Henry Thurlow. Henry Thurlow.
Artist Rights

Japan’s Animation Industry Isn’t Just Tough, It’s “Illegally Harsh” Says American Artist

Henry Thurlow.
Henry Thurlow.

American animator Henry Thurlow moved to Tokyo to live out his dream of creating anime in the Japanese animation industry. It took him four years to become good enough to get hired at a studio. When he finally achieved his goal, he discovered work conditions that were nothing short of slave labor, with studios paying as low as $25 per week. Says Thurlow to Buzzfeed:

“Let’s just be clear: It’s not a ‘tough’ industry… It’s an ‘illegally harsh’ industry. They don’t pay you even remotely minimum wage, they overwork you to the point where people are vomiting at work and having to go to the hospital for medicine. They demand that you come in whenever they realize a deadline isn’t going to be met. That probably means about a month and a half of nonstop work without a single day off. Then you will be allowed to go back to your regular six-day workweeks of 10-hour days. No one talks, or gets lunch together or anything. They just sit and work in complete silence and seem uninterested in changing this.”


Thurlow, whose credits at Japanese studios include Nakamura-Productions and Pierrot Studios, has ended up in the hospital three times due to exhaustion and illness. Amazingly, he still thinks the experience has been worth it because the anime projects he’s worked on in Japan have been more creatively satisfying than American productions:

“When I was working as an animator in New York I could afford an apartment, buy stuff, and had time to ‘live a life.’ But the artist inside of me was screaming at the fact I wasn’t making really high-quality feature films and series. Now everything about my life is utterly horrible, however the artist in me is completely satisfied.”


In a Reddit AMA that Thurlow did, he gave more details on the poor pay of anime studios:

The amount of money you earn from day to day changes … since it’s based on how many frame you draw. On Monday I might draw simple corrections on a whole bunch of frame (adding effects that were forgotten by other animators, or “Kii energy” or something like that) resulting in me being able to draw 40 drawings in one day and make over $150 depending on the series. Tuesday-Thursday however, I might have to do the trace-back and inbetweens for a super detailed shot from Tokyo Ghoul (which is really fun btw)…but results in me only drawing 5 frames per day each of those days ($12 a day or so). Each month at Pierrot I earn about $1000. Each month at my previous “slave-labor” studio, I earned about $300 a month.

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  • Tim

    I would love to read more stories on this topic – does Cartoon Brew do investigative journalism?

    • AmidAmidi

      Funny you ask. This month we are restructuring the Brew editorially. We will still have to build up to regular investigative journalism, which can overwhelm the resources of an organization of this scale, but we do plan more in-depth pieces on the business and legal aspects of animation.

  • Justin

    Well, that’s one way to follow your dreams.

  • Mitchekie

    You either die a hero, or you live long enough… to be unsatisfied artistically.

    Really, though, one shouldn’t have to put themselves through the ringer just to be content on an artistic level. I understand his frustration, but there’s a limit. Sad.

  • *sigh*

    This is why I work. This is what motivates me. This is what I strive to keep from happening here.

    This is VFX soon ..

  • mick

    If your idea of artistic satisfaction comes at such a cost then perhaps you’re not quite the full ticket. I can see the epitaph now- ‘here lies the bent and exhausted carcass of an animator, so satisfied, he popped his clogs’

    • Dino

      I don’t understand either of those sentences.

      • mick


    • Jackadullboy

      But not before getting his name buried deep in the rolling credits of some niche genre animation… Erm… For all time.

  • Johnny

    On the flipside here’s another American animator working in Japan with a different story. They make way more than this guy so it’s definitely not a universal problem in the industry but just one part of it.


    • Wallace Quinn

      That’s clarified in the article. In Pierrot there is much more limited animation so more frames can be done in a day.

  • CG Animator

    What I don’t get, is why not work a day job in animation that, while not always being the most inspiring in terms of work, pays well and then make creatively satisfying short films on nights and weekends?

    Nick Cross, David Stodolny, and Bill Plympton are a few people who come to mind who have succeeded at this. They work their day jobs or do commercials on the side to support themselves and their families, and then they animate their own stuff in their spare time.

    That makes more sense to me then working in the slave-labor conditions of Japanese studios in order to be “creatively satisfied” (and I’m having a hard time believing working on a lot of those Japanese TV shows that look like they only have the budget for two new drawings an episode, could be creatively satisfying…)

    • Johnny

      You clearly have little knowledge of the Japanese animation industry and little respect for Japanese animation at all if you’re going to refer to it as slave labor. Foreigners who work in Japan can’t even believe this artist gets paid this low for the amount of time he puts into it.

      What I find funny is how everyone is willing to believe the spin BuzzFeed is putting into this article but I guess it doesn’t matter when Japan and “anime” is involved.

      • Inkan1969

        OK. But what’s your counterargument then?

  • Inkan1969

    If the labor practices were illegal, could he and his fellow animators have found some way to report the illegalities to the police?

