If you want people to pay attention to a point you’re making, try to bring the subject of children into the debate. Right now, the media is discussing a decision made by the board of education of Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, to limit student access to the manga “Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen),” first published in 1973 and translated into 20 languages. It chronicles the life of a boy in Hiroshima around the time of the 1945 atomic bombings and contains scenes of violence that the board deems too strong for children. However, the Asahi Shimbun reports that the decision actually “stems from the complaint of one citizen” who specifically objects to depictions of atrocities carried out by Japanese soldiers, which the citizen claims never happened.

Asahi quotes the widow of the work’s late author, Kenji Nakazawa, as saying that her husband wanted young people to read it so that they could fully appreciate what happens during war.

Regardless of whether or not the Matsue board has its own agenda, by focusing on young people’s still-developing sensibilities, its decision manages to avoid the question of free expression, whose relevance to children has always been problematic. Parents do all they can to prevent their kids from coming into contact with “adult content” until the kids are mature enough to understand that content, a task that access to the Internet has made all but impossible.

During its last session, the Diet failed to pass a revised version of an anti-child pornography law. The bill, submitted in May by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), its ruling coalition partner New Komeito and the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), prohibits the possession of any depiction of a child in a sexual situation, and sets penalties for violators. The bill did not reach the voting stage, but its sponsors pledge that it will be revived in the next session.

The bill is controversial because it limits free expression, but since children are the subject, the media has handled the issue gingerly. LDP lawmaker Katsue Hirasawa, who helped draft it, has said that it follows “international common sense.” The rest of the world looks upon Japan as a “paradise of child porn,” according to Hirasawa. Hiroshi Nakada, former Yokohama mayor and current JRP Diet member, says that the present anti-child-pornography law does not go far enough to prevent the publication and distribution of such material, which he says “violates children’s human rights.”

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA), along with publishers’ and writers’ groups, opposes the revision. For one thing, the JFBA says that the current law is vague about the definition of child pornography. While the group condemns any photographic depiction of a child in a sexual situation since such a depiction is direct proof of the exploitation of a minor, under the law parents’ photographs of their naked babies could also be deemed illegal. The proposed revision is especially worrying to manga artists.

The prohibition of child pornography implies that a child has been victimized, but in a drawing, an animated film or a computer-generated image, no actual child is involved. They are works of imagination, and the individuals depicted imaginary. According to the Asahi, discussions of the bill on the Internet have considered the possibility that a depiction of Shizuka, a female elementary school-aged character, taking a bath in the popular children’s manga/anime series “Doraemon” could qualify as porn; or that a graphic-novel version of “The Tale of Genji,” which contains adolescents in sexual situations, could be banned. Hirasawa, confronted with such concerns, told Asahi that only depictions which are “truly offensive” are sanctioned, and that anyone who can’t see the difference “doesn’t understand reality.”

Tokyo Shimbun covered an Aug. 13 symposium in Tokyo on “manga culture” that was attended by foreign fans of Japanese comics. Charles Brownstein, executive director of the U.S.-based Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, told the newspaper that American manga fans are paying close attention to the bill since the revised law would punish creators of contrived and nonphotographic depictions of child sexuality rather than crack down on those who actually victimize children. Japan is the birthplace of manga, so such a law would have repercussions for manga artists all over the world. He cited the infamous Comics Code, implemented by the American publishing industry in the 1950s to placate parents shocked by comic books that sensationalized gore and criminal behavior. Though the code was a self-policing system and has been out of use for years, it set the art form back decades.

Tokyo Shimbun points out that anti-child-pornography laws in the U.S. originally included drawings, too, but in 2002 the Supreme Court decided the law was unconstitutional, distinguishing clearly criminal acts, such as trafficking and rape, from works of the imagination. But legal niceties won’t sway the sponsors of the revision, who see the producers of materials that depict child sexuality, in any form, as being deviant. It’s a difficult point to dispute, because, again, children are involved. The Tokyo Shimbun reporter ends his article with a visit to a major bookstore where manga kiddie porn is available, and popular, too. He is uncomfortable.

One foreign commentator in the article says that Japan has always been “more tolerant of people’s sexual fantasies” than has the West, where “religious feelings” are stronger, and there are many Japanese publishers who take advantage of that tolerance in ways that are obviously exploitative. But just as that one Matsue citizen used children to implement a partial ban of “Barefoot Gen” for political reasons, the sponsors of the revised bill use the premise of “protecting children” to control representations of which they don’t approve. The slippery slope begins there.

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