Redefining and Recontextualizing Moe: A New Dimension to Sexualized Cuteness


After getting approval from my supervisor and head of department, I present to you my honors thesis submitted in partial fulfillment for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore.

I decided upon the topic of moe for my research as it has been a very hot-button issue in anime fandom for quite some time. I hope my paper will give you a clearer understanding of the concept, why moe might be far more useful and essential to the otaku than you might have realized and why moe isn’t insidious and does not spell the death of anime. Also discussed are gender issues and virtual child pornography.


By adopting a cultural studies approach, this paper seeks to redefine and recontexualize moe. This paper argues that moe is used as a coping mechanism by the otaku to reclaim agency and remain connected in a more individualized society as opposed to a tool that legitimizes the subjugation of women in society and homogenizes anime. This is done through the possession of fictional characters via the creation of dôjinshi, attending events and going on pilgrimages to the real-life settings of their favorite manga and anime. In addition, because moe is an element of the kawaii art style, it is separate and distinct from the other elements of an anime, allowing creators to retain creative freedom while simultaneously catering to the otaku and appealing to a wider demographic. Instead of being exploited by producers, the kawaii art style facilitates the production of character merchandise that the otaku purchase and use to aid them in reclaiming agency and connecting with fictional characters and other otaku.

Continue to the full text after the jump. If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to link to this post! (^o^)


Japanese popular culture has a significant presence outside of Japan. In 2002, Douglas McGray, a contributing writer at Foreign Policy, published the article “Japan’s Gross National Cool” detailing Japan’s shift to becoming a cultural powerhouse (McGray 2002, 46). Since then, the Japanese government has become interested in promoting Japanese popular culture as part of its Cool Japan initiative. The Japanese government hopes to use its popular culture to acquire soft power, wiping away Japan’s colonial past and historical atrocities (Daliot-Bul 2009, 254). In 2007, Asô Tarô, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, claimed Japanese popular culture as a tool of diplomacy (Lam 2007, 350). However, Iwabuchi Koichi, a professor of media and cultural studies, states that Japanese popular culture products carry a mukokuseki (culturally odorless) quality (Iwabuchi 2002, 455) and that they do not promote a Japanese way of living or ideology (Iwabuchi 2002, 456). The success of Americanized Japanese shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1993) (Allison 2006, 14), that had all the Japanese elements removed, and the failure of Bishôjo Senshi Sailor Moon (Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon) (1995) (Allison 2002, 152), which aired with little localization, are testaments to Iwabuchi’s beliefs.

Regardless of the political motives behind promoting Japanese popular culture, the economic benefits are very real. As Japanese popular culture products become more prevalent and well-known overseas, thanks in part to increasing internet literacy, there is a greater awareness of its Japanese origins. In contrast to previous decades, there are shows that air on American television that deliberately leave the Japanese elements intact in order to attract viewers (Allison 2006, 15) and fans who consume Japanese products for its foreign nature have been on the rise (Allison 2006, 16). Also, by simply being the country of origin and producer of products that people find cool, Japan is becoming a country of interest for many, especially for young children (Allison 2002, 9). Ahead of Tokyo Disney Land, Akihabara, the otaku mecca, was voted as the tenth most desirable tourist destination for those visiting Japan (Galbraith 2010a, 210). In addition, the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) even began offering otaku tours to capitalize on this newfound fascination (Galbraith 2010a, 220). The profits from cultural exports and tourists were instrumental in bringing relief to Japan’s recession-stricken economy (Macias and Machiyama 2004, 15).

The children who grew up surrounded by Japanese popular culture properties like Pokémon (1997) and Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters (2000) are also showing an interest in other aspects of Japanese culture. For instance, there has been an increase in the number of students enrolling in Japanese language classes, spurred by their interest in manga and anime (Ito 2012, xiv). Fans see manga and anime as a window into Japan and it is not uncommon to find tea ceremonies, taiko drumming and martial arts demonstrations in anime conventions in America (Poitras 2008, 65). American anime fans have even adopted the Japanese term otaku to refer to themselves (Eng 2012, 94).

Anime, manga and otaku culture are now synonymous with Japan’s global identity. The otaku, however, represent two conflicting and contrasting images (Galbraith 2010a, 217). On one hand, they are the outcasts of society that engage in activities that are deemed undesirable and deviate from the norm. For instance, the otaku who can experience moe both consume and produce manga containing depictions of sexualized kawaii female characters. It is claimed that such manga spreads bad ideology that contributes to the removal of power and agency from women in reality (Allison 1999, 55). As moe encourages the sexualization of kawaii female characters, it can be seen as a tool for legitimizing the subjugation of women in society. Yet, otaku culture is in a prime position to be marketed as the face of Cool Japan and the otaku as saviors of the Japanese economy. These conflicting images present a problem for government organizations that seek to market both the otaku and their culture to an arguably more conservative international audience.

However, this paper argues that, by redefining and recontexualizing moe, we are able to dispel the misconceptions and see how the otaku use moe as a coping mechanism to reclaim agency and remain connected in a more individualized society. This is especially pertinent with the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games where all eyes will be turned towards Japan, possibly becoming the impetus for a moral cleanup to meet international standards. Such cleanups are not unprecedented as there was a moral panic following the events of the Miyazaki Tsutomu murders where the authorities attempted to censor manga with sexually explicit images (Kinsella 1998, 311). Even Akihabara fell victim to greater policing, brought about by its own lawlessness. For instance, Sawamoto Asuka, an idol that performed on the streets of Akihabara, was arrested for being too risqué (Galbraith 2010a, 223). The dissonance in cultural values and the legality of sexually explicit manga will be explored in further detail in the following sections. In addition, according to the theory of database consumption (Azuma 2009, 54), moe threatens to homogenize anime by encouraging producers to focus solely on genres that best elicit the feeling of moe in otaku in an attempt to exploit them. Once again, while moe may seem problematic, this paper attests that it serves a critical function in allowing the otaku to feel empowered and surround themselves with other like-minded otaku.

This paper will adopt a cultural studies approach in analyzing moe and the otaku culture. In other words, contexts of production and consumption will be taken into account when approaching media texts to allow us to gain a more informed understanding of them (Grossberg 1992, 53). This paper will also focus on male otaku and their consumption practices. This paper recognizes that there are female otaku. However, as they consume media texts and experience moe differently from male otaku, they are beyond the scope of this paper. In addition, sexualized male characters are not as prominent as sexualized female characters in mainstream otaku culture. Before moving on to the crux of the issue, it is necessary to clarify the definitions of otaku, moe and kawaii.

  • Definitions of Otaku, Moe and Kawaii

The term otaku, which loosely translates to geek or nerd, is nuanced and politicized. However, depending on the context, it can acquire different meanings. Originally meaning “my home” (Kinsella 1998, 310), the term took on a negative connotation when it came to be associated with the Miyazaki murder case. After his arrest in 1989, pornographic manga and anime were uncovered from his home and attributed to his crimes (Kinsella 1998, 309). Sensationalized by the media, a moral panic ensued and all otaku who were engaging in activities related to manga and anime were seen as a threat to social order (Kinsella 1998, 311). In 2005, after the release of the drama series Densha Otoko (Train Man) (2005), which portrayed the otaku as sensitive romantics, the image of the otaku has undergone a reevaluation and has begun to improve (Galbraith 2010a, 219).

In addition, various scholars have their own interpretations of the term otaku. This includes: a flexible term that changes meaning in accordance with societal norms (Galbraith 2010a, 211), a reference to someone who can consume fiction sexually (Saitô 2007, 227) and a reference to someone who focuses on fulfilling his own needs in a postmodern era (Azuma 2009, 88). In the United States, the term enjoys a much more favorable usage as fans of manga and anime use the term as a “badge of honor” to differentiate themselves (Eng 2012, 94). Okada Toshio, also known as the Ota-king and founder of the field of otaku studies (Galbraith 2010b, 166), seeks to redefine otaku as those who possess an evolved vision, being able to appreciate a work from a multitude of perspectives (Okada 1996, 14). In a dialogue with Morikawa Kaichirô, Okada defended the otaku as consumers who are attracted to works and texts of high quality instead of works that were recognizably undesirable (Okada et al. 2005, 175). In this paper, the term otaku will be defined as knowledgeable and passionate fans of manga and anime, similar to the definitions “geek or fanboy” and “hardcore or cult fan” that are provided in The Otaku Encyclopedia (Galbraith 2010b, 171). Otaku will also be defined as those who are able to feel sexually attracted to fictional characters, serving to further differentiate them and making them more identifiable from non-otaku (Saitô 2007, 227).

