Reporting from Tokyo —
Aya Yokura spends her days hunched over white sheets of paper, drawing intricately costumed characters whose creation can be painstaking and time-consuming.
For the last two years, she has spent up to 100 hours a week at her workstation — a low-paying, labor-intensive job that helps bring Japan's famous style of animated cartoons to life. Although the 26-year-old earns only about $10,000 a year and lives with her mom to make ends meet, she and a few thousand Japanese artists like her fill a crucial role in the technical process of creating this visual entertainment form, known as anime.
But even as anime's popularity grows worldwide, the Japanese artists who do much of the work are finding their jobs at risk.
"I left a Tokyo Disneyland job, which had benefits and a higher pay, to pursue this dream" of being an anime artist, said Yokura, who works on the popular series "Naruto" and "Bleach" for the animation production studio Pierrot Co.
The problems plaguing the industry are numerous. Seeking lower costs, production companies for decades have been outsourcing the work to animation companies in South Korea, India, Vietnam and elsewhere, where scores of trade schools have cropped up and artists can be hired more readily.
More recently, competitors in China are cranking out their own lines of films and anime shows, in an effort to draw business away from Japan. Piracy is also on the rise, as bootlegging flourishes on YouTube and other Internet sites. And the popularity of the art form is cooling at home in Japan, as video games and the Web compete for consumers' time and money.
The domestic industry oversaturated the TV market, which led to fewer hits and more shows being cancelled. (The number of anime TV series being created in Japan has been cut by almost half since 2007, according to the trade group Japan Animation Creators Assn.)
As a result, experts say, the Japanese cultural icon that became well-known through hits such as Osamu Tezuka's "Astro Boy" — and the generations of artists behind it — is in peril.
"Japan risks losing its cultural icon, and part of the reason is because we are losing animators," said Yasuki Hamano, media professor at the University of Tokyo.
In this tightknit industry — there are only an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 animators working in Japan these days — it makes sense that most animation studios are small. One of the largest production houses, Studio Ghibli in Tokyo, has fewer than 200 employees.
There are two general categories of animators: those known as "key" animators and those who do "in between" work.
In Japan, key, or lead, animators, are considered the stars of the anime world. Their job is to draw the important parts of a scene and create enough of the frames to convey the major points of action. If a character jumps over a log, for example, the key animator would ink out one frame of the character as he prepares to leap, a trio of frames showing him flying in the air and a final frame that has him landing on the other side.
"In-betweeners" essentially do the technical grunt work that helps create the illusion of motion: They draw the frames between two animation frames and include subtle changes to make it appear that one smoothly blends into another. Although the work can be monotonous, it is considered a necessary training step for anime artists to take before they can move on to jobs that carry more creative or technical responsibility.
Such work is relatively easier — and sometimes cheaper — for Japanese production houses to outsource. And that increasingly popular shift in production strategy has had a serious downside: The number of experienced anime artists is shrinking.
Even those loyal to the job say the work is stressful and the burnout rate is high. Hiroyuki Yamashita, 27, also works on contract at Pierrot and is one of the youngest key animators for "Naruto." He said he has seen some colleagues develop hand and arm injuries after spending long hours hunched over their desks.
Yamashita does not receive company health insurance. Until last year, Yamashita shared his rent and apartment with a fellow animator — and married a fellow key animator last year.
"A day feels long in this line of work," Yamashita said.
Workers have tried to rally support for themselves. In 2007, veteran animators banded together to launch the country's first animator trade group, Japan Animation Creators Assn. It offers group healthcare insurance, professional workshops, job postings and a forum for animators — more than 80% of whom are freelancers, said Daisuke Okeda, consulting lawyer for the group.