research * the future * culture

Porno and children and manga, oh my!

I just finished a new post over at FPS about the recent developments at the intersection of fandom and the law, specifically whether anime and manga featuring children in explicit situations still counts as child pornography. (In Canada, it already does.)

The argument for this definition states that even though the images are drawn and rendered rather than photographed and filmed, they still incite arousal on the part of the pedophile, and therefore encourage criminal behaviour. The argument against it states that the children are fictional and nonexistent, and that no harm is being done. Right now, this definition is being tested in Iowa. Christopher Handley faces twenty years in prison for possessing material imported from Japan that a postal inspector found objectionable. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is now serving as his special counsel.

My own perspective on the issue has been outlined elsewhere, but this does remind me of a funny and disturbing story of my time in Japan.

Tokyo is full of pornographic doujinshi. This is a fact that one must accept in order to function happily there. The men and women riding the train with you might be reading hentai manga. There will be pornographic sections of even mainstream manga shops, and they won’t be separated from the general titles by any curtains or doors. You can literally stumble into them. And depending on your understanding of a particular doujin shop’s layout, you might wind up on a floor for porn that isn’t in your interest.

Which is how, if you’re me, you wind up looking at Kuroshitsuji porn by mistake. You know, the series that involves a twelve year old boy?

I had purchased Volume 1 of Kuroshitsuji in Akihabara, having seen it on promotional materials from Comic Market, and feeling vaguely curious about it. I “read” the images after purchasing it, then read a scanlation (having already paid the Japanese purchase price). It was then that I discovered that the central character was a twelve year old boy — to me, he had always looked like a girl in her mid-teens who happened to sport a particularly short haircut. (Actually, I liked the series a bit better when Ciel was a girl. It meant she was a young woman of power who flouted the patriarchy by owning her own business and wearing suits, a sort of young Integral Hellsing.)

In any case, wandering through the first floor of a doujin shop in Ikebukero my eyes lit on pictures from the series, and I picked it up. By page three, Sebastien (the centuries old demon butler) was reaming his master Ciel (the twelve year old boy).

Two parts of my brain clicked on at once. One said: “Yeah, I guess that is the natural pairing. After all, the manga shows Sebastien tucking Ciel into bed, undressing him. It all happens offscreen, though. So I guess people are taking advantage of the subtext.” The other said: “Put that down right now, before you’re arrested.”

You can understand my mistake. Most pornographic doujinshi are not fully open to the public, and most of them aren’t available on the ground floors of shops. They come wrapped with a few pages hanging out so you can get a taste of the material, but any and all happy endings only come once money’s been exchanged. So I had no idea that I was likely to find anything other than mainstream manga and artbooks, and maybe some funny doujins, on that first floor.

I wasn’t expecting it.

Which, I have to wonder, might be what happened to Mr. Handley. After all, we never know the contents of books or films until we have read them. When we buy something, part of what we’re buying is the surprise. It’s entirely possible that Mr. Handley knew exactly what he was buying, down to the last drop of fictional fluid. But it’s also possible that he had no idea how the story would go. Maybe the intrusion of rape or torture or imprisonment happened within the context of the story the way those things happen in real life: by surprise.

In a very roundabout way, this is an argument for scanlations. Scanlations allow readers to see before they buy, so that if a story takes a turn that is too dark for them, they won’t be left holding the bag (of comics they don’t like). But scanlations won’t solve the other problem: lack of knowledge.

Postal inspectors can’t necessarily be expected to learn Japanese. They might not know how to read the character profiles at the front of every manga. (This goes double for doujins, where the publication is intended for insiders who already know the pertinent information.) They might not know who’s legal and who isn’t. They might not know about the preponderance of upskirt shots, or the Japanese tradition of families bathing together. (While in Japan, I watched a group of women take a preschool boy to our ryokan’s public bath. We were all nude in full view of each other. You have to wonder what this would have looked like to an outside observer with no education in Japanese culture.) So even if the content is innocent, how is the inspector supposed to know? Is Customs supposed to employ a manga specialist for just such an occasion?

…Actually, they should. I should start preparing my resume.

2 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Katie Freund

     /  October 19, 2008

    Hey Madeline! It’s been ages; I hope you are well!

    Just to add another perspective to this interesting post of yours on recent controversies here in Australia, where child pornography is an extremely hot-button issue. According to Australian law, any item depicting any minor, or anyone who appears to be a minor, in any sexual act or sexual context can be prosecuted as child pornography. There has been a rather intense court case in progress here where a famous photographer took photos that included nude children and displayed them in a national gallery… and was arrested as a pornographer. (His name is Bill Henson – here is the wiki article:

    This issue was debated at the Transnational Fandoms conference here in Wollongong, where most of the academics agreed that homosexual texts like yaoi were more likely to be prosecuted than heterosexual – if two young boys are holding hands or kissing, it is more likely to be seen as being “in a sexual context” than a young girl and boy, which would be “sweet” or “young love”…

    Also, consider the manga art style which tends to depict most ukes as youthful and fey, and who definitely “look” under 18. Anyone possessing such manga could potentially be persecuted for it, even if the characters are written as over 18. I Will Shout? Antique Bakery? Child porn, under Australian law. Even more shounen-ai texts like X/99 could be fudged to fit under this law… It’s a scary situation.

    I’ll be following your new website now – nice to hear from you again!



    • Hey Katie! This is my first test of threaded commenting, so I’m not sure it’ll go through.

      The Canadians I’ve talked about this with are all surprised about the state of the law, and then I tell them about Australia. And you’re right about youthful depiction, which is what makes me wonder if law enforcement bodies have some kind of expert on staff, or whether people become expert over time — I mean, do they look at the title and Google it? Do they read the Wikipedia article?

      And please do follow the website! There’s an RSS feed and everything.

  • Madeline Ashby… a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and Jason Richman at UTA. You can buy her books here.

    She has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity,, MISC Magazine, FutureNow, and elsewhere.

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