Jesse Victoroff
In 2002, the author of the manga "Honey Room" was tried for obscenity. According to leading academic analysis, no manga author was tried for obscenity before 2002 because manga was a new artistic medium. I argue that this simple analysis is incorrect. Manga editors censored much of their own work to avoid the market stigma of an obscenity trial. Manga artists evaded obscenity charges by working through loopholes in obscenity legislation. Those who pushed for manga censorship pushed for censorship on the basis of indecency rather than obscenity because indecency, a censorship charge for children, seemed more appropriate a charge than obscenity as manga was perceived as a medium for children. It is for the reasons above, rather than any supposed modernity, that no manga author was tried for obscenity before 2002. What triggered, then, the 2002 trial? First, a string of murders connected to manga shifted the perception that manga was a medium for children. Then a number of obscenity laws loosened in Japan, tempting more explicit manga. Finally, a drop in manga readership urged artists to write riskier manga to improve sales. This perfect storm of social, legal, and economic forces bred the first manga obscenity trial. top of page Manga Subverts Obscenity
Manga Subverts Obscenity | Jesse Victoroff

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In 2002, the author of Misshitsu, also known as “Honey Room,” was tried for obscenity in the first manga obscenity trial in Japan’s history.1 Throughout the twentieth century, Japan censored works in the media of literature, film, and photography as obscene. However prior to 2002, no manga author was ever tried for obscenity. In Professor Kirsten Cather’s analysis, she cites the Misshitsu case as “the natural conclusion to the preceding obscenity trials in the second half of the twentieth century” for the “new artistic medium” of manga.2 However, I argue that this is an inaccurate analysis. Within postwar Japan alone, the first obscenity trial for literature was in 1951,3 the first obscenity trial for film was in 1965,4 and the first obscenity trial for photography was in 1976.5 Yet the first obscenity trial for manga did not come for another two and a half decades. This is despite the fact that emaki, Japanese picture scrolls that were the precursor to manga, have existed since the 12th century C.E.6 Rhe first film did not debut until 1878.7

 Why wasn’t any manga tried for obscenity until 2002? I will depart from Cather’s analysis by showing three distinct qualities of the manga industry that answer this question. I will show that together, the manga industry’s self-censorship, its adaptation to subvert limited obscenity laws, and the medium’s perceived illegitimacy by the Japanese population delayed a manga obscenity trial until 2002, not the supposed modernity of manga itself. I will also explain the other side of the primary question: if no manga author was ever tried for obscenity before 2002, why was a manga author tried for obscenity in 2002? To answer this second question, I will explore the liberalization in obscenity law, market forces, and public opinion that lead to the 2002 “Honey Room” trial.

 Before discussing the factors that prevented manga obscenity trials in early postwar Japan, one must first understand manga as a medium, especially as it relates to obscenity. Thus, I will begin by discussing the artistic tools of manga, as well as the legal background to the Misshitsu trial. In his book, “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art,” Scott McCloud analyzes the artistic grammar of manga.8 He begins by explaining why characters in manga are often depicted more simply.9 He argues that characters are simplified in manga so that the reader may better relate to these characters. He notes that in real-life conversation, people often observe specific details of the person to which they are talking. However, when one visualizes his or her own visage, he or she “essentializes” his or her features. That is to say that rather than remembering every detail of one’s own appearance, one is aware of a more simplified image: two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and possibly facial hair. Thus, in comics, a more detailed image stresses the “otherness” of a character, while a simplified image allows the reader to identify with characters. This is why manga often simplify the protagonists’ visual appearance. The visual grammar of comics allows the reader to insert himself into the narrative and further involve himself in the story rather than see the characters as an “other.”

