electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Article 5 in 2009
First published in ejcjs on 31 October 2009

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Exploring Virtual Potential in Post-Millennial Japan


Patrick W. Galbraith

PhD Candidate
University of Tokyo

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About the Author


This paper focuses on moe, a word used to describe a euphoric response to fantasy characters or representations of them. I combine theoretical perspectives from Japan and abroad with participant observation conducted in Tokyo from 2004 to 2009 among male and female fans of anime, manga and videogames. Considering the discourse on moe and its pragmatic uses, I argue fantasy characters offer virtual possibilities and affect that exist separately and in tandem with 'reality.' This allows for expanded expressive potential.

Key Words

Moe; otaku; fujoshi; Japan; affect; fantasy; youth




This is a paper on moe,[i] a neologism used to describe a euphoric response to fantasy characters or representations of them. The goal is to determine the meanings and pragmatic uses of moe, and suggest its significance. Moeru (nominalized as moe) is a simple Japanese verb meaning 'to bud or sprout,' and is homophonous with the verb 'to burn.' In the 1990s, the word appeared on the bulletin board website 2channel in discussion of young, cute and innocent anime girls, and a burning passion for them (Macias and Machiyama 2004).[ii] Given its origins, moe is often associated with a young, media-savvy generation of otaku, or hardcore fans of anime, manga and videogames. Moe is also used by fujoshi, zealous female fans of yaoi, a genre of manga featuring male homosexual romance. However, the word moe indicates a response to fantasy characters, not a specific style, character type or relational pattern. While some things are more likely than others to inspire moe, this paper will focus mainly on the response itself rather than the forms that inspire it. Moe is primarily based on two-dimensional images, but can also include objects that index fantasy or even people reduced to 'moe characters' and approached as fantasy.[iii] Both otaku and fujoshi access moe in what they refer to as 'pure fantasy' (junsui na fantajii), or characters and relationships removed from context, emptied of depth and positioned outside reality. The moe character is a 'body without organs' (Deleuze and Guattari 1987), and the response to its virtual potentials is affect. In my use of affect I follow Brian Massumi,[iv] who makes the concept distinct from feelings, which are personal, or emotions, the social expression of feelings (Massumi 1987). Massumi argues affect is a moment of unformed and unstructured potential (Massumi 2002). The experience, what he calls an 'intensity,' is outside of logical language and conscious control. Moe provides a word to express affect, or to identify a form that resonates and can trigger an intensity.


Moe began in the realm of subculture, but it has since transitioned to mass culture. The word entered the popular lexicon with Densha Otoko, an otaku who saves a woman from being molested by a drunk man on the train, and, with advice from his fellows on 2channel, successfully courts her. Densha's story was collaboratively created on 2channel on a board for single men[v] between March and May 2004 and became an Internet book, a film, a primetime TV show, four manga series and an erotic video. The last episode of the drama, aired in primetime on Fuji TV in 2005, was viewed by 25.5 per cent of the national audience (Freedman 2009).[vi] The protagonist's dreamy recitation of 'moeeeee!' became a media phenomenon encouraging emulation.[vii] In 2005, moe was voted among the most influential slang words in Japan.[viii] Moe goods – kimono socks for the old, kitsch tokens for tourists and cuddly Hello Kitty character merchandise for kids – filled shops across Tokyo. The moe market of anime, manga and videogames was estimated at US$888 million[ix] annually (Morinaga 2005), and moe appeared in global exhibitions of Japanese culture.[x] In March 2007, Newsweek Japan ran a cover story describing the global impact of moe. In 2008, the national tourism board sponsored a book that included a section teaching Japanese how to explain moe to foreigners in English.[xi] While moe in this context is far removed from its origins, its naturalization demonstrates a wide awareness of and weakening resistance to the culture of idolizing fantasy characters.


Moe is by now common parlance in Japan and among its researchers, but it remains stubbornly oblique. Often the definition is presumed in advance and never questioned openly, as if everyone implicitly understands the meaning. This tends to make definitions appear self-evident, while reinforcing received stereotypes. It is for this reason that moe is consistently misunderstood as first and foremost images of young girls instead of a response to virtual potentials, which can exist in a range of different images. I do not deny moe is faddish slang, but that is not to say there is no merit in serious study of the phenomenon. The appearance of a neologism to describe feelings for fantasy characters represents an acute awareness of the importance of fantasy, and as such can be understood as one important cultural development occurring in Japan at the turn of the millennium. The preliminary research on moe presented here is comprised of sustained theoretical treatment supported by data gathered while conducting participant observation in Tokyo from 2004 to 2009. The ethnographic projects that brought me to Tokyo were not about moe per se, but included topics such as Akihabara (Galbraith, upcoming), fujoshi and yaoi and maid cafés. In the field interacting with otaku and fujoshi, I was constantly confronted by the concept of moe, and found it necessary to engage it. The results of that struggle are documented here. I will first introduce two theories of moe that position the phenomenon in sociocultural and 'postmodern' shifts taking place in late-stage capitalism. From there I more concretely describe the material circumstances and consumption patterns that influenced the emergence of moe. This is followed by a review of the discourse among fans. I conclude with an in-depth analysis of otaku and fujoshi activities as they relate to moe.


Japanese critical discourse


While moe has been reduced to isolated and inconsistent use in academia, two Japanese philosophers, Honda Touru and Azuma Hiroki, offer compelling paradigms.[xii] These are both men and their discourse centers on male otaku, but I will argue from them a more general theory, applied later in the paper to fujoshi structures of desire.


Honda, a youth-oriented novelist and self-styled moe critic, defines moe as 'imaginary love' (nounai renai) (Honda 2005: 81). He states that characters that inspire moe provide something to believe in beyond the self, which makes the self possible, and these characters thus become an important support like family or a romantic partner (Honda 2005: 59, 81, 151). The significance of Honda's argument is the pretense that in Japan today fulfillment as a human being can only be found inside one's own brain as a reaction to fantasy characters. As Honda sees it, 'love capitalism' (renai shihon shugi) privileges relationships to only a select few who have money and culturally defined good looks. Moe is a 'pure love' (junai) unconnected to the system of dating and romance centered on consumptive practices. It does not matter if Honda is overlooking the decidedly capitalist aspects of moe media and character merchandising; the salient point is his judgment that a relationship with a mediated character or material representations of it is preferable to an interpersonal relationship. In awakening his imagination, the 'moe man' (moeru otoko) can escape the confines of masculinity (datsu dansei-sei) based on performance in the love market. The other way around, the moe man is feminized (shoujoka), for example taking care of infantile moe characters like a mother or indulging a desire for cute things. Moe allows men to stop performing socially sanctioned masculinity and indulge femininity, which can be very soothing (iyasareru). Honda sees in this the potential for a balanced gender identity; moe men can burn with masculine energy and bud with feminine emotion. While Honda is unabashedly and radically opposed to mainstream society,[xiii] numerous media outlets in Japan collaborate his narrative with reports that the ongoing recession has undermined stable employment and aggravated the 'stratification of romance' (renai kakusa); the number of eligible marriage partners with a high salary shrinks, and the gap between those people and the ineligible masses grows ever wider.[xiv] The moe man is actually very conservative in rejecting casual or paid sex and advocating imaginary marriage emblazoned in pet names for favorite characters such as ore no yome (my bride) or nounai tsuma (imaginary wife).[xv]


