Japan is a country where everyday realities evoke ‘shame’ in people, so I didn’t expect to be bombarded with sexual and violent imagery when I visited. While the Japanese government finally banned the possession of child pornography in 2014, anime and manga showing children involved in incest, rape and sexual acts remain legal and readily available. Even where real Japanese women are depicted in sexual acts or titillating positions, or drawn as adults in manga, they possess childlike qualities and an air of vulnerability, reflecting Japan’s obsession with the ‘Lolita Complex’. This graphic and discomforting world speaks volumes about Japan’s relationship with gender, sexuality, genitalia and intimacy.
I found myself engrossed as I climbed each level of the nine story manga and anime store in Akihabara – a hub for obsessive fans – unable to peel my eyes away from the images.
They became more vulgar, violent and unregulated as I climbed to the top of this store, culminating in manga gang rape scenes with children being sodomised and penetrated. Even if I hadn’t been under the watchful eye of store keepers who are accustomed to gawking tourists trying to capture the shocking images, I still couldn’t have brought myself to take photos. I stopped photographing on the seventh storey.
Unfortunately, the rest is burnt into my memory.
I found that even where the manga and anime were slightly more palatable, they still depicted women with childlike qualities, or girls being ‘caught’ by surprise and subsequently raped. The Lolita Complex and rape trope pervade even the mainstream manga, anime and real life pornography. Yet such a prevalence of violence in Japan’s pop culture exists parallel to the public culture, which is relatively peaceful. I do not think this indicates that the manga and anime in question are an anomaly. Rather, they are the consequence of stifled sexual expression and a symptom of a culture of shame where rape is underreported, women’s sexuality is repressed and genitalia are taboo.
I realised an exploration of this issue cannot occur without situating it in Otaku culture. Otaku are the manga and anime fans that follow the world obsessively. They frequently trawl through the stacks of manga porn in Akihabara, fantasise over popular characters in anime and attend Cosplay festivals and conventions. While not all Otaku are interested in the child anime porn and graphic sexual depictions that I was jarred by, they are frequently shamed and mocked as reclusive and sexually incapable. Such a culture is stigmatised in the mainstream, yet so many people secretly engage with it and likely watch the graphic porn. Even Cosplay organisers recognise this, requiring that all participants in the conventions change out of their character costumes before leaving to remain inconspicuous. Such a hobby is inevitably imbued with a sense of shame.
Shame is the invisible phenomenon that controls so many in Japan. There are no other translations in English; it is just simply, ‘shame.’ The scope of it extends beyond sexual or gender related issues.
When I asked one of my Japanese peers in Japan why I did not see a lot of parent-child or sibling intimacy in public, I received a look of confusion and then, with proper translation, realisation. ‘Oh, because we feel shame,’ she replied, as if it were blaringly obvious. When intimacy is so taboo that even the ‘most innocent’, unsexual familial bonds cannot be expressed publicly without evoking the feeling, it is no wonder that the stifling expectations to conform push people into sub-cultures like Otaku.
But it was not always this way.
Shunga art, or – according to some prudish emperors of the 20th century – Shunga ‘pornography,’ was popular amongst all classes in Japan during the Edo period. While it was officially outlawed in 1722, it remained widely tolerated and even appreciated. ‘Spring Pictures,’ as it translates, are explicit handmade artworks. However, unlike modern day manga-porn, they were rarely violent or exploitative. Shunga pieces were sensuous illustrations, shedding light on sexuality and intimate experiences between couples of all genders. The art depicted sex as pleasurable, relaxing and funny, without the shame I have become so accustomed to hearing about from contemporary Japanese people. Shunga is a colourful reminder of Japan’s past, but I struggled to see any references to it in the present.
There is so much lost by relegating it to history. The sexualised art mocked social mores of the day, coupling expectations of the genders with tongue-in-cheek controversies to immediately draw the eye. Ultimately, this art clashed with prudish Victorian values, and shame surrounding this brand of intimacy was born in the Meiji era under foreign influence. Even museums will not embrace the seminal work that reflects a long period of Japan’s pre-Victorian history. Because of this, I learnt that in Japan, shame can be retrospective.
