Asuka Izumi was modeling for a DVD in July 2005 when the director asked her to put on a string bikini. She was just 12 years old.

She agreed to pose in the sexy bathing suit and now, nearly two years later, that DVD is credited with starting the popularity of “T-back junior idols.”

Izumi, now 14, went on to pose in thong bikinis in four photo books and several DVDs. She looks back on that first time in a revealing bikini and said she had no reason not to do it.

“It wasn’t a big deal. The director asked me to do it, and I did it because I wanted to,” Izumi, who is still in junior high school but has appeared before the camera as a child model since she was 1 1/2 years old, said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.

From pornographic animation to raunchy dolls, Japan leads the world in eccentric products and media that sometime push the boundaries of what people consider to be decent — or even legal.

This latest trend of preteen girls striking provocative poses in slinky bathing suits has some people questioning whether this is child pornography and if the parents are actually selling their children for sex.

The large number of shops with Junior Idol and U-15 (Under 15) signs in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, the country’s subculture capital, is just one indication of how quickly the new market has grown.

The controversial industry has been reluctant to reveal figures, but reports suggest that more than 3 million photo books were sold in the past year alone.

Junior idol DVDs and photo books are commonly sold right next to hard-core pornography, and two years since Izumi’s DVD, the models have grown even younger. Last month, 9-year-old Rei Asamizu appeared in “Melty Pudding,” a photo book that includes shots of the little girl lying on a bed wet in a thong bikini.

Although there is no full nudity, the scantily clad children are often pictured seductively blowing on the end of a flute or licking an ice cream cone.

Koji Maruta, the author of “Enko-shojo To Loli-con Otoko” (“Girls Who Sell Sex and Men with Lolita Complex” — a reference to Vladamir Nabokov’s novel “Lolita” about pedophilia), said that unlike in the West, Japan has tended to be more open about sex and sex culture.

“Japan has slowly been implementing legal measures against child pornography, but the ambience, culture and religion of the country makes people less uncomfortable about such issues compared with Western societies,” said Maruta, who is also a lecturer in the international communications department at Okinawa University.

Maruta said “enjo kosai” (compensated dating) and “burusera” (sales of schoolgirls’ used underwear) appear to have gone out of vogue, but there is still a huge market of men with fetishes and they are behind the recent outburst of semipornographic photo books and DVDs.

The industry, made up of many small, independent publishers and video companies, is in a legal gray zone as the law on child pornography is open to interpretation.

The Law Banning Child Prostitution and Pornography, enacted in 1999, defines child pornography as any image of a child under 18 years old “naked or partially naked, which is sexually stimulating.”

The second article in the U.N.’s Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, which Japan signed in 2002, defines child pornography as “any representation, by whatever means, of real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes,” and requires signatories to have laws banning such material.

However, Keiji Watanabe of the Publishers Ethics Committee of the Japan Magazine Publishers’ Association said it is not easy to determine when an image crosses the line from art to child pornography.

Watanabe opposes the trend of raunchy photo books, saying that under no circumstance should a child be involved in explicit sexual products. His committee checks bookstores for inappropriate publications and has issued warnings to publishers of pornographic comic books.

It is “especially” vigilant on child pornography, Watanabe said, adding the panel warns shops and creators of such material.

However, the ethics committee has had problems finding the small, back-street publishers that are the main source of junior idol material. In addition, it does not have the legal authority to stop the sale of such material, Watanabe said.

“It’s tricky for us — and police — to draw the line and have criteria” on what constitutes pornographic material, he said.

Police have seized books that show a preteen girl’s nipple, but the junior idol material, while provocative, is not this revealing, he said.

Shinkosha Co., which published Asuka Izumi’s photo books and other materials, declined comment on the issue when reached by telephone.

But regarding the media tagging as pornographic, junior idol Asuka Izumi and her mother, Kotomi, 37, who manages her daughter’s activities, said they had no issues with how the photo books “sexually arouse” adult men.

“I don’t have a problem with my daughter wearing a thong at her age,” the mother, a former model, said, describing her daughter’s body as having a “neutral, sexless beauty” that only a premature girl can possess.

She said she once found her daughter’s work displayed in a hardcore porn shop in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district, but it didn’t bother her.

“I feel that anyone who buys Asuka’s work has the right to do whatever they want to do with it,” she said.

She said she is not taking commercial advantage of her daughter, but merely attempting to help the 14-year-old be successful in what she wants to do.

But she also revealed there are things that some industry people want to keep secret.

“The industry doesn’t want me to talk about the details of what’s going on behind closed doors,” she said.

But she hinted that she has seen some mothers forcing their crying children to put on sexy swimsuits for the camera.

“Many in the industry feel that the junior idol boom was intended to be an underground trend,” she said. “It was never meant to be accepted by the masses like it is now.”

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