What’s really at stake in Japan’s revised pornography laws?

By Simon Scott

It is a well worn cliché for Western tourists to return home from Japan and tell stories about—shock, horror—nerdy, bespectacled salarymen reading pornographic manga on crowded trains, oblivious to the group of chatty schoolgirls seated nearby.

In reality, almost all books read on trains here, comics or otherwise, are wrapped in those nondescript brown bookshop covers, so it’s nigh impossible to pick the “dirty old man” from someone reading up on how to grow parsley.

But the fact remains that a student only has to nip into any one of the thousands of Lawsons or 7-Elevens which populate Tokyo to be exposed to a legion of half-naked, wide-eyed, big breasted cartoon characters occupying the front covers of the shop’s adult manga collection.

But that is all about to change. Or is it?

The controversial manga censorship ordinance pushed through by the Tokyo metropolitan government late last year has been much talked about but widely misunderstood. Specifically, the act aims to regulate manga that “unreasonably praise or exaggerate” extreme sex.

When ten major publishing houses announced they would protest the law by boycotting the upcoming Tokyo International Anime Fair and holding a rival festival, the stage was set for a fight of comic book proportions.

On one side is the Tokyo metropolitan government, led by the people’s hero, the lovable and famously open-minded (cough, cough) governor himself, Shintaro Ishihara. Facing off against him are the motley defenders of free speech—long-haired, absinthe-drinking manga-ka, Japanese beatniks for the computer age battling for their smutty art while their publishers count rolls of yen in smoky backrooms.

Despite Ishihara’s George W Bush-like grace, the man seems, at least at first glance, to be on the right side of the moral divide. Who, after all, could object to the idea of preventing minors from seeing graphic images that glorify rape, child abuse, incest and underage sex?

The new regulations are being depicted by the publishers as a wider attack on freedom of speech, but, in fact, they place no restrictions on the sale of manga to adults, nor do they restrict what manga-ka are allowed to create. When the new rules go into effect this summer, the outcome will simply be that a greater number of manga get slapped with an R-18 rating. This designation means that the publication must be placed in a separate adults-only section.

The publishers cry that this will significantly damage their business—giving the books an R-18 rating, they say, not only keeps them out of the hands of minors, it reduces the numbers of adults who will buy them. In convenience stores, where space is at a premium, the adult-only section is very small or nonexistent, thus reducing the chance that an R-18 manga will even reach the shelves.

But a deeper look suggests that this is about something more than just publisher profits.

Censorship of pornography in Japan, be it animated, photographed or filmed, has always been superficial, focusing on blocking out or blurring the sex organs. At the same time, the actions depicted onscreen, and the wider themes of the story, are entirely free of any restrictions. In other words, even after the new law goes into effect, a hardcore film about rape can be legally circulated as long as there is a small fuzzy spot over the center of the actors’ genitalia.

This is diametrically opposed to the Western style of censorship, which allows full nudity but which takes a tougher line on rape and sexual violence. Japan’s new law, insofar as it strives to regulate more than just the surface images to look at the overall theme of the story, suggests that the country is moving in a Western direction.

This appears to be a more healthy approach, especially when dealing with impressionable minors, but it also dips into the murky waters of subjective interpretation. The publishing industry is rightly concerned that the new regulations are too vague and potentially broad in their application. They are worried the restrictions will be used to wedge open the door to wider controls on the representation of any illegal activity, including manga with educational value. For example, a story set in the Edo era could be banned if it includes a scene of horny samurai bonking in the Yoshiwara.

Sex today, violence tomorrow—soon, there is very little which can be shown in a comic book.

The TMG has assured publishers and fans that only manga encouraging “indecent” sexual behavior among minors will be censored. It claims that tasteful depictions of “normal” sexual relations between a husband and wife, for example, will not be censored, nor will “positive” stories in which (say) a young person who is sexually abused winds up overcoming this hardship.

But is the TMG really qualified to make difficult judgment calls like this? Is it really possible to determine what “normal” sexual relations are? Different people have different values about human sexuality and what kind of content is appropriate for teenagers to look at.

