You are researching some Japanese adult entertainment for academic purposes and you notice something odd. No, it’s not the tentacles, demons, and bizarre sexual acts that confuse you, it’s the pixels. Why does Japan censor their porn? Well, it’s a long story…
1Origins of the Penal Code
In order to understand Japan’s penal code, we have to go all the way back to the Meiji Restoration, which began in 1868 under Emperor Meiji. This was a time of great change in Japan as the moved away from a feudal system of lords and became industrialized. It also marked Western contact, which not only introduced industrialization but a Victorian sense of morality.
Prior to this time, Japan had a very liberal view on sexuality, which included sexualizations of various Shinto deities and erotic tales of homosexuality between samurai and their sword-bearers.
In an attempt to modernize Japan, Emporer Meiji felt it was necessary to adopt Victorian England’s sense of morality, which condemned sexual thoughts and art. Emporer Meiji issued various censorship laws in the past, largely restricting criticism of his decisions, which were necessary for passing obscenity laws since there was a large disconnect between the public and his new views.
In 1907, he introduced The Penal Code. Article 175 states the selling and distribution (but not viewing) of “obscene materials” can be punished by fines or imprisonment. It was interpreted that human genitals and pubic hair were considered obscene, which caused artists to scale back on the creation of porn out of fear of imprisonment.
2Post-World War II Occupation
After Japan’s surrender in 1945, the United States and the other Allied Powers occupied Japan. One of the first moves made was to abolish all forms of censorship and control on Freedom of Speech (though criticism of the occupation was heavily censored). However, many of the Allied nations still held Victorian views on porn, so Article 175 of the Penal Code was kept intact.
Generations of Japanese have lived in a world where the Penal Code exists, despite relatively liberal views on sexuality. Legally, the Penal Code could be repealed from their constitution, but no politician has included such a move as part of their platform. “Vote for me! Porn will be uncensored,” isn’t viewed as a winning slogan.
Instead, creators have been practicing self-censorship as a way to avoid obscenity charges. The iconic mosaic pixels are the first thing that springs to mind. The pink film genre became popular in Japan around the early ’60s due to combining sexual and violent content. In 1962, the screening of Flesh Market was stopped on grounds of violating obscenity laws but was never formally charged. To get around this, the distributors re-released the movie without any obscene scenes without legal trouble. Future productions would include mosaic pixels, which are still used today
In the mid-80s, tentacle porn was created as a way to get around charges. According to hentai artist Toshio Maeda, “At that time pre-Urotsuki Doji, it was illegal to create a sensual scene in bed. I thought I should do something to avoid drawing such a sensual scene. So, I just created a creature. His tentacle is not a penis as a pretext. I could say, as an excuse, this is not a penis; this is just a part of the creature. You know, the creatures, they don’t have a gender. A creature is a creature. So it is not obscene – not illegal.”
Another controversial genre came about due to the Penal Code: lolicon. It was illegal to draw pubic hair in hentai until the late ’90s, and as a result, artists started to draw pre-pubescent characters to get around the law. To add fire to the controversy, possession of child porn (which some Japanese lawmakers argue should include lolicon and shotacon), wasn’t made illegal until 2014.
While selling uncensored porn of any kind is illegal, it’s perfectly legal to create it, which is often times exported to other countries. One loophole that some dedicated Japanese fans use is to find “international” copies, but those are starting to get phased out.
The most recent trial based on the Penal Code was held in 2004. Hentai mangaka Yuuji Suwa was charged with violating the Penal Code for his Misshitsu hentai manga. He pled guilty to avoid jail time and was fined 500,000 yen ($4,900), but he would appeal the charges arguing that there is more explicit content on the internet than what is found in his manga. The court upheld their original decision but increased his fine to 1.5 million yen ($13,690).
Many bookstores and chains removed their adult-only sections because of this court case out of fear that they could be charged with violating the Penal Code for selling hentai, which included Suwa’s previous works. As a result, “adult-only” shops have been created, but they are few in number because of the potential legal risks.
5Apparent Cultural Contradiction
In truth, there is very little political and corporate pressure to repeal the Penal Code. While some online fans argue that the censorship “ruins” Japanese porn, the truth is that they have a $20 billion porn industry, which is the largest in the world. The censorless American industry brings in $10 to $12 billion.
It may be considered an outdated view by American and European viewers (who ironically brought those views to Japan), but it’s not one that is going away anytime soon.