The Tokyo metropolitan government's bungled proposal earlier in the year to broaden its powers of censorship over manga and anime it deemed "harmful to minors" has been occasionally addressed in this column. The fuss started back in March, when a formal protest by manga artist luminaries was followed by similar objections from IT giants Google, Rakuten and others. By June, the legislation was flatly rejected, but not without a vow from Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara to revamp and try to push it through again this autumn.
The controversial Ishihara has his supporters and detractors. But like him or not, in this instance, there is no denying he is a man of his word.
Now we have Version 2 of the "nonexistent youth bill," so-called because of its opaque language promising to monitor depictions of fictional characters government officials decide are too young to be engaging in the fictional activities government officials decide are too harmful to real youth that government officials decide are too youthful to view or read about them. Ironies abound. Fictional portrayals of nonexistent young characters continue to proliferate as the financially strapped manga and anime industries cater to their largely middle-aged and male otaku core demographic, making more "moe," or soft-core porn imagery, in order to survive. Meanwhile, Japan's real youth are thin on the ground: The nation's notoriously declining birth rate is among the lowest in developed economies, and jobs for those youth who actually do exist in the form of university graduates have grown scarce. What's more, government officials are not doing much to help them.
The metropolitan government's latest efforts are being tracked by the indefatigable Tokyo-based translator Dan Kanemitsu, a half-Japanese writer whose blog, "Dan Kanemitsu's Paper Trail" is a font of cranky observation and excellent insight. According to him, Ishihara and Co. are trying to "sneak" the legislation into approval by making its language vaguer, its goals sanitized. The metropolitan government now aims to control what Kanemitsu calls "the danger posed by fiction that is not obscene, not extremely sexually stimulating, and not strongly prone to compel youth to conduct criminal acts, but is still harmful to youth because it deals with the subject of minors and sexuality in a realm of fiction, especially if presented in an 'anti-social' manner."
I phoned Kanemitsu in Tokyo on the eve of the unveiling of the latest redrafted proposal on Nov. 22. He remains deeply concerned about the legislation's stealthy, under-the-radar nature. "They're doing their best to not raise publicity," Kanemitsu tells me. "And they're doing their best not to [let anyone] examine [the legislation]. I think it's disingenuous, since it's something that could possibly have a lot of impact."
Japan's corrupt society of "press clubs" give voice to the major players who support them. The government issues a statement, journalists dutifully record it, and all bask in the glow of a brutally efficient PR release, disguised as journalism. Democracy, as someone once said, is messy. Japanese politicians and their docile toadies in the media don't like "messiness." Hence the latest step in government efforts to control what you see and read. "They want to go after three things," says Kanemitsu. "They want to go after shojo [girl's manga/anime], yaoi [manga/anime aimed at women and featuring beautiful men who love other men] and cheesecake [pornographic material aimed at men.] Under the existing regulations they could go after yaoi and cheesecake, but not porn. Japan's current penal code just says that we'll bust you if it's obscene, but it doesn't define what's obscene."
And there's the rub: Who defines what's "obscene," and how does one define it?
The question is even more relevant when one considers the winds of change in our clumsily globalized world. China is weighing in heavily on the question of authority, pressuring its trading partners not to participate in the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Norway owing to its clampdown on dissenters, one of whom was awarded this year's peace prize. Meanwhile, Western democratic freedom is manifest in images of British students and protesters smashing windows in central London in response to budget cuts.
Which world would you rather inhabit? "There are two groups of moralists in Japan," Kanemitsu explains. "One is the school teacher who is almost Catholic in stylization, very conservative, old-school Confucian. They are now mixed with progressives who have a feminist point-of-view, and who are anti-pornography more than anything. The old moralists want to make society go back in time; the new moralists want to banish all discrimination against women. But not all members of the Tokyo government want such repressive measures."
Not all. It's a small reed, but a worthy one. Not everyone wants to control what you see, read and hear, and not everyone mistrusts what you think and curate. But at least a small part of the goings-on in Tokyo involves all of us. How do you trust freedom, in its purest, most expressive forms, in a country that fears its own passions?
Kelts is a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S." (www.japanamericabook.com).