San Diego Comic-Con 2011
Manga Censorship

by Carlo Santos,

Left to right: Takashi Yamaguchi, Yukari Fujimoto, Dan Kanemitsu.

A panel consisting of Yukari Fujimoto, Dan Kanemitsu, and Takashi Yamaguchi spoke at Comic-Con's Comics Arts Conference about issues in manga censorship.

This panel was assembled as part of a response to the "Non-Existent Youth Bill," or Tokyo Youth Ordinance, that was passed in December 2010 to restrict the distribution of "unhealthy" forms of manga, anime and video games to minors.

Fujimoto, an associate professor specializing in manga studies at Meiji University, began by explaining how the Japanese manga market differs from the US comics market. The total sales of manga magazines and tankobon accounts for about a quarter of all publications sold in Japan, and as such, is a form of mass entertainment more akin to film and novels in the US.

Fujimoto also pointed out the particular demographic stratification of manga into shonen, shojo, seinen and josei (boys, girls, men and women) genres, resulting in a product range that spans all ages. Each of the various manga magazines published in Japan is targeted to one of these specific demographics, resulting in about a 50-50 split between manga aimed at those under 18 and manga aimed at adults.

Because of this sizable adult-manga market, Fujimoto noted that sexual and violent content is a prevalent part of such manga. Even so, however, the Japanese crime rate is among the lowest in the world. In particular, rape cases in Japan went down in the latter half of the 20th century as manga "grew up" and the adult market emerged. A knock-on effect of this is that manga for teens and those about to enter adulthood also feature risque content.

As a result of this, Fujimoto posited that young readers are "helped in figuring out how to handle the subject of sex and violence" when manga tackles those issues. Fujimoto also noted that youth-oriented American comics and fiction often focus on "making a difference in the real world," yet manga stories rooted strictly in fictional worlds, giving children a safe haven and an outlet to look at taboo issues.

Fujimoto also noted that the wide range of manga for all demographics has also resulted in "pornography for women," specifically boys' love (BL). such a phenomenon does not exist in America's strongly male-oriented pornographic market. Fujimoto went on to explain that, although rape is a common aspect of BL, this is not because of violent or hateful urges, bur rather, is an emotional reflection of how the seme ("top") character is unable to control himself around an extremely attractive uke ("bottom") character. This is often misunderstood by Western audiences who see all forms of rape as a violent and reprehensible act.

Finally, Fujimoto described the recent effects of Tokyo Youth Ordinance, which has forced retailers to seal and shelve adult-themed manga in a restricted area of their stores.

Next, professional translator Dan Kanemitsu discussed how comics censorship, perceptions of censorship, and sexuality are handled differently between the United States and Japan.

Kanemitsu opened by saying that, despite the most idealistic wishes of progressive thinkers, Japanese publishers may not necessarily be fighting at full force against censorship. Other disconnects also exist between the definitions of obscenity and child pornography in Japan versus the United States, and also how the different cultures conduct business.

The common US perception of censorship is that it involves trying to stop fringe/progressive or minority ideas (e.g. attitudes towards homosexuality); on the other hand, Japanese censorship often involves trying to stop ideas that have already become popular. As a historical example, Kanemitsu mentioned how Edo- and Meiji-period Japan was very sexually open (both genders bathing together, for example), but after Japan opened themselves up to the West, the country became more self-conscious about sexual values.

Kanemitsu cited the US Comics Code in the mid-20th century as a well-known example of American censorship putting a stopper on fringe ideas, creating a very restricted scope of comics. On the other hand, Japanese governmental intrusion on manga generally turned a blind eye towards such content until certain audiences became more "shrill" about these issues. In particular, the marketing of "Cool Japan" in recent years has caused the US government to start noticing the type of Japanese entertainment that is crossing borders, resulting in the legal issues of today.

As a final point, Kanemitsu noted that "it is a myth that Japan is a child-porn haven," and that "Asia as a whole only holds 7% of all child sexual-abuse content on the Internet." In fact, the United States and Europe hold an overwhelming majority of child pornography, and just 1.5% of all convicted child-porn downloaders come from Japan.

The problem, Kanemitsu explained, is that Japan's illustrated, fictional child pornography is being conflated with real-life pornography where actual children are being hurt. Even worse is that other nations' government agencies are confusing these fictional works with reality, and Japan—having taken notice of the outcry—is enacting censorship laws due to this misguided international pressure.

Finally, attorney Takahshi Yamaguchi spoke on the legal aspects of manga censorship. He began by detailing the free-spech clause of Japan's constitution, which expressly prohibits the government from certain acts of censorship.

The clause itself states that censorship is prohibited in the case of "publication or release of an expression beforehand." What this means, however, is that censorship may be applied after the creation and publication of said material.

Yamaguchi pointed out the areas of Japanese law that directly relate to the issue, including: - Article 175 of the Criminal Code - Child Pornography Law - Ordinances Regarding the Healthy Development of Youths the last of which is the 2010 bill that has sparked the recent controversy.

Article 175 is a long-standing law stating that "obscene documents" may not be sold publicly. (In fact, the law was introduced as part of Japan's Westernization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) It also defines what constitutes obscenity, but because of some peculiarities in the wording, it has resulted in the sometimes-joked-about situation where even the most explicit sex scenes in manga have obscured genitals.

This law also asks, essentially, "Is this obscene to the average person?", assuming that the average person is "not a pervert." Because of this assumption, however, even S&M or child pornography may not be considered obscene, because under the so-called "average person" would not find children or violence sexually stimulating.

Japan's Child Pornography Law, meanwhile, only pertains to real children and so is actually of little relevance to manga.

Yamaguchi then explained the details of the Tokyo Youth Ordinance, stating that it "bans distribution of certain material to persons under the age of 18, and also directs the method of sales for such material."

The ordinance also defines what kind of content is considered "harmful to people under the age of 18." In particular, the portrayal of "any sexual acts or pseudo sexual acts that would be illegal in real life" is considered harmful, which paints a very broad brush over what kind of content cannot be sold to minors. The original June 2010 version of the law (which did not pass) was even stricter, stating that any sexual depiction involving "Non-existent youth" was harmful.

Yamaguchi also explained the political background behind the Ordinance. The proposal originally went through the Japanese Diet (parliament), but after being turned down, it headed to the battleground of the Tokyo municipal area instead. It was also somewhat suspicious that the amended bill moved so quickly to passage, without more extensive discussion or taking public opinion into account.

After the presentation, the panel was opened up to questions from the audience. Yamaguchi was asked about how much Japanese law was influenced by US law and said that, "In the past we always looked to the West ... but that is changing." Yamaguchi cited fundamental differences, like Japan's lack of a jury system, that have driven Japan to draft laws on its own terms. Yet Yamaguchi added that Japanese society, even today, is still "concerned about being considered barbaric," which means that some looking-over-the-shoulder at the West remains.

On the subject of other freedoms such as freedom of thought and conscience, Kanemitsu noted that there are many Japanese special interest groups that want to entirely wipe out "reprehensible" beliefs. But this is not to be confused with those who simply wish to criticize specific social attitudes; after all, freedom of thought also means the freedom to say that one does not like something. Ultimately, Kanemitsu said, "culture grows by addition, not by subtraction."

Yamaguchi and Kanemitsu also noted a peculiarity of Japan's legal system where the only cases that go to court are typically "the ones the prosecutor is sure he/she can win." This over-90% prosecution rate means that a lot of obscene materials simply do not go to court because a law enforcement officer chooses to overlook it. As a result, publishers are always testing the boundaries to see just what they can publish without getting in trouble.

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