  • AmidAmidi

    There’s some problem with cookies. If you delete all your cookies on Firefox, which is what I did, it starts working again.

  • Steven Bowser

    I can’t imagine being very creative under those conditions. I think I would probably just feel angry and depressed. If those emotions are what fuel your creativity, then I guess that’s great for those types of people. But it sounds awful to me.

    • DJM

      Seems like he gets his rocks off on the the technical prowess it takes to pull of scenes, which is artistry in itself, but not something I’d personally consider artistic. Skill’s skill. I can admire that.

  • Toonio

    The egotistical soul that every animator has, and the false sense of becoming the next , will keep him/her from uniting.

    That plus the proverbial dangling carrots, keep the producers pockets full, the stockholders happy and the toy makers wealthy.

  • This is an old blog post but still relevant to working in animation in Japan. There is a Wall Street Journal video on this topic a the end you guys might find it interesting.


    There are many fundamental things wrong with the Japanese animation industry. Both from a business and production point of view. Personally, I feel is partially a reflection of Japan’s film industry which also has it’s share of problems.

    Japanese animation sales have been low for quite awhile and a lot of work is now outsourced to Korea and China. (Kind of ironic as back in the day Japan was the go-to for outsourcing animation back in the 80’s and 90’s)

    When you live here in Tokyo as I do, a lot of romantic notions about Japanese animation can be killed quickly.

  • Sammy

    I’ve heard quite a bit about how Japan’s animation industry is such a terrible environment (and I find it sadly amusing how they act like such taskmasters over material that’s usually not worth the effort). Has it always been like that, or is it a more recent development?

    Also, it’d be interesting to see how other countries’ animation industries fair – there’s quite a few horror stories about how Eastern Europe’s animation/VFX industry is not a very good environment either….

  • RCooke

    Most Japanese cartoons have been outsourced to other countries for decades. Since the mid to late 1980’s to be sure (saw it with my own eyes).

  • Mr-Famicom

    Interesting, at TMS/Telecom’s staff back in 2003 was getting payed $5200 a month at least (not counting overtime or the extra money they get payed per timing sheet/storyboard/drawing), now they get payed $13,200 a month at least due to inflation & tolerance to do shows that the staff may not like.

    They get their pay check money from Conan royalties (before that I have no idea other then western companies paying TMS so much that they just pay the animators per hour due to how much money the studio was getting from the west).

    In short, they’re like The Simpsons voice cast of animators.

  • Pedro Nakama

    Kind of like the people who work at Disney for a low rate because they are Mickey Mouse fans or the people who work at ILM for a low rate because they are Star Wars fans. The fanboy mentality has to stop and people need to be paid a decent living wage.

    • starss

      They say now is a great time to be a fanboy though! I just wish you could figure out a way to get PAID for being a fanboy.

      • kjohn

        A person’s better off making their own animation studio.

    • A Guest

      Except the people who are employed at Disney aren’t hospitalized for exhaustion, and presumably have a chance to talk to their co-workers.

  • Fried

    Seriously. He’s doing work for Naruto and Pokemon, how exactly is he being artistically satisfied?

    Sounds to me like he worked at one or two bad small-time Western studios and now has a bad opinion of them.

    This guy needs to balance out his priorities.

    • Leslie LIm

      Studio Pierrot is actually a damn established Studio(1979). They have quite a big portfolio of animes, some are good, some are bad. So, for him, He must be happy because he is living the dream. $1000 may not be an exact good life, but he won’t die from it. He can still rent a house, simple meals and pay the bills.

      Studio Pierrot also has quite decent animes ongoing, some of which undoubted is by him. So, imagine the pride of going home late, and watching a anime that he helped to make, brought out to life, on the local TV network. It must have felt good. Also, Animators are one of the lowest paid in the studios

    • starss

      His reel on YouTube is from 2013! He still seems relatively new to the anime scene.

    • EverEndingStory

      Those shows do have some amazing moments. I mean, narratively they might be trite, and being so long there is a LOT of limited animation used. But there are some incredible moments of 2D animation in those shows sometimes.

    • EverEndingStory

      Those shows do have some amazing moments. I mean, narratively they might be trite, and being so long there is a LOT of limited animation used. But there are some incredible moments of 2D animation in those shows sometimes.

  • AmidAmidi

    The poor treatment of animators by Japanese studios does not justify the poor treatment of animators by American studios. Both are wrong, and we’ll continue to call it out wherever we see it because artists deserve to be treated fairly EVERYWHERE.

  • StumbleReel

    GAWD DAMN it sounds like fitness conditioning for artist…
    I guess THIS is why they don’t have crap like Uncle Grampa or Big Hero 6 over there in Japan.
    I finally see the major difference anime has from american entertaiment(aside from being weird as all hell): effort.

