‘Cuteness, eroticism, and violence are the essence of Japanese pop culture,” says Ichiya Nakamura, executive director of the Stanford Japan Center and ex-government policy maker.

The saccharine cuteness of Hello Kitty and Sailor Moon has become almost as familiar to people in Europe and America as in Asia. From the Matrix to Kill Bill samurai, Japanese pop culture has never been more influential abroad.

Even the word “otaku,” originally an uncomplimentary term for asocial Japanese manga and anime obsessives has been happily adopted by foreign fans.

But, what of the small, influential part of anime and manga that explores extreme boundaries of sex and violence, even pedophilia?

Cute characters and “lolicom” (Lolita complex) themes are a staple of the Japanese pop culture consumed at home and abroad. Many otaku anime and manga products feature sexy school-girl heroines. Some extreme varieties of lolicom manga are clearly pedophilic pornography. Some pressure groups and NGOs suggest a link between a “lolicom culture” that idolizes young girls and social problems such as child prostitution and sexual abuse.

It has often been pointed out that rates of violent and sexual crime are lower in Japan than in many countries with much stricter obscenity laws. But ECPAT doesn’t accept that all manga and anime is just harmless fantasy

“We think that child pornography, in any form, promotes values and sends the message that it is OK to sexually abuse children. It helps pedophiles to justify their ideas or behavior and it desensitizes society as a whole.”

According to John Carr, an adviser to the U.K. government on Internet safety policy for children, towards the end of the 1990s as many as two thirds of all pedophilic images on the Internet may have originated in Japan. Since a law was passed in 1999 law to control child prostitution and child pornography, the proportion is now believed to be as little as two percent.

But, fantasy representations of child pornography, including in manga and anime, have not been covered by the new law; and ECPAT believes that many child pornography producers have simply turned to producing anime or films featuring adults dressed as children.

Sumiko Shimizu was one of the Diet members involved in the drafting of the 1999 bill and is now a permanent adviser to the Japan’s Women’s Council. She believes that the government has to try and prevent the eroticization of minors in popular culture.

“It’s important for the industries involved to cooperate with NGOs, and the government needs to produce concrete policy to educate people against child pornography and prostitution.”

This Monday ECPAT released an annual report drawing attention to “compensated dating” or “enjo-kosai,” a form of amateur teenage prostitution they say is a serious problem in Japan and other SE Asian countries. Last year 1746 people were arrested in Japan for offenses related to telephone dating sites (according to the police, the main way schoolgirls and their customers arrange to meet).

The report states that Japanese society as a whole shows “little recognition of the abuse involved, let alone exploitation.” Other commentators point out that media reports fret about immoral and out of control young girls, but barely consider the issue of why older men are paying for sex with schoolgirls in the first place.

But, many cultural critics, like Hiroki Azuma, say it is a mistake to link real crimes against children to manga and anime fantasy.

“In Japan, out of the people who read lolicom manga, very few actually commit crimes,” says Azuma. “Just because a large proportion of otaku culture is imbued with lolicom doesn’t mean that all otaku are pedophiles.”

Azuma argues that for some otaku pornography is one way to express opposition to society.

“For otaku who feel at odds with society, or are excluded from society, pedophilic manga is the most convenient (form of rebellion).”

“Even people who have absolutely no interest in pedophilia, begin to feel as if they are the sort of ‘no good’ person who should be attracted to little girls. It’s less a sexual problem that a problem between (these) individuals and society.”

Earlier this year, in the first major case to focus on printed material for decades, a comic published by Shobunkan Co. was ruled obscene. Some commentators wondered why the government had chosen to target a publication which was hardly the most explicit available in print, never mind what could be downloaded.

But, the increasing ease with which people abroad can obtain even the most extreme Japanese manga and anime may force the government to consider its otherwise hitherto relatively hands-off attitude; especially considering the recent crackdowns on child pornography in Europe and North America.

One Tokyo chain of shops selling second-hand otaku manga, anime and figurines has a page on its multilingual Web site dedicated to “the love for the baby boys.” The company also runs a successful Internet mail order business for foreign customers.

According to one staff member, “We have a lot of foreign customers. At first I thought it was crazy, but now it’s just selling stuff.”

Says Hiroki Azuma: “The government officials I have spoken to don’t seem to be aware of how strong the sexual expression is in some manga. If they were, it could well obstruct the government’s support for promoting Japanese pop culture abroad.”

‘Lolicom’ culture and changing gender roles

Yale Sociologist Sharon Kinsella is the author of “Adult Manga” and an upcoming book on young women in Japan, “Girls as Energy: Fantasies of Rejuvenation.” She believes that enjo kosai and lolicom culture say more about changing roles of men and women in Japan than the actual lives of teenagers.

Why has enjo kosai attracted so much attention in Japan?

I’ve spent a long time examining the statistical evidence which is supposed to substantiate the idea of schoolgirls as casual prostitutes and one thing that is very clear is that there is no evidence at all that there has been any increase in the involvement of schoolgirls in sex work or casual prostitution. There are several empirical reasons for this, but the simplest and most immediate reason is that there are no statistics available about “enjo kosai” previous to the Tokyo Youth Survey carried out in 1996. No one knows if it has increased or not, it is quite probable that it has actually decreased. As many Japanese commentators note, “enjo kosai” was a symbolic phenomenon.

Enjo kosai became a major news item in the second half of the 1990s precisely because it was a euphemism for child-sex. Magazine editors were for a brief period able to write semi-vicarious “investigative articles” with impunity on child-sex and use the pretext of investigating a social problem.

The reportage on enjo kosai also coincides very closely with the reportage on comfort women. What we effectively saw in the late 1990s, was an enormous unproven bubble of reports on “schoolgirls happily and willingly having sex for money,” replacing, obscuring, or competing with the other news about “comfort women that unhappily and unwillingly were forced to have sex without payment (and who now demand payment).” It may be that the image of happy girls selling themselves voluntarily cancels out the other guilty image of Asian girls forced to be sex slaves for which Japanese men are collectively responsible.

What do you think is behind the popularity of lolicom (Lolita-complex) culture in Japan?

Male and female roles in Japan have begun to overlap. Women are going to universities and graduate school and men are entering female-type jobs in the service sector.

There is a reactive and desperate fantastical desire to firmly distinguish men from women that can be seen in the style of reportage in the male press as much as in Lolita complex culture.

Also, I sense that there is a deep subliminal anxiety expressed in male cultural imagination about the otherwise rather obfuscated history of violent maltreatment and female bondage in Japan. You can see a fairly exclusively male fantasy of girl revolution and revenge both in the reportage on offensive and sexually angry young girls, and in gun-wielding liberatory Lolita figures.

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