A Short History of 'Hentai '

Mark McLelland

  1. Hentai is a Sino-Japanese compound term widely used in modern Japanese to designate a person, action or state that is considered queer or perverse, particularly in a sexual sense. Unlike the English term 'queer', however, hentai does not have predominantly homosexual connotations but can be used to describe any sexual acts or motivations other than what might be termed 'normal' sexual relations. Indeed the loanword nōmaru (normal) is sometimes used as an antonym for hentai. Apart from this general use of the term hentai, it can also be used to designate a specific genre of Japanese manga and animation that features extreme or perverse sexual content and it is in this sense that hentai has become well-known among western fans of Japanese popular culture.
  2. A Yahoo search for 'hentai', for instance, produces over 7 million hits—more than twice that of better-known loanwords such as samurai, geisha or sushi. This astonishing number is evidence of the popularity of a genre of erotic manga and anime referred to as hentai or sometimes the abbreviation 'H' (pronounced etchi in Japanese) by western fans. However, despite the popularity of the genre and its massive presence on the internet, the category hentai is not discussed in English-language studies of manga and anime such as Poitras' The Anime Companion,[1] Napier's Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke,[2] Allison's Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics and Censorship in Japan[3] or Buckley's Encyclopedia of Japanese Popular Culture.[4]
  3. Why is this so? The reason is not prudishness but rather the fact that use of the term hentai to refer to erotic or sexual manga and anime in general is not a Japanese but an English innovation. In Japanese hentai can reference sexual material but only of an extreme, 'abnormal' or 'perverse' kind; it is not a general category. The Japanese use of hentai refers to both same-sex and heterosexual activities which are considered unusual but also extreme. While in Japanese both 'H'/etchi and ero [erotic] can be used to refer to manga and anime with sexual content, hentai is only used to refer to unusual or perverse sexual situations— this might be number of partners as in gang rape, or bizarre partners as in aliens or monsters or illicit partners as in children (rorikon and shōtakon). Hence in the Japanese case, hentai manga/anime is a subdivision of the much broader category of ero manga whereas in English hentai has come to signify the genre of ero manga as a whole.
  4. Before looking in detail at how the term hentai developed in Japanese and eventually spread to the English-speaking world, I will look briefly at how the term hentai is actually used in western manga and anime fandom. Hentai and its abbreviation H are used interchangeably on English fan sites in a context in which ero [erotic] or seinen [adult] would be the more appropriate Japanese terms. That is, both hentai and etchi are used to describe anime or manga with strong sexual content. However, the use of the term hentai, which in English refers to a much broader range of sexual scenarios than it does in Japanese, cannot properly be said to be a 'mistake,' as many fans are aware of the different uses of the term in Japanese and western manga and anime fandom; indeed as self-defining otaku, many fans pride themselves on just this kind of insider knowledge. For instance, Kagami's 'H does not mean HENTAI page' offers a detailed discussion of the differing uses of the terms H and hentai in Japanese and English.
  5. Hentai is, then, in the context of western manga and anime fandom, no longer a 'Japanese' word but has become a loanword with its own specific meaning and nuance, just like loanwords into Japanese such as abekku (from the French avec, meaning 'with' and in Japanese used to refer to a dating couple) or arubaito (from the German word for 'work', signifying in Japanese a part-time job).

