A History of Hentai: The Super Abbreviated Version

manga magazine lemon people
Way back in February 2016, after wading through my computer for a good old fashioned spring clean, I ended up editing and posting some history material that never quite made it into my PhD – mostly due to length and relevance issues. Continuing my adventures of delving into the folder helpfully labelled ‘UNUSED WRITING’, here’s another piece that’s been repurposed for my blog after a period of deep hibernation. Enjoy!

Note: I have gone out of my way to exclude any visually explicit content in this article. However, the topic itself obviously may not be considered child-friendly, and possibly won’t be to everyone’s taste regardless. Please proceed with this understanding.

Whenever I see or hear the word ‘hentai’, my mind instinctively conjures up the image of a seven-storey sex store in the heart of Akihabara – coincidentally, the very first store I found myself in during my initial to Akiba back in… 2009, I think it was. I remember the shop had a fitting room on the fifth floor where women who tried on costumes and were willing to pose for polaroids received a 30% discount. As I’m sure many readers are already aware, Akiba itself, though once especially well-known for its abundance of high-tech gadgetry, is probably more (in)famous today for being the place to shop for anything sex-related, particularly in regards to anime and manga. To be fair, Akiba still remains the electronics district of Japan par excellence, but the ever-increasing numbers of anime and manga-related stores are certainly hard to ignore, and a truly staggering number of these also deal prolifically in undisguised pornography – referred to by many people as ‘hentai’.

akihabara store anime

One of the many stores in Akihabara selling or advertising manga and anime. As you can see, they are not particularly shy about the genre.

The word itself isn’t synonymous with anime, though I suppose to a lot of people it may as well be. While in Japanese it can technically be used to mean a kind of metamorphosis or abnormality, it’s also a shortened form of ‘hentai seiyoku’ (sexual perversion) and in slang is therefore commonly translated as something like ‘creep’ or ‘pervert’. The term isn’t usually applied in Japan to your garden-variety porn though, which is more likely to be referred to, especially in advertising, as ‘18-kin’ (18-prohibited), ‘AV’ (adult video), or ‘seijin manga’ (adult manga) instead. This is at least in part because the Japanese use of ‘hentai’ is often reserved for content that would be considered either unusual or extreme even within the realm of pornography – sex involving aliens or monsters, gang rape, etc. Outside of Japan of course, the word tends to be used in reference to any type of Japanese pornography in anime or manga format, regardless of how bizarre or disturbing the content or context.

Where the word really gets interesting though is in contrast to how it was first conceived, and how it truly did metamorphosise over the years (for which part of my research I relied heavily on Mark McLelland’s 2005 publication, Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age, as well as his January 2010 article in Issue 23 of Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, titled ‘Constructing the “Modern Couple” in Occupied Japan’). See, in contrast to its current pornographic usage, the term was actually first used in the context of the developing science of psychology in the early 1900s – primarily to describe disorders such as hysteria, but also to refer to paranormal abilities like telepathy and hypnosis. It was initially only circulated among medical specialists, but by 1917 was being popularised in journals such as Hentai-shinri (Abnormal Psychology); a semi-academic journal published by the Japanese Association for Mental Medicine.

However, hentai’s sexual connotations came not through its association with Hentai-shinri but instead via its juxtaposition with the aforementioned hentai seiyoku, which was introduced to Japan via German sexology. Doctors like Mori Ougai, a Meiji Period army physician and novelist, began translating texts such as German sexologist Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which was given the Japanese title Hentai Seiyoku Shinrigaku (The Psychology of Perverse Sexual Desires). Again, although the word ‘seiyoku’ was at first only used by medical specialists, its wider distribution was accelerated by the usage of the term in works of fiction by writers like Mori. By the end of the Meiji period, the examination of ‘perverse’ desires, which drew heavily on theorists such as Freud, had started appearing in popular magazines – funnily enough, mostly in order to promote the improvement of public morals.

mori ougai book

One of Mori Ougai’s many publications, this one an erotic novel.

This interest in so-called perverse sexuality continued into the Showa Period, where it was often summed up by the phrase ‘ero-guro-nansensu’ – erotic, grotesque nonsense. During this time, Japan developed a publication industry devoted specifically to the discussion of perverse sexuality, with at least ten journals focusing primarily on hentai seiyoku founded during the 1920s. For example, Hentai Shiryō (Perverse Material, 1926), Kisho (Strange Book, 1928), and Gurotesuku (Grotesque, also 1928) each specialised in pseudo-academic sexual content, and featured articles and advice pages written by a newly emerging class of supposed sexual experts. Such articles included the discussion of categories of sexuality that were considered particular to Japan; in particular, shinjuu, or love suicides. Although homosexuals were considered particularly prone to commit dual suicide, killing oneself over a lover, even if that lover was of the opposite sex, was in itself an act deemed to be ‘hentai’.