 McCloud also discusses how manga artists use the space between frames and the arrangement of frames on the page to convey meaning and engage the reader’s imagination.10 McCloud explains that comic artists have used stylized lines, panel borders, and panel layouts to depict motion, emotion, and the passage of time.11 Although the images are static, these visual elements allow the reader to imagine a moving storyline. Additionally, while a static image may not necessarily convey time or motion, the reader fills in the spaces or “gutters” between the panels with his imagination. Although the comic only shows individual snapshots of a story, the reader constructs a narrative from these distinct images in his mind. This is what McCloud calls “closure.”12 The spaces between panels in comics force the reader to imagine both spatial motion and the passage of time. Closure engages the reader in the story because the images are not a story in and of themselves. Instead, the reader must create a story in the gutter between these images. This gives the otherwise static images a filmic quality in which the reader moves his eyes across the images to construct a continuous series of events. Although McCloud discusses many other aspects of comics as an art form, these two characteristics, simplified images and closure, are the most relevant to obscenity. These characteristics make manga one of the most engaging media. As discussed below in the legal background to the Misshitsu trial, a more engaging medium like manga is usually more likely to be judged obscene.

The judges in the Misshitsu trial were not manga theory experts, but the case centered on a discussion of manga’s obscenity as a medium.13 This discussion included the principles of visual grammar discussed above. The judges had the challenge of applying obscenity laws to manga as a hybrid medium because manga contains not only images, but words as well. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Japanese courts tried the author of a work from a different hybrid medium for obscenity: Oshima Nagisa for his screenplay In the Realm of the Senses.14 This screenplay contained both pictures and a prose description, and is thus quite similar to a manga, which also includes both images and words. After a lengthy legal battle, the judges ruled that “static, textual media was inherently innocuous and kinetic, visual media was inherently obscene.”15 The judges determined that work within a given medium was not only obscene because of its explicit visual components but also because of the implicit visual components that it conjures in the reader’s imagination. Because both the words and pictures in the screenplay were static, they did not push the reader’s imagination towards obscenity.

This is where manga departs from a screenplay. The words and pictures of manga are not static. Not only does manga contain both pictures and text, but manga uses chat bubbles and onomatopoeia that engage the reader both aurally and visually. The non-linear layout of panels forces the reader to remain mentally engaged in the manga. In addition, Japanese readers scan manga at an average of three to four seconds per page.16 This quick reading rate grants manga an inherently filmic quality that further complicates its legal classification as a medium. The judges in the Misshitsu trial noted that while the aforementioned aspects of manga made narrative and visual elements of manga more realistic, its hand-drawn images made the manga less realistic. However, these unrealistic images included large and detailed genitalia that the judges ruled as “irredeemably obscene.”17

The judges discussed not only the artistry of manga, but also the medium’s place in Japanese culture. In Japan, art that would otherwise be obscene has been ruled not obscene because its artistic or political value was declared a mitigating factor.18 In the Misshitsu trial, however, the manga was viewed only as a market-driven commodity created for profit. The publisher himself admitted that he created the manga without a moral or philosophical intent but rather with the intent of creating erotica and gaining profits.19 The judges thus addressed manga as if it were a “children’s” medium without potential artistic or political value.  The judges saw manga as a children’s medium despite the fact that “Honey Room” was labeled as an adult manga. In part, manga was still seen as a children’s medium in this case because Misshitsu’s author was indicted because a sixteen-year-old held a copy of the comic.20 In addition, manga has historically been perceived as a child’s medium, an issue that will be discussed later in greater depth. Although much of the courtroom discussion circulated on the manga’s impact on children, an obscenity case is not about children. Obscenity applies to adults and children equally, thus children could not be the focus of this case. While many manga had been convicted or censored under youth regulations before, the impact of the manga on children is irrelevant to this case because obscenity applies to adults as well as children.21

As the artistic and legal background of obscenity in manga has now been addressed, I will return to the central question: how did manga avoid obscenity indictment in Japan before 2002? The first reason is self-censorship. Manga artists, editors, and publishers censored their own possibly obscene work before it was ever published. Self-censorship was an economic imperative for the manga industry to avoid the potential monetary damages of a trial and the resulting stigma. In her book Adult Manga, Sharon Kinsella writes about the manga industry and the market forces that drive the art form.22 She writes that manga officially began self-regulating as early as 1963, when the Japan Publishers’ Association created the Publishing Ethics Committee.23 The committee decided which manga were potentially “harmful” or “indecent.” These terms stemmed directly from national censorship legislation such as the 1964 Indecency Act and Youth Ordinance, local censorship legislation, and criteria from feminist and women’s groups that worked to censor manga.24 Such manga would be put on a list of harmful and indecent comics that were subject to a 300,000 yen fine, as well as the indirect financial costs of a trial, including legal costs and bad publicity.25 Self-censorship was simply a means for manga companies to survive.

