What Is Doujinshi? Uncovering Japan's Underground Manga Scene

Doujinshi are independent manga made by Japanese creators, ranging from fan parodies of popular works to entirely original creations by self-publishers. With a long history stretching back to the Meiji era, doujinshi makes up a huge portion of Japanese otaku culture and the manga and anime industry. In this article, we’ll outline everything you need to know about the fascinating yet murky world of Japanese doujinshi, and show you where to grab some doujinshi of your own!

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Doujinshi - The Fan Fiction of the Otaku World

Doujinshi stall at convention

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Manga and anime, or Japanese comics and cartoons, play a very large role in Japanese culture. Unlike in Western countries, cartoons in Japan aren't seen as something only for younger audiences and can span across every genre imaginable. There are crime dramas, superhero stories, soap operas, and even instructional books written and portrayed in a comic style. This has led to large fan followings, and in turn, fan works. Such self-published fan works in Japan have a special name—"doujinshi"—and are part of a whole thriving otaku subculture. 

What Are Doujinshi?

Convention stall

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Doujinshi are self-published fan works that are often spin offs of popular manga and anime. Broken down simply, people who read manga, watch anime, or read popular novels often like to imagine the characters in different situations or encounters (often of the explicit kind). Instead of taking these ideas and creating an entirely new story with their own original plot, they instead borrow already-established characters and put them into new, imagined (and often out-of-character) situations. Doing so is often easier for new authors, or those who want to practice their writing, as the hard work of characterization has already been done for them and they can instead focus on character interaction and plot. This is actually how many "manga-ka" (manga authors) get their start in the industry. 


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The History of Doujinshi in Japan

Reading manga

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Modern doujinshi has its roots in the Meiji era (1868 - 1912) with a self-funded magazine called Garakuta Bunkowhich was created by a group of literary artists seeking a way to independently publish their works. Instead of manga, the earliest doujinshi featured short stories, various forms of poetry, jokes, and more.

Also, much like modern doujinshi authors, many of the authors featured in Garakuta Bunko went on to publish more traditional works and become quite well known in the literary scene. Garakuta Bunko was produced for just 4 years, with a total of 43 issues, but other doujinshi followed soon after, continuing the new culture of self-publication within literary circles. 

The first manga doujinshi didn't appear until after the Second World War, when manga and anime started to boom in popularity in Japan. As technology for printing comics was still limited at the time, most early manga doujinshi were hand-written and passed from person to person instead of being reprinted and distributed. Although doujinshi today are printed and sold in small batches, it is still only distributed on a small scale within a circle of fans, so it retains much of the same special appeal that old doujinshi had. 


Doujinshi Meaning

Doujinshi fans

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Doujinshi (同人誌) comes from the Japanese word 同人, made up of the two characters 同 (dou) and 人 (jin). These mean “same” and “person”, which together refer to a group of people with a similar interest. When combined with the Japanese character for publication, 誌 (shi), you get a publication by a group of people who share a common interest, or a fan work.


How Is Doujinshi Different From Fan Fiction?

Harry Potter is popular in fan fiction

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On the surface, they are very similar. In both doujinshi and fan fiction, authors take ideas, characters, plots, and story devices from published authors and use them in their own writing. They exist in a sort of literary underground, sometimes on the internet or in very small self-published numbers. Both are often a fan response to an established work, usually to portray the characters in new situations or relationships that were absent from the original publication. However, there are some differences that set apart fan fiction and doujinshi.

The biggest difference is that in Japan, doujinshi has a pseudo-protection from the law that fan fiction lacks (more on this next section). Because of this, doujinshi can be sold for a profit as long as it isn’t in large numbers or published by a major publisher. Indeed, doujinshi is almost exclusively sold and rarely ever available for free (if you're reading free doujinshi on the internet, chances are it was illegally uploaded without the author's consent). Fan fiction, on the other hand, is usually released for free on the internet to avoid legal issues.

How Is This Legal?

Gabel and computer

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What makes doujinshi unique is less that it’s legal and more that it isn’t explicitly illegal. While of course, Japan has its own copyright laws that protect the creative industry and their creations from exploitation and piracy, there’s a special loophole that’s been carved out to allow doujinshi authors to self-publish without the threat of legal action. This loophole isn’t written into law, but rather is a sort of informal agreement between the large publishing houses and published manga authors/other creatives to not press any legitimate claims they may have against doujinshi authors who reuse their characters and properties. This informal agreement exists for several reasons:

1. Doujinshi Is Where Many Manga Artists/Writers Get Their Start


Many manga artists, authors, and others in the creative industry got their start writing doujinshi. Writing doujinshi is easier than creating something entirely new, and gives aspiring authors a chance to flex their creative muscles and practice writing with pre-established building blocks. In tandem with this, an aspiring manga artist can also build up a fan following while earning a small income, which can help establish themselves as an artist. As a result, the big publishing houses often scout for new hires among doujinshi authors, and it serves as a useful talent pipeline for the industry.

2. Doujinshi Is Free Advertising

doujinshi convention

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Doujinshi also serves as free advertising for the established works being parodied. People who read a popular doujinshi do it because they enjoyed the popular work it's derived from. This drives merchandise sales and promotes a series' overall popularity. 

