A man’s manga collection got him convicted on child porn charges

A U.K. judge has issued a nine-month suspended sentence for a manga fan who admitted to 10 counts of possession of illustrated pictures of fictional characters who looked underage. It’s the first such sentence in the country and is being viewed as a test case for prohibited images that fall outside of the traditional definition of child pornography.

The defendant, 39-year-old Robul Hoque, was also convicted in 2008 of a very similar charge of owning digital artwork of what appeared to be underage fictional characters. That case was also the first test case in the U.K. of digital art being held to represent child pornography. In that case as well, the images were deemed to represent underage children despite being illustrations of fictional characters whose ages could not be known.

In Japan, illustrated manga-style erotic art and anime is known as hentai. One subset of hentai features subjects styled to look like young girls or boys. Known as “loli” for illustrations of girls and “shota” for illustration of boys, this erotic art is hugely popular around the world and can be found regularly distributed across the Internet.

The Middlesbrough prosecutor stated in court that officers had found nearly 400 erotic illustrated or animated images on Hoque’s computer at the time of his 2012 arrest, but that none were of actual people. At the time of his 2008 conviction for his digital art stash, Hoque was known to be in possession of illustrated erotic artwork. At the time, British law did not consider illustrated artwork like loli or shota to fall under the category of child pornography. But in 2010, Parliament passed the “cartoon law,” which was specifically designed to bring illustrated images into the realm of prosecutable material. The law defines a “prohibited image” as one which depicts a child in a way that is “grossly offensive” and which can “reasonably be assumed to have been produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal.”

Hoque’s defense attorney Richard Bennet minced no words about what his client’s case could mean to other anime fans. “This case should serve as a warning to every Manga and Anime fan to be careful,” he said. “It seems there are many thousands of people in this country, if they are less then careful, who may find themselves in that position too.”

The U.K. is by no means the first country to treat erotic illustrated art as though it were actual child porn. In 2010, a manga fan was arrested and jailed for months after Canadian border police found what they deemed to be pornographic images on his computer. His arrest was prominently protested by manga and comics advocates including the Comic Book Defense League. The charges against him were eventually dropped

In Australia, which has a “zero-tolerance” policy for any real or illustrated image of a character who looks underage, a Sydney man was arrested and convicted of possession of child pornography due to erotic Simpsons fanart being found on his computer. Last year in New Zealand, a man who previously had been convicted of sexually assaulting a minor was sentenced to three months in prison for owning erotic illustrated artwork of elves, pixies, and fairies. In China, fans have been jailed just for writing slash fanfic, regardless of the ages of the male characters depicted in the fiction. 

And in the U.S., a Virginia man was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2009 in part due to his posession of manga art, while an Iowa man was convicted on an obscenity charge in 2008 for possessing loli art. Both convictions fell under the 2003 PROTECT act, which was created in part to “revise and strengthen the prohibition on ‘virtual’ child pornography.”

Meanwhile, in Japan, a new law expressly prohibiting depictions of child pornography explicitly excludes popular illustrated images of loli, shota, and other erotic artwork and animation.

Other test cases in other countries have been thrown out as unconnected to pornography involving real underage subjects. But as countries redefine and in some cases expand their pornography laws around the world, it seems Japan is the safest place for hentai lovers.

Photo by bakarti/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Aja Romano

Aja Romano

Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.