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Tuesday, July 14, 2009. New Comics TOMORROW!
Moe: The Cult of the Child
By Jason Thompson
Thursday July 9, 2009 09:00:00 am
"She looks like she has an elementary school girl's head on a woman's body," my father, a child psychiatrist, commented on one of the first pieces of manga art he ever saw. That was 10 years ago, when I'd just started working at VIZ and very little manga was available in English, but if he'd said the same thing in 2009, I could have shown him the elementary school girl's body too.

The sexualization of underage (or underage-looking) characters in manga goes back to the late '70s, when underground and adult manga artists such as Disappearance Diary creator Hideo Azuma began to work around censorship laws by drawing characters without pubic hair. This was the beginning of the lolicon (Lolita Complex) trend; born in vending-machine porn magazines, it later influenced the new '80s market in direct-to-video anime pornography.

The works of Hayao Miyazaki, whose protagonists were frequently prepubescent girls, were particularly popular among lolicon artists. As with any movement, lolicon had many associated keywords—among them "alice" (implying an innocent young girl) and "lemon" (a more general sexual term), as in Cream Lemon, one of the earliest adult anime. Today, while hardcore lolicon (and its young-boy equivalent, shota) still exists, the biggest descendant of lolicon has a new name, moe ("mo-eh").

First off, let me make the terms clear: I know that when Japanese people say moe, it can mean any kind of loving fandom, from train moe to sci-fi moe to girls-with-glasses moe. In that way, moe is just another nerd-word like otaku. The word moe actually comes from a kanji meaning "to sprout." "My vegetable love should grow," to misuse a quote from Andrew Marvell—a slow budding affection, like a tender young plant.

Or like an underage girl, unfortunately. The moe which makes me periodically ashamed to read manga in public, and which has caused a raging debate in the Otaku USA letter column, is a particular kind of moe which has its roots in the Japanese love of cuteness, domesticity and—one element among many—the lingering lolicon trend. It's the moe of stories like Azumanga Daioh and Strawberry Marshmallow and Tori Koro and Yotsuba&!, in which adorable girls do adorable things.

Going a step further, it's the moe of stories like Kanna and Tsukuyomi: Moon Phase and Hinadori Girl and Blood Alone, in which adorable girls do adorable things while living in questionable situations with adult men. And if I went just another step further, it'd be the moe of Nymphet, in which adorable girls sexually tease adult men, but that manga crossed the line and got everybody offended and was never translated (Seven Seas Entertainment canceled it in 2007 after a chain of negative reactions to the announcement), even though, frankly, it's probably more honest about its intentions than some of the other titles I just mentioned.

Yes, the web of moe is like a complex mesh stretching from almost totally innocent titles like Azumanga Daioh, in which the reader gets to peep at the chaste world of girls, to yuri (lesbian) stories aimed at men (Strawberry Panic being one of the most pandering examples), to open lolicon fantasies. Of course, in pure moe, there's never sex, just as in bishonen beautiful-boy manga (as opposed to true Boy's Love) the characters just bicker suggestively and never actually rip each other's clothes off and get down to it. In fact, it is often so sweet and gentle, like Azumanga, that it can be enjoyed at face value as a children's manga—even though Dengeki Daioh, the magazine in which Azumanga ran, is aimed at teenage through twentysomething men. Blatant sexualiy would destroy the illusion of innocence that is part of the moe appeal.

But still, in Tsukuyomi Moon Phase for instance, it's just assumed that there will be sexual tension between college-age Kouhei and Hazuki, who looks like a 10-year-old girl. "You better not touch her," his relatives warn. If my relatives felt they had to tell me this, I'd either (a) get new relatives or (b) take a long hard look at my life. Even in Yotsuba&!, in which an adorable green-haired girl lives in the care of Koiwai, a cheerful twentysomething slacker, couldn't Koiwai have actually been Yotsuba's real father? Does he have to be her mysterious, vague adoptive father? Is the idea of Koiwai actually having sex with an adult woman and producing Yotsuba really that much of a wet blanket on the story?

"Is it a sign of pedophilia? Hell no, I say it's the longing for fatherhood," argued Scott Von Schilling in a column a few years ago. Scott went on to point out that the majority of moe readers are unmarried men in their 30s, who are seeing the "window of fatherhood" slowly closing in on them. With the graying of Japan, with Japan's low birthrate, is it a stretch to say that youth and childhood is becoming a more and more prized commodity? (This idea is itself the subject of many a manga, such as Masahiro Shibata's unpleasant science fiction/sex manga Sarai.) "All these men really want is an innocent little girl of their own to take care of," he concludes.

Von Schilling has a point, but it's only half a point. The desire to nurture and the sex drive are all too easily combined, as anyone who's studied child abuse knows. Stu-Hiro's untranslated manga Otaku no Musume-san ("Otaku's Daughter") confronts this dilemma a little more bluntly than other manga of its type. The protagonist, Kouta, is a 26-year-old nerd who is suddenly reunited with his 9-year-old daughter Kanau, the spawn of a single sexual encounter in high school. At first eager to meet her dad, Kanau is appalled to discover that her father is a doll-collecting pervert and porn manga author (actually one of his more positive traits -- at least he's working) whose apartment is full of body pillows and art of little girls in panties.