What I find fascinating is the openness with which Shunga depicted pubic hair and genitalia. It is in contrast to the present, where both have been largely taboo or banned in Japan. While pubic hair returned to manga and anime porn in the last decade, genitalia – whether drawn or real – are still outlawed and must be pixelated or replaced with other objects.
Rokudenahiko, an artist and activist, knows this all too well. After being arrested in 2014 for sending 3D data of her vagina to patrons of her crowdfunding campaign, the media echoed the authorities’ sentiment and derided her publicly for bringing shame upon herself. She recalls how even the investigators felt that the word vagina would elicit too much embarrassment in interrogations, so they used euphemisms instead.
This sort of sexual conservatism is not unique to Japan. Yet it sits side by side with vagina sex toys, explicit child porn manga and Kawasaki – a festival of giant penises. These contradictions are what I find most inconsistent with the Japanese conception of shame. It is not the case that there is delineation between the public and the private, where expression is accepted in the private and taboo in the public, because Rokudenahiko’s actions were no more public than the vagina sex toys and manga porn. The key difference is that in Rokudenahiko’s case, she was a subject rather than an object. She exerted autonomy over her vagina rather than simply being the body where it resides as an object to be fetishised, used and in the case of some imagery, raped.
‘Boy Love’ or Yaoi manga and anime constructs many of the same norms for young boys, portraying one being dominated by another. The narratives are subversive, as Japan is generally not accepting of LGBTQIA* identities publically, so they are employed as a plot device to evoke consumers’ deepest fantasies. In such a way, any person can enjoy the illustrations of fellatio, anal sex and male on male dominance without personally having to break from the rigid, heteronormative mould. Surprisingly, the main gaze belongs to straight high school girls, and the manga and anime targeted at gay men is considered to be a whole other genre.
I see the demographic of this market forming largely as a reaction to most graphics being created for the male gaze, where the focal point is rape, disempowerment and the use of girls as objects rather than subjects. Yaoi is extreme; nevertheless, it is artistic expression free from the tropes girls typically fall into within the broader art.
Yaoi – like Otaku fantasies and explicit manga and anime – evokes excitement and imagination. They are all unrealistic and sit opposite to the world of shame and social rigidity that Japanese people live in. Yet what happens when these fantasies become a trope that demeans and violates female characters?
The school girl fantasy, where she is raped by a man in the school toilets and is initially shocked but eventually comes to enjoy it, is certainly a trope. Rape being used as a facile plot device is nothing new whether it is in Japanese pop culture or the latest Hollywood film. It serves the insatiable desires of consumers for shock and controversy without compelling any scrutiny of the forces which allow for women to be raped so often. However, the use within Japanese pop culture differs to other contexts in that it is the beginning, rather than the climax of a plot.
The story often follows that women are passive objects, as if they are ‘asking for’ the trauma because of their naivety and vulnerability. The rape is framed to be a formative and necessary coming of age for women, as the plotline that usually follows her humiliation and brutalisation is one where she becomes a sexual aggressor who devours all those in her path (Permitted and Prohibited Desires, Anne Allison). Judging by the industry’s success, artists and consumers alike must happily accept this narrative. It sets up womanhood and the enjoyment of our sexuality as something only born through such a horrifically violating experience.
I resigned myself to the fact that along with shame, Japanese women can add fear, pain and degradation to the list of driving forces in their lives.
It seems that because of such rigid sexual and gender mores, sexuality and preference exist in a distorted vacuum that does not allow for certain freedoms. Ironically the freedom of artistic expression is used to counter the opposition to child and graphic anime/manga porn, yet these same freedoms are not extended to activists like Rokudenahiko, LGBTQIA* people or Otaku.
For most consumers, the explicit images and animations are the closest they will get to their fantasies. They are unlikely to ever come alive; the depictions have constructed an alternate reality for consumers and fetishisers to live in. Japan is a country where shame is an invisible hand meddling with every layer of social strata, yet violent and child anime and manga porn remains highly visible.
I can only assume that these phenomena are so inextricably linked.
Aditi Razdan is a Law and Asian Studies student at ANU, drawn to the country of her ancestors and the stories of her people. She is particularly interested in issues of race, the politicisation of culture and religion and the criminalisation of coloured bodies. She is a Sub-Editor at the East Asia Forum, Editor of Demos and has had her work published in Demos and The Kashmir Times.