Welcome to a post in two parts on manga censorship then and now. This first post will cover historical examples of manga censorship in North America while the upcoming post will address current developments and on-going issues.
Manga censorship is the removal, suppression, or restriction of comics with origins in Japan by a governing authority, its representatives, or other individuals/institutions including the publisher. Furthermore, manga censorship changes the access status of a series or its content on the grounds that the series is obscene or otherwise objectionable to standards, sensibilities and/or law. Content sanitization is the removal of specific images and text deemed obscene or otherwise objectionable during the editing process or following initial publication. While content sanitization often occurs during the North American localization process, that is not always the case. Rather, content sanitization also occurs within Japan when a series is moved from its initial publication space, the manga magazine, to its final home, the manga volume. As early as manga became available in English to North American readers, there was censorship. Can you name some examples? How has manga censorship altered your reading experience as a fan, or your collection development policies as a librarian?
Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball welcomed many North American readers into the world of anime and manga for the first time and remains as one of the most popular manga series of all time. Inspired by the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West and modern Hong Kong martial arts films, the series illustrates the tale of protagonist Son Goku after he meets Bulma who jumpstarts their quest for the elusive Dragon Balls. While Dragon Ball underwent content sanitization in North America, this was deemed insufficient in preventing a banning. A Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) case study summarizes, “In 2009, the Dragon Ball graphic novel series by Akira Toriyama was removed from all public school media centers in Wicomico County, MD because the books depict violence and contain nudity.” The banning and content sanitization of Dragon Ball provides another lens to review manga censorship by, which is in relation to readers and their own advocacy. When readers create their own resources to discuss manga censorship, as is the case for Dragon Ball, they are opposing manga censorship by making it public – ensuring fellow readers know what they are missing – in a way we as librarians cannot when writing the controlled catalog records that guide our patrons to this series.
I echo CBLDF in saying that comics are “uniquely susceptible to challenges” due to their very graphic nature. Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note introduces Light Yagami to a mystical notebook which grants him the power to kill anybody whose name he writes inside. In May 2010, Death Note was challenged when Albuquerque Public Schools held a hearing in response to a parent’s complaint about the series. According to Anime News Network, a parent advocated for the ban, stating, “Killing is just not something we should put out there for our kids to read in this way.” The committee voted unanimously against a district-wide ban of the manga. Nonetheless, Death Note remains censored in the United States in terms of content. CBLDF Presents Manga writes, “The American edition of Death Note tones down lines of dialogue in which antihero Light Yagami compares himself to God.” (123) Furthermore, Anime News Network and CBLDF report various incidents at schools in the United States where students were arrested, disciplined, expelled, investigated, removed, and suspended due to being in possession of a personal Death Note journal. Does this not sound similar to current movements against comics and manga in North American school libraries today?
Before Demon Slayer and My Hero Academia, there was Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto. Our protagonist Naruto was born in a hidden ninja village, and his dream is to become its leader – the Hokage. At 72 manga volumes and 720 anime episodes this series was and remains immensely popular around the world. Content sanitization is frequent with this series, and I will only highlight one of many Naruto censorship controversies.
The image above presents a somber scene from the series. One of Naruto’s close friends Shikamaru is experiencing great grief at the death of his teacher Asuma who was killed right before him. As he grieves, Shikamaru tells the reader that he still feels the smoke of chain-smoker Asuma’s cigarette in his eyes.
The image above presents the same two pages from the series free of censorship with the English-language translation provided. Both pages are included to further illustrate that the omission of the cigarette was not enough for the text also needed to be altered to make the scene pass to unsuspecting North American readers and librarians. The text tells the reader that Shikamaru is coughing and hating the smoke from his own cigarette as he grieves Asuma, and thus necessitated content sanitization. How can I provide an uncut version of this manga in English? It is a scanlation, a fan-made unofficial translation of the Japanese manga magazine. Scanlations bring real financial harm to creators, and yet without them it would not be possible to share this scene to English-language readers for, as of December 2021, no uncut version of this scene is available officially in English.
Content sanitization as a form of manga censorship creates a fissure between comics censorship and manga censorship. While bannings and challenges take highly comparable forms between comics and manga, the differences in production between comics and manga in North America leads content sanitization to occur within different frameworks between these two mediums. While content sanitization may occur in Japan between the initial manga magazine serialization and the proceeding volume serialization, for North American readers content sanitization most often occurs between the Japanese-language volumes and the English-language volumes. This results in two versions of a series – an uncut Japanese-language edition and a cut English-language edition – when the series undergoes content sanitization by North American publishers. Further complicating things is the advent of uncut English-language manga in North America, where publishers recognize a demand for works free of content sanitization and re-publish the series as such. This is the case for the eighth volume of Fullmetal Alchemist which features a sanitized scene in the 2006 printing which is restored in the 2020 reprint titled Fullmetal Alchemist: Fullmetal Edition. Before a challenge even occurs then, librarians selecting manga may need to review a series for content sanitization, a time-consuming process of reading a series page-by-page against the Japanese-language volumes, and further identify if a cut or uncut version is best for the library’s collection. This extensive review is often unnecessary when selecting comics for the library.
Manga censorship remains an ongoing issue for both librarians and readers. This piece only begins the discussion and encourages you to look towards additional resources. As always, please report any censorship occurring at your library. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on reading cut and uncut manga in the comment section.
Victoria Rahbar is an early career web services librarian. She has a Master of Arts in East Asian Studies from Stanford University’s Center for East Asian Studies and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Washington iSchool. She conducts research on the global dissemination of Japanese anime, manga, and video games through a DEI lens. She applies her research to the needs of libraries, speaking on issues around cultural representation in manga at academic conferences and anime conventions. She is especially interested in how current digital publishing practices disrupt past ideas around censorship and challenges to manga.