Localization vs Censorship: Fansubbing and the Search for a “Real Japan”

Adapting multimedia works from one culture to another is by no means a simple task. Beyond the obvious considerations of how best to deal with linguistic differences, the translator must engage with disparities in cultural norms. This can be anything from how a story constructs meaning and is represented visually, to the moral sensibilities of the viewing audience.  This process has been termed localization, and is defined by the Localization Institute as:

The process of creating or adapting a product to a specific locale, i.e., to the language, cultural context, conventions and market requirements of a specific target market. With a properly localized product a user can interact with this product using his/her own language and cultural conventions. It also means that all user-visible text strings and all user documentation (printed and electronic) use the language and cultural conventions of the user. Finally, the properly localized product meets all regulatory and other requirements of the user’s country/region.

However, with the advent of an increasingly global world, one where access to foreign media has become the norm, this concept of adaptation has become charged with new meaning. Where does the line stand between a necessary mediation of the text (so that it can be enjoyed by a non-native audience) and an overt alteration of it? Is the process of localization synonymous with censorship or is it something more transcendent: the creation of a new, hybrid cultural product? Is this a valid method of consumption, or does localization drain a work of “authenticity?” The answers to these questions—at least from a consumer perspective—can be found in the rise of the phenomenon of fansubbing, or the creation of fan-made subtitles for anime.

Anime first came to the US in the 1960’s as something marketed primarily for children. These first shows appeared on American television dubbed and often highly edited to remove instances of Japanese culture. Consequently, many viewers reported that, while such shows were notably different from mainstream American productions, they had no real awareness that the shows were a Japanese product (González 2006). Take Speed Racer for example, which aired from 1967-1968 in the US. The US opening is vastly different from its Japanese counterpart, Mach Go Go Go, the first being devoid of any and all cultural or nationalistic references found in the original.

American Opening

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Japanese Opening

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This Religiontrend Culturecontinued into the 1970’s and 80’s when anime really started to take off as a popular form of entertainment. Scenes dealing with “inappropriate” representations of religion, drugs, alcohol, violence, and nudity were excised from American releases of Japanese works. Even cultural references deemed too confusing to the average viewer were excised, as can be seen in the comparative shots from the much beloved anime series Pokémon.

Voltron, syndicated from 1984-1985, perhaps best represents the heights to which this was taken. An amalgam of two separate anime series, it is famous for being almost comically removed from the original. Perhaps most notably, instances of death were removed to conform with American television standards of the time. Simply looking at the list of changes made to the overall premise and storyline make a compelling argument for its existence as a unique cultural product.

Voltron – Before and After US Syndication

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Fansubbing grew in direct opposition to such practices. With an awareness of the differences in the American product came with it a desire for an “authentic” view of Japanese animation. Fansubbing practices were thus initially geared to gain access to the unaltered forms of anime (González 2006). At the time, this was a labor of love, requiring specialized equipment and a commitment of both time and money to produce a single fansubbed VHS. Productions were thus rather simple and followed many of the conventions of professional subtitling.  As technology made it increasingly simple for a small group of individuals to produce high quality translations, however, variations began to arise heretofore unseen in the professional translation community as groups struggled with how best to approach the localization issue. How do you represent the social differences encoded in the Japanese honorific system? How do you deal with visual gags or cultural references which are inaccessible to the average American viewer? How do you make your subtitles part of the work itself as opposed to something obviously mediating? In response to such pressures, the following practices arose.


#1 The use of karaoke effects and non-serif fonts


#2-3  The use of on-screen translations of text visible in the shot; The inclusion of Japanese honorifics


#4  The use of translator notes and glosses


#5  The use of endnotes


What is particularly interesting about these practices is that they are in many ways more intrusive artistically than standard subtitling, often imposing themselves across the original work. What started as a movement away from heavily localized material has come full circle, albeit from a slightly different perspective. The material may not be localized to the American cultural context per se, yet it is undeniably the case that in the pursuit of “authentic” works and Japanese culture, fansubbers have created their own style of interfacing with foreign productions. Furthermore, this seems to be the direction mainstream subtitles are headed, much to the dismay of traditionalists.snapshotAniplex Already some official streaming providers such as Crunchyroll have material which mirrors fansubbing conventions—for example the use of honorifics which can be seen in some episodes of Soranowoto.

Additionally—albeit confined to the special features—meta-information in the form of a click-able capsule which appears during the film can be found on Akira DVDs in a manner reminiscent of fansubbed translators notes (Ortabasi 2006).

Does this detract from, rather than add to, the experience? Some seem to think so. Notably, Paul “Otaking” Johnson, felt strongly enough to produce the following documentary on what he viewed as the decline of fansubbing quality. While it should be noted that his presentation is biased, one-sided, and uses examples from only the worst the internet has to offer, he represents a strong stance against the fansubbing movement outlined above.

Anime Fansub Documentary - PART 2; PART 3; PART 4; PART 5

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Where do you stand on the topic of localization? What is essential in transferring a work from one culture to another? When does cultural translation become full-fledged censorship? Finally, can fansubbing be viewed as a form of Orientalism?


González, Luis Pérez. 2006. FANSUBBING ANIME: INSIGHTS INTO THE ‘BUTTERFLY EFFECT’ OF GLOBALISATION ON AUDIOVISUAL TRANSLATION. Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 14, no. 4 (November): 260-277. doi:Article.


Ortabasi, Melek. “INDEXING THE PAST: VISUAL LANGUAGE AND TRANSLATABILITY IN KON SATOSHI’S MILLENNIUM ACTRESS..” Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 14, no. 4 (November 2006): 278-291. 




Entry contributed by Nathan Revere



  1. sacaudill says:

    Nathan, this is well-researched, enlightened, AND fun to read. Also, I believe it addresses a seriously polarizing issue among American anime viewers. You do a very good job of staying impartial. I would argue that there is some sense of elitism present in so-called fansub “purists,” which is something you wisely avoided for the sake of staying objective.

    Quick question, though. Is there any evidence that this increased production of anime that adheres to the original product as closely as possible is increasing Americans’ cultural understanding? Or, would you say that the people who watch fansubs are already inclined to know more about Japanese culture than the average viewer? Essentially, do fansubs have an effect on cultural exchange?

  2. Nathan, this post on localization is fantastic, it really sucked me into the topic with all of the different varieties, both good and bad, that you used to elaborate on the topic of localization. As you probably know from my fervor about the topic in class itself, I’m also very interested in localization, what makes one localization team more successful and well-renowned than another, in terms of Japanese to English localization. There are great localization teams, and there are also… well, not so good teams.

    Interesting to note: many films that enter Japan are quickly subtitled and released into theaters for consumption, whereas in America, dubbing is almost REQUIRED for a movie of any caliber to make money. What do you suppose, culturally, necessitates this? Just something to think about.