The number of obscenity cases brought before the courts since the 1970s has been relatively small due to a range of self-regulatory mechanisms in place across all Japanese media industries that advise members on permissible limits. Japanese movies as well as overseas film imports are overseen by Eiga Rinri Kanri Iinkai, a professional body which administers the motion-picture code of ethics. Each television station, too, has its own program review panel made up of company representatives and ‘persons of learning and experience’ who decide on appropriate scheduling. Similar industry-appointed bodies oversee other media such as book publishing, newspapers, magazines, computer entertainment (such as video games) and manga. However, although these committees often include retired police officials as advisers, given their unofficial status, the fact that they have given the go-ahead to a media product does not exempt those involved from potential prosecution should the police later decide that limits have been transgressed.

Since the 1970s, police concern over the deleterious impact of obscene material on the ‘lower’ social orders has been largely replaced in official rhetoric with concern over the ‘healthy development of youth’. In particular, calls for restrictions on sex and violence depicted in manga directed at young people, often led by Parents and Teachers Associations (PTA), have gathered pace since 1968 when Japan’s most popular boys’ manga Shonen janpu (Boys’ jump) began to serialise the story ‘Harenchi gakuen’ (Shameless school). This wildly successful series (later made into several movies and a TV show) made explicit reference to the repressed sexuality of a co-educational school environment and scandalised many parents and educators. The most sustained call for reform of manga content, however, followed from the tragic murder of four infant girls between 1988 and 1989 by serial killer Miyazaki Tsutomu. An investigation of Miyazaki’s background and lifestyle revealed that he was an isolated youth who had been an avid collector of ‘Lolita’-style manga and anime featuring sexualised schoolgirl heroines, as well as adult pornography. In press reports, popular psychologists drew a clear connection between his private fantasy life and real-life actions, generalising beyond Miyazaki to an entire generation of alienated young men (Kinsella 2000: 127). Following on from the Miyazaki scare, a coalition of PTA committees, feminist groups and women’s organisations lobbied local and national politicians for increased surveillance and regulation of violent and sexualised imagery in manga and anime, particularly those marketed to young people.

The Japanese police take it upon themselves to offer ‘guidance’ to the wider society, particularly in relation to juveniles (Leheny 2006: 96—102). The police support a number of crime-prevention associations which lobby for measures to support a healthy environment for young people and make recommendations concerning a range of media including books, movies, games and advertisements deemed unsuitable for children. They have also pressured small bookstores to remove pornography vending machines so as to prevent purchase by under-age readers (Bayley: 1991: 185). As Beer points out ‘warnings may in fact be the principal method of obscenity regulation in Japan’ (1984: 356). Local government ordinances allow the police to instruct outlets selling books, manga and videos to remove adult-oriented materials to less conspicuous areas in the store. Police committees regularly review material targeted at youth and can refer titles with objectionable content to the local legislatures who may designate the title ‘harmful to youth’, requiring it to be marketed with an adults-only warning on the cover or removed from general sale altogether. Although such a designation does not constitute censorship as the title is not technically banned, publishers are wary about having their publications designated ‘adult only’ since this eats into the profits gained from the youth market.

Until the 2000s most of the public debate around manga content was focused on boys’ (shonen) manga. However in 2008, a genre of ‘light novels’ popular with girls and young women dedicated to the theme of ‘boys love’ or BL (that is romantic and sexual relations among beautiful youths), was specifically targeted for removal from the shelves of libraries in Sakai City, part of the Osaka metropolitan district. In August 2008 in response to several complaints from concerned citizens, the Sakai library made the unilateral decisions to remove all BL novels from the shelves and place them in a storage facility, to only lend them out on request to mature-age readers and to refrain from purchasing any further BL titles. After the intervention of a number of women councillors supported by high-profile feminist academic Ueno Chizuko, the titles were eventually returned to the shelves.

It was the lack of transparency over how this decision was made and the lack of explanation as to why only BL titles were targeted that caused most concern among feminist critics of the decision. Indeed, the discussion of homosexual sex per se seems not to have been the problem, as the library’s ‘gay literature’ titles written by gay men were not on the restricted list, nor were titles dealing with heterosexual sex. Feminist commentators were quick to identify the Sakai library incident as part of a more general ‘backlash’ against anti-discrimination measures critiquing traditional gender roles with which BL’s supposed ‘promotion’ of homosexuality seems to have become confused (Atsuta 2012).