 Most self-censored manga were not published because they were overly sexual. These included erotic boys’ love-comedy manga, pornographic adult and “ladies’” manga, and manga depicting sexualized underage girls, known as Lolicom comics.26 Sexual comics were the most likely comics to be labeled as indecent. Once the ethics committee deemed a manga article or manga series potentially harmful or indecent, stores and publishers took several approaches to avoid the stigma and monetary loss of an indictment. Publishers wrapped potentially harmful manga in plastic sleeves and labeled them as “adult manga” to keep children from accidentally browsing through these comics. Some manga stores would put adult manga in special sections, while many more refused to sell adult manga all together. Certain series were discontinued and others were censored by the government under this legislation. The most common tactic, however, was self-censorship before the manga was ever published.27

 Although many potentially obscene manga were never published, other manga editors worked through loopholes in obscenity legislation. This is the second reason that manga avoided an obscenity trial. Although many manga still had erotic or pornographic intent, artists adapted their comics to legal loopholes so that they could avoid an obscenity indictment. Japanese postwar obscenity law specifically prohibited the explicit depiction of genitalia and pubic hair.28 However, other sexual depictions were not necessarily censored. Breasts and buttocks, voyeurism, bestiality, child pornography, and sadomasochism were not considered obscene, and were even common in Japanese media.29 Rather than prohibit sexual images in media, obscenity laws simply diverted and reshaped such images. The medium of manga was no exception. Even the most explicit and erotic manga could avoid obscenity indictments by fetishizing sexuality.

 Erotic manga artists creatively avoided explicit depiction of genitalia using a variety of visual techniques. Artists covered genitalia and pubic hair with black or white boxes, word bubbles, or shading.30 Alternatively, some manga covered obscene areas by pixelating or blurring the pubis.31 Because children do not have pubic hair, obscenity laws indirectly encouraged this genre of pornography. Alternatively, females would sometimes be shaved of their pubic hair in manga to avoid indictment while still revealing the pubic area.32 Erotic stories often involved sadomasochism, bondage, and anal sex play while avoiding more realistic or “normal” sexual depictions because these were not banned by law.33

 The visual techniques of manga also encourage voyeuristic and escapist sexual depictions. Children’s comics as well as adult comics commonly place male characters as voyeurs. The characters will commonly look either at the underwear of female characters or at their exposed bodies.34 As previously discussed, characters in manga are often depicted simplistically so that the reader can identify with those characters. In addition, the space between panels as well as the arrangement of the panels forces the reader to mentally involve himself in the story. Thus voyeuristic protagonists paired with the visual grammar of manga place the reader himself into a voyeuristic role. These voyeuristic scenes do not require any explicitly sexual drawings to arouse the viewer. In fact, many depictions of voyeurism in manga do not lead to any sexual relations at all.35 It is no wonder, then, why manga artists may have incorporated voyeurism rather than explicit sexual acts to avoid obscenity charges.

 While many manga were self-censored by the artists and publishers, and many others adapted to escape specific obscenity restrictions, certainly some arguably obscene manga were published before 2002. However, because manga was also perceived as a less “adult” medium, it was less likely to be indicted for obscenity. This is the third and possibly most subtle reason that the first manga obscenity trial did not come until 2002. To be clear, postwar manga were commonly censored. As previously discussed, however, the manga were almost solely charged with indecency, and they were most commonly charged under youth ordinances. The 1964 Indecency Act that was the basis for such censorship cases states that “indecent materials may not be sold to minors under 18 years of age.”36 The Youth Ordinance also regulated imagery that was deemed harmful to children.37 In addition, the majority of anti-manga protest organizations were mothers’ organizations or organizations concerned with the well-being of youths. The most prominent groups included the National Assembly for Youth Development (NAYD), the National Youth League, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Boy Scouts’ Association, and the Youth Volunteers.38

