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Shunga or pornographic wood-block pictures were printed with all imaginable situations. These often took the form of a book with sentences to describe verbal utterances of the partners, as well as to offer brief descriptions of a scene. Near the end of the Edo period when foreigners became widely known and seen, even sex acts with foreign males were drawn and sold, not to mention acts with animals, demons (both male (incubus) and female (succubus), and deities. The actual uses of shunga in the period are still debated, but probably resembled modern uses of pornographic materials, including masturbation and shared viewing with a lover.
After the Meiji Restoration in the second half of the 19th century, the publication of pornographic materials declined under government pressure. Yet even as Shunga production slowed, shunga were being exported and peddled as "erotic arts" to foreign markets. Pornographic novels were still produced underground, though the language barrier prevented them from becoming widely known abroad. Pornographic arts (now including photography) were still produced, but these came to be viewed as low arts.
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In the late Taishō period and early Shōwa period, an artistic movement called Eroguronansensu, literally "erotic-grotesque-nonsense", occurred influenced by decadence works of Europe. These words were used because they had an air of a new and modern feeling. Until the 1950s, pornography were still very limited in production. Open sexual expressions were permitted in novels and manga, but a strict control was applied on photographs and films. During World War II, pornographic materials were banned altogether: "Since the end of the Second World War Article 175 of the Japanese Penal Code, known as the obscenity law, has represented the only official restriction on freedom of expression, which is nevertheless guaranteed by Article 21 of the 1947 Constitution."
Influenced by magazines like Playboy, pornographic magazines were printed soon after World War II. These magazines quickly branched out to cover all genres and featured pornographic novels as well as pictures. Playboy itself, however, did not succeed in Japan. Its articles were about the American lifestyle; women were mostly non-Asian, interviews were with people largely unknown in Japan, and fashion and sport were American. Instead, it spawned a fetish and a genre known as Yomono, literally "Western things". Playboy revamped its articles and style in the early 2000s in Japan by having Japanese writers write exclusively about Japan and dropping most of the original content.
In the early 1960s, several movie studios began producing "pink films," to be exclusively viewed in adults-only movie theaters. With censorship laws prohibiting genitals from being seen but otherwise free to express anything, these movies quickly diversified to fill all genres, including rape and bondage. Throughout the 1960s, the "pink films" were mainly produced by low-budget, independent filmmakers such as Kōji Wakamatsu. In 1971, the major studio Nikkatsu entered the pink film genre with its higher production values through its Roman porno (lit. romantic porno) series. From the 1960s to the late 1980s, ambiguous censorship laws resulted in hundreds of cases regarding erotica and pornography. At midnight, television stations mostly aired soft-core pornographic movies until their ratings dropped due to the pornographic movies.
Starting in 1971, homosexually-oriented magazines began to appear. The first of these, Barazoku, began publication in 1971 and continued publishing until 2004. Homosexual magazines tend to be tailored to particular segments of the population, such as Badi, which features younger adult males, Samson, devoted to chubby men, and G-men, featuring muscular men. The websites of these magazines also feature videos produced featuring these respective body types.
The proliferation of pornographic videos in the 1980s commonly called AV, short for adult video, eventually greatly diminished the market for pornographic movie theaters. Rental video stores offered pornography at a price far below that of movie theaters. Because most Japanese families now had at least two television sets and VCRs, more videos were sold. It is rumored, but not supported, that VHS became popular over Betamax format because large numbers of AV were released in VHS format. Few AVs were sold in laserdisc format, but VCDs and later DVDs were used to distribute AV.
Personal computers, with no limitation on content except for censorship laws, became a popular way to distribute pornographic games. Early VCDs and DVDs were viewed on computers. Because so few Japanese people saw any reason to play video games on these platforms, as opposed to video game consoles, playing games on a computer was sometimes viewed as being synonymous with playing Bishōjo games.
In the late 1980s, the Dōjinshi market expanded. It is estimated that about half of this market consists of pornography. Copyright problems plague the market, yet the dōjinshi market was a common place for one to start before making a debut in a professional magazine. Yaoi began in the dōjinshi market. From the mid-1990s, the dōjinshi market also began making and selling pornographic games.
