Kafuu Chino from IS THE ORDER A RABBIT?

Warning! This article contains discussion of sensitive topics. 

Seen any good anime lately? Recently I’ve been trying to look for new series to watch. But I keep running into a problem. I forgot, after sticking with the same series for years, how frequently anime sexualizes young girls. And, even more so, how often those characters either look like, or are, children. When I was younger, I didn’t think about it because the characters were the same age as I was. Now that I’m an adult, it creeps me out to see young girls sexualized in anime. Especially now that I’m in a community of other adult fans, and I know more about the history.

Lolita characters are quasi-infamous in the anime community. Lolita, or loli, girls usually look young in appearance, have a cute aesthetic, and sometimes behave childishly. Having cutesy, young characters in itself is not suspicious. However, media often portrays lolita characters sexually, or quasi-obsessive lolita fans rise from the woodwork and attach to them. People who have an attraction for these young girl characters can be said to have a lolita complex, or lolicon for short. Lolicon is also a type of manga and anime which depicts girls in a “sexy-cute” manner.

Fans have long questioned lolicon’s morality. There are groups dedicated to its restriction and removal. You can’t deny its pedophilic undertones. But not only is there separate material for lolicon, sexualized lolita characters can appear in other types of anime. Sometimes it can almost seem hard to avoid. Where do all these characters come from; why are they so prevalent? And do I have reason to feel so uncomfortable about them? Today, let’s break down lolita characters.

Child Pornography in Japan

Japan has a history of international scrutiny regarding child pornography. Back in the 1990s, as much as two-thirds of all pedophilic images on the internet may have come from Japan. The 1990s also saw large amounts of teenage prostitution. No laws against sexual acts with teens existed in Tokyo or Nagano, where the 1998 Olympics occurred. A 1996 survey of over one hundred Tokyo schools said 4% of high school girls and 3.8% of junior high girls had acted as a paid escort at least once. Thankfully, a 1999 law on child prostitution and pornography slashed the proportion of Japanese pedophilic images on the web to 2%. However, 2003 found 1,746 people arrested for using telephone dating sites, the main way teenagers engage in compensated dating. You can still see businesses selling physical services (from hugging to sexual acts) from girls in school uniforms today.

Correspondingly, Japan didn’t ban possession of child pornography until 2015. It was the last major industrialized nation to do so. Despite the laws, child pornography cases rose in number. In fact, the year that the ban on possession passed saw 831 cases of child pornography. The very next year, in 2016, there were 1,023. This is considering that the law implemented one year later, giving people one year to dispose of what they already owned.

An 18-year-old waitress in a Japanese cafe speaking with a guest over three glasses of sherbet.
This girl is not a high school student, but wears her uniform to make her more popular with customers. | Image: The Washington Post

ECPAT observed in 2003 that media outlets worried more about the teens’ immorality than that of the men seeking their services. They said Japan showed “little recognition of the abuse involved, let alone exploitation.” Even the politicians who passed the 2015 ban named a “poor understanding of children’s rights” and “a tendency of looking at children as sexual objects” as things to overcome.

Backlash Against Lolicon

Concern over the relationship of lolicon to pedophilia rose in 1989. Serial killer Tsutomo Miyazaki abducted, molested, and murdered four young girls in Tokyo and Saitama prefecture in 1988 and 1989. When they caught him trying to abduct a fifth girl, they found both child pornography and lolicon in his home. The court sentenced him to death on the account that he planned his murders, which stemmed from his sexual fantasies. After Miyazaki, a moral panic over lolicon began. Pressure groups suggested a link between lolicon culture and child prostitution and sexual abuse. ECPAT commented on lolicon, saying that child pornography in any form can help pedophiles justify their actions. They also worried it sends a message that sexual child abuse is okay.

A full-screen shot of Nowi from FIRE EMBLEM, appearing as she did in FIRE EMBLEM: AWAKENING.
Characters like Nowi from FIRE EMBLEM can cause trouble in classification because they look and act like children, but are not. | Image: Fire Emblem Wikia

Still, there is something to be said about the fact that drawn child pornography is legal in Japan. In other countries, like the UK, lolicon possession is illegal under the category of child pornography. As of 2006, 30% of adult manga contained sexual intercourse involving children. At the time, even underage readers could purchase these manga. A 2010 proposal later prevented sexualized depictions of youth in media from being sold to minors by classifying them as “harmful publications.” Before passing, it was opposed by over 1,000 manga artists and 10 manga companies. Similarly, the initial version of the 2015 child porn possession ban originally included drawn media. Several anime and manga industries protested the bill on grounds of freedom of expression. The bill stalemated for over a year, passing only upon the removal of lolicon anime/manga from the bill.

