In 2021, I wrote about the successes of Japan’s manga and anime industries for this magazine. Now, at the beginning of 2023, the Rising Sun’s pop culture exports remain as successful as ever. By the end of 2021, domestic manga sales totalled ¥675.9 billion (about $5.3US billion), while direct sales to North America were worth $600 million. Animated works as varied as Cyberpunk Edgerunners (2022) and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean (2021–22) have received critical accolades. Yet, amid the chorus of praise and sustained popularity, some western critics continue to highlight what they see as the problematic nature of those genres and their fandoms, often echoing a kind of weird Japan narrative and depicting Japanese culture as strange and sinister.
The panic over anime and manga has always fed off stereotypes of Japan as a “menagerie” of the bizarre, as Ryu Spaeth depicts the country in a December 2020 piece for The New Republic, a place where “men fall in love with busty Power Rangers, and the women vanish like ghosts into the gloomy mist of the suicide forest.” Many writers in the west project their own anxieties about their societies’ growing atomisation, sexual degeneracy and demographic decline onto Japan: a place where, it seems to them, many of their fears have already been realised. Fans of manga seem to typify all those worrying tendencies.
Critics have often described the genres as misogynistic because they allegedly sexualise female characters, pander to lonely otaku (obsessive, housebound geeks) or even enable abusers. Journalist Sasha Kong is a typical recent example. She cites Patrick Galbraith’s claim that Japanese media production “has been heavily tilted towards men since its early formations in the post-war period” and views this as the explanation for the hypersexualised portrayals of women contained in anime and manga—although she notes that they are now being challenged by “feminist storytelling.” This framing, however, ignores the role women played in shaping the industry as early as the 1970s. In April 2022, the United Nations-aligned organization UN Women filed a complaint against Japanese newspaper giant Nikkei over an advertising feature called Tawawa on Monday, which has been running since 2020 and allegedly presents “an underage girl as a male sexual target.” The majority of respondents in a Japanese poll, including young women, disagreed.
There have been many similar complaints about the supposedly abusive nature of these genres over the years. In a 2016 report on women’s rights in Japan, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for a ban on “the sale of video games or cartoons involving sexual violence against women” and blaming such works for propagating sexist stereotypes. As writer Dan Kanemitsu noted at the time, however, such assessments conflate wholly fictional creations with abuse directed at real people and do not reflect the views of mangaka (manga artists and authors), as the Japan Women’s Institute of Contemporary Media Culture representative Kumiko Yamada has argued in a memorandum signed by several professors and artists. A number of sexually provocative works in these genres were created by women, including Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist, Iida Pochi’s Lovecraftian The Elder Sister-like One and the works of the all-female CLAMP circle.
Critics like Hanako Montgomery have alleged that such media “may leave room to normalize sexual violence against children.” Montgomery’s 2022 video for VICE News —which YouTube controversially decided to block in Japan—claims that manga creators view their creative freedoms as a “loophole” that allows them to justify creating “animated child porn.” Once again this is to mistake fantasy for reality, as Irodori Comics owner On Takahashi has pointed out. There have since been numerous studies refuting the idea that there is a correlation between the popularity of sexually explicit cartoons and the prevalence of sexual exploitation. While local activists like Kazuna Kanajiri, cited by Montgomery, have called such works a “violation of human rights,” we should not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about fictional representations here and there is no evidence that any real-life people have been violated.
These criticisms of anime and manga as promoting child abuse nevertheless have a long history.
In 2017, BBC Three journalist Stacey Dooley accused artist Takeshi Nogami of paedophilia because of his work on Girls und Panzer. In 2010, CNN’s Kyung Lah cited the example of a rape roleplay game called Rapelay as evidence of Japan’s moral depravity—even though the game had never been popular and was no longer in circulation. In 2009, Roger Cohen wrote a New York Times op-ed depicting male fans of manga and anime as examples of the escapist follies of the modern Japanese.
In 2008, UNICEF appealed to the Japanese government to end “child pornography in manga comics, animated films and computer games”—in spite of a lack of evidence that these games harm actual children. The 1996 World Congress Against Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents singled out Japan as a “major producer of child pornography”—even though the evidence presented did not suggest that Japan was an outlier, at the time, and lumped together erotic art—irrespective of the age of the characters portrayed—alongside real material. At the same time, both the conservative Familles de France and the socialist Ségolène Royale denounced anime and manga and the Comité de Surveillance Audiovisuel attempted to ban both genres in France as a result of their fear that such material might foster moral degeneracy.
Critic Gearoid Reidy sees the misunderstandings about the nature of anime and manga as symptomatic of a “growing gap in western understanding of, and even interest in, Japan” in spite of the nation’s economic and cultural clout and responds to BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes’ recent comment that Japan is “stuck in the past,” with the question of why Japan should change to meet western tastes?
In pathologizing Japanese pop culture, critics imply that the Japanese are alien in their tastes and values and have suspect morals. This is irresponsible journalism that betrays an ignorance of anime and manga and of the country in general, which must be understood on its own terms.
We should not make the mistake of viewing artistic freedom of expression as problematic in itself—no matter how emotively moralistic the appeals of activists may be. We must always take cultural preferences and creative liberties into consideration and not be blindly led by our disgust at sexual crimes to demonise an art form with which they have never been linked, despite perennial attempts to find such a connection. Neither should we slander the Japanese as child abusers because of their taste in comics.