    Hentai in the Meiji and Taisho eras
  6. I would like to turn now to the history of the term hentai in Japanese. Current Japanese dictionary definitions of hentai offer three main meanings: 1/ change of form or shape; 2/ an abbreviation for 'hentai seiyoku'; 3/ metamorphosis (as in the change from caterpillar to butterfly or in a chemical reaction). It is obviously the second definition— hentai's use as an abbreviation for hentai seiyoku that is of most interest to us and to understand how this came about we need to look at the introduction of sexology to Japan in the Meiji (1857-1912) period.
  7. Since the Meiji period, the use of the term hentai has had a parallel history in both science and psychology, but the sense that hentai communicates of something being unusual or abnormal comes from the latter. It was first used in the middle of the Meiji period in the context of the developing science of psychology to describe disorders such as hysteria as well as to refer to paranormal abilities such as telepathy and hypnosis.[5] It had the connotation of something outside or beyond the normal. Although the term originally circulated only among medical specialists, by 1917 it was being popularised via such journals such as Hentai shinri [Abnormal psychology]. However it did not have any particular sexual connotations in this context. Hentai's sexual reference was to come not through its connection with hentai shinri but through its juxtaposition with another, related term, hentai seiyoku or 'abnormal sexual desires'.
  8. The technical term seiyoku or 'sexual desire' was introduced into Japanese via German sexology which began to be translated by medical doctors such as the army physician and novelist Mori Ōgai from the middle of the Meiji period.[6] The notion of hentai seiyoku or perverse or abnormal sexual desire was popularised via the translation of German sexologist Krafft-Ebing's text Psychopathia Sexualis which was given the Japanese title Hentai seiyoku shinrigaku [The psychology of perverse sexual desires]. Although the term seiyoku at first only circulated among medical specialists, its wider dissemination was accelerated by the use of the term in fiction by writers such as Ōgai, as well as others associated with the naturalist school; indeed, Ōgai's 1909 novel Vita Sexualis is clearly in debt to Krafft-Ebing for its title.
  9. The elaboration of a psychological realm of sexual desire in medical texts as well as literature led to the designation of 'normal' and 'perverse' forms of sexuality and, accordingly, people. Indeed, from the end of the Meiji period discussions of 'perverse' or 'queer' desire [hentai seiyoku] which drew upon theorists such as Freud, began to circulate in popular magazines that advocated the improvement of public morals in pursuit of 'civilization and enlightenment'—a popular slogan of the period and hentai seiyoku continued to be discussed in the early years of the Taisho (1912-25) period via popular sexology works such as Habuto Eiji and Sawada Junjiro's best-selling Hentai seiyokuron.
  10. This interest in perverse sexuality continued into the 1920s and is often summed up in the phrase ero-guro-nansensu or 'erotic, grotesque nonsense.' During the early Showa period (1926-89), Japan developed a significant publications' industry devoted to the discussion of
    Figure 1. A depiction of a male homosexual couple from the January 1928 edition of Hentai shiryō. perverse sexuality—in the 1920s at least ten journals were founded that focused, in particular, upon Hentai seiyoku. These included Hentai shiryō [Perverse Material, 1926], Kāma shasutora [Kāma shastra, 1927], Kisho [Strange Book, 1928] and Gurotesuku [Grotesque, 1928].

    These journals specialising in sexual knowledge, as well as articles and advice pages contributed to newspapers and magazines by a newly emerging class of sexual 'experts,' frequently discussed 'perverse sexuality,' which included many categories that were particular to Japan, such as shinjū or 'love suicides.' While (particularly female) homosexuals were considered liable to commit dual suicide, killing oneself over a lover was itself considered to be hentai even if the partner was of the other sex. For instance, in 1919 an article about the death of one of Japan's first actresses, Matsui Sumako, was entitled 'Sumako no jisatsu wa hentai seiyoku' [Sumako's suicide was perverse desire].[7]
  11. The experts who wrote these articles and analysed the perverse desires of their correspondents did so in a popular medium that appealed to a readership far wider than the medical community. As Fruhstuck points out, by the middle of the Taisho period rising literacy rates and the proliferation of cheap newspapers and magazines meant that reading had become a favorite leisure activity of the working classes, allowing a 'low scientific culture' to develop.[8] The result was that hentai, signifying sexual interests that were understood to be 'queer' or 'perverse,' became a widely recognised term and popular culture was swept by what Matsuzawa describes as a 'hentai boom',[9]—the first of several explosions of interest in perverse sexuality that were to occur in the Japanese media over the next half-century.[10]
  12. Yet, despite the fact that hentai [perverse] was often invoked as the opposite of jōtai [normal]—it was perversion, not normality, that was obsessively enumerated in popular sexology texts, thus giving 'the impression not only that "perversion" was ubiquitous, but that the connotations of the term were not entirely negative.'[11] Public interest in perversity fed demand for increasingly detailed and lurid descriptions, and 'what started out as prescriptive literature quickly lost the blessings of educators and police and thus descended into the underground culture.'[12] Naturally, with the increase in censorship by the state as Japan geared up for war in the 1930s, this genre came under increased scrutiny and publication was largely suspended from about 1933 due to paper rationing.

