Will Japan Impose Bans on Explicit Manga?

In what could mark a cataclysmic change in the content of Manga both in Japan and in the United States, Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government is considering a change to Tokyo law that makes any visual representations of minors in sexual situations illegal.

On February 24, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly’s General Affairs Committee submitted a proposal that was aimed directly at “visual depictions” of “non-existent minors” engaged in sexual activity. This would include comic books, animation, and video games, and essentially any other media that can contain graphical representations of people. While this law pertains to only the regulations of Tokyo Prefecture, if passed, this amendment is very likely to cause profound repercussions throughout Japan’s manga industry and, subsequently, in the United States.

The child pornography ordinance in Japan is meant to prevent the exploitation of children, but, in the case of depictions of children, the only people exploited are the people prosecuted under these laws. Laws like these already have corollaries in the United States, and the CBLDF has been directly involved in those cases.

Many of this blog’s readers will no doubt be familiar with the Christopher Handley case, in which Mr. Handley, a comic collector from Glenwood, Iowa, was arrested after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement intercepted some comics Mr. Handley had ordered from Japan. As a result of the intercepted material, which, according to the United States Postal Inspection Service, contained depictions of minors being sexually abused, Handley’s sizable collection of comics and DVDs was seized, as well as seven computers. He was indicted under the 2003 Protect Act, which criminalizes paintings, drawings, and sculptures that depict minors in sexual situations and lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund served as a special consultant on the Handley case, but rather than launch an intractable legal battle against the government, Mr. Handley eventually ended up pleading guilty to the charges against him in May of 2009, and was sentenced in February to six months in prison and five years of probation.

The Japanese officials who have introduced this legislation are paying attention to cases like Handley’s around the world and looking toward a cultural consensus on depictions of sexuality in comics. Brian Ashcraft, senior contributing editor of the gaming website Kotaku, has been covering this legislation for some time, and he says that the decision to attempt legislation on this subject is rooted directly in the controversy these works have seen as exports. “International pressures, the way Japan is viewed globally and domestic politics are behind the recent push,” says Ashcraft, “as well as a real desire to prevent Japanese mangaka and animators from going too far.”

In the wake of vocal complaints from manga luminaries such as Rumiko Takahashi (InuYasha), Tetsuya Chiba (Tomorrow’s Joe), and Fujiko Fujio A (Doraemon), the Tokyo Government Office has decided to continue deliberating the proposal. More recently, American manga fans such as Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica, have come out strongly against the proposed amendment.

For now, it appears that this amendment is on hold, but it’s clear that Japan is now crafting obscenity laws in response to concerns from countries like the United States. The proposal amending Tokyo’s child pornography statue is expected to be put to a vote sometime this summer.