And don’t forget—after hours and hours of discussion and pointless aisatsu between overworked bureaucrats and militant PTA mothers, one man gets to make the final decision about whether your kids can or can’t read a comic book.

And that man is Gov Ishihara, the courageous defender of that downtrodden and disenfranchised sector of Japanese society—the rich, middle-aged, middle class male Japanese businessman without Korean or Chinese ancestry who invariably likes golf.

Let’s keep the kids safe, but not let this city turn into Ishihara’s personal 1984!

Simon Scott is a Tokyo-based freelance journalist and Japan correspondent for the New Zealand Herald.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

© Japan Today

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what is "shock and awe" to those visiting the US is how puritanical the laws regarding sex and how free the laws regarding firearms what is at stake is a gradual move to global standards in all things, maybe US will follow with gun laws also

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what is so appealing about cartoonbabes?

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Pretty good article which covers all the pros and cons. On the one hand it seems reasonable to have age restrictions on hardcore x-rated manga, but on the other you have someone like Ishihara who thinks that he knows what's best for everyone.

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"so it’s nigh impossible to pick the “dirty old man” from someone reading up on how to grow parsley."

Except for the obvious large breasts and slightly blurred pubic hairs that are usually very easy to see. Simon, do you actually take the train in Japan? I have seen this nearly daily on all the lines I have used for commuting. Porn mags, sports rags with porn, newspapers with porn, manga with porn and I could go on. Maybe a writer's work day starts too late to see an ordinary commute.

With regards to censorship. I am against censorship. But I am very much for common sense and manners. The braindead penguins in their salaryman uniforms who read porn on the trains should be sanctioned instead. Teach these selfish sociopathic morons that reading porn in public is bad manners. While one should have the common sense to arrive at such a conclusion alone, it is clear that the message has been lost on a lot of zombie salarymen out there.

So fine them, allow them to be reported by other passengers with the same intensity of those guys who go around touching people. And have them fined and shamed for this behavior.

In the mean time, parents should be the editors of what children read. And shops should be prevented from selling rated materials to minors. Censorship is not the answer. Especially subjective censorship.

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the only thing that bothers me is they don't even cover up the images on the front of the magazine. all of that porn at eye level for children. I don't think censorship is the answer for everything. I do think that child porn, abuse and rape should be removed though a rating added to certain books and at least a cover over the magazine. I don't want my children looking at a naked busty woman tied up with ropes and fluids covering her body. I don't even want to see that.

and TokyoTom the laws in the US on firearms are not as free as everyone thinks they are. there are restrictions on those. children cannot purchase them, you have to have a license to carry one and not every America walks around carrying a gun and not every American even owns a gun. oh forgot firearm laws don't even have anything to do with this article does it? :

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UsagitoSaru. I think the firearms comment was a reverse critcism of Americans who complain about porn on Japanese trains.

But the sad truth is, too many Japanese men do indeed read porn on trains despite Simon's obvious denial of the problem.

I am a very, very liberal non-religious American (I know kind of rare these days)and I do not have an issue with porn for adults consumed in privacy. Nor am I in favor of censorship. Though I do support ratings systems. Despite all this, I do not want to see porn on trains and I do think adult men should exercise a little more common sense. Or should be shamed into doing so if they can't get there on their own.

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The underlying thing here is that there is such a large market for violent sexual content in Japan. What are the social reasons for this? Male sexual repression? Woman treated like sex objects? Maybe both.

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Japan, on this issue, is light years behind what's really going on at ground level. This is a country of old man and the youth are running circles around them. When given the choice of two evils, we always choose the lesser, okay it's better to be labelled "out of touch".

We know that things have moved on to the Internet. We know that no one wants to read black and white adult material with pictures of vain old ladies still trying to make a buck. These kids are doing HD. They got Ipads and mobile net devices. Mosiac? Hahahahahaha

FACT: From the horse's mouth. We busted 4 boys at our school checking out REDTUBE in the computer room. REDTUBE, that's not in Japanese?!? The kids know where it's at.

