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Japan’s ‘Moe’ obsession: the purest form of love, or creepy fetishization of young girls?

by Tim Hornyak

Special To The Japan Times

Anyone who has visited Tokyo’s Akihabara district in the past decade will have run into countless images of cartoonish girls: in posters, in figurines and in the form of real women dressed up as French maids.

The Moe Manifesto, by Patrick W. Galbraith.
Tuttle Publishing, Nonfiction.

The cute cartoon girls, or bishōjo, are visual hieroglyphics in the language of otaku (obsessive) desire. Their dewy saucer-like Bambi eyes seem to encode an inscrutable message that can be bewildering to the uninitiated. Why the endless repetition of this waif? Is there some pre-”Sailor Moon” archetype they are trying to recapture? What does it all mean?

Otaku scholar Patrick W. Galbraith has tried to decipher the semiotics by focusing on one keyword in the otaku lexicon: moe (for some reason written with a French accent over the “e” in his book, unlike “anime”). It’s from the Japanese verb moeru, meaning either to burst into bud or to burn, depending on the way it’s written. In geek-speak, it signifies the emotional attachment that otaku feel for their favorite characters. Galbraith’s “The Moe Manifesto” is a collection of 19 interviews with manga and anime artists and producers that aims to better understand what motivates otaku.

I confess that although I enjoy quality anime, I’m no fan of moe. To me it is shorthand for moeru gomi (burnable trash). But I read this book in hopes of gaining insight into what would make grown men — and many if not most otaku are such — obsess over cartoon girls. Is it a sexual fetish? A Peter Pan complex? Or some other unfulfilled desire?

Galbraith doesn’t delve far into the psychological motivation behind moe, even in the book’s final interview, with psychiatrist Tamaki Saito.

“Moe is quasi-love for a fictional character,” Saito says, echoing the definitions by other interviewees. “You can desire something in the two-dimensional world that you don’t desire in the three-dimensional world. … There is a truism in otaku culture that those who feel moe for little-sister characters in manga and anime don’t have little sisters. If these men actually had little sisters, then the reality of that would ruin the fantasy.”

Creepy? Perhaps. It may be reassuring to those who feel that moe “love” is simply pedophilia — a word that doesn’t appear once in Galbraith’s book — but it is hard not to feel revulsion over some of the illustrations in the book, particularly those by artist Pop, who depicts a prepubescent cartoon girl, legs splayed out and crotch thrust at the viewer. “I like thighs, and so I draw full-body portraits from a low-angle perspective,” Pop is quoted as saying. (Decades after the rest of the developed world, Japan last month finally outlawed the possession of child pornography, but the ban doesn’t affect anime and manga publishers.)

Galbraith can perhaps be forgiven his many softball questions to his subjects as he is an unabashed otaku himself, known for dressing up as Goku from the popular mange and anime franchise “Dragon Ball.” Indeed, he waxes emotional about his participation in a 2007 march through Akihabara calling for tolerance of otaku and cosplaying. “What these protesters wanted,” he writes, “was to maintain the space where they could publicly express their love for bishōjo.”

The event inspired the book’s title, although it contains no manifesto per se. What it does offer is some very deep inside baseball on the origins and manifestations of moe. Like-minded fans will appreciate its detailed account of the magazine Manga Burikko, where the word “otaku” surfaced in the early 1980s in a column by Akio Nakamori, as well as the popularization of the word “moe” following the film “Densha Otoko (Train Man).” Readers will also learn about how the producers of the 1982-83 anime “Maho no Princess Minky Momo (Magical Princess Minky Momo),” aimed squarely at girls 3 to 5 years old, were stunned to find it had been appropriated by otaku: Adult male devotees had formed a fan club.

While moe-inducing characters are also produced and appreciated by women, some of whom Galbraith also interviews, the most extreme male enthusiasts espouse a fascinating, if pathetic, philosophy of love. When asked what moe means to him, Jun Maeda, a writer of bishōjo dating simulation video games, is frank: “It’s a reason to live. If it were to be taken away, many people would no longer be able to survive.” To the unattractive, economically downtrodden otaku, ersatz affection from virtual women can be far more preferable than almost certain failure with real ones. Indeed, fans of the hit dating sim “LovePlus,” which has had multiple sequels, can profess “relationships” with imaginary girls even though it’s a complete illusion.

“You can interact with a two-dimensional girl in real time, which is a dream come true for me, because I have no interest in three-dimensional women,” otaku author Toru Honda says of the game. “Years ago I married a character from a bishōjo game. … Her name is Kawana Misaki.”

Like Christian monks bent on salvation, such otaku have to some extent renounced the material world in favor of fantasy. Indeed, the cover of one of Honda’s books portrays the Virgin Mary, begging the question: Is love of fantasy characters any more ridiculous than love of divine ones? If society accepts those who profess a faith, why shouldn’t otaku be left in the peace of eternal childhood?

