Manga Answerman - Is Translating 'Lolicon' as 'Pedophile' Accurate?

by Deb Aoki,

There's been some controversy recently about an anime translating the world “lolicon” as “pedophile.” Is that what “lolicon” means and how it is perceived in Japan?

For starters, “lolicon” or “roricon” is short for “Lolita Complex.” “Lolita” as a term for an under-age girl comes from the book of the same name by Vladimir Nabokov. It's about a man who becomes obsessed with a 12-year old girl named Dolores, nicknamed Lolita. While the novel Lolita was published in 1955, the term “lolicon” came into the Japanese slang vernacular in the late 1970's/early 1980's, to describe a certain type of manga and anime content featuring prepubescent, cute girls, and to express a feeling of affection for those types of characters.

As it is understood in English language usage, “lolita complex” usually refers to adults feeling attracted to fictional young girls. “Lolicon” on the other hand isn't necessarily referring to the type of obsessive, sexual relationship depicted in Nabokov's novel, but instead seems to refer to stories that depict young girls as innocent, precocious and maybe even flirty. These girls sometimes get into situations that are borderline or outright sexual in nature, but not always. In Japan, there's also “shota-con,” which refers manga/anime that depict young boys, sometimes in relationships with adults. As far as fans of this content go, “complex” seems to refer to feelings of affection or fandom for these type of young, cute, and innocent characters.

This sets the stage for the controversy that arises when the term “lolicon” gets replaced with “pedophile” in English.

The example that blew up online recently regarding the translation in an episode of Hensuki: Are you willing to fall in love with a pervert, as long as she’s a cutie? (Kawaikereba Hentai demo Suki ni Natte Kuremasuka?) anime, based on a romantic comedy light novel by Tomo Hanama and illustrated by sune.

When the main character's younger sister finds a manga in his room, she remarks that she didn't know he was into lolicon. The scene is translated as, “I didn't know you were a pedophile.”

This upset some fans, who cried foul at this translation as being incorrect. But what's the real story from people who know this word as it's used in Japan?

I reached out to a professional manga translator who has lived in Japan for many years (who has opted to remain anonymous). He/she had this to say:

“My friends, even my manga artist friends, do not say "lolicon" aloud in public. But that said, "pedophile" is definitely not a correct translation of "lolicon," as historically used in Japan in the context of manga and anime.”

"Pedophile isn't a correct translation for lolicon for one simple reason: Japanese actually uses the word pedophile as a loanword ("pedofuairu" in katakana) and it wasn't used in the original [anime] here."

“Pedophiles prey on real children, whereas lolicon aficionados have a specific attraction to illustrations. I'd probably have left it in the subtitles as is. Anyone watching anime dealing with that needs to know the word.”

“Lolicon is gross, pedophilia is criminal, and that's the real crux of the problem with the character so casually using the P-word in the subtitles. It's like 'Oh, you're a serial killer?'”

Patrick W. Galbraith, a lecturer in the School of Law at Senshu University in Tokyo and author of the forthcoming monograph Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan (Duke University Press, 2019) had this to add:

“Lolicon,” especially as used among manga/anime fans in Japan, is not reducible to pedophile. Separate words, separate meanings. The consequences of calling manga/anime fans pedophiles alone are reason enough to avoid this slippage. Those consequences are dire. Politically speaking, I would encourage everyone to be careful about casually using the word pedophile.

(by the way, for more on this subject, you can check out Galbraith's essay, “Lolicon: The Reality of ‘Virtual Child Pornography’ in Japan – available as a 37-page PDF on Image & Narrative and his interview with Pause and Select on YouTube, “Contours of Lolicon”)

The dire consequences that Galbraith refers are things like legislation aimed at banning lolicon anime and manga in Japan. In N. America, an American citizen was prosecuted and sentenced to six months in jail plus five years of probation for “possessing manga featuring 'obscene visual representations of minors engaged in sexual conduct.' (for more on this, check out the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's report on U.S. vs. Handley)

Like it or not, outside of Japan, it is not easy to explain nuanced differences between manga and anime with lolicon themes and differentiating it from child pornography, especially to people in law enforcement roles who aren't interested in discussing Japanese anime and otaku culture. Throughout most of the world, sexual abuse of children is considered a heinous and horrific crime, and perpetrators are treated accordingly when they are caught, arrested, and prosecuted.

This Pandora's Box of any content that even vaguely sexualizes children is why lolicon manga and anime is treated verrrry cautiously when and if it gets attention from N. American manga publishers and anime distributors. In many cases, companies would rather steer clear of such content completely rather than risk prosecution or even just the collateral damage of public disdain. It's simply not worth it, when there are so many other manga and anime titles that don't have potentially controversial content that would be more popular and sell well without the added stress of going near that high voltage 3rd rail of lolicon/shotacon content.


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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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