In Defense of Moe: An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Two)

The youthfulness of the manga and anime characters is something that struck me in the images you included in the book. Is that a cause for concern?

If you take a character like Usagi, she’s a girl, which is a difference from Wonder Woman, but I don’t think that we need to be concerned about it. In his work, which is foundational to manga and anime, Tezuka did not insist on his characters being adults. Tezuka was writing for children, and often had children play major roles in his work. And even though he was writing for children, Tezuka was introducing ideas from film, theater and literature into his manga. So, he didn’t speak down to children as an audience, but rather respected them enough to believe that they do not need to be sheltered from life, from stories about a range of human experiences.

This approach contributed to the formation of manga and anime as forms of entertainment where the age of characters depicted and the age of the target audience does not limit the type of story that can be told. This not only contributes to children getting more deeply involved with stories that challenge them and expose them to new ideas, but also what Matt Hills calls “double-coding,” where the same work can be enjoyed by both children and adults, and which sustains long-term engagement with works that change as audiences mature into new understandings. This is one of the keys to the formation of fan cultures, right?

There is no question that Tezuka’s works piqued the interest of a generation of young people, who then went on to produce their own manga and anime, which took things even further down the path that Tezuka had charted. While there have been rashes of panic about manga and anime in Japan, up to and including deeming Tezuka’s works to be “harmful” to children, there wasn’t really a response to manga in Japan that led to anything like the Comics Code in the United States, which in the 1950s effectively killed forms of comics containing “unwholesome” expressions, which were thought to contribute to juvenile delinquency. There was a movement against “harmful manga” in Japan in the 1990s, but people did not widely support it.

The industry imposed limits on itself, but they were nowhere near as reactionary as the United States in the 1950s. For example, rather than agreeing to not allow certain types of content, publishers marked some manga as “adult” and placed them into “adult” sections of stores. In Japan, in theory, you can draw and publish whatever you want, so long as the material is not obscene and access to it is controlled.

Of course, anime is televised, requires a larger budget and has sponsors, which is more constricting, but consider that Neon Genesis Evangelion – a story about “angels” attacking earth, giant robots engaging them in brutal hand-to-hand combat and the psychological damage caused to the children forced to pilot these robots – aired at 6:30pm on Wednesday nights. We aren’t talking about cable here, but rather basic television that everyone can access, and 6:30pm is a time when general audiences, including children, might be watching. Cowboy Bebop – a story about bounty hunters that encounter terrorism, crime, cults, suicide, murder, human experimentation, drug use and more – was aired at 6:00pm, a timeslot previously occupied by an anime based on a story serialized in a shōjo manga magazine.

As these examples show, there is not as much of a compartmentalization of content in Japan, or a notion that children should not see or be involved in stories about the adult world, or that any exposure to depictions of violence or sexuality will irreparably scar them. The truly “adult” content is labeled and zoned properly. While not “adult” in the sense of pornographic, many of the TV shows associated with the moe boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s were shown late at night, when children would not be watching. This hands-off approach to regulation has contributed to manga and anime becoming some of the most interesting media in the world.

In turn, it makes sense that people growing up with manga and anime never “grow out of it,” because it isn’t something just for kids or somehow below real literature, film or TV. If you grow up surrounded by and relating to the fictional characters of manga and anime, it makes sense that you might be attracted to them. They are part of life, or growing up and everyday routines.

To my eyes, moe can be very meaningful to and good for people. In fact, over the course of researching and compiling this book, many people told me that manga and anime had saved their lives by giving them something to hold onto in difficult times. Take a look at the interviews with Honda Tōru, Maeda Jun and Sōda Mitsuru. Unless the response to fictional characters is harming others living creatures, unless the response is violence, I do not think that we should be at all concerned with moe, beyond curiosity about other human beings, their interests and ways of life.

