Japan was slow in updating its child pornography laws to bring them into line with those of the West. It was only in 1999 and 2003 that Japan caught up, with the passage of new laws that made it illegal to produce, distribute, sell, possess or trade in child pornography. Before 1999, it was only illegal to produce it.
Yet enforcement of the new laws has been lax, although that may have changed in the past month.
Fans and producers of a lucrative fad called "lolicon" got a wake-up call with the arrest of a publisher last month. "Lolicon" is a slang portmanteau of the phrase "Lolita complex", or "Lolita icon". The industry produces photo books and magazines with teenage and preteen models sometimes as young as eight years old. The format is usually "near nudity" or "implied nudity", but a recent photo set featuring a 14-year-old girl went too far.
"The girl's swimsuit was deliberately made to be see-through. It was so tight-fitting you could make out the shape of her genitalia and she'd been posed in such risque positions that the Metropolitan Police Department decided to arrest the maker for breaking the law banning 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 it kind in Japan, in which the 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 ultimately cleared of a charge of child pornography after it featured a 14-year-old model in a semi-transparent white dress soaked in water. Although cleared on the charge, the editor was admonished for his lack of judgment.
The new case in Japan is proving similar in many ways. If convicted, the producer could face a maximum of three years in jail and fine of 100,000 yen.
The lolicon industry, up until this arrest, had been quite lucrative for the Japanese publishing community. The Japan Times reported that "over three million of the photo books were sold in 2006-2007".
"Ever since the arrest, makers of products featuring teens in erotic poses have been in a state of panic. If material is judged to be overly obscene, people can be arrested for breaking the Child Pornography Law, even if the model is dressed in a swimsuit," an employee of a medium-sized DVD manufacturer producing material featuring models under 15 years old told Weekly Playboy. "DVD shops and wholesalers are now on their guard and have stopped taking materials featuring models under 15, even if the product looks like being a surefire seller."
It remains unclear why just the under-15 section of the industry, sometimes referred to as U15, is being affected as the child prostitution and pornography laws, clearly define "child" as a person under the age of 18. Yet the industry continues to use girls aged 16 and 17.
The manga (Japanese for "print cartoons and comics") industry also remains unaffected by the new crackdown. Pornographic drawings and cartoons that depict children remain legal - and lucrative.
Figures for the total value of the Japanese child pornography industry are hard to come by, but annual sales of manga alone in 2000 amounted to over 600 billion yen (US$5.5 billion), nearly one quarter of the total sales of all published material. It is estimated that 30-40% of manga contains sexual themes or content, much of it representing schoolgirls of elementary or junior high school age in themes including rape, sado-masochism and bondage. About half of the 2,000 pornographic animation titles distributed in Japan every year, including films and video games, feature schoolgirl characters.
Lolicon manga are usually short stories, published in media specializing in the genre and bought predominantly by white-collar men in their 20s and 30s. A common focus of these stories is taboo relationships, such as between a teacher and student or brother and sister. Sexual experimentation between children is another popular theme.
Last October, the Japanese government issued the results of its Special Opinion Poll on Harmful Materials, in which 86.5% of respondents said that manga and art should be subject to regulation for child pornography, while 90.9% said that "harmful materials" on the Internet should be regulated. The current child pornography laws in Japan do not regulate manga and art that depict children who are not real, or "virtual child pornography".