These articles appeared in a medium that appealed to a readership far wider than the medical community. As luck would have it, rising literacy rates, combined with an abundance of cheap newspapers and magazines in the mid-Taisho period, meant that reading had by then developed into a fashionable leisure activity of the lower and middle classes. This allowed for the development of a ‘low scientific culture’ from which hentai became a widely recognised term within Japanese pop culture – so much so in fact that hentai manga author Matsuzawa Kei describes this period as being a ‘hentai boom’; the first of several to come over the next few decades.

An important point to make here is that, for a while at least, being sexually perverted (at least by the standards of the time) was not necessarily perceived as an entirely negative thing. It was the perversion rather than the normality of sexuality that was being obsessively discussed in popular texts, so the impression was that this perversion was not only omnipresent but even somewhat fashionable within a certain subculture – for some, a sort of edgy or alternative pastime. However, as public curiosity in such depictions of sexuality gradually resulted in ever more explicit detail, “what started out as prescriptive literature quickly lost the blessings of educators and police and thus descended into the underground culture” (Donald Roden, ‘Taisho Culture and the Problem of Gender Ambivalence’, Japanese Intellectuals during the Inter-War Years, p. 46). In the 1930s, the genre came under more intense scrutiny by the government as Japan increased censorship and made ready for war, and due to paper rationing, publication was largely suspended altogether by around 1933.

Post-war Japanese hentai again saw a boom though, as the Japanese press felt free to dispense with the more conservative patterns that went alongside wartime literature and instead begin an exploration of more decadent themes, including a whole genre of ‘nikutai bungaku’ (carnal literature). The physicality of the body was emphasised over more social and moral concerns; a position at least partly encouraged by the development of low-grade pulp culture magazines that earned the nickname ‘kasutori’ – in reality a poor-quality alcohol distilled from sake dregs which reputedly caused consumers to collapse after only three glasses, just as these magazines were likely to flop after only three issues. Nonetheless, these kasutori magazines were proof positive that there had been a radical break from the past. Pre-war Japan had emphasised modesty and sexual reservation in public, particularly for women. Post-war Japan, on the other hand, presented the female body in a way that would have been unthinkable in previous decades. In contrast, this new environment placed a far bigger demand on fulfilling the emotional and sexual needs of couples, resulting in a call for further awareness of sexual practices and sexual pleasure – to which kasutori magazines happily catered.

haro hello kasutori magazine

One such kasutori magazine, this one an issue of Haro (Hello) published in 1949.

By the 1950s, a sub-genre of hentai seiyoku focusing on heterosexuality as well as both male and female homosexuality had developed, along with a range of supposedly associated fetishes such as sadomasochism. Ningen Tankyuu (Human Research), Fuuzoku Kagaku (Sex-Customs Science), Fuuzoku Zoushi (Sex-Customs Storybook), Ura Mado (Rear Window), and Kitan Kurabu (Strange-Talk Club) were all magazines that indulged in the discussion of these fields, though most would cease publication by the end of the decade. They were characterised by open discussions between doctors, editors, writers, and readers, and by reports from people who defined themselves as ‘abu’ (abnormal) in terms of sexual desire. Reader columns were created to encourage the critique of articles and exchange of ideas, but they also functioned as a place to share sexual fantasies and act as personal advertisements, giving readers with similar interests the chance to meet.

The hentai press leaned further towards the heterosexual as it continued to mature through the 1960s. Stories about male homosexuality and male cross-dressing had been major preoccupations in the magazines of the 50s, but these began to be replaced by a growing emphasis on both sadomasochism and lesbianism (the latter, however, understood to be a genre of pornography about women but made by and for men). The 60s also saw the sexual revolution within America; one which was not solely confined to the West. While conservatism was far from being a cultural minority, a dramatic shift in values in Japan meant that sex and sexuality outside the boundaries of traditional marriage grew more socially acceptable. Following this revolution, Japan saw another publishing boom of hentai material where the term itself became used in a more casual and teasing manner. A book published in 1970 by Akiyama Masami, for instance, Hentaigaku Nyuumon (Introduction to Hentai Studies), included a hentai test for readers to discover just how perverted they were.

In more recent years, the birth and mass popularisation of video games, the internet, and cellphones (which in Japan are still frequently used in place of computers) have cut into the sales of printed manga, but sharply increased the distribution of hentai – particularly self-published stories, as well as those not legally able to be published in print at all due to censorship laws. In terms of anime, the first hentai titles – Lolita Anime and Cream Lemon – were not released until 1984. The former, a 6-episode OVA, is based on a manga serialised in the lolicon magazine Lemon People, which features prepubescent characters and revolves primarily around themes of bondage and humiliation. The latter, a 16-episode OVA released later that same year, is a somewhat surreal collection of stories featuring two recurring sibling characters whose relationship… well, I’m sure you can guess where that one goes.

