A bill before the Tokyo government that aims to promote the "healthy development" of children by excising "illegal" sexual acts in media could completely gut the anime-and-manga industry as we know it.
Here in the United States, the videogame industry is facing what has been called its "single most important challenge" at the US Supreme Court in the form of a law that would make it illegal to sell violent videogames to children, effectively saying that games are less worthy of First Amendment protection than any other form of media.
In Tokyo, publishers of anime and manga (that is, animated works and comic books) as well as videogames are facing a similar fight - and they're losing.
Like the Californian videogame law, it's not hard to imagine that Bill 156, which passed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) this week - also known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Ordinance Regarding the Healthy Development of Youths - comes from a good place. Bill 156 is borne from prior attempts by the government to stamp out sexualized depictions of virtual children in anime, manga and games, i.e. lolicon (short for "lolita complex"), only it casts a much wider net in the interests of protecting children.
Unfortunately, much of the language used is so vague that it could gut the anime and manga industry entirely. For instance, Bill 156 includes provisions that would classify any work as adult (i.e. pornography) if it "features either sexual or pseudo sexual acts that would be illegal in real life, or sexual or pseudo sexual acts between close relatives whose marriage would be illegal," if the depictions glorified and/or exaggerated the act in question.
Anti-censorship devotees may already be shaking their heads, but a lot of people might be going, "Okay, so what? What's wrong with that?" If the Tokyo government wants to keep material including sexual depictions of rape, incest or pedophilia out of the hands of children, isn't that a good thing? A lot of that stuff is pretty messed up, right? The problem, again, lies in the language used - for instance, under this law, the provisions regarding "marriage" would not just include incest, but homosexual relationships as well.
Furthermore, the bill would end up restricting any content which is "considered harmful to a minor's mental health regarding sexuality," which is an awfully vague condition. Essentially, it would give a Tokyo government committee the power to classify any potentially-sexual material as adult, relegating it to the proverbial back room of stores.
It's all the stranger (and more worrisome for the industry) that this bill specifically exempts things like photography, live-action film and TV, and novels. In other words, while a live-action production of Nabokov's Lolita would theoretically be fine under the law, an animated adaptation would be able to be classified as pornography.
What makes this even stranger is that in Japan as in the US, the government already regulates hardcore pornography to keep it out of the hands of youths. In fact, this bill has absolutely nothing to do with materials that are already classified as adult works. The only things affected by these provisions would be anime, manga and games depicting these issues, but not in a manner sexually explicit enough to be classified as porn.
In other words, this bill wouldn't cover the infamous RapeLay, but could potentially cover things like the groundbreaking Neon Genesis Evangelion (two words: hospital scene) or even "magical girl" shows that imply nudity on underage characters during transformation sequences. One could hardly classify long-running action manga Berserk as hentai, but under this bill the sexual scenes would make it vulnerable to reclassification - and in Japan as in the West, many retailers will opt not to stock adult material entirely. It could also hamstring entire genres that deal with same-sex romance (and given statements by Tokyo governor Ishihara calling gays and lesbians "deficient," this may be intended).
While Bill 156 will only affect the Tokyo area, given that the vast majority of anime and manga makers are located in the area around Tokyo, it could still have a potentially critical effect on the industry.
Naturally, the bill has faced harsh opposition everywhere outside of the Tokyo government. The Tokyo Bar Association and the Japan PEN Club have both opposed the bill, with the former criticizing it for unclear terminology and its use of the term "exaggerated" (since manga and anime are by their nature exaggerated), and the latter claiming that the bill could "warp the freedoms of speech and expression."
The strongest opposition, however, comes from manga and anime publishers themselves (understandably). The major publishers in the "Big 10" including media giant Kadokawa have announced intentions to boycott the Tokyo Anime Fair (link NSFW), despite Governor Ishihara's claims that the event would "prove a place where the Japan can proudly showcase the charms of its animation industry to the world." Meanwhile, Shueisha, publisher of Shonen Jump - the serial magazine containing famous titles like Bleach and Naruto - affirmed its support for its writers and artists, and urged them to create works that would "blow [the legislature] away."
Japanese Prime Minster Naoto Kan also expressed concerns about the issue - specifically the Big 10's boycotting of the Anime Fair - in a blog post. While the promotion of healthy development in the youth was important, wrote Kan, it was also important that "Japanese animation [was] broadcast to a global audience."
This is way too huge an issue to comprehensively cover in one news post - further reading is recommended at places like Japanator and Dan Kanemitsu - but one thing is certain: Fans of anime and manga may find the industry irrevocably changed as a result of this bill.
Or, the companies could just pack up and move to Osaka. That could happen, too.
Update: Bill 156 has officially passed. Preliminary self-regulation will begin on April 1 2011, with the law going into effect on July 1.
(Source: Dan Kanemitsu)