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Why would 'RapeLay' thrive in Japan?

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Parent outrage over rape game
  • Lack of participation of women in power sets stage for popularity of hentai games
  • Japanese government says it is aware of international outrage toward games
  • Temple University professor says Japan has some of world's worst child pornography
  • He says he believes international debate will pressure Japan to amend laws

Tokyo, Japan (CNN) -- In the two days since posted the story on hentai games (specifically, the "RapeLay" video game), there have been thousands of comments, more than a million page views and many questions about how a culture can produce this genre of games and then quietly allow the industry to thrive.

It is terribly easy to condemn Japan as a sexist and repressed culture with a government that chooses to look the other way. Part of that would be true, but the reason hentai continues to thrive in a country as progressive as Japan is a complex cultural issue.

Kyle Cleveland, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University in Japan, teaches a course called "Youth and Deviant Subcultures in Japan."

Yes, there is enough material to fill an entire university level syllabus. Cleveland explains that the outrage from critics is borne through the prism of their own cultures, a Western sensibility with an entirely different cultural norm than what exists in Japan.

"Japan is a patriarchal society. It has been historically and remains to this day," said Cleveland. "It's no surprise that this is expressed in mass media and pornography. The moral entrepreneurs that are scrutinizing Japan have both a feminist history and cultural tradition that is simply not in play in Japan."

'Rapelay' video game goes viral amid outrage

According to the 2009 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report, Japan ranked 101 out of 134 countries, called abysmally low by women's groups considering it is the world's second largest economy.

That lack of participation of women in positions of power sets the cultural stage for why hentai games thrive openly in the country.

Video: Rape video game controversy

"What you have in Japan is policymakers and politicians who are in some ways blind to these issues because you have a relatively male-dominated, elderly political class that was raised under a different set of gender norms and have never acknowledged the feminist critiques that have become integrated in American and Western consciousness. There are whole sets of non-issues that are not raised for political debate in Japan, so they don't filter into the consciousness of most Japanese people," said Cleveland.

But they are becoming issues in our borderless digital world. Japan's Gender Equality Bureau of the Cabinet Office told CNN that the government was aware the international community is outraged by the games.

The national government is considering making possession of child pornography illegal -- currently it is not. But this possible change to the law is due to outside pressure, not internal protest.

Cleveland says Japan has some of the most heinous examples of child pornography in the world. "It's a country that has been held to task by the U.N. for human trafficking and exploitation of women."

"Japan has ways of expressing sexuality that are practically indecipherable to a Western sensibility but that are so normalized in Japan that the Japanese don't often understand or acknowledge the critiques that are made against them," Cleveland says.

Japan is a patriarchal society. It has been historically and remains to this day
--Kyle Cleveland, associate professor at Temple University in Japan

Cleveland believes the international debate will pressure Japan to amend its laws, making it harder for hentai games to be sold and distributed. He believes Japan will not comply for moral reasons but because "it's politically expedient."

But he cautions those who are appalled to take a look within their own culture.

"What provokes people about Japan is the cultural distance which inclines people to see Japan as exceptionally lurid or perverse simply because it expresses sexuality in ways outside of Western norms. Japan is in some ways not that different than other cultures, including the United States, which has its own gender problems that are quite apparent."