In the 1980s, magazines oriented towards a mature male audience began to offer more explicit content. This was not immediately a major social issue because magazines oriented towards a mature female audience already existed and their content was in some ways more explicit.
According to John Carr, a United Kingdom government adviser on Internet safety policy for children, two-thirds of all pedophilic images on the Internet in the late 1990s may have originated in Japan. He further commented: "We think that child pornography, in any form, promotes values and sends the message that it is OK to sexually abuse children. It helps pedophiles to justify their ideas or behavior and it desensitizes society as a whole." Since the law against child pornography in 1999, the proportion is now believed to be less than 2%. ECPAT believes that many child pornography producers have simply turned to producing anime or films featuring adults dressed as children.
In Japan, under Article 175 of the Criminal Code of Japan people who sell or distribute obscene materials can be punished by fines or imprisonment. Article 175 was included in the original document in 1907 and remains relatively unchanged. Showing pubic hair and adult genitalia was once considered obscene. It is not uncommon for pictorial magazines to depict nude women with their genitalia airbrushed over in black, and video pornography routinely depicts explicit sex scenes with the participants's genitalia obscured by mosaics. The amount of censorship of the penis can vary, for example, the entire penis may be blurred, or as little as part of the glans. Until the 1990s, the entire pubic region, including hair, was deemed obscene and unpublishable. The publication of Waterfruit and Santa Fe by Kishin Shinoyama marked the first widely distributed publications to feature pubic hair. Many video production companies belong to ethical associations which provide guidance on what is acceptable and what is not. The Nihon Ethics of Video Association, the Ethics Organization of Computer Software and the Contents Soft Association are examples of three such organizations. Recent controversies have frowned upon both pubic hair and even genitalia itself being displayed in works of art and in educational settings.
There is also a thriving genre of underground pornography in Japan (called urabon) that ignores these censorship laws; it has become especially prevalent on the Internet, as there are no mechanisms in place to prevent its transmission from Japanese nationals to the outside world, or vice versa.
Japan's indigenous religion, Shinto is based in animism, with a belief that supernatural beings dwell in nature. The gods and goddesses of Shinto are not repositories of morality or perfection; instead they exist within nature and thus, sexuality is an innate part of life itself. Therefore, religious attitudes are no obstacle to the presence of pornographic material in Japan's secular society, nor is pornography blasphemous in any way, even when it depicts religious persons ( mostly shrine maidens ) or mythological beings.
Possession of child pornography, including those depicting real children, is legal in Japan. Distribution of child pornography was made de jure illegal in 2003 after international pressure from the United Nations, UNICEF and other international organizations, although the law made a distinction between hardcore pornography and the softcore pornography that is widely available in Japan, such as at junior idol and lolicon media centers like Akihabara and Nipponbashi, and at most konbini, or Japanese convenience stores. Prosecutions have been made under the new law by Japan's powerful prosecutors under Japan's unique legal system, resulting in some financial verdicts, with relative strictness of enforcement continuing to vary by prefecture.
In June 2008, a bill that proposed the imposition of a ban on child-pornography possession was submitted to the House of Representatives of Japan where it was brought before the Diet in September, but failed to pass.
Milton Diamond and Ayako Uchiyama postulate that the rise of pornographic material in Japan from the 1970s onwards creates a decrease in reported violence. Research from the University of Pennsylvania headed by Director of Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Mary Anne Layden heavily disputes this, reporting findings from their research that Japanese males exposed to pornography are more likely to believe women enjoy rape and sexual abuse, and that women exposed to pornography from a young age are more likely to blame themselves for sexual assaults and thus less likely to report the crimes. The report states that males exposed to pornography have a dramatically higher "acceptance of the rape myth, acceptance of violence against women, adversarial sex beliefs, reported likelihood of committing rape and forced sex acts and sex callousness". The research concludes that "the use of pornography, even that which does not include sexual violence, changes beliefs about rape and sexual violence".
