What Is Moe?

This is a visual essay that I hope will help to answer some questions about the visual aesthetic often referred to as moe (pronounced moé). If I poke fun at this aesthetic in this essay, it is not out of a sense of disdain or relative cultural superiority, but rather because the particular otaku subculture that consumes moe images likes to poke fun at itself. An appreciation of how ridiculous these images is constitutes a significant part of their appeal.

I am drawing these images from the opening color pages of the August issue of the monthly manga anthology Dengeki Daioh, which is roughly the size of a New York City telephone book. Here is the issue’s cover:

This month’s issue comes with a double-sided pull-out poster. Here’s the front side:

And here’s the back side:

August (or early July, when this issue actually came out on in bookstores) is a great time for relaxing by the pool in a bikini and running around in a wet school uniform blouse in the rain, isn’t it? Ah, summer.

Anyway, this issue also came with another freebie, a large sheet of heavy plastic that calls itself a “leisure mat”:

I’m not sure what the purpose of this “leisure mat” is (and I’m not entirely sure I want to know), but I think it’s supposed to smell like strawberries. So what we have here is a person-sized illustration of a girl who looks to be about ten years old in hot pants with a gun against a backdrop of fish printed on a sheet of heavy, strawberry scented plastic. Okay then. Moving on.

Just to let you know, the freebie included in the next issue of Dengeki Daioh is going to be a full-color illustration book of the characters from the anthology’s manga in swimsuits. Awesome!

Moe isn’t all about manga and anime, though. The above image is the second page of a two-page advertisement for a moe-flavored collectible card game. The question of the Q&A section at the bottom of the pages reads, “But what if I don’t know how to play?” Apparently, there are guides both on the internet and included with starter decks, but I really don’t think actually playing the game is the point of these cards. Here is a sample card that was packaged with the magazine:

The card is titled, “The Crimson Sound of ‘Afternoon Sunlight.’” It features an illustration of a reclining beauty whispering, “Okay, I’ll go out with you.” Yeah! Action! Strategy! It’s just like chess! With cards! Anyway…

Did you know that Dengeki Daioh has a sister magazine called Dengeki Moeoh? Did you know that it’s on sale right now? You should totally get it, because it’s packaged with both a “special book” of swimsuit illustrations and an “X-RATED♥” body pillow cover. But that’s not all!

You can also go to the Dengeki Moeoh website to download cool screen savers for your tablet or smart phone, as well as digital manga stories!

And what sort of discussion of moe would be complete without mentioning visual novels?

Koi to senkyo to chokorēto (“Love, Election & Chocolate”) is a dating sim that went on sale at this summer’s Comiket. Apparently, it’s “the story of a boy yearning for true love and a girl hating chocolate.” But of course the male protagonist isn’t pictured in the promotional art, because that would be icky.

Hopefully these ten images from Dengeki Daioh, which has come to be accepted as the ultimate mainstream sourcebook for moe manga and illustration, have helped to give you some sense of the moe visual aesthetic. If you have been disgusted by these sexualized images of seemingly underage characters, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Such images (and the narratives that accompany them) have sparked huge storms of controversy in both Japan and America.

I think it’s important to keep certain things in mind, though. For example, is all anime and manga like this? Of course not. Do these pictures mean that all otaku are pedophiles? No, they don’t. Do these pictures reveal otaku attitudes concerning real women? I don’t think so. Are these pictures to blame for Japan’s low birthrate? I really don’t think so. Do female illustrators create these images too? Yes, they do. Can women enjoy these images? Of course they can.

After all, as René Magritte so famously suggested in La Trahison des Images, “Ceci n’est-pas une pipe.” And, as Neil Gaiman has famously pointed out, Americans have a “First Amendment right as [adults] to make lines on paper, to draw, to write, to sell, to publish, and […] to own comics.” The Japanese have the same right under their own constitution. And if the publishers, artists, and readers of Dengeki Daioh make use of this right by enjoying the moe aesthetic, good for them. Even if everyone agrees that it’s kind of ridiculous.

11 thoughts on “What Is Moe?

  1. Cool man, I want that fish-strawberry-nymphette mat! By the way, I think you missed a “to” – It’s Koi to Senkyo to Chokoreto, which makes more sense. No wait, it doesn’t.

    P.S. I still don’t understand what “moe” means. A full definition and etymology would be nice.

    1. Thank you so much for catching that! This is what happens when one works from multiple drafts, I suppose. The original version of this essay was much longer. I decided to cut a lot of it (including “a full definition and etymology”) when I realized that I was just repeating information that can be found in other places, including Wikipedia…


  2. A “leisure mat” is like a tarp, right? It’s for sitting out for fireworks and festivals here, if so. They have all sorts here, from Disney Princesses to Pokemon.

    Great collection of visual moe, by the way. I think this pretty much sums it up. Will you do one on personality/dramatic moe, too?

