Japanese pop culture inverts (even perverts) Western norms. Whilst the West panics about the sexualization and adultification of children, the Japanese have created a complex aesthetic around the ‘childification’ of adults. This can easily be misinterpreted by a Western culture in the midst of a panic over paedophilia and sexuality in general.
The two Japanese words that define this aesthetic are kawaii and moé. Kawaii is roughly translated as ‘cute’ and moé as the subject/object of fascination. Whilst this can have an erotic subtext, it is often anti-erotic. If anything, the kawaii aesthetic is paradoxically asexual (it ‘plays’ with erotic signs and symbols without the aim of sexual consummation).
In fact, there seems to be trend amongst Japanese teenagers to turn away from ‘real’ sex to ‘virtual’ sex. The term nijigen fechi means someone who is only turned on by manga and anime. In 2008 Takashita Taichi petitioned the government to recognize marriage to anime characters, effectively a moé marriage.
This has a playful, ironic aspect and I am sure many Japanese are mystified that Westerners take this all so seriously. Don’t Westerner’s have a sense of humour, of irony?
There is a rather lazy and cliched argument that the emphasis on fantasy is a way for the otherwise conservative and unimaginative Japanese to escape their ‘herd’ society. This is deeply insulting and racist. Japanese society has always been very creative with a deep aesthetic appreciation of the arts. Indeed, one could say they have a profound erotic connection to beauty. One cannot appreciate Japanese culture without understanding how important their appreciation of beauty was. It saturates every aspect of Japanese culture to the exquisitely sculpted Japanese garden, to elaborate, fine silk clothing, to tea ceremonies, to calligraphy and the arts and crafts in general.
The problem really lies with a schizophrenic Western mind that has split the ‘erotic’ from culture. This split has marginalized many forms of erotic expression, including the humorous. Many shunga were in fact meant to be read as parodies or comedies. It is the Western mind, lacking a sophisticated erotic language, that reads them in such crude terms.
I do think this is a case of a less sophisticated culture attempting to interpret a far more sophisticated one.
There is a lot of humour and irony in Japanese pop culture. It is above all, about having fun, about playing with fashion and consumerism. It is meant to be ‘over-the-top’. It is the Western mind that is so ‘up-tight’ that it doesn’t get the joke.