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Japanamerica: A Cautionary Tale

By Roland Kelts.


Earlier this week here in Tokyo, the Metropolitan Assembly passed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s revised bill to amend the Youth Healthy Development Ordinance – a piece of legislation otherwise known as the “non-existent youth” bill, whose story I wrote about late last month, and also last spring, when the revised bill was first submitted for approval. By June, the legislation was flatly rejected, but not without a vow from Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara to revamp and try to push it through again this autumn.

The controversial Ishihara has his supporters and detractors. But like him or not, in this instance, there is no denying he is a man of his word.

While restrictions on sexually stimulating and/or harmful depictions have long been in place in Japan, the new revisions specifically target “manga and anime,” while exempting real-life photography (explain that one), and focus on materials that may be “disrupting of social order” – much like Ishihara’s own decades’ old taboo-breaking novels and plays, and his more recent nationalist, racist and homophobic blather.

In objection, ten major manga publishers – Kadokawa Shoten, Shueisha, Kodansha, Akita Shoten, Hakusensha, Shogakukan, Shonen Gahousha, Shinchosa, Futubasha and LEED – have vowed to pull their wares from the 2011 Tokyo International Anime Fair (TAF), whose executive committee is chaired by Ishihara himself. Rumors are emerging that the action could prompt a cancellation of next year’s TAF.


Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is taking the news seriously enough to post the following commentary on his blog – the first time, I’m told, that the PM has posted in the first-person under his own name:

“There is another topic I would like to talk about concerning [the strength of] the Japanese brand. Currently, there are concerns over the possibility that the Tokyo International Animation Fair could be cancelled due to controversies related to the healthy development of youth issues. Healthy development of youth is an important issue. At the same time, it is important that Japanese animation is broadcast to a global audience. I urge all parties involved to try to work toward preventing a situation where an international animation fair cannot be held within Tokyo.” [transl. Dan Kanemitsu; ital. mine]

Now we have Version 2 of the non-existent youth bill, with its opaque language promising to monitor depictions of fictional characters government officials decide are too young to be engaging in the fictional activities government officials decide are too harmful to real youth that government officials decide are too youthful to view or read about them. Meanwhile, it remains legal in Japan to possess child pornography, live-action or illustrated, rendering most attempts at enforcement toothless.

In other words: When the welfare of real children is at stake, the government turns the other cheek. But if you dare illustrate gay or trans-generational love, watch your back. Watch what you draw is akin to watch what you think. Brave new world?

Ironies abound.

Fictional portrayals of nonexistent young characters continue to proliferate as the financially strapped manga and anime industries cater to their largely middle-aged and male otaku core demographic, making more “moe,” or soft-core porn imagery, in order to survive. Meanwhile, Japan’s real youth are thin on the ground: The nation’s notoriously declining birth rate is among the lowest in developed economies, and jobs for those youth who actually do exist in the form of university graduates have grown scarce. What’s more, government officials are not doing much to help them.

I phoned veteran manga translator and writer Dan Kanemitsu, a vocal opponent of the bill, in Tokyo. He is deeply concerned about the legislation’s stealthy, under-the-radar nature. “They did their best to not raise publicity,” Kanemitsu tells me. “And they did their best not to [let anyone] examine [the legislation]. I think it’s disingenuous, since it’s something that could possibly have a lot of impact. The publishers and artists had little to no input, and the bill was rushed into law to ensure that. That’s why the industry is so angry.

“What’s more,” he adds, “this is not a bill about pornography at all. It’s about enforcing morality, some vague notion that has nothing to do with the real protection of real children.”

The domestic media have only abetted Ishihara’s strategy. Japan’s corrupt society of “press clubs” give voice to the major players who support them. The government issues a statement, journalists dutifully record it, and all bask in the glow of a brutally efficient PR release, disguised as journalism. Democracy, as someone once said, is messy. Japanese politicians and their docile toadies in the media don’t like “messiness” – and Ishihara clearly sees anyone gay, non-Japanese, black, poor and/or sexual, as ‘messy.’

Hence the latest step in government efforts to control what you see and read. “Under the pre-existing regulations, they could go after some types of cheesecake [mild hentai or pornographic] material,” says Kanemitsu, “but not yaoi [manga/anime aimed at women and featuring beautiful men who love other men] and shojo [girl’s manga/anime]. Adult material is regulated differently under obscenity standards. Japan’s current penal code just says that we’ll bust you if it’s obscene, but it doesn’t define what’s obscene.”

And there’s the rub: Who defines what’s “obscene,” and how does one define it? It’s a worthy topic for debate. Sadly, today’s bill in Tokyo was explicitly designed to circumvent discussion. No wonder Tetsuya Chiba, veteran manga maestro and author of Tomorrow’s Joe, recalls the madness of pre-war Japan:

“The media, such as newspapers or broadcasters, may eventually get tied up little by little by law, and citizens may start becoming blind and deaf. I have seen such terrifying examples in this country before the war and in nearby countries even now. That’s why I am opposing the ordinance.”

Any of you remember the Comics Code in America, effectively shutting down the most creative comics artists in the US in the 1950s, as aptly recorded by David Hadju in The Ten Cent Plague? Let’s hope it doesn’t happen in Japan.


Roland Kelts is a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S..

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 18th, 2010.