Why Are Hentai Characters Labeled As Being Over 18 (Even When They're Not)?

by Justin Sevakis,

Yousef asks:

I noticed most DVD and Blu-ray releases of hentai contain a message stating that all participants in the work are 18 years of age or older; however, this seems to be incredibly subjective and in many cases not true (I've heard interesting stories first hand from one licenser on how this has been worked around in the past). Who deems whether or not hentai is legal for distribution? What are the requirements? And especially considering Canada's stricter laws concerning hentai, how is there so much (unregulated, unlicensed) hentai on basically every porn site?

It's the least convincing line on the planet: a young looking girl in a hentai wearing what is clearly a high school uniform says somewhere that she's 19 years old and going to college, and literally everyone reading or watching rolls their eyes.

It has never been entirely clear whether or not it's legal to release adult animation and comics in the United States with completely fictitious, illustrated characters that are underage. Recent court rulings seemed to draw a line in the sand between 2D line art characters and photorealistic CG ones, but that may not be enough. Even if something is legally OK in the eyes of the federal government, there's a patchwork of states, counties and cities that sometimes have poorly defined local "obscenity" laws. This makes pushing the boundaries of adult content very risky, because all it takes is one overzealous prosecutor in a conservative area to file potentially criminal charges against you for distributing it. Even if you never get convicted, you still might get arrested, spend a ton of money on defense, and/or be forced to appear in court in wherever small jurisdiction you're being taken to court in. Even if you win, you lose.

OR, rather than risk all of that, you can just tweak the translation script so they're not underage. Seems like a no-brainer to me. Or, as a certain hentai-releasing boss of mine once told me, "she isn't real! If I tell you she's 19, she's 19, because she only exists as an idea!"

While that's true to an extent, anyone that knows beans about the Japanese school system can immediately tell that they're not supposed to be 19. Most companies publishing hentai don't bother making too big of a deal out of it. The late Anime 18 label, however, put together a lengthy video full of general anime and Japanese cultural notes ("why are their eyes so big?"), in which they buried the hilarious explanation that they're all wearing uniforms because they're attending a two-year finishing school rather than a 4-year college. This video made its way onto every one of the company's releases.

Back in the VHS and DVD era, hentai used to regularly get seized at the border crossing into Canada. However, since Canada doesn't restrict internet access in any way, as long as the hentai site in question isn't based in Canada, there's really not much the Canadian government can do about it. It's just like how gay porn searches are so popular in parts of the world that have laws against homosexuality. Unless you're putting up a big national content filter on the entire country's internet connection (like China does), and it's legal in the place it's coming from, there's not much the government can do to stop it.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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