The comics feature young girls engaged in explicit sexual acts, often with exaggerated body parts but facial features that look like those of children. A growing number of countries have banned them, considering such depictions as exploitation of minors even if they are fictitious.
But in Japan, home to a thriving manga industry, including the pornographic kind, calls to outlaw these cartoons have been met with fierce resistance.
“We oppose policies that infringe on our freedom of expression,” Taisei Sugiyama, a Japanese videographer, said.
Make no mistake—Sugiyama is no fan of the comics. He said he did not watch them, but would defend what he called the rights of those who did. He went so far as to compare people who like such manga with suppressed minority groups such as LGBTQ people in Japan, and blamed the “rise of feminism” in the country for the growing pressure to ban the content.
The free speech defense of porn manga depicting minors is a common refrain in Japan, a view largely endorsed by the ruling party. Though Japan prohibited the possession of child abuse material in 2014—the last of 38 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to do so—it stopped short of extending restrictions to manga and anime, two culturally symbolic illustrative media in Japan.
Anti-child abuse advocates warn that this reluctance to altogether ban sexualized images of children, real or illustrated, may leave room to normalize sexual violence against children.
In 2015, the UN’s special envoy on child protection urged the country to ban sexual images of children in manga comics, saying the media has a detrimental effect on children. Japan hit back at the UN envoy, demanding a retraction of the statement and questioning its evidence.
The debate was reignited earlier this year, when the Japanese Communist Party, which has traditionally branded itself as a defender of free expression, proposed further restrictions on the depictions of child abuse, triggering backlash from people who claimed to support free speech.
The topic trended on Japanese Twitter for days last month with the hashtags “controlling expression” and “non-real child porn.” Angry users demanded an explanation from the party and accused the group of “gravely betraying” the party’s core values. Some accused the group of “trampling on the freedom of expression,” and said it was “offensive to content creators.”
But those who wish to see a ban on the sexual depictions of children in manga argue otherwise.
Critics say that images illustrating child abuse could normalize or lead to an increased risk of child sexual abuse by those who want to act out fantasies, a view that remains contentious among researchers. Some also argue that children who grow up seeing this unregulated media could think it acceptable to be sexualized, even making them susceptible targets of sexual grooming by perpetrators of child sex crimes.
When child abuse was outlawed in 2014, the police—who supported the ban—disclosed that the number of criminal cases involving the production and circulation of child abuse images had increased tenfold since 2000, likely facilitated by the internet. Two years earlier, the Tokyo city government introduced its own ban on the material, in an effort to curb what the then-governor called an encouragement of pedophilia.
For videographer Sugiyama, the Communist Party’s revised policy announced just weeks before Japan’s general election was directly related to the “rise of feminism,” and was a complete U-turn from their traditional support for unfettered free speech.
“It makes the party sound good if it’s saying it’ll ‘eradicate child pornography,’ and this can attract support from women’s rights groups. But to me, it sounds like they’re just changing with the wind,” he said. Following Japan’s general elections on Nov. 1, the Communist Party holds 10 out of a total 465 seats, down two seats from before the election. Manga was not a prominent campaign issue.
For Akiyo Oonuma, a video game maker and writer, even calling the sexual depiction of children in illustrative media “porn” was fundamentally wrong. “The government decided that porn using real children as models is illegal, but manga and anime, which use fictional models, is legal,” he told VICE World News, referring to the bill passed in 2014 when the country banned possession of child abuse images.
He also said foreign countries shouldn’t intervene in Japan’s “internal matters.”
Though Japan’s manga comic industry was worth about 1.6 trillion yen ($14 billion) in 2020, child abuse only makes up a fraction of it. But the media is widely available online and in bookstores.
According to Shinichiro Harata, a sociology and media professor who has studied illustrative child abuse, creators are more worried about a sweeping ban which could affect all genres of manga.
“Unlike the United States, where anime and manga may be marketed more toward teens, in Japan, these media are known to be more expressive, both sexually and violently,” he told VICE World News.
“So grouping all content under the one term ‘manga’ and introducing bans could damage the diversity seen in the art,” he added, explaining the fear of a “slippery slope” that could gradually lead to a ban on other less objectionable comics.
In addition to this concern, creators often point to the lack of conclusive evidence linking child abuse in manga to an increase in real-world cases of child abuse. In 2002, though the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged the possibility that such virtual images could lead to increased abuse, it said there was no evidence to suggest a causal link.
For critics, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence linking child sex abuse images to actual crime. One of the most notorious examples of sexual depictions of children in manga increasing the risk of sex crimes is the anime-loving serial “Otaku Killer,” Tsutomu Miyazaki, who gruesomely raped and murdered four young girls over the span of a year.
When police searched his home for evidence, along with the decomposing body of one of his victims, aged 5, they found thousands of child abuse and anime videos. Sociologists at the time argued his obsession with such illustrations encouraged him to act on his fantasies.
Kazuna Kanajiri, the chairman of People Against Pornography and Sexual Violence, a nonprofit that investigates sexual violence crimes in pornography, suggests that fictitious child abuse materials are frequently used in “sexual grooming,” referring to when perpetrators of sexual crimes befriend children to slowly get sexual access to them.
The easy availability of manga child abuse, whether from a simple Google Search or entering a bookstore, has also normalized this media, she said. Kanajiri proposed restrictions on such child abuse would be similar to the current ban on hate speech.
Referring to her own experiences, Kanajiri said, “When I was in second or third grade, I distinctly remember a man intently reading a porn magazine featuring a child.”
“I thought to myself then, ‘Oh, children’s sexuality has commercial value. The younger you are, the more of your chest you bare, the more profitable you become,” she said.
After causing an uproar over its position on child abuse in manga, the Japanese Communist Party issued a clarification of its policy. Though it changed its use of the term “child pornography” to “depictions of child sex abuse,” the party said it does not support a blanket ban on such material.
A representative from the Communist Party said the updated language “is a call for a broad range of concerned parties to engage in extensive discussions, and find a consensus that does not allow children to be subjected to sexual abuse and sexual exploitation,” they told VICE World News over email.
Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party takes a similarly ambiguous stance. It welcomes further debate on the issue, but officially backs the 2014 bill that stated child abuse manga should not be banned.
A few officials within the party have petitioned to change the country’s laws on such media, but the efforts have fallen flat.
But even before the debate on child abuse illustrations could be settled, technology has already presented a new problem.
According to Kouya Takara, an assistant professor of media studies who’s written about child sexual images, some have begun making deep fakes—fabricated images using artificial intelligence—to get around laws on child abuse images.
“Some have begun combining a child’s face with an adult’s body, making it difficult to tell whether it’s an adult or a child, which means child pornography regulations aren’t applied,” he told VICE World News.
Current law only makes it illegal to depict real children in sexual settings, meaning showing their genitals or identifiably child-like body parts. By that same logic, this makes illustrative child abuse images legal, opening up the market to A.I.-created child abuse images.
Such activity skirts the edges of legality and is exactly what Kanajiri is afraid of, should the laws concerning child abuse depictions in manga go unchanged.
“Children are being sacrificed right now. This discussion can’t just be limited to how bans affect manga and anime—we have to think beyond that,” she said.