A Global Trend

The word lolita as we know it comes from the book Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita follows Humbert Humbert in his obsession with twelve-year-old Dolores “Lolita” Haze. He engages in sexual behaviors with her after becoming her stepfather. Despite Lolita’s abuse by Humbert, the word itself became associated with and defined as “a precociously seductive girl.” This hints at something sinister in the takeaway from the novel. Especially so when combined with the fact that many scholars avoid naming the character Humbert Humbert a rapist. Even Humbert accuses himself of it in the novel. Not to mention, the first film adaptation removed much of Lolita’s suffering from the story. There’s an uncomfortable pattern here.

A poster from the 1997 version of Lolita, featuring its titular character applying lipstick while Humbert stands in the background.
A poster from the 1997 version of Lolita, which was more faithful to the book than the 1962 version. | Image: Amazon

Of course, that pattern might not surprise you. After all, the United States has its history of “barely legal” pornography. That has implied from the beginning that men would rather be looking at people under 18. “Teen porn” is still the most common genre-specific term in Google searches.

It’s not just porn though. Age disparity is a common factor in relationships around the world. A study of 37 different countries found wives, on average, to be 2.5 years younger than their husbands. They also found that as men age, they tend to seek ever-younger partners. Both eHarmony and OKcupid did data studies on their members and found that older men specifically look for younger women. The OKCupid study even found that men tend to message girls at the young end of their dating pool, or even younger than their stated minimum. Women’s desirability peaks at 21 on those sites. That’s pretty significant, considering the wide range of ages on the site, and that men’s peak desirability was age 36.

Where Do Lolicons Come From?

Lolicon is actually something that receives a fair amount of study from researchers. Much of the literature focuses on why lolicon is so popular. For instance, Hideo Azuma thinks that lolicon is a rebellion by otaku against society. He says even if they have no interest in pedophilia, they think they are the sort of “no good” person who would, so they engage it. Pretty awful, right?

The front cover of the book
This book was referenced in the 1974 manga STUMBLING UPON A CABBAGE PATCH and translated in Japan, introducing the phrase to the country. | Image: Amazon

The majority of theories seem to propose that lolicons come from male anxiety. Because of the growth of women in the workplace, men felt that women were surpassing them. Not used to this, men began focusing on younger girls who were easier to control. They further felt safe because the loligirls are two-dimensional. Sociologist Sharon Kinsella suggests lolicon diverts attention from history. Media portrays the teenagers who perform compensated dates as happy, contrasting the dark Japanese history of comfort women. Kinsella’s suggestions about Japanese history make less sense when you consider the lolicon following worldwide. Though many other nations also have a long history of oppressing women, Kinsella’s theory is rather specific. So far, I find the most sense in the “working women” theory. But I know the issue is still more complex.

There are a few theories that fans of lolicon enjoy the media because they identify with the girls in the media. Professor Masahiro Morioka, for example, believes that his interest in lolicon stems from feeling like he grew into a man’s body “by mistake,” and lolicon allows him to slip into the girl’s experience. Morioka himself believes that his experience can’t speak for everyone, though. And there’s not nearly enough evidence for the theory to be confirmed. Unfortunately, transphobic individuals seem to cling to the idea.

Cute Has Nothing To Do With It

Some have suggested that lolicon has more to do with the cuteness of the the characters than their age. In this way, scholars seem to be relating it to the kawaii movement among Japanese youth. Personally, though, I think there’s a big difference between sexualizing youthful female characters and kawaii culture.

Two girls dressed in kawaii fashion in Harajuku, Tokyo, at night.
Yamazaki2gou (left) and Sebone (right), two girls in famous fashion district Harajuku. | Image: TokyoFashion.com

To start, kawaii culture rejects patriarchal Japanese society. While growing up, girls become aware of their lower social status and opportunity due to their gender. And while girls in Japan are allowed certain freedoms, the traditional role shifts to something more subdued as they age. Nowadays, that shift can take the form of harsh and exploitative workplace culture. Kawaii culture rejects those changes by shifting the focus onto the individual’s enjoyment of nostalgic things. Many young people feel that cute things are healing for the soul, and there is evidence that different facets of cute culture provide a format for youth to express their emotions. It also provides people opportunities to bond with one another and build a community.

Even when there is sexuality in kawaii culture, it’s not as exploitative as lolicon. For example, ero-kawaii, or “sexy cute,” started off as a variation on a word coined to describe pop singer Koda Kumi. But girls in Japan adopted it, and variations of it, because they felt it had a more positive connotation than just ero, or sexy. Girls in kawaii culture fear having their identities stripped through sexualization, particularly from lolicons. Police officers patrol certain areas where fashion-forward kawaii girls gather to prevent stalkers and predators. So, lolicon is not a reaction equal to kawaii culture. Kawaii culture lifts women up, but lolicon doesn’t help women whatsoever.

