Is Japan Or America More Prudish About Sexual Content?

by Justin Sevakis,

James asked:

Many American fans of Japanese animation and manga believe that Japanese media and culture in general are more liberal-minded on the subject, and accepting, of nudity and sexuality in their media (especially animated media), and cursory glances at Japanese media would seem to confirm this idea (would American ever produce such series as Kiss×sis, Fairy Tail, Highschool DXD, Ikki Tōsen, or Senran Kagura, all of which have extremely copious amounts of fanservice?). However, I have heard it said that the Japanese media can be very strict and conservative at times (and their ridiculous censorship laws for erotic media are evidence of that), so I wonder: between the United States and Japan, which nation and culture is stricter, and which is more lenient, about nudity and sexuality in media? Or is there no clear answer? Can either nation be more conservative or more liberal, depending upon the situation?

I think both Japan and America have a lot of weird cultural baggage, a lot of diverging opinions, and a lot of hypocrisy in how they deal with sexuality and pornography, but they're so different in each of these things that it's pretty much impossible to directly compare them.

Historically, there's no question that America, with our societal underpinnings in Christian Puritanism, is the more buttoned-up country sexually. Japan has a tradition based in Shinto and Buddhism, both of which are fairly permissive when it comes to sex. There's also a cultural tradition of communal bathing (though public baths aren't as common as they were). This means that seeing naked bodies, especially of your own gender, isn't really a big deal. There's also an artistic tradition of depicting shocking subject matter. I mean, we've all seen the Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, the infamous 1814 ukiyo-e of tentacle sex.

But once you get into what it's like on the ground in modern times, things get a hell of a lot more complicated. America has plenty of adult content, a huge porn industry, and plenty of scandalous behavior. What's more, our strong penchant for individualism and civil rights means that negative judgments on sexual behaviors are often revisited and challenged. Adult content has been tried in courts and protected as free speech. And now with the internet, everybody can watch whatever they want with few barriers in place. Plenty of people openly talk about porn in appropriate company. We're pretty permissive overall, except in one major way: parents try REALLY hard to keep their kids sheltered from sexual impulses for as long as possible. While some of that is rooted in personal beliefs and values, much of it also comes from a fear of teen pregnancy, which was a hot topic in the news media as far back as the early '90s.

Meanwhile, Japan has become somewhat infamous internationally for having the most ludicrous and horrifying porn, obvious and open prostitution, and an underground human trafficking trade to feed it. (All this despite porn being MORE regulated in Japan: no legal media can be released showing uncensored genitals.) But to the average person on the street, all of that is nearly invisible. People aren't nearly as open with stuff they like over there, so the average person is barely even aware of its existence. People largely buy and consume their hobby-related content with great discretion, so if you're not expressly looking for it, it's easy to forget it's there. The only time it even comes up is when some tabloid TV news program does some scare piece on the subject, which reinforces people's fear of the stuff.

It's not that everyone in Japan is okay with fan service, specifically in kids' anime and manga. PTA organizations have decried it as far back as the late '60s (Go Nagai's manga Harenchi Gakuen being a major point of contention), with major protests being raised at Yatterman and eventually Evangelion, which resulted in tighter regulations over daytime TV programming. But for the most part, late-night time slots, the internet, and the separation of otaku culture into its own relatively hidden niche allowed most of it to fly under the radar.

Given the above information, the only conclusion anyone can reasonably draw is that both countries' attitudes to sex and nudity are completely inconsistent and make no sense at all. I'm not sure there's any further conclusion to be drawn overall. They're just different.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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