FACT: They already know how to Jailbreak their phones and stuff. Only the dimwitted self-centered parent doesn't know what's going on. I've seen this with my own eyes. I am a witness to this. They know where to get it and how to keep it on the low. Puberty is a flood, the dams and levies of net security won't hold.

In conclusion, this appears to be another political facade by barking up the wrong tree, an ancient one at that. We know Mr. Ishihara, (cough cough), we know that he is grooming himself for a bid at being Prime Minister of Japan. Have no illusion, he will be Prime Minister.

This pornography thing will be a win win situation for Mr. Ishihara cause even the defendents know that paper based pornography is dead. Not cutting down trees for this stuff will save the planet too!! Everybody wins. We already know the conclusion to this story. Get back to me in a few months when I'm right so I can say I told you so.

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I like being treated like a sexy person, but not have my picture pasted all over the front of a mag cover.

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I think what we see here is a clash of cultures.

Western Laws were written from a Judeo-Christian Morality point of view, now Japan is not a country that has a culture steeped in the Judeo-Christian culture and thus views sex very differently.

This can be seen from their view on homo-sexuality, etc, lets not forget that most of the modern moral standards were forcefully imposed on Japan after WWII when a lot of japanese culture was wiped out and/or banned.

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Zenny11: Can't disagree about cultural differences but are you saying depictions of underage rape and violence is some sort of Japanese tradition that the west wouldn't understand?

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It always amazes me that there is such an enormous market for 2-D depictions of the sex act, but most blokes I know haven't laid a finger on their wives for years and often sleep in different rooms. Surely if you're interested in the material, you're going to want to dally a litle?

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The underlying thing here is that there is such a large market for violent sexual content in Japan. What are the social reasons for this?

It might partly be a result of the mosaic censorship itself. Obviously if you can't show the actual act (which rightly or wrongly is the whole point of porn), then you are going to have fewer customers than you would otherwise. So Japanese producers over the years have had to come up with other ways to attract viewers by appealing to certain, let's say, sexual deviencies, one of them being violent content.

Not saying there aren't social things going on also, but just that if they got rid of the mosaic I think the Japanese porn industry might over time clean itself naturally somewhat as it would be easier to make money just by selling straight porn and naked women. On the other hand though, may just end up with violent content with no mosaic. A tough one.

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Not at all what I am saying. I think the stuff should be better regulated but don't think that banning, etc it will make it go away(never did make it go away in the west either).

What I am saying is that sex(various forms) are differently viewed and valued than in the west.

Many people are shocked when they find out that in my home-country(central-european) the age of consent is 14 (for any type of sex) and we have the ol' Page 3 top-less girl in the newspaper, public nudist "beaches" accessible to anyone and topl-less at all public outdoor pools for decades now.

Also what strikes me as funny is that the law wants to restrict the material into the 'adult' sections, now those sections are off-limit to anyone under 18(to protect minors) but in japan at 18 you are still legally a minor.

As many are aware is that each prefecture in japan can set the legal Age of Consent and most set it at 16-18yrs old. Tokyo has it set at 18.

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I guess if the octopus has eight tentacles it's considered "normal".

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On one side is the Tokyo metropolitan government, led by the people’s hero, the lovable and famously open-minded (cough, cough) governor himself, Shintaro Ishihara.

I'm glad Mr Scott said this with tongue-in-cheek. I was about to revisit my lunch again otherwise.

But yes, the p-rno laws in this country are quite strange. Always bewildered when at a l-ve motel and the p-rn comes up at why people would pay for the blurred out stuff. I could use a clever pun to describe what I think of it but it would get deleted.

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Inaccurate headline. This article is about a Tokyo ordinance, not about Japan's pornography laws.

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The scary thing about Ishihara is that some of the things he does while protecting people of privilege also appeal strongly to average Japanese. That's why the most urban and best educated area in Japan keeps electing a fascist. But in this case, he's right. They need to keep that stuff away from they eyes of children because both boys and girls are seeing it and learning that in Japan the purpose of women is to be sex toys for men.