Like otaku, the term moe is equally hard to define and has varying meanings and interpretations. Moe originates from the term moeru, to bud, which is a homophone of moeru, to burn. This is in reference to the budding sexuality of female anime characters and the burning passion that fans have for them (Galbraith 2010b, 154). Moe has also been defined as an emotional response to a fictional character (Lamarre 2013, 136), a desire to protect (Galbraith 2010b, 155) and an esoteric term that only otaku can understand (Okada et al. 2005, 167). In this paper, moe will be specifically defined as the individualized feeling of sexual attraction that the otaku have for kawaii human female characters.

Kawaii translates most appropriately to cute with pitiable traits, as defined by Sharon Kinsella, a lecturer in Japanese visual culture (Kinsella 1995, 222). While Kinsella notes that kawaii is specifically non-sexual in nature (Kinsella 1995, 226), Sianne Ngai, an art historian writing about cuteness in American culture, points out that it is not uncommon for cuteness to be associated with sex and sadism (Ngai 2012, 68). The pitiable traits that are found in cuteness incite a desire to dominate in addition to a desire to protect (Ngai 2012, 65). As moe is often said to draw out a mothering instinct in men (Galbraith 2010b, 155), it is not farfetched to consider a relationship between moe, kawaii and sex.

Ôtsuka Eiji, a novelist and editor, has published extensively on consumer cultures in Japan. In his theory of narrative consumption, he analyzes the case of the Bikkuriman Chocolates that were made available in 1987 and claims that people consume products for the grand narratives (Ôtsuka 2010, 106). Grand narratives are defined as “a system that is consolidated for the purpose of organizing members of a society into a unified whole” (Azuma 2009, 28). As it was not economically viable to simply sell grand narratives, producers split up the grand narrative, placing a little information about a fictional world and its characters on the back of a sticker that was sold with the chocolates. The grand narrative could only be pieced together by collecting all of the stickers (Ôtsuka 2010, 106). In terms of anime, the grand narrative is known as the world view. Each episode of an anime series like Kidô Senshi Gandamu (Mobile Suit Gundam) (1979) served the same function as a Bikkuriman Chocolate sticker, delivering the grand narrative to the otaku in bite-sized pieces as information about the world of the anime would be hidden in the background (Ôtsuka 2010, 107). The otaku would then extract the background information presented in each episode and uncover the grand narrative for themselves (Ôtsuka 2010, 107).

Responding to Ôtsuka with his theory of database consumption, Azuma Hiroki, a cultural critic writing on postmodernism, proposes that the otaku no longer consume anime for their narratives. The pre-1990s generation of otaku engaged in narrative consumption as they were searching to compensate for the lost grand narrative after Japan entered the era of postmodernism (Azuma 2009, 34). The post-1990s otaku who grew up in the era of postmodernism now view the world as a database of information and consume anime solely for the moe elements that exist within it, hence the term database consumption (Azuma 2009, 54). These moe elements, or desirable elements, are mainly visual traits like cat ears, bells and maid outfits (Azuma 2009, 43). Selected from a database of elements, they can be easily added or removed from anime characters. The versatility of moe elements facilitates the ease of character creation as new characters are just a remix of popular moe elements within otaku culture (Azuma 2009, 42). Azuma, however, fails to see the importance of the sexual aspect of otaku culture, claiming that the sexual attraction that otaku feel is nothing more than a conditioned response after years of being exposed to sexualized imagery (Azuma 2009, 89).

Saitô Tamaki, a clinical psychologist, takes on a psychoanalytical approach as he attempts to analyze the otaku. He proposes that the otaku seek out character archetypes that lack psychological depth like the sentô bishôjo (fighting girl) as they can relate and identify with them (Saitô 2010, 234). The otaku can consume fiction itself as a sexual object. Therefore, they attempt to possess the characters that they are attracted to by fictionalizing them even further – writing pornographic dôjinshi, self-financed and self-published amateur manga (Tamagawa 2012, 108), about them and masturbating to them (Saitô 2007, 228). Moe, as Saitô defines it, is the word that is used by the otaku to profess their love for a fictional character (Saitô 2007, 230). Saitô manages to tackle the sexual aspect of otaku culture. However, his analysis does not take moe elements into consideration, focusing instead on character archetypes.

The definition of moe that is presented in this paper seeks to incorporate and account for both Saitô’s and Azuma’s definitions of moe. Moe does indeed represent a feeling of sexual attraction, but this sexual attraction can also be evoked by moe elements. In fact, moe elements serve a similar function as fetishized accessories. After all, it is not uncommon to see school uniforms or maid outfits in real-life pornography. A kawaii character can be referred to as a moe character if she has the capacity to incite sexual excitement in the viewer. This feeling of moe can be encouraged through the deliberate sexualization of kawaii characters from the producers’ side through the use of common moe elements and fanservice scenes that include up-skirt shots, skimpy clothing and shower scenes. While fanservice scenes are more objective with the sexualization of characters, like regular sexual attraction, moe is very subjective with regard to the individual moe elements.


Figure 1: Hirasawa Yui from K-ON! (2009).

Figure 1 illustrates a typical kawaii character design. As can be seen, she fits perfectly into the schema of cuteness – round “blobby” features, large eyes and a deemphasized nose and mouth (Ngai 2012, 64). These features cause the character to exude an air of childishness and in doing so, accentuate the helpless nature of the character (Kinsella 1995, 236).


Figure 2: Pornographic parody dôjinshi featuring Hirasawa Yui (Snob Nerd Works 2009).

Figure 2, a page from a pornographic parody dôjinshi, shows a scene that places Hirasawa Yui engaging in sexually explicit activities. Here she is eroticized and is essentially turned into a moe character. One can therefore see that the otaku can establish a link between cuteness and sex. However, it must be stated that not all cute characters beget sexual attraction. Cute mascot characters like Hello Kitty, that are far more animal than human, are not similarly subjected to the same form of sexualization that kawaii human female characters are. This is possibly due to the lack of sufficient human traits.

One of the possible reasons that there have been hesitations to draw links between the otaku and sexual deviancy in previous studies could be due to a reluctance to stigmatize the otaku even further – strengthening the stereotype that all otaku are pedophiles capable of murder, just like Miyazaki. While Azuma refrains from touching the subject, Saitô is explicit in highlighting the benign nature of the otaku. He claims that manga and anime are attractive to the otaku precisely because of their fictional nature (Saitô 2007, 227). Furthermore, he states that only a small number of otaku have actually committed any criminal acts (Saitô 2007, 228) and that even authors of sound mind can produce works that can be considered “diseased” (Saitô 2007, 238).

Ian Condry, a cultural anthropologist analyzing anime and otaku culture, also attempts to push the debate away from otaku sexuality and emphasizes the pure aspect of moe (Condry 2013, 191). Asking us to turn our attention away from the perverse elements of moe, he points out that one should focus on how otaku are at the forefront of redefining what love and masculinity is in an age where fiction is so pervasive (Condry 2013, 195). However, even if moe begins as pure and platonic love, like real love, it can contain elements of eroticism that enables the consummation of that relationship (Condry 2013, 192). Even though linking otaku culture and sex is an unpopular opinion, this paper asserts that sexualization of kawaii human female characters is a fundamental aspect of moe that cannot be ignored. Contrary to popular belief, this paper will argue that the sexual element of moe does not invalidate or disregard the potential and pioneering roles of the otaku, as they are not mutually exclusive. The prejudice itself is unwarranted. However, before we are able to tackle the common arguments against pornographic manga, we must first understand the current condition of pornographic manga in Japan and its background.

