Censorship in Japan

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Censorship in Japan has taken many forms throughout the history of the country. While Article 21 of the Constitution of Japan guarantees freedom of expression and prohibits formal censorship, effective censorship of obscene content does exist and is justified by the Article 175 of the Criminal Code of Japan. Historically, the law has been interpreted in different ways—recently it has been interpreted to mean that all pornography must be at least partly censored, and a few arrests have been made based on this law.[1]

As of 2023, Japan is ranked 68th on the Press Freedom Index, up from 71st in the previous year.[2] Reporters Without Borders has noted that issues concerning Japan include self-censorship among its journalists, the national media broadcaster NHK maintaining close ties to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), as well as the exclusion of freelancers and foreign reporters in government events and interviews, fueling doubts about editorial independence.[3] In 2022, an "online insults" law was introduced that would regulate the kind of speech made in the online public sphere.[4]


Tokugawa/Edo Period[edit]

As publishing became more popular in the Edo Period, the Tokugawa shogunate began to turn to censorship. During this period, the shogunate, or military government, had a constant policy to censor anything deemed as indecent by the government. Initial targets included Christianity, criticism of the shogunate, and information on the activities of the Tokugawa clan. With the Kansei Reforms, any material deemed to be disturbing the traditional way of life, as well as luxury publications, came under scrutiny. Under the Tempō Reforms, printing blocks of erotic literature, as well as the novels of Tamenaga Shunsui and Tanehiko Ryūtei were among those seized.[5]

Their early bans focused on Christian books, military books (gunsho), mainly as a way to restrict regional Daimyo, feudal lord, from using Christianity as a political ideology and challenge the Bakufu's new rule while imposing their moral authority. As military and political instability settled, the shogunate turned their gaze on social unrest. They were noting an increase in civil disobedience and satirical criticism using literature and theater coming from ordinary people.[6] An edict for publications guidelines were issued on Kyoho 7(1722)/11 with an outline of themes that were banned. In addition to literature, the Shogunate also placed limitations on kabuki theater actors. The shogunate prohibited women and children from appearing in plays, but this law was often ignored by theater houses. These new laws resulted in the rise of male actors who would specialize in female roles called onnagata.[7]

Meiji Period and the Pacific War[edit]

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which marked a major political shift in Japan, the government began heavy censorship of Western ideas, pornography and any political writings critical of the Emperor of Japan and government, wanting to control the spread of information. Censorship of materials increased from this point, often using ongoing wars to increase police penalties. Episodes of newspaper suppression and imprisonment of editors occurred in 1868, 1876 and 1887.[8] Freedom of speech and the press was heavily restricted through vaguely worded laws.[8]

In 1930, the death penalty was added to the list of punishments deemed acceptable for certain violations. This continued, eventually to the Information and Propaganda Department (情報部, Jōhōbu) being elevated to the Information Bureau (情報局, Jōhō Kyoku) in 1940, which consolidated the previously separate information departments from the Army, Navy and Foreign Ministry under the aegis of the Home Ministry. The new Bureau had complete control over all news, advertising and public events. The following year revision of the National Mobilization Law (国家総動員法, Kokka Sōdōin Hō) eliminated freedom of the press entirely, doing things such as forcing papers in each prefecture to either merge into one paper or cease publication, with all articles by the paper having to be screened by government censors before they could be published.[9]

Occupation of Japan[edit]

After the surrender of Japan in 1945, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers abolished all forms of censorship and controls on freedom of speech. Article 21 of the Constitution of Japan was later integrated in 1947 to guarantee that the Japanese had the freedom to associate with each other and express their thoughts freely. However, press censorship remained a reality during the occupation of Japan, especially in matters of pornography, and in political matters deemed subversive by the American government.[10] Publications submitted by the press were monitored for criticisms about democracy or the problems such as starvation the Japanese citizens experienced during the occupation in the form of regulations set by The Press Code of 1945.[11]

Censorship of certain events related to the Allied forces left various groups of Japanese citizens to be subjected to discrimination by their peers. Hibakusha experienced life-altering physical changes as a result of the radiation they were exposed to and the lack of press explaining the effects of radiation poisoning made it difficult for Hibakusha to fit in. Unable to speak out against the results of the atomic bombs and to assimilate with other Japanese citizens, most Hibakusha had to live in isolation within the homes of their family.[12]

The three organizations established by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers and who were tasked with upholding press censorship were the Civil Communications Section (CCS), the Civil Censorship Detachment (CCD), and the Civil Information and Education Section (CIE). The CCS focused on monitoring what was being broadcast to the Japanese people while the CCD monitored printed and filmed works to ensure that no form of media was spreading messages against democracy. The CIE on the other hand, was primarily used to educate Japanese publishers and producers on how to integrate prodemocratic values into their publications to boost support for the new government.[11]

According to Donald Keene:

Not only did Occupation censorship forbid criticism of the United States or other Allied nations, but the mention of censorship itself was forbidden. This means, as Donald Keene observes, that for some producers of texts "the Occupation censorship was even more exasperating than Japanese military censorship had been because it insisted that all traces of censorship be concealed. This meant that articles had to be rewritten in full, rather than merely submitting XXs for the offending phrases".

