While en route to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), translator and agent Anne Ishii was detained at Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto for over two hours yesterday as Canadian customs officers questioned her and went through every book in her luggage to determine whether she was bringing comics illegally into the country.
Ishii was traveling to TCAF to accompany manga-ka Gengoroh Tagame, whose manga My Brother’s Husband is debuting at the show. While My Brother’s Husband, a story about a Japanese man learning to accept his late brother’s life as an openly gay man in Canada, is a gentle, slice-of-life story that is well suited to teen readers, Tagame is also a well known creator of sexually explicit gay BDSM manga. The Canadian customs service has a history of viewing comics in general and manga in particular with suspicion.
“So at the gate, they asked me what I’m doing here,” Ishii said. “I said ‘I’m going to the comics art festival.’ They asked me what I do, and [I said] ‘I translate manga.’
“‘Manga? Like anime?’ they asked. Feeling it was no time to quibble, I said ‘Sure.’ I’m not going to quibble about the differences there. I told them, ‘I’m just meeting an artist’ so they ask me about the artist. I say he’s just published this beautiful all-ages book. I emphasize My Brother’s Husband is a very safe book, published by Penguin, and that Penguin wouldn’t publish anything that would challenge the law,” Ishii said.
Nonetheless, the Canadian Customs officers told her that they wanted to do a second interview. During that interview, the agents searched Ishii’s luggage and found some of Tagame’s earlier books. Ishii had already explained that she is an artists’ agent and the books were samples to be shown to prospective licensors.
“[The customs officer] just stares, and looks at it,” Ishii continues. “I say, ‘Well, that’s obviously not the Penguin book.’ And she’s like, ‘This is not clean. This is not clean. This is very much not for children.’ And I said, ‘I understand, and it’s in a very limited context that I give these books out.'”
The customs agent then proceeded to look through every one of the books—about 60 in all—while asking repeatedly “Are there children or animals depicted in this book?” “Of course not,” Ishii responded. Then the agent called in another agent.
Ishii continues, “The other agent is also a woman. She looks at [Tagame’s books] and she says ‘Oh yeah, this is that thing, I think people are into that right now,’ very matter of factly. It’s not a big deal. But the first agent remains unconvinced and shows it to another agent, so now there are three of them looking at it. It’s very Goldilocks—the neutral one I was dealing with, the very open-minded one who just wants me to leave, and then the very severe one who is like, ‘You know, if there are children or animals depicted in that, that is completely illegal in Canada.'”
“Of course there are no children depicted here,” Ishii said. “I’m horrified that they would even say that. But they’re also looking at really hard core gay sex.”
The customs agents proceeded to go through Ishii’s belongings, even checking the lining of her bag, as well as her wallet and her laptop computer, although they just looked at the desktop and did not ask Ishii to give them her passwords. Finally, they let her go and did not confiscate any books.
“Once they were done, they were very polite and said ‘OK, you are all good,’ and that was it,” she said. “But that was two hours that I lost.”
This is not the first such incident. In 2011, Tom Neely and Dylan William were stopped on their way to TCAF, and a number of comics they were carrying were confiscated by customs. This article contains a lengthy quote from a blog post, since removed, from a woman whose manga was gone through page by page when she was traveling to Canada in 2006. The most extreme case was that of Ryan Matheson, who was stopped on his way into the country and, after a search of his computer, wrongfully accused of possession of child pornography. The Canadian government dropped the charges in 2012, but his life was disrupted for two years: He was arrested and denied food, blankets, and access to a lawyer or the American Embassy, and until he was cleared he was banned from using computers or the internet.
Although it hasn’t been updated for a while, the site Gomorrahy.com has an archive of titles of materials that were confiscated by Canadian customs officers.