  • Background of Pornographic Manga in Japan

Manga in Japan enjoys a very different treatment when compared to comics in America. The reason for which can be traced back historically when the two industries took very different developmental paths. Initially, like Japanese manga, American comic books also dealt with adult themes and were mediums of free expression. These comic books exposed readers to complex stories and controversial topics. Critics claimed that comic books were a threat to social order as they were potentially implanting antiestablishment thoughts into the minds of the people (Condry 2013, 108). It was then that the entire comic book industry caved in and created a code of self-censorship, the Comics Code, in 1954. Among a whole host of other rules and regulations, the Comics Code forbade any and all depictions of images and content relating to sex (Condry 2013, 109). Focusing solely on the moralistic superhero genre for decades after, comics came to be known as a medium for children and a “creative ghetto” for artists and writers (Schodt 1986, 127). Therefore, it is hardly surprising that, when confronted with manga that depict sexual imagery, Americans experience a strong dissonance between the juvenile medium and the mature content (Schodt 1986, 120).

In post-war Japan, there was no strong segregation between pornography and family-friendly content as in other Western countries. As a result, pornographic elements continue to appear in other forms of media (Kinsella 2000, 46). Manga did not succumb to much legislation, allowing it to remain relatively free from censure when compared to American comics. However, that is not to say that the manga industry has not faced any opposition and pressure to regulate itself. In Japan, there have been steps taken to censor and regulate manga. These pressures come from a variety of sources that include “local citizens’ organizations, the PTA, local government, voluntary organizations and national quasi-governmental agencies” (Kinsella 2000, 139). The target of such anti-manga activism is usually the sexual content in manga (Kinsella 2000, 149), which will be elaborated further on in the next section. In response to the anti-manga movement, the Publishing Ethics Committee was established by the Japan Publishers’ Association in 1963 to regulate the manga industry internally (Kinsella 2000, 148). One of the proposed measures that sought to accommodate both the desires of the anti-manga movement and the manga publishers was to label manga that were considered harmful as adult manga. In addition, steps were taken to prevent minors from reading these adult manga in stores. For instance, wrapping the manga in plastic or placing them in a separate section (Kinsella 2000, 148). These measures seemed fair but they were practically tantamount to censorship as many stores would not stock adult manga for fear of legal action which in turn discouraged publishers and artists from producing works that could be deemed adult (Kinsella 200, 140). This is how the Indecency Act, later replaced by the Youth Ordinance, which forbids the sale of indecent material to those under the age of 18, manages to circumvent Clause 21 of Japan’s 1946 constitution that promotes freedom of speech and publication (Kinsella 200, 140). Thus, while regulated, the manga industry in Japan is still less censored than in America.

One of the leading avenues for expressing oneself freely in manga form is that of dôjinshi (Kobayashi 1996, 104). Dôjinshi were also used by independent authors as a means to publish works that were not commercially viable (Tamagawa 2012, 114). Beginning in the early 1970s when affordable photocopying and printing services were made available to the public, politically active students set up their own small publishing and printing companies (Kinsella 2000, 105). One of the main driving forces that spurred the establishment of Comic Market, currently the largest amateur manga convention in the world, was the frustration that fans had with insular mainstream manga that were offered that the time (Tamagawa 2012, 124). Comic Market has since become a space, both literal and symbolic, where dôjinshi artists can continue to freely express themselves (Lam 2010, 244). Comic Market and dôjinshi culture have little to few regulations with regard to content and copyright. Even today, dôjinshi is still one of the key areas in which new forms of subgenres emerge and new artists who become successful professional artists like CLAMP and Kôga Yun appear (Tamagawa 2012, 125). The strong influence that dôjinshi has on commercial manga cannot be overstated. This being the case, it is not surprising that companies turn to the amateur manga scene to determine the current trends in the fandom (Saitô 2007, 240). However, as mentioned previously, even dôjinshi culture is not safe from moral policing (Kinsella 1998, 311).

Dôjinshi culture is one source of pornographic manga with a niche audience. Yet, while regulated, manga that depict explicit sexual scenes are sold openly in Japan. They are made publicly available and easily obtainable. Some of the common locations where one can see erotic manga being sold are “newsstands, train kiosks, bookstores, convenience stores, and vending machines” (Allison 1999, 58). It is no exaggeration to say that erotic manga can be considered part and parcel of daily life in Japan (Allison 1999, 71). The wide availability of pornographic manga caters to travelling Japanese men. They read the manga to relieve stress during their transit between the spheres of work and home which is the only time when they are free from commitments (Allison 1999, 154). The public nature of how erotic manga is sold and consumed in Japan is a stark contrast from the private nature of pornography in America (Allison 1999, 69). Critics of sexually explicit manga are responding in part due to the pervasiveness and wide availability of erotic manga (Kinsella 2000, 139) and the dissonance between the medium and content which threatens to “normalize, facilitate, or lead to an increased risk of sexual abuse” (Fletcher 2015).

One particularly controversial genre of pornographic manga is lolicon manga. Lolicon, a combination of the words Lolita and complex, is a genre of manga and anime where pre-pubescent children partake in sexual acts. Whether the characters are actually underage or not is a common point of contention as the kawaii art style often causes characters to look younger than their narrative states them to be. Ironically enough, it is proposed that the very censorship laws that attempted to sanitize manga and anime were partly to blame for the emergence of this phenomenon. Article 175 of the Japanese penal code forbids the blatant depiction of pubic hair, genitals and sexual intercourse (Schodt 1986, 132). This leads to censorship via pixilation or foreground objects that obscure part of the image (Allison 1999, 149). The justification for which is to distance such recreational sex from the act of national reproduction which relates too closely to home and family (Allison 1999, 172). By applying this form of censorship, pornography, that is no longer considered obscene, can be sold and marketed to a wider audience, resulting in the increase of profits (Allison 1999, 150). Producers and artists have employed a myriad of strategies to conform to such regulations while making censored pornography still attractive to consumers (Allison 1999, 151). Lolicon is said to be the result of one of these strategies. Instead of simply acquiescing to censorship laws, artists feature children who have underdeveloped genitals and lack pubic hair to begin with. Lolicon is not the first time children and sex have been associated with each other in otaku culture. Patrick Galbraith, a Tokyo-based journalist who focuses on moe and otaku culture, notes that the broadening of target demographics to include adults is one of the reasons for the existence of sexualized females in children’s anime, which also links children uncomfortably with sex (Galbraith 2010a, 215).

More pressingly, however, is the fact that sexualization of children is an exceedingly controversial topic that is striking a chord with many, especially those outside of Japan. In 2008, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) made a public statement, urging Tokyo to tighten regulations on child pornography, including fictional depictions in the medium of manga and anime (Reynolds 2008). There is nothing more indicative of the difference in cultural perception and values between Japan and the West than the numerous incidences of legal action taken against people who tried to import or possess pornographic manga depicting children. A case in point is the arrest of thirty-eight-year-old Christopher Handley in 2006 for attempting to import sexually explicit lolicon manga into America (Galbraith 2011, 90). Kodomo no Jikan (A Child’s Time) (2005), a lolicon manga which was about to be published in America under the title of Nymphet in 2007, was labeled as inappropriate for American audiences (Galbriath 2010, 129). This serves as another illustration of the difference in cultures.

Recently, there were two major law revisions that threatened the status quo of the manga and anime industry. Firstly, the passing of the Tokyo Metropolitan Ordinance Regarding the Healthy Development of Youths in December 2010 requires the industry to regulate manga and anime that “unjustifiably glorify or exaggerate” sexual acts. It also allows the government to regulate material that is “considered to be excessively disrupting of social order” (Anime News Network 2010). While these laws do not completely prohibit the sale and distribution of works that are deemed as unhealthy, they have sent a chilling effect that prompted more self-policing within the industry. Kadokawa issued a “voluntary recall” for a manga, Imôto Paradise! 2 (Sister Paradise! 2) (2013), which was listed under the Youth Ordinance as unhealthy for glorifying incest (Anime News Network 2014a). A representative from Tokyo MX, a Japanese television station, stated that the station was considering self-regulation with regard to its explicit anime due to its close ties to the government (Anime News Network 2011a). Due to the vague and ambiguous nature of the law, rather than run the risk of being prosecuted and having their reputation ruined, many publishers and companies have decided to play it safe. Even though the production and distribution of child pornography had been outlawed since 1999, Japan just banned the possession of child pornography in June 2014. However, virtual depictions were exempted from this ban (Ripley et al. 2014). Many eyebrows have been raised as pornographic manga and anime have escaped this ban unscathed. As a result, there have been even more calls for a cleanup by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (Fletcher 2015).

