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Sunday, Feb. 6, 2005

Otaku harassed as sex-crime fears mount

Spa! (Feb 1.)

The kidnap-murder of a 7-year-old Nara Prefecture girl last November raised the inevitable question: What sort of human being would do such an inhuman thing?

Ideas flew thick and fast -- for how could so appalling a crime fail to stir thought? The perpetrator, it was said, would be socially withdrawn, unemployed, wrapped up in computer games and cell-phone photography and other hyperelectronic pastimes. Real life would have passed him by. His sexual orientation would be uncertain, focusing on children, dolls and manga characters.

So went the newspaper and TV talk-show speculation. Once more, it seems, it was open season on otaku, that swelling population of mostly young, male, disengaged "maniacs" ("nerds" is another frequent English translation) who devote themselves, usually quietly and harmlessly but with a single-mindedness that in extreme cases can distort the personality, to hobbies and fantasies the bustling outside world has no time for.

Are otaku dangerous? Or are the media and others merely scapegoating easy targets, irresponsibly provoking public aversion toward unconventional lifestyles?

Several weeks after the child's murder, police arrested a 36-year-old newspaper sales agent named Kaoru Kobayashi -- a past sex offender, apparently, but no otaku as the term is commonly understood.

Somehow, says Spa!, that has not let otaku off the hook. "Otaku-bashing" continues. Local governments call for restrictions against "otaku-media" -- ero-games, ero-dolls, ero-manga and so on. Police, notably in Tokyo's Akihabara, go "otaku-hunting," Spa! claims, rounding up otaku-looking individuals on the slightest pretexts and subjecting them to questioning or arrest.

And yet "there is no scientific evidence that anime and manga lead to sex crime," says a lawyer working with an otaku support group.

Maybe not, but public impressions are not formed by scientific evidence alone, and when, back in 1989, serial child-killer Tsutomu Miyazaki was found in possession of thousands of pornographic anime and slasher videos, a connection was made that has proven indelible.

Is it false?

It is at least oversimplified, Spa! believes. People have been quick to conclude, on the basis of a handful of sensational sex-murders, that Japan is awash in child pornography. Measured in terms of the number of child porn Web sites, that is not true, Italian researchers have found lately. The United States might have a serious problem in that regard -- its child-porn sites, numbering 10,503, constitute 61.72 percent of the world's total. Japan ranks eighth, with 165 sites comprising 0.72 percent of the total.

Does the cartoon eroticism of otaku-oriented manga and games cause crime? It could just as easily prevent it, maintains journalist Nobuto Hosaka -- by providing an outlet for anti-social compulsions that might otherwise demand expression on the streets.

Furthermore, argues Hosaka, "if manga catering to the Lolita complex are harmful, what about historical dramas, with people getting killed right and left? Why not ban suspense movies? How come gang-war films aren't a problem?"

They probably are, though not a widely acknowledged one. Mainstream entertainment has this advantage over fringe entertainment: Few question its right to exist. Does the revulsion inspired by hard-core otaku ero-entertainment have any basis in objective reality, or is it mere blind prejudice, amounting, in Spa!'s view, to "persecution?"

"People have come to think," said an Aichi Prefecture assembly representative of the effects of otaku cyber-culture on the young, "that death can be undone simply by pressing the reset button." The assembly is debating a bill that would require "harmful" labels to be affixed on certain game software.

It's the age-old conflict, in post-modern, 21st-century dress, between the claims of freedom and the claims of public order, heightened by the increasingly blurred boundary between fantasy and reality. No ultimate solution is in sight.

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