    1. This past summer I saw a few people use “leisure mats” with roughly the same dimensions on the beach and at the pool as something waterproof to spread down under their towels (which is a great idea), but the little diagram that came packaged with this particular leisure mat described it as 個人用. I mean, I guess technically they all are, but…. Ewww….

      You know, I was originally thinking about following this collection of scans with a description and analysis of the actual manga being serialized in this (and the previous) issue of the magazine, but I guess the idea came too late, and I didn’t feel comfortable putting this sort of thing into my luggage to take through customs…

      It’s weird. I can talk about free speech and freedom of artistic representation until I’m blue in the face, but I’m still sort of ashamed to be associated with this sort of material, even if it is for academic purposes.

  3. Great post, and thanks for sharing these pictures! I was going to mention the “leisure mat” as well, but it looks like someone beat me to it… I’ve got one myself, and it’s got Pokemon all over it and even that I’m embarrassed to be seen with, hah.

    I was hoping for a little more analysis about what makes moe moe, and how/why you think it has sprung into popularity pretty recently… (I suppose moe has always been an aesthetic that’s been present in anime-type illustrations and the like, but only in the past few years have I heard the term start being thrown around). Would you consider doing another post on this topic in the future?

    1. I have a leisure mat too! It’s blue and covered with cartoon frogs and goldfish. I got it at Tokyu Hands, and it came with a matching poncho.

      I am definitely considering doing another post on moe in the future. As a would-be scholar of literature, though, I’m not comfortable unless I have an actual text to analyze. Unfortunately, I ended up leaving my two issues of Dengeki Daioh in Japan, so I might not be able to follow up on this post until January, when I return to the country. In terms of narrative tropes, how would one define moe? It’s a really interesting question.

      As one gamer to another, I love your blog. I love it love it love it. I just subscribed to your RSS feed, and I’m putting up a link in the sidebar to this blog. Cheers!

      1. I definitely understand that it’s a bit of an iffy issue, moe. I’m interested in doing some research on it myself, but more from a fujoshi standpoint (my field is mostly BL/shojo manga so I’m more comfortable with those sorts of texts). There’s this great book called 萌え男子語り that includes a number of short essays from various popular BL mangaka on their own personal favorite types of moe…

        And thank you very much! I actually did a piece a month or two back for my blog where I cited your feminism in Final Fantasy articles, which I thought were superb! I will definitely add a link to you in my sidebar, as well!

  4. I do wish that the whole moe thing wasn’t so terribly confusing, doubly so since I went through many years thinking that it was just the word to describe what I liked, except eventually I realized what I liked was “female characters more developed than simple visual fetishes and personality archetypes” and had somehow confused that with “moe”. Except, apparently, sometimes, maybe not, or maybe just confused about what makes a given character well-developed? I don’t know, I started watching anime when a guy who copped to liking Cardcaptor Sakura would get labeled “fag” rather than “pedo”, which I think speaks volumes about the default assumptions made of men and boys who might just happen to like things girls also like (or who, say, work as a public school teacher or in a library’s children’s department for a living).

    There’s aspects of the current otaku/anime fan culture in general that does hearten me (boys and men unafraid to like stories about girls and romances and other “girly things” which flies in the face of received wisdom about the preferences boys and men have in their fictions; some interesting explorations of gender identities and sexualities), and then there’s the aspects that confuse and distress me deeply (the deeply engrained sexism and the attendant odd focus on “purity” and “virginity” even whilst Getting It On, not to mention the misogyny towards actual women and girls). And just when I think I have a handle on something like Madoka Magica, which I do think unpacks some of those very issues within the context of moe itself, the doujin culture with its penchant for sexualizing everything comes along and makes me wonder just how many people actually saw what I saw in the series or if I hallucinated it in some sort of fever dream.

    This is probably a completely frivolous comment as I’ve gleaned from previous posts here on the topic that this is more-or-less exactly what you’re trying to unpack with regards to this whole phenomenon so I think I’ll just go away now.

    1. Can I just say that I love your articles in Otaku USA? Okay: I love your articles in Otaku USA! Now that that’s out of the way…

      Thank you for your comment. I don’t think it’s frivolous at all. How moe is defined is something that I really wanted to talk about. I completely understand how someone might be confused concerning whether the word “moe” describes the types of stories that s/he enjoys. For example, *is* Cardcaptor Sakura “moe”? What about Yotsuba&!, which used to be serialized in Dengeki Daioh? What about K-ON, which is enjoyed by loser fanboys but also by influential critics like Erica Friedman, who usually doesn’t put up with moe at all? Is Madoka Magica “moe,” or is it “anti-moe”? Or would “moe” better describe the doujinshi based on Madoka Magica, which tend to take the characters out of their life-and-death struggles and place them into the context of their adorable everyday lives?

