Hard times for Tokyo's 'soft culture'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 December, 2010, 12:00am

Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, is a skilled politician who is used to getting his own way.

He is also a known admirer and promoter of Japan's 'soft culture' - from Hello Kitty through Pokemon, Sailor Moon and any number of other animated characters dreamed up by publishers and movie-makers.

But by ramming legislation through the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly yesterday that tightens regulations on the sale of sexually explicit comic books and animation, he has made an enemy of the entire industry.

An ordinance on self-regulation of the industry will take effect on April 1 next year, followed by rules that will put restrictions on sales to minors in Tokyo on July 1.

But the industry has been quick to hit back. Even before the new rules were passed, an alliance of the 10 largest manga publishing companies vowed to boycott the Tokyo International Anime Fair next year.

Arguably the biggest date on the industry's calendar, the four-day event is scheduled to be held in late March under the sponsorship of the Tokyo government.

It will be acutely embarrassing to the manga-loving governor if the event is cancelled or scaled back to the point where it is a pale shadow of its former self.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has even involved himself in the dispute, using his blog to call on both sides to compromise.

'I want the people involved to make efforts to avoid a situation in which the International Anime Fair is cancelled,' Kan wrote.

The publishers are aware that a boycott is the strongest card in their hand, although the bill has already been passed and neither side appears willing to back down.

'I would argue that this is not an attempt to restrict pornography, because the Tokyo government already has that power under existing legislation,' said Dan Kanemitsu, a translator of both manga and animated movies. He says the assembly deliberately chose to reveal details of the legislation just eight days before the vote to avoid discussing the issue with the industry.

An effort in March to pass a similar bill to restrict the sale of explicit manga - featuring images of rape, incest or characters who could be considered under the legal age of consent - was met with such opposition that the government took no chances, Kanemitsu believes.

'It feels as if they have tried to muzzle public discussion as much as possible,' he said. 'All sides should have been able to talk about the issues a lot sooner in the process and, if that had happened, it would not now feel like there had been a sneak attack on the industry.'

Kanemitsu agrees that the system of determining which images are suitable for which age groups 'is not perfect', but he believes that the new law is effectively a blanket ban that punishes the entire industry rather than the few publishers that sell products that cross the boundary into pornography that could fall into the hands of a young audience.

The new law calls on the industry to improve its self-regulation to prevent under-18s from purchasing or having access to comics and anime that 'unjustifiably glorify or exaggerate' sex crimes such as rape or sexual relations 'that are not legally permitted in real life'.

Publications that go beyond the bounds of good taste can be designated as 'unhealthy books,' although the metropolitan government has offered an olive branch to the industry by stating that it will give consideration to artistic and social expression and apply the rules only after careful consideration.

The Mainichi newspaper pointed out the earlier effort to have the law passed involved the use of the term 'non-existent minors' - an ambiguous concept that was taken to mean manga characters representing minors, based on their appearances.

With that cut from the latest version, critics say characters aged over 18 will be subject to the regulations, and control on artistic expression will have been tightened.

'It goes without saying that we should keep up our efforts to voluntarily regulate sexually explicit content to keep them away from children's eyes,' the paper said.

'But such efforts must not result in undermining the popularity of Japanese manga and anime by discouraging authors from free expression through tightened controls.'

The ordinance is limited to Tokyo, which has also vowed to carry out a crackdown on child pornography, which is still rife in Japan. Some convenience stores sell magazines with images of children as young as four in bikinis and provocatively licking ice creams.

The traditional manga industry has experienced a slump in recent years as people turn to accessing images on their mobile phones and computers. Critics say it will be virtually impossible to police the ban.

Roland Kelts, author of Japan-america: How Japanese pop culture has invaded the US, says the industry is 'furious' at the new rules and that they will do nothing to stamp out the scourge of child pornography.

'Publishers are outraged at the way in which this has all gone down,' he said. 'The law uses vague language that will allow the government to make all kinds of decisions about what they consider anti-social while it will do nothing to halt live-action child pornography.

'Nobody has even started talking about criminalising possession of child pornography, so it is legal here in Japan. How are the authorities going to prosecute producers if they can't even touch someone for possession?'

The bill was passed with the support of the Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, the three largest parties in the chamber.

But critics say Ishihara was more than a little devious in the way he forced the legislation into law.

'Ishihara has very cleverly pushed this through at the last minute, without any input from the publishing industry and by using lots of rhetoric about the 'porn protectors' in the opposition in the chamber,' said Kelts.

'Some artists have told me that there is some stuff out there that does cross the line of what is acceptable, but they wanted the chance to talk things through and felt there is a need for more self-regulation.'

But things have clearly gone beyond that stage, he agreed.

If the industry does go through with its threat to pull out of the Tokyo International Anime Fair, one of Ishihara's pet projects, then 'it will be a pretty bleak event,' Kelts warned.