Essentially, proponents of restricting virtual child pornography cite the possible negative effects it can have on real children. Opponents argue that any form of restriction violates the right to freedom of speech. The debate on the morality of virtual child pornography is still ongoing and has reached some form of a stalemate as there has yet to be solid evidence linking fiction and reality (Matthews 2011, 173). Let us now consider several of the arguments against pornographic manga in greater detail and why they are fallacious.

  • Academic Arguments Against Pornographic Manga and Otaku Culture

As moe is experienced by sexualizing kawaii human female characters, it encompasses ideas of weakness and dependence. It is precisely due to the disempowerment of female characters that several scholars have claimed that such sexually explicit manga contributes to the removal of power and agency from real women in society. However, in response, this paper is of the opinion that the moral panic and the negative image that is attached to erotic manga are unwarranted. By making erotic manga the focus of criticism for allegedly containing ideology that is detrimental to society, one ignores and is not able to fully understand the role that these texts play in the lives of the fans that produce and consume them. Texts can have a variety of meanings for different people and no one meaning is encoded within it. The text should not be analyzed separately from the context in which it was created and consumed because “a text can only mean something in the context of the experience and situation of its particular audience” (Grossberg 1992, 53). Many opponents of lolicon manga remove them from their original context and instead critique them in the larger spheres of child abuse and gender discrimination (Galbraith 2011, 92). Proponents of the idea that popular culture spreads detrimental ideology or is able to manipulate and influence people are taking the elite moral high ground in deciding what is good and bad for the populace (Danesi 2008, 43). They also deny the audience their agency and ability to think critically for themselves (Danesi 2008, 44). The widespread availability of information via modern day communications technologies like the internet and increased levels of education prevents people from being easily influenced and enables them to quickly discern between truth and manipulation (Danesi 2008, 44).

One scholar who misinterprets pornographic manga is Anne Allison, a cultural anthropologist researching adult manga. She first discusses in detail the graphic nature of the sexual acts that are portrayed on the pages of such erotic manga. Some of the highlighted scenes and sexual acts include “women who are drawn heavily if not exclusively with their bodies stripped, exposed, displayed, examined, beaten, tied up, held down, decapitated, licked, photographed, painted, viewed and stabbed” (Allison 1999, 61). Allison equates “pain and humiliation in females” to a “sense of victory and accomplishment in males” (Allison 1999, 67). According to her, these scenes are indicative of the role that each gender plays – men are “warriors and conquistadors” and women are “land that they must seize” to be “terrorized and territorialized” (Allison 1999, 64). This prevalent and ubiquitous imagery “are premised on, and serve to literally (re)produce, male dominance over women” (Allison 1999, 55). By many accounts, the scenes that are portrayed within the pages of these manga do appear obscene. However, it is not uncommon for fans to “test the limits between the excessive and obsessive” (Kelly 2004, 11). However, regardless of the extreme nature of the content, Allison does not consider the context and reasons for the production and consumption of these manga which will be further discussed in the following section.

Another way in which scholars believe erotic manga serve to disenfranchise women is by infantilizing them. In order to turn female characters in manga and anime kawaii, their ages are commonly regressed by artists, transforming them into children as opposed to just giving them child-like qualities. As children embody numerous elements of kawaii, evoking the ideas of weakness and dependence, they then become prime targets to be sexualized as part of moe. As such, lolicon manga have also come under fire from critics. Naitô Chizuko, a feminist scholar and professor of modern and contemporary Japanese literature, believes that such commoditization and sexualization of children in lolicon fiction have come to represent societal desire and only serve to facilitate age discrimination – normalizing the idea that older women are of little value to society (Naitô 2010, 328). Naitô removes lolicon manga from its context of production and consumption and ignores the measures that have been put in place to reduce gender and age discrimination in Japanese society.

In addition to pornographic manga, otaku culture is not free from critique. Laura Miller, a professor of Japanese studies and linguistic anthropology, criticizes the Japanese government’s Cool Japan promotion for employing the Ambassadors of Cute, three women who sport various outfits from different aspects of Japanese popular culture including a schoolgirl uniform (Miller 2011, 20). She then blames otaku culture (Miller 2011, 26). By basing their promotion on otaku culture and promoting Japan using sexualized females, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) objectifies women and focuses on the “idea of a man and his doll-like objects of intense interest” (Miller 2011, 27). Here, Miller is quick to accuse otaku culture and fails to consider the context of the Ambassadors of Cute and the fact that they are solely constructs of MOFA as opposed to true extrapolations of otaku culture.

Now that we have seen several of the arguments against pornographic manga, the following section will deal with the context of the production and consumption of pornographic manga and how moe is used by the otaku as a coping mechanism to regain control and form relationships with fictional characters and other otaku.

  • Moe as a Coping Mechanism

Moe promotes and encourages the sexualization of female characters in fiction. Following the arguments of the aforementioned critics, it would therefore be a tool for legitimizing the subjugation of women in society. However, this paper attests that the otaku use moe as a means to distance themselves from reality, to take possession of fictional characters and to connect with other otaku. As contended by Saitô, the otaku are fond of fictional texts, can consume fiction itself sexually and resort to fictionalizing their favorite characters even further in order to posses them (Saitô 2007, 228). The kawaii nature of the female characters that are the subject of these erotic manga only serve to highlight and emphasize the disconnect between fiction and reality – making fiction even more artificial and therefore, making it more appealing to the otaku. This is corroborated by Galbraith as he states that the exaggerated and sometimes fantastical and animalistic nature of the characters in terms of design serves to distance the content from real-world consequences (Galbraith 2009). Another factor that plays a part in delineating fiction and reality is precisely the censorship of and recreational nature of the sex that is involved. Discussed in the previous sections, Allison has made clear that the censorship of the genitals and pubic hair of manga and anime characters distinguishes them from actual reproduction and sexual intercourse (Allison 1999, 172). Not to mention, the location and nature of the consumption of these erotic manga are away from both spheres of work and home (Allison 1999, 154). It is this huge gap between fiction and reality that enables Japanese readers to clearly differentiate between the two (Schodt 1986, 132).

In her research into the kawaii aesthetic, Kinsella notes that it is used by the populace as a subtle means of rebellion against adulthood and the values that adulthood represents (Kinsella 1995, 243). However as adulthood is rife with responsibilities to the workplace, family and society, Kinsella argues that people may find solace and comfort in kawaii behavior, objects and merchandise that remind them of childhood, an idealistic period characterized by simplicity, happiness and a lack of obligations (Kinsella 1995, 240). Likewise, this paper argues that the otaku also use moe as a coping mechanism in an era of changing gender roles. However, this is contrary to the proposition that is made by Condry. Citing the otaku to be at the forefront of redefining human relationships in a media-saturated environment, Condry claims that moe and fictionalized love is a compensation mechanism. The otaku embrace alternate lifestyle choices when they are unable or unwilling to pursue a relationship in real life (Condry 2013, 195). This is not an unprecedented stance as even the early generations of otaku used science fiction anime like Uchû Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato) (1974) and Kidô Senshi Gandamu as a compensation mechanism to replace the future that was promised by science that did not come to be (Okada et al. 2005, 168). Conversely, the claim that this paper is making is that moe is not a compensation mechanism, a satisfactory replacement, but a coping mechanism, a temporary substitute, to reclaim agency and to reconnect in a more individualized society. Before we are able to further understand the otaku, we must understand the current social climate of Japan today.