  • Gray Stanback

    A lot of that’s an illusion, though. Think about it. In the days before internet streaming, only the best anime series were exported from Japan, and that was how we got good shows like Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Nowadays, with so many sub-par anime readily available outside of Japan, the novelty factor that was there back when only the high-quality ones were being exported is gone. We still get some good new series, like Attack on Titan, Kill la Kill, and the new remake of Sailor Moon, but now they have to compete for attention with the deluge of sameness.

  • StumbleReel
  • KW

    To be honest Japanese animation isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think of high-quality films and series. Not to say they aren’t out there.

  • I worked in Japan in animation for about 3 years and from my experience I can certainly say that it’s true that you won’t see the light of day and hence won’t get to experience Japan and its culture outside the studio very much (not as much as I wished for).

    I worked in CG character animation. The TV quotas were pretty demanding but if you organize yourself well enough and stay focused you will be able to have an overall 8-10 hours workday experience, similar to any other animation studio really. Yes you do have your 12-14 hour moments when the directors weren’t happy or your scenes were particularly challenging but it wasn’t the norm in my case.

    I must unfortunately say that I wasn’t impressed with the production pipelines in the studios I have worked for. The flow was clunky and not very well refined. Often wondered how in all that chaos there was an outcome at all!

    In terms for quota CG Feature was a different experience for me all together. Animators had almost too much time on their hand and some of them worked on on scene for 2 or 3 weeks without the expected ‘wow’ outcome factor. Deadlines didn’t seem to be of a serious concern, the atmosphere at work was leaned back, quiet and not ambitious or enthusiastic at all. But yeah, every studio I worked for was as quiet as a library and very little interaction among the local artists which was often very boring.

    In both types of productions I didn’t feel though that artists worked particularly productive. Lack of sleep and focus made them slow and they made constant mistakes. My neighbor kept napping away every 2 hours or so while staring at his screen (doing lots of “internetting”).

    That work-honor thing seems to get in their way. Its great they’re so loyal, but its simply not very productive. Not to mention that, yes, some would end up with back- or hand injuries.

    I must say that one of the major problem from what I have experienced is that young Japanese artists are their worst enemies by embracing the low paid/high demand job scopes. I often had the impression they enjoy the challenge and they seemed honored and content working under those conditions. Of course there are exceptions everywhere, but that was the overall sense i got.

    I as a westerner got paid pretty well to be honest, no complaints at all – video-games paid even better and the working hours were a lot more humane. I was 10 years older than most artists around me which made it very challenging for me to keep up, at the same time I felt a lot of respect coming from the company because of my age and experience, something I wouldn’t necessarily easily get in a western environment.

    In Japan too connections are extremely important. You can get really decent jobs when you well connected and you are being recommended by a local person, ideally in a senior position. A recommendation can mean everything and you can land high profile jobs without any portfolio/reel at all. The word of your ‘sponsor’ is a heavy-weight punch.

    Another thing I really appreciated was that in my case the producers and directors were really open minded to let me join their productions even though I must have been a burden at times with my broken Japanese and the cultural difference. I couldn’t participate in meetings the way I wanted to and a lot of times matters got lost in translation (all email communication was in Japanese). Those circumstances must have led to a lot of frustrations on their side at times, yet they were very determined to make our work relationship work nevertheless.

    I would always recommend working in Japan as an eye-opening and enlightening experience. You will need an open mind! It helps to enjoy lots of beer with your dinners and the Japanese will love hanging out with you! The Japanese are from my experience not always honest and you will have to take compliments with a pinch of salt; often they just want to avoid confrontation or embarrassments – yet they are overall pleasant to work with and to hang out with.

    The working environment is not always fair, sometimes its even miserable, but overall its what you make out of it really just like in any other job in the world too. Animation is a competitive industry which naturally creates lots of politics and challenges and like anywhere in the world some companies are more of a sweatshop than others.

  • Jamie

    “maybe think twice next time you write a complain on studio pay rates in the states.”

    “How dare you criticize us, don’t you know how LUCKY you are compared to those dirty foreign companies…who we’ll probably outsource your job to anyway?”

  • Jackadullboy

    Who the hell writes something like that?? You know this is why the call it a race to the bottom, right?

  • Kennedy Masta

    Living in “human life” is always a better choice than being a crazy artist. However, unfortunately there is quality that is only reached by the crazy artist. Am I too romantic? I think Hayao Miyazaki was a such type of guy. He had tried to improve the horrible anime work environment but he himself had been a crazy workaholic as an animator.

  • StumbleReel

    some folk just wanna do the aesthetics
    who are you to them if they officially have a life or not?

  • A Guest

    I have to ask- does the poor pay and poor treatment in Japan have something to do with the “endure it” mentality? Like somehow its more “honorable” to endure poor/harsh treatment, than trying to actively change or protest against it in creative industries like manga and animation production?

  • Mr. LHD6

    I think the main cause boils down to the distribution of income within the companies.