What happened in 1954? Well, besides the American dub of Godzilla being released, a little thing called the Comics Code Authority was created. From Wikipedia:
The CCA was created in 1954 as part of the CMAA in response to public concern about what was deemed inappropriate material in many comic books. This included graphic depictions of violence and gore in crime and horror comics, as well as the sexual innuendo of what aficionados refer to as good girl art. Fredric Wertham‘s book Seduction of the Innocent rallied opposition to this type of material in comics, arguing that it was harmful to the children who made up a large segment of the comic book audience. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings in 1954, which focused specifically on comic books, had many publishers concerned about government regulation, prompting them to form a self-regulatory body instead.
Well, it took a while for the Japanese to catch up, but it looks like they’re finally on their way. The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly (Tokyo’s city/regional government) has just passed a law regarding Manga (and presumably anime) that will go into effect in 2011. What does this law do? From Anime News Network:
Bill 156 would require the industry to also regulate “manga, anime, and other images (except for real-life photography)” that “unjustifiably glorify or exaggerate” certain sexual or pseudo sexual acts. Another section of the revised bill would allow the government to directly regulate the above images if the depicted acts are also “considered to be excessively disrupting of social order” such as rape.
Now of course, this is just Tokyo, not all of Japan. But by comparison, if say New York City of Los Angeles had a similar ban, do you think American publishers would be willing to lose either of those markets for their books? Tokyo has 39 million people, and Japan as a whole has 127 million, so do the math. As Tokyo goes- so goes the country.
The main issue here is the sheer vagueness of the bill, and that it will be administered by a group of older political appointees whose sense of “decency” will now be the one which guides Japan’s entire publishing industry. Those books which don’t meet “code”, will now be regulated to the “adult” sections of stories (if they have one, not all manga stores do) and ghettoized. That is, if they’re not banned outright, including their possession.
Now, it’s fair to say that unlike in 1954, this Bill is easily circumvented by the Internet, and that’s probably exactly what will happen. In fact, if manga publishers are smart, they’ll produce two versions of their books (much like DVD producers do)- a censored one for general sale, and an uncensored one available online only (for a price). In fact, it may even help to drive the internet-ization of manga, something the industry has been incredibly slow to do in comparison with American comics publishers.
Also, and this is my personal thoughts on the subject, I think what we’re seeing here is the result of a generational war that’s heating up inside Japan. Japan is an economically stagnant and culturally troubled country that is deeply mixed in its feelings about how its society is changing. I think of a lot of the Japanese boomers are becoming extremely conservative and frightened by the changes occurring, and things like this are their way of fighting back against that “decent into immorality”.
And, to take a devil’s advocate approach, some good may actually come from this. As someone who’s been reading/watching manga and anime since the 1980’s, I can say that there has been a definite decline in the quality of storytelling in the industry as a whole. If the artists and publishers are no longer able to use sexual content as a boost to sell their books, we may actually see them trying to be more creative in story and innovation. I’ve noted that it’s under restrictions that human become their most creative (usually to circumvent those restrictions) and this may apply to the manga industry as well. It certainly did to the American comics industry!
Update: More detail here by Brian Ashcraft on Kotaku: