In Japan it soon will be illegal to possess child porn – almost

In Japan, selling or producing child pornography has been illegal for 16 years. Possession of it has not. That’s about to change.

Starting July 15, anyone in possession of any form of child pornography featuring real people will face fines and imprisonment for the first time. The change will make Japan one of the last industrialized nations to ban depictions of children having sex, leaving only South Korea as the last economically advanced country to allow possession.

Japan passed the new restrictions last year, after a 15-year battle, providing a grace period before penalties would be enforced. Those penalties kick in next week.

But the new ban still skirts one key sector – anime, the lifelike Japanese animation that is deeply embedded in Japanese culture and is popular across all age ranges. Anime is used for everything, from children’s advertisements and safety warnings to military recruiting.

And pornography.

Even under the new laws, there is nothing illegal in Japan about owning illustrated depictions of child sex. And it remains easy to find in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, a hotspot for animation and gaming with countless shops and cafes dedicated to those modern cultural icons – and the darker side of what animation has to offer.

The selection of child pornography can range from traditional comics to animated movies and interactive games.

One store displays a pornographic comic titled the “little girl collection” and featuring what appear to be preteens. There are multiple other forms, including computer-generated movies and a simulator that depicts an adult male engaging in intercourse with an elementary school girl against her will.

Japan’s affair with pornography is often jarring to Westerners, who can find the unabashed public consumption of pornographic comic books offensive and bizarre. It is not unusual to be able to view the lurid pages being perused by Japanese men in crowded buses and subway trains.

The world’s restrictions on what constitutes child pornography vary. In the U.S., those depicted, real or not, must be at least 18 years old. In Switzerland, the legal limit is 16, while in Austria, the age of consent and the age at which a pornographic depiction is legal is 14.

In Japan, some say a more important phenomenon than the existence of fictional child pornography is that there’s enough demand for it to warrant a small industry. While numbers are hard to come by, the comic industry is huge in Japan, estimated at $2.9 billion last year. Animated or illustrated child pornography is not listed as a separate class.

Putting a dollar value on child pornography here is also complicated by debate over whether any given comic or game actually depicts a child. Masahi Okada, editor of PASO PARA, a magazine that covers only adult games for computers, said that the girls in the content his magazine covers “officially” are all over the age of 18. “There are no games with girls under 18 in the market in the first place,” he asserted.

But the intent seems clear when the 18-year-old looks to be 10 years old in the animation.

Atsushi Sasaki, a professional comic illustrator, says he’s opposed to depicting children in cartoon forms. But he also disapproves of trying to restrict what cartoonist draw, saying it violates free speech protections in Japan’s constitution.

Comics, he says, “are a matter of feelings and emotions. They should not be restricted by law.” The new law “has too many gray zones,” he said.

Still, there’s a new push to add animated child pornography to the law.

Keiji Goto, president of the NGO Think Kids, is among those who thinks the new law doesn’t do enough to restrict child porn. He says he plans to lobby members of the government and political parties to classify illustrated works in the same league as photos and films of real people.

It’s a battle he’s familiar with. In April 2010, Goto and some other volunteers asked that computer-generated depictions and comics be included in the legislation to prohibit possession of child porn. Those restrictions were dropped, however, when the law won approval.

He says he’ll continue to campaign until child pornography is abolished in all forms.