Worse still would be to say that “moe media,” whatever that means, should be regulated. To ask Japan to more strictly regulate manga and anime, when there is no one harmed in the production of such media and no evidence of a statistical link to crime of any kind, is to say that there need be no demonstrable harm, because your thoughts and feelings in relation to fictional characters are “perverse” and therefore should not be allowed. If moe means a positive response to fictional characters or representations of them, then the reaction against it is a negative response to the response to those fictional characters. “It’s gross, I don’t like it.” So what? What that person responds to as moe may not be your thing, but regulating based on taste is as absurd as it is untenable.

You write in your introduction about a march involving the Revolutionary Moe Alliance in 2007. Why is such an alliance necessary and in what sense, real or playful, can we see moe as a revolutionary force in contemporary culture?

There were many groups like the Revolutionary Moe Alliance marching in Tokyo in the mid-to-late 2000s. Most were inspired by or shared the thesis of Honda Tōru, who argues that there is a system of “love capitalism” (ren’ai shihonshugi) that engenders unreasonable expectations for men.

Depending on the group, they come at the perceived problem from a variety of directions. For example, some argue that the stereotypical middleclass family ideal posits a gainfully employed company man, who supports and is supported by a stay-at-home wife, who will also raise their children. Given the dissolution of fulltime, longterm employment at large companies since the 1990s, the model of (re)productive maturity, the so-called “salaryman,” is increasingly unachievable for men, who appear immature or as failures. The man without “regular” employment, the “irregular” man, is thought to have less of a chance of attracting women. Such men are among those called himote, which means unpopular with the opposite sex. There are certainly other reasons to be in that category, including physical appearance, communication skills, hobbies and so on. The himote is a man who fails in the marketplace of love, and thus protests “love capitalism.” For himote, there is an unbridgeable “love gap” (ren’ai kakusa) between “winners” (kachigumi) and “losers” (makegumi), they are on the wrong side and their numbers are swelling.

In some particularly pedantic and indeed sexist veins, women’s motives for dating and marriage are reduced to economic ones, and one’s lack of appeal to others is blamed on an unfair system, a line of argumentation that makes those indulging in it seem like altogether unappealing human beings. The rhetoric is somewhat familiar from men’s rights movements in the United States, but the barely concealed violence of the American counterpart seems absent from himote in Japan.

Most of their marches are comprised of a small number of men enjoying one another’s company and making a spectacle of themselves. They almost seem to relish being “failures,” but not quite, because they still seem to maintain goals for success, namely getting paid and laid, that are recognizable to hegemonic masculinity. These men want things on their terms, which can come off as somewhat entitled.

A distinct break from this comes in the form of otaku, who also march against expectations of men, but celebrate being dropouts of love capitalism. For these men, and Honda Tōru states it most clearly, a system of commoditized romance that forces people onto expensive dates to fashionable places is not only out of reach for most men, but also entirely unappealing. This love capitalism, or love on the terms of a capitalist imaginary, does not seem “real” to them, but more like a fantasy sold through trendy TV dramas, which combine romance and consumption. Men like Honda Tōru argue that otaku dropped out of love capitalism and instead pursue their interests and hobbies. So, these men are interested in manga and anime instead of going on dates and “getting the girl,” but this is not a failure so much as an alternative, though which they, too, can live happily ever after.

This refusal of love capitalism makes otaku appear to be socially and sexually immature, but in this they have found alternatives ways of living and loving in the world. I was personally quite touched reading Honda Tōru’s response to a young man who, feeling like a failure without friends or romantic prospects, decided to murder seven people on the streets of Akihabara. It was a horrific event, but Honda’s message was one of empathy. Honda Tōru acknowledged that they were both very similar in terms of personal history, but he had something to hold onto that this young man did not: anime. To Honda Tōru’s eyes, this was a young man who felt pressured to become a “regular” man, with all the attendant responsibilities, rights and respect that come with achieving that middleclass ideal, but he could not do so, felt like a failure and lashed out at the world. Honda writes that he wished he could have told this young man to take it easy, hold on a little longer and wait for things to improve. Honda, who struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts as a young man, suggests that anyone who is considering doing violence to themselves or others instead withdraw from society and its pressures for a time. He advocates not seeking revenge for perceived wrongs, or ending life through violence, but rather seeking something to hold onto, for example hobbies and people to share them with, and living life with a different set of values that don’t make you feel like a loser or failure.

This otaku position is a politics of survival for those who have somehow failed or have been made to feel like failures, which is a shared condition. In addition to himote and otaku, the last group that was marching in Akihabara is associated with moe. These are people who actively seek alternatives to expectations of men, which is to say assigned sex/gender roles, in relationships with fictional characters. This can take the form of “marriage” to a fictional character, belonging to a community of shared interest around a character, and so on. Manga, anime and games do not necessarily get us out of hegemonic sex/gender roles, as we have seen from Gamer Gate, but some certainly see that potential. Again, there is Honda Tōru, who argues for a “moe masculinity” that embraces both the masculine and feminine sides of one’s self, which can be nurtured and accessed in interactions with fictional characters outside of the expectations of society.

Moe men can at least imagine sex/gender differently, which then might impact the ways that they understand themselves and interact with others. This is very much the message that Momoi Halko, a female idol, voice actress and producer gave in her interview for the book, where she describes moe as contributing to a space of a “third gender/sex” (daisan no sei). Statements like this one are surprisingly common, and actually have been made even by feminist thinkers such as Ueno Chizuko as early as 1989. It is interesting that many female critics and creators note this of moe, which seems to suggest that they see something different in “moe men,” who actually are not so recognizable as “men” anymore.

This potential for change in sex/gender roles through thought experiments involving fictional characters and in interactions with fictional characters is some of the most exciting revolutionary potential in contemporary Japan, and while it is very much playful and parodic, that does not mean that it is not real.

A word of caution in all of this: Potential for change in sex/gender does not mean that moe is not without its sexism. In all three broad and overlapping groupings – himote, otaku and moe men – there is a shared danger of not only reproducing and reinforcing sex/gender stereotypes – Honda Tōru, a man, is married to a fictional girl character, which sounds all too familiar – but also rejecting women to create a space of autonomous sexuality. To take an easy example, Honda Tōru’s book is titled Moe Man (Moeru otoko), which has “man” right in the title. To the extent that one must reject women to reform one’s self as a man, this is a sexist position.

In response to the success of Densha otoko, a live-action film and TV drama about an otaku who falls in love with a real woman and reforms himself to earn her love, which Honda Tōru has rightly criticized as a didactic message, I remember seeing signs in Akihabara reading, “Real otaku are not aroused by three-dimensional women.” The real or three-dimensional woman has to be rejected by the “real” otaku, who is implicitly male.

Falling into this reactionary stance is certainly a danger, but what really struck me about the march that the Revolutionary Moe Alliance participated in was that it was not only “men.” The march, which was titled Akihabara Liberation Demonstration (Akihabara kaihō demo), took place in Akihabara in June 2007, and there were men, women, women costuming as male characters, men costuming as female characters – all these people together on the street.

Akihabara is an area usually associated with male otaku, which colored perceptions of the moe boom centered on media reports about Akihabara, but what I saw on the street was not exclusively or even necessarily “male.” Rather, the liberation of Akihabara, where affection for fictional characters is shown without shame, was more about flexible, shifting and relational sex/gender roles, which could be disrupted or shifted by interacting with fictional characters and costuming as them, by performing sex/gender differently. That is why the image of the Akihabara march remains so vivid in my mind. It seemed to me that Akihabara and moe were offering a platform for the articulation and expression of sex/gender politics beginning not with autonomy from women, but rather from the “regular” or “normal.” Indeed, the direct impetus for the march was a sort of creeping conservatism in policing otaku performances on the streets of Akihabara, as well as plans to clean up the “public sex culture” – with respect to Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant – there.

In the 2000s, Akihabara was being reimagined as a showcase for what the government was calling “Cool Japan,” which focuses on promoting wholesome manga and anime, which was somewhat at odds with the openly sexual content – erotic simulation games, pornographic fanzines, sexually posed figurines of cute girl characters, maid cafés – on open display in the area. The demonstration to liberate Akihabara seemed, to me at least, to be about keeping the space open and unsanitized so that people could freely explore and share relationships, even sexual ones, which fictional characters.

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).