How Japanese manga can land international travelers in jail

How Japanese manga can land international travelers in jail

A love of Japan and its comic books might get you locked up in North America
Japanese manga or anime character doll
Manga and anime characters are so mainstream in Japan, dolls like these are commonplace.

Imagine this: You’re flying into Canada, a bastion of peace and tolerance, and you’re traveling light -- a carry-on bag, a few magazines, a gift for your Canadian hosts; and your iPad, iPhone and laptop.

Upon arrival, Canadian border officials suddenly seize and search the last of these.

What they discover is not an explosive device or a cache of al-Qaida contacts, but rather items they deem incendiary nonetheless -- a stash of digital manga images, some featuring doujinshi (fan-made) illustrations, others that might be labeled lolicon (lolita complex) manga, showing eroticized renderings of what are clearly fictional, possibly underage if they were real, characters.

Whatever the designation, they are all digital images saved on your personal laptop, and they are all imaginary.

Ruined lives

An American computer programmer in his mid-20s went through this humiliation last year while visiting a friend in Canada. He has since been charged with possession and importation of child pornography and he faces a minimum of one year in prison if convicted -- not to mention a reputation ruined for a lifetime.

I have written before about the growing intolerance of manga and anime on both sides of the Pacific. Last year, 39 year-old American Christopher Handley was convicted of possessing child pornography in Iowa after U.S. postal officials opened parcels of lolicon manga he had ordered from Japan.

Shortly thereafter, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara rammed through the now notorious bill 156, legislating the morality of socially disruptive manga imagery while ignoring the propagation of live-action child pornography.

But the Canadian case takes intolerance into the digital age. Manga is a distinctly Japanese art form with its own set of conventions cultivated over decades, if not centuries -- especially if one traces its origins to Edo-era ukiyo-e woodblock prints, whose most famous practitioner, Katsuhika Hokusai, actually coined the term.

Manga, anime and cosplay are closely relatedManga- and anime-related cosplay events are popular across Asia. Not so much in the West.

Artists often thrive on the borders, the distinctions between what’s allowable and what risks censure, in order to reveal or convey truths.

Woodblock prints

Hokusai’s graphically sensual “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” depicting a young woman being pleasured by octopi, is often cited as an example of the libertarian aesthetic eroticism spanning the centuries between woodblock prints and erotic manga.

What happens when authorities with no experience with Japanese art forms, contemporary or ancient, encounter digital graphics devoid of even a publisher’s most basic print disclaimers and formalities?

“There’s insufficient training of government officials in the United States and Canada as to the artistic merit of manga,” says Charles Brownstein, the executive director of the New York-based Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), the oldest and most well-established organization devoted to defending the rights of comics enthusiasts and basic freedoms of expression.

“We’ve seen a recent spike in manga cases, but this [Canada] case is the most egregious -- someone who was not only stopped, searched and harassed, but instead of simply having material seized, he was actually prosecuted for importation of what is alleged to be child pornography for manga images that were stored on his computer.”

Japanese mangaAlthough the images on some manga might seem a little provocative, they're most definitely run-of-the-mill in Japan.

The Canadian case embodies a perfect storm of misreadings: Western officials who don’t understand Japanese aesthetics are arresting a Western fan of Japanese art via a medium, digital storage, that is even further divorced from culture and context.

Imagination not a crime ... yet

“There is no understanding that one can have an appreciation of a different set of artistic traditions with a different set of taboos, without being a threat to the community,” adds Brownstein.

“A lot of people are at risk who don’t know they’re at risk right now. The courts simply haven’t caught up with culture. One can appreciate the art without participating in the crime depicted.”

The CBLDF is currently raising funds to defend the American manga fan in Canadian courts next month. When I spoke with Brownstein in New York, he was nearing his goal of defending our imaginations from imaginary crimes.

After all, our imaginations can't be taxed -- at least, not yet.

More on CNNGo: Tokyo’s manga man makes you sweat

Roland Nozomu Kelts is a half-Japanese American writer, editor, essayist and lecturer who divides his time between New York and Tokyo. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US" and the forthcoming novel, "Access."

He is also a columnist and National Public Radio Radio guest whose work appears in numerous publications in the United States, Japan and Europe.

Read more about Roland Kelts