The Continuing Evolution of ‘Moe’

June 2nd, 2007


It’s somewhat scary when you can trace a lingual aberration to one precise moment.

As it turns out, I’m not dead after all, but I am sporting a nice plaster oversole for some time due to… well… let’s call it excessive injury due to reckless endangerment in a combat training sport… that sounds so much better than “tripped over own foot and caused a five man Ultimate Frisbee pileup.” Anyway, on with the rant. 

Lingual exchanges between cultures always fascinate me, in much more of a serious way than something as simple and trite as “Royale with Cheese.” Due to the Japanese isolationist tendencies through pretty much all of history until very recently, very little of the language actually had a chance to spread and quietly insinuate itself. Of course, it’s even worse for the Japanese, which is why English (or at least, varying levels of corrupt approximations to it) has become so prevalent through their culture.

Languages are always evolving and changing though, and especially as you cross between languages with inexact or only partially understood definitions, you get corruptions of their words. The easiest one to give a cohesive example to in relation to Japanese is ‘hentai.’ Literally, it means something approaching ‘perverse’ or ‘abnormal’ and it more or less maintains that definition in colloquial Japanese. At some point though, ‘hentai’ was shortened to ‘h’ when attached to pornographic content, which… pronounced aloud is ‘aitch’ and when given a Japanese pronunciation ‘aitchi’… or… ‘ecchi.’ A few decades of common use later, and ‘ecchi’ is simply a label for content that contains pornographic material while ‘hentai’ retains its original meaning. In other words, if you went to buy porn in a Japanese video store, and asked for the hentai section, you’d end up looking through whips, midgets and possibly an inflatable sheep. For the English media consumers though, the word never went down that evolutionary track, so it remains a simple identifier for Japanese pornography.

To start talking about what’s happening with ‘moe’, let’s rewind a bit. The word ‘moe’ itself means something close to ‘budding,’ but stems mostly from the verb ‘moeru’ which means ‘to burn.’ It’s been around and used in anime, especially Super Robot stuff since the dawn of time. Hot burning blood of battle and other similar things. As for its use outside of explosions and setting things on fire… on July 18th, 2005, Ken Akamatsu took pen to journal keyboard to his blog and wrote about the public concept of ‘moe’ and the various meanings, as well as his own interpretations on how the word should be treated. Matthew’s Anime Blog provides the translation copied below.

Public opinion seems to be searching for a definite definition of the word 萌え “moe”, which has already come into use among the public, and when I searched, net experts and glossary sites had various definitions.

  • The state of having a deep feeling towards a certain person or thing
  • An extremely primitive sensation that happens even faster than one can judge with feeling, much like a spinal cord reflex, which happens when one sees generally bishoujo or little girls, or other pretty or innocent things. It is being fascinated then deeply moved.
  • “Moe” is word which indicates a budding feeling of love, as well as a fetishistic taste, generally towards fictional characters from anime, manga, and games, especially an attachment or obsession with those who have certain special characteristics (nekomimi, tsundere attitude [a character type in which the character, generally female, is alternatingly tsun-tsun, “pointed; mean”, and dere-dere, “lovey dovey”, hence tsundere. See Sara from Futakoi]); originally used as slang among otaku.
  • Indicates an “admiration” of a cute girl’s human emotions from afar.

However, we still don’t know the reason why people feel “moe”.

Accordingly, I would like to present the following hypotheses of my own.

First of all, “moe” must meet the following conditions:

  1. It does NOT include sexual action: “Moe” is being calmed/soothed by watching from afar. It is not an object of sexual action. There are other classifications such as “2D-con” for those who include sexual conduct. Looking at a bishoujo and thinking “I want to do her” is a normal sexual desire for a man; looking at a biyoujo [美幼女, a girl younger than a bishoujo, synonymous with “loli”. Maachi in Gokujou Seitokai, or Miku in Zettai Shounen, for example] and thinking “I want to be calmed/soothed” is “moe”.
  2. The person feeling it must be stronger: The object of “moe” is weak and dependant (like a child) on the person, or is in a situation where she cannot oppose (like a maid). Also, the person is raising her (like a pet). Accordingly, being fond of the girl as if loving a pet cat, the person is willing to put themselves in harm’s way if danger approaches. (*Tsundere only: There will be times where the stronger and weaker role is reversed)
  3. Affirms the present situation: Moe is the action of enjoying “the present situation” and does not wish for changes afterward; one wishes to enjoy it forever.

In the above-mentioned (1), I think you realize that, rather than a male’s emotions, it is a feeling similar to that of a mother looking at her daughter, or of other females looking at someone else’s child and feeling soothed/calmed, or of looking at a pet and feeling affection for it.

