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

Many of us have a strong sense that gender differences are enforced in Japanese culture. I had the experience of crossing to the wrong section of a manga shop in Akihabara and seeming to create some consternation amongst the other patrons. Yet, in many ways, moe itself involves various kinds of transgressions of gender barriers – men consuming texts created initially for a market of young girls. Can you share with us a bit more about the ways gender is reinforced or transgressed in the moe culture you are describing? What does moe masculinity look like?

First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that moe is somehow limited to male fans of media featuring or originally targeting young girls. For one of my first major research projects in Japan, I spent a year with female fans of manga and anime, who referred to themselves as fujoshi, which means “rotten girls.” Why rotten? Well, because they enjoyed watching manga and anime featuring charismatic male characters, who they then would imagine sexual relationships between. They drew fanzines about these imagined romantic and sexual relationships, which they called “couplings,” and then sold these fanzines at conventions or published them online.

Their activities are not really that different from the writers of slash fiction that you wrote about in Textual Poachers, except that they typically were interested in characters from manga, anime and games rather than live-action TV shows and film. This is simply a reflection of the prevalence of manga and anime in Japan, which provides charismatic male characters. Also in line with the prevalence of manga and anime in Japan, these fujoshi tended to draw their fanzines instead of writing textual stories. But aside from growing up in manga and anime culture, fujoshi are not so different from slashers. Indeed, male-male romantic fan-fiction, which is called yaoi in Japan, got started in the late 1970s, which is around the same time that it did in North America and Europe.

The presence of these female fans in Japan in the 1970s is also interesting because they were there in the early days of “otaku culture,” when manga and anime were beginning to attract mature and intense fans. Too often we ignore the presence of these female fans, despite the fact that some of the earliest records of anime fan clubs date back to Umi no Toriton (Triton of the Sea), which was dominated by female fans, including Kotani Mari. The critic Sasakibara Gō goes so far as to say that it is women, not men, who first recognized, celebrated and shared their love of fictional characters. That is, and Sasakibara is quite clear on this, female fans responding to fictional male characters like Triton are the origin of moe culture.

It is perhaps not a surprise that women dominated early attendance of the Comic Market, a central gathering for fanzine buyers and sellers since its founding in 1975, or that women led the charge in drawing sexual parodies of manga and anime characters.

Men were always behind, late to party and responding to what women were already doing. Indeed, just as women consumed across gender/genre lines to find charismatic male characters to slash in their fan works, men then did the same, but in the other direction. The bishōjo or cute girl character, which is now so prevalent in manga and anime, is actually a hybrid of Tezuka Osamu’s manga and shōjo manga, and was developed as a result of women producing manga for boys and men and men producing their own manga in a style inspired by shōjo manga. This is why, in the late 1970s, even as women were pioneering sexual parody fanzines, adult men began to read Ribon, a manga magazine originally intended for young girls.

This gender/genre crossing goes both ways – male to female and female to male. Indeed, Weekly Shōnen Jump, a magazine ostensibly for boys, is not only read by adult men but also a significant number of women. Eventually, the lines blur to the extent that it’s hard to locate the gender/genre boundary. Take for example Sailor Moon, originally a manga for young girls written by a female artist and serialized in the magazine Nakayoshi. It is hard not to notice that Sailor Moon draws on cultural touchpoints that might be categorized as “boys’ culture,” for example a team of young people who transform into color-coded rangers to fight evil. Sailor Moon simply has young women transform into color-coded sailor soldiers to fight evil. It adds a strong dose of melodrama, but its not really so different. Once transformed, the young women wear modified school uniforms with shortened skirts. Is it any wonder that Sailor Moon attracted male fans when it was adapted into a TV anime in the 1990s?The crossing seems calculated at this point.

So, there is certainly a strong tendency to carve the manga and anime market up into target gender and age groups, but there is also a great deal of movement across the boundaries. This typically doesn’t bother anyone, expect perhaps the when adult men come into close proximity with young girls around a shared object of affection, which is to say bishōjo or cute girl characters. The presence of adult men at events surrounding the Sailor Moon anime, which is at least ostensibly for young girls, caused some commotion in the 1990s. Legend has it that when one child began to cry at such an event, one of the women who voices a character in the show defused the situation by referring to the adult males in the room as “big friends” (ōkii otomodachi). It’s a cute story, but my suspicion is that this scene probably makes many people uncomfortable.

Indeed, Mizuko Ito notes a similar discomfort when adults and children came together in the unsupervised environments that sprung up around the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game. There seems to be a general anxiety about adult men being near children, especially adult men interested in fictional girl characters. Even in Japan, when there is a violent crime involving a child, admittedly rare, it is not uncommon for commentators to point out that the perpetrator was a manga or anime fan. As if that explains anything. I have seen politicians in Japan do this, even pointing to cases where the police have not yet revealed if the media that the suspect consumed was in fact manga and anime or not. That is, these politicians have said to me, without a trace of irony, that they can assume the connection to manga and anime because the criminal in question was an adult male who harmed a girl child.

By this point, it’s a foredrawn conclusion – except that it’s tenuous at best and asinine in any case. These men, we are told, spend too much time with manga and anime and are socially isolated and sexually immature. They become warped and cannot tell the difference between fiction and reality. Their desire is suspect, as at any moment their benign perversion might transform into predatory sexuality. That is, by virtue of their interest in cute girl characters in manga and anime, these men become suspected sex criminals.

We are starting to see this all over the world, with arrests and prosecutions for the possession of pornographic (and sometimes not) manga and anime as “child abuse material” in Canada, Australia, the United States and beyond. Men with no record of ever consuming actual or even “pseudo” child pornography, let alone abusing a child, are arrested, convicted and jailed for possessing drawings of purely fictional characters. As these stories circulate in the news, Japan is set up as the perverse sexual “other” of the West, with manga and anime on the whole characterized as child abuse material and anyone who touches it suspected of harboring the darkest of desires.

With all of this negative press, conservative forces in Japan are emboldened to attack manga and anime and argue for stricter regulation. Sometimes the conservative agenda is obvious, as when a library was raked across the coals for making boys’ love manga, which is commercially published and widely available, accessible. The criticism was that young people would be sexually “confused” by this material, though this has not happened since such manga first appeared in Japan in the 1970s. The same logic seems to be at work in saying that manga and anime more generally will lead to “cognitive distortions” about children, though this has not happened in Japan, where manga and anime are widely available.

The conservative and criminalizing discourse about manga and anime is exactly why it’s important to remember the basic definition of moe as a positive response to fictional characters and representations of them. To return to the Sailor Moon scene that might have made us uncomfortable, the adult male fans in the room are not there for the children, but rather for the characters of Sailor Moon. Surrounded by children, they are there to see the drawings, hear the voices and get the merchandise. To conflate desire for the fictional characters with actual children is a gross misunderstanding of Sailor Moon fandom, which potentially makes innocent people suspected criminals. It also ignores that moe is a response in relation to fictional characters, which are kept intentionally separate from reality. Such a critique completely misses the point of the word moe.

What do you hope to achieve with this book?

I hope that the interviews will introduce people unfamiliar with manga and anime to the faces of the men and women, both real and fictional, who are so often talked about rather than talked to. This talking over and around Japan, Japanese fans and criticism in Japanese has led to a seriously biased view of otaku, especially Japanese men who are attracted to fictional girls.

There is a lot of room for more nuance. For example, Kotani Mari talks about “otaku” as those who feel alienated by hegemonic masculinity, as “strange men” who struggle for alternatives. We can certainly see that in people like Itō Kimio, though this male reader of shōjo manga is not among those identified or identifying as an “otaku.” But when it’s Honda Tōru talking about his love for fictional girls, for cute characters, this guru of moe seems like a walking otaku stereotype. We tend to point and laugh rather than listen to what he’s saying, which reveals his own deep discomfort with hegemonic masculinity. Until we actually begin to see the faces and hear the voices, it is difficult to even entertain Honda Tōru’s ideas about “moe men.”

At its worst, its most poisonous, the bias against male otaku in Japan makes it seem as if merely hearing them out and letting them speak is apologia for “perversion” and “pornography” that endangers real children. It’s a gothic narrative, and this iteration of otaku are the bad guys. If you don’t stand against the bad guys, then you stand against the good guys and are one of the bad guys.

There is no way to raise questions about moe in such an environment. It is in this impossible environment that I decided to focus my interviews on male otaku in Japan. It was a purely strategic decision meant as a response to and intervention into the most reactionary discourses that demonize and criminalize manga and anime fans.

In the future, I hope to do another book focusing on female fans, male characters and moe. Or, better yet, an expanded edition that is not segregated based on the sex/gender of fans and characters. As we can see from the fact that Itō Noizi, a female artist, is one of the most popular illustrators of these characters, bishōjo should not be reduced to “male fetishes” of “sex objects.” I tend to agree with Momoi Halko, who is incidentally also a female artist, when she describes interactions with manga and anime characters as potentially taking us beyond a bodily, binary understanding of male/female into imaginative dimensions of sex/gender.

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).

 

There’s Ain’t No Moe!

Comments

  1. Carl K. Li says:

    A number of years ago, the creator and director of Mobile Suit Gundam, Yoshiyuki Tomino, was interviewed at a convention panel in New York City. During it, he made a remark that, originally, the majority of the fans for the 1979 anime were female. Given its contemporary reputation as a classic and iconic part of anime’s history, and the general assumption that female fans did not become significant until the release of Gundam Wing in the 1990s (a show that actively features attractive guys as protagonists), this came as something of a surprise at the time he said it. i think this aligns with what Patrick is saying, though it’s perhaps in the opposite direction of “moe.”