The year 2008 also saw the 28th occasion of the Tokyo Youth Affairs Conference, which is convened by the Tokyo governor to review policies relating to youth resident within the Tokyo metropolitan area. The aim ofthis conference was to ‘address the wholesome development of youth in an era where mass media are increasing their spread within society’. The conference made a number of recommendations concerning revision of the regulations for the protection of young people, in particular that the sale and distribution of manga, anime and games depicting ‘non-existent youth’ (that is, fictional characters) in ‘anti-social sexual situations’ be restricted. Unlike in many Western jurisdictions, Japan’s child-pornography laws have not as yet been expanded to include purely fictional depictions of under-age sex. So long as the depictions are not considered ‘obscene’ (thus falling within the purview of paragraph 175), they are legal to publish and distribute (McLelland 2011). However the recommendation of the conference was that these fictional depictions be restricted to an adult audience through the use of zoning regulations restricting where designated titles might be sold.

These recommendations became the basis for Bill 156, introduced to the Tokyo Metropolitan Authority in 2010 by then conservative Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro. The bill was a local ordinance, aimed at extending the powers of the police to identify and require the removal from sale of material deemed ‘harmful to youth’ in the Tokyo area. Referred to derisively in the press as the ‘Non-Existent Youth Bill’ because of its targeting the depiction of purely fictional characters, it was widely denounced by industry representatives, writers, artists and academics for its vague language and the (re)positioning of the police as moral guardians of the nation’s youth (McLelland 2011; Nagaoka 2010). Defeated at the first vote, a revised bill was submitted which targeted any character (irrespective of age) engaged in ‘sexual or pseudo sexual acts that would be illegal in real life’ or ‘sexual or pseudo sexual acts between close relatives whose marriage would be illegal’ if presented in a manner that ‘glorifies or exaggerates’ the acts in question. This revision led feminist academic Fujimoto Yukari to refer to it as the ‘Non-Existent Sex Crimes Bill’.

Despite continued opposition from industry and others, the bill was passed in December 2012. What many Japanese commentators found peculiar was that the bill specifically targeted fictional manga and animation characters (neither photography nor literature were included). Yet, as Allison notes, manga have deliberately developed a visual style ‘intended not to mimic reality but tweak it’ so as to create ‘a space that distances the reader from her or his everyday world’ (2000: 57). Indeed it is precisely the two-dimensionality of these characters, and lack of reference to any physically existing persons that many manga fans find so attractive (see Galbraith, this volume). With this in mind, it is significant that a number of feminist academics and female writers, including Takemiya Keiko, whose 1976 manga Song of the Wind and the Trees was a foundational text for what was later to develop into the BL genre, spoke out in opposition to the bill. Takemiya later published an article (2011) where she expressed fears that her own iconic work would be targeted by police who might deem the exploration of themes such as sexual abuse within the family and homosexual love to be ‘harmful to youth’. She pointed out that it was ironic that Song of the Wind and the Trees, a very popular text which many of today’s mothers had grown up reading, was now in danger of being removed from general circulation because it could be deemed ‘harmful’ to their children.


As can be seen from the above discussion, rather than being an unrestricted ‘pornucopia’, as suggested by some alarmist reports in the English-language press, the Japanese media have always been the site of surveillance and intervention by agents of the Japanese state, most usually the police. Even today, the police are seen as having a role in the moral guidance of the nation and are frequently the first to act in cases of suspected obscenity.

Another continuity that is evident across the history of censorship discussed here is the manner in which the authorities justify their interventions on behalf of specific segments of the community that are seen to be most ‘at risk’ of harm from exposure to sexual material. For much of the last century it was ‘lower’ social orders who were seen to be at risk, but today calls for broader censorship of sexual material are increasingly made on behalf of children and young people. Japan is not alone in this. As Taiwanese academic Josephine Ho (who was herself taken to court over links she included on a sex-education website) has argued ‘“Children’s welfare” has now become an aggressive concept that proactively purifies social space for the sake of children’ (Ho 2007: 134). Both the Sakai library incident and the Tokyo Metropolitan Authority’s ‘Non-Existent Youth Bill’ demonstrate that Japan is increasingly being drawn into global debates over children and young people’s access to sexual representation and information. In Japan, as elsewhere, ‘protection of children’ is likely to remain the main front on which future battles over sexual representation in the media are fought.