Smartphones have transformed the way people consume printed content. Magazines, books, and other publications that used to only be available at newsstands and bookstores can now be accessed from the palm of your hand.
But this has also fueled a boom in websites offering pirated content. The sites allow visitors to read content for free, without the approval of copyright holders.
An organization of manga artists is calling on people to steer clear of such sites.
The market for electronic manga services has grown rapidly over the last few years. The Research Institute of Publications says the total amount of domestic e-comic sales in Japan last year was nearly 1.574 billion dollars.
However, this has also expanded the market for websites posting pirated content. Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry released a report in 2014 warning of the increasing damage caused by these sites.
For example, the Video Research Interactive says the number of users of one of these pirate sites has been increasing continuously from around October 2017. As of December 2017, there were around 230,000 users.
The site is especially popular among young people. Teenagers accounted around 42 percent of users, followed by people in their 40s at 21 percent.
The site illegally posts over 50,000 publications, including popular manga and magazines. This material can be freely accessed on smartphones and computers.
The site’s popularity is spreading through word of mouth. Users have been recommending the site online, particularly on Twitter. “This site is popular at school", and "I can finish reading an entire comic series for free", and "It's pointless to buy books anymore" are just some of the tweeted endorsements.
Concern is spreading among Japanese manga artists
The Japan Cartoonists Association has released a statement calling on readers to stop using these sites.
The statement warns that the current trend could spell the end of manga altogether, which would be devastating to Japanese culture.
Tetsuya Chiba, the head of the association, says manga artists are happy that people are reading their content. But he says they cannot work without compensation, and that young artists are at particular risk.
Expert: pirate sites pose security risks
Katsuyuki Okamoto of Trend Micro, an expert on information security, says many pirate sites automatically activate malicious programs when accessed.
Okamoto found that his computer's CPU was running at 100 percent right after accessing one of the sites. Nothing was wrong on the surface, but this showed that the computer was being put under a heavy load.
Okamoto later found that a program to generate virtual currencies was being automatically downloaded. Being continuously placed under such a load slows down a computer's operation and more quickly drains the battery.
Meanwhile, many of the sites are said to be funded by internet ads. When Okamoto accessed another site and clicked on an ad, a warning that the computer had contracted a virus was displayed.
Okamoto also found a case in which a site automatically jumped to another site requesting fees to exterminate the virus.
At least 3,000 such cases were reported from October 2017 to January this year.
Many of these sites are maintained on overseas servers, allowing the managers to remain anonymous. Other sites frequently change servers, making it difficult to find the managers.
Professor Shigeki Cyaen of Osaka University Graduate School of Law, a member of the Agency of Cultural Affairs inquiry commission, says regulating overseas servers is difficult and many violators do not comply with requests to delete content.
Cyaen says access to these sites should be tightened through regulations. But he also says freedom of expression needs to also be respected. He says there is no panacea, but says schools need to educate students to steer clear of such sites.