Brain Diving Youth Brigade: Clearing up the Tokyo Youth Ordinance Bill
by Brian Ruh, Dec 21st 2010
If you've been keeping up with the news out of Japan these past few weeks, chances are you've heard of the passage of Tokyo's Youth Ordinance Bill 156. As will all things on the Internet, everyone seems to have an opinion about it, but many people have misconceptions about what it will actually do and the potential effects it could have on the anime and manga industry. In order to highlight this important issue, I thought I'd switch from my usual format this week to focus on the major issues surrounding the bill. (If you're interested in reading more in depth about this bill, I'd highly suggest reading Dan Kanemitsu's blog. Dan has done translation for a bunch of anime and manga over the years and has been keeping tabs on the recent developments in Tokyo on this front.)
I don't want to beat around the bush here; I think this is a horrible bill that could potentially derail the creativity of the anime and manga industry, and it's something that all fans should be aware of. This isn't something that just affects otaku, but rather strikes at the heart of what we should expect from a free and open society. But before I tell you my reasons for thinking this way, let's discuss what Bill 156 actually says and does.
How did Bill 156 come about?
Bill 156 is a piece of legislation passed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly last week that, among other things, tries to regulate content in anime, manga and video games. It grew out of efforts earlier in the year to create a bill that would restrict material depicting “nonexistent youth” (characters that were youths, or seemed like they were youths) in “anti-social” sexual situations or situations that would show such a character being sexualized in a positive way. The bill would have considered such material as harmful and therefore restricted to purchase by consumers over eighteen. Not only was the bill a strike against free speech and creativity, but it was also far too vague, meaning that publishers would be unsure of how government regulators would interpret key sections of the bill. Terms such as “anti-social” and “positive” could have so many different meanings and could vary so widely on a case by case basis that general guidelines would have been hard to develop. It's no surprise that it was heavily opposed by many publishers and creators in the anime and manga fields.
Although it was defeated in June, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara promised that he would try again in the fall to regulate anime and manga. Therefore we got Bill 156, which apparently clarified things enough for some Tokyo legislators who were against the “nonexistent youths” bill.
What does Bill 156 do?
Similar to what the “nonexistent youths” bill would have done, Bill 156 adds to the types of publications that Tokyo government considers harmful materials (and therefore for adults only). Since Dan Kanemitsu has been writing frequently about this bill, I'll just quote his summary of the relevant portion of it, which will restrict “any manga, anime and video games that feature any sexual acts that would violate criminal codes or Tokyo ordinances OR sexual depictions between close relatives who could not legally get married to be treated as adult material IF they are presented in [an] ‘unjustifiably glorified or exaggerated manner.’” In some ways the language of the bill clarifies things, since we no longer have to try to figure out if a character meets the qualifications of being a “youth” in order for the restrictions in the bill to apply. However, by taking out the language regarding youth, it actually means that Bill 156 could have a potentially wider reach than the one that was defeated earlier in the year. Additionally, the part about presenting such scenes in an “unjustifiably glorified or exaggerated manner” is open to a wide variety of interpretations.
The bill puts an emphasis on self-regulation, with the expectation that publishers will begin policing themselves. (However, this may be hard to do since the bill is still vaguely worded.) If a publisher runs afoul of the bill too many times, then they may face what is in essence a blacklist, with no distributors or retailers able to carry their products. The bill goes into effect in April 2011, and it's presumed that materials that were published before this date won't be affected. However, new editions of previously published anime and manga will presumably fall under this law. This means that reprints of Keiko Takemiya's groundbreaking manga Kaze to Ki no Uta, Go Nagai's Shameless School, or even reissues of the Revolutionary Girl Utena anime could possibly need to be labeled as being for adults only due to their level and type of sexual content. If it weren't so tragic, it would be funny that a manga like Shameless School, which was giving PTA members fits back in the 1960s and ‘70s, could still be controversial today. (Since the bill doesn't affect television and film, though, there would be no impact on many life-action adaptations of Shameless School.)
What doesn't Bill 156 do?
I've read a lot of people claiming that this new bill will do many different things, so I thought this point needed some clarification. First of all, the bill has nothing to say about any manga or anime that's currently considered adult. All of those titles that are currently for sale only to people over the age of eighteen won't be directly impacted by this. I've seen a number of people saying that they might be in favor of this bill because it would get rid of some of the horribly violent manga that feature sex with underage characters. However, this bill has absolutely nothing to say to anime or manga like that – they would still be able to be sold to adult consumers.
