2 August 2010

Naked manga characters = child pornography

The last few weeks, the most talked-about occurrence in the Swedish comics community is, without a doubt, the sentencing of a manga translator for the possession of drawn images under the Swedish child pornography act.

The basic facts are that the district court of Uppsala in late June this year convicted a man for possession of child pornography. The man is a well-known manga expert who has translated a large portion of the Japanese comics published in Sweden, started the first major manga organization in Sweden, etc. The images were found during a search of his home due to another, divorce-related, case. On computer hard drives, the police found 51 downloaded pictures of manga/anime characters that were deemed to be of a sexual nature and the characters to be under the age of 18.

A page from the manga DragonBall. Illegal?
The translator states that he downloaded the drawings to use as sample images for research purposes. Had he known that this was considered illegal in Sweden, he would never have done it. The translator also stated at the trial that the images were mostly nude pictures with a few more explicit ones, although this is impossible to verify, since the images are illegal to even look at and therefore banned from being shown outside of the court. In a later official statement on the web (vembevakarbevakarna.blogspot.com), he has also commented on these images being less than one tenth of a percent of the manga and anime images he owns.

In Sweden, all images – be it photos, movies, animations or drawings – depicting what one can understand to be a child (i.e. under the age of 18) in a sexual situation, are regarded as child pornography, since the legislators agreed on using the word “image” instead of “photo” in the law. The ban does not apply to text, though, only images. You are allowed to produce drawings of child porn, but only for “personal use” – distribution is criminal, as is looking at someone else's art.

This law has been active for almost a decade, but this ruling is the first one ever in Sweden where drawn images have been deemed child pornography in a court of law, and it might thus create a precedent. This could have far-reaching consequences for comics, both for artists and readers. Serious depictions of abuse, autobiographical stories of sexual debut, or simply children without clothes on, may now be classified as child pornography. Thus, publishers who distribute comics that might be deemed child porn, retailers who sell them, libraries who carry them and so on – all can now be criminals. Because of an amendment that was recently added to the act, it is now also just as criminal for readers who simply look at these pictures.

Love Hina by Ken Akamatsu. Illegal?
The sentence is heavily debated in Sweden. The discussion was started by the sentenced man himself, who welcomed a debate on censorship and what right society has to tell us what to think. This was soon addressed both on Facebook – where several groups were started and soon got a lot of members (the most popular one being "Stop Comics Censorship in Sweden"), as well as in the blogosphere – where the reactions were so manifold that it became impossible to ignore even for the old-school media. Thus, articles have been printed in almost all major newspapers, national radio has had several features on the subject and tonight one of the major TV news programs in Sweden will have a big reportage with interviews with both the sentenced man and yours truly.

The debate has mainly focused on two subject areas. One portion of the writers, including the sentenced man, have stated that this interpretation of the law makes thoughts illegal, which is impossible in a democratic society. The idea behind this line of thought is that no children were harmed in the process of making these comics, and that art and fiction should be free of all involvement from the legislator.

The autobiographical Daddy’s Girl by Debbie Drechsler. Illegal?
Another major part of the debate has concerned what should and should not be regarded as child pornography. In the case of the images from the sentence, they are drawn, which, again, means that no children were actually hurt in order to produce them, as opposed to child pornography in photos or on film. Another aspect is that in this specific case, the images come from the realm of Japanese popular culture which implies a style that often makes characters look younger than they are, with really big, childlike eyes and faces, small breasts and so on. The latter makes it hard for a court of law to say whether a character really is or isn’t below the age of 18.

Other topics have dealt with the contradiction that Swedish law allows its citizens to have sex from the age of 15, but not to depict it until they are 18. Thus, an autobiographical comic about losing your virginity at, say, the age of 16 could be illegal.

One major problem is the fact that since it is illegal to even look at images like these, the images that were the grounds for the conviction cannot be shown anywhere. This leads to a Catch-22 situation where it is virtually impossible for anyone to decide whether something is illegal or not. This is the grounds for much concern and debate during the last couple of weeks, as people have started to wonder whether they actually are criminal without knowing it, for owning comics published by some of the major publishing houses in Sweden.

A painting by Carl Larsson. Illegal?
I have been interviewed several times and my view is that this is not specifically a problem for comics, but for the whole of Swedish society. There are many ways in which this sentence and the precedent it creates could cause big problems. The debate has mostly focused on manga, but the risk of censorship does of course not stop there. In the risk zone are comics by for instance Debbie Drechsler, Robert Crumb and Mike Diana, and various adult comics and manga that have been published in Sweden.

If you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, you realize that all arts that incorporate images are in the danger zone. The paintings by Carl Larsson, as close to a national treasure in the art world as you get in Sweden, could very well be illegal, with their depictions of unabashedly naked children. Should they be purged out of our national art museums? Can I be prosecuted for owning a book with reproductions of them? In the film industry, there is for example a whole genre of films about older women seducing younger (teenage) men, such as the Swedish film All Things Fair.