      I have no idea. Honestly I don’t. And I get the feeling that the applications of the word moe differ according to whether one is a male or a female fan (or at least a consumer of male-targeted media as opposed to a consumer of female-targeted media). What I meant to do with this essay was to establish a feel for the visual tropes of the moe aesthetic. As for the character and narrative tropes – does it make me sound too much like a stereotypical grad student to say that more research is needed?

      Anyway, to address the other issue you brought up in your comment, namely, how male anime and manga fans who like girly stuff, or who enjoy moe-flavored narratives not because they’re pedophiles (or whatever) but rather because they honestly enjoy stories of adorable girls being adorable, I think American fan culture is gradually moving away from sexist prejudices. At least, that’s my experience in attending anime conventions and talking to the members of university anime clubs. I feel that there are now enough female fans in these spaces that a male fan won’t be negatively judged as a perv or a pedo or a faggot if he likes Magic Knight Rayearth or Ouran Highschool Host Club or Maria Watches Over Us, although I hope my experience is indicative of a broad scale change in fandom and not just a quirk of my own regional corner of the East Coast.

      There’s a study of fandom and sexuality that just got translated called Beautiful Fighting Girl. Although it’s heavy on the psychoanalytic jargon in the first and last chapters, it’s mostly accessible and priced low enough to actually buy (which is a welcome change from most academic publishing). Although I don’t agree with everything the author is saying, I think you might find it interesting.

      Thank you again for your comment. Hopefully I will be able to do a deeper study of moe in the future, and I will definitely keep the points you made in mind.

      1. I tend to think that the term moe is horribly over-abused as a content indicator; people will throw the term around to refer to nearly everything from K-ON! and other all-female ensemble cast 4koma comedies to overtly sexualized harem sex comedies, and everything in between. I give it more credence when used to describe a particular visual style and character design aesthetic (which the above is a good generic example of, and which I do like), but I’m not sure to what degree “sexualization” is an essential, intrinsic element of that aesthetic, but any attempt to argue that would likely come off as overly defensive/apologetic. I can state that for the nine years I’ve been watching anime my reaction has mostly been “why can’t I wear the frilly cute clothing and be cute and/or coquettish” so make of that what you will.

        The most helpful light I’ve seen moe as a term cast in is when I read Shuzo Kuki’s The Structure of Iki–it seems to me (and I think this is what Azuma was getting at in the first chapter of Otaku) that otaku culture is re-enacting that particular aspect of Edo merchant culture, where youth would resign themselves to a relationship-less life but would carry on the pretense of one with a geisha, even though all parties involved knew that the relationship was a pretense. Applying that lens, the “moe girl” is the geisha and the merchant youth are the otaku, and all the fuss online about having a ワイフ and the lonely meal pictures and the general perception of otaku mentality as “I will never be with a real woman so I will have a relationship with this anime character” is the self-acknowledged pretense. Which is probably where the whole “knowing these images are ridiculous is part of the appeal” comes from.

        My assumption–and now I’m thinking on my feet so bear with me here–is that this is likely where the sexism and objectified sexualization of the whole aesthetic comes from. Of course, otaku and/or anime/manga consumers aren’t a monolithic entity, and so any actual exploration of gender boundaries and alternative gender identities performed by fans and anime/manga is working under this same environment, producing more confusion than is strictly necessary. And the whole thing is a byproduct of the 1991 economic crash and the subsequent lost generation and all that jazz. Which is also probably part of why anime’s caught on in the 2000s, especially now that we’re very much facing the same problem for youth today: recession, lowered job market, fewer employed youth, etc.

        I do think that you’re right in that, in some circles at least, sexist media prejudices are on the decline. Frenchy Lunning gave a fantastic talk at UK last semester on this topic, and when I talked with her afterwards she shared the same feelings that these prejudices are on the decline as well (I also pointed out the whole My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic phenomenon, which is much more explicitly laying out this sea change in the culture). The best (if imperfect) way I have managed to characterize this whole phenomenon is that these very “feminine” things have sort of sneak-attacked patriarchy/paternalism with feminism. Things are definitely not perfect, and I still encounter troubling issues of sexism with people who are otherwise flaunting the gender stereotypes, but I’d rather have that than clearly delineated gender lines.

        I do need to read Beautiful Fighting Girl, although from reading Brian Ruh’s description of it I don’t think I’d sit well with many of his conclusions (although I’m sure, as usual, that they’re true for particular sets of people). And now this is entirely too long a response and I’m going to go copy it over on my disused tumblr account and get people all het up again. 🙂

        (PS: Thanks for the compliment re: my Otaku USA articles–I am perpetually worried that I write them for a completely hallucinatory audience that doesn’t exist anywhere within the realm of “people who care about anime and manga” even if this is clearly not the case as I keep getting published, so it’s good to know that I’m not shouting into the Void or an echo chamber. 🙂 )

  5. OGT linked me here, and I have to say, wow, what kind of blogs is OGT reading? This is a pretty depraved part of the Internet that insults people just for what kind of pictures they like to look at.

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