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Is 100% correct it will only affect the Tokyo 23 wards. Hit Saitama, Chiba, etc and nothing will change.


because both boys and girls are seeing it and learning that in Japan the purpose of women is to be sex toys for men.

Got to disagree there, women and girls are used as sex-objects globally, from Disney to car-makers, etc. Reason: Sex sells goods.

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It has been soooo disgraceful and shamful to see Internet websites are filled with Japanese Porno Anime and porno stars. I would like to tell them to get a real job and work in sweat, dust and tears. Japanese men and women are so sick. Maybe this is a source of income for Yakuza groups.

Just disgusting.

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Maybe this is a source of income for Yakuza groups.

It is...

Just disgusting.

Sex industry is the oldest industry in the world. Let's face it. Everyone has sex and everyone has libido... unless in very special cases.

As for porn on trains, may be there should be some discretion. But "anime" and "manga" are art. Like modern day "Ukiyoe". Besides, what is legal in one country is not in another. The legal system is based on the moral judgement of the masses. It should be up to the voting member of the country to decide. Not some foreigner with no cultural understanding to say what is wrong and should be illegalised.

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Doubt the international porn websites would include Japan porn and Anime porn(much of which is now created/copied overseas) unless there was a demand for it.

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"It should be up to the voting member of the country to decide. Not some foreigner with no cultural understanding to say what is wrong and should be illegalised."

Ishihara is a foreigner?

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"Despite Ishihara's George W Bush-like grace"

Is it really necessary for Simon Scott to disrespect George W Bush here? Bush has much more grace than Ishihara.

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What’s really at stake in Japan’s revised pornography laws?

What's at stake with pornography? Gotta hand it to you - that's what's at stake, not any muffin. Slapping the monkey silly, my friend: that is where the stake is.

And why haven't any of these morons ever discovered the Internet? Perhaps they do not want to disturb their parents. Have some common sense and keep your nasty habits behind closed doors.

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Indeed noone wants to go back to the days of national geographic only!! Plus think of the potential damage to the entertainment industry...

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This is a really interesting topic for me.

Im not sure about the censorship (in terms of fuzzy boxes) thing. Uncensored Japanese pornography is available on the internet free, but from what I have heard many Japanese do not WANT to see the uncensored versions - especially young men. They like the mysterious box, and as a result are often bewildered and disappointed if/when they find themselves in a sexual situation.

I think removing all pornography from convinis is not necessarily the way forward BUT I do agree that rape/bondage etc should not feature in these kinds of stores, especially not on the front covers.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Japanese pornography for me (in a completely sociological sense of course!!!) Is that the stuff which Is fairly mainstream to us westerners (for example lesbian pornography) is considered fetish here. It needs a re-shuffle for sure.

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You have to be a dork to get excited by manga, I mean ooh, the manga character has big boobs?? It is a cartoon! Something is wrong, very wrong for a grown man, Japanese get their jollies from manga, they should make it mandatory for these guys to go to Soapland once or twice a month, with no mangas to read!

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Allright being titillated by manga is kinda dorky... How about paintings? Or pictures?

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Doubt the international porn websites would include Japan porn and Anime porn(much of which is now created/copied overseas) unless there was a demand for it.

i agree.. There was actually this American guy I used to work with and he was so openly into Japanese porn..

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I don't want my children looking at a naked busty woman tied up with ropes and fluids covering her body. I don't even want to see that.

I agree. I saw a similar manga displayed at shin height in a Japanese bookstore - except the mostly naked busty female was being threatened with all variety of knives. To have such things at a height which seems to be ideal for very young children is bizarre. How are children being taught to treat each other? Does it make sense to give very young children the impression that such behaviour is OK? What sort of "entertainment" is being promoted?