Among the various sub-genres of Japanese pornography are the following:
Dōjinshi (often transliterated as doujinshi) or literally "fan works" often contain pornographic imitations of popular anime, games and manga normally made by fans, for fans. It is not always pornographic, but has been portrayed to be.
Animated erotica (known in the West as hentai, but in Japan as "adult anime") is a popular genre in Japan and generally maintains the same style of animation seen in other popular forms of Japanese animation (anime).
Adult-oriented games are a genre for video games in Japan. The genre is somewhat unknown outside Japan because of several problems, cultural and translational. Known as "bishōjo games" or "pretty girl games" (alternately spelled "bishoujo") in Japanese, the games are known under several names used by English fans, including PC dating-sim game, hentai game/H game, and so on. Companies such as JAST USA and MangaGamer are translating dating sims and visual novels into English for the fledgling market outside of Japan. For adult video games in Japan, the rating of "18+" was coined by the Ethics Organization of Computer Software or Contents Soft Association. Rating of adult video games has not gone in Computer Entertainment Rating Organization.
Fanfictions, commonly found in websites, are not limited to fictitious characters and often use real live people as well, though these works would make little sense to those who do not see Japanese TV programs. Dōjinshi writers typically use the Internet to market their products by offering previews of new works, a secret address where buyers can find additional works, and a sample of their games. They also recruit new writers and artists online. Several exclusively adult oriented search engines exist to let someone find a site they are looking for, without having to search through commercial websites that list all keywords. Many works of dōjinshi are featured in websites that collect the art and let people look for free.
Many websites feature seasonal greeting pictures, often pornographic, from linked sites and friends who frequent their sites. A typical Christmas greeting picture on such sites features a santa-girl in various stages of undressing. The twelve zodiac animals of Chinese astrology offer challenging and entertaining examples of catgirls.
Magazines are, along with videos, popular media for pornographic materials. Magazines that contains pornographic manga or pictures are controlled, and feature age requirements for purchase. Many localities in Japan require pornographic magazines to be sealed when sold outside of adult bookstores. But it is not uncommon to find non-pornographic magazines that feature nudity. Many magazines, especially weekly tabloids, include nude images and photo spreads similar to page three girls featured in many western tabloids. So long as these images do not depict sexual organs or sex acts, they are not considered pornographic and, hence, are freely sold in public.
Confessional writings by both genders are a popular topic in men's and pornographic magazines. Quite often, these writings are fictional stories written by professional authors. Other popular topics in men's and pornographic magazines are erotic manga and novels, reviews of pornographic videos, and reports of sex services.
Pornographic video (called "adult video" or "AV" in Japan or sometimes "Japanese adult video" or "JAV" outside of it) covers wide themes, and is only limited by censorship laws. It is GV for all-male videos.
Many videos have a title that may suggest that they use minors or the actual recording of a crime, but no titles that are circulated with the approval of Eirin, a self-censoring organization of productions, break any laws. A common ploy is to have a part of a title replaced with a character, or to use a phonetically similar neologism. For example, a video about "19 years old girls Sex Party!" may be sold with a title like "1X years old Girls Sex Party!". The word Joshikousei (女子高生), lit. "High school girl," cannot be used as it would suggest a girl of 17 years or younger, who cannot legally act in a pornographic video. The homonymic neologism Joshikousei (女子校生), which can mean a "girl student," is used in many titles to promote the product without breaking censorship laws. This fact may be seen in popular places of Japan such as Akihabara or Den Den Town at Tokyo and Osaka respectively.
Japanese AV also caters to many more fetishes than might be imagined (or thought legal) by non-Japanese. Schoolgirl or uniform themed AV dovetails with the aforementioned "non-consensual" genre—rape (レイプ reipu )—are common. SM, rope bondage, bestiality, virgins, internal male climax or cream-pies (中出し nakadashi ), lesbians (レズ rezu ), along with more eccentric fetishes (soap, office ladies, game shows) are all covered.