Japanese politicians are starting to take generative AI seriously. In January, Ken Akamatsu, a member of the Japanese legislature, uploaded a nearly 40-minute video to his official YouTube channel, calling for new national guidelines on the use of generative AI.

Since becoming the first professional manga artist elected to Japan’s national legislature in 2022, Akamatsu has built a political career defending the interests of the country’s manga and anime artists. Months after a series of AI art controversies rocked those industries, he has turned his sights on text-to-image generators, like Stable Diffusion and Midjourney.

“What are you going to do with this culture and data that we’ve created?” said Akamatsu in the video, citing comments he’d received from illustrators who worry their portfolios may be used to train image generators. “So far, there are no [policy] proposals that face the feelings of creators – their anger, resentment, and anxiety needs to be taken into account.”

Akamatsu lays out a series of ideas in the video, including an opt-out system for artists and a licensing system to compensate those who participate. But he stops short of fully endorsing either plan, and significant questions remain about both proposals. A spokesperson for Akamatsu declined an interview for this story, citing his responsibilities during the ongoing session of the Diet, Japan’s national legislature.

Labor groups globally have raised warnings about generative AI tools, but Japanese politicians are in a unique position to draw on the commercial and cultural importance of the anime and manga industries in the country. AI image generators have provoked both excitement and anxiety among the professional artists who staff those industries, creating an opening for politicians to propose regulation. But while Akamatsu and other politicians are already moving to seize the moment, their efforts have mostly demonstrated how politically thorny the issue is. 

In the weeks since Akamatsu first spoke out publicly, a few Diet legislators have arranged listening tours to hear more about artists’ concerns. Earlier this month, Taisuke Ono, a member of the right-wing Japan Restoration Party, announced that he had taken meetings with illustration students to hear policy proposals on AI image generators.

“They are right to be concerned,” Ono told Rest of World. “If the works created by illustrators and other artists are learned by AI on the internet without permission, and if machines continue to create valuable works based on them almost without limit, it will be impossible for human beings to make a living from their creative activities.” He added that he would like to see mandates that require companies to disclose which works their AI has been trained on.

Animators, manga illustrators, and industry labor organizations told Rest of World they are grateful for these efforts, but not sure how much to expect from them. It remains unclear how the rhetoric will translate into tangible changes, and whether the Japanese government can address the underlying issues troubling anime and manga workers.

“What are you going to do with this culture and data that we’ve created?”

“The law is slow to change, especially in Japan,” said Jun Sugawara, founder of the Animator Supporters nonprofit, which advocates for increased wages in the industry and provides housing support for animators, to Rest of World. “The truth is, we need change now, and I think it is up to the community and those with power in the industry to start making it.”

Akamatsu has floated several specific policy recommendations, although he has stopped short of endorsing any particular measure. One idea is requiring AI developers to receive consent from artists in order to use their artwork in training datasets. This would allow artists to retain some control over their copyright-protected images, and not feed into models that may ultimately produce similar work.

Akamatsu has a personal stake in protections for illustrators: The legislator has also been a working manga author for 30 years, releasing a string of hits including the serialized comic Love Hina. (Another early success was the series AI Won’t Stop! about a high-schooler whose AI program comes to life, and becomes his girlfriend) His pivot to politics came about largely through lobbying the Diet against censorship of the manga industry, followed by working with the Japan Cartoonists Association (JCA). He has been a managing director of the JCA, a trade lobbying group, since 2018.

A fierce advocate for expanding digital copyright laws to protect illustrators from theft, Akamatsu’s political ascent has not been without controversy. One of his flagship issues is “freedom of speech,” including arguing for the rights of Japanese artists to produce lolicon-style manga — a genre that features sexualized imagery of minors, mostly teenage girls, and has been criticized as a form of child abuse content. (The term is a portmanteau of “Lolita complex.”) It’s a disturbing topic for many, but has often mobilized Akamatsu’s base, despite his membership in the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Akamatsu has specifically called out services like NovelAI and Waifu Diffusion that are primed to churn out anime and manga-style illustrations. For illustrators whose work has been used in training such AI, the current Japanese copyright law offers few legal avenues to sue developers for copyright infringement.

“I think it would be good if illustrators could be paid or opted out,” Akamatsu had said in his January video, envisioning a future where “images created by AI generators will be used commercially, and appropriate profits will be returned to the rights holders of copyrighted works used in the machine-learning process.”