Most censorship, then, was made in the interest of children rather than adults. Manga was censored to preserve young people’s innocence towards sexuality, violence, and general tastelessness. Manga was perceived as a medium for children, so censorship kept manga out of the hands of children with indecency charges. This logic, however, did not necessarily carry over to adults. Manga was not indicted for obscenity because censorship based on obscenity does not only have to be deemed harmful to children. The manga must be deemed harmful to adults as well, as the judges indicated in the Misshitsu case. Few if any organizations pushed for the censorship of manga for adults because manga was not perceived as an adult medium. Because of this perception, even when a group attempted to censor a manga, the question of obscenity, censorship for adults, seemed irrelevant. Now that I have discussed the factors that prevented a manga obscenity trial through most of the 20th century, I will shift here to the second question: what changes prompted a manga obscenity trial in the early 21st century?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Japanese stopped perceiving manga as a children’s medium. In 1988 and 1989, printer’s assistant Miyazaki Tsutomu violently murdered four girls. When investigating Miyazaki’s room, reporters discovered stacks of manga and anime.39 This discovery radically shifted the public’s perception of manga. Manga were no longer seen as a medium for children, but rather a medium for otaku. Although the term for otaku originally referred to a socially awkward and introverted “nerd,” the Miyazaki murders changed its meaning. Now, otaku was a term for “dangerous, psychologically-disturbed perverts.”40 The tragedy became known as the otaku murders. Although the term otaku is not mutually exclusive with children, these violent murders moved the focus on manga from children to the dangers to society as a whole. Manga could only be seen as obscene once manga was socially perceived as a medium for adults.

 At the same time as the otaku murders, manga saw its peak in readership. In the mid-1990s, over 20 percent of all publishing revenue in Japan was attributed to manga.41 Large manga magazines like Jump sold around 6.5 million copies a week. However, because readers often share their manga, Kinsella argues that as much as one sixth of the Japanese population may have read such a manga magazine.42 Unfortunately, these numbers are difficult to approximate because many classmates, coworkers, and even strangers share manga or read manga without buying them. Even though such approximation is difficult, it is certain that manga had powerful cultural influence in 1990s Japan.43 Because manga was cheap and accessible for commuters at train kiosks, book shops and convenience stores, manga permeated throughout the Japanese working class.44 Not only did manga draw national attention because of its perceived danger towards youths, but manga’s impact on Japanese culture was at an all-time high because of its peak readership. The new cultural power of manga ignited fear of the potential societal harms, including those of obscenity.

 Together the fear of dangerous manga and the high readership of manga sparked a second manga censorship movement in the early 1990s. This time, however, the Manga Publishers’ Union, among other organizations, pushed against the censorship.45 The union appealed for free expression and argued that manga should be seen as an art form equal to any other.46 Manga artists in the Society for the Protection of the Freedom of Expression in Manga and the organization Manga Japan aimed to protect manga from censorship.47 These movements found limited success but in 1991, some obscenity laws became less rigid. In particular, an outpour of public opinion pressed for the liberalization of laws banning pubic hair as obscene. These and other obscenity criteria became slightly looser and vaguer over the next few years.48

 Even after the Japanese government liberalized manga censorship laws in the mid-1990s, however, manga circulation slowed and profits decreased. Some attribute the fall in manga readership to the rise of video-games and other electronic media.49 By the late 1990s, Japanese comics were in a similar position to Japanese film in the early 1970s. In this period, film censorship law had liberalized and the film industry had fallen into economic crisis.50 The Nikkatsu film studio created pornographic films in an attempt to survive financially in difficult economic times. In what is now referred to as the “Nikkatsu Roman Porn Trial”, the artists behind four such films were indicted for obscenity. The defendant’s lawyers argued that the artists behind these films should not be held liable for obscenity because pornographic films were necessary for the industry to compete economically. Like in the Misshitsu trial, these films were not created for art or politics, but were creates as “dirt for money’s sake.”51 However, unlike the Misshitsu trial, in which the judges decided that the manga should be punished for its perceived greed,52 the judges in the Nikkatsu trial decided that the financial motive was a valid mitigating factor for obscenity.53 This is likely because the judges saw film as a more legitimate medium to represent Japanese culture in foreign markets than was manga.