Dawn to the West[13]

Pornographic censorship[edit]

The sale and distribution of pornography in Japan is restricted under Article 175 of the Criminal Code (1907), which states the following:

A person who distributes, sells or displays in public an obscene document, drawing or other objects shall be punished by imprisonment with work for not more than 2 years, a fine of not more than 2,500,000 yen or a petty fine. The same shall apply to a person who possesses the same for the purpose of sale.[14]

The article was amended in 2011 to include "recording media containing [obscene] electronic or magnetic records", as well as materials distributed by electronic means.[15]

The definition of "obscenity", which is absent from the text of the code itself, has developed through a series of judicial decisions. In the 1957 Chatterley Case [ja], the Supreme Court of Japan upheld the convictions of translator Sei Itō and editor Kyujiro Koyama, who were accused of violating the law with their 1950 publication of D. H. Lawrence's erotic novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. In its opinion, the Court cited a three-part test for obscenity previously established by the Supreme Court of Judicature in 1928; under this test, a work is considered obscene if it "arouses and stimulates sexual desire, offends a common sense of modesty or shame, and violates proper concepts of sexual morality".[16] Due to this legal interpretation, the majority of pornography produced in Japan undergoes self-censorship; the primary means are digital mosaics and/or censor bars placed over genitalia.

The first film after World War II to be prosecuted on obscenity charges was Black Snow, a 1965 pink film directed by Tetsuji Takechi and produced by Nikkatsu.[17] The politically and sexually explicit film, which depicts the lives of prostitutes on the outskirts of a US military base in Tokyo, was ruled as "not obscene" by the Tokyo District Court in 1966. The lower court held that the defendants, Takechi and Nikkatsu distributor chief Satoru Murakami, were not culpable because the film had successfully passed Eirin, Japan's self-regulating movie regulator. The ruling was upheld in 1969 at the Tokyo High Court, which deemed that the film was obscene but acquitted the pair on the basis of the approval the film had received from Eirin. The rulings were followed in 1972 by a series of prosecutions against Nikkatsu's Roman Porno film series, which similarly ended in acquittals of Nikkatsu employees in 1978 and 1980 on the basis of Eirin approvals.[17]

In January 2004, Yūji Suwa, Motonori Kishi, and Kōichi Takada were prosecuted for producing and distributing the hentai manga anthology Misshitsu, in the first manga-related obscenity trial in Japan. Police reports found the depictions of "genitalia and scenes of sexual intercourse" within the manga to have been "drawn in detail and realistically", and that the censor bars meant to obscure genitalia and sexual penetration were "less conservative" than usual.[18] Suwa and Takada pled guilty and were fined ¥500,000 each (about US$4,700), with Kishi receiving a one-year suspended prison sentence.[19] After appealing to the Tokyo High Court, Kishi's sentence was reduced to a 1.5 million yen fine (about US$13,750).[20] He then appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that Article 175 violated Article 21 of the Constitution of Japan and its protection of freedom of expression. In its 2007 decision, the Court upheld the guilty verdict, concluding that Misshitsu satisfied the three-part obscenity test and was therefore subject to restriction. After the convictions of Kishi and Suwa, a number of retail bookstores in Japan removed their adults-only section, a phenomenon attributed to the chilling effect of the outcome.[21]

In July 2013, three people related to Core Magazine, a Japanese publishing company focused on adult material, were arrested for selling "obscene images" with "insufficient censoring".[22][23] They later pleaded guilty in December.[24]

Internet censorship[edit]

Internet censorship in Japan generally focuses on pornography and controversial political material especially in regards to Japanese history during the Empire of Japan.[25]

In 2022, Japan introduced a law to revise its Penal Code that would mandate a jail time for up to a year and a larger fine for making "online insults".[26] Previously, insult charges apply when it is established that an "individual has insulted another in the public sphere to damage their social reputation". The penalty applied to the crime under the pre-revised law were "detention for less than 30 days" or "a fine of less than 10,000 yen.[4]

