"It's mysterious," acknowledges the young, blue-suited executive at a Japanese company that specializes in child pornography. "It's OK to publish nude pictures of foreign girls, but not of Japanese girls."
Sitting in an imitation-leather armchair in his company's offices, the man explains that this country's child-welfare law, which has been used to arrest pornographers of Japanese children, does not protect the many foreign children displayed in Japanese books and videos.
So Japan's child pornography industry - the world's largest - finds its subjects in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. At home the industry profits from the absence of any law that specifically addresses child pornography.
Amid growing international concern over the sexual exploitation of children, a small group of activists and politicians is now pushing the government to fill this gap in Japan's otherwise extensive network of regulations. "The Japanese have no spirit of protecting children from sexual abuse," sighs Seiko Noda, a member of parliament who belongs to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. "We must change."
But these reformers are confronting officials who argue that existing laws are adequate. "There's no objection within the government to protecting children," says a Foreign Ministry official involved in the issue. "But when it comes to changing laws [the government] suddenly becomes reluctant." Like the pornography company executive, the official spoke on condition of anonymity.
"The Japanese child pornography market is presently the largest in the world, says Sgt. R. P. Tyler of the San Bernardino County, Calif., sheriff's department. Sergeant Tyler, who specializes in tracking the distribution of child pornography, says the amount of such material for sale in Japan now exceeds the quantities produced by European pornographers during their peak years in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Made-in-Japan child pornography is available internationally on the Internet, says Tyler, adding that "on-line, most of the discussion on where to obtain child pornography [magazines and videos] focuses on Japan."
In Japan, it's easy to see why. Convenience stores and bookshops sell pornographic magazines, comic books, and novels featuring teenagers. Pornography shops sell picture books, videotapes, and software featuring children of all ages. Girls are depicted more often than boys.
A bimonthly magazine called "Alice Club," a reference to the works of Lewis Carroll, devotes itself to the sexual appreciation of prepubescent girls. It sells about 50,000 copies of each issue, according to a publishing company editor who works in the pornography industry and who also insists on anonymity.
The child pornography that Japanese officials consider legal falls into two categories. The first features pictures of children in public places photographed with hidden cameras or powerful lenses. This "peeping" material does involve Japanese children, but is not considered a violation of the child-welfare law since the photographers are not "inducing" children to practice "obscene acts," which the law prohibits.
A second type presents posed pictures of children, very often naked. Most of the children involved are girls from Southeast Asia and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Europe, according to three men who work in the pornography industry. In keeping with the industry's self-imposed guidelines for pornography involving children under 18, no genitals or sexual activity is shown.
A book produced by Tokyo-based Circle Publishing Company, considered by Tokyo police to be Japan's largest publisher of child pornography books, includes an apology to readers for the wire-thin erasures in pictures that include genital areas, explaining that such deletions are necessary to comply with the law. Video producers use blurry circles to accomplish the same end. Even so, little is left to the imagination.
No one has made a survey, but it appears that six or seven Japanese companies publish legal pornography involving prepubescent children. Together they produce five to 10 videos and about half a dozen picture books a month, according to the editor and the executive.
Pornography cannot by law be sold to those under 18, and the material often carries warning labels noting the restriction. There is no such bar on children appearing in the books and videos. Another picture book, featuring five Russian girls, advertises their ages on the front cover: a 10-year-old, an 11-year-old, two 12-year-olds, and a 13-year-old.
"In Japan, if you are under 18 you cannot see pornographic movies or rent pornographic videotapes," notes Ms. Noda, the lawmaker. "One of my questions is, why can you be used in pornography if you're under 18?"
There is also a market for "underground" or hard-core child pornography, mostly videos that explicitly depict sexual activity between a man, who is usually also the photographer, and a child. The publishing company executive estimates that there are approximately 200 such videos available, many of which were originally filmed in the 1980s. This pornography involves children of all ages and nationalities.
Although considered illegal to produce and sell, the "underground" videos are openly available in hard-core pornography shops. Some stores include sections dedicated to "Lolita" videos, a label inspired by Vladimir Nabokov's book of the same name. Japanese law does not prohibit individuals from buying or owning such videos, says Toshiro Takenouchi of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.
A shop called Lingo in Tokyo's Shinjuku district sells, among others, a video called "Teenage Monogatari" or "Teenage Story," which features a 10-year-old girl and an adult man.