While recognizing the conservative nature of otaku sexuality, Azuma attempts to account for the schizophrenic presence of perversion in the moe image. For Azuma, otaku are postmodern subjects with multiple personalities engendered by their environment and enthusiastic media consumption (Azuma 2009). Drawing on postmodern theorists Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, Azuma argues moe can be both pure and perverse because there is no grand narrative connecting moments of pleasure endlessly reproduced as simulacra. Otaku 'learn the technique of living without connecting the deeply emotional experience of a work (a small narrative) to a worldview (a grand narrative). Borrowing from psychoanalysis, I call this schism dissociative' (Azuma 2009: 84). Azuma uses the example of dating simulator games,[xvi] where a player's choices determine the outcome of relationships with characters of the opposite sex. The player engages a moe character as a pure being and his one true love, and then imagines perverse sexual interactions with the same character or philanders with other characters. To feel moe for all characters in all situations, the narrative connecting characters or moments in time is de-emphasized. In fact, just as narratives are de-emphasized to focus on characters, the focus can further shift from characters to constituent parts that inspire moe, or 'moe elements' (moe youso). The further away from the stable, complete whole, the more abstract the object of desire and defuse the response becomes. 'Since they [otaku] were teenagers, they had been exposed to innumerable otaku sexual expressions: at some point, they were trained to be sexually stimulated by looking at illustrations of girls, cat ears, and maid outfits' (Azuma 2009: 89). This is what Azuma refers to as 'the database,' a collection of design and personality points, characters and situations that can produce moe. Narratives and characters are deconstructed – i.e., emptied of depth and removed from context – and rearticulated in multiple ways by consumers in pursuit of moe.


While radically different in their approaches, Honda and Azuma agree that moe emerged from conditions in late-stage capitalist Japan, and that the response is unconnected with 'reality' and thus offers new potentials to construct and express affects. For Honda, the growing connection between love and money in Japan during the booming years of consumption in the 1970s and 1980s alienated many young Japanese from romance, and they detached from 'love capitalism' to find 'pure love' with two-dimensional characters. Separating their desire from reality allowed for a new form of affect called moe. Azuma adds that when desire is separated from reality it is abstract enough to form a 'database' of discursive elements from which to articulate characters and situations productive of the affective response called moe. Simply stated, moe is about unbounded potential. Further, based on Honda and Azuma's writings, the moe phenomenon can theoretically be traced to the maturation of Japan's consumer culture. Honda asserts that men withdrew from dating and romance as consumption, and the database Azuma sees as informing moe requires a high density of character-based media and material targeting fans of anime, manga and videogames. The next section will make a closer examination of Japan in the 1980s, the pinnacle of the Bubble economy.


Emergence of the moe form


Moe is affect in response to fantasy forms that emerged from information-consumer culture in Japan in the late stages of capitalism. Otaku scholar Okada Toshio states that moe is most strongly felt among 'third-generation otaku,' or Japanese born in the 1980s who watched Neon Genesis Evangelion in middle school and grew up amid a wealth of anime, manga, games and character merchandise following the seminal anime series. As Okada sees it, 'There is a strong tendency among this generation of otaku to see otaku hobbies as a form of "pure sanctuary"' (Okada 2008: 78). The use of 'pure' here should not be overlooked. The period of advanced economic development and material affluence from the 1960s to the 1970s was also the time when anime, manga, game and character merchandisers in Japan promoted extreme consumption among youth. Ootsuka Eiji, for example, explains the conditioning of young girls into 'pure consumers' (junsui na shouhisha) (Ootsuka 1984). To expand the consumer base, marketers disseminated an image of cute (kawaii) in fashion magazines and shoujo (for girls) manga, and encouraged young women to buy cute merchandise and accessories to fill up their rooms and construct identity. Such a space is disconnected from social and political concerns, and exists for the preservation of the individual. Broadly, the same argument can be made for otaku subculture, which Ootsuka states was surrounded by media and unconcerned with the social and political in the 1980s, and Azuma argues consumed as a way to build personal and group identity. Indeed, Ootsuka has suggested that today many Japanese, including boys, are becoming 'shoujo' (little girl) consumers in that they are surrounded by comforting media and merchandise and consume endlessly to support their spaces and notions of self. This resonates with Okada's description of otaku as retreating into hobbies as a pure sanctuary, and with Honda's discussion of moe men as feminized, or rather shoujo-ized. Therefore we can say that moe is connected with the rise of media (anime, manga and videogames) producing fantasy ideals and consumer culture providing material to support those fantasies.


Further, the media and consumption feeding into moe is a specific sort centered on affect. As mentioned above, the 1980s saw a blossoming of media and material targeting otaku, and this conditioned a pattern of consumption and culture. Eventually the products began to be designed specifically to elicit an emotional response in the consumer, i.e., to include characters that would inspire moe. Manga scholar Itou Gou argues that since the end of the 1980s characters in anime, manga and videogames became so appealing that fans desired them even without stories (Itou 2005). Ito dubs such character types 'kyara,' distinct from characters (kyarakutaa) embedded in narratives. The reality of characters is their life-like nature, but kyara are defined by a 'reality of kyara' (fiction) distinct from reading human characteristics and following social understandings (Itou 2005: 118). Proof of this can be found in the rise of 'parody' doujinshi, or fan-produced comics placing favorite characters from anime, manga and videogames into new settings and often pornographic relationships. Comiket, Japan's largest market for doujinshi, reports that both men and women writing such character-based doujinshi increased drastically in the 1980s. Popular anime series like Urusei Yatsura (1981-1986), which featured a boy surrounded by beautiful girls, and Captain Tsubasa (1983-1986), the story of an all boys soccer team, provided virtual harems that were for many fans more important than the original story. Thus the focus shifts from what Ootsuka calls holistic 'narrative consumption' (monogatari shouhi) to make meaning to what Azuma calls fragmentary 'database consumption' (deetabeesu shouhi) to make moe, or produce affect. Shifting the focus to kyara, or placing a character in narrative stasis, reduces concerns of consequence related to reality (the narrative) and creates a sensual, liminal experience. The further away from reality and limitations on form the greater the virtual potential and affect. This affect-logic is at the heart of moe. Moe is a response to kyara, or characters without context or depth, and is made possible by flattening characters to surfaces upon which to project desires.


