has its own rich comics history and influences the regions around.
On that note, one big difference with the Netherlands and Europe more generally is that everything is more packed together. While traveling by train in Japan is somewhat comparable to doing so in the Netherlands, Japan is still an island, while going from where I live to Belgium, an entirely different country, is a mere 3-hour train ride. Europe also gets a good deal of titles that the US does not, but they’re mainly for people who speak French and alas neither I nor Eeeper (I assume) are capable of this feat.
So there’s a bit of my anime experience across three countries. I of course cannot speak for every anime fan who has lived in the countries I have, let alone the countries where I have never set foot, but I hope that this post helps to bring a bit of understanding to fans around the world, to see the varying circumstances that affect our fellow fans. If you want to chime in with your own experiences for any country/area that I did not cover, feel free.