TRIGGER WARNING: This piece includes graphic references and descriptions of sexual abuse and violence involving children that readers may find disturbing. Audience discretion is advised.
When Takashi Kato first picked up a comic book illustrating a child having sex, it became a turning point for him—this was the content he’d been looking for all his life.
Over the span of 24 years, Kato abused at least 11 children.
At adult book shops, he’d visit the section selling comics that show children having sex. Once home, he’d masturbate to these images. The comics were “completely different” from pictures and videos of real children engaged in sex, according to Kato. “They could depict things that could never happen in reality,” he told VICE World News.
Increasingly, he sought more explicit content. When he physically abused children, he’d think of the images he saw in comics.
“I knew it was against the law, but I convinced myself that I was making the child feel good, so the law was the one that was wrong,” the 60-year-old said.
In 2014, Japan outlawed the possession of child abuse material, the last of 38 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to do so. But illustrations depicting such activity were still allowed.
At the time, some manga artists and politicians claimed that restrictions could limit creators’ freedom of expression. They also argued that illustrations were fictitious and there was no proof that such drawings would lead to the abuse of children, effectively convincing lawmakers to let the material remain unregulated.
Despite the lack of definitive scientific evidence proving the comics’ harmful impact, anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. This has compelled activists, psychiatrists who treat child sex abusers, and the international community to call on Japan to ban the illustrations. These critics argue that allowing the drawings to circulate freely normalizes and monetizes what they think is child sex abuse. Scientific evidence is also impossible to obtain, they say, as any experiments testing the comics’ effect could further harm children.
For now, the argument has appeared to reach a stalemate. Neither critics nor supporters of this manga have been able to definitively prove which side is right, thus allowing such material to be tolerated and available in Japanese society.
But some believe waiting for science to catch up is dangerous. Kazuna Kanajiri, the chairman of People Against Pornography and Sexual Violence, a nonprofit that investigates sexual violence crimes in pornography, says the Japanese government is “letting child abuse be tolerated” by allowing this content to be sold. ”No matter how much we tell people it’s wrong, our message gets undermined so long as this manga exists,” she told VICE World News.
The manga, she said, also serves as a manual for grooming—when an adult befriends a minor to gain their trust with the purpose of sexually abusing them. In these comics, children’s facial expressions can be drawn as though they appear to enjoy the act, giving the false impression that children could consent to sex.
“We have made a society in which children are forced to learn experientially from an early age that they have sexual value,” she said.
Named after the 1955 Western novel Lolita—which details a 37-year-old man repeatedly raping a 12-year-old girl—lolicon manga sexually depicts young girls and first emerged in Japan during the 1970s.
Fan artists would draw their favorite female characters as young girls, frequently with erotic undertones. Though lolicon gained a significant following in the ‘80s, the subgenre didn’t become mainstream like adventure-driven shonen manga or sports-themed storylines did. Lolicon and its counterpart shotacon, which sexually depicts young boys, are two of many available subgenres in a manga industry worth 675.9 billion yen (about 4.67 billion USD) in 2021.
Lolicon culture was also tainted in 1989, when serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki—dubbed the “Otaku killer” for his fixation with pedophilic content and erotic manga—was arrested for killing four girls and molesting their corpses. The influence of this media was never directly linked to Miyazaki, but his horrific crimes further pushed the subculture underground—though it’s always remained legal.
Akiyoshi Saito, a psychiatric social worker who treats convicted child sex abusers, said that though the direct negative impact of this manga hasn’t been proven, it’s clear that the comics encourage assailants to commit sexual violence.
Of the 150 child sex offenders Saito has treated, nearly all have used the manga to masturbate. Some have described the drawings as a Pandora’s box. “By consuming those types of media and masturbating to them, the barrier is lowered to making children sexual targets,” he told VICE World News.
But the abusers aren’t the only ones at fault. Japanese society is also a culprit, he said, because no one is born sexually attracted to kids.
“The adults should protect the children; they shouldn’t be an object of consumption,” he said.
“If we were a society that strictly protected children’s rights, regardless of the concerns about freedom of expression, these materials wouldn’t be allowed,” he said.
But some disagree. Akio, a manga artist who draws sexual depictions of children, doesn’t think the manga should be banned. Not only are the drawings harmless, he claims the illustrations serve as a deterrent for pedophiles like himself.
“It's for men who long to commit acts like rape, even though they don't actually rape anyone,” he told VICE World News, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Akio claims he’s never actually abused a child, but says he’s interested in having sex with young girls. He said his illustrations are inspired by real sex crimes against kids reported in Japanese media and not his own experiences.
He argued that even if this manga were to be banned, the appetite for illustrations depicting child sex abuse would still exist.
“The fact that people are reading this means that the demand is big enough to become an industry, doesn’t it?” he said. He was merely supplying the demand, he added.
Kato, who was once a massive consumer of this manga, said his sexual attraction to children began before he picked up a comic.
But, he said, what these illustrations do dangerously well is normalize the sexualization of children, profiting from a fantasy that must never be ruminated on. He believes artists like Akio deserve to be charged with creating child abuse material. “By creating such content, they are spreading the idea into society that it's okay to see children as sexual objects,” he said.
As an abuser, he speaks from experience.
A few decades ago, when he worked as a tutor, Kato says he sexually assaulted a male junior high school student. He’s also molested children in public and assaulted a mentally handicapped high schooler when he was his volunteer caretaker. Kato even traveled overseas to solicit minors for paid sex.
Kato eventually turned himself over to the police about 21 years ago. That day, equipped with duct tape, rope and a knife, he cornered a young boy in the men’s bathroom. When the boy resisted and ran away, leaving Kato alone with his weapons, he grew fearful that he’d actually kill a child while attempting to rape them.
“I realized that everything that I'd done was to justify my own actions, and I wasn’t thinking about the other person at all,” he said.
“What I was doing was clearly abuse, whether it was against a boy or a girl, and even if the child consented, it is all sexual violence, and it should be treated as such,” he said.
Kato received four years of probation and community service for his crimes, a light sentence because he was likely deemed as a first-time offender, he said. The statute of limitations had expired on the earlier crimes Kato mentioned in his interview with VICE World News.
Despite Kato’s calls for this manga to be banned, there are no concrete plans by the Japanese government to re-examine this manga, thus allowing artists like Akio to continue living off such drawings.
Akio does admit he’s not proud of his work. “Even in the world of drawings and fiction, logically speaking, what I do isn't good,” he said.
“But I haven’t broken the law either.”