The threshold in the development of moe came with the breakdown of narratives and social frames and the rise of pleasure experience in the recessionary 1990s. Identity could no longer be sustained in eroding nakama groups at home, school and work (Yoda and Harootunian 2006), and youth began an accelerated process of building world and self through consumption and hobby activities (Azuma 2009). The origin myth of moe centers on the early 1990s in archetypes such as Sagisawa Moe (Kyouryuu Wakusei, 1993-1994) and Takatsu Moe (Taiyou ni Sumasshu!, 1993), the former a series for kids and the latter for girls (Morikawa 2008). The word became widespread as an abbreviation of Hotaru Tomoe from Sailor Moon S (1994-1995). All of these characters are young girls, and display a set of moe characteristics: large, pupil-less eyes, glossy skin, small (or no) breasts and an innocent or pure personality. Azuma posits that a turning point came with Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996), an immensely popular TV anime produced by studio Gainax. Evangelion features a female character named Ayanami Rei, a synthesis of different character types: a clone of the protagonist's mother housing the soul of an otherworldly being in the body of an adolescent girl. The doll-like and semi-human Ayanami became the single most popular and influential character in the history of otaku anime; fans still isolate parts of the character to amplify and rearticulate in fan-produced works to inspire moe. After the success of Ayanami, the focus shifted to kyara with moe traits in lieu of story.[xvii] The prime example is Dejiko, a cute little cat girl with absolutely no story who became the mascot of anime merchandiser Gamer's in 1998. Azuma points out that this character, an idol among otaku, is an amalgamation of codes from the moe database: a maid outfit, cat ears (nekomimi), giant saucer eyes, a saccharine voice and so on (Azuma 2009). Characters like Dejiko whose main purpose is to inspire affect are called moe characters (moe kyara). In works featuring these characters, the original work functions as a starting point, and the extended process of producing and consuming moe takes place among fans in online discussions and videos, fan-produced comics (doujinshi), costume roleplay (cosplay) and figures.


The moe character is a product of the breakdown of the grand narrative and rise of simulacra (Azuma 2009), and its form is one of unbounded virtual possibility. Concretely, a moe character is what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe as a 'body without organs,' or the 'virtual' dimension of the body that is a collection of potential traits, connections and affects (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). These potentials are accessed by overcoming binary oppositions that order and control the body. It is not without significance that moe characters regularly exhibit ambiguity and contradictions – child-adult, male-female, animal-human – and that these bodies that are (both literally and figuratively) denied organs have increased virtual potential. Critics point out that characters described as moe have always tended to be physically immature 'little girls,' but Deleuze and Guattari suggest that 'becoming woman' is the first stage to becoming everything else.[xviii] Just so do these moe characters endlessly 'sprout' new forms and fantasies. The pursuit of moe is thus exposing and reacting to the body without organs, to virtual potentiality. Affect is a response to unstructured or unformed potential (Massumi 2002). That the moe form, the body without organs, is outside personal and social frames is precisely why it triggers affect. Fantasy forms and affects are fluid and amorphous, which perhaps resonates with youth who are exploring new possibilities of being in post-millennial Japan.


Otaku discussions of moe


Moe, a word describing affect in response to fantasy forms, appears a theoretically predictable development given the rise of character-oriented media and merchandise in Japan in the 1980s, which contributed to a 'pure consumer' space occupied by a certain generation of young Japanese otaku. However, perhaps no word in history has so divided otaku. Okada, who famously defined otaku culture as deep and narrow in focus, sees in 'moe otaku' a superficial fixation on surfaces and accelerated consumption of disposable moe kyara, impetus for him to declare this younger generation culturally 'dead' (Okada 2008).[xix] On the other hand, those otaku who cannot dismiss moe have for the better part of a decade been discussing that which so compels them. In practice, moe means both love and a mild sexual arousal felt for fantasy characters. As Azuma points out, this is a flexible response to discrete elements.[xx] When defined, however, the emphasis tends to be on pure love, which resonates with Honda. One man I spoke with said, 'Moe is a wish for compassionate human interaction. Moe is a reaction to characters that are more sincere and pure than human beings are today.' Similarly, another man described moe as 'the ultimate expression of male platonic love.' This, he said, was far more stable and rewarding than 'real' love could ever be. Manga artist Akamatsu Ken stresses that moe is the 'maternal love' (boseiai) latent in men,[xxi] and a 'pure love' (junsui na ai) unrelated to sex, the desire to be calmed when looking at a female infant (biyoujo wo mite nagomitai) (Akamatsu 2005). 'The moe target is dependent on us for security (a child, etc.) or won't betray us (a maid, etc.). Or we are raising it (like a pet)' (Akamatsu 2005). This desire to 'nurture' (ikusei) characters is extremely common among fans. Further, moe is about the moment of affect and resists changes ('betrayal') in the future, or what Akamatsu refers to as a 'moratorium' (moratoriamu). Moe media is approached as something of a sanctuary from society (Okada 2008), and as such is couched in a discourse of purity.


A more nuanced report by and for fans suggests that perhaps both the pure and perverse are potential moe images. The author, Shingo, defines moe as a response to a human(oid) entity who is innocent, gazed at and becomes embarrassed (Shingo 2005). He then establishes four categories of moe based on imagined access to or distance from the character: junai (pure love), otome (maiden), denpa (kinetic) and ero-kawaii (erotic-cute). Shingo proposes four principles to understand moe:

  1. A moe character cannot be aware of her own appeal.

  2. The greater an image's emphasis on style and fetish symbol at the expense of narrative, ambience and relationships, the less relevant propriety becomes.

  3. The closer the viewer (or his narrative proxy) becomes to a moe character, the harder it is for her to maintain her sense of propriety.

  4. The viewer's emotional response to a moe image is a function of the convergence of his position relative to the image with the heroine's state of maidenly virtue as depicted therein.

Comparison with Honda and Azuma is fruitful here. As Honda states, moe is imaginary love, and the affect is based on 'emphasis on style and fetish symbol at the expense of narrative,' or what Azuma would call moe elements. Shingo seems to suggest that there is a defined character to moe, and whether a moe character is pure or erotic is a function of the sexual access provided to the viewer or his (or her, though Shingo is focusing only on male otaku and their objects of desire here) avatar.


However, moe characters are fantasy forms animated by fluid desires, and as such cannot easily be divided into static categories. A range of possible responses is present in the same character. A pure character can be approached as erotic, or vice versa, and the elements are rearranged in fan productions to stimulate moe. Further, Azuma has successfully argued of dating simulator games that the propriety of the character is not always challenged by relative access. The narrative connecting moments of pleasure is absent, so the character's status as pure can coexist with perverse sex acts. This challenges Shingo's third and fourth assertions, but it is not irreconcilable. As Shingo himself states, 'two-dimensional characters are moe precisely because they are depicted in two dimensions, and it is this reduction, simplification, lack of pretense – it is this lack that allows the heroine to preserve her virtue unquestioned by the viewer' (Shingo 2005). If a character begins its existence in a certain range of moe, then it can also be re-imagined in different ranges. For example, Ayanami Rei is the vision of a pure character in the original Neon Genesis Evangelion: She is a 14-year-old virgin who in turn plays the role of both mother and daughter for various characters. She is also a clone and carries the soul of an angel, a non-human entity separate from reality and so a form of 'pure fantasy.' Despite her myriad persona, it is notable that Ayanami does not play the role of a lover or wife. The original does not provide desires that can be consummated; in Shingo's terms, the 'access' is zero. However, in fan re-articulations made in pursuit of moe she is a target for mating and marriage, or the access is increased to the maximum. It is precisely because these ranges in the moe spectrum were not explored in the original narrative that they are exposed as virtual possibilities of the fantasy form of the character. Importantly, Ayanami can be both an entity to be nurtured and one that is highly sexualized (often transgressively so) at the same time. This is because she is approached as a moe character removed from her original context and limitations on the possibilities of her character (i.e., range of intended affect).