The movie All Things Fair. Illegal?
I am all for using the law to stop pedophiles and I can see that this is really needed in our society, but this ruling does make it obvious that the law as it stands and is interpreted by Swedish courts, does risk to impede the lives of many people in Sweden, in a way that is both dangerous on a democratic level and, and here’s the biggest crux, not necessarily makes our society any better/safer for children.

The amendment to the child pornography act and this ruling makes Sweden, as far as I know, the country with the heaviest and most restrictive laws on child pornography. The sentence has however been appealed to a higher court, and the translator is represented by one of Sweden’s most famous attorneys, so the outcome is still quite open.

17 comments:

  1. A slight correction: The translator has stated that a few of the images were representations of "sexual acts", so presumably a few of the images were in fact explicit/hardcore.
    Regardless, it's very strange to apply the same rules to drawings as to photographs and film. Such a vague wording can easily be abused in ways the lawmakers may not have intended.

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  2. Indeed. The example images above are misleading at best. As stated by the translator himself on his blog (http://vembevakarbevakarna.blogspot.com/2010/07/till-alla-mina-hatare-ar-jag-sjuk-i.html), third paragraph, the images on trial were erotic doujinshi. Downplaying this fact diverts focus from what the debate ought to be about: the validity of a law that equates documented abuse with fantasies rendered on paper.

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  3. good article but I think it's dangerous to claim that Japanese pop culture "does include hardcore child pornography." I think it's a misleading or misconstructed sentence that makes you sound more polemic than you might want to.

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  4. Tinet: Yes, that all comes down to what you mean by hardcore, I guess. I'll think about that phrasing.

    Johan: Well, no. What I'm aiming at by showing the above images is that the rules are arbitrary and that there's no knowing where the line will be drawn.

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  5. Yes, I can see that the sentence might be misread. I'll have a think about that before I repost on my other blog.

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  6. Yes, that all comes down to what you mean by hardcore, I guess. I'll think about that phrasing.

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  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardcore_pornography
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Softcore_pornography

    If there is visible penetration, it's hardcore. Of course it's impossible to say anything definitive about images that we are not allowed to see, but like JohanCB said below, playing down the explicitness of the images diverts the focus. They could have been on any level of explicitness, but it's still bizarre to judge drawings on the same level as photographs.

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  8. Ah, I stand corrected and will change the wording.

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  9. I appreciate that you try to raise sympathy for the defendant, but must persist in playing the devil's advocate: Both Carl Larsson and Debbie Drechsler fall well outside the legal definition of pornography. Surely you must know this. The other two may fall in a grey zone if properly misquoted, but could hardly be mistaken for pornography when considering the entirety of the works. Also bear in mind that these comics were most likely included in the house search, but not in the court case. The images on trial, however, left little to no room for interpretation, as the translator himself admits. Neither mainstream nor art house comics are on trial here; erotic drawings of children are. Any sympathy evoked using these images will be for the wrong reasons.

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  10. Well, again I disagree. I understand what you mean, though. For this specific case, the images might have been different but the examples I show could be next. The precedent that this ruling gives us, makes it quite arbitrary where the line is drawn. If this ruling stands up in higher court, it will be open to any court to decide what is and what isn't child porn and I guess I'm more interested in where the line is drawn than in the difference between photos and drawings, which I think is quite self explanatory even though this law does make them equal.

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  11. Haakan / Wakuran3 August 2010 13:24

    Given the explanation by the translator himself, the images in question mostly consisted of nude fanart of popular manga and anime characters, although there also was a small handful containing sex acts. There were about 30-something images in all found on the hard drives, but since he was in the middle of a backup process, he was sentenced for some images twice. After a reduction of the first selection of images, the court deemed him guilty for images where the characters had small hips and breasts, although he maintains that their age were likely meant to be around adolescence.

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  12. Thanks for clarifying!

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  13. Haakan / Wakuran4 August 2010 00:21

    I see now that my last comment is sligthly unclear. AFTER the reduction of the original selection (by removing images that were either less explicit or where the characters looked older) there were about 30-something images left, which together with the backup copies made up the 51 images included in the trial.

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  14. Thanks again for clarifying. So what you are saying is that there were 30 drawings (and some duplicates) of what would undoubtedly be illegal acts not only under the new law but also under any previous pedophilia law? Images that would not be published in any magazine, here or in Japan?

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  15. Haakan / Wakuran5 August 2010 02:21

    I'm not sure if you were ironic or not, but the best explanation I could find of what kind of images it was, is this blog discussion. Most of it were nudie shots.

    http://swartz.typepad.com/texplorer/2010/08/se-de-f%C3%B6rbjudna-mangabilderna.html

    Japan does have a (perfectly legal) minor lolicon and shotacon scene, with prepubescent manga characters involved in more or less hardcore acts. There's at least one monthly mag that features a lot more explicit material with clearly prepubescent characters,

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  16. Excellent examples. I'd also like to point out the romance between Sailors Neptune and Uranus, they're both 17 so if they more than kissed, would this be barred?

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  17. It could be. That's the problem. We really don't know where the line is drawn. It's all arbitrary and up to the judge.

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