Japan is a country that ranks low on indices of gender equality, especially for a first-world country. In the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report conducted by the World Economic Forum, Japan was ranked 105, below countries like Singapore, America, China and the United Kingdom (World Economic Forum 2013). However, the people and society of Japan today are significantly different from decades ago and Japan’s score has been rising steadily from 0.6447 in 2009 to 0.6498 in 2013, where a score closer to one indicates greater gender equality. This slow but gradual and continuing change is in part due to the numerous measures that have been put in place to close the gender gap in various spheres of life. Examples of such movements include the Equal Employment Opportunity Law which was put into effect in 1986 and the establishment of the Gender Equality Bureau in 2001. One of the results of increased freedom and choices that are granted to women is fewer and later marriages. Such freedoms and choices include increased education levels, job opportunities, changing gender roles and a movement away from traditional notions of marriage, causing the mean ages of marriage for both men and women to rise steadily since 1975 (Retherford et al. 2001, 65). In addition to fewer marriages, as time progresses, Japanese society itself is becoming increasingly fragmented. As opposed to the traditional ie system where family members remained in constant close proximity with one another, people have come to embrace more solitary living conditions such as a nuclear family system (Horiguchi 2011, 221). This sense of solitude is compounded as more and more people begin living alone and relying on modern day long-distance communications technologies (Horiguchi 2011, 230).

In these past couple of decades, there has been an emergence of a new breed of men known as the sôshoku(kei) danshi or herbivore men, a term that came into popular use in 2006. It refers to men who are not as masculine as the men of generations past (Morioka 2013, 1). These men do not show interest in actively chasing after women and forming long lasting relationships, on top of being more feminine with regard to their own appearance and mannerisms (Morioka 2013, 2). One proposed reason for the appearance of the herbivore men is post-war peace as there was no longer a need for soldiers and for men to actively display and adhere to traditional notions of masculinity (Morioka 2013, 15). However, society and older generations use the term herbivore men in a derogatory manner to label men of the current generation as weak (Morioka 2013, 16). Even though gender roles are not as clearly defined and demarcated as they were before, many women still have high expectations of the men they want to marry, another reason for fewer and later marriages. These demands include specific body types, financial status and education levels. (Nakano 2011, 136). This paper contends that links can be drawn between the herbivore men and the otaku. While the herbivore men face social pressures to conform due to their choice to embrace alternate forms of masculinity, the otaku are not able to meet societal demands, not of their own volition, but due to the changing social climate. As such, marginalized and compelled to find alternative means to form relationships, they turn to manga and anime to reclaim their agency and overcome their disempowerment. Instead of moe being a cause of real-world gender inequality, this paper condends that it is a symptom of increasing gender equality. As one manga editor states, “Most of our readers… have no experience with real women. If they did, why would they read these stories?” (Schodt 1986, 136).

Unlike real women, fictional characters do not hold any expectations for the otaku (Hamilton 1997). In other words, the otaku do not feel any pressure during their engagements with them and can find solace in these relationships, not unlike salarymen with kawaii (Kinsella 1995, 240). In addition, the otaku latch on to two-dimensional characters as opposed to those from live-action movies or dramas because of the illusion that manga and anime presents to the audience. In contrast to idols and celebrities who play fictional roles on screen, purely fictional characters do not contain any off-screen persona and sell the illusion of purity, eliminating the risk of betrayal and being able to remain free from scandal (Hamilton 1997). This is further enhanced by the inherent kawaii aesthetic that moe is premised on. This purity is imperative as the otaku can reclaim agency by being the ones to claim the purity for themselves. Comparatively, idols can never attain the kawaii ideal of purity as, no matter how cute they appear or act, their bodily functions are inherently the antithesis of cute (Black 2008, 40). In 2013, a member of the popular idol group AKB48, Minegishi Minami, was caught by the media leaving the apartment of her boyfriend (BBC 2013). As idols are not allowed to have relationships while under contract, she was ordered to film a tear-soaked apology video while shaving her head to emphasize the sincerity of her repentance. The video was then uploaded onto the video sharing site, YouTube. It is an understatement to say that the video sparked massive controversy that dealt with issues relating to the rights of the idols and the removal of agency of women. However, one must consider why such a draconian punishment was called for in the first place. The drastic form of apology could have been necessitated due to Minegishi breaking the illusion of her purity – a vital selling point for idols and the fans who form imaginary relationships with them. As Condry states, “there is always a disjuncture of some sort between the person and the roles he or she plays” (Condry 2013, 62). There is hardly any disjuncture when dealing with fictional characters.

Curiously enough, this would account for the absence of a star system in otaku culture today like the one that was employed by Tezuka Osamu, a prolific manga artist who penned genre-defining works like Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) (1952) and Black Jack (1973). Inspired by the Takarazuka Revue, a form of theatre, the star system was a system of character creation whereby Tezuka conceived all his characters as actors and constantly re-used them in his works, assigning them different roles in different manga (Phillips 2008, 76). In today’s context however, a star system would undermine the authenticity of the characters and the otaku’s ability to consume them. By implementing a star system, another dimension is essentially added to the two-dimensional characters, making them more three-dimensional. Ironically enough, the characters would then appear more unrealistic to the otaku. Similar to actors who portray roles in live-action movies, a distinct dissonance between the on-screen character and the actor’s actual identity will be created. The character will cease being viewed as an individual and become merely a role portrayed by an actor who plays other characters in other manga and anime franchises. The disconnect that a star system will create will harm the otaku’s ability to relate to the characters by breaking the illusion of a cohesive and self-contained fantasy world that manga and anime serve to present to the audience. In fact, one cannot underestimate the depth and reality of these relationships that the otaku have with fictional characters as some even go as far as to marry them. In 2009, a Japanese man married Anegasaki Nene, a kawaii female character from the game LovePlus (2009). As predicted, he claims that she is preferable to a human girlfriend as the fictional character “doesn’t get angry” and “changes to [his] liking” – statements that confirm the lack of pressure experienced in a relationship with a fictional character (Lah 2009).

The consumption and production of pornographic manga and dôjinshi that depict sexual imagery is simply another multi-faceted means in which the otaku attempt to form relationships with women in a realm of fiction. According to Kinsella, otaku produced lolicon dôjinshi during the 1980s in response to the changing roles of women. Unable to come to terms with the assertiveness of females, the otaku produced lolicon dôjinshi to see women infantilized (Kinsella 2000, 122). One can draw connections with Saitô’s claim that the otaku produce dôjinshi to possess their favorite characters (Kinsella 1998, 306). The act of creating dôjinshi places the otaku in a position of power and control, allowing them to reclaim their agency by creating their own narratives and deciding what happens to the characters. Due to the fictional nature of the characters, the otaku can even take ownership of the characters’ identities and re-imagine them. It also places the fictional characters in closer proximity to the otaku, enabling them to form stronger relationships with the characters. The idea of appropriating a character as one’s own and creating dôjinshi is not a new concept. Ôtsuka has written about how the early generation of otaku would create their own small narratives after getting a hold of the grand narrative (Ôtsuka 2010, 110). However, in the postmodern era, due to the change in consumption patterns of the otaku from narrative to database, the versatility of moe elements has made it easier than ever before to manipulate characters and create one’s own original work (Azuma 2009, 42). Furthermore, as the consumption that the otaku engage in is purely based on moe elements, it is no longer possible to differentiate between official work and parody (Azuma 2009, 62). This legitimizes the dôjinshi that the otaku produce. As such, it is impossible to form relationships of similar proximity and magnitude with idols and celebrities due to the nature of them being real and possessing off-screen personas – providing a significant amount of resistance to fictionalization and possession.

