Why Banning Extreme Manga Fails To Protect Children

Recent media coverage of UN Special Envoy Maud de Boer-Buquicchio’s recommendations to Japan for combating child sexual abuse emphasized her assertion that the country should, “ban manga of extreme child pornographic content.” This recommendation is a wrong-minded and unfortunate distraction from the larger substance of her worthy efforts — ending the abuse and exploitation of real children.

A glance at media coverage, including The Guardian and The Straits Times sees the bulk of her recommendations buried beneath the manga angle. This is a shame because it shifts emphasis toward expressive content and away from criminal behavior affecting real victims. De Boer-Buquicchio acknowledges that Japan is making strides in curbing child sex abuse, having last year passed an overdue law that finally — and correctly — prosecutes those who possess child pornography.  However, the country still has a distance to go. Among the criticisms de Boer-Buquicchio identifies in the UN report:

  • Law enforcement is reluctant to investigate and prosecute abuse unless a complaint is lodged by the child victim.
  • Minimal penalties for offenders
  • Lack of adequate assistance for child victims.

These and other significant weaknesses are identified in the report, well worth reading in full here. The unfortunate inclusion of the recommendation to curb expressive content led to media framing the story around drawn fantasies in a way that distracts from the severity of actual child exploitation and structural flaws in Japan’s laws to combat it.

De Boer-Buquicchio acknowledges that there are free expression issues that must be balanced, noting: “I accept that the freedom of expression argument should outweigh, should prevail when it comes to adult pornography.” One of the problems with her call to ban expressive content is that she incorrectly equates drawn images with photographic evidence of actual criminal behavior. Another is that to Western eyes, much manga material appears to depict young characters as a result of the frequently diminutive art style and the Japanese cultural emphasis on kawaii, or cuteness, in content.

The most troubling issue for the Japanese, however, is that their law enforcement agencies are prone to the arbitrary prosecution of expressive art. One such case is the arrest of the editors of Core Magazine. In 2013, we reported that three editors at Core were arrested and charged with obscenity after police confiscated material that had fallen within the confines of what had previously been acceptable under Japanese obscenity statutes. The prosecution of Core‘s editors was abrupt and led to the editors accepting a guilty plea. The prosecution also led to a wave of widespread self-censorship in mainstream and fan publishing.

New regulation in Japan will create further vulnerability and a push towards self-censorship, especially since police have not shown themselves to be transparent or even-handed in prosecuting content-related offenses. If the country were to adopt de Boer-Buquicchio’s recommendations, there is a high likelihood of even more arbitrary prosecutions to occur.

American readers have asked why there is value in speaking out for explicitly sexual comics material, especially content that appears to depict children. Although the material often crosses our taboos and can be extremely distasteful or offensive, it is worth defending for a variety of reasons.

The first is that prosecuting comics does not protect real victims of child sex crimes. Child pornography is, by definition, photographic evidence of a crime involving the sexual abuse of a real person. In North America we have seen several cases in which individuals prosecuted for expressive content have not shown any offenses or inclination towards abusing real children, and yet law enforcement resources were spent prosecuting them and not real abusers. This misapplication of priorities actually hurts real children by diverting law enforcement resources that should be helping them.  In Japan’s case, advocating for greater content censorship instead of redoubled efforts to correct the significant gaps in their child exploitation laws is a distraction from solving a much more urgent set of problems.

The second is that American or Western mores are not global mores. Sexual content is predominantly delivered through photography in the United States, a literal medium that leads to a literal-minded interpretation of content. We don’t have a legal, or in many cases, a cultural objection to the expression of a fantasy involving the sexuality of minors if it is expressed photographically by models who are of age, because we can point to the fact that the models are all over 18. Examples of such content aren’t hard to find — consider any issue of Barely Legal magazine. Where we do have an objection is to the drawn depiction of the exact same fantasy if the subject of the image appears to be underage. This happens in spite of the fact that in the case of photography there is a real person participating, and in the case of a drawing, there is not.

In Japan, the situation is nearly opposite. While photographic sexual content does exist, drawn expressions of sexuality are far more common. This was clear when I was in Tokyo participating in a cultural exchange regarding intellectual freedom and manga, where I discovered that manga with sexually explicit content of all kinds is sold openly in mainstream bookstores and consumed by normal adults. Indeed, it was eye-opening the very first time I visited Ad-Hoc, a manga bookstore near the government district in Shinjuku, to find that among the five floors of manga books available, the top floor was dedicated to adult manga for men and the fourth floor was dedicated to adult manga for women, with each floor merchandised and staffed to create a safe space for its browsers. The manner of display bore none of the stigma or seediness that we’d generally associate with a retailer selling parallel content in the United States. The subject matter of the content in both spaces was not terribly different from sexual content that Americans consume in photography or prose form. That said, the nature of drawn material creates a broader imaginative palette than sexual content can take in photographic form, which leads to many of the issues with which Westerners take exception in manga.

This takes us to the third, and arguably most important, point: The expression or consumption of a transgressive fantasy is not the same thing as the impulse to behave transgressively. This is certainly true in the United States. Compare the subject matter of the bestselling pornographic material or the most popular pornographic search terms with the sex lives of the people who consume that content, and you will certainly find that there is rarely corresponding real life behavior. The same is true in Japan.

Imposing Western judgment upon the sexual expressions of Japanese manga often fails to account for nuances present in the content, its creators, and its consumers. Perhaps the biggest surprise of any of my Japan visits came when visiting the Comic Market during “women’s day” and provides a case in point. Comic Market, also known as Comiket, is a massive three day festival of doujinshi, or self-published comics, that happens twice a year. Roughly 200,000 people attend Comic Market on each of its three days, and every day there is a different set of exhibitors. In the course of the event, some 35,000 doujinshi circles — publishing entities ranging from a single creator to collectives of a dozen creators — display their self-published wares. There is a wide variety of content available, from imitations of popular manga brands to original story content, fanzines regarding aspects of popular culture, and, yes, very explicit sexual content. When I visited Comic Market, there was a women’s day, a men’s day, and a catch-all audience day, and each day’s exhibitors sold content addressing those broad audience groups.

Walking the halls during the women’s day, I encountered several aisles of the sort of content de Boer-Buquicchio would have characterized as child pornography — fantasies of very young girls engaged in sexual activity, including some with very old men. It was the kind of content that, if confronted in one of our cases, would have made me wince but defend, using Robert Crumb’s immortal logic that “it’s only lines on paper, folks.” But what was so revealing is that these comics were predominantly being sold by normal middle-aged and elderly women. Engaging with these comics and their authors, it became clear that these stories were not an impulse to transgress or abuse, but were a form of fantasy or role play reflecting the imaginative lives of its authors and readers.

Manga functions as a safe space of the imagination. There are a wide variety of sexual fantasies that manga gives voice to, and some are unquestionably disturbing. But they aren’t real, and they aren’t harming real people. Directing resources against the creation and consumption of comics doesn’t help protect any real people. And, as de Boer-Buquicchio points out, there are real people who need protection. Unfortunately, the media conversation didn’t focus on them. It focused on comics. And that’s a disappointing distraction from helping the real people who are at risk.

Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2015 by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!

Charles Brownstein is the Executive Director of CBLDF.

Special thanks to Dan Kanemitsu, who advised on this story.