By the turn of the millennium, manga was a prominent part of Japanese culture. However, because of the otaku panic and the newly enlivened manga censorship movement, society perceived this manga as dangerous. This was the social environment that bred Misshitsu. At the same time, obscenity laws had loosened and manga publishers and editors needed to generate new readership to increase their profits. This was the economic environment that bred Misshitsu. Financial needs and looser obscenity regulations now outweighed the motivations for self-censorship and adaptation while Japanese society began to take manga more seriously as a medium. It was at exactly this time that a concerned father discovered an anthology of erotic manga in his teenage son’s room.54 This father sent a letter of complaint to his local representative, highlighting the story from “Honey Room” that he found most offensive. Through what Cather describes as “largely a result of a series of coincidences,” Misshitsu became the first manga to be indicted for obscenity.55

Cather’s initial reasoning of manga’s first obscenity trial is compelling. A wave of new media is likely to be followed by a wave of new obscenity laws. Indeed, the new media of video games and the internet has prompted many new discussions on free expression and censorship.56 Manga, however, is not a new medium. Its arrival into Japanese culture did not affect its postwar obscenity status. Instead, various economic and social forces both prevented a manga obscenity trial in early postwar manga and changed to trigger the early 21st century obscenity trial. These are the forces that have determined the role of manga in Japan for centuries, and these are the forces that will determine manga’s future as a medium both within Japan and across the globe.

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  1. Kirsten Cather, The Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan, chap. 8, page 221, (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2012, accessed May 10, 2013,
  2. Ibid., 221.
  3. Ibid., chap. 1.
  4. Ibid., chap. 3.
  5. Ibid., chap. 7.
  6. Wendy Strauch-Nelson, "Emaki: Japanese Picture Scroll," Art Education 61, no. 3 (2008): 25-32,
  7. “The First Movies Ever Made,” St. Charles Public Library, last modified July 9, 2012,
  8. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics The Invisible Art. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).
  9. Ibid., 28-45.
  10. Ibid., 60-93.
  11. Ibid., 94-137.
  12. Ibid., 63.
  13. Cather The Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan, chap. 8.
  14. Cather, Kirsten. "A Thousand Words: The Powers and Dangers of Text and Image." positions: east asia cultures critique 18, no. 3 (2010): 695-725. (accessed May 10, 2013).
  15. Ibid.
  16. Cather The Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan, 260-261.
  17. Ibid., 255-257.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 259.
  20. Ibid., 262.
  21. Ibid., 263.
  22. Sharon Kinsella, Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000.
  23. Ibid., 148.
  24. Ibid., 141-145
  25. Ibid., 140.
  26. Ibid., 149.
  27. Ibid., 148-150.
  28. Anne Allison, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan, Boulder, Colo: WestviewPress, 1996, 149.
  29. Ibid., 150.
  30. Ibid., 155-158.
  31. Ibid., 159.
  32. Ibid., 151, 171
  33. Ibid., 155.
  34. Ibid., 29.
  35. Ibid., 32.
  36. Kinsella Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society, 140.
  37. Ibid., 142.
  38. Ibid., 152-154.
  39. Ibid., 126-127.
  40. Ibid., 128.
  41. Ibid., 41.
  42. Ibid., 43.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Allison Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan, 153.
  45. Kinsella Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society, 157.
  46. Ibid., 158.
  47. Ibid., 161.
  48. Allison Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan, 149.
  49. Kinsella Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society., 44.
  50. Cather The Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan, chap. 4.
  51. Ibid., 118.
  52. Ibid., 259.
  53. Ibid., 144.
  54. Ibid., 231.
  55. Ibid., 232.
  56. Ibid., 267.

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Works Cited

Allison, Anne. Permitted and prohibited desires: mothers, comics, and censorship in Japan. Boulder, Colo: WestviewPress, 1996.

Cather, Kirsten. "A Thousand Words: The Powers and Dangers of Text and Image." positions: east asia cultures critique 18, no. 3 (2010): 695-725. (accessed May 10, 2013).

Cather, Kirsten. The Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2012.  Accessed May 10, 2013.

Kinsella, Sharon. Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

St. Charles Public Library. “The First Movies Ever Made.” Last modified July 9, 2012.

Strauch-Nelson, Wendy. "Emaki: Japanese Picture Scrolls." Art Education 61, no. 3 (2008): 25-32.

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