anime cream lemon

Cream Lemon anime

However, although mainstream anime enjoys large commercial success worldwide, the release of hentai anime outside of Japan hasn’t been anywhere near as successful. Because the genre has a comparatively small viewership, it’s often cheaply produced yet also tailored extremely specifically to the interests of its home audience. While there’s a variety of exported pornographic anime both old and new available within the American market, few of these have achieved any kind of large and lasting impact. Historically speaking, the only hentai titles to have done so are the ‘classics’ like Urotsukidoji (1986), La Blue Girl (1989), Kite (1998), and Bible Black (2001): human-demon hybrids banished to earth for their misdeeds; a clan of ninjas fighting sex-hungry monsters; a schoolgirl who becomes an assassin following the murder of her parents; and a group of high school students who start practicing witchcraft. Though very different in terms of plot, atmosphere, and visual style, these titles are comparable in that each of them involves enough of a story to be able to stand out aside from their pornographic themes – indeed, Kite was released in the U.S with all sex scenes removed and was still relatively successful.

kite anime dvd

Kite anime movie

In short, hentai has had quite a journey over the years, and its term denotes something completely different today than it did when it was first introduced in the early 1900s. It’s eschewed by many as vulgar or unhealthy, and embraced by others who view it as just as legitimate a form of art as any other kind of story. I’d be hard put to say exactly where I stand, but what I do know is that it has a far more interesting history than I would have guessed prior to my research. Which brings me, finally, to a quote by Angela Carter, one of my favourite writers, who moved to Tokyo for two years in 1969: “The virtue of a low-art form is that is can transcend itself … Few societies lay such stress on public decency and private decorum. Few offer such structured escape valves (Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings, pp. 42-44). And if that doesn’t sum hentai up in a nutshell then I honestly don’t know what does.

Question of the post: What are your views on hentai (as we understand the term today)? And if you’ve never read or watched any, is it something you think you might do someday out of curiosity, or is your mind already made up on that one?

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7 thoughts on “A History of Hentai: The Super Abbreviated Version

  1. Fascinating post – thanks for sharing the history. I’ve thought of hentai simply as a fantasy genre where a few or several characters engage in abnormal sex acts that can’t be achieved in real life.

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    • Thanks, glad you enjoyed the post. Yeah, more often than not, I feel that the sex acts depicted in hentai are so abnormal that the whole thing could just about be classified as fantasy even when there are no traditional fantasy/sci-fi elements involved.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is really well researched and incredibly well articulated. Thank you for sharing! I was surprised that ero-guro-nansensu is an older term then I thought! Visual Kei must have somewhere along the lines borrowed and shortened the term, as I’m way more familiar with it as ‘ero-guro’ kei. It’s an short-lived form of Visual Kei subgenre usually with the band(s) in question implying something erotic grotesque, or unfortunately some form of self-harm with an ‘erotic’ costume on… the subgenre as far as I know has mostly died out.

    As we understand hentai today; can’t say I hate it but I don’t actively seek it. About the only hentai I’ve read is the manga ‘Henshin’, only with multiple strong recommendations for that one. I also think that the non-Japanese audience tends to throw the term hentai around a bit more loosely then how it’s actually perceived in Japan. That last bit might just be my personal bias though.

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    • Thank you, I’m really glad you enjoyed the post! Yes, ero-guro goes quite far back, although like yourself, I think many people probably grew familiar with the term as an offshoot of visual kei and related music/fashion-oriented subcultures.

      Yes, I think hentai does have a slightly different definition depending on the cultural audience – although having said that, it’s not as though I’m conducted any kind of social survey on the topic, so that might easily be just my own bias talking as well. In any case, pretty much every word ever popularised has changed and evolved with the times (and in many cases between countries), so it’s no surprise that’s happened in this case as well, albeit perhaps more drastically than people might have expected. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something I personally find quite interesting. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting. Much like RisefromAshes, I was suprised at how old ero-guro-nansensu was. I’m not that knoledgable, though, and while I’ve heard of Visual Kei, I couldn’t tell you much about it, if anything at all.

    I’m aware hentai is its own market, but I know next to nothing about it. I’ve excerpts from Bible Black, and I’ve heard about Kite, of course – but it’s not really something I’m interested in. Anecdote: An electronics store who usually puts anime next to children’s cartoons, once had a phase where they put anime next to porn, with a short sliver of hentai separating them. It appears hentai didn’t sell, as things went back to how they were within no more than a few months. But it was interesting to browse a slew of titles I’d never heard of. (Unsurprisingly, I didn’t buy anything.)

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    • I sometimes forget how odd it might appear to people to put mainstream anime or manga right next to hentai or other forms of porn. I see it here so often in convenience stores that I rarely notice it anymore or pay it much attention – although there’s been a lot of debate here recently about whether porn should be so openly sold in convenience stores at all, primarily I think because of the upcoming 2020 Olympics and how this kind of thing might impact Japan’s image as a country.

      But yes, no doubt about it, hentai sells far better in its home country than it does outside of it. A major factor in this has to do with computers I think. While most of the West would probably laugh at the idea of buying a porn magazine when they could simply look at/watch the same kind of content online for free, a large segment of Japan’s population don’t own a home computer and still do pretty much everything on their phone.

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  4. Pingback: January (2019) Monthly Favorites – Phoenix Talks Pop Culture Japan

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