The history of the Japanese military’s wartime sexual enslavement of women still plays on the mind of East Asia. Japanese leaders make it hard to forget. Most recently, deputy foreign minister Shinsuke Sugiyama told the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women that his government knew of no documents confirming the forcible wartime recruitment of so-called ‘comfort women’. The refusal of Japan’s leaders to admit legal liability or pay reparation to victims makes military prostitution a continuing backdrop to the diplomatic relations of East Asia.
The refusal to admit to sexual abuse in the past is also mirrored in an ongoing inability to recognise and confront troubling sexual norms and present-day sexual abuse. As Japanese historian Hajime Imanishi says, ‘The sexual standards and culture that envelop [Japan] developed over the course of history’.
East Asians continue to be reminded of the history of sexual slavery. Pornographic products produced in Japan and exported to countries in the region today constitute a continuing statement of the sexual ‘standards and culture’ maintained by some Japanese men, and supported by many other male populations in the region.
Japan’s pornography industry emerged in the 1960s. It now releases over 20,000 pornographic films a year with an annual turnover of US$2–4 billion. It is an industry the Tokyo-based NGO Human Rights Now describes as ‘almost wholly unregulated’. It cultivates a domestic operating environment geared to its commercial activities, with ‘junior idol’, ‘modelling’ and chakuero (non-nude sexualised film) businesses grooming local young women for recruitment.
The industry exerts significant influence on mainstream Japanese society and culture, including among children. For example, a 2005 survey of 10,000 high school students by Asahi Shimbun found that one-third of male students had seen pornographic manga pictures before the age of 12 and nearly 20 per cent had seen a pornographic film. Similar figures for the age group were not recorded in Australia until 2013, well after that population had access to the internet. Today, Jake Adelstein and Angela Erika Kubo see Japanese society as exercising ‘surprising tolerance for sexual exploitation of young children as entertainment’ and, as a result, ‘Japanese “entrepreneurs” at home and abroad are … major producers of child pornography in the world market’.
Within this world market, the countries of East Asia are particular export targets. International relations scholar Hiro Katsumata writes that ‘the spread of Japanese cultural products can be considered an “East Asian” phenomenon’. These products include those of the sex industry, which are produced by pornographers who violate the human rights of local Japanese women and girls, as documented by Tokyo-based groups like the Anti-Pornography and Prostitution Research Group, People Against Pornography and Sexual Violence, Lighthouse and Human Rights Now.
This documentation includes the almost unreadable accounts that emerged in the criminal prosecution of employees of one pornographic studio, Bakkii Visual Planning in 2007. In this case a number of men were charged with seriously injuring women in the making of pornography. But even the survivors of the bulk of pornography production that does not reach Japan’s courts report serious violations of health and safety, sexual abuse and forced participation in harmful sexual activities. These abovementioned groups now coordinate legal and welfare services for victims fleeing pornographers who use extortion and violence to keep them in the industry.
Products produced on the basis of these kinds of human rights abuses are exported to the countries of East Asia that were subject to the prostitution entrepreneurship of Japanese men. This entrepreneurship included not just military development of so-called ‘comfort stations’ during wartime, but also pre-war civilian development of legalised brothel districts.
The capacity of pornography to exert transnational cultural influence was first noted in 2006 by feminist theorist Catharine MacKinnon, in relation to US-produced pornography: ‘the international pornography traffic means that American women are violated and tortured and exploited through its use … [and, as a result,] misogyny American style colonizes the world … [q]ualities characteristic of but not unique to the United States—including common and casual sexual violence and racism … [are now, through pornography] promoted throughout the world as sex’.
In 2011 Laura Miller noted that the Japanese government’s ‘Cool Japan’ international marketing campaign drew on misogynistic themes. ‘When I see the MOFA’s [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] version of girls and popular culture’, wrote Miller, ‘as well as much of Cool Japan as advocated by global otaku, I cannot quite escape the feeling that I endured a stroll through a Kabukicho corridor [Tokyo’s largest red-light district] where numerous touts beckon one into an array of sleazy clubs and bars’.
More than a sexualised image of Japan, however, documented evidence of sexual abuse of the country’s women and children is exported abroad. This trade has a long history. By the early 1980s, the Japanese publishing industry was exporting pornographic products to its East Asian neighbours. Japanese pornography found its way to Taiwan in the mid-1980s, when illegal cable TV operators broadcast manipulated Japanese adult videos. In South Korea, in 1980, 28,000 offensive violent or obscene comic books from Japan were confiscated by authorities.
By all accounts, Japanese pornography continues to flow into Taiwan. In 2013, Taiwan’s supreme court refused to grant leave to a Japanese pornographer to pursue copyright claims over piracy activities by local Taiwanese pornography distributors, in spite of lost earnings for the company reaching an estimated 1 billion Taiwanese dollars (over US$30 million). South Korean society, to a lesser extent, now faces the same influx of pornographic material after import bans on Japanese cultural products were fully lifted in 2004. Chyng Sun and colleagues note that pornography production in South Korea is heavily policed, and so most products consumed in the country are ‘imported from overseas, primarily from Japan’.
On the Chinese mainland, authorities mostly interdict the internet transmission of pornography into the country, so pornography imported from Japan is not found there in large volume. Yet there is evidence of disk-based Japanese products being illegally smuggled into China via Hong Kong.
The violation, torture and degradation of Japanese women and girls that is transmitted to East Asia via pornography exports set a standard for sexual mores in the region. This standard was similarly instituted within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere during the years of the China and Pacific wars, if through different means.
Knowledgeable commentators around the world now condemn the historical wartime military prostitution system as an institution of female sexual slavery, but the contemporary activities of Japanese pornographers are as yet to be similarly judged. While Japanese pornographers are pimping their countrywomen to the men of East Asia in this way, their home-grown pornography acts as an enticement to transnational fraternal complicity in sexual abuse, and therefore silence about gendered crimes in the region’s history.
Dr Caroline Norma is Lecturer in the Master of Translating and Interpreting degree at RMIT.
This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Gender and sexuality’.