Japan convenience stores to stop selling porn ahead of Rugby World Cup 2019

The Japanese convenience store chain 7-Eleven has announced it plans to halt the sale of pornographic magazines in its shops by September this year. That, of course, just serves to remind you that right now, Japanese 7-Elevens sell pornographic magazines.

It's true. It's not just their existence that's surprising, but their placement and volume. Walk into any Sevvie in the country and you'll see dozens of them on the shelf next to the newspapers and the J-Pop fan mags. They'll be just around the corner from the branded snacks and the fridges full of ready-meals and cheap beer.

The magazines are usually "sealed" with rubber bands, you assume as a way to stop teenage boys from discretely flicking through them, but still, they're there, in plain sight at the front of the store, for all to select and purchase.

This is one of the strange things about Japan, and about Japanese culture – one of many, as you discover after spending a bit of time there. In this deeply traditional and in many ways very conservative country, "adult" magazine content is freely available and consumed with very little sense of secrecy or discretion.

I've travelled on trains next to men who've been flipping through some pretty questionable material. I've sat at the bar in an izakaya next to a gentleman who was casually perusing one of those convenience-store-bought adult magazines, laughing and pointing things out to the waitress behind the counter.

All these rules, and yet you can still duck down to the Sevvie and pick up a fetishised manga comic featuring cartoon characters doing eye-opening things with octopus tentacles.

To outsiders this is surprising; shocking, even. Possibly even offensive. And it's interesting that one of the reasons 7-Eleven and its rival chain Lawson has given for banning the sale of these magazines is that Japan is about to host two large international sporting events, the Rugby World Cup this year and the Olympic Games in 2020, and the country wants to put on its best face for the world to see.

I'd have thought a far more pressing reason would be that convenience stores are used by everyone in Japan, not just sleazy dudes, and all of those people would like to feel comfortable while picking up a few snacks and a newspaper. That has also been mentioned, but still, it seems like saving face is the main object of the game.

Travellers who have already visited Japan would be familiar with this quirk of culture, with this reflection of the fact that attitudes in the Land of the Rising Sun aren't always what you would expect, and that gender equality isn't quite what it could be. Traditional gender roles are still deeply entrenched in Japan. For proof, look no further than the medical schools that were recently found to have been manipulating exam results to restrict the entrance of too many women.

This, of course, is just another thing to discover about Japan, another thing to marvel at and ponder over. I've been to this country more times than I can count, and still it's an absolute mystery, a Russian doll with endless layers, an unknowable entity in a world that can sometimes seem so eminently google-able and straightforward.

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That's what I love about Japan. I don't love that you can grab a porno from the shelf at the 7-Eleven. I do love that that is a thing that happens and I don't really understand it.

You can add it to the long list of unknowables in this amazing place. You can put it up there with the kindness and friendliness of Japan's citizens to outsiders that's coupled with the country's extreme isolationist immigration policies. You can sit it next to the absolute respect in Japan for societal good and for your fellow citizen that comes packaged up with the widespread issue of "chikan", or men groping women on crowded trains.

Or consider the Japanese system of addresses, which scraps the familiar number-street-name-suburb custom used almost universally, and instead uses a complex network of block numbers, building numbers, micro-district numbers and suburbs. Or the fact that in this busy and bustling place, it's still a major faux pas to be seen walking and eating, or even walking and drinking a coffee.

There are such strict social rules to follow in Japan. You must remove your shoes before entering someone's home or certain restaurants; but don't forget to use the special slippers to visit the bathroom. You can't take food from a communal plate using the end of your chopsticks that goes in your mouth. You never pour your own drink. You don't eat on a train.

All these rules, and yet you can still duck down to the Sevvie and pick up a fetishised manga comic featuring cartoon characters doing eye-opening things with octopus tentacles.

Japan is an endlessly odd and confusing and fascinating place. The banning of adult magazines in convenience stores will do nothing to alter that.

What have you been surprised or shocked by in Japan? Do you find it a confusing place?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: Instagram.com/bengroundwater

Listen: Flight of Fancy podcast - Japan, the world's weirdest and most wonderful destination, with special guest Adam Liaw

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