He has also suggested developing licenses that AI companies could use to pay illustrators for their work. In the short term, licenses would insulate developers from legal challenges and also compensate artists. However, it’s unclear how many revenue-sharing contracts developers could support. Sophisticated AI models like Stable Diffusion require billions of images in their training set, and it’s unlikely that licensing contracts would cover more than a small portion of the total set.

Ono agreed there may be issues with setting licensing fees, but said the intention is sound. “A system should be created whereby authors are duly compensated for works that are evaluated as excellent and in need by AI developers, and are frequently learned by models,” said Ono, though he did not offer any specific suggestions.

Since many AI tools are developed overseas, it’s not clear how effective Japanese legislation would be in protecting artists’ interests. The Agency for Cultural Affairs is currently drafting a proposed revision of the country’s national copyright law to address digital copyright issues, such as film and TV piracy. To date, however, the proposals have made no mention of AI or the copyright debates playing out around image-generator training data.

Still, Akamatsu and Ono both demonstrate politicians’ growing desire to place limits on AI image generators.

A student drawing at the anime school Sasayuri in Tokyo
Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images

Some detractors believe Akamatsu’s approach to AI doesn’t go far enough to address underlying labor issues. Bryan Hikari Hartzheim, an associate professor of new media studies at Waseda University, told Rest of World that Akamatsu’s proposals often leave out entry-level and more technical animators and illustrators.

“His solutions are through the free market, pushing for ways to redistribute profits back to creators,” Hartzheim said. “This sort of policy tends to favor successful creators and does little to help those barely scraping by or workers ‘below the line’ with no recourse to licensing royalties.”

Hartzheim is quick to point out that the labor issues facing the manga and anime industries are discrete, but that both have earned notoriety for exploiting young creators just starting out in their careers. In some anime studios, for example, “in-between animators” — responsible for filling in the gaps left between key frames — may be paid as little as 200 to 400 yen ($1.50 to $3) per drawing, he said.

“Akamatsu’s ideas, and his most recent embrace of AI tools to help manga workflow, don’t help those workers at all,” said Hartzheim.

Sugawara, the founder of Animator Supporters, points out that animators have been “one of the cornerstones of ‘Cool Japan,’” a long-term national branding and soft power campaign focused on Japanese cultural exports, like anime. Despite their cultural contribution, many animators are still struggling for basic labor protections.

“I would like to see policies that guarantee basic workers’ rights,” he said, noting that opt-out and licensing proposals target independent illustrators, and will do little to help contract animators in the studio system. “Making sure that animators are hired full-time as employees and taught the latest tools and techniques would be a step in the right direction, rather than treating them as disposable.”

It’s likely Japan will continue to be a laboratory for these policy debates. In January, London-based Stability AI — the creator of Stable Diffusion — which earned a $1 billion valuation last October, hired its first country manager in Japan. The company is currently hiring for five other roles in its Tokyo office, including a machine learning engineer who will work on building customized models for Japanese clients, and a community lead to help grow support for generative AI among creators.

“Stability AI recognizes Japan as a priority market because of the country’s vast pool of creativity,” said Jerry Chi, Stability AI’s head of Japan, in a statement to Rest of World, adding that they are looking to the gaming, advertising, and art sectors in the country. “This includes manga and anime artists, whose work is growing and developing in exciting ways with the help of generative AI.”

“For the majority of artists, AI will be a partner in expanding human possibilities.”

In the meantime, professional illustrators are already integrating AI into their work. “Rather than a threat, I feel that most people are thinking about how they can use AI for their own creations,” Ryuichi Kimura, an anime director, told Rest of World. Kimura is also a board member at the Japan Animation Creators Association (JAniCA), an industry labor organization. Still, Kimura said he would be in support of opt-out or licensing proposals.

In January, Netflix Japan released a new anime short film, in which all background art was created using an AI image generator. The project came on the heels of similar developments in manga publishing. In August 2022, manga author Rootport began tweeting excerpts from a new series he had created using the AI image generator Midjourney. Cyberpunk Momotaro, the full compiled work, is set to be published in print this coming March.

“For the majority of artists, AI will be a partner in expanding human possibilities,” Rootport told Rest of World, explaining that he sees a future of collaboration between humans and AI tools that will allow creatives to “express what they really wanted to express.”

For fear of creating obstacles for research and development, Rootport openly opposes AI regulations. He also questions the feasibility of passing regulations, as a seeming international race in AI innovation continues to ramp up. “Every country wants to lead in AI research,” Rootport said. “If Japan were to regulate AI alone, we would fall behind significantly.”