Books / Reviews

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.