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Is Manga Obscene? Canada and Amazon Seem to Think So

Things aren’t going so well for graphic novel and manga publishing. In March of 2011, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund issued an advisory about transporting comics and graphic novels across international borders. Two months later a comics fan named Tom Neeley was detained at the Canadian border, and his copy of the comic anthology Black Eye confiscated by customs. CBR reported then that Canadian censorship seemed particularly aimed at Japanese comics and gay-themed material.

Last week Comics Alliance reported that criminal charges of child pornography possession had been dropped against U.S. citizen Ryan Matheson, who, in 2010, “entered Ottawa on vacation with a laptop that contained comics images that Matheson described as ‘anime illustrations from art books’ and ‘drawings of fictional anime and manga characters.’”

Hey, it’s not as if having art and fiction labeled as pornography is anything new to fandom, but usually, in the U.S. at least, sense prevails and no one gets thrown in jail. Fortunately, sense finally prevailed with the Canadian government, but only after Matheson served jail time, wracked up $75,000 in legal fees, and finally copped a plea to a “non-regulatory offense” in order to avoid a trial.

Matheson’s narrow escape, however, is by no means a precedent for similar cases in the future. In Australia, for example, child pornography laws encompass everything “from photographs of very young children…to drawings of, and written texts about, an adult who ‘appears to be under 18 years’ in ‘a sexual context.’” And that’s just one facet of obscenity laws that can be used to rule on everything from ‘abhorrent fantasies’ to depictions of consensual sexual activities between adults.

You might think that given relatively lenient U.S. obscenity law, U.S. publishers would take a more lax approach as well; but Amazon is one publisher that seems to be having problems with the whole concept of ‘fiction =/= reality.’ Last May, we reported that Amazon was yanking yaoi from the Kindle, mainly targeting queer erotica. Maybe this is some kind of spring obscenity purging ritual, because it just happened again. This time, Amazon attempted to ban publisher Digital Manga Inc. completely from publishing on the Kindle. In case you hadn’t guessed from the name, this is a publisher that only publishes e-books. Why did Digital Manga incur the banhammer? Apparently it’s due to an extremely vague “content violation” related to nebulous guidelines about pornography that not even Digital Manga understands:

There is no definition of “pornography” versus “erotica” officially available from amazon. In the past, we considered our titles the latter, and strive to comply with Amazon’s guidelines. However, with such vague guidelines and a veritable library of erotica in written and drawn form already available on the Kindle, it is difficult to discern exactly what rules Amazon wanted us to comply with. We also find it disheartening that our titles depicting male homosexual romance have been banned while erotica depicting other forms of intercourse flourishes. What makes relationships between men more objectionable than erotic tristes between men and women? This is a question we imagine you’re all asking yourselves right now, and a question that we need Amazon to answer for us.

The connections between Amazon banning yaoi from the Kindle and the status of manga and comics in international law are pretty grim. Amazon considers queer-themed material to be more offensive than straight material, and this trend plays right into the hands of countries where border censorship is already heavily aimed at queer lit. The harder it is for yaoi fans to access yaoi through mainstream publishers, the more difficult it will be to legitimize the status of yaoi specifically and manga in general. If huge publishers like Amazon broadly censor manga because they generalize it as “pornography,” the more likely many countries will be to follow suit. And that may lead to more experiences like Matheson’s, and the 2006 ordeal of manga fan Elizabeth McClung, who was “surrounded by six officers, two watching me as the four others went page by page through my books looking for pornographic images and other evidence I was a sexual predator.”

Both of these stories thankfully have a happy ending: Ryan Matheson avoided a prison sentence, and Digital Manga fans protested so loudly that Amazon reinstated the publisher’s catalogue. While this is a lucky thing for DM, Amazon now has a proven track record of censoring yaoi that doesn’t bode well for the future. Fanficforensics notes that “if [Amazon] can be swayed by one group of people yelling loudly about their interpretation of the vague content guidelines, they can be swayed by other groups, including those whose interpretations are not so benign and who may want to stop others’ voices from being heard on Amazon’s massive platform.”

The more popular international comics become, the more fans need to vocalize that manga and queer-themed fiction are valid forms of literature, just as they did in Digital Manga’s case. But we also have to be cognizant and careful about the fact that, depending on where we are on the planet, those same valid forms of literature could send us to jail.

Aja Romano blogs regularly at Bookshop.