Lolitas vs. Lolicon

Speaking of lifting women up, let’s discuss lolita fashion. Unlike lolicon, which causes some degree of anxiety in young women, lolita fashion intends to make women feel good. Much like kawaii culture in general, lolita fashion provides escapism from social pressures and conformity. It deemphasizes the influence of Western beauty standards. But, it still takes inspiration from Western culture in ways that make women happy. It isn’t intended to attract men. Attracting men would defeat the point. Lolita challenges adult values, and “dressing to get a man” is already a part of the mainstream. Fans consider lolita a celebration of femininity, modesty, cuteness, and alternative beauty.

A Harajuku street. Famous Youtuber and Lolita fashion model RinRin Doll stands in the center.
RinRin Doll, a lolita fashion model and internet sensation. | Image: TokyoFashion.com

Lolita fashion got its start separately from lolicon material. It stemmed from the 1960s Natural Kei movement, which emphasized Victorian and romantic style. It developed on the streets of Harajuku, Tokyo, where it formed a subculture. On the other hand, Hideo Azuma created some of the first blatantly lolicon works in 1979. They first became popular among young boys. Lolita fashion has a hard time reclaiming its name, unlike other subcultures like goth and punk. Often, Japanese lolita are just as frustrated with the word as Americans are.

The closest lolita fashion you might find to lolicon is erololita, meaning “sexy lolita.” It’s an uncommon style in the community, often used for clubbing. Sometimes it will include fetish gear, but at the most it will slightly accentuate the breasts or raise the hemline. Lolita sites stress that elegance is important to a true lolita, and it should maintain some degree of innocence. Ultimately, lolitas in lolicon are defined by the male gaze. Lolita fashion is controlled by the lolita, existing in a separate sphere.

A Better Anime Lolita

You might be wondering why the last couple paragraphs focused so intently on lolita fashion. That’s because I think that lolita fashion holds the solution for our current issues with lolicon. Lolita fashion proves that there is a way for girls to reflect childishness and cuteness without them being sexualized. Using lolita fashion subculture as a model for the new generations of young girl characters would send a more positive message. A lot of the aesthetic value would be the same, if not better. Instead of having them partnered with adults or getting into sexual antics, they would be able to stand on their own. Then the values of lolita and kawaii culture could be present in media. People around the world would experience the unique brand of female empowerment coming from Japan. So many people that feel strangely about lolitas in anime would appreciate it.

The front cover of CHIBI VAMPIRE Vol. 11, featuring Anju Maaka, a young vampire girl dressed in lolita fashion.
Anju Maaka of CHIBI VAMPIRE is a good example of a generally non-sexualized lolita character. | Image: Amazon

At the moment, it might seem impossible to remove lolita characters from media. Anime companies have a strong influence, and overall culture still has a weird fetish with young women and girls. Thankfully, there’s hope. There are already lolita characters that are mostly free of sexual gaze. If we continue to produce content like that, we can limit poor lolita characters to past works. Women writers who understand lolita subculture and the damages of lolicon would be especially helpful in this endeavor. Especially so if they can produce content aimed at boys, like shonen, so young men can reap the benefits of seeing empowered women on screen. That future is not as distant as it might seem.

Featured image courtesy of IS THE ORDER A RABBIT? Wiki.


  1. BrazilRules

    April 25, 2019 at 10:51 pm

    It is really sad how you twist your text just to push forward your feminist agenda, because for 80-90% it is very insightful and shows the problem clearly and a good solution for it.

    The driving motivation should not be to “empower women”, but to change how Otaku see female children, so that they stop objectifying them as sexual toys for their pleasure and start seeing them as pure beings that should be protected from the world’s inadequacies.


  2. Dante Gotaro (@dante_mau)

    February 11, 2019 at 12:33 pm

    LOl this is madness. The only people who sees a problem are people who cannot tell fiction from reality and feel the need to type of whiny babble like this.


  3. Brandon

    February 11, 2019 at 12:23 am

    No thanks we don’t want bullshit designed to indoctrinate us into being just as brainwashed as you all are. We all like being sane enough to understand that fiction is just that and poses no threat to anyone. If you want such garbage that’s fine and yes any anime produced solely to spread an agenda will be just that garbage, but we will just as soon kill it with fire than watch it!

    Stop trying to spread you wrong think/insanity to the rest of us and start working on freeing yourself from the hivemind that has turned you all into emotionally driven morons, that will prove to be a much more productive use of your time!


    • Nathaniel Duncan

      April 17, 2019 at 3:06 pm

      You are a pedo you know that Right,do the world a flavor and kill yourself.


      • Nathan

        May 21, 2019 at 1:26 am

        Your toxicity is way more harmful, than any human you try to humiliate by stigmating as “pedo” just for manga or animation preferentions.


  4. Brandon

    February 11, 2019 at 12:16 am

    Be honest and rename the article because the problem isn