Manga Answerman - Is the Word “Hentai” Misunderstood/Misused by Fans Outside of Japan?

by Deb Aoki,

Is the word “hentai” misunderstood and/or misused by fans outside of Japan?

This isn't exactly an Answerman mailbag question, but one that came up thanks to anime producer and industry veteran Yoshihiro Watanabe.

Watanabe happened upon an article from The Guardian, describing how a contestant on a British game show came up with “hentai” as the answer to a word puzzle.

The Guardian then explained that “hentai,” as defined by the Oxford Dictionary describes “a subgenre of the Japanese genres of manga and anime, characterised by overtly sexualised characters and sexually explicit images and plots.” The article also explains that the term “ originates from the Japanese words hentai seiyoku sha, which means someone who is perverted, and came into its current use in the 1990s.”

This lead Watanabe to post this tweet and accompanying informative thread, which I'm posting below (with his permission):

Hentai is brilliant” Not expected from title of The Guardian article but this is interesting.

The word Hentai is very interesting word for me. In the English language, it's (now somewhat officially) adopted as pornographic anime, game and manga. But in Japanese language it has multi-levels of meaning.

In current Japanese definition, we do not use hentai to depict specific anime, manga, or game but refer to perversion in general. Sex is not hentai but abnormal sex is. Stripping is not hentai, but streaking is.

This is the modern use but in dictionary definition -- hentai means “transformation” or “abnormality.” How the word came to modern use is abbreviation of abnormal sexual desire.

The word hentai is also used in a more complimentary meaning, as referring to a mania. As myself, when I'm extremely excited by a great animation acting or an amazing drawing (sexual or non-sexual) a normal person may refer to me as a hentai.

When reading a serious literature, when the word hentai appears it gets confusing to me because growing up in the West with a Japanese heritage, the word heavily shifts to perversion.

In academic report of a butterfly, the transformation is called hentai (in the definition of transformation) but my mind will have that moment of whispering “hentai butterfly.” I said transformation but accurately it's metamorphosis. It's used for transformation as well. Interestingly, Kafka's Metamorphosis is known as the title Henshin in Japan but the word itself is accurately shape-shifting and not metamorphosis. As mentioned before hentai is metamorphosis.

Artists in many genres have word played around a lot with this fascinating word that has multitude of meanings. A gag I remember is a hentai-hentai. Where an exposure pervert transformed into another being.

There is hentai gentleman, which various theories exists on what terms makes a pervert a gentleman, but yeah, that contradiction brings space for imagination.

Then Kamen Rider came along and reaffirmed their transformation metamorphosis as “henshin” instead of hentai. This is because the staff got inspired by Kafka's Henshin. If they would have gone with the dictionary term, perhaps hentai would have had a different mass use today.

Freeza's ultimate form goes through ultimate hentai. ...I can probably can go on like this for the whole night.

So while “hentai” inspires t-shirts of chickens wearing neckties (like this one from Fakku) and smirks and giggles when it's mentioned in the Western world, it's interesting to know that it actually means much more than just referring to smutty anime and manga in Japanese.


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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for About.com Manga, and now writes about manga for Anime News Network and Publishers Weekly. She is also a comics creator/illustrator, and has been a life-long reader of manga (even before it was readily available in English). You can follow her on Twitter at @debaoki.


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