Moe desire and sexuality


As discussed above, most otaku stress emotional rather than sexual needs for moe characters, but the image of the girl-child is clearly eroticized. While Honda posits this as a balanced gender identity, it appears somewhat problematic to simultaneously protect (coded as female) and prey (coded as male) on the child in pursuit of moe, even if only in the realm of fantasy. Psychoanalyst Saitou Tamaki discusses otaku sexuality as 'asymmetrical desire,' or 'a sexuality deliberately separated from everyday life' (Saitou 2007: 245). Saitou argues that otaku sexuality depends on 'fantasy contexts' (kyokou no kontekusuto), or what Itou has called the 'reality of kyara.' What sort of sexuality is conditioned in interaction with moe characters, with pure fantasy? Consider for example dating simulator games. Interestingly, these games are often not very sexual beyond teasing images of girls in various states of undress; sexual representation stops short of vaginal penetration. There are more explicit variants,[xxii] but in recent years these have given way to so-called novel games,[xxiii] which are extremely text heavy and feature few, if any, images of sex (Azuma 2009). They usually take place in idyllic school settings among fantasized youth. It is in essence nostalgia for a past that never was. Player choices are reduced and the emphasis is on passively experiencing emotional melodrama, almost like reading a romance novel (recall again the discourse on feminization of otaku in moe). These games are often called nakige (crying games) because the objective is 'to cry' (Azuma 2009: 76), which makes sense given Honda's explanation of moe as a mechanism for men to indulge the feminine restricted by social norms (Honda 2005: 16). However, be it a moment in the original or an extended scene in fan production, these characters are sexualized for masturbatory fantasy. The pleasure derived from moe characters is not always physical, but is masturbatory because, even when emotional, the pleasure is derived by and for the individual. Both the possibility of purity in feelings for and as the female character and the possibility of subversive stimulation as sexual predator exist simultaneously, and this schizophrenic sexual expression exists as a mediated construct between the solitary player and the images reflected on his screen.[xxiv] In games intended to inspire moe, the all-important purity is affirmed even as it is implicitly violated.[xxv]


In such media, sexuality is deferred as long as possible and, when indulged,[xxvi] often takes the form of abuse. Moe characters are most typically youthful, innocent girls, and such characters regularly appear in dating simulators. As Akamatsu states, it is the pre-violation child that is moe, or that which does not know the world and is fetishized as pure. However, while protecting and nurturing, the child becomes a lover.[xxvii] This theme is so pervasive that it has become a genre onto itself, 'nurturing simulation games.' Not surprisingly, Gainax, the company that created Ayanami Rei and helped propel the trend of moe characters, is known for making these nurturing games. Examples include Princess Maker in 1991 and Ayanami Nurturing Project in 2001. Just as Azuma points out a gradual de-sexualization of dating simulator games, later editions of Princess Maker present the player the option of being a mother with zero sexual access to the daughter (=moe object) in the game, even as the player is visually stimulated by his daughter. In all cases, the passive, emotional (coded as feminine) desire to care is juxtaposed with an aggressive, physical (coded as masculine) desire to mate. Both purity and perversion are expressed in extremes, and the existence of one makes the other possible. The original purity of Ayanami is precisely why she is so perversely abused. The girl-child inspires moe in polymorphous forms because she is tied to a moment without past (context) or future (consequence).


The emphasis on youth in moe is another aspect that demands attention. For example, a common moe character type is the little sister (imouto). Honda explains the little sister as representative of the pure otaku desire for family, which would also ostensibly account for the daughter character in the nurturing fantasy. However, we cannot ignore that the first erotic animations in Japan, Lolita Anime and Cream Lemon in 1984, featured little girl and little sister characters, respectively. The conflation of child-like innocence and adult desire has been employed for decades in Japanese pornography surrounding schoolgirls. In most cases, uniforms, the fetishized signifier of innocent status and character, remains in spite of, and even during, sexualization to provide a target for desire.[xxviii] One man I spoke with commented that archetypes of desire are formulated between age 12 and 14, and so it makes sense that youth in Japan surrounded by young girls in uniform would desire this; those who fixate on this archetype repeat it in media, in turn reinforcing the desire. This discourse problematically places all desire on early adolescence, but it made sense for this man and others like him who fixate on middle school, a time before social pressures to perform as a responsible adult at work (earn a salary) and home (start a family). That time of purity and potential remains in 'moratorium' (Akamatsu 2005), even as those who access it often also remain in a state of moratorium outside society. Syu-chan, a self-proclaimed otaku in his thirties, explained his fetish for schoolgirl uniforms and related little sister characters in moe anime as coming from his inability to consummate the young love he dreamed of as an adolescent.[xxix] 'By my late twenties I realized that what I didn't have back then is what I will always want. I will always be single.' When asked why he didn't try to find a partner now as an adult, he explained that people like him – an otaku long on hobbies and passion and short on looks and money – are excluded from the market of love. For Syu-chan, it made sense to imagine a space of 'pure love' apart from reality. As the age of sexual and capitalist maturity becomes ever younger, for example 'compensated dating' among primary school students, the age of purity re-centers on even younger girls. The symbol of this was the little sister in uniform, but this does not equate to actual incestuous desire. This might be understood as first a longing for a time of youthful possibilities and hope (signified by the uniform) and second a desire for an uncompromising relationship not conditioned by society (the little sister). Moe characters are pure beings unspoiled by maturity. Put another way, they are not part of the world fans are reluctant to accept.


Moe characters express desires that are not of this world, and it is thus a logical conclusion that they would appear non-human. If kawaii, or the aesthetic of cute, is the longing for the freedom and innocence of youth, manifesting in the junior and high school girl in uniform (Kinsella 1995), then moe is the longing for the purity of characters pre-person, manifesting in androgynous semi and demi human forms. This is called 'jingai,' or outside human, and examples include robots, aliens, dolls and anthropomorphized animals, all stock characters in the moe pantheon. A specific example would be nekomimi, or cat-eared characters. More generally, in order to achieve the desired affect, moe characters are reduced to tiny deformed 'little girl' images with emotive, pupil-less animal eyes.[xxx] By reducing them so, the threat of real-world relational interaction is effectively removed from the fantasy, as is the potential for any real-life consequences. Moe is two-dimensional desire set outside the frame of human interaction. Therefore, the expression of sexuality can be ultra masculine or ultra feminine, but these possibilities are caricatures of human gender identities without connection or influence beyond the moment of virtual interaction.


Moe in relation to 'reality'


The crucible of moe is a de-emphasis on the reality of the character and relations with the character. The people I spoke with described this as 'pure fantasy' – pure in the sense that it is unrelated to, and unpolluted by, reality. To produce this fantasy, characters are removed from a narrative (=context) and flattened (=emptied of depth). The response to these characters is de-centralized, unbounded euphoria, an affect that is verbalized as 'moe.' Azuma highlights the otaku remix culture in which it is possible to also isolate a character's constituent elements, insert these into a 'database' and then rearticulate new characters in pursuit of moe. I will now demonstrate how it is further possible to reduce people to characters, or to reduce reality to fantasy in pursuit of moe. This reveals the essence of moe as a response to the virtual possibilities of characters outside the bounds of reality.