    The re-emergence of hentai in the postwar era
  13. The immediate postwar years saw the development of a kasutori [low-grade, pulp culture]—kasutori is literally a poor-quality alcohol distilled from sake lees and drinkers were supposed to collapse after only three glasses just as these magazines tended to fold after their third issue. The Japanese press was now free to dispense with the 'wholesome' preoccupations of wartime literature and instead explore more 'decadent' themes,[13] including a whole genre of 'carnal literature' [nikutai bungaku] in which the physicality of the body was emphasised over more ideological concerns. As Igarashi points out, for many survivors, their bodies were the only possession they had managed to preserve from the destruction of the war; Japan's burned-out cities became sites for celebration of the 'raw, erotic energy of Japanese bodies'.[14] Indeed the sexualisation of the popular press and popular culture more widely was a conspicuous feature of Japan's first post-war decade (See Figures 2 and 3).
    Figure 2. Children look at a placard advertising a strip show in Asakusa, Tokyo. From Fūzoku kagaku, December 1954. Figure 3. Female model in military pose. From Fūzoku kagaku, December 1954.
  14. One had only to glance at the covers of the kasutori press to understand that there had been a radical break from the past. Women's bodies were prominently displayed in a manner that
    Figure 4. An excerpt from a marriage guidance pamphlet issued in the early postwar years defining petting as 'popular in America—now well-known in Japan.' would have been inconceivable before the war. Public sexuality was suddenly visible and acceptable in a manner not seen prior to the war's end, and 'petting' [pettingu] couples were conspicuous features of parks and shrine precincts.[15] The new postwar environment saw a greater emphasis placed on fulfilling the emotional and sexual needs of the couple, which resulted in a demand for information about sexual practice and pleasure—a market to which the kasutori magazines catered (See Figure 4).

    What happened to hentai in the context of this new sexual culture? Given the new popularity of English in postwar Japan, hentai was occasionally written in rōmaji [Roman script] and it seems that very early on 'H', or etchi as it was pronounced, came to stand in for the word as a whole. As early as 1952, a report in Shukan asahi mentioned a riot in a local cinema
    where a woman who had just been accosted by a chikan [groper] shouted out 'ara etchi yo' [Hey there that's lewd].[16] Here, etchi is being used in the sense of excessive or inappropriate sexual activity with much the same sense as iyarashii or sukebei [lascivious or lewd] and the abbreviation etchi was from this time to follow a different trajectory from the term hentai which maintained a strong connection with sexual abnormality or perversity. By the mid 1960s etchi was being used, particularly in the new burgeoning youth culture, to refer to sex in general—a 1965 newspaper reported that even children in the fifth grade knew about etchina kotoba or 'sexy words' and by the 1980s etchi was being used to mean 'sex' as in etchi wo shitai or 'I want to have sex'.[17] So in this sense the contemporary English use of H/etchi to refer to Japanese manga with pornographic contents is not incorrect. However, what of the development of hentai?
  15. While the new pulp magazines certainly contributed to the dissemination and popularisation of new modes of heterosexual interaction and behavior—resulting in a new proliferation of heterosexualities, by the early 1950s a subgenre had developed focusing on hentai seiyoku or 'perverse desire' which included both male and female homosexuality as well as a range of fetishistic behaviors including characteristically Japanese obsessions such as love suicides and disembowelment [seppuku]. This genre had much in common with the 1920s fad for publications specialising in erotic, grotesque nonsense. These magazines included titles such as Ningen tankyū [Human research, 1950-53], Amatoria (1951-55), Fūzoku kagaku [Sex-customs science, 1953-55], Fūzoku zōshi [Sex-customs storybook, 1953-55], Ura mado [Rear window, 1956-65] and Kitan kurabu [Strange-talk club, 1952-1975].
    Figure 5. The cover of a special 'perverse love suicide' edition of Ningen tankyū (November 1952). Figure 6. The cover of the June 1951 edition of Amatoria indicates the genre's obsession with sadomasochism.
  16. The genre was characterised by the exchange which took place between specialist researchers, amateur hobbyists and readers themselves. The magazines frequently featured roundtable talks where medical doctors, writers, readers and editors came together to discuss specific issues such as male homosexuality, female same-sex desire, sadomasochism or a range of fetishes. In these discussions, the discourse of modern medicine which rendered some sexual desires 'abnormal' was represented alongside reports from actual people who self-defined as abu (or abnormal). Hence, this was a genre characterised by its hybridity (see also Ishida and Murakami's article in this edition of Intersections).[18] Various levels of discourse were blended—'expert' diagnoses stood alongside personal testimonies which at times modified or contradicted the opinions of the experts. Importantly, hentai magazines such as Kitan kurabu created readers' columns to stimulate the critique of articles and encourage exchange of ideas between readers. These readers' columns not only functioned as personal advertisements which accorded people with the same interests opportunities to meet, but they also enabled the sharing of various sexual fantasies.
  17. The hentaiseiyoku [perverse desires] genre of the postwar period was characterised by the tendency to seek out relations between a wide range of non-normative sexual fantasies and desires. In this sense it has many parallels with contemporary 'queer studies' in which a wide range of individuals whose sexual and gender identities are not sanctioned by the mainstream culture, come together in a variety of forums to consider the dynamics at play in the construction of some desires as normal and others as perverse.
  18. There was also a sharing of fantasies between groups who experienced different sexual desires. For instance, many articles in the magazines focused on seppuku or the ritual disembowelment once practiced by samurai. One requirement of the ritual was the wearing of a loincloth which tightly wrapped both stomach and groin (to stop the intestines spilling out). As Ishida and Murakami point out in their article in this edition of Intersections, male disembowelment maniacs often recognised that articles and illustrations depicting his own sexual fetish were also appropriated by readers who were 'loincloth maniacs' and 'lovers of youths.'[19] In short, readers who experienced a range of perverse sexual desires treated the hentai magazines as broad resources for their sexual fantasies and this encouraged a sense of identification and solidarity beyond narrow identity categories.
  19. This was particularly the case with the treatment of the 'love of Lesbos.' An unsigned article in Fūzoku zōshi for instance, entitled 'Various phases of Lesbos love,'[20] mentioned that
    Figure 7. An illustration entitled 'Human ashtray' from Kitan kurabu, 1959. 'resubosu' [Lesbos] ranged from such 'insignificant' things as the exchange of love letters between schoolgirls to more serious matters 'which would make men blush,' going on to describe the various ways in which women had historically pleasured themselves and each other, deriving examples from ancient Greece, Muromachi period Japan (1333-1568) and colonial Africa. Stories about lesbianism were thus available for diverse appropriation (See Figure 7).

