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How did we get here? The rise of Japan’s porn mega-industry

Japanese culture made its way around the world with growing appreciation for popular caricatures, anime, and their cuisine. But one of the island nation’s largest industries is shrouded in infamy. The Japanese porn industry is one of the biggest in the world, bringing in over $2 billion USD of revenue each year, but when you think of Japan’s porn industry what comes to mind? Hentai? Tentacle porn? Censorship? The work has an undeniably distinct identity and no matter how arbitrary or bizarre something may seem, all media is a byproduct of the social and political climate it exists in. An exploration into Japan’s porn industry is a deep dive of the political, perverse, and poetic. With cultural roots that date back centuries, let’s take a look at how this historically conservative nationa’s mega-porn industry came to be.


Out from the woodwork: Pre 20th Century

Japanese erotica started from humble beginnings. It’s argued that the country’s earliest mass-produced pornography began in the Edo period (1603-1868) as shunga (or erotic artwork), which was a type of ukiyo-e (or woodblock printing). Most of the work featured heterosexual relationships, but also included same-sex relations with male-on-male being more common since homosexuality was an accepted practice in this time.


One of the most notable works: The Dream of the Fisherman by Katshushika Hokusai showed ashell diver being fondled by two octopuses. This piece is one of the earliest works in the tentacle

erotica genre. Hokusai references one of the most popular stories from the Edo-period: Princess Tamatori. Tamatori was a shell diver, who goes underwater to help her husband's family retrieve a stolen pearl from Ryujin, the dragon god of the sea. Her story was a popular subject in other ukiyo-e art of the time.


The presence of shunga declined with the introduction of erotic photos in the late 19th century and pornographic material as a whole declined under the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Japan also moved away from their tolerance of homosexuality at this time with the introduction of anti-sodomy laws.


Dark times: The 20th Century

In 1907, the sale and distribution of pornography was criminalized under Article 175 which banned obscene materials. Obscene materials included anything that, “arouses and stimulates sexual desire, offends a common sense of modesty or shame, and violates proper concepts of sexual morality.” Sexual expression was heavily monitored in picture and film, but still allowed in novels and mangas. But this was all going to change during the occupation of Japan by allied forces. During this time, all forms of sexually explicit material was prohibited in the country. This meant no images or depictions of frontal nudity, no pubic hair or depictions of genitalia, and no sex acts could be depicted graphically. The increase in American presence meant Western ideals of morality slowly began to infiltrate Japanese society. The masses began to pick up on these practices, adopting a negative attitude towards pornography and as a result, the Japanese government continued its ban on sexually explicit materials until the late 1980s, decades after the departure of allied forces.


Studios began producing “pink films” or soft porn in the 60’s These erotic films included all sorts of subject matter from bondage to rape, but never included explicit depictions of genitalia.

Filmmakers had to go out of their way to avoid showing these parts by blocking them with props or censoring them digitally. Pink films got their unique visual style in their efforts to skirt around censorship laws and also received praise for its depiction of things other than sexuality like gender and the human psyche.


Give me more: 80’s - 90’s

More and more A/V’s (adult videos) were sold in the 80’s due to the changing social landscape. Most Japanese households had at least two TV sets, which meant more privacy to consume erotic content. It’s also speculated that the shift from betamax began because most A/V’s were in VHS format.


The late 80’s saw the expansion of the dojinshi market, a genre of self-produced or amateur manga. Half of the market consisted of pornography and was a starting point for authors to make their debut before moving onto more professional work. Hokusai’s work also made a comeback thanks to author Toshia Maeda. He used tentacles to simulate a penis in his series Urotsukidoji (1986). In his own words, “I could say as an excuse, this is not a [penis], this is just a part of the creature … So it is not obscene — not illegal.” So, the rise of tentacle erotica wasn’t necessarily a perverse depiction of the depraved and instead a loophole against Japan’s strict censorship laws.


Legalize it: The 21st Century

With everyone being inside because of the Covid-19 lockdowns, A/V viewership rose significantly in Japan. However, the growing amount of people exposing the sexual exploitation within the industry put pressure to increase regulations. Young men and women would be lured into A/V shoots under the impressions that they would be modeling. The Japanese government ended up passing a law to legalize pornography in June of 2022 with the goal of protecting those who were pressured into the industry. The law gave victims the ability to ban the sales of any video they appear in after 5 years from its initial release date. Many production companies ended up going out of business after this law was passed which gives a glimpse of the amount of companies that were profiting off unwilling participants.


Pornography has been a part of Japanese society for hundreds of years, but until recently, it existed mostly in the shadows. The way a country depicts sexuality is rooted in their values and cultural knowledge. Media is always intentional and erotica evolves with the socio-political attitudes and constraints. Creators pushed the limits of how they could portray sexuality and had logic behind even the most obscure genres. So remember to dig a little deeper into the “perverse”, because these things are usually a reflection of society as a whole.



PUBLISHED

Apr 1, 2023

AUTHOR

Grace Guan

Media is shaped by a country’s social and political climate and porn is no exception.

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