Japan’s Lolita merchants feel the heat

Japan was slow to update its child pornography laws to bring them in line with those in the West. It was only in 1999 and 2003 that Japan caught up, passing new laws that made it illegal to produce, distribute, sell, possess, or trade child pornography. Before 1999, it was only illegal to produce it.

However, enforcement of the new laws has been lax, although that may have changed in the last month.

Fans and producers of a lucrative fashion called “lolicon” got a wake-up call with the arrest of a publisher last month. “Lolicon” is a slang acronym for the phrase “Lolita complex” or “Lolita icon”. The industry produces photo albums and magazines featuring teenage and tween models, sometimes as young as eight. The format is usually “almost nude” or “implied nude,” but a recent series of photos with a 14-year-old girl went too far.

“The girl’s swimsuit was deliberately made to be see-through. It was so tight you could make out the shape of her genitalia and it had been placed in such risky positions that the Metropolitan Police Department decided to arrest the manufacturer for breaking the law that bans child pornography, even though the girl hadn’t actually exposed her bust or between her legs,” a reporter told Weekly Playboy.

The arrest was the first of its kind in Japan, in which child pornography laws were used in a case where the model was not actually nude.

In a similar case in Hong Kong last year, a magazine was finally acquitted of a child pornography charge after it featured a 14-year-old model in a semi-transparent white dress drenched in water. Although acquitted of the charge, the publisher was reprimanded for his lack of judgment.

The new case in Japan is proving to be similar in many respects. If found guilty, the producer could face up to three years in jail and a fine of 100,000 yen.

The lolicon industry, until this arrest, had been quite lucrative for the Japanese publishing community. The Japan Times reported that “more than three million photo books were sold in 2006-2007.”

“Since the arrest, manufacturers of products depicting teenagers in erotic poses have been in a panic. If the material is deemed too obscene, people can be arrested for violating the Child Pornography Act, even if the model she’s wearing a bathing suit,” an employee at a midsize DVD maker that produces material featuring models under the age of 15 told Weekly Playboy. “DVD stores and wholesalers are now on their guard and have stopped accepting materials with models under the age of 15, even if the product appears to be a best seller.”

It is unclear why only the under-15 section of the industry, sometimes known as the U15, is affected as child prostitution and pornography laws clearly define a “child” as a person under the age of 18. However, the industry continues to use 16 and 17 year old girls.

The manga industry (Japanese for “printed cartoons and comics”) is also unaffected by the new campaign. Cartoons and pornographic cartoons depicting children remain legal and lucrative.

Figures for the total value of Japan’s child pornography industry are hard to come by, but annual manga sales in 2000 totaled more than 600 billion yen (US$5.5 billion), almost a quarter of total sales of all published material. An estimated 30-40% of the manga contains sexual themes or content, with much of it depicting schoolgirls of primary or secondary school age in themes including rape, sadomasochism, and bondage. About half of the 2,000 pornographic animation titles distributed in Japan each year, including movies and video games, feature schoolgirl characters.

Lolicon manga are usually short stories, published in media specialized in the genre and efficiently bought by white-collar men in their 20s and 30s. A common focus of these stories is taboo relationships, such as between a teacher and a student or a brother and sister. Sexual experimentation between children is another popular topic.

Last October, the Japanese government released the results of its Special Opinion Survey on Harmful Materials, in which 86.5% of respondents said that manga and art should be subject to regulation for child pornography, while the 90.9% said that “harmful materials” on the Internet should be regulated. Current child pornography laws in Japan do not regulate manga and art depicting non-real children or “virtual child pornography”.

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