Nobuhiro Watsuki, Child Pornography, and The Tangle of Reputation and Writing

Rurouni Kenshin  is now tainted. Recently, the creator of Rurouni Kenshin Nobuhiro Watsuki admitted to possessing child pornography (Baseel, 2017). He told the police that he likes young teens about the ages of 13-15 years old. Possession of such materials, according to the Act on Punishment of Activities Relating to Child Prostitution and Child Pornography and the Protection of Children,  is punishable by up to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to 1 million yen. The Act doesn’t cover drawings, animations, or games. It focuses on images of actual children (Umeda, 2014). In response, his publisher is putting his current work on hold. Japanese publishers are quick to distance themselves from anything that resembles a crime (Baseel, 2017).

The scale shows popularity of a search with 100 being highly popular and 50 being half as popular. "Teen" has been a fairly popular to highly popular search for a long time.
The scale shows popularity of a search with 100 being highly popular and 50 being half as popular. “Teen” has been a fairly popular to highly popular search for a long time. Taken from Google Trends.

The word “teen” has been a popular term since Google started tracking its data–see the chart above. Of course, most of these searches are innocent. Pornography accounts for about 4% of websites and 10-15% of searches (Ogas, 2012). This information may be a little dated. Many pornographers get around child pornography laws by having legal-aged women dress–erhm, undress–as teens. These videos and images cater to men who seek women to emulate their school-boy crushes (Paul, 2005). Of course, these women are legal adults selling a fantasy and not the real deal as Watsuki was caught possessing. But the data suggests Watsuki’s attraction isn’t uncommon. For most of history, girls married older, sometimes much older, men as soon as the girls had their first periods. It was a sign of adulthood, even if it was at 13 or 14 years old. If we were from that time frame, we’d wonder what the problem was. I don’t write this to defend Watsuki’s actions. I find such behavior deplorable (as with pornography in general). At the same time, we need to understand context. We agree today that such behavior is wrong and unlawful, but that also wasn’t always the case. Each view impacts how we would consider Watsuki and his work. There are some who still hold onto the old, historical view of adulthood and sexual attraction. I ponder if these men may have a neurological reason, but I digress. We don’t know from the current information if Watsuki shares this historical view. It wouldn’t provide any defense; it would help explain why he would put his career and creative life’s work in jeopardy.

We could look into how otaku culture and child pornography mix–remember that Japan’s child porn laws do not cover anime or manga–but let’s focus on how reputation and writing tangle. It looks possible that Watsuki’s work will be blackened by this. I’ve already seen some people wonder if it’s okay to still like Rurouni Kenshin in some discussion boards and comment areas. How much does a writer’s character matter when it comes to a work? Is it okay to like a work from a writer that is…unsavory? The second question assumes a pattern of behavior instead of a mistake that can be corrected. In Watsuki’s case, there isn’t enough information as I write this, but his admission suggests an pattern of attraction for the young instead of a recent habit.

Photo of Alice Liddell taken by Lewis Carroll in 1860.
Photo of Alice Liddell taken by Lewis Carroll in 1860. Alice was his inspiration for Alice in Wonderland

Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll the author of Alice in Wonderland,  is believed by many to have been a repressed pedophile. But this view isn’t without contention. Many people believe it comes from a projection of modern views onto what was, perhaps, a common practice in the Victorian period–photographing nude children (Woolf, 2010). How much of the tangle of reputation and the author’s work is our own projection? How does it make you feel that Lewis Carroll photographed nude children? How does that change your view of Alice in Wonderland? It has led some to analyze Alice for signs of repressed sexual feelings toward children. It is possible that Rurouni Kenshin will undergo the same. The trouble with this, as anyone who does literary analysis knows, you can read in what you expect. This confirmation bias mixes with the projection of modern sensibilities.

Of course, in the case of Nobuhiro, it is okay to project modern sensibilities because he lives in the modern era. This event is similar to the Bill Cosby sexual abuse and harassment issues in recent years. It has tarnished Cosby’s work to the point where it has all-but disappeared. I suspect Rurouni Kenshin will share a similar fate among the wider anime fandom. Tony Yao over at Manga Therapy (2017) sums up how all but the most hard-core Rurouni Kenshin fans will likely treat the work: “To be honest, I think it’s fine if fans don’t support Watsuki’s works. I don’t care anymore because I have other series that take up my mind at the moment.”

 Rurouni Kenshin won't be viewed the same.For those of us who create, whether it’s writing books, writing manga, creating videos, blogging, or any other creative work, Watsuki’s poor decision should give us a warning. Reputation matters. It tangles with your work and a mistake (or a pattern of behavior) can ruin your work. It takes years to build trust and only a single catastrophic mistake to lose that trust. And when it comes to creative work, trust is a part of it. You may enjoy the story of Rurouni Kenshin, but you are also trusting that the story is as it appears. As with Lewis Carroll, once that trust is broken or cast into doubt, you won’t view the work in the same way. Although Lewis Carroll’s pedophilia is up for debate, I can’t read Alice without seeing signs of it. It ruins a story I once liked.