    However as the hentai press developed throughout the 1960s, it became more heterosexual in orientation and stories about both male homosexuality and male cross-dressing, which had been major concerns in the 1950s magazines, dropped from its pages. The emphasis moved more toward sadomasochism and lesbianism—the latter understood as a genre of pornography about women but made by and for men.
  20. While in English, equivalent terms of hentai such as queer or perverse tended to connote homosexuality, hentai in Japanese had a much stronger heterosexual nuance, although it could still be used to denote a range of same-sex sexual activities.

    More recent appropriations of hentai
  21. Following the late 1960s' 'sexual revolution' Japan saw another publishing boom in material of a sexual nature, including practices considered to be hentai. While the insults 'queer' or 'pervert' were extremely harsh in English, hentai did not designate such a stigma in Japanese, as we can see in Akiyama Masami's 1970 Hentaigaku nyūmon [Introduction to hentai studies] which includes a 'hentai test' to find out just how perverted you are (Figure 8).[21]
    Figure 8. the cover of Akiyama's Introduction to hentai studies. Figure 9. The cover of Dan's Inka shokubutsugun.
  22. Although primarily heterosexual in focus, Akiyama's book maintains the hybridity of earlier literature and discusses a range of 'perverse' behaviours including male cross-dressing and lesbianism, although the latter is very much situated as a fantasy trope for men. Dan Kiroku's (1972) book Inka shokubutsugun [Shady flowers group][22] is similar in tone, again asking on the cover 'Are you abnormal?' and including a wide range of perverse activities, albeit within a primarily SM framework (Figure 9).
  23. This genre has continued through to today with the popular Bessatsu Takarajima series releasing its Hentai-san ga iku [There goes Mr/Ms Pervert] collections in 1991[23] and again in 2000.
  24. Based on a reading or the above texts as well as their ubiquity, I suggest that in Japanese the term hentai has never had the same pejorative force that 'queer' or 'pervert' have in English. For a start, actions considered hentai such as sex between men or male and female cross-dressing have never been criminal offenses in Japan—whereas both were illegal in most western countries until very recently. Also, while queer and pervert have had a primarily homosexual nuance in English, hentai in Japanese has had a mainly heterosexual nuance.
  25. Despite this heterosexual nuance, recently hentai was appropriated by Fushimi Noriaki, one of Japan's leading gay writers and critics, for the title of a collection on gay salarymen—'hentai suru sarariiman'—[salarymen doing queer; 2000] (Figure 10).[24] In 2003 Fushimi went on to release a collection of interviews with a wide range of sex and gender nonconformists entitled hentai (kuia) nyūmon [A hentai [queer] introduction],[25] where he uses the terms interchangeably (Figure 11).
    Figure 10. The cover of Fushimi's 'Salarymen doing queer' edition of Queer Japan. Figure 11. The cover of Fushimi's book, A hentai (queer) introduction.
  26. In this text, Fushimi reverses the bias in mainstream hentai discussion which favours heterosexual perversion and refers instead to a wide range of same-sex 'perverse' practices and identities. Whether this innovation will be taken up by the wider lesbian and gay community in Japan, however, remains to be seen. Indeed, despite growing gay interest in the genre, many Japanese lesbians feel that the hentai paradigm is irredeemably masculinist and has little to contribute to an understanding of female same-sex desire in the Japanese context.[26]


