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Given the amount of discussion this topic seems to generate (esp. regarding manga and anime), I'll try to set the record straight about a number of myths and the occasional fact regarding Japanese obscenity laws. The confusion is understandable, since the exact definition of obscenity has changed several times and is not spelled out anywhere: Japanese bureaucrats evidently know it when they see it, just like in the States.

  1. Pubic hair is obscene.

    False, but only for the last ten years or so. Before then, pubic hair had to brushed out (in pictures), mosaiced (in video) or simply not drawn (in cartoons). In one particularly notorious case, in a scholarly catalogue of all of Utamaro's work (the first and only of its kind), a number of erotic shunga-e woodblock prints (several hundred years old and revered as classics) were censored.

    Some people suspect this former ban is one of the reasons Japanese porn became so heavily tilted towards underaged schoolgirls and the like. Do note that the inverse -- no pubic hair equals not obscene -- is not and has never been true, so child pornography has never been legal.

  2. Sex organs are obscene.

    True, to an extent. Unless the publication is wrapped in plastic to save the children, sex organs may not be depicted, period. (Pubic hair and breasts do not count.) Armies of creative cartoonists work overtime to get around this: for example, there is nothing at all wrong with showing a woman naked in bed with a man, wrapping her hand around a tube-shaped area of white extending from his crotch and licking the tip. After all, the guy could have a nutritious carrot or something in his underpants, right? Happy Mr. Panda (occasionally with liquid squirting from his cranium) is another frequently spotted standby.

    Things get even more bizarre in actual, shrink-wrapped, hardcore porn. While pretty much anything imaginable (and quite a few things that aren't) goes in terms of sexual activity, pictures or videos of genitals must be mosaiced, full stop. For hardcore cartoons, anything else can be and is shown in throbbing purple detail, but the clitoris and the glans must be covered by little white strips. Yes, this results in double-page split beaver shots with a pencil eraser-sized strip draped across (not even over) the clitoris. Don't ask, it doesn't make sense to me either.

    Any Japanese comics that violate the rule above are unauthorized doujinshi. While fairly openly traded in some places (eg. Tokyo's Akihabara), no reputable bookstore will touch them.

  3. Tentacles are not obscene.

    True. As long as they're not too penislike (the fine distinctions of which I'll leave to the bureaucracy), waving around tentacles and sticking them anywhere is wholesome fun for the whole girls-only enforced-miniskirt Catholic high school invaded by Overfiends. This goes a long way to explain the popularity of tentacle hentai.

  4. Ejaculate is not obscene.

    True. The first issue of Young Jump (Japan's most popular non-shonen manga, intended for teens) I found on a subway had a full-color spread featuring zero-gravity sex, the punchline involving semen splattered all over the cabin (hint: it floats).

  5. Importing pornography is illegal.
  6. True. Japanese Customs will not infrequently view videos found in luggage or sent by mail from overseas to see if they violate these restrictions. Legally imported copies of Playboy etc have the offending regions blanked out.

  7. Japanese late-night TV is pretty wild.

    Depends on your definition of "wild". You won't see more than brief flashes of topless nudity, but the style of the programs is very different from most Western soft-core porn: for example, there are game shows where the female contestants wear bikinis and are made to do various wet, humiliating and/or jiggly activities with all the best bits repeated in slow motion from multiple angles. Probably the best known of these is the Miniska Police, featuring a crew of nubiles in latex police uniforms chasing their arch-enemy Nuguman, who defends himself with a magic ray that makes clothes disappear.

That should pretty much cover up the obscenity front; as usual, corrections and comments welcome. The Clintonesque duplicity of Japan's other sex laws would make a great node, but maybe I'll leave that to someone with a bit more hands-on knowledge about the commercial side of things...

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