In the above-mentioned (2), at first glance, there is a feeling of otaku-like convenience, but, in fact, you can catch a glimpse of the positive affection of “I want to love” more than “I want to be loved” in it, and the strength of not being weary of spending both time and money for that purpose is the foundation of it. To compare it, it resembles a parent’s strength.

On the feeling of the moratorium of (3): if you take it negatively it gives the impression of a “hikikomori” [one who withdraws from society], but, in fact, it is not the denial of the process of “The object of moe growing, loving, and moving on from the present condition”, it is similar to a positive sense of denial, such as “I don’t want my daughter to get married.”

…Well, you’ve probably realized I’ve used the word “parent (mother)” many times over.

I would submit the following hypothesis:

“Moe” is a “maternal affection” which a part of males have been left with that has undergone a change and shown itself and, originally, is an irregular feeling a male should not have, however, it is a pure love which does not include any sexual action and is an exceedingly peaceful desire.

  • If we suppose that “moe” occurs from a maternal affection that should be lost, could we then assert that moe otaku are basically peaceful, and do not wish for physical conflict? (They do have verbal fights, though)
  • If we think of “Love towards a pet” as an compensatory action for “Love towards a child”, then it is, after all, a variation of motherly love. In other words, could the “moe” of putting nekomimi on (it’s a syllogism, but…) be motherly love?
  • Is the brisk economic activity of the “moe” industry very close to that of stupid parents pouring money into child-rearing (education) expenses?

I think that the “moe” that has recently been occurring among females is an imitation of male “moe”, and is false. Or, rather, should we call it the true thing since they of all people possess the original maternal love?

…What do you think?

The aggressive males who go so far as to rape to satisfy their sexual desires have been reported on, but on the other hand, there are a large number of males who possess this peaceful essence. Moe~.

I think it is not a cultural phenomenon that has surfaced recently, but most likely something which has existed from the beginning of time.

Anime and internet culture being what it is, this went pretty much relatively unnoticed by western fans for the most part. The concept of ‘moe’ does not figure exceptionally highly into shows like Naruto, Inuyasha, Dragonball and Bleach and whatever else the popular money makers were around that time. Even through the machinations of 2chan and 4chan, it remained a relatively rarely used term except among the most inner circle of otaku.

Then we come to April 10th, 2006. The previous day, the second episode of The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi aired in Japan, and today, AFK’s fansubs were released.

In Haruhi’s rant about why Mikuru was to join, she used the word ‘moe’ about 5 times over the span of 4 seconds, and another few times as her rant continued. Cries through the English community went up “Moe! Moe!” and as Haruhi’s popularity continued, that particular translation for the term became infused through the consciousness of the western viewers. I’m not entirely certain I have a better short translation for it than ‘turn-ons’ (though I’d go with ‘adorable’ personally), nor do the Japanese really as Akamatsu has shown, but what has happened from that particular interpretation is that a confusing mixmash of the word’s use has permeated western anime culture, while Japanese usage remains more or less the same as it has for the last decade.

To be exact, the Japanese usage is still fairly antisexual while as a general rule it has a much more sexualized connotation in western parlance as well as just being the 21st century’s version of squealing “kawaii” like a ninny. Because of the relative puritan upbringing (compared to the rest of the world) that Americans have, it’s difficult to mentally seperate a show that has lots of young cute females prancing about from anything sexual, so there’s some cross-up there, and as for the latter… I think it’s just the times changing as they are wont to. These days you just get strang looks if you yell out “Ranma no baka” at a con, but will get high fives for saying anything relating to the SOS Brigade. The youth of today… honestly. I digress though.

So, at the end of the day, for probably all of the people actually reading this, moe is a sexualized term meaning cute girls frolicking around doing cute things, but it really wasn’t all that long ago that outside of really pushing the definition, moe really didn’t mean anything particularly insidious at all. Today, there are those on the internet that believe a moe show must in some way be sexualized for it to be classified as such. There’s still some very clear conflict going on between the old school and the new about what exactly the term encompasses, as Sagubooru’s tag listing for ‘moe’ shows. I’m not actually certain anybody really knows how to succinctly pin down the meaning in English yet and until we manage to get that Universal Translator invented, the English meaning for moe and the Japanese will probably continue to drift all the more now that they’re both much more firmly planted in their audience’s awareness. Let’s hope they manage to drift back together again.

Posted in Deep Thoughts | 1 Comment »

One Lonely Comment

  • Tyrenol says:

    For me, it’s a problem when I see fat and ugly people go nuts about how “moe” something/someone is.

    It’s something strictly unique to the Japanese anime culture. Let’s leave it at that and get some rest, please.

    In fact; the moment we as anime watchers in the West finally define it, it will be exploited for money and dragged through the dirt like “Taco Bell” and rap music using samples of songs from India. :(