Honey Room and Obscenity

Timelines: All, Japan Categories: 2000s, Country, Decade, Government, Japan, Law Honey Room and Obscenity
Date: 2002


Honey Room (Misshitsu) is an “eromanga” publication that was the subject of the first obscenity trial in Japan in the new millennium, and the first ever to feature a manga publication. Released by the erotic publisher Shōbunkan in 2002 and drawn by the artist “Beauty Hair” (Yūji Suwa), the 144-page Honey Room was commercially successful despite only being stocked at 35 bookstores (Cather 2012, 226). This success was driven in part by the publicity of the obscenity trial itself. The book contains eight stories that include explicit and violent sexual representations, featuring rape, confinement, and torture. The obscenity trial followed a father’s discovery of his son’s copy of Honey Room, and his subsequent letter of complaint addressed to his Diet representative. While Honey Room was intended for an adult audience – wrapped in plastic and marked on the cover and spine as an “adult comic” (“seinen komikku”) – much of the concern related to its consumption by young people. As this father noted in his letter: “Children who learn about sex from unhealthy, perverted, erotic-grotesque books about rape and incest will become sex criminals. . . . The bad influence that it will have on unsocialised youths is impossible to calculate” (in Cather 2012, 234).

In the Tokyo District Court, both Suwa and the Shōbunkan President, Motonori Kishi, were convicted of violating Article 175 of Japan’s National Penal Code, which forbids the creation and distribution of indecent material. The defence lawyer, Takashi Yamaguchi, argued that
“If a publication is judged obscene, it becomes impossible for ordinary people to look through it. This means public debate over whether it is obscene is contained and people cannot examine the judgement of the authorities. This should not happen in a democratic society.”
However, Judge Yujiro Nakatani emphasised the book’s graphic content, which could not be mitigated by any artistic intent, Kishi having noted his intent to publish Honey Room for commercial gain: “Bodies were drawn in a lifelike manner with little attention to concealment (of genitalia), making for sexually explicit expression and deeming the book pornographic content”. While Suwa received a summary verdict of a 500,000 yen fine, Kishi was taken to trial where he was initially found guilty and granted a one year prison sentence, suspended for three years. The case was appealed in the Supreme Court on the grounds that this conviction curtailed freedom of expression as it is protected under Article 21 of the Japanese Constitution, and that the ruling would have negative consequences for the publishing industry. Across the trials, both sides employed feminist arguments, appealing to representations of women’s sexual subjugation and to the pleasures of role-playing and fantasy in pornography. Media effects arguments were also debated at length, in relation to what was deemed troubling sexual content. The lower court ruling was upheld in Japan’s higher courts.

Kirsten Cather writes that the trials for Honey Room reproduced a number of debates seen in former important Japanese obscenity trials, such as that over Lady Chatterley’s Lover. These include “the constitutionality of article 175; the roles of authors, editors, and publishers; the efficacy of self-censorship; the publishing industry’s moral versus commercial responsibility; and the effects of reading and viewing on real-life behaviour” (Cather 2012, 221). The Honey Room trial also introduced new legal questions to this set of debates, such as the challenge of determining “community standards”, the prevalence of pornographic content available on the internet, and the relationship between Japanese obscenity law and new laws and debates related to child pornography (Cather 2012, 222). Patrick Galbraith (2014) suggests that the focus of the trials shifted from the protection of youth male consumers to the pathologisation and curtailment of okatu sexuality in general (see Cather 2012, 263). Public discourse has suggested a dampening effect of the trial on the production of erotic manga, including some bookstores’ removal of adults-only sections. – Liam Grealy

Further Reading:
– Cather, K. (2012). The art of censorship in postwar Japan. University of Hawai’i Press: Honolulu.
– Galbraith, P. (2014). Otaku sexuality in Japan. Routledge handbook of sexuality studies in East Asia, (pp. 205-217). Routledge: Abingdon & New York.
– Victoroff, J. Manga subverts obscenity. Dartmouth’s the quarterly of East Asian studies. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~quarterly/vol1/manga-subverts-obscenity.html

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