Japanese pornography has some unique features which separate it from pornography in other cultures, especially Western pornography. It is quite common and frequently translated and exported to Western cultures because of its large spectrum of themes and media. Japanese erotica has a reputation in the West as being sado-masochistic and youth-centered due to cultural differences and various taboos.
The concept of "pornography" may have emerged in the Edo period when every form of popular culture flourished. All forms of pornography flourished with the sole exception of figures and statues. This does not mean there were no works of erotica; these early works were by highly literate nobles and were often considered works of art. Both Japanese mythology and Shinto have few teachings about sexuality. An act of sex is and was an act of happiness without guilt or sin.
In the Edo period, pornography flourished due to the unique characteristic of the city of Edo. In this period, men (who were the only consumers of pornographic material at that time) made up well over 60% of the population. These men came from all over Japan to work, and remained there for years before returning to their hometown to marry (or to their wives), having learned valuable skills like reading, writing, and crafts. The disproportionate population balance and excess of young males demanded means to fulfil their sexual needs. State controlled prostitutions like Yoshiwara were an answer, and pornography was another.
There were many pornographic materials. Shunga or pornographic wood-block pictures were printed with all imaginable situations. These were often made into a book with sentences to describe their situations 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 interracial sex acts with foreign males were drawn and sold. The actual use of shunga was not simple. Less explicit books with kimono covering most of the body were used for sex education, while some were probably used for masturbation and others were even viewed with a lover. In many places, these shunga were packed by parents of the wife for use in her marriage. In 1788, a shunga book Haikai Yobukodori had a single picture on each page with lengthy descriptions attached. These shunga were rented from a rental book shop. In 1808, there were 656 shops in Edo, 300 shops in Osaka. This means that there were about one shop for every 1500 people in Edo. Much softer materials were also available. There were wood-block pictures of celebrity like kabuki actors and geisha both completely clothed in kimono.
After the Meiji restoration, the publication of pornographic materials declined under governmental pressure. It was still the early 20th century and the government feared that such an openly sexual culture could be seen as a sign of backwardness by European countries. The shunga production stopped and they were exported as "erotic arts" at a bargain price to any buyer from abroad. Pornographic novels were still produced underground as the language barrier would prevent them from becoming widely known abroad. Pornographic arts were still produced but by a general consensus rather than an enforcement and these came to be viewed as low arts.
In the late Taisho period and early Showa period, an artistic movement called Eroguronansensu, lit. 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 pictures and movies. During World War II, pornographic materials were banned altogether.
Influenced by magazines like Playboy, pornographic magazines were printed soon after World War II. These magazines quickly branched 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 about American ones. Instead, it spawned a fetish and a genre known as Yomono, lit. 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 movies" and Roman porno, lit. romantic porno to be exclusively viewed in an adult-only movie theater. 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. 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.
Gay oriented magazines began to appear, starting with Barazoku in 1971, which continued publishing until 2004. Gay 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 crashed 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.
In 1983, the Nintendo Family Computer was released and a few pornographic games quickly followed. However, Nintendo wanted these machines to be family oriented and pornographic games were locked out of the market. Computer games with no limitation on content except for censorship laws became a popular way to distribute pornographic games. Early VCDs and DVDs were viewed on personal computers. Because so few Japanese people saw any reason to play games on these platforms, as opposed to video game consoles, playing computer games was sometimes viewed as being synonymous with playing Bishojo games.
In the late 1980s, the Dojinshi market expanded. It is estimated that about half of this market consists of pornography. Copyright problems plague the market, yet the dojinshi market was a common place for one to start before making a debut in a professional magazine. Yaoi began in the dojinshi market. From the mid 1990s, the dojinshi market also began making and selling pornographic games.
In 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.
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