Tokyo’s new obscenity law bucks Japanese tradition

On December 16, 2010, in General, by Neil Stevens

The Japanese culture does not share quite the same sexual taboos that we have in the west. The differences are most notable in Japanese law on pornography and obscenity. While all Japanese pornography has long been required to be censored – a requirement going back the 19th century restoration of the Emperors over the Shoguns – Japan has long been vastly more accepting of sexual depictions of minors than the west. Pornography and prostitution of minors was legal in Japan until 1999, and even that major law set punishments that will look low to many of us.

The 1999 law set the age of consent nationally was set to 13, made child prostitution and child pornography offenses punishable by prison terms of only three to five years along with fines of 1 to 5 million yen (at today’s exchange rates $11,000 to $55,000). Child slave trade offenses are punished most strongly, as their punishments jump up to a prison term of up to 10 years. For comparison, child prostitution convictions under US law can bring a maximum prison term of 40 years, unless coercion is involved. Coerced child prostitution can bring a sentence to life in prison. Distribution and commercial child pornography offenses (but not private possession, which is not banned) bring a 10 year prison term for a first offense, and 20 years for repeat offenses. It’s clear that in the US and Japan, these offenses are not viewed the same way.

The UN and international feminist groups have decided current Japanese law is not sufficient. However instead of lobbying for increased punishments for these existing offenses, the focus has been on banning fictional depictions of the above. Instead of applying greater pressure to actual child pornographers, and an apparent wave of teachers abusing their students in Japanese schools, international groups have made it their mission to force Japan to ban comic books and video games with extreme violent and sexual content.

Combine the questionable prioritization of these global groups with the overall Japanese reluctance to adopt Western views on the sexualization of minors, and the result is a very slow moving process to address these demands. Things slowed even further last year when the (in American terms, conservative) Liberal Democratic Party lost the House for the second time since the war, giving the majority up to the (again, in American terms, progressive) Democratic Party of Japan. DPJ rule led to more talk of rights and resistance to a total ban on possession of child pornography. Still more backlash came about when some in Japan began to observe (somewhat correctly) that the entire effort to change Japanese law on comics and video games is being driven by foreigners.

Despite all that, though, there is movement. Tokyo has passed a broad obscenity ban in the name of protecting minors. The ban goes into effect in July. Although the ban will only apply in Tokyo, I expect it will have an effect nationwide as Tokyo is such a large city. Publishers will lose business if they can’t distribute their works in Tokyo, including in the famous Electric Town. I expect a broad industry shift by major players to comply with the Tokyo law, though online distribution will mitigate the law’s effectiveness both in and out of Tokyo.

Japan is still going to strike many as a country with some strongly disturbing subcultures, but with this new law they will now have to go slightly more underground than they had to go before.

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