A bookstore in Tokyo. Sellers and artists who break the new rules face fines… (Kenji Hall / For The Times )
Reporting from Tokyo — The titles in one corner of Kinokuniya bookstore in Tokyo's Shinjuku district suggest the kind of themes that manga comics fans crave: romance, feudal-era adventure, betrayal.
But above the packed bookshelves a sign reads, "Adult manga."
It's the hard-core content within this genre of comics or cartoons, depicting rape, incest and sex crimes, that lawmakers in Tokyo want to keep out of the hands of minors.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly on Wednesday approved an ordinance that makes it illegal to sell or rent sexually explicit manga and anime that "unjustifiably glorifies" violent sexual acts to anyone younger than 18. The law, which goes into effect next year, also bans images of fictional characters that appear to be underage and are engaging in sexual acts. Publishers, retailers and artists who break the rules face fines of up to about $3,500.
"It's common sense.... This is the conscience of the Japanese," Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who proposed the measure, told reporters after the vote. "Would they show that kind of stuff to their kids?"
The ordinance, which amends an existing law, applies only to the Tokyo metropolitan area, where about 13 million people live.
But opponents of the revised law said there already are regulations to protect youths and that the new rules were an attempt by politicians to rein in freedom of speech.
Some opponents of the changes say authorities could use the law to ban any book, movie or video game or block any website that they deem inappropriate. Others worry that the law might be used to crack down on sexually explicit content in theater, painting and other art forms.
"The governor and his supporters say that it's not about curbs on expression, but we think this will have a negative impact," said Yasumasa Shimizu, vice president of Kodansha, a major Tokyo-based publishing house.
Last week, 10 major Japanese publishers threatened to boycott the Tokyo International Anime Fair in March if the measure was approved. On Monday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan weighed in, pleading with both sides to keep the fair from being canceled.
On Wednesday, as the 127-seat assembly prepared to vote, about 200 people demonstrated against the new law at Hosei University in Tokyo.
Manga comics and anime films and TV shows are popular among adults and children in Japan. They run the gamut from sci-fi tales and historical classics to schoolgirl romances. The most well-known manga comics often have a second life off the page as mainstream TV dramas and films, and it's common to find characters in ads hawking products as diverse as watches and cars.
The issue involving sexually explicit manga has highlighted the predicament Japanese policymakers must wrestle with: Though manga comics and anime films rank among the top cultural exports, there has long been a darker side to the material that might tarnish the industry's image overseas.
Many critics of Tokyo's new rules acknowledge that the most violent and sexually explicit books and films should not be for children, but they also say the issue goes well beyond comics.
"Legislators should be focusing their attention on improving sex education, rather than targeting the manga and anime industry," said Meiji University professor Yukari Fujimoto, a former manga comics editor. "The worst thing that this law might do is stifle artists' creativity. Their imagination is the reason Japanese manga and anime have so many fans worldwide."
Hall is a special correspondent.