Publication Details

McLelland, M. (2015). Sex, censorship and media regulation in Japan: a historical overview. In M. McLelland and V. Mackie (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Sexuality Studies in East Asia (pp. 402-413). Oxford: Routledge. 2014

Additional Publication Information

ISBN: 9780415639484


Over the past several decades alarmist reports about the supposed dangers of the sexualised nature of much Japanese popular culture have regularly featured in the English-language press. It has been claimed that Japan is 'awash' in all kinds of pornography, including child pornography (Larimer 1999; Fallows 1986: 38) and that insufficient attempts are made by the authorities to properly regulate the expression of sexual matters. A major concern of such reporting has been the supposed 'dark side' (McGinty 2002) of the manga (comics) which are ubiquitous in Japan and, since the 1980s, have become popular with young people worldwide. International childprotection agencies, including such bodies as UNICEF, have argued that Japan's classification systems, which tend to be self-regulated by various culture industries as opposed to enforced by government-appointed bodies, are ineffective in screening out representations of sex and violence that are 'harmful to youth' (McLelland 2011).

One problem with this kind of media discourse is that it assumes there are universal standards or agreement over the meaning of contentious terms such as 'pornography' or 'obscenity'. As Anne Allison has pointed out, Anglophone discussions of pornography have largely overlooked standards and practices concerning the regulation of sexual expression in non-Western countries; or, when they are attended to, as in the case of Japan, 'practices and texts involving the representation, alteration and aestheticisation of bodies have been judged by western (or universalist) standards' (2000: 54). Allison calls for the need to 'foreground the local context' when analysing the genres of pornography available, as well as attending to their users. In this chapter I offer a historical overview of the regulation of sexual content primarily in relation to the Japanese print media. Through attending to a few specific case studies that have not been discussed in English, I show that a range of Japanese authorities, particularly the police, have exercised a great deal of scrutiny over sexual expression. I will demonstrate that the contours of what is considered problematic or dangerous are not always agreed on and are constantly shifting according to local as well as international influences.