    [1] Gilles Poitras, The Anime Companion, Berkeley: Stonebridge Press, 1999.

    [2] Susan Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, New York: Palgrave, 2001.

    [3] Anne Allison, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics and Censorship in Japan, Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.

    [4] Sandra Buckley (ed.), Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture, London: Routledge, 2002.

    [5] Saitō Hikaru, 'Hentai-H,' in Sei no yōgoshū, ed. Kansai seiyoku kenkyūkai, Tokyo: Kōdansha gendaishinsho, 2004, pp. 45-58.

    [6] Takayuki Yokota-Murakami, Don Juan East/West: on the Problematics of Comparative Literature, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.

    [7] Onna no Sekai, 'Sumako no jisatsu wa Hentai seiyoku,' 1999, pp. 4-15.

    [8] Sabine Fruhstuck, Colonizing Sex: Sexology and Social Control in Modern Japan, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

    [9] Matsuzawa Goichi, 1997, 'Meiji, Taishō, Shōwa, kindai fūzoku shuppan no rekishi,' in Ero no hon, ed. Wani no ana, Tokyo: Wani no ana, 1997, p. 55.

    [10] Mark McLelland, Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

    [11] Gregory Pflugfelder, Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, p. 287.

    [12] Donald Roden, 'Taisho Culture and the Problem of Gender Ambivalence', in Japanese Intellectuals during the Inter-War Years, ed. J. Thomas Rimer, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, p. 46.

    [13] Jay Rubin, 'From Wholesomeness to Decadence: The Censorship of Literature under the Allied Occupation,' in Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 11, no. 1 (1985):71-103.

    [14] Igarashi Yoshikuni, Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 48.

    [15] Hyakuman nin no yoru, 'Sengo no ryūkōgo,' February, 1963, pp. 152-55.

    [16] Saitō Hikaru, 'Hentai-H.'

    [17] Saitō Hikaru. 'Hentai-H.'

    [18] See also Ishida Hitoshi, Mark McLelland and Murakami Takanori. 'The development of "queer studies" in Japan,' in Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities in Japan, ed. Mark McLelland and Romit Dasgupta, London: Routledge, 2005.

    [19] See for example, Fūzoku kagaku, 'Seppuku tsūshin,' April 1955, pp 31-33.

    [20] Fūzoku zōshi, 'Resubosu ai no shujusō,' December 1953, p. 299.

    [21] Akiyama Masami, Hentai gaku nyūmon, Tokyo: Dai ni shobō, 1970.

    [22] Dan Kiroku, Inka shokubutsugun, Tokyo: Gendai shuppansha, 1972.

    [23] Bessatsu Takarajima, Hentai-san ga iku, Tokyo: Takarajimasha, 1991.

    [24] Fushimi Noriaki (ed.), 'Hentai suru sarariiman,' in Queer Japan, vol. 2, April 2000, Tokyo: Keisō shobō.

    [25] Fushimi Noriaki, Hentai (kuia) nyūmon, Tokyo: Chikuma bunko, 2003.

    [26] Although this is not universally the case—see the interview in this edition of Intersections, with Inoue Meimi, whose 'bitch style' lesbian sex magazine Carmilla draws extensively upon hentai imagery, particularly sadomasochism.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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