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Japan has a double standard and everyone knows that child pornography is bad and sickening because it's been demonstrated over and over that people who look at that ugly stuff end up acting it out and really destroying people's lives. That's beyond the unconscionably cruel exploitation of the children involved. Other forms of pornography are harmful for similar reasons. Pornography has increased callousness toward women, trivialized rape as a criminal offense, distorted perceptions about sexuality, increased appetite for more deviant and bizarre types of pornography, led to a devaluation of monogamy, created doubts about the value of marriage and viewed non-monogamous relationships as normal and natural behavior. We want to have relationships between person and person, not person to object. A real man, which is few and far is someone who maintains control over himself. Animals can't do that, they just respond to their instincts. But when someone is looking at pornography, he is actively undermining that inner strength of his, allowing himself to slip into being an animal. A grown human being becomes a slave of one tiny organ of his body. In his relationship with women, as well, he becomes enslaved in his passion for them and a cinch for them to manipulate. If you want to rise in life and become whole and healthy human being, you need to maintain control of your mind. It's your mind, after all. And the first step in controlling your mind is to control your eyes. Keep them from staring at that which doesn't belong to you. Let's hope that the Japanese government will include cartoon and animation in the bill and crack down on pornography instead of justifying by using the freedom of expression issue.

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True, women are demeaned by pornography and other kinds of sexual abuse all over the world. But some cultures put more emphasis on protecting them than others. Displaying pornography to children gives them a strong message that they take with them to adulthood. I was sitting in Tokyo flipping through Japanese TV channels just now and I saw an unbelievable scene. A man was running naked through the hall of a TV network accosting actresses or female announcers who happened to be walking by. He grabbed an actress, dragged her to the floor, rolled around with her while she screamed, picked her up and ran with her down the hall into another room where a bunch of men were monitoring the situation and laughing hysterically. They obviously censored his front lower quarters but not the back and he was naked. And this is funny in Japan. That program would incite the mother of all sexual harassment lawsuits in many countries and probably criminal charges as well. Obviously the problem goes well beyond comic books, but if Tokyo can start keeping pornographic comics from children, other areas will be inspired or feel pressured into doing so. The national government might even consider it when the major parties stop their spitting contest. Anything that might increase the level of respect for the human dignity of females is useful in Japan, no matter how minor.

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As for porn on trains, may be there should be some discretion //////////////////////////////

Ishihara is talking about reading porn on train, but how about " actual sex " on train ? Does that actually happen ? Or the porn industry just make that up ? I mean I can see the train actually moving with passengers ( or they are all some lucky extras on the set ? ) and all..................... A Japanese urban myth ? If not a myth, are they going to ban that too ?

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Ishihara is right on this issue, as he is on a number of other issues, and not like how he is wrong on many others.

I don't get the tone of the column.

The author apparently is worried that censorship of kiddie porn is the road to "1984" by Ishihara. The author himself acknolwedges mid way through that all this is doing is bringing Tokyo prefecture, one very small part of Japan, slightly closer to OECD norms for regulating harmful pornography.

If the author wants to make fun of Ishihara, I can understand, why not do a column about things he has said about Chinese and Koreans, or things he has said about homeless, or gays, or whatever. But poking fun at the guy for reigning in Japan's admittedly out of control child and violent porn issue seems petty and misjudged.

I agree with the ordinance, and if the publishing industry is going to boycott Tokyo over losing the right to show incestual rape in comics that get sold at train kiosks, then like the Gov says, they shouldn't be welcome in Tokyo anyway.

I think Ishihara picked the right fight in this case, and what you can give him credit for is that unlike many other ineffectual politicians in Japan, he has shown a track record for getting things done when he says he will do them, which is why he remains popular, in spite of managing to offend nearly every race, gender and demographic outside of his own at some point in time.


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Just dont blur the lines between nudity and depravity. If one goes, unfortunately the other will also.

Japanese children and parents are free with nudity. You see this in there manga. However, placing innocence with depravity will turn into 1984.

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There is something to the fact that Japanese morals have not been influenced by Rome over the centuries, like the westerners posting here. Coupled with fairly liberal freedom of speech and the voracious Yakuza, and the Japanese porn industry is not that difficult to understand.

we look at this as strange, because, well, it's a pretty rare combination in the world today. not supporting it, just trying to explain it.

