The 1868 Meiji Restoration saw the emperor restored to a position of authority at the head of a constitutional monarchy and Edo was renamed Tokyo (Eastern capital). The new Meiji regime established a much more comprehensive and rigorous censorship system which meant that Edo – period erotic classics were only allowed to be reissued in new book format in bowdlerised versions (Suzuki 2012). Indeed, as late as the 1980s, Japanese collections of erotic prints from the Edo period were still having offending details masked over before publication. The Tokugawa rulers had not objected to depictions of sex per se but were rather more concerned about profligacy and the blurring of class distinctions. The Meiji regime, however, in part due to influence from the West, began to see sex as a problematic domain, particularly in the context of public representation (Yokota-Murakami 1998: 128). Embarking on a nation-building project aimed at establishing parity with the Western powers, Japan’s new leaders emphasised family values, particularly the role of women as ‘good wives, wise mothers’ in raising future generations. Although men continued to be able to access pleasure quarters, discussion of sexuality in the media was constrained. The term waisetsu (obscenity) and punishment for its ‘public display or sale’ first appeared in Article 259 of the Criminal code of 1880 (Beer 1984: 336). This was carried over into Paragraph 175 of the 1907 revised Criminal Code and remains in force today. It reads:

A person who distributes or sells an obscene writing, picture or other object or who publicly displays the same, shall be punished with imprisonment at forced labor for not more than two years or a fine of not more than 5,000 yen or a minor fine. The same applies to a person who possesses the same for the purpose of sale.

This legislation was augmented in 1910 by the Customs Standards Law (Kanzei Teiritsu Ho) which governed material entering the country from overseas.

The Meiji Constitution did offer some guarantees to freedom of speech but only within the scope of the law defined by the government, in particular the need for ‘public order’. The Home Ministry could also require the deletion of specific passages or words from any text prior to publication or seize any offending publication already in circulation. Until 1927, when the sheer volume of material being printed made the system untenable, publishers were able to submit potentially problematic texts to the Home Ministry censors for pre-publication vetting. Since in the final publication censored words or passages were designated by a range offuseji or ‘covering characters’ — such as Xs, Os or elliptical marks — the fact that the text had undergone censorship was clearly evident (Abel 2012: 146—49). The use offuseji continued after 1927, this time by authors and publishers who hoped to avoid having their publication seized by pre-empting the censors and themselves omitting potentially problematic topics, words, phrases and references.

Neither authors nor publishers were entirely passive in relation to a censorship system that they felt to be both illiberal and philistine. In 1925, for example, Umehara Hokumei (1901—46), an innovative publisher, author and editor, was able to get the first volume of his translation of Boccaccio’s classic medieval erotic story collection, The Decameron, published due to support from the Italian embassy. The second volume, however, which was to have been released some months later, was banned (Driscoll 2010: 181). As Mark Driscoll points out, Umehara and others interested in pushing at the censorship boundaries were sometimes successful in dis­seminating erotic titles through the kaiinsei or ‘members-only subscription system’ which was ostensibly founded to facilitate the circulation of scientific and scholarly publications. Since these publications were not available to the public at large, the censorship exercised over them was not as stringent. Umehara was able to use advertisements in mainstream publications to attract subscribers to his various coterie magazines which included Hentai shiryo (perverse documents), an important vehicle for discussions of ‘abnormal sexuality’ (Driscoll 2010: 182). As will be seen later, this strategy was also deployed by the first generation of post-war sexology writers, but with mixed results.

It is important not to overestimate the degree of censorship of sexual matters, at least during the 1920s and early 1930s, before increasing militarism took hold and Japan was placed on a war footing leading to increased restrictions on ‘frivolous’ topics. As early as the 1910s Japan’s first generation of feminist writers were challenging the sexual double standard in the feminist journal Seito (Blue stocking) but their discussion of such topics as free love, birth control and adultery resulted in several issues being banned. Driscoll points out that ‘the censorship codes of the time say very little about sexuality, only that representing sexual relations between married people was forbidden’ (2010: 183). This may seem an odd restriction given that in the Western context marriage was one of the few contexts in which sexuality could be discussed, especially in popular family-planning and marital sex guides of the 1920s and 1930s (Bullough 1994: 136—47). This restriction in Japan was due to ‘lingering Confucianism’ which ‘led to an exclusive focus on the sacrosanct patriarchal home’ (Driscoll 2010: 183). Kissing scenes, for example, even between married couples, were routinely cut from imported movies and the term ‘kiss’ was banned in movie titles (McLelland 2012: 97—98). Given that marital sex was off limits in public discussion, this led to an emphasis on the strange and unusual in sexual matters, or in Japanese terms the ero-guro (erotic grotesque). Indeed, Umehara’s translation of the Decameron became an ‘Ur-text for the erotic grotesque writers and editors’ (Driscoll 2010: 181) and his journal Gurotesuku (Grotesque) contained ‘eye-popping features on fetishism and sex crimes’ (Driscoll 2010: 183).

More mainstream sexology writers, who were often medical professionals with socialist tendencies, also did their utmost to thwart the government censors and deliver accurate infor­mation about sexual hygiene and contraception to the public, especially those less educated and living in rural areas. Pioneer sexologists such as Yamamoto Senji (1889—1929), for instance, saw it as their mission to ‘educate the masses’ (Fruhstuck 2003: 159). Yet speaking out about sexual topics could be dangerous since, as Fruhstuck points out, the authorities tended to lump sexologists in with other ‘problem thinkers’ such as communists and pacifists (2003: 13). Hence, sexologists who attempted to reach audiences beyond a narrow band of academics faced threats to ‘the security of their academic careers, their freedom and their lives’ (2003: 157). Indeed Yamamoto was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic in 1929 due to his anti-militarist stance.

As militarism advanced in the 1930s, new laws aimed at ‘keeping social movements in check and preventing the disruption of social morals’ (Kushner 2006: 61) were put in place, making the dissemination of sexual knowledge even more difficult. By 1937 fifty-four of the largest publishing outlets had come together to form a consortium aimed at ensuring that published material mobilised public support for the war. From this point on, the promulgation of views that ‘went against the times’ became all but impossible, and it was in this year that the last surviving sex-related journal ceased publication. It was not until 1946, following Japan’s defeat and occupation by Allied forces, that a lively sexual culture similar to that of the ero-guro era of the late twenties and early thirties was to re-emerge in the Japanese print media.