Despite the fact that moe is an individualized feeling, moe is one of the ways in which the otaku connect with each other in reality as it is something that they have in common. Through moe, the otaku create and consume dôjinshi and attend events as a means of participation to remain connected with other otaku in reality in an increasingly isolated society. As mentioned above, Comic Market is one of the largest gatherings of otaku and is a space where they are not bound by many restrictions (Lam 2010, 244). It is in Comic Market that they can freely be themselves and engage in an activity that they enjoy. In addition, the otaku are surrounded by other like-minded otaku who share their passion and understand each other. In a report by the Comic Market Preparation Committee, “meeting friends” was one of the most cited reasons for attending the event even though the purchasing and selling of dôjinshi is the intended purpose of Comic Market (Imai 2010). Here, Comic Market serves a similar function as support groups for the parents of hikkikomori, socially reclusive people. Despite the fact that the meetings are meant for them to share experiences about their children, the parents use the opportunity to reconnect with other members of society (Horiguchi 2011, 230).


Figure 3: Washinomiya Shrine as it appears in reality.

Lucky Star Ep05 - The Famous Shooter (1280x720 Hi10P BD FLAC) [D8BA0CB1].mkv_snapshot_00.30_[2015.03.08_18.47.19]

Figure 4: Washinomiya Shrine as it is portrayed in the anime Lucky Star (2007) with protagonist Hiiragi Kagami in the foreground.

Manga and anime that take place in Japan often base their settings on real-world locations (see Figures 3 and 4). While the characters and narratives are fictional, the places that they use have real-world counterparts, usually a place of significance and familiarity to the author, such as their former home or school (Okamoto 2014, 11). An activity for otaku that has been gaining in popularity over the past decade is going on pilgrimages – traveling to and visiting the real-world locations that are featured in their favorite manga and anime (Imai 2010). A couple of the locations that have come into prominence in recent years are Washinomiya Shine that was featured heavily in Lucky Star and Toyosato Primary School that was used as the model for the school that the main characters attend in K-ON! (Okamoto 2014, 13). Both these locations have become otaku hot-spots and have attracted visitors in their tens of thousands. Due to the popularity of pilgrimages and the influx of tourist dollars it brings in, prefectures have begun embracing anime tourism and promoting themselves using these locations as selling points (Okamoto 2014, 15). JNTO has even begun offering an anime map that lists popular pilgrimage spots for foreigners (JNTO 2015).

A majority of the visitors to the real-world locations that are featured in manga and anime are otaku. Unlike regular tourist destinations like Tokyo Disney Land and Universal Studios Japan, these average everyday locations have little to offer in terms of intrinsic entertainment value such as rides and live performances. Much of the value comes from what they represent to the otaku and they must have viewed the anime beforehand to appreciate that value. In addition, as many of these locations are sprinkled throughout Japan, the otaku must be willing to spend a significant amount of time on finding these locations and money on travelling expenses to get there, an amount that an average person would not be willing to shell out easily. This enables us to see the strength of the attachment to the characters that the otaku have.

Embarking on a pilgrimage serves multiple functions. Just like Comic Market, like-minded fans can use a particular location as a meeting point to find solidarity in person and celebrate their love for a series or character. While this communication begins from the very beginning as fans come together online to exchange information on the real-life locations of fictional settings (Imai 2010), it usually culminates in events that are collaborations between fans, locals and content producers. For instance, the Washinomiya Shrine played host to voice actors and staff from Lucky Star and the event was a resounding success attended by 3,500 fans (Yamamura 2014, 14). One of the activities that the otaku engage in at these locations is taking pictures of themselves reenacting scenes from the anime (Okamoto 2014, 13). By visiting the places that are inhabited by their favorite manga and anime characters, the otaku can feel closer to them by transcending the dimensional boundary and literally stepping into their fictional worlds. Once again, the power of the otaku who experience moe was displayed when they mobilized themselves and lobbied to restore the Nishinomiya clock tower, an iconic structure in the anime Suzumiya Haruhi no Yûutsu (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya) (2006), to its proper location (Anime News Network 2014b). This is indicative of the importance and value of such real-world representations to the otaku who see them as communal spaces and as a means to get closer to their favorite anime characters.

As this section has shown, instead of moe being a tool used to spread bad ideology, the otaku use moe as a means to claim fictional characters as their own and meet with other otaku to feel like they belong in a community. However, in addition to gender equality, moe is a threat to the diversity and creative freedom of anime.


In the postmodern era, moe takes center stage in otaku production and consumption. According to Azuma, the otaku have changed their form of consumption from narrative to database, meaning to say that they only consume anime for their moe elements and nothing more (Azuma 2009, 43). By focusing on the visual moe elements, plots and narratives are reduced to nothing more than “a surplus item, added to the settings and illustrations” (Azuma 2009, 41). Azuma now equates narratives to holding the same significance and value as coffee mugs (Azuma 2009, 41). The popularity of virtual idol Hatsune Miku is testament to the otaku’s ability to consume characters for their moe elements alone. Hatsune Miku has no narrative of her own as she was created by Crypton in 2007 to be the face of their series of voice synthesizer software, Vocaloid. Condry notes that “the phenomenon around Miku shows that the character, more than the music software, is the platform on which people are building”, illustrating the strength of the character without narrative (Condry 2013, 63). This is problematic as, if Azuma’s claims are to be believed, this threatens the diversity of anime as producers will want to acquiesce and cater to the demands of fans in order to maximize their profits, leading to a possible saturation of certain genres of anime over others. In other words, producers exploit the otaku by pandering to them. It is not surprising as according to a study on the otaku market segment, the Nomura Research Institute confirmed the fact that the otaku are heavy spenders when it comes to popular culture products. In 2005, the otaku market was estimated at 411 billion yen (Nomura Research Institute 2005).

There is precedence for such homogenization as dôjinshi culture has been subject to a similar threat due to the increase in the amount of parody dôjinshi produced. Parody dôjinshi are dôjinshi that appropriate existing characters and settings from other works. Initially, the types of dôjinshi that were published during the 1970s, the time of Comic Market’s inception, were extremely varied and were flourishing with original content (Tamagawa 2012, 115). Even though dôjinshi allowed creators to produce their own original manga, parody dôjinshi began to grow in popularity. By 1989, parody dôjinshi accounted for 45.9 percent of all dôjinshi produced at Comic Market (Kinsella 1998, 301). By 2008, only 12.9 percent of all dôjinshi sold at Comic Market were those with original content (Tamagawa 2012, 125). Parody dôjinshi, according to Harada Teruo, the first Comic Market president, has caused the medium to lose its potential of being a “wellspring of new imaginings” (Tamagawa 2012, 124). As discussed in the previous section, in the era of database consumption, parody dôjinshi are simply remixes of popular moe elements from otaku culture (Azuma 2009, 62). Dôjinshi is a major stepping stone for amateur manga artists who aspire to become professional manga artists (Tamagawa 2012, 125). Due to the influx of derivative parody dôjinshi, there is less originality in professional manga and consequently, less originality in anime as many of them are based on existing manga (Steinberg 2012, 160). Furthermore, this problem is compounded by producers deliberately choosing to animate works that they believe will be favored by the otaku, namely those that have a heavy focus on moe elements. As can be seen, this system of production makes it even harder for creators to produce original anime or anime that do not follow mainstream tastes.

One of the genres of anime that is a perfect medium for facilitating database consumption is the Slice-of-life genre of anime. Slice-of-life anime aim to depict the everyday lives of ordinary characters, usually high school girls, set in contemporary Japan. Instead of having a grand narrative or plot that threads the individual episodes together and drives character progression and development, the anime are exceedingly episodic and self-contained, focusing heavily on humorous instances of character interaction that serve to highlight their moe traits (Cavallaro 2012, 126). Several recent Slice-of-life anime of note include the aforementioned Lucky Star and K-ON!, both produced by Kyoto Animation. In her analysis of the works of Kyoto Animation, Dani Cavallaro, a freelance writer who specializes in literary studies, cultural theory and the visual arts, notes that the characters that are depicted in these shows are distinctly devoid of sexual innuendo that would “reify the cute characters into fetishistic props” and “ignite nasty drives in their viewers” (Cavallaro 2012, 123). However, Cavallaro fails to consider the fact that the fans are able to feel sexually attracted to these kawaii characters, independent of the non-existence of blatantly sexualized visuals inserted into the anime by the producers. By simply embracing this cuteness and “aura of unpretentious charm” (Cavallaro 2012, 122), the producers are already complicit in promoting the sexual aspect of moe. Azuma’s theory of database consumption does account for the prevalence and popularity of such anime. With regard to these anime, in addition to the massive amounts of dôjinshi produced and large number of otaku making pilgrimages to the respective anime’s settings, the sales of the DVDs and Blu-Rays have been remarkably high. As many anime air late at night, severely limiting the number of its prospective viewers, much of the profit is derived from the sales of disc media and the success of an anime’s disc sales is not contingent on the strength of its story (Kinema Junpô Movie Research Institute 2011, 164). As of February 2011, K-ON! was the first television anime to sell over 500,000 Blu-ray discs, proving that Slice-of-life anime are commercially successful (Anime News Network 2011b). Fears of homogenization ring true as the production of Slice-of-life anime has been increasing since the mid-2000s (Yamamura 2014, 3).