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  • Jinxy Blastwave

    Besides being blatantly homophobic and ridiculous, this is a terrible business practice.  Pro tip Amazon, Gay dudes have dollars to spend, perhaps you could find something better to do with your time?  Not to get all soapbox about it, but if you’re a young gay fellow, and you’re in the closet, these sorts of books might be, you know, useful.  The world is very lucky I don’t run Amazon.  Gay literature of the slightly sexy variety would be the last thing anyone would be worried about.  My reign at the top of Amazon would see us shipping loose nukes, uncut cocaine, feral rodents to bite your enemies in the face, you name it.  If you could put a fair money value on something, I’d ship it, and let the lawyers handle everything else.  They’d be begging us to return to the days when we just provided slash fanfic for 99 cents.

  • Shauni Farella

    out of interest, is Yuri getting targetted as well, or just Yaoi?

  • Ryan ‘Quavey’ Havers

    Down right silly. Above all else, really homophobic and stupidly uninformed. Is research really that bloody hard to do? Aside from that, isn’t it going to save all this effort of pulling manga fans aside because they believe they have books which are ‘filthy’? So what, if I have a non manga (or graphic novel for that matter) book of adult literature with gay/bi tones I’m a possible suspect?

    If I want to read Gravitation or Ai No Kusabi and happen to pass over a border with it, the last thing I should have to be worried about is criminality.

  • Kimberly

    They don’t specify if the content in question is yaoi, as in hard-core pornography, or shounen-ai, which is basically just innocent flirting and romance.

    I think illustrated hard-core pornography of ANY kind is censored to a degree.

  • Kaitlyn Clark-Bidgood

    When I was in junior high I convinced my father to be a chaperone for a group of friends and I when we went to our first convention, which happened to be anime-centric. He and my friend’s father were CONVINCED that all anime was “Japanese cartoon porn” and didn’t want us to go because it was inappropriate. Where on earth did this idea start?!

  • Anonymous

    Tentacle porn and the stereotype that all Japanese men are sexual deviants. When I went to Japan my dad was worried because he was convinced that there were vending machines on every corner selling used school-girl panties in Tokyo. And he’s BEEN to Tokyo before (albeit 20+ years ago). 

    My little cousins and I bonded over Naruto, so at the very least my dad was aware that anime does not equal porn. But the sexual deviant Japanese business man stereotype seems pretty pervasive :(

  • Emily Hill

    People are stupid and need to stare at the sky when it rains with their mouths open

  • Franken Fran

    I’d like to know this too. There’s still quite a double standard with a lot of people about anything remotely sexual featuring two guys being wrong and gross, but if it’s two women, those same people say it’s hot and are completely fine with it. If only yaoi/shounen-ai is being targeted and not yuri/shoujo-ai, it’ll be rather telling.

  • Anthony Albert

    The Canadian Border Services Agency (aka Agences des Services Frontaliers du Canada) has repeatedly been told, by no less than the Supreme Court of Canada, that they have stepped over the line when enforcing “morality codes” – which do not exist within the law, just the mind of the CBSA agent.

  • D. Gruber

    Um, Digital Manga does NOT publish ONLY ebooks. They publish many print volumes as well. Of course, a lot of their books are also digital. Some are digital-only too. Please do a bit more research next time.

  • Jon Brewer

    Yaoi/yuri isn’t obscene. Most would say shota/loli is. But in America, child porn law depends on an actual child being molested. Of course, you also have to prove the photo wasn’t shooped, which can be hard to do.

  • Anonymous

    But you know how stupid the people who work at/run 
    The Canadian Border Services Agency are, as well as homophobic; this is the same bunch of idiots that gives stores like Little Sister a hard time and have nearly driven them out of business altogether.

    As much as I hate to say it, I think that superhero books are the main culprits in why manga like this and Western comic books like this are being given problems that they get, and until North America/Europe as a society is more exposed to other kinds of comic books beyond the superhero genre, this tip of thing will continue unabated.

  • Anonymous

    The child porn laws are, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, all asses. These laws have gone beyond protecting children who are being exploited doing actual porn to going after images of children, and the idiotic idea that somebody will touch a child based on what they see in manga/comic books. If these laws are being use to criminalize GLBT sexuality as depicted in comic books, then it’s time to start questioning them, and if necessary, challenging them, in court and elsewhere, and with acts of revolt-human being should not lose their freedom to read and enjoy things based on somebody else’s definition of exploitation.