Kouta (who, we eventually learn, turned to the dark path of the otaku because he still pines for his lost high school love) at least has the good sense to be embarrassed, and tries to clean up his act, at least in front of her. ("Once you enter this world you start forgetting what things are like in the real world…since you're living here now I'll have to be more careful from now on. Sorry.") So Kanau ends up being raised in an environment full of borderline pedophilic imagery, without the suggestion of actual abuse taking place. Everybody's happy!

By now, the "pedophilic otaku pervert" is a stock character in anime and manga, and the moe element in stories like Otaku no Musume-san and I, Otaku: Struggles in Akihabara doesn't really feel like the authors' personal fetish; it feels more like an easy attempt at a laugh. This in itself is disturbing, but actually, the most disturbing element of Otaku no Musume-san, perhaps, is that Kouta's nine-year-old daughter cooks dinner for him. Even with the explicitly sexual element removed, moe is a fantasy of girlhood seen through chauvinistic male eyes. It's a fantasy of returning to the nursery—to the state of pampered childhood that so many real girls find stifling, but which to a young adult male with an emotionally stunted life and no job prospects, might seem like a retreat into paradise.

Even when moe girls are "competent," like 10-year-old cook/laundrywoman/ dishwasher Sasami in Tenchi Muyo!, these little girls represent house and home and the most stereotypical view of womanhood—little mothers who cook and clean and aren't as scary as real adult women. It's no surprise that one of the manga formats which has embraced moe is four-panel manga, which, like traditional American comic strips, trades on a similar set of clichés: reassuring domestic situations, the warmth of family, and cute characters who never grow old.

Mixed motives are human nature. The innocent, vulnerable characters of moe manga might activate the reader's nurturing instinct (moe), the predatory instinct (lolicon), or simply the desire to escape from the reader's own skin and into an idealized fantasy world of women, where no discordant male presences intrude (yuri). Only one of these three things is necessarily "pedophilic," a loaded word that I have been blithely tossing around like sweating dynamite through this entire article. Anime and manga fans are understandably wary of having their entertainment matter labeled "pedophilic," particularly when the tragic outcome of the Christopher Handley case shows just how serious a charge that is, even when applied to two-dimensional characters.

My review of Azumanga Daioh in Manga: The Complete Guide, in which I gave the series 3.5 stars but mentioned some readers might be turned off by the "vaguely pedophilic teacher," sparked a debate on the talk page for Azumanga Daioh's wikipedia article. It was a civil debate, but whenever people use the word "ephebophile," I have to think they're splitting hairs.

When I say "pedophile," I don't want to hang a lightning rod over the house of anime and manga, but I do feel that it is the only word to describe this aspect of moe. To be brave enough to acknowledge and analyze this, as in the brutally honest comedy manga Welcome to the NHK (in which the initially semi-normal protagonist rapidly degenerates down the lolicon ladder), is the only way to acknowledge how some manga looks to people outside the circle of manga fandom. The forces that arrested Christopher Handley probably don't care about his motives, but it never hurts to understand your own.

Jason Thompson is one of the best-known manga critics in the US. He currently writes for Otaku USA and is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide. His website is

Manga Salad is © Jason Thompson, 2009



masamonkey (3 hours ago)
I'm sorry, but I fail to see what purpose this article could have beyond drumming up hysteria. Here in the comments, you have questions on whether or not readers are still allowed to read Black Jack and Yotsuba&!. If you're really interested in opening up a dialog, don't casually throw around the word pedophile.
Beyond the harsh words, I don't think it's so much pedophilia even in the cute little girl cases so much as the objectification of women in general, such as in the case of not necessarily a sexualized daughter, but a cute little 'pet daughter.' When you really sit down and read Otaku no Musume-san, it's not the 'pet daughter' fantasy you see in a lot of books, it's a look at a guy who holds that pet daughter fantasy and how woefully unequipped he is to actually handle having a daughter. Time and again their relationship only survives thanks to that daughter not only being independant, but breaking those pet daughter misconceptions thus forcing the father to grow up and accept her as a real person. I'm not saying that's at all a healthy relationship and the neighbor character is disgusting, but there's nothing in the series as offensive as hearing nuturing goes hand-in-hand with child molestation. Don't focus too much on calling the forest by the trees when the inability to empathize with other human beings is the real culprit in both molestation and out of control moe fetishes.
William George (2 days ago)
So... uh...
Can I still like Yotsuba&! without fear of persecution?
Cuz it's my favorite manga right now.
tomatey (3 days ago)
I was looking forward to what you were going to say on this subject, and I was not disappointed! Really well said and thought out, Mr. Thompson. Cheers.
pokkiss (4 days ago)
I've only gotten two volumes into it (at 17 bucks a volume I can't afford to keep up!) but I was wondering how you feel about pinoko in black jack. it's a very complicated turn on the same problems that are presented here, but it seems as though the only sexual tension is in that pinoko wants to be black jack's wife but black jack can't reconcile here delicate and (characteristically of black jack comics) bizarre situation. is this a comment on the moe trope in manga or is it just another part of it? I'd also like to say that I love this website because other comic book sites seem more like advertisements when confronted with comixology, a website where a community is asked to actually consider ideas about comics and comic culture (manga included!).

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