However, as defined in this paper, moe is nothing more than an individualized feeling of sexual attraction that is premised on the kawaii art style. As claimed by Azuma, moe elements are mainly visual (Azuma 2009, 43). Therefore, instead of forcing producers to completely forgo any semblance of plot, this paper argues that moe and the kawaii art style are mutually exclusive to other elements of an anime including its plot. Anime like Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011), Psycho-Pass (2012) and Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan) (2013) are just a fraction of the anime that are exceedingly plot-heavy. The understanding and appreciation of each episode of these anime is contingent on having the viewer watch the previous episodes. These anime have the potential to exceed the popularity of even Slice-of-life anime. In 2011, the first Blu-ray volume of Puella Magi Madoka Magica broke the record for the most number of Blu-ray disc sales in the first week, selling 53,000 copies (Anime News Network 2011c).


Figure 5: Kaname Madoka as she appears in the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Yet, despite the gripping narratives and cliffhangers that entice the viewer to keep watching the anime for its developing plot, the character designs still remain distinctly kawaii – having a small nose and mouth and disproportionately large head and eyes (see Figure 5). In fact, the decision to include an engaging story could also explain the success of these series. The kawaii art style enables the otaku to feel moe for the characters and lends their character designs well to the creation of dôjinshi. However, instead of solely focusing on the otaku and inciting a moe reaction via the kawaii character designs, these anime broaden their target demographic to those who do not embrace database consumption, namely the non-otaku, but are still able to appreciate the kawaii character designs in a non-sexual manner. This fact also accounts for their popularity and successful disc media sales. However, the kawaii character designs play another integral role in anime culture. In addition to having the anime appeal to otaku, this paper advocates that the sale of character merchandise is another vital reason for the necessity for producers to adhere to a kawaii character design with regard to anime characters.


Figure 6: Examples of character merchandise from a variety of anime series.

Character merchandise is defined as physical goods that depict the image of a fictional character on it (Steinberg 2009, 115). These goods can range from figures and dolls to cell phone straps, mug cups and key chains (see Figure 6). According to film scholar Marc Steinberg, characters are defined as “a named, visual figure that possesses recognizable visual attributes” (Steinberg 2009, 128). It is because they are nothing more than a simple collection of visual traits that they are able to be transferred from one media platform to another with ease and are therefore autonomous (Steinberg 2009, 128). Examples of such media platforms include anime, manga, light novels, games and character merchandise. These are all part of what is known as anime’s media mix (Steinberg 2009, 116). It is the characters that connect the different media platforms and allow them to feed off the popularity of each other. This enables the media mix to be a commercial success (Steinberg 2009, 129).

The importance of character merchandise with regard to the anime industry cannot be understated as it has played an integral part in the foundation, survival and shaping of it. In his study into the commercial side of the anime industry, Steinberg notes that Tezuka was the first to propose the weekly, thirty-minute episode anime format, which persists to this day, with Tetsuwan Atomu (Steinberg 2009, 118). As animation was extremely expensive, he had to turn to other means to recoup his losses, namely the sale of character merchandise. A pertinent example would be the Tetsuwan Atomu stickers that were given away in Japan as bonuses with purchases of Marble Chocolates produced by Meiji Seika, one of the largest candy makers in Japan and sponsor for the Tetsuwan Atomu anime, in 1961 (Steinberg 2009, 119). To this day, character merchandise remains an important source of income for the anime industry as “the market for licensed merchandise based on fictional characters is ten times that of anime itself” (Condry 2013, 72). Steinberg claims that the consistency of the characters’ image is one of the key reasons that led to the success of character merchandise in the case of the Tetsuwan Atomu stickers where the stickers were accurately traced from the cels of the anime (Steinberg 2009, 122). This may be true for anime that are targeted towards a younger audience like Tetsuwan Atomu and Pokémon. However, with regard to anime that target an older otaku audience, this paper argues that it is the kawaii art style and moe elements that are imperative in facilitating the autonomous nature of characters, allowing them to stand on their own, independent of their narratives. In addition, instead of being exploited by producers, the otaku purchase kawaii character merchandise as a means to get closer to their favorite anime characters and regain connectivity with other otaku. These ends are then enabled by otaku marketing strategies employed by merchandise producers.

merch 2

Figure 7: Character merchandise featuring Kaname Madoka in an even more exaggerated kawaii aesthetic.


Figure 8: Rice with an illustration of a kawaii female character on its packaging.

The lack of a dissonance between the appearances of characters across media platforms is important for the success of the media mix with regard to characters of children’s anime (Steinberg 2009, 122). However, we are able to observe a peculiar trend in character merchandise targeted towards an older otaku audience. The designs of characters are made even more kawaii than before (see Figure 7). Figure brands like Nendoroids even specialize in turning anime characters into more kawaii versions of their on-screen counterparts. This paper suggests that this change is imperative for the enhancement of the autonomous nature of the characters’ image. Additionally, the change is a safe, low-risk strategy for producers, especially when they are dealing with characters that are comparatively less kawaii to begin with. Not only will the otaku not mind the change as they are able to feel moe for the kawaii aesthetic, non-otaku will also be enticed to purchase the character merchandise based on the kawaii appearance of the characters alone without having to have invested the time and effort to have watched the corresponding anime. In fact, this paper asserts that the moe otaku experience accounts for their high spending as moe allows for a deeper, stronger relationship between the characters and the otaku than non-otaku. This acts as an impetus for purchasing character merchandise even if the otaku have not watched or read the source material. Coming full circle, the exaggerated kawaii aesthetic can also act as advertising, encouraging the otaku to consume the other media products the characters are featured in, strengthening the media mix. This would also explain the prevalence of companies employing the use of kawaii female characters as mascots for their products despite having no relation to an existing anime or manga franchise (see Figure 8).

It is easy to claim that the otaku are being exploited by producers. But that would once again entail denying the otaku their agency, leading to a failure in understanding the role that moe and character merchandise play in the lives of the fans that consume them. Similar to how the otaku fictionalize characters via dôjinshi in order to possess them, they are also able to possess their favorite characters by purchasing character merchandise. This possession is in a far more literal sense as the otaku are able to obtain three-dimensional representations of their favorite two-dimensional characters in reality, allowing the otaku to become even closer to the fictional characters (Steinberg 2012, 125). This is not unlike what Steinberg has observed whilst researching the Tetsuwan Atomu stickers. He notes that the stickers were a success as they served to remind fans of the characters and the worlds they inhabit (Steinberg 2009, 124). According to anthropologist William W. Kelly, fans demand intimacy with the object of their desire and character merchandise is one of the ways in which the otaku can get closer to coming into physical contact with the intangible fictional characters (Kelly 2004, 9).


Figure 9: Poseable figure of Izumi Konata from Lucky Star.

Some of these figures are fitted with multiple points of articulation and come with a myriad of accessories and exchangeable parts (see Figure 9). These figures allow the otaku to experience even more agency over the fictional characters by giving the otaku the ability to exert more control over their poses and appearance. According to the Nomura Research Institute, in their study into otaku marketing strategies, they discovered that providing room for customizability strengthens consumer attachment to the character merchandise (Nomura Research Institute 2005). By recreating and mimicking the poses of the characters in the show, the otaku are able to minimize the dissonance between the figures and the on-screen anime characters, closing the gap between fiction and reality even further.