As a fellow creative, I feel more sorrow than disgust toward Watsuki. After all, its possible his life’s work may be disparaged and, worse, forgotten. He has broke his trust with many of his fans. In short, Rurouni Kenshin won’t be the same even if Watsuki never has another issue with child pornography. It is possible publishers may not publish his work again. The event will impact his wife and family too.

When it comes down to it, all the questions I’ve asked are for you to decide for yourself. Is Rurouni Kenshin tarnished because of Watsuki’s behavior? Have you moved on and don’t really care? No matter how you answer the questions I’ve posed, remember that Watsuki is human as are those who remain fans of Rurouni Kenshin. Liking a work with a tarnished author doesn’t tarnish the fan. Otherwise, there would be millions of people tarnished because of Alice of Wonderland. If you are a creative, take Watsuki’s poor decisions to heart and develop your moral character. Your work depends on it.

References

Baseel, Casey (2017). Creator of Rurouni Kenshin anime/manga admits to possession of child pornography.  RocketNews24.  https://en.rocketnews24.com/2017/11/22/creator-of-rurouni-kenshin-anime-manga-admits-to-possession-of-child-pornography/

Ogas, O. and S. Gaddam. (2012) A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sex and Relationships. Plume, NY, .

Paul, Pamela (2005) Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. Macmillion.

Umeda, Sayuri. (2014) Japan: Possession of Child Pornography Finally Punishable. Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/japan-possession-of-child-pornography-finally-punishable/.

Woolf, Jenny (2010).  Lewis Carroll’s Shifting Reputation. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/lewis-carrolls-shifting-reputation-9432378/

Yao, Tony (2017). Scars Larger than a Cross. Manga Therapy. https://www.mangatherapy.com/post/167944099388/scars-larger-than-cross

12 COMMENTS

  • Thank you very much for this thoughtful post. I’m coming to this conversation a bit late, but recent news came out about the penalty he received for possession. Personally, I have been a fan of the Rurouni Kenshin anime for a long time, and will continue to be so even after these unfortunate events. I do indeed think that this hurts the perception of his work, more specifically, his manga. But I would just like to point out that the anime series and the glorious ovas were created by entire production teams that likely had nothing but professional interactions with Watsuki in their development, and who created them from the viewpoint of believing in the story and art itself, the IDEAS themselves, rather than being directly connected to Watsuki. So in that sense, I truly believe that they can continue to be admired for the gorgeous animation and story (which, by the way, wasn’t even to Watsuki’s liking, with regards to the ova’s ending).

    • People forget about the production teams of the anime and the other people behind the manga, such as the inkers and typesetters, with this problem. I wrote about this dilemma in another article. After a certain point, the work lives beyond its creator. Many giants in English literature, for example, weren’t the best people, yet people continue to herald their work.

  • Dear Sir,could you tell me if Watsuki is under police custody,or is he “free” to be in his home? I just say that the whole case gives off a very weird sense.

    • While he was arrested, news sources do not state if he has remained in custody or if he is out on bail or some other arrangement. Likely, we won’t have any additional information until after the trial.

      • I see. So when does the trial begin?
        Thanks.

      • I haven’t seen any information on that either. After the initial announcement of his arrest, everything went quiet. It might take some time to learn more.

  • Well even in the manga/anime Kenshin was in his 30’s when Kaoru was 15 different time depicted but still this a grown ass man with a teenager. Which disappointed me when I first read it as Kaoru is depicted as a strong and capable woman so finding out she wasn’t in her 20’s as I originally thought but rather still pretty young off-colored the story for me years ago.

    • While that type of age gap wasn’t unusual for the time period the manga/anime depicts, Watsuki’s confession makes it hard to see this as just a historical element.

    • She was 17 in the first volume of the manga and Kenshin was 28.

      • Thanks for the information!

  • Yes I think the anime is tarnished. Now many will view the art through the eyes of a sick man. I believe it is important to get at the heart of what is behind the art so that we do not blindly appreciate. My struggle with anime fans is that there seems to be this idea that Japanese people are immune to innappropriate appropriation— which flies in the face of their actions in neighboring countries in the previous century and their many of their creative notions which are quite headonistic. I so very much appreciate you bringing these very good questions up for evaluation.

    • Idealism and misconceptions are a problem in the anime community which is why I felt driven to start JP in the first place. Every culture has a part of its past that people would rather overlook, but we have to keep the evil things in sight so we can make corrections.

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