Sekiya Saida, an entrepreneur who produces child pornography novels and videos, says the original tape was made in the early 1980s and copies have been in circulation ever since. It may be a movie, but there is nothing artificial about the forced intercourse it depicts.
Several aspects of Japan's culture and history help explain the existence of the country's child pornography industry. Japan largely lacks religious notions of sex as immoral, says Daisaburo Hashizume, a sociologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and the result is a "free attitude" about physical pleasure. Pornography involving adults is widely available; even serious-minded weekly magazines include displays of naked women.
The Japanese have also been comfortable with people entering into sexual relationships at an age that Westerners might consider young. Until the end of World War II, Professor Hashizume notes, girls were given or sold into marriage at the age of 12 or 13. To this day Japan's penal code, passed into law in 1908, puts the age of sexual consent at 13, even though Japanese must be 20 to vote and 18 to drive a car.
"In this country," adds the publishing company editor, "men like girls between 15 and 20." Men who conform to this stereotype known as the "Lolita complex," provide a market for dozens of magazines depicting naked teenage girls.
Imported from West
Pornography involving younger children in Japan seems to be a practice imported from the West and one that did not gain widespread popularity until the early 1980s.
At the time Japanese police enforced obscenity laws by banning all displays of pubic hair, but pornography publishers discovered that explicit pictures of prepubescent children could be sold without punishment.
Child pornography, which initially appeared in art books, became a "big hit," says the editor.
The proliferation of home video players furthered the boom, says Mr. Saida, the author and producer. "There was increasing demand for more and more revealing child pornography in videos, magazines, and books."
But in May 1987 police arrested a publisher and photographer, saying the child pornography they were producing violated Japan's obscenity laws. In 1988 and 1989, a printing plant employee named Tsutomu Miyazaki killed four girls aged between 4 and 7, crimes that combined violence with sexual abuse.
In Miyazaki's two-room living quarters, reporters and police found thousands of videotapes, many of which included child pornography. The case created a public uproar. (A trial court is expected to decide his mental state and issue a sentence later this month.)
At about the same time, police began using Japan's child-welfare law as a basis for arresting pornographers.
Facing growing scrutiny, the child pornography industry established some new ground rules. Producers and publishers stopped selling child pornography that explicitly displayed genitals or sexual activity.
But they also seem to have realized that they had more leeway to use foreign children as "models," since the application of the child-welfare law stops at Japan's coast.
"As far as I know," says the editor, who sees much of what the industry produces, "I don't think any Japanese are photographing nude Japanese kids." Flipping through a copy of "Alice Club," he says that all of the girls pictured are Southeast Asians whom editors have rechristened in print with Japanese names.
The editor says the attempt to make the children appear Japanese - some of the props used in the photo shoots are school satchels and uniforms that Japanese schoolgirls wear on the streets of Japan - illustrates the prejudice that some Japanese have against other Asians.
History also helps explain why there is no specific regulation of child pornography. The militaristic rule of pre-World War II Japan included strong controls on expression, so much so that freedom of speech is now one of the most widely respected elements of Japan's postwar Constitution.
Police and politicians are in general reluctant to propose new laws that would limit expression.
"When you try to define child pornography, it should be discussed in the context of freedom of speech," says Shinichiro Takagi, an official of Japan's National Police Agency. But even one of the pornography industry executives interviewed says that the authorities are now "too generous" because of their war-era excesses.
At the same time, critics say that existing laws are inadequate.
Public order first
A section of the penal code that prohibits "forced indecency" - the key statute available to prosecutors in regulating child pornography - is written "to maintain public order, not specifically to protect children," says Genji Tsuda, a Tokyo lawyer concerned with child sexual exploitation.
From the victim's perspective, this penal code section is tough to use, Mr. Tsuda says. The child or a guardian must ask police to pursue a complaint within six months of the alleged violation and be ready to have the case handled in public hearings.
While the child-welfare law is designed to protect children, he adds, the one-year penalty it imposes on adults for making children perform acts "injurious" to their "mind and body" is too lenient.
The law should be revised to include tougher penalties for existing provisions and address child pornography, Tsuda says.
Rights not recognized
In a complaint common to advocates in other countries, activists in Japan say there is too little recognition of children's human rights.
Government officials, adds Junko Miyamoto, a Tokyo-based staff member of the Japan Women's Christian Temperance Union, "don't have the viewpoint of seeing child pornography as the sexual abuse of children."