Rei Merch

Figure 10: Figures of Ayanami Rei in a variety of moe outfits.

Moe elements also facilitate the creation of character merchandise. Companies can easily produce numerous variations of a single character by simply changing the moe elements that a character is depicted with. Common moe elements include swimsuits, maid outfits and yukatas (see Figure 10). On one hand, this can be part of the strategy to bait the otaku into building and completing an entire collection of figures by buying multiple variations of a single character (Nomura Research Institute 2005). However, from another perspective, this increased variety presents an element of choice to the otaku, once again allowing them to decide which outfit they desire the character to be depicted in.


Figure 11: An example of a message board for figure collectors.

Lastly, by purchasing character merchandise, the otaku can reconnect with other otaku in reality as purchasing merchandise affords them another means by which they can interact with other collectors. In addition to conventions like Wonder Festival that provide a physical meeting ground for collectors to congregate, there are a plethora of online forums for the otaku to connect with other otaku over the internet to discuss topics and exchange information relating to character merchandise that range from the quality of a figure to its price (see Figure 11). These forums also provide a platform where users can post pictures of the figures they have purchased, acting as a way for them to profess and affirm their love for a certain character in a public space. Some of these forums are even provided by the producers themselves in order to promote consumer activities (Nomura Research Institute 2005).

However, even though this paper has shown how vital a role moe and character merchandise play in otaku culture, it does not disregard the fact that an adherence must still be made to the kawaii art style. This adherence stifles originality and limits the freedom of the artist. According to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) report on the Japanese animation industry, sponsors, including merchandise producers, form a production committee and split the production cost of an anime to share the risk (JETRO 2005, 3). Unfortunately, due to the expensive nature of the production of anime and its commoditization, it is inherently impossible for creators to obtain complete creative freedom and a balance must be struck. For mass art, it is essential that it is accessible to the everyday consumer and panders to conventional tastes (MacWilliams 2008, 6). Fortunately, there are several means of breaking free from the mainstream. Firstly, a special programming block on Fuji Television was established in 2005 entitled Noitamina (animation spelled backwards). To this day, anime that are not as heavily sponsor controlled and appeal to a non-otaku audience are aired during this timeslot (Noitamina 2015). Secondly, there are now alternative means of acquiring funding to support independent productions. One such method is through crowd-funding websites like Kickstarter. In 2012, an independent animation project Kick-Heart, produced by Production I.G. and directed by Yuasa Masaaki, was successfully funded through Kickstarter, proving the viability of crowd-funding (Kickstarter 2012).

Therefore, while moe does indeed result in a form of limitation of the creative freedom of artists, it is necessitated by commercial interests and is not as devastating as initially thought. Instead of being used by producers to exploit the otaku, moe plays a crucial role in facilitating the otaku’s quest in getting closer to their favorite fictional characters and interacting with other otaku.


In conclusion, this paper has shown that moe is not a tool that is used to promote the subjugation of women in society. Instead, it is used by the otaku as a coping mechanism to reclaim agency and remain connected in a more individualized society. This is done through the possession of fictional characters via the creation of dôjinshi, allowing the otaku to get closer to the fictional characters and exert control over them. By attending events and going on pilgrimages to the real-life settings of their favorite manga and anime, they are able to get closer to the fictional characters and connect with other otaku in reality to reinforce a sense of solidarity. In addition, as moe is an element of the kawaii art style, it is separate and distinct from the other elements of an anime, allowing creators to retain creative freedom while simultaneously catering to the otaku and appealing to a wider demographic. As opposed to being used by producers to exploit the otaku, moe facilitates the production of character merchandise. The otaku purchase the character merchandise to aid themselves in reclaiming agency and connecting with fictional characters by literally possessing and manipulating physical representations of characters in reality. Through online forums and message boards, they can also connect with other otaku by discussing the purchased character merchandise.

This paper’s discussion is limited to male otaku and a more complete and comprehensive picture of the relationship between consumers, producers and media texts will be possible by taking female otaku and the producers’ perspective into account. Such research is important as it allows us to understand the reasons behind production and consumption and not rely on quick judgments and assumptions based solely on media texts.


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7 Responses to Redefining and Recontextualizing Moe: A New Dimension to Sexualized Cuteness

  1. alexeon says:

    That is a monster of an article! I’ll definitely be reading it in full once midterms are over.

  2. Actar says:

    @ alexeon: Ha ha! This is the culmination of an entire semester’s worth of research and writing, perhaps even my entire undergrad education! (^o^) I was afraid of not being able to write enough, but in the end I had to edit it down so that it wouldn’t go over the 12,000 word limit.

    Looking forward to your comments!

  3. alexeon says:

    Finally read the paper. This was a fascinating read. I think I learned a bit about myself and my motivations, too. It’s true that I go to conventions to meet friends and the actual events there are a secondary reason.

    One thing I was wondering about is, the paper refers to anime with deeper stories that appeal to non otaku, but I don’t think otaku can be only into moe. Where does that leave SciFi fans like fans of Gundam? I know moe has a bigger grasp on current otaku tastes but shows like that are hardly aimed at “normies” either.

  4. Actar says:

    @ alexeon: Woah, I didn’t realize you commented until today! Must have missed the notification. (^.^;)

    I’m really glad you enjoyed it! (^.^) With regard to your question, I see what you mean! I have several possible answers to that. Firstly, the otaku don’t have to be only into moe, but being into moe is a huge aspect of how I (and many academics for that matter) define male anime/manga otaku. Sci-fi/mecha anime is changing. Even with franchises like Gundam and Macross, moe as an artstyle and concept is far more prevalent today than before. I mean, the upcoming Macross is going to feature an idol group. So while the otaku can get fixated on the mecha action, there is moe there to keep them coming back. In fact, this juxtaposition of cool and cute is very important to the otaku as well (Saito’s “fighting girl” concept).

    Now, the real question is whether or not there are otaku who are only in it for the mecha. Perhaps. However, depending on the definition of otaku used, you can see other kinds of otaku like military otaku and train otaku spring up, but it was unfortunately beyond the scope of the paper. Perhaps I’ll work them into the next one. (^.^)

  5. alexeon says:

    I understand it is beyond the scope of what you were talking. I just want to point out that Macross has had idols and singing as part of its series since the beginning and is in fact pretty central to the plot. Its not anything new as far as that series goes. I think a more apt example would be how Gundam Seed has Lacus as an idol, a bigger change considering previous Gundam shows hadn’t included such characters, though there have arguably been moe characters since Sayla in the first Gundam.

    Anyway, the depths of the otaku soul are very deep and mysterious. :P

  6. Actar says:

    @ alexeon: Regarding the Macross example, while it’s true that music has always been an important concept in the franchise, the singers have never always been idols. For instance, Basara and Myung weren’t idols even though they sang. Yes, Minmay was arguably an idol of her generation. However, as you have rightly pointed out, she was there more for the plot as opposed to being a main draw for fans. Remember that otaku at the time were far more interested in plot and world-building than the individual characters. In fact, one could argue that they were more infatuated with the mecha because the mecha could be seen as part of the detailed setting of the world.

    Now, I could be completely wrong as I haven’t done the requisite research, but the difference in marketing and merchandising is possible evidence of the change in otaku tastes. When Macross first came out, the toy producers were mainly pushing Takatoku 1/60 scale Valkyries and Minmay goods were in a minority. Today, it’s all about Ranka and Sheryl in 100 different outfits and poses (quite literally) with the Valks being in the minority. Of course, there are many other factors that could have played a part including the changing audience demographic (children to adults), changing methods of merchandise production, etc… But the point is, the female idols today play a far more important role in Mecha/Sci-fi anime due to the shift in otaku tastes towards moe.

  7. alexeon says:

    That’s actually a good point. Its sad, but the moe in some mecha shows has overshadowed even the actual mechas themselves. Well, at least we can always count on Bandai to go for a quick cash out with fifteen different color variations of a single suit (for the current recolor example with slight modifications, take a look at the Graze from IBO, and I love them all.)

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