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This is again one of the topics that have been on my and Kana’s minds recently.

The realization was caused by an event held in Japan’s most famous center for animation (anime), comics (manga) and the all-present, cute “moe” illustration culture which is Tokyo’s Akihabara. We were invited to an event for published artists and spent some time there observing all the participants. We were startled that most of them (even during such an event) were using their nicknames and social media handle names all the time. It was kind of weird to us when someone was introducing themselves as “furrybunny”.

The other thing that made us think was me being featured in this year’s album of Japanese illustrators “Illustration 2019” where again nicknames prevail - about 90% of the professionally working artists listed there don’t use their real names.

We think that this behavior is caused by a few factors:

  • In traditional Japanese crafts such as calligraphy or poetry one would be awarded a new “name” from the teacher upon reaching a certain level of proficiency.
  • A lot of Japanese artists over the ages used pseudonyms to sign their more “questionable” or frivolous work.
  • For a manga artist, it was always a point of honor to be published in a weekly or monthly magazine under a cool pen-name.
  • And finally, recently the culture of social media and the most famous Japanese service used to share art - “Pixiv” made just almost everyone use account names to identify themselves.

These points in themselves are not a big deal. I also have account nicknames that I use all the time and we thought about making a “studio name” for works that we create together. What’s more, we understand and support using nicknames and pen-names for freedom of creative expression or when an artist just wants to protect their privacy. If someone wants to create content under a pseudonym they should have the choice to do so!

But for so many Japanese professional artists to avoid using their real names at all was a bit of a shock that got us thinking. We discussed this phenomenon fervently during our way back from the mentioned event and ever since then the topic crops up in our conversations.

The puppet master

What we think is, that these artists do not only use a made-up name, they go a step further and make an entire avatar of sorts (that is the complete public image of the person who actually makes and uploads the art). The existence of this “artist character” allows them a bit of distance from the things they upload and show to everyone. As this has become the standard way of doing things even publishers and companies looking for someone that will work for them communicate with those fake personas rather than with the real people. Even when meeting face to face they refer to the artist using their nickname and are careful not to breach the persona’s image. This creates a sort of “buffer personality” between the work and the creator.

This can be a good thing, as I mentioned above but we think there’s something dangerous and a bit disturbing about this state of things, especially when we look at the Japanese illustration market.

Having a “buffer persona” makes it easier for artists to indulge in making more frivolous, titillating, and just share-oriented works. This is becoming more and more troubling as borderline explicit illustrations, comics and animations are becoming an overwhelming portion of the pop-culture and start to crop up in more public spaces (in Japan).

For example, if an illustration contains a cute “moe” slightly eroticized character then it’s more likely to spread through the Internet. It’s what everyone in the pop-otaku-culture wants, right? It is what is most likely to generate a profit and also a gain of followers and recognition for the artist. But it’s a kind of open secret that no one wants to know who actually draws these. Who cares! The artist is “furrybunny” with an avatar of a schoolgirl so let’s keep it at that. Uploading art using a complete avatar like this, makes it easier to push this line of what’s OK further and further. Sometimes when I look at the “popular posts” on Pixiv to see what my art is competing with I’m shocked (and turn the “do not display adult content” filter ON).

Furthermore, I know of some cases when an artist would “burn” their art persona just to make a new one and start afresh. (The person I’m thinking about did it when it came out that the art they uploaded was traced from other artists). There are whole branches of the visual industry in Japan producing games, animations etc. where the artists prefer not to reveal themselves at all, staying behind the names of companies and studios.

For us (me and Kana) it’s the complete opposite now we are working as freelance artists. When we decided to quit the studios we were working as we abandoned the buffer wall that divided us from the public. What’s more, we decided to sign everything (including our social media profiles and websites) with our real names. We believe that this gives us the sense of pressure to think about everything we make in the “how this will affect my image” and more importantly “how this will affect the audience” ways. We think this is a great thing to have (though sometimes stressful) and a guide to producing more meaningful and longer-lasting work with a goal of making the audience’s life richer.