A 55-year-old computer graphic designer in Japan has been found guilty of violating child pornography laws by creating and selling realistic computer-generated virtual reality images of a young naked girl.
While producing and distributing child pornography was banned in 1999, it took Japan until June 2014 to pass a law banning the possession of child pornography, and in a landmark ruling, on Tuesday 15 March, the Tokyo District Court found Akashi Takahashi guilty of violating that law, even though anime and manga featuring sexually explicit scenes with children are not banned.
In 2013, Takahashi created 34 CG images of a young naked girl and offered them for sale. He was arrested, and although he argued that the images were not real and that they were meant to be art, the court has now found that three of the images are so realistic that the could be used to identify a girl featured in a photo book from the 1980s.
Images corresponded to an actual child's likeness
Japan's current pornography laws only protect pornographic content that depicts actual people. But even though the child that the pornographic images are based on is now an adult, meaning that the photos are technically of someone who does not exist, the court still found that the images were violating the law.
"Such obscene images can violate the child pornography law and thus fall into the scope of criminal punishment when even ordinary people recognise that the depictions of the face, bust, genitalia and other key bodily features faithfully describe those of an actual child," the ruling said, according to Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun.
In the end, Takahashi was convicted over only three of the images, receiving a one-year prison term suspended for three years, as well as a ¥300,000 (£1,857) fine.
"It is regrettable that the court failed to understand the value of my artistic activities," Takahashi said at a press conference after the ruling, adding that he intends to appeal the decision.
According to the US Department of State, Japan has long been known as "an international hub for the production and trafficking of child pornography" and there is a concern that in the past children's rights have not been properly understood in the country.
Is child pornography of an imaginary person okay?
However, unlike other countries, the child pornography ban in Japan will only prosecute defendants who do not discard the material within one year of possessing it, so a myriad of concerns remain. If virtual reality content eventually becomes commonplace, pornography will soon find its way onto the platform.
But how will child pornographic content depicting people who don't exist tie into this? Will such VR experiences be protected as art the way manga and anime is, or will regulators seek to ban the content as well?
And if people download child pornographic VR experience apps, watch them and then delete them, does that mean they can escape prosecution? For now, no one knows, but this debate will eventually need to be had.