An example of the characterization of a living person is 'cosplay,' or 'costumed role play' as an anime or game character. Despite widespread misuse, cosplay culture as described by otaku is not wearing costumes for entertainment or erotic purposes, and it is also not a fashion that visually resembles a costume such as 'gothic Lolita.' Cosplay differs from fashion because the primary goal is not the pursuit of style, beauty or personal expression, but rather the enactment of two-dimensional characters. The 'cosplayer' (reiyaa) becomes a character; he or she makes a costume as close to an image as possible and memorizes character poses and spoken lines. When approached for a picture, the cosplayer attempts to recreate the aura of the character, and can request images not 'in character' be erased from the photographer's camera. In this example of embodied anime and game culture, the cosplayer learns scripts from the mediated image of the character, enacts them and then becomes an image. It is precisely because the cosplayer becomes an image that the moe response is possible.[xxxi] Honda refers to such a person as '2.5 dimensional' (Honda 2005: 19), or a liminal existence between fantasy and reality. Cosplay is not mere eroticism, but rather a desire for the two dimensional, the image, for the virtual possibilities of the character.


This is even clearer in the example of maid cafés, a form of entertainment wherein young women cosplay as the titular characters. Cosplay cafés became popular in the late 1990s at sales events for dating simulator games; staff dressed up as waitress characters from games such as Welcome to Pia Carrot (1996). They were so popular that the first permanent café was established in 2001 in Akihabara, a major hub of otaku activity. As Morikawa Kaichirou explains, these cafés were at first spaces for otaku to rest after spending the day buying dating simulator games and doujinshi; they could relax indulging the thought that other customers were pursuing similar hobbies and the costumed staff were not 'real' people (Morikawa 2008). The structured relationships and familiar characters from games comforted otaku and simplified interactions. The maid character would later be codified as fantasy, including café rules not to expose any personal information, contractual obligations not to be seen by customers out of character and even a standards test to qualify those performing the character (Galbraith 2009). Since 2005, there has been a boom in cafés and rapid diversification of themes and services, but interactions with the costumed staff are still scripted by anime and games. For example, a maid might act belligerent, which customers would interpret as her inability to properly transmit her affection. That is, she secretly cares deeply for the customer, but cannot express herself, gets embarrassed and ends up acting coldly towards him before finally warming up. This is called tsundere, or 'icy-hot,' and is an extremely common trope in otaku-oriented media.[xxxii] There are also little sister-themed cafés, indexing the fantasy earlier discussed. These connections are endless, and otaku respond to two-dimensional characters and interactions as moe. Honda explains the result: 'Let's call it a world positioned on the border of the two-dimensional and three-dimensional. … A vague 2.5 dimensional space like a maid café is a place where the two-dimensional concepts and delusions lingering in my soul can easily be brought into the three-dimensional world' (Honda 2005: 19). Association with the two-dimensional world, and lack of depth or access in the three-dimensional world, makes a maid moe.[xxxiii]


While in no way attempting to deny popular and vulgar articulations of maids, which exist just as abuses of the word moe do, at least in the beginning in Akihabara otaku did not go to maid cafés to ogle at maids so much as encounter two-dimensional ideals. The most famous maid in Japan, 'hitomi,' explains: 'Our masters don't look at us as friends, but rather as maids. And we don't look at them as men, either. They are always masters in our eyes' (Galbraith 2009: 134). The fantasy is kept alive by separating it from reality and setting it apart – not man and woman, but master and maid – and this allows a relationship to exist between but independent of the people involved, who might not match ideals or even be interested in each other. The appeal of the maid cannot purely be sexual: As many as 35 per cent of customers are women (Galbraith 2009). To draw in even more women, female staff at some cafés dress up as beautiful boys (dansou), and conversely men sometimes dress up women (josou) and become maids. While ostensibly performed as a service to female customers, men also respond to these 'characters' in the café space. The actual physical sex of the staff does not matter in these performances of fantasy ideals. This approaches the discourse on idols, or highly polished and produced media personalities, usually singers or pin-up models. Yamamoto Yutaka, a well-known moe anime director and idol fan, explains: 'If you translate "idol" into Japanese, it is "image" (guuzou). Like an image of Christ. And when you say image, it means something that is not real. It is shrouded in lies. Communal worship of the image is what creates an idoru [sic]. An idoru is about remaining as close to the image in the mind of the believers as possible. I want [an] idoru to remain wrapped in lies, and I don't care what the real person is doing' (Galbraith 2009: 24).[xxxiv] What is moe, then, is not a response to the person so much as the representation of a two-dimensional character or fantasy ideal. For Yamamoto, the two-dimensional idol image and character is in fact the only appeal, existing separate and independent of corporeal form and physical actions. Similarly, maids exist as two-dimensional fantasy characters rather than eroticized three-dimensional women; this is characterization, which places the focus on the images projected on the body, as distinct from sexual objectification of the body.


The female approach to moe


I have thus far argued that moe is affect in response to fantasy characters separated from narratives and even reality, or affect in response to virtual possibilities. I suggested that this arose in Japan in the late stages of capitalism as a result of shifts in consumer-information society. In my argumentation, I have employed discussions of moe advanced by Honda and Azuma, fully aware of their bias towards male fans of anime, manga and videogames, which they describe as otaku. I will now address this gap in the literature by shifting the focus to female fans, specifically fujoshi, or 'rotten girls.'[xxxv] These women zealously explore moe in yaoi, a subgenre of shoujo manga featuring male homosexual romance. Yaoi is a prime source of moe in simultaneous fixation on pure relationships among beautiful young boys and regular depictions of perverse sex acts such as rape, incest and torture. Much of this is already familiar from the discussion of otaku and their beautiful girl-child characters. Androgynous 'male' couples are positioned as what fujoshi call 'pure fantasy,' familiar from the previous discussion of otaku indulging fantasy unconnected to, or free from, reality. Men who resist their gender roles imagine romance free from the confines of manhood (defined through work and responsibility), and their moe character takes the form of an innocent girl-child who does not demand masculine excellence; likewise, women who resist hetero-normative gender roles imagine romance free from the confines of womanhood (defined through childbirth and responsibility), and their moe characters take the form of homosexual boys who do not settle into domestic roles. Just as moe provides men a chance to indulge the feminine, it provides women a chance to indulge the masculine. Yaoi erases the female presence because fans say female-male or even female-female couples[xxxvi] are too 'raw' (namanamashii). Put another way, the reality of relationships is removed from yaoi to make the moe response possible. Similarly, Mark McLelland has noted that yaoi, while 'virtual pornography' focusing on seemingly underage boys, is 'purely fictional' and poses no threat to real children (McLelland 2005).[xxxvii] In fact, fans stress that yaoi characters are not gay or even men;[xxxviii] the ambiguous yaoi 'male' is quite literally a body without organs. Most fujoshi write yaoi based on the male heroes, friends or rivals found in shounen (for boys) manga, for example Captain Tsubasa. Most fujoshi write yaoi doujinshi based on heroes, friends or rivals found in shounen (for boys) manga. The touch of a hand, declaration of shared fate, a stray glance, all of these are moments reinterpreted as indirect expressions of affection and the keys to unlocking romance.[xxxix] Fujoshi pick up on implicit tensions in male relations and playfully imagine transgressive intimacy.