Galbraith, for his part, exhorts readers to “embrace love rather than condemn it.” While “The Moe Manifesto” could have benefited from a certain distance from its subject and deeper analysis of a provocative cultural phenomenon, it gives fans and academics some fine source material. Lavishly illustrated and with a glossary for neophytes, it’s a welcome addition to any otaku bookshelf — right beside the “Sailor Moon” dolls.

  • Tyler Durden Volland

    “Is it a sexual fetish?”
    What a question… is this meant as a joke? What a bunch of hypocrites….

    “…pedophilia — a word that doesn’t appear once in Galbraith’s book —…”
    Now, there is a surprise!

    “…pathetic philosophy of love…“
    Like most of the article, well chosen words.

    Do not misunderstand me, I am not against this. If that is what the Japanese psyche is about, then that is what it is.

    But please stop that hypocrisy, that pretending, that this is not what it looks like. Simply watch NHK news, about once a week, there is another example of some Japanese male behaviour….

    The one that got caught!

  • Azazello

    I try to be sympathetic to attempts to fit all this in under the larger umbrella of non-normative sexualities (like the argument put forth in Saitō’s Beautiful Fighting Girl), but at the end of the day I have a very hard time believing that the market for moe—not to mention the mainstream success of AKB48, etc.—is not connected somehow to Japan’s dismal record on gender equality. If saying you are not interested in ‘3-dimensional women’ is not an anti-female, anti-feminist position, than what is? Is this really something worth defending? I’m clearly not alone in feeling this way, and it would be great to have an ‘anti-Moe manifesto’ to read alongside Galbraith’s book.

    I’m far less convinced there is a connection with real-world pedophilia, but then again, it’s hard for children to fight against how they are represented by adults.

    • kurbstar2

      everything is ‘anti-feminist’, unless if it’s under your own rules of engagement. You should be happy we don’t want to touch you, after all, everything is rape these days

      • Azazello

        I suppose I am quite happy you don’t want to touch me, though I also have no idea what you are talking about.

    • efuss

      As problematic as what some of the most extreme fans of moe are, not being interested in 3-dimensional women isn’t anti-feminist in itself. It generally means you’re bad with people in general. So you turn to an idealized archetype of a girl instead of a real one. But doing that isn’t really anti-feminist in the traditional sense that you’re reducing a human being into a sex tool. It’s acknowledging that actual humans are more than just sex tools and turning to a fictional medium where that might not apply.

      • Azazello

        Yes, that is the usual argument, and I find it pretty compelling for the most part. But 2d or not, isn’t it a problem that the idealized archetype of a girl is (in your words) a sex tool? I’m also not convinced there is such a divide between 2d and 3d as this argument implies, if you look at how (3d) idols are often presented in the media (there are plenty of examples of this even in this newspaper). I agree though, there is no point in pathologizing it – precisely because this view of women is so prevalent in the wider culture, it is quite normal for it to be reflected in drawn characters as well.

    • Michieie

      Not wanting 3D women isn’t anti-feminist and the same applies with 3D men. It’s just that they’re bad with people/relationships and prefer to avoid all the hazzle of dating and eventual break up, because everyone eventually breaks up. I hate people in general and I sort of see why would they avoid 3D women and relationships.

      Gee, nowadays everything is anti-women (or rape) for feminists. Don’t be surprised why no one pays attention to your muh patriarchy complaints.

      • R0ninX3ph

        To say they are bad with people/relationships and want to avoid the hassle of dating, implies that they have had the “hassle” of dating. Thats a pretty big assumption from where I am standing. Sure, I might be stereotyping the “moe” loving men of Japan a bit, but I can feel pretty safe that the way they think about women, a real woman wouldn’t want anything to do with them…

      • Michieie

        You have a point there, though. On my part, I’ve seen my relatives all date and fail miserably with their partners that it makes me think I’m better off alone and that people will always have one or two problems that I’m no willing to work around to make something work.

        ITT we can say they don’t want women and women don’t want them.

  • Derp Minos

    Dear Tim,
    Stop writing articles, you don’t know what you are talking about. Your opinion has as little value as the trash you wrote.

  • Azazello

    Yes, Galbraith’s intent with the book is to provide a defense of ‘love for two-dimensional characters,’ and that is laudable. Much of this goes back to the long-term project of recuperating the image of ‘otaku’ after what happened in the late 1980s. Still, I feel like there is a need for a more coherent counter-argument, not just a knee-jerk moralism like you find online but a real attempt to look at the larger social significance, precisely because that earlier battle has largely been won. The question now is not whether moe is “normal” or “well-rounded,” but what it might mean as a larger social phenomenon, in the same way you might debate other areas of pop culture. I don’t see that debate taking place, though I would love some recommendations of places to look.

