If you are someone who only indulges in Western culture, then you already know what fanworks can offer you: fanfiction, fan art, vidding, playlists… all sorts of transformative content that you can produce and share online for free. But if you’re also into Eastern culture, you probably know that there’s also something else. Something that looks like a collision between fanfiction and fan art. Something that is, surprisingly, legal in Japan. And that thing is doujinshi.
What are ‘doujinshi’?
Doujinshi (同人誌) is derived from the word ‘doujin’ (which refers to a person with whom one shares a common interest) and ‘shi’ (‘periodical publication’). As you can see, it really has nothing to do with fanfiction initially. Doujinshi is just a word used to describe manga, novels, magazines and other cultural works by self-published amateurs in Japan. The reason for associating doujinshi with fanworks comes from the fact that many of these amateurs are actually fans who create derivative work of the media they are surrounded with: manga, anime and videogames. In fact, in most recent years, the most common type of doujinshi are fan comics. However, we should perceive doujinshi as a much broader term than fanfiction.
There are many similarities between fanfiction and doujinshi. For starters, and sadly, doujinshi suffers from the same negative perception as fanfiction does in the West. Doujinshi is very often seen as something pornographic. And, in a way, that is true. There are just as much pornographic doujinshi as there are smutty fanfic. Any consumer of any of these mediums will know that there is more to it than just erotic content, but the fact that people outside fandom could bump into a NSFW panel of two anime characters going at it is obviously much more impactful than just knowing of the existence of smutty fanfiction somwhere on the Internet.
Just like mathematics, fandom is a universal language (please, don’t quote me on that). The fact that Japanese fans are also into shipping and that doujinshi genres don’t differ much from fanfiction genres shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s actually very common to find doujinshi featuring non-canon couples (often yaoi or yuri because of the poor queer representation), but there’s also parodies (similar to our ‘crack’ genre), hentai (smut) or even AUs of all kinds.
So what is it that makes doujinshi so special aside from the graphic aspect of it? Well, remember that Tumblr post that talked about how wonderful it would be to go to an actual physical library of fanfiction? What if I told you that it’s actually possible to buy doujinshi in bookstores in Japan? Literally. You could be thinking “I feel like reading some yaoi from Attack on Titan” and just go to the bookstore and get it!
Why is it that, unlike fanfiction in the West, selling doujinshi is actually legal in Japan?
It’s actually pretty simple: their stance on transformative works of copyrighted material is different from ours. Now, don’t get me wrong – Japan has its own strict copyright laws that don’t even include ‘fair use‘. However, far from seeing fanworks as ‘stealing ideas’ (like it is seen in many places in America or Europe), Japanese people are usually fine with it as long as the fanwork is not mistaken for the canon material.
For Japanese licensors, fanworks have a positive side to them: doujinshi not only increase people’s interest in the source material, but they are also perceived as a way of encouraging young and amateur artists to one day become successful mangakas. In other words, Japan sees it as an investment in the growth of the manga industry. In fact, Comiket (Comic Market), the world’s largest comic convention, is a very common place for doujinshi creators to sell their comics*. Can you imagine fanfiction writers having a stall to sell their fanfic during San Diego Comic-Con?
*It should be noted though, that these fanworks are sold during one-day events or in small local bookstores, but not in the commercial market in a big scale.
Despite all of the above, doujinshi are still not 100% free from copyright sues. Even though they are isolated cases, some people have actually taken legal actions over doujinshi. In 1999, the author of an erotic Pokémon doujinshi was prosecuted by Nintendo. Seven years later, the artist of an imagined final chapter for Doraemon was given a warning by the creators Fujiko F. Fujio. Overall, there’s still not a clear legal stance on the selling of doujinshi and many have stated that, due to the increasing popularity of these fan comics, a copyright system should be set up.
Could Doujinshi actually influence the way in which transformative works are perceived in the West?
Well… not really.
If you are waiting for doujinshi to be imported to America, I have bad news for you. Doujinshi can’t really be imported to Western countries basically because there’s just not the right legal nor cultural environment for it. Even fans wishing to create fan comics of Western TV shows wouldn’t be able to sell them because, while doujinshi artists can be seen as a way for growing the manga industry in Japan, such connection cannot be made here between a fan artist and the TV show they are paying tribute to. After all, cartoons and animation are way more popular in Japan, while here it is often still seen as something only meant for children. The only way it could work in a similar way to Japan would be if fans of comic books like MARVEL or DC were to draw fan comics of their favourite superheroes to later become comic artists themselves. But that leads us to the following issue.
The biggest difference when it comes to allowing commercial use of fanworks between Japan and America could be reduced to the way in which they regard copyright laws. Japan’s worry comes from the possibility that someone might mistake a fanmade manga for the canon source material. On the other hand, Western countries dislike the possibility that someone might steal or misuse copyrighted ideas. How can Japanese people be so relaxed about it when their copyright laws are way more strict? It basically boils down to cultural differences. While American people are much more concerned about following the book of rules, Japanese people are usually moved by tradition and common sense. No one would believe that a crossover fanfiction featuring Thor going to Hogwarts could be the work of Stan Lee and J.K. Rowling. The difference is that, while Japan might see it as a way of paying a tribute to the original works while growing as an artist/author, in Western countries it’s seen as, well, misusing copyrighted material.