Even the bill's major backer, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, seems to be fuzzy on what this bill will actually accomplish. When questioned about the bill by the Weekly Asahi, Ishihara defended it by saying that works that depict 7 or 8 year olds being raped have no justification whatsoever. Okay, I'm with him there (although I would still defend any such artistic work on free speech grounds). But Ishihara seems to think that manga and anime are rife with such images, which I can plainly tell you is false. You might find such images in the hardest of hardcore pornographic manga and anime, but it is certainly far from commonplace. And even if you wanted to get rid of such products, Bill 156 would not do the trick.
Since it was passed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, the bill really only applies to commerce within Tokyo and not throughout the rest of the country. However, most of the major publishers are located within Tokyo and the capital city contains nearly ten percent of Japan's total population, so by making a bill like this the Tokyo government essentially dictates the way that things are going to be for the rest of the country.
The bill also doesn't mention doujinshi and other works created by fans. Of course, a lot of doujinshi with sexual content are already for adults only, so it would have little effect even if the law applied to such fan creations. Also, the main punishment for breaking the law is removal of access to distribution and retail, which wouldn't really impact artists who may make more of their sales directly to fans at Comiket.
Many Japanese publishers are against this bill for many of the same reasons they were against the first “nonexistent youths” bill – it unevenly restricts freedom of speech and is so vaguely worded that they are unsure if the manga or anime they are putting out would be in violation. The fact that Ishihara, who has been the bill's major backer and proponent, is misrepresenting the contents of the new law in public isn't particularly reassuring that any kind of clarification will be forthcoming.
The most troubling thing about the bill is that it could have vast unintended consequences for the types of stories that will become acceptable in manga available to the general public. I could certainly see many companies taking the safe route and making any anime with sexual content an adult title, regardless of how it's depicted. Or perhaps dealing with adult themes and situations will become too much of a hassle and the publishers will switch to creating mild and inoffensive fare.
As Simon Jones of Icarus Publishing pointed out in a blog post in June celebrating the defeat of the “Nonexistent Youth Bill” (possibly NSFW content), the anime and manga industries are “predominantly female” and any legislation restricting creativity in these industries would have a disproportionate effect on the female workforce. I think this is even more of a concern with Bill 156. I don't think the majority of shounen series will experience much fallout from the bill. However, an emphasis on sex and relationships is more frequently seen in shoujo, josei, and yaoi manga, where both the creators and consumers are largely female. Although it seems gender-neutral on the surface, it could be women who feel the brunt of the enforcement of Bill 156.
One of the most immediate results of the passage of Bill 156 is that ten major manga publishers have declared that they will not be attending the 2011 Tokyo Anime Fair because of the new restrictions placed on their products. This is a response I wholeheartedly approve of, and I'm glad that these companies have taken a stand so quickly and have voiced their opposition to the bill. I think it says something about the way the bill was pushed through the Tokyo assembly that the companies were left with little recourse other than to protest like this. Government regulators and various industries often work together in Japan in order to craft legislation acceptable to both sides, and it's rather odd that it didn't happen in this case. (I have read conflicting accounts that the Tokyo government tried to reach out to the publishers to work with them, but that the publishers rejected their offers of cooperation. Although possible, I find this a little difficult to believe.)
Even if we give the government the benefit of the doubt (which can be dangerous, even at the best of times) and assume that the law is going to go after the worst offenders when it comes to sex in manga and anime, it's unclear how many titles that aren't currently adult would fall under this new law. I could certainly see examples like Yosuga no Sora and Kissxsis falling into this category, but since there just aren't that many of these kinds of anime and manga, it makes me wonder if the government in Tokyo has its sights set on more sweeping regulations in the near future. At the very least, for the time being there is going to be a chilling effect on anime and manga creators. They will constantly have to stop and assess their works against the law, or what the lawyers in the company interpret the law to be. Publishers will be forced to become more conservative with their stories, potentially sidestepping any criticism or commentary on major social issues.
I should also point out that since novels and films are not affected by this law, it oddly prioritizes older kinds of media at the expense of newer ones. (With its aging population and declining birthrate, Japan is quickly becoming even more of a gerontocracy than it has been in previous decades.) Thankfully, this also means that Bill 156 is not an across the board muzzling of creativity and critical art in Japan. However, it is potentially a hollowing out of two of Japan's most noteworthy art forms. It's ironic that Tokyo passed this legislation just a few months after Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) established an office to promote the country's “culture industries” around the world (including anime, manga, and video games). Based on comments made by the prime minister, it seems that the Tokyo government and the national government are currently working at cross purposes in this regard.
This bill is not good for the Japanese anime and manga industry as a whole; it is not good for publishers, and it is not good for the creators. As anime and manga fans, we are constantly fighting against the preconceived notion that such entertainment is just for kids. Unfortunately, if this law remains on the books and creators cannot make the daring works they wish, anime and manga may indeed turn into unquestioning, lobotomized entertainment for little kiddies from here on out.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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