This preference to consume yaoi forms in pursuit of moe does not necessarily represent desires for or resistance to with reality. Fujoshi fantasy is based on playfully reading the virtual potential of characters. If, for example, someone is in reality gay, then he cannot be a yaoi character because the transgressive potential, the basis of a separate fantasy attraction, is erased. Fantasy and reality are independent fields, and fujoshi can fluidly access both. One female informant I spent much time with, Hachi, 25, from our first meeting typed me as a submissive, and would discuss possible yaoi couplings for me with other men as we talked in crowded cafés; I participated, and protested, and Hachi reminded me she was only talking about my 'character,' or a character in her mind based on me. Many other fujoshi I spoke with dated men even as they imagined possibilities of coupling them as characters with other men.[xl] As Saitou points out, the reality of heterosexual relationships and virtual possibilities of homosexual couplings are separate and coexistent (Saitou 2007). Journalist Sugiura Yumiko explains this as the crucial difference between fujoshi and otaku, who approach fantasy as an alternative for things that they actually want but cannot realize in this world (Sugiura 2006).[xli] A fujoshi, for example, would not 'marry' a two-dimensional character the way some otaku advocate; for fujoshi, the character is fantasy and exists for the sole purpose of play, something completely distinct from physical partners. This is not to say characters or fantasy are more or less important to fujoshi, but Sugiura states their approach is different.


Sugiura is importantly highlighting that fantasy and reality are separate and coexistent, but this is widespread in moe culture and not solely a female quality.[xlii] As much as male otaku boast of their two-dimensional wives, they often do so with levity as a self-conscious performance. Some playfully court multiple characters, and others balance fantasy relations with physical partnerships. While it is true that men tend to feel moe for single characters that they can possess while women feel moe for relationships or character couplings, this broad difference is fast disappearing. In truth, the media popular among so-called 'moe otaku' in recent years has come to resemble yaoi aesthetics: multiple girls in a nostalgic or fantastic world with minimal male presence and heightened emphasis on relationships and emotions.[xliii] Severing characters from context and flattening them is a practice shared by otaku and fujoshi, and it allows both a moe response distinct from reality. In practice, in fact, they are remarkably similar. As Azuma sees an otaku database, I see a fujoshi formula for the expression of fantasy desire. In yaoi, character types are broadly divided into top (seme) and bottom (uke). The top is the dominant personality in the character coupling. Common types include narcissistic (oresama seme), cruel (kichiku seme), exhausted (tsukushi seme), younger (toshi shita seme), straight (nonke seme) and loser (hetare seme), but the list goes on. A bottom is the submissive personality, usually the protagonist of the story and often described as extremely feminine. Common types are seductive (sasoi uke), old man (oyaji uke), cool (kuuru uke), narcissist (oresama uke), buff (kinniku uke), laudable (kenage uke), impish (shoakuma uke), queen (joousama uke) and princess (hime uke). In all cases, the database (Azuma 2009) is present. The elements that constitute and indicate a certain type of top or bottom, for example glasses or hairstyle or height, are predetermined; any given top or bottom is a construct of defined character traits and behavior.[xliv] Once the top and bottom types are decided, they are plugged into a relationship. The standard relationship is indicated by 'x,' for example, 'A x B.' The name before the 'x' is the top and after is the bottom. An arrow, on the other hand, is simple attraction: A > B or A < B. Other forms include A x B > C, as in B is drawn to C while involved with A, or A x B < C to indicate C is drawn to B. More complicated settings can be A > < B, or confounded love that is unspoken, A + B, or simple 'friendship,' and ABA, meaning flexible gender roles.[xlv] While discrete database character elements and formulaic relations might on some level reflect realistic possibilities and actual mate preferences, as a whole they are understood as impossible fantasy that exist solely for the production of moe.


Fujoshi exposing virtual potential in reality


One of the most recognizable features of the moe phenomenon is the anthropomorphization of objects into objects of desire. Otaku turn cats, war machines, household appliances and even men of historical significance into beautiful little girls to trigger moe. Reality is flattened, and from it emerge polymorphous forms of stimulation. Similarly, fujoshi can rearticulate anything into beautiful boys and sexualized yaoi relations. Moe characters can be based on a written description or drawn image, a physical person or even anthropomorphized animals, plants and objects. For example, Hachi, Megumi and Tomo, three women recently graduated from a women's university in Tokyo, and I were walking home from a doujinshi market. Inspired by the material seen in the pages of a particular fan-produced yaoi comic, they started debating whether or not a submissive partner acting in a self-destructive way out of love for a dominant partner might be moe. Tomo said that she was on principle against such tragedy as romance: 'It's too silly, like a TV drama.' Hachi disagreed, and impulsively decided to use her surroundings as an illustration of the coupling: 'Is this road moe? See, it's virgin, freshly paved, but is doing its best with the cars on top. What if he was trying so hard to please his lover? Isn't he cute?' Tomo seemed conflicted: 'Being broken in pounded by the cars...' Megumi chimed in, 'The road is a loser (hetare) in love with one particular car, the top, who is an insensitive pleasure seeker (kichiku). In order to win his love, the road agreed to be his sex slave and is now being broken in by the top's clients. The road is waiting for his love to notice him, but he only drives by quickly and irregularly.'[xlvi] Tomo seemed convinced, by the creativity if not the concept, and joined Megumi and Hachi in laughter and a chorus of 'moe, moe, moe.' The erotic fantasy effectively re-mystified their world, adding a layer of potential to the mundane (the very ground under their feet!) and making the familiar queer and exciting. Latent potential so unlocked, the three friends replayed the moe relationship across other potential players such as shampoo and conditioner, knife and spoon, salt and pepper. Among fujoshi, there seems no limit to the potential of transgressive intimacy imagined in yaoi relationships in pursuit of moe.