In February 2023, the proposal to introduce internet real-name system which similar to China one's was announced by Digital Minister Taro Kono and he said: "If we first use the phone number card for authentication when creating accounts for various services such as social networking services, we can ensure that age restrictions are strictly observed, so I think the phone number card will be useful in this area as well. Digital Minister Kono stated that "some unsolicited videos are clearly criminal acts, and in such cases, people must be made aware of the fact that they are crimes", and that "putting videos on the Internet for fun will affect people's lives for a long time". He also stated that it is necessary to cooperate with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and others to provide guidance in the field of education in order to improve internet literacy.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Natsui, Takato (July 2003). Cybercrimes in Japan: Recent Cases, Legislations, Problems and Perspectives (PDF). NetSafe II: Society, Safety & the Internet. New Zealand: netsafe. p. 3. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 July 2011. Retrieved 10 March 2011.
  2. ^ "Japan ranks 68th in World Press Freedom Index, lowest in G-7". The Asahi Shimbun. 3 May 2023. Retrieved 24 November 2023.
  3. ^ "Japan | RSF". rsf.org. Retrieved 6 July 2022.
  4. ^ a b Jessie Yeung, Emiko Jozuka and Kathleen Benoza (14 June 2022). "Japan makes 'online insults' punishable by one year in prison". CNN. Retrieved 6 July 2022.
  5. ^ Chang, Yu, 1969- (2001). Publishing culture in eighteenth-century Japan : the case of the Edo publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburô, 1751-97. National Library of Canada = Bibliothèque nationale du Canada. ISBN 0-612-51565-6. OCLC 1006915828.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Keirstead, Thomas. "The Cambridge History of Japan. Volume 4, Early Modern Japan (Book Review)". The American Historical Review 98.5 (1993): 1664-665. Web.
  7. ^ Shively, Donald H. (December 1955). "Bakufu Versus Kabuki". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 18 (3/4): 326–356. doi:10.2307/2718437. ISSN 0073-0548. JSTOR 2718437.
  8. ^ a b Wildes, Harry Emerson (1927). "Press Freedom in Japan". American Journal of Sociology. 32 (4): 601–614. ISSN 0002-9602.
  9. ^ Seidensticker, Edward; Rubin, Jay (1985). "Injurious to Public Morals: Writers and the Meiji State". Journal of Japanese Studies. 11 (1): 218. doi:10.2307/132243. ISSN 0095-6848. JSTOR 132243.
  10. ^ Abel, Jonathan E. Redacted: The Archives of Censorship in Transwar Japan. Berkeley: U of California, 2012. Asia Pacific Modern; 11. Web.
  11. ^ a b "Sex and Censorship During the Occupation of Japan". The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Retrieved 2022-12-01.
  12. ^ "'Give Back Peace That Will Never End': Hibakusha poets and public intellectuals". The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Retrieved 2022-12-01.
  13. ^ David M. Rosenfeld, quoting from Donald Keene (Dawn to the West. New York: Henry Holt, 1984. p. 967.) in Unhappy Soldier: Hino Ashihei and Japanese World War II Literature, p. 86, note 5.
  14. ^ "Article 175 of Act No. 45 of 1907 [Penal Code of Japan]". Japanese Law Translation. Japanese Ministry of Justice. Archived from the original on 19 April 2021. Retrieved 23 December 2019.
  15. ^ "Law No. 74". Japanese House of Representatives. Retrieved 23 December 2019.
  16. ^ "1953 (A) 1713". Supreme Court of Japan. Retrieved 23 December 2019.
  17. ^ a b Cather, Kirsten (2012). The Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press. ISBN 978-0824835873.
  18. ^ Nagaoka, Yoshiyuki (2004). The Obscene Comic Trial: The Whole Picture of the Shobunkan Incident. Tokyo: Michi Shuppan. pp. 247, 252–53.
  19. ^ Joyce, Colin (14 January 2004). "Comics can be pornographic, rules Japanese judge". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 30 June 2019.
  20. ^ "Erotic manga publisher to take case to Supreme Court". Japan Today. Tokyo. 9 August 2005. Archived from the original on 23 November 2008. Retrieved 30 June 2019.
  21. ^ Gravett, Paul (2004). "Chapter 09: Personal Agendas". Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 137. ISBN 1-85669-391-0. Retrieved 10 March 2011.
  22. ^ "Core Magazine's Head Editor, 2 More Arrested for 'Obscene' Manga, Photos". Anime News Network.
  23. ^ "Japanese Editor Arrested for Distributing Obscene Images". Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
  24. ^ "Core Magazine Pleads Guilty in Japanese Obscenity Case". Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
  25. ^ "2016 Human Rights Report: Japan", Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 15 April 2018.
  26. ^ "Japan introduces jail time, tougher penalties for online insults". Kyodo News+. 6 July 2022. Retrieved 6 July 2022.
  27. ^ "マイナカードを利用し年齢制限も 河野デジタル相 迷惑動画問題で" (in Japanese). Feb 12, 2023. Archived from the original on February 13, 2023.

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