Japan's sex industry and alleged sexism have again become a source of international concern after a CNN report last week on Japanese rape simulation video games. The coverage attracted a wide audience beyond feminists, women's rights activists, and specialists in Japanese politics and culture.
The specific software featured on CNN was RapeLay, a game released in 2006 that allows the user to role play sexual assaults, rape, and forced abortion. It initially provoked international dispute in February 2009 when, after coverage in the Belfast Telegraph, Amazon.com decided to ban its sale on Amazon Marketplace. This sparked further public debate worldwide, most vigorously in the United States, and then back in Japan. Subsequently, the women's rights organization Equality Now launched in May 2009 a "Women's Action on rape simulator games produced and sold in Japan."
Virtual rape, while it involves no direct physical harm and is not the most violent form of pornography, disturbs our moral sensibilities because it invites the player to participate in sexual assaults. The player chooses when to rape, where to rape, whom to rape, and how to rape. Each click is an expression of the will to assault.
I echo the international concerns, but the outrage seems to miss a few key points. First, there is a perception gap. Organizations such as Equality Now have criticized the Japanese game industry for committing a form of sexual violence mediated by new technologies. This criticism has been extended to the Japanese government as failing to provide appropriate regulations, and to Japanese society for tolerating the intolerable. The problem, in this narrative, is the deep, widespread sexism that should not exist in Japan, a modern democratic society with the world's second biggest economy.
The situation differs in the eyes of many Japanese. The front line is not between the oppressive male and oppressed female but between the powerful West and the vulnerable Japanese. Those who profess to speak for and on behalf of the weak look invasive and intimidating; they talk from afar in a universal language—English—mobilizing alien-sounding concepts. For example, it is believed that kenri, the Japanese term for rights, was coined in the late nineteenth century to introduce a Western idea that did not have a vernacular equivalent.
It is therefore unsurprising that we find evasion and a sense of anxiety—not aggressive antagonism—in the response from Illusion, the company that produced RapeLay. "Dear customers in foreign countries," it says, "our softwares are only available for domestic customers over 18 and not for sale in foreign countries. Warranty and official support apply to the softwares purchased and performed in Japan, and do not apply to those outside Japan." As the CNN report indicates, the game can be easily downloaded (illegally) abroad, but the company's message is clear: Please leave us alone; we have our way ("… of which you are pathetically ignorant," some Japanese may continue under their breath).
Those sentiments would not be altogether wrong. The intimate local knowledge that must accompany effective international intervention is largely missing among current opinions surrounding this issue. Two facts are worth mentioning here. First, a call for the Japanese government to ban "all media which promote violence against women and girls" (in the words of Equality Now) is likely to alienate Japanese progressives, who may be expected to support the feminist cause. The reason is that they have been more concerned with another form of oppression—state censorship, keenly felt due to the memory of the country's authoritarian past. The call for a ban is thus seen as a case of paving the road to hell with good intentions—leading to a Foucauldian dystopia where sadist violence shrinks at the cost of the nation's submission to universal surveillance.
Second, the development of the sex industry in Japan has been accompanied by a series of serious discussions about its proper boundaries. For better or worse, the moral question that CNN raised last week—when does a video game go too far?—has been debated inside Japan for decades.
Specific proposals based on hard evidence and reasoned argument are now needed. This requires sociological and psychological research on the influence of pornographic materials over consumer behavior. It also requires anthropological discernment to give due consideration to context. But to understand is not to accept; in fact, understanding is necessary for sensible moral condemnation and successful political intervention.
In the end, however, it is up to the Japanese to decide what regulations the nation wants its government to prescribe. And the voices of the nation are not in harmony; there are sexists and feminists, rapists and human rights activists, oppressors and oppressed of various sorts. What the international community should do is to listen to those voices and seek collaborators. This proposal may strike the enraged as too slow, too passive, too permissive. But bypassing necessary steps is likely to doom any intervention to failure. The challenge is to keep the sense of justice burning, without letting it explode into blind rage.