If you're traveling to Canada, a country whose customs officials are notorious for playing the role of morality police, you'd better leave your Japanese comics at home — whether they're in print or digital.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund announced today in a press release that it's forming a coalition to support the defense of an American citizen facing criminal charges for manga discovered on his laptop while crossing from the US into Canada. If convicted, he faces a minimum of one year in prison on charges of child pornography.
To quote from the CBLDF press release:
The facts of the case involve an American citizen, computer programmer, and comic book enthusiast in his mid-twenties who was flying from his home in the United States to Canada to visit a friend. Upon arrival at Canadian Customs a customs officer conducted a search of the American and his personal belongings, including his laptop, iPad, and iPhone. The customs officer discovered manga on the laptop and considered it to be child pornography. The client's name is being withheld on the request of counsel for reasons relating to legal strategy.
The images at issue are all comics in the manga style. No photographic evidence of criminal behavior is at issue. Nevertheless, a warrant was issued and the laptop was turned over to police. Consequently, the American has been charged with both the possession of child pornography as well as its importation into Canada. As a result, if convicted at trial, the American faces a minimum of one year in prison. This case could have far reaching implications for comic books and manga in North America.
These charges come at a time when sexual material in manga is being challenged both in Japan and abroad. In 2007, Christopher Handley, a manga collector in Iowa, was charged under the PROTECT Act for possession of child pornography when custom officials intercepted and opened a package for Handley from Japan. Police later came to his house with a search warrant and charged him based on several "obscene" manga found in his collection. Despite a vigorous defense by the CBLDF and comic luminaries such as Neil Gaiman and manga expert Matt Thorn, Handley finally pled guilty in 2009 and was sentenced to six months of prison time.
In 2010, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government passed Bill 156,an expansion of a dusty 1964 law titled the Tokyo Metropolitan Ordinance Regarding the Healthy Development of Youths, giving the Tokyo government far-reaching powers over minors' access to the Internet and mobile devices, and criminalizing the sale to minors of
any manga, animation, or pictures (but not including real life pictures or footage) that 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, where such depictions and / or presentations unjustifiably glorify or exaggerate the activity.
Promoted by its sponsors with "protect the children" style rhetoric, the bill passed despite a petition against it signed by numerous manga artists and a threat by major manga publishers, including Shonen Jump publisher Shueisha, to boycott the 2011 Tokyo International Anime Fair (the boycott threat never materialized, as the fair was canceled due to the earthquake). The bill goes into full effect on July 1st, but already the Tokyo government has released the names of the first six manga targeted under the bill.
Pointedly, unlike America's PROTECT act, Tokyo's Bill 156 does not prevent the sale of graphic adult manga as long as they're labeled "18 and up"; thus, the bill would actually not criminalize the kind of hardcore manga Handley was convicted of possessing, but instead targets borderline titles such as teenage sex comedies, gritty manga involving taboo subjects such as prostitution and incest, and so on.
Efforts at manga regulation in the Japan and the US aren't unrelated; as Japanese pop culture writers including Frederik Schodt and Roland Kelts have pointed out, censors in Japan are invigorated by the efforts of their counterparts in America and Canada. Many of the sponsors of Bill 156 used arguments like "shame on us for permitting stuff that isn't permitted in the West."
As Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, a major sponsor of Bill 156 recently elected to a fourth term after the passage of the bill, said in a press conference in December 2010 (from the blog of manga translator and anti-Bill-156 advocate Dan Kanemitsu):
It's clear there are perverts in this world. Sad people with warped DNA…I don't think Western societies would tolerate such things very much. Japan has become too uninhibited.
Asked for information about what manga attracted the ire of Canadian customs in the current case, CBLDF executive director Charles Brownstein said, "My understanding with regard to the material at issue is that it includes fantasy comics drawn in a variety of manga styles. One of the items is believed to be a doujinshi, or fan-made comic, of the mainstream manga series Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. Another is believed to be a comic in the original Japanese depicting stick-figure like figures in various sexual positions. In all cases, the authorities are targeting expressive art, and not any photographic evidence of a crime."
Of course, the exact nature of the artwork found on the laptop is irrelevant to the free-speech issues involved. (The art for this article is generic Nanoha artwork.) In Handley's case, some of the public sympathy for Handley evaporated after his conviction when it was found that the titles he was accused of possessing weren't yaoi manga or mildly kinky manga sex comedies, but explicit heterosexual lolicon (Lolita Complex) adult manga.
Other legal travelers who have had comics seized or searched by Canada's infamously zealous customs officials, such as Elizabeth McClung, who was targeted in 2006 for carrying Miki Aihara's YA romance manga Tokyo Boys & Girls (customs officials were suspicious of the word "boys" in the title), have accused Canadian authorities of singling out gay and lesbian materials.
But regardless of the sexual activities depicted, imaginary is imaginary, artwork is artwork, and defending free speech means defending objectionable and offensive speech as well. Handley's guilty plea means that no legal precedent was set in his case, but this chilling new case is another round in the legal battle over protected free speech, and of course a major struggle for the accused, whose life could be ruined if convicted of child pornography.
The CBLDF, together with the Canadian Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund, is soliciting funds for the defense, which they estimate will cost $150,000 Canadian. For more information see the CBLDF press release here.