I offer two more examples of reducing the world to disengaged characters, exposing virtual possibilities and experiencing moe. Some fujoshi found Meiji Period writer Natsume Soseki's novel Kokoro a source of moe. The book tells of a teacher who betrays his best friend and steals his girlfriend, causing the friend to commit suicide. The teacher then relates the story to his young male student. The fujoshi I spoke with saw the teacher and his friend as lovers, the suicide caused by the teacher leaving his friend for the woman and the teacher as starting a new relationship with his student. While a stretch, the subtext is certainly not absent from Soseki's literary classic. However, the fujoshi rewrote the story, canonical in schools across Japan, as yaoi centered on the subtext of transgressive intimacy. More startling and subversive is 'moe politics' (seiji moe), where national histories, international relations and imposing world leaders are reduced to moe characters across which yaoi romance can be read.[xlvii] For example, Hachi and Tomo imagined the US-Great Britain tension leading up to the Revolutionary War as sexual, and the Boston Tea Party as the submissive partner, the Unites States, switching roles and raping the dominant partner, Great Britain.[xlviii] One extremely popular yaoi series, Axis Powers Hetaria, retells the history of WWI and WWII as courtship and lovers' quarrels among anthropomorphized world nations. For example, Germany and Italy, the former a tough guy who cannot express his emotions (tsundere) and the latter a lovable loser (hetare). It should be noted that Hetaria was written by a man, and these sorts of stories are becoming increasingly popular among young men known as 'fudanshi' (rotten boys). Among the right people, what might be a heady discussion of the power struggle among Vladimir Putin from Russia, Koizumi Junichirou from Japan and George W. Bush from the United States is a story of bungled courtship. The world is a two-dimensional recreation of yaoi fantasy, the signs of which are playfully read and shared as moe.[xlix]




I have stated that moe is a euphoric response to fantasy characters or representations of them. That is, model figures, costumes and people inspire moe because they are associated with fantasy characters. I have shown how narratives and even reality are flattened to produce two-dimensional moe characters. Moe characters exist without context or depth, or as disengaged images that can be re-articulated endlessly without consequence or consistent generation of 'meaning.' Considering data gathered while interacting with otaku and fujoshi, I have argued that moe is a desire for the fantastical, not the physical. An attraction to the fantasy form does not necessarily reflect a desire for the physical one. One can have a younger sibling without feeling moe because that person is real and is not performing the character called 'little sister,' or simply because she is not a two-dimensional fantasy. Indeed, fujoshi imagine androgynous males raping one another, but this does not necessarily mean these women want to be men, are homosexual or desire violation. Both otaku and fujoshi describe moe fantasy as 'pure,' or set apart from reality, and it precisely because it is pure that it can give birth to such perverse and polymorphous possibilities. The moe character is a 'body without organs' and it engenders virtual possibilities without limits or control. Stated another way, moe describes affect, or an unstructured intensity in response to the virtual possibilities of fantasy characters. Whether it is the girl-child popular among men or the homosexual boys popular among women, these young characters are not part of the 'real' world and do not demand their partners be socially mature and responsible adults; with moe characters, men can experience love outside the confines of manhood (defined by work) and women love outside the confines of womanhood (defined by childbirth). As the media and material culture that emerged in the 1980s continues to evolve, and the ongoing recession alienates youth from work and home, accessing and exploring moe becomes increasingly important to a growing demographic of Japanese.


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[i] Moe (萌え), pronounced 'moh-ay.' It can be used as a noun (X ga moe, or 'X is moe') or a verb (X ni moeru, or 'I burn for X'). It can further be used in a way similar to an adjective (X-moe, or 'moe for X') in that it describes something that inspires moe.

[ii] Because otaku in this context enjoy playful use of language, including creating words or intentionally using incorrect Chinese characters (kanji), the emergence of moe is not far fetched. The characters under discussion were hybrids of the rorikon (Lolita Complex) and bishoujo (beautiful girl) genres, and the nuance of 'budding' seemed ideal to describe their premature beauty, another reason the moe pun stuck. However, the phenomenon is not entirely new. Attractive characters existed in even the earliest examples of modern manga from the 1940s and anime from the 1960s, and young female characters named "Moe" appeared in rorikon magazine Manga Burikko in the early 1980s (Ootsuka, interview with the author, October 2, 2009).

[iii] For example, in June 2008, otaku produced an online video of Japan's princess Akishino Mako. Drawings of the then 17-year-old girl flashed onscreen, scored by a trance-like music. The princess was an anime character, and viewers posted comments expressing 'Mako-sama moe.'

[iv] Despite parallels with Lawrence Grossberg and his work on the materiality of affect, I do not wish to invoke a discourse so connected with the conscious control of affect (i.e., meaning making, investment) (Grossberg 1997). A debate on the nature of affect is not my goal, but suffice it to say I find Massumi's approach far more useful for the purposes of this paper.

[v] Aptly named Doku, a pun referencing both the users' single status and poisonous character (Freedman 2009).

[vi] Such a reaction to otaku was not possible a decade before, when such personalities were considered sociopaths, cultists and tribal aliens following the media coverage of the 1989 'otaku murderer' Miyazaki Tsutomu (Kinsella 2000).

[vii] This despite the fact that few otaku, if any, would actually say 'moe' when they are excited.

[viii] By company You Can, in the category Group Involved in Promotion. That year, moe was used by a maid idol group associated with @home café in Akihabara. The media buzz surrounding Akihabara propelled the group and their buzzword to fame.

[ix] Part of the larger US$3.5 billion annually spent by otaku.

[x] For example, at the Japan Pavilion of the 9th Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2004, Morikawa Kaichirou placed the word 'moe' alongside wabi and sabi, Japan's distinguished aesthetics.

[xi] The book, titled Guiding Your Friends Around Akihabara in English, describes moe as 'the excitement young people feel about anime or comic characters, or pop idols.'

[xii] Although Azuma never actually qualifies the term before his extensive use of it.

[xiii] In many ways, this reads like rejection of sociocultural norms. In 2005, Honda published Dempa Otoko, a manifesto about the 'travesty' of the didactic Densha Otoko narrative telling otaku that they must mature into socialized, adult male roles and find mates. Honda's book sold 33,000 copies in three months, and fans planted signs in Akihabara reading, 'Real Otaku Don't Desire Real Women' (Freedman 2009).

[xiv] For a full discussion of the collapse of work, home and school in post-millennial Japan, see Yoda and Harootunian 2006.

[xv] In fall 2008, an online petition asking the government to recognize marriage to two-dimensional characters gathered 2,443 signatures in two weeks.

[xvi] Or gyarugee (gal games) or bishoujo geemu (beautiful girl games), a huge industry in Japan that blurs the line between direct, mediated and purely machine contact. These games range from chatting to overt pornography, but in the most basic iteration the player tries to navigate relationships with beautiful girls. The most representative is Tokimeki Memorial from 1994.

[xvii] This makes sense, as the economy was bad, the anime industry was in decline and the most profitable market was the adult audience of otaku, who had disposable income and consumed moe media and character merchandise.

[xviii] I owe this observation to Eleanor King. For more, see Long 2007.

[xix] It is perhaps not surprising that the establishment reacts thus, but we must bear in mind that what we observe in moe otaku is a reflection of wider sociocultural trends in Japan since the 1980s.

[xx] For example, one of my informants, 'John Hathway', a 30 year old semi-professional Japanese artist, spent the better part of a year researching the optimal angle and color of a character's pigtails to inspire moe. Drawing on his background in physics and engineering, he often used formulas to express character designs. Other informants launched into discourse on elements as specific as the design of headphones a moe character should wear.

[xxi] For a similar discussion, see Matsui 2005.

[xxii] Called erogee (erotic games).

[xxiii] The works of game company Key are particularly good examples. Founded in Osaka in 1998, Key makes games distinguished by highly emotional and complex storylines, anime-style character designs and lush soundtracks. Some of their most popular games include Kanon, Air and Clannad.