    • efuss

      I’ve always found Hiroki Azuma’s “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals” a good read. I think you can download it online. I don’t know much academic material that treats modern anime intellectually, though (and by modern, I mean at least “Haruhi” or later, not the same references to Evangelion which don’t apply to today’s fans anymore).

  • Tyler Durden Volland

    Azazaello

    I must agree with what write. The state of japanese society is pathetic and the quality of life offered to its members is very, very sad, for such a rich country.
    That these kind of childish phantasy “women” are popular is no surprise. However the problem is not simply japanese. It exists worldwide since the internet offers actually everything. Japanese have a greater tolerance towards what most of the rest of the world considers to be deviant sexuality, and so “moe” co com from Japan.

    Last year Joseph Gordon-Levitt made a movie “Don Jon” that at least in the foirst half hour explains this development in sexuality very clearly. Basically the question is: Why have a relationship with a real person, when you can instead have a virtual relationship that is exactly as you want it to be?
    A very interesting question, but only of use for people who are actually honest with themselves….

    The “moe” thing is only on the surface anti-women, deep inside of course it is plain misogyny. Not because of philosophical considerations, of course, but coming from simple cowardice.

    • Azazello

      Good points. Thanks for the movie recommendation – will check it out.

    • kurbstar2

      Happy to be a fan of moe, then

      cry more, feminazis

    • Tyler Durden Volland

      There was no need to censor the reply from “KUBSTAR2″

      If he wants to out himself as a person with an infantile sexuality, why not let him?

      Those who understand will, and only those matter.

      When you censor, he will feel like a very important martyr, whose profound intelligence and insight make it necessary to deny him the right to free speech and censor him, for the good of the less gifted…

      Please allow me to reproduce his comment? (Disqus forwards them to the adressee also)

      Kurbstar2 wrote:

      “Happy to be a fan of moe, then cry more, feminazis”

      So, if anybody still has any questions what kind of people like that stuff, now you know….

      Thank You, JT

  • Tyler Durden Volland

    Gordon, you misunderstand me, maybe I did not write it clearly enough….
    It is this article, and this discussion which is about “perverts”, I no-where said that this is my opinion….
    It is about political correctness, that has become so powerful. It is about Hypocrisy, sorry about the misunderstanding…
    By the way, I am probably older than you are….

  • Tyler Durden Volland

    @Anon

    Again I am surprised why JT is censoring so much…. Why do you guys believe we out here need your protection from harmless “insults” from fools? All censored mails come to us as a copy from Disqus anyway

    Anon.
    You are a hypocrite because you pretend that the only reason why you download things from internet is, that they cannot be gotten from legal sites.

    Your choice of language rather suggests, that you seem to believe, that, like yourself, others do not recognize when they see hypocrisy?
    I do NOT criticize your preferrence of what is called, under-age girls… I am criticizing your hypocrisy!

    As far as your phantasy about the future anonymity in the internet goes, or the uprising of the masses against total surveillance…

    You live in a dreamland, and as you are (at least psychologically) no more than 14, that is not a problem…..

  • Yuki Chan

    Didn’t care to read everything, but if the same goes for women, too, it won’t make men look any better. And much less improve the (any) situation. Pointing to other people isn’t hard.

  • Jae Hwan Jung

    Lets Be quiet, guys. Let me finish this up. Otaku exists in every countries. It is not just in Japan. In the U.S. they call it a “geek” or “nerd.” Otaku are mostly loosers. They go into a virtual world and get a 2 dimensional girl(in case of Japan… nowadays in every countries) or concentrate on things that nobody cares(like nerds in the US) coz they cannot get a real girl. Otakus refute they don’t want to have this messy real life relationship, but y’know those are creepy looser-like excuses. Experience tells everything! You have seen those ppl in your life, so you can tell who they are and how they behave. They behave abnormally! Of course exceptions do exist, but in most cases they do behave strange unlike ordinary people. Admit it, you OTAKUs!

  • Hanten

    “Japan’s ‘Moe’ obsession: the purest form of love, or creepy fetishization of young girls?”
    I’m going with the latter. Thankfully the otaku that are obsessed with moe are relatively rare. In the rest of Japanese culture, the focus on the yielding nature of young women is more pronounced than in other countries and is emblematic of a society that values the easy sexual availability of girls and women more than it does their happiness.
    Materials that show young girl as sexual objects is kiddy porn, even if it’s in manga form. Most psychologists and psychiatrists agree that looking at kiddy porn is going to encourage pedophilic behaviour so even if it’s soft kiddy porn, I can’t see the value in it. Of course, anyone who loves “moe” is going to dispute that but addicts always protest that they can give up anytime.