Oriental Lolitas

While paedophilia causes growing hysteria in the west, the Japanese, even in public, read comic book

A visitor to Japan might be surprised to see a grown man sitting on the train flicking through a comic book the size of a telephone directory. The visitor might be more surprised still to glance across and see violent pornographic scenes depicting young girls. Scenarios include rape, incest and murder. The girl is usu-ally submissive, innocent and weak, and the man a bully. If the female character isn't actually wearing school uniform, she will look young: tiny nose, big wide eyes, long eyelashes - features designed to show her innocence. This is Loli-con (Lolita complex) porn and is a small but significant section of Japan's manga (comic book) output.

There is a type of manga for every demographic group in Japan. In most, stories tell of adventure and romance. They can have emotional depth and a strong moral message, often to do with the importance of individual responsibility. The schoolgirl is a major archetype of manga stories, and part of its tradition. In comics written for young girls, she is an aspirational figure, perhaps fulfilling her dream of becoming a ballerina, perhaps discovering that she has secret powers to save the world. To some extent, the pornographic manga takes characters that already exist and makes them into fantasies for men. Perhaps the surprising thing, to the westerner, isn't that this stuff exists - the school uniform is a turn-on the world over, after all - but that the guy reading it doesn't seem remotely embarrassed to be doing so in public. There are protesters, but generally the fetishisation of the schoolgirl seems to be acknowledged and tolerated, or at least put up with, in Japan.

A man in Tokyo can go to a sex parlour and live out schoolgirl/teacher fantasies in a room made to look like a classroom or a gym. He can chat to young girls in telephone clubs. Men can even purchase the unwashed underwear of teenage girls (though the prevalence of this tends to be exaggerated in the western media). Perhaps, in a society where women are gradually gaining more power and freedom, men are running scared - turning to images of younger and less threatening girls.

Yet it is not always fantasy, and it is not all new. In real schools, it is not uncommon for male teachers to enter into sexual relationships with girls, and this has been so for a long time. In the past, it wasn't unusual for a male teacher to marry his favourite pupil when she became old enough. Men will openly admit to fancying young girls in uniform and have no fear that their friends will call them perverts. The boundaries are not clear. Despite the formality of many aspects of Japanese schools, they can be very touchy-feely places. When I taught in Japanese high schools, I was occasionally surprised to see a girl of 12 or 13 giving a male teacher a neck rub in the staff room. It may have been completely innocent, but to western eyes it seemed inappropriate.

In Japan, people are generally quite relaxed about nudity and children. Communal bathing is a part of Japanese culture and people are unselfconscious in front of one another (though at a mixed nude bathing spot you'd be unlikely to see many young women). Western viewers of Hayao Miyazaki's magical anime My Neighbour Totoro are often surprised and uncomfortable when watching the scene where the father takes a bath with his two daughters, aged 11 and four. We can't watch such a scene without an awareness of all the connotations of paedophilia. In Japan, sharing a bath with one's children is natural.

Culturally, much visual humour in Japan derives from nudity and bodily functions. One of Japan's most popular TV anime programmes, Crayon Shin-chan, started out as a manga. The main character is a boy who speaks with sexual innuendo, gets up to vaguely lewd mischief and frequently drops his pants to flash at other characters. He is sometimes compared to Bart Simpson, but the humour is far more scatological than in The Simpsons, and Shin-chan is only five years old.

From a young age, boys are encouraged to be slightly etchi (mildly lecherous). In the UK, a small boy playing with himself at nursery school might warrant an uptight "George, don't do that" from his teacher. In Japan, he's more likely to be met with an indulgent smile. The lack of embarrassment regarding one's own sexuality carries through to teenage years and adulthood. In shonen manga (comics for teenage boys), there is nudity and some etchi behaviour, but in comics for girls of the same age, there is almost none. During the recent media storm over enjou kousai - a form of teenage prostitution where girls have sex with older men in return for expensive gifts rather than money - the spotlight was mostly on the girls. People wanted to know what was so wrong with society that a girl would sell herself for a Louis Vuitton purse. Less was said about the men.

Does anyone get hurt by Loli-con fantasies that are only drawn in pencil? Most schoolgirls in Japan will have had an experience with a chikan, a groper or flasher on the train or lurking on the edge of a lonely road, but so will many adult women. Schoolgirls are probably considered easy targets because they're thought less likely to complain and make a fuss. But Japanese politicians are keen to point out that statistics show a far lower level of reported rape and child sex abuse in Japan than in most western countries.

The link between comics and paedophile crime has been made, however. Most notorious was the case of Tsutomu Miyazaki in 1989. Convicted of murdering four pre-teen girls, his home was found to be full of disturbing manga, anime and slasher films. He tormented the parents of his victims with letters signed using a pseudonym - the name of an anime character. The murders caused a moral outrage at the time and much debate as to whether manga and anime could cause someone to commit such crimes. Parents called for laws to protect children from the sexual images in manga. However, the focus of attention moved to the slasher films he had watched, and away from comics and cartoons.

As we are finding in the UK, the whole subject of paedophilia is both complicated and ambiguous. A person who looks at photographic child pornography is considered guilty because a child was abused in order for the picture to be made. The point at which a crime against a child is being committed isn't always clear, and this is true with Loli-con manga. While some of them depict girls who are very clearly supposed to be young children, often the girl's actual age is unclear. She is young and wide-eyed as a small child, yet with breasts that would be large for an adult Japanese woman, never mind a schoolgirl. She's an odd conglomerate fantasy creature. The manga schoolgirl is made out of ink and paper, but does that mean no one gets hurt in the making of it?

The Japanese man who wants to buy this material can find it in a convenience store, packaged in plastic, or if he prefers an element of privacy, from a vending machine. Even the man who reads a pornographic manga on the train will often leave it on the rack when he reaches his station. He may be unashamed to read of rape and child abuse in front of his fellow passengers, but he does, after all, know not to take it home to his wife and children.

Susanna Jones won the 2002 John Llewelyn Rhys prize for The Earthquake Bird (Picador). Her second novel, Water Lily, will be published in March, also by Picador