[xxiv] Carol Clover observed a similar dynamic among male horror film fans, who tend to identify with the female protagonist rather than the monstrous molester (Clover 1992).

[xxv] Journalist Machiyama Tomohiro writes, 'The desire to protect the subject's innocence and purity is prized on the one hand, but continually destroyed with the other in erotic fantasy, an infinite loop of fantasy production' (Macias and Machiyama 2004: 51).

[xxvi] Often in the form of secondary or fan-produced works.

[xxvii] As disturbing as this may seem, it is a long-standing tradition in world literature. In the Tale of Genji from the early eleventh century, Shining Genji marries his adopted daughter, Young Murasaki, and Humbert Humbert raises Dolores, the object of his desire in Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita (1955).

[xxviii] A concept known as chakuero, or non-nude erotica. Also called chirari-ism and defined as finding partially or fully clothed women more appealing than those who are naked. This is extremely common in anime, manga, videogames, idol videos, pin-up girls and so on, in part as a way to skirt restrictive laws. By now, however, chakuero is an established mode of sexual expression in its own right. Incidentally, these sorts of images began to appear on the covers of manga magazines in the 1970s and 1980s to increase distribution (Okada 2008).

[xxix] A startlingly similar explanation to the narrative provided for the protagonist of Lolita.

[xxx] Indeed, at this stage the sex of the character matters significantly less. That men also consume pre-gender 'boy' characters, or shota, and androgynous 'males' in yaoi manga stands as testament (Saitou 2007).

[xxxi] Similarly, the character figure merchandise is a materialization of moe, but the objects themselves are merely touchstones to the two-dimensional world of fantasy.

[xxxii] Consider Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion or any characters voiced by Kugimiya Rie.

[xxxiii] Just as a person is reduced to a character, physical places can be treated as fantasy locations. Otaku make 'pilgrimages' (seichi junrei) to places used as settings in anime, then take pictures of what appeared in the anime. The meanings attached to the physical are mediated.

[xxxiv] Yamamoto also connects this to anime: 'It's similar for anime characters. Anime is a lie, drawings of a human form. But when wrapped in the right lies, the character can create a sense of moe in the viewer' (Galbraith 2009: 24).

[xxxv] A full version of this argument appears in my article in progress, 'Fujoshi: "Moe" Fantasy and Transgressive Intimacy among Young Female Fans.'

[xxxvi] Called yuri, these female-female couples were part of the early yaoi fandom (Welker, forthcoming), but are now mostly enjoyed by otaku men.

[xxxvii] A similar argument could be made in defense of otaku consuming images of seemingly underage girls in pursuit of moe. Unfortunately, there is strong discrimination against male otaku; they have been stigmatized as sociopaths since the 'otaku murder' Miyazaki Tsutomu raped and brutalized four little girls in the 1980s (Kinsella 2000). Fear of being associated with pedophiles or perhaps even being labeled one has limited academic willingness to understand and explain the patterns of male otaku desire as anything other than deviance.

[xxxviii] While it was not always so (Welker, upcoming), today yaoi characters are kept dutifully separate from so called 'real gays' (riaru gei). Fujoshi conscientiously mark their websites with the reminder 'yaoi is fantasy.'

[xxxix] This is also true for 'slash' fan fiction, the rough equivalent of yaoi outside Japan. However, slash is generally far more textual and dogmatic, demanding evidence of an implied relationship from the original series. Consider the many thousands of posts online defending and justifying the Kirk/Spock relationship from Star Trek. Compared to this orthodoxy, yaoi is quite radical, primarily drawn images of characters that fujoshi simply like and couple as the please. A series like Captain Tsubasa can become a sensation that sweeps the yaoi world without evidence of homosexual attraction or reason to couple characters aside from their charisma and close proximity to other beautiful boys.

[xl] Many fujoshi I spoke with did have partners, and some were married and identified as 'shufu,' a pun on wife replacing the kanji for 'lady' with 'rotten.' Their partners could be completely opposite of the yaoi image, which did not reflect an ideal partner. Indeed, Megumi said, 'Fantasy and reality are inches apart (fantajii to genjitsu wa kamihitoe),' but all the same they do not overlap. Megumi's preferred pattern of  yaoi pattern was skinny, androgynous, mean men in sharp spectacles and suits involved in student-teacher, younger-older relationships, and yet during the course of observation she dated then married an overweight, bearded, nice-guy slob who talked to her about yaoi.

[xli] Sugiura criticizes Honda as a man who was not loved by his mother and so seeks out that affect in fantasy (Sugiura 2006: 40).

[xlii] What is unique about fujoshi is that they do not imagine one character to create affect, but instead sets of characters and relational possibilities. That they can identify with any of the characters or none expands the virtual potential.

[xliii] This is known as otome (maiden), and examples include mega hits such as Azumanga Daioh (1999-2002), Lucky Star (2004- ) and K-On (2007- ). Even when there is a male presence, it is often androgynous and does not perform the ideal roles of ultra-masculine lover or well-respected partner.

[xliv] For example, a kichiku would be tall, wear a suit and glasses and have a sharp, stern gaze, and this abusive dominant has a set role and range of possible actions 'in character.'

[xlv] Like yaoi with its diverse formulas and genres, slash fiction is breaking down into subgenres such as angst, hurt/comfort, PHP (porn without a point), fluffy (pure, happy romance), and so on.

[xlvi] Incidentally, this perverse pattern of love is also common in erotic animation targeting otaku.

[xlvii] The appearance of 'Bible slash,' or coupling Biblical characters such as Jesus and Judas, outside Japan suggests that this is not an isolated phenomenon. A study needs to be launched to investigate the potential of transgressive intimacy in slash communities. For an example, see <http://community.livejournal.com/christ_slash/>.

[xlviii] They were apparently inspired to interrogate this relationship merely because they thought the name 'Boston Tea Party' sounded 'cute' and 'a little gay.'

[xlix] The moe response is progressively defined as a convergence of media transmission and personal reception, but it can engender sociality when shared with others. Morikawa explains that fans can functionally understand a great deal about the taste, range and personality of others based on what they do and do not describe as moe (Morikawa 2008). For example, if one says megane-moe, or glasses moe, he or she is saying that characters wearing glasses are stimulating and also that he or she responds to, or at least understands, that aesthetic. This emblazons a mode of communication with neither the mediation of a logical language nor the limitations of rational boundaries. Moe can thus be used to empathetically express deeply personal, intimate and even transgressive emotions in networks of mutual exposure and vulnerability. I observed this among fujoshi, who cultivated a group of 'moe friends' to talk about yaoi.

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About the Author

Patrick W. Galbraith is a PhD Candidate in the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies at the University of Tokyo. His research focus is the impact of material conditions on fantasy, specifically how shifts in modes of capitalism and consumption impact otaku culture in Japan. His primary ethnographic field site is Akihabara in eastern Tokyo. He has worked as a freelance journalist specializing in Japanese popular culture since 2004, which culminated in writing The Otaku Encyclopedia and co-founding Otaku2.com.

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Copyright: Patrick W. Galbraith
This page was created on 31 October 2009.

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