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The answer to the articles question- Money. Not freedom, not expression, not even depictions of fictional fetishes in comics or magazines- just money. Money to rich, rich, stinking rich publishing and marketing companies that funnel down to the organized crime syndicate. There is absolutely no valid argument to slapping a sticker on adult material or making an adult only section. The only truth might MIGHT cost the pornographers money in sales- money they have by the truckload.

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as for the content/public reading issues that have been brought up. My opinion is, its nobodies business what someone else is into IN THE PRIVACY of their own homes and lives. Public displaying of porn should be just as punishable as public exposure that violate the Japanese Nuisance laws. There is no difference.

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"Censorship" in Japan is something of a joke. Its so full of contradictions. Japan is one of the world`s biggest producers of pornography of all kinds, not least the disgusting manga read openly and brazenly by "sararimen" on the trains. I dont know which trains the write of this article has travelled on, but I have never seen a manga shrouded in the brown paper cover that he writes anout here. On the contrary, the pornographic stuff I have observed being read on trains is always uncovered. The images are very explicit, yet the images in many cinematic forms of Japanese pornography are always partially "censored" using fog-like effects over genitalia. I also am concerned about the fact that the write of this article doesnt seem to be able to distinguish between "normal" and "deviant" sexual behaviour.

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Realist - the author is torn between applauding Tokyo being the first to address easy access to extreme and harmful pornography, and saying anything positive about its governor, who the author apparently considers himself an expert enough on to make tongue in cheek references to some idea that he is a dictator in waiting.

I have read opinions supporting his, that censorship of criminal pornography is the start of a slippery slope to dictatorship - mostly on 2chan boards that are railing against the governor attempting to impose "western christian" values about morality and taking away their child incest porn.

Personally, I'm on the side of the governor on this. The ordinance is a long overdue and common sense one, the only disgrace being that the national government has so far been unable to do anything similar.

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From my understanding the government wants to block "graphic images that glorify rape, child abuse, incest and underage sex". Aren't these the things societies are trying to fight?

"When the new rules go into effect, the outcome will simply be that a greater number of manga get slapped with an R-18 rating." So do porn and high violence movies. Video games that contain blood have "M" or "A" ESRB ratings and so does the rest of the entertainment industry.

What are these manga people complaining about?

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What's really at stake? how about the "618 children victimized in child porn cases in 2010" for starters

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What are these manga people complaining about?

their bottom line. nothing more.

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more of complaining that 90% of manga will end up in the adult section (and they're ashamed to go and grab it). Manga is the only one left which is free-for-all (can write anything).

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The issue is who becomes the arbiter of what can be seen and what has to be covered-up?

Specifically, the act aims to regulate manga that “unreasonably praise or exaggerate” extreme sex.

While I doubt you'll find anyone who'll defend depictions of rape where there's no consequences for the perpetrator(s) and child abuse via (amongst other things) sexual assult, I have to wonder where the Governor will draw the line as to what constitutes "extreme" sex? Just because he might feel that the missionary position is the only "normal" sex there is, doesn't mean the rest of the adult world agrees with him. The vagueness in the law that leaves it open to so much personal interpretation seems to be what has the publishers most troubled.

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Japan`s porn industry will never go away because there are too many perverted Japanese men and women in Japan. The Japanese government is always trying to cover this with a blanket so everything will look hunky dory and so things may seem like everything is going o.k. when in reality, the porn business in Japan has slowed down, but increases and has become a way of life for many Japanese perverted individuals.

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This is totally retarded. The human body shouldn't be censored when the context it's in is already doing its job. Do they put a black space over the David's penis as well? Either way, no one has the right to limit the content of TWO-DIMENSIONAL pornography just because they consider it 'indecent'. Believe it or not they are plenty of people that enjoy it without being sexual deviants (that is people that are socially dysfunctional and potentially dangerous). When it comes to fiction that doesn't involve real people I just have zero tolerance to those who think they can draw a line between what is 'right' and 'wrong' in depicted content. This is the utmost hypocrisy and has a more harmful than positive effect in the long run. It's the minors that need to be tutored, not the laughable contents of average pornography.

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