People don't seem to think it's too big a deal there.
Last month I went to the London Comic Con convention at the Excel centre to hang out with a bunch of other people who are into fantasy, video games and other things that the Japanese tend to do very well.
It's billed as an event for all ages and free entry is offered to children, so I was expecting to spend most of my day taking photos of people dressed as sailor girls and browsing Dragon Ball Z merchandise. Which I did. But I also stumbled across a veritable sleaze-pit of explicit material involving very young-looking girls – illustrated porn pillows, mouse mats, posters, comics and DVDs – at stalls all over the event. I mean, manga and anime have always been associated with provocative school girls of unspecified ages – think Misty in Pokémon – but these were that without any of the subtlety, plus actual sex and the occasional bit of rape. Which isn't particularly great when adults are doing it to each other, and even worse when it involves characters that look young enough to still be playing with Polly Pocket.
None of the preteen hentai smut was hidden away in mucky, pokey corners of the show, either – it was littered throughout the event, which created a scene I've never had the pleasure of coming across before: a trough of ageing perverts browsing cartoon kiddie porn next to a bunch of children queuing up for a Dr Who DVD signing. It was like I was trapped in some "edgy" art show devised by a person who still thinks art is capable of shocking people.
However, what I saw at Comic Con was just the cuttings off the workshop floor. You know, one of those workshops that's obsessed with sexualising young girls and somehow gets away with heavily relying upon them in the majority of the products it puts out.
Japan is the only OECD (Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development) nation that hasn’t banned the possession of child porn, arguably to protect its globally adored manga and anime industries. Combined, they were estimated to be worth £3.3 billion back in 2009, so god knows what they're worth now.
The publishing companies getting rich off the sexualisation of kids have only very rarely had to lift their immense, wank-bolstered fingers to stub out attempts to ban it. In 2010, the bill of "non-existent youths" (which would've restricted sexually provocative depictions of fictional characters who appeared to be under 18) was denied by the Japanese Assembly as a result of opposition from The Democratic Party of Japan and a huge media campaign from groups like The Association of Japanese Animations. Industry workers and fans are pretty dedicated when it comes to defending their beloved cartoons, as Shihoko Fujiwara of charity Polaris Project Japan found out.
“Polaris and Unicef did a joint press conference on child pornography and we briefly mentioned manga. It can be very violent – sometimes you see men raping six-year-olds. Even by just mentioning that in the conference, though, we got millions of harassing calls and threatening letters – we had to report it to the police.
“It’s a huge industry," she continued, "Japan’s top publishers make billions publishing manga and lots of people depend on the industry to feed their families, so of course they feel threatened by all these political movements who want to stop this kind of manga. It’s a big risk to say anything about those animated products. And debating whether the very violent manga is influencing people to molest children is a very risky thing to say, especially for an organisation like us.”
Advocates of extreme anime are keen to point out that no one is harmed in the production of the stories. But while the usual cause-effect argument that surfaces every time there's a moral panic – that idea that someone might listen to "Ebeneezer Goode" and start necking pills, or play Grand Theft Auto and immediately mow down a bunch of Hare Krishnas – is clearly redundant, could there be something more insiduous and gradual at play here? There is an argument that looking at this type of image – over time – can induce a warped perspective of children.
“It’s important to remember that sexually abusive behaviour can be pretty addictive and habitual," says Jon Brown at the NSPCC. "A basic sexual drive in humans is very hard-wired – it’s very deep in the human brain, along with the desire to eat and seek shelter. When that kind of sexual interest becomes hard-wired to an interest in children, it can be quite difficult to alter.
“Where there's a sexual interest in children, offenders generally know it’s wrong and have to go through a series of cognitive distortions and mental gymnastics to convince themselves, one way or another, that what they’re doing isn’t so harmful. One way that they'll do that is to use child abuse imagery online, thinking they’re not actually abusing a child, they’re just looking at it – either an animated image or a picture. And, of course, they’re correct, but our concern at the NSPCC is that it’s the perpetuation of that belief system that's damaging for the offenders themselves. It can further reinforce their thoughts of sexual interest in children. It’s not actively abusing a child, but it perpetuates that kind of mindset and the thinking in some way that the behaviour is OK.
“If there's a whole society or community that is implicitly saying that the viewing of sexualised images of children – or worse than that; of children being sexually harmed – is in some way OK, then that becomes a pretty strong message. For some people, that's going to seem like the encouragement they need to go further and actually physically abuse children."
The most alarming thing here then (obviously), is that somehow the portrayal of children as sex objects seems to have become OK in Japan. And, as animated child abuse becomes increasingly more common there, the idea that real children can become objectified sexually has bled its way into mainstream Japanese society. Junior Idol models – child models in bikinis, basically, the image below is about the tamest one I can find – can be as young as eight years old and feature in DVDs and picture books, often wearing lingerie or swimsuits.
Speaking to Shihoko again, I learned that all this is perfectly legal under Japan's clumsy child pornography laws. "The Junior Idol concept isn't that old. Our child pornography law, which is very narrow and doesn't really get enforced, was only introduced 13 years ago. Junior Idol came out just after the law was passed that said you couldn't show images of naked children, and the private parts aren't shown, but the children are basically naked. You can almost see everything because the clothes are so tiny, but it's not considered child porn, even though it's extremely sexual."
The Canadian Centre for Child Protection ranked Japan fourth out of the top five countries that host child abuse websites in 2009. A government survey back in 2002 also found that 10 percent of Japanese men admitted to owning child porn and 15 percent of Japanese men have seen it, which seems like a weird thing to admit to someone conducting a survey. But even with a legal system full of loopholes and a media industry prepped to exploit children, there doesn't seem to be any real reason behind the demand for it. Shihoko believes it’s part of an age-old culture that needs to be changed.
“In Japan, I think men have always been very naive and insecure. They don’t have very good communication skills compared to Japanese women and they have trouble talking to the opposite sex. We think that these men – because they're naive and have difficulty communicating – look to children because they have less experience and men can control them.
“Another reason is because it’s accepted in society. People never question it as a moral issue. We've been accepting this type of abuse against children and abuse against women for a long time. But if you go to the West, paedophiles are sent to jail or treated for their problems. In Japan, people are perfectly happy to say 'Oh, I'm so into teenage girls,' or 'I'm so into junior high school girls' in public."
I've always loved anime and manga, and I'm well aware there is a majority who somehow manage to control the urge to draw children being gang-raped by older men. But I'm not sure how I feel about continuing to support an industry that legitimises and makes such a huge profit off that exact kind of material. I suppose I've got a while to make my mind up, though, because it doesn't sound like things are going to change any time soon.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @sambobclements