Manga and anime: Japan still treating children as sexual objects

Possessing child porn is now illegal in Japan – but depicting children as sexual objects in cartoons

Japan remains an international centre for child porn production: US State Department report says. [AFP]

The sale of pornographic materials is rampant in Japan. Go into any convenience store and you will find mainstream pornographic magazines sold alongside consumer publications; while a “for adults only” sign demarcates the violent, hardcore porn magazines. But it isn’t only adults whose bodies are on display: Underaged girls are routinely portrayed in suggestive ways – from teen pop groups posing in lingerie or pubescent children engaging in sexual acts in manga comic books.

In June, Japan banned the possession of child pornography after decades of criticism by local and international children’s rights activists. However, the ban did not extend to manga or anime films – which still raises troubling questions about the state of child protection, as well as the reasons for the country’s lax attitude towards children being viewed as sexual objects.

Societal acceptance?

People in Japan have always had easy access to pornographic materials. This has created a culture where pornography is tolerated and accepted, and its consumption normalised, especially among men, who are the main consumers of porn. This, in turn, has reinforced the dominant male view that women and girls are sex objects and issues connected to its consumption are thus downplayed. And it means that the rights of those who do not want to see women and girls treated as sexual objects are simply ignored or violated.   

In such a porn-inured society, it is difficult for the Japanese public to perceive that treating children – mainly girls – as sexual objects is a grave concern. Hence, though more than 90 percent of the public supported outlawing the possession of child pornography, according to a public opinion survey conducted by the government in 2007, people tended to passively tolerate it, rather than pro-actively want to take effective measures against it. 

Perhaps this attitude stems from the fact that Japan has been and is still an international centre for the production and distribution of child pornography, according to a 2013 US State department report. 

This is despite a law passed in 1999 which banned the production, distribution and sale of child pornographic materials. In 2004, that law was expanded to include material distributed through all forms of media, including the internet.

Japan cracks down on child pornography

Under the new law passed in June, banning the possession of child pornography, any person found with photos or video of children can be jailed for up to a year or fined up to $10,000. Disgracefully, Japan was the last member of developed countries groups such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to make possession a punishable offence. 

But because the ban does not apply to animated cartoons, comics cartoons and games, anyone can access sexually abusive images of children depicted in manga through the internet or at stores. As long as real children are not involved, their genitals not shown, any violent, sexual act against children can be portrayed.

There are calls for promoting research on the effects of manga and anime on sex offenses against children to be included under the new law banning possession, but certain quarters have objected to it and have staged campaigns against it. The publishers of manga books have argued that it threatens freedom of expression, while the Japan Federation of the Bar Association and other civil society groups have expressed concern over the possibility of wrongful arrests by overzealous police.

The ban on child pornography originally included a by-law which promoted research into the relationship between the consumption of manga or anime, and sex crimes against children. But this by-law was dropped due to fierce opposition from pro-manga civil groups, publishers and other parties. 

Another reason that might explain why attitudes are lax towards the sexual objectification of children, is the lack of women’s equal participation in politics. This tends to reinforce male-dominated policies in parliament. According a 2013 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, Japan is ranked 105th out of 133 countries for political empowerment. This means that even though policy makers intend to create gender-neutral policies, the end result is that these policies tend to be biased towards males.

Remaining unresolved issues

Criminalising the possession of child pornography is surely a victory, but besides manga, there are other objectionable practices not covered by prospective laws, which are a part of popular culture. One such example is the so-called junior idols, pubescent or prepubescent models wearing bikinis or lingerieoften featured in magazines or DVDs. While some of the more explicit material would be illegal under the revised law, many of them do not meet the criteria of child pornography because no genitalia is shown or erogenous zones emphasized.

Japan should take its lead from countries such as Australia and Canada which have passed legislation against depicting children as sexual objects in any form, including cartoons. Although little research has been done to establish a causal link between sexually explicit material depicting fictitious characters of children in cartoons and comics, and sex offenses against children, Japan certainly needs to study the effect of viewing manga or anime involving children.

For too long, our children have grown up in a society that thinks nothing of putting them in suggestive poses. This has to stop, and they should not be the ones to bear the ill-effects of these images. So legislation protecting children from all forms of sexual objectification should be introduced for their safety. 

Sawa Omori is a Senior Associate Professor of Public Policy of the Department of Politics and International Studies at International Christian University, Tokyo.