Oh, Canada!

To Canada, where being an anime or manga fan has become an increasingly difficult enterprise over the last four years.

The origins of the problem, such as it is, lie back in 2005, when a man from Edmonton, Alberta was convicted of importing material depicting children committing sexual acts. Specifically, they were comics from Japan – so here we go again. He was put on the sex offenders’ registry for five years, given a suspended sentence, 100 hours community service and fined $150. He had broken Canadian law and he paid the penalty.

The Edmonton Journal section of the Canada.com website inadvisably reported the incident with special reference not to the content (which we shall presume was obscene and justifiably prosecutable), but with the fact that the offender possessed manga and anime. In a fantastic non sequitur, the site gushed: “Anime is illegal in Canada, but not illegal in Japan or the United States.” See, suddenly we’re onto anime!

Needless to say, this was bullshit. The bogus claim was thankfully soon retracted, but the sequence of events became a new cycle of the eternal orbits of manga and anime censorship and backlashes. Nobody, I am sure, told Canadian Customs to slacken their search for obscene and illegal materials. That is part of their job, after all. But someone within the organisation seems to have begun associating manga and anime, yes, all of it, with obscenity and illegality.

In June 2006, a wheelchair-using academic returning from a trip to the US with some manga in her luggage, was subjected to a humiliating interrogation while customs officers went through her new purchases page-by-page. She had admitted, you see, to having manga, and one of the customs officials observed: “That’s the stuff from Japan; there is some really obscene and filthy stuff.”

Erm… no, she said. This is stuff I bought in American bookstores. There’s, like, age advisories on the back. In her case, the advisories were for teenage readers, specifically a copy of Tokyo Boys & Girls from Viz Comics. The officers later confessed that the word “boy” had made them suspect that the material might be obscene. So they were probably very disappointed.

In the end, nothing was damaged except her dignity, as she was forced to sit and wait while someone thumbed through her manga as if she was an offender. But two years on, Canadian customs has informed importers that no “hentai” (i.e. manga/anime erotica) is to be permitted across the Canadian border. The question is, for me, not one of the obscenity of hentai – after all, if it were not obscene, it would be pretty poor hentai. Instead, the question is, how are the fine people at Canadian customs going to tell hentai from normal manga? Where is the line? Can they distinguish between, let us say, something genuinely, illegally obscene, and Adventure Kid, which is revolting (but still presumably legal), and Junk Boy, which is merely puerile, and Tokyo Boys & Girls, which is as about as obscene as the Gummi Bears.

I’m genuinely curious. They can’t honestly plan on reading everything that passes in front of them. They must have a list, right? Because if they haven’t got a list, someone who’s used up his overtime allowance is going to look at a big stack of manga one day and just ban the lot.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #56, 2009.

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9 thoughts on “Oh, Canada!

  1. The Canadian government shouldn’t be looking at anything that’s already been rated, translated and sold in typical comic stores because that surely would be handled by the local distribution company. The problem is the imported comics which I’m assuming are also sold at conventions which if so, would be harder to monitor. While assuming is not the best option, with some erotic manga, they depict on the cover a summary of sorts of the content inside, the BDSM slavegirl with mouth gag is a bit of a giveaway, however the schoolgirl with a sultry pose might just be some romantic highschool serial. Wish I had more of an insight but I stopped reading Doujins 2 years ago when i decided the characters portrayed were nothing like their video game counterparts.

  2. Pingback: News and features « MangaBlog

  3. Canadian Customs will be judging hentai from non-hentai?? Oh dear god. This worries me especially with the Little Brother case. These people don’t have the proper training to recognize what’s obscene and what’s not, they use their own judgment. If they had a list of known US publishers that distribute hentai, they are most likely to refuse it on sight without checking. Same as author/mangaka. And having a list by title would be a waste of time because while there is some English hentai out, that’s nothing in comparison to the Japanese market. Here I fear that they might refuse imports from Japan just based on the cover page.
    Canadian Customs *needs* to have someone who is properly trained in working with Japanese manga and anime AND who is fluent in Japanese. This way, they are able to properly identify what is hentai and what’s not and if they are handed a Japanese title, they will be able to properly classify that as well.
    We doomed >.<

  4. I’m under the impression that the Canadian Custom’s Officers have to follow the law of Canada. Therefore some forms of hentai are allowed, even if they are imported from the “motherland” itself. If the hentai, or yaoi, or yuri or any other new word that’s been developed since I left the fanfiction scene many years ago is legal in terms of it’s depiction of the person(s) by the laws of Canada then it shouldn’t be an issue, surely?

  5. Great comments, everybody. I particularly enjoyed reading Doc’s link to Memorandum D9-1-1, and took a moment to imagine what it must be like for a customs officer, up on the border, leafing through that on a wet Tuesday in November, and trying to make sense of the multiple exclusions, re-inclusions, and re-exclusions of prohibited material as an army of manga fans clambers off the plane and walks towards him with bulging suitcases.

    Thanks to Memorandum D9-1-1, I am also going to try to work the words “consensual urine” into a conversation this week.

  6. We have to understand that to the masses who have probably nevereven heard of the terms “manga” or “anime” until these news stories come out. It would be a bit too much to expect that the guy, or gal working the inpection lines at the local Canadian Post Office to have any knowledge of the great majority of what it is they are looking at, is tantamount to expecting everyone to know everything about anything. It can be compared to wild mushrooms one finds in the woods. Unless one knows which are safe to eat, and which will kill you within minutes of eating it, the general attitude is consider all potentually poisonous until proven safe, by consulting the experts. I have never seen any job offers, by HM Customs and Border Control, looking for experts in Japanese manga, and anime, in any of the newspapers yet.

  7. At least with something like the BBFC the deeming material illegal is done by trained (and somewhat objective) eyes. If it’s just some bloke going thinking ‘I don’t like the look of that, no siree!’, then it’s hardly a foolproof system.

    As for having a list that’s fine if you’re only talking about US>Canada importing (but what’s the point as they even have Canadian pricing on the the back of most of their releases?). But if it’s the untranslated Japanese doujin market we’re talking about then a list would be very difficult due to sheer number of titles that’s appear over there – the majority of which would never even make it into western hands so it’d be a waste of time. In which case an outright ban is most definitely not unrealistic.

    And Junk Boy… I’d almost forgotten about that and am now tempted to dig it out for a rewatch. I can’t tell if that’s a good or a bad thing. ¬_¬

  8. With any prohibited item – on the assumption that some of it’s going to be prohibited – one would assume that like drugs, tobacco, alcohol and Pandas, Customs would train their people to recognise what is illegal.

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