Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Japan and Child Pornography: Beyond Regulation, Toward Dialogue

(image courtesy of

A love affair with youth is hardly unique to Japan.  Anti-aging is a multi-billion dollar business in the U.S., where public figures are mocked for appearing old and the (supposedly) virginal adolescent is the hottest moneymaker in the pop music industry.  Beauty is youth, and youth is beauty, on both sides of the Pacific.

That said, the “youth is everything” feeling has always hit me much harder in Japan–maybe because by Japanese standards I was already old (23) by the time I got here.  Maybe it’s the fact that, rather than appearing sultry, most female models and starlets are photographed peace-signing and winking at the camera like eight-year-olds.  Maybe it’s the pervasiveness of kawaii culture–high-pitched voices, signs drawn in cuddly cartoon form, adults carrying Hello Kitty bags–that can make you feel as if you’re in a surreal, city-sized elementary school.  People in Japan–well, mostly women–not only pay billions of yen annually to look *youthful,* they seem to cultivate a childlike personality well into their twenties, thirties, and even forties.

The problem?  Well, there are a ton of problems with this, but let’s start with just one: what is considered “youthful” (and therefor beautiful, sexy, marketable, etc) is getting a lot younger.  Like, pre-adolescent young.

The New York Times recently examined the popularity of “junior idol” videos and other Japanese media that depict pre-pubescent girls in sexual situations.  One popular video features 13-year-old model Akari Iinuma making popcorn in a maid costume, dancing around in a white bikini, and playing with a beach ball while being hosed down with water.  Some junior idol photo books and DVDs feature models as young as 6.

The outrage that many U.S. residents might feel at such overt sexualization of pre-adolescent girls rings a little hollow when you consider the popularity of TV shows like Little Miss Perfect and Toddlers and Tiaras–which, when you get right down to it, are essentially one-hour blocks of little girls dancing around in bikinis.  Or the popularity of teen idols like Miley Cyrus and (ten or so years ago) Britney Spears, who are / were marketed as a kind of innocent child / sultry vixen combo.  In a way, I almost find the Japanese approach refreshing–at least the country doesn’t feign shock when an obsession with youth, virginity, and innocence is taken to the level of child porn.

Japan has long had a reputation for being lax when it comes to enforcing child pornography laws.  It’s illegal to distribute child porn, but not to possess it.  Arrests and prosecution are rare.  But when it comes to “real” child pornography–photographic depictions of minors in sexual situations–at least there are laws in place.  Until now, though, Japan’s multi-billion dollar manga industry has been exempt from these laws, given that illustrations of sexual acts are deemed “simulated pornography” and thus are not subject to the same laws governing photography and film.

That may change soon, though.  Partially inspired by overseas criticism of the graphic, underage sex that is commonplace in manga, the Tokyo metropolitan government is considering a law that would restrict manga content that features sex between minors.  Major manga publishers are against the law and are threatening to boycott a major annual manga convention if it goes through.  Publishers and creators argue that there are “no victims in manga” and that regulating illustrated content in the same way as photography or film is ridiculous.

I agree that the law is a bad one–it’s vague, confusing, and doesn’t really seem to know how to determine what kind of content would be unacceptable (how do you tell when a line-drawn character is underage?).  It’s also oddly cautious–rather than banning underage sex comics outright, it just prohibits their sale to minors (though manga publishers argue that such a ban would discourage risk-averse publishers and booksellers from handling the material at all).  And the minute Tokyo governor and all-around misogynist / racist asshat Shintaro Ishihara started throwing around the “only perverts read these things” argument, I suddenly became a lot more sympathetic to the publishers.

But I’m not sure I buy the “no victims in manga” argument, in the same way that I don’t completely buy the “no victims in hostessing” argument.  While eliminating depictions of underage sex in manga probably isn’t the answer (and may not even be possible), the blatant sexualization of pre-pubescent girls has plenty of negative consequences. The problem isn’t that such sexualization is “perverted”–trying to define and eliminate “perverted” content in any context is always a recipe for disaster.  The problem is that millions of visual media consumers are being bombarded with a fairly uniform and narrow image of female attractiveness–one that’s physically tiny, submissive, naive, and somewhere between the ages of 8 and 13. Those who don’t fit the model can either feel ugly and undesirable or spend obscene amounts of time and money trying to change themselves.

Japan’s attitude toward child pornography–especially of the “real” variety–definitely needs to change.  But as with just about any social problem, regulation is only half the answer.  Education and dialogue are more essential.  Rather than enacting a vague and most likely ineffective law,  Japan needs to have a serious conversation about its obsession with pre-pubescent girls, something that moves beyond a “sho ga nai” (can’t be helped) mentality to a serious questioning of where this obsession comes from, what its potential consequences are, and how real-life young girls should respond to it.  Change won’t happen overnight, but addressing the issue in a mature fashion, with the participation of people from many sides of the debate, would be a good first step.


One comment on “Japan and Child Pornography: Beyond Regulation, Toward Dialogue

  1. Alice
    March 18, 2011

    Very interesting subject that I see happening everywhere.

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Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life is the best place for your personal blog or business site.

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