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Japanamerica: Is American prudery affecting Japanese law?

By Roland Kelts.


The sentencing of 39-year-old American Christopher Handley on obscenity charges in Iowa last month and an upcoming vote on a “virtual porn” bill in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly’s General Affairs Committee have sent shivers of anxiety through fans of Japanese popular culture worldwide.

Forget the recent U.S.-Japan dustups over the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps base and the Toyota recall debacle. Suddenly, both postwar allies are converging on the same page in their desire to delimit the expressive sexuality in manga and anime.

In U.S. courts, Handley pleaded guilty in May of last year to possessing manga featuring “drawings of children being sexually abused,” and was sentenced on February 11 to six months in prison – though his lawyer has recently noted right here in The Comics Journal that Handley’s submissive plea will likely win him a few months in a halfway house, with no actual prison time.

In Japan late last month, a proposal was submitted to amend metropolitan Tokyo’s youth welfare ordinance on child pornography to include sexually provocative “visual depictions” of characters who sound or appear to be 18 years old or younger.

A preliminary vote on the bill, originally set for Friday, March 19, would have set the bill for confirmation on March 30, and authorized enforcement as early as October 1.

Opposition from manga creators quickly materialized. Ashita no Joe [Tomorrow’s Joe] manga artist Tetsuya Chiba was among artists and writers who held a press conference on March 15 to protest this move toward censorship, releasing a statement whose many signatories reportedly included such manga-world notables as Fujiko Fujio A (Doraemon), Moto Hagio (the 61 year-old founding mother of shojo manga/manga for girls) and Rumiko Takahashi (InuYasha).

In my book, Japanamerica, I argue that Japanese popular culture – manga and anime in particular – is attractive in part because it feels freer, less fettered by focus groups and financial reports. Taboos about violence, sexuality or racial imagery can be directly confronted in forms that have for decades flown under the proverbial radar. Japanese pop culture is cheap to make and distribute, and is marginal in character and by nature – more like anarchic punk music than corporate products such as Disney films.


Hence the inevitable paradox: What happens when Japanese popular culture becomes truly popular beyond the borders of a tiny archipelago in the North Pacific? Can the rest of the world embrace a creative product defined in part by its provincial nature, and usually intended for local audiences only?

Years ago, as a boy brought to Japan by my Japanese mother, I found a throwaway manga on a train seat. I flipped through it as my mother chatted with her friend. The erotic images were stirring, so much so that I put the phonebook-sized comic back where I found it, lest my mother and her friend catch me reading it.

Today, I find my youthful shame shameful. I wish I had been able to share the images with my mother to explore their meanings intelligently. I recall an office lady with her skirt hitched up and an adorably pillowish face.

At the same time, I recognize that images of childlike sexuality are potentially damaging. Even as I believe Handley, an American otaku who mail-ordered thousands of manga from Japan, only 12 of which were cited in U.S. courts as obscene, deserves more lenience, I do understand that not every child has discriminating adult guardians.

“Pedophiles frequently use realistic cartoon depictions to indoctrinate their child victims to persuade them that such [sexual] acts are okay,” says Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice and a board member of Polaris Project Japan, an organization that combats human trafficking in Japan and the sexual exploitation of women and children. “When this stuff is legal, you’re giving pedophiles a weapon.”

But is it the fault of manga and anime artists that their work is being appropriated by criminals? Hollywood films regularly glamorize war – but are wars Hollywood’s fault? And if manga and anime depictions of youthful sexuality are outlawed in Japan and the United States, will that really deter pedophiles?

I discussed this question with writers and artists in Japan and the United States, most of whom argued persuasively that works of the imagination, however they may fly in the face of social norms, need to be protected. “[The bill] is a poorly thought-out response to foreign criticism,” says Dreamland Japan author and manga authority Frederik L. Schodt. “There have been disturbing trends in Japanese manga and anime for many years now, and many people have been willing to overlook them, but as pop-culture globalization progresses, these trends are harder to ignore.” Manga artist Yoshitoshi Abe writes: “Humankind has been entrusted with power, but if we abuse that power to do away with things that we do not like, then we will give birth to a sterilized society.”

It’s hard for me to argue otherwise, as sympathetic as I am to concerns about child-abuse cases. If we can’t commit our imaginations to paper – and now, to digital readers, which is where manga will be found soon – where else can we go?


Roland Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. This article is hosted by 3:AM and Daily Yomiuri.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 25th, 2010.