3. Doujinshi Promotes the Creative Industry

comiket convention

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Doujinshi promotes the creative industry as a whole. Due to the heavy focus on parody works in doujinshi, they are only popular so long as manga/anime/novels etc. that they are based on are also popular. As doujinshi exist as a kind of barometer of the popularity and interest around a specific work, big publishing houses are reluctant to push their claims in an attempt to crush the doujinshi industry, as it would only work to harm public interest in their creative properties, rather than protect them.

Types of Doujinshi

Drawing doujinshi

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Doujinshi can widely be divided into derivative works (二次創作 "nijisosaku") and original works (オリジナル創作 "orijinaru sosaku"). Derivative works make up the large majority of doujinshi, taking settings, characters, and even plots from existing works and making something new with them. This could include anything from non-canon character pairings, reworked endings, adult material, new stories, and more. Original works are less common but still exist. These are more akin to independent publishing, or self-publishing for authors who can't or don’t want to go through a publishing house in order to sell their work.

Where Can I Read Doujinshi?

Comiket in Tokyo

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As mentioned above, unless you plan to read pirated doujinshi that was uploaded without the author's consent (not a cool thing to do), you'll need to pay money in order to read doujinshi. Due to its legally tenuous nature and the tradition of writing by hand, doujinshi have historically existed almost entirely in print. For this reason, to read most doujinshi, you need to either purchase the books at a convention, an online store, or a second-hand retailer. With that said, the younger generation of doujinshi authors are using digital mediums more and more frequently, so this is likely to change in the future. 

Popular doujinshi can often be pricey, as the limited number of printed copies drives the price up in the second-hand market. For dedicated fans, Twitter, Instagram, and PIXIV help alert them to when new doujinshi by favorite authors go on sale. Rarely, authors might even publish excerpts to these sites or even full works as a way to engage with their fan base. In any case, doujinshi is almost entirely in Japanese and is almost never translated. 

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Where Can I Buy Doujinshi?

If you're looking to buy a doujinshi, your best options are either on an online distribution site or at a fan convention. Those living in a big city in Japan also have the option of visiting a dedicated brick-and-mortar store. Here is a breakdown of the options.

Doujinshi Distribution Sites

Purchasing online

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A variety of doujinshi sites exist to buy printed copies. For the most part, doujinshi authors don't digitize their works and only use the internet for ease of distribution. Outside of their own personal websites, and platforms such as PIXIV, you can purchase doujinshi from distribution sites like ToranoanaMandarakeMelonbooksAnimate, and K-BOOKS.

Comiket and Other Conventions

Comiket in Tokyo

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Conventions are where a lot of doujinshi are sold in Japan. Of these, Comiket is the biggest, and is in fact the biggest fan convention in the world, taking place biannually in summer and winter and with an estimated attendance of close to 700,000 people. It’s so large that mobile phone companies need to set up temporary antennas and train schedules need to be altered to deal with the massive influx of people to the convention center in Tokyo.

The focus of the convention is largely on allowing doujinshi authors to sell the small numbers of their self-published works, along with associated merchandise and other doujin works such as software and other goods. These works are sold within fan circles, of which many are very small in size, and rarely do they turn a profit. For most of the authors, the focus is on the fun of creating some and displaying it to the public, as opposed to making money.

Comiket isn't the only convention, however. Smaller conventions exist all over Japan and the world. Comic City is a popular convention held in Tokyo and Osaka. Comic World serves fans in South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. If you live in America, Anime Expo is held in July in Los Angeles, and Japan Expo in France is the largest otaku-culture festival outside of Japan. 

Brick and Mortar Stores

Manga store

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As doujinshi are often published in small numbers, copies can sometimes be very hard to get. A large second-hand market serves to remedy this issue, and there are a variety of physical stores around Japan (with the heaviest concentration in Tokyo's Akihabara and Ikebukuro neighborhoods) where you can purchase doujinshi. Some of the most well known are the same shops introduced above as a place to buy online (ToranoanaMandarakeMelonbooksAnimate, and K-BOOKS).

Are There Other Kinds of Doujin Publications?

Cosplayers at Comiket

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While manga makes up the large majority of doujinshi today, it is not the only type of doujin publication. "Doujin soft" are video games created by hobbyists, and can be seen as the equivalent of indie games and modding in the west. Doujin music is also fairly popular and runs the gamut from works derived from popular music to simply small self-published indie artists. The songs are often based on popular video games and serve as companion pieces to doujin soft. Like doujin soft and doujinshi, doujin music is often sold to small groups of fans at large fan conventions like Comiket.

These are among the biggest examples of doujin, but any creative category of work can technically have a doujin component. Wherever there are amateur fans, doujin publications exist for independent or hobby artists to share their creative work within that particular niche community.


Check Out the Interesting Subculture of Doujinshi for Yourself!

Hopefully, this article has given you a better idea of what exactly doujinshi are. They truly exist as part of an entire subculture within the otaku scene that is just waiting to be discovered. If you're at all interested in diving deeper, go for it! Just be warned about what we mentioned about the adult nature of much of the doujinshi out there and don't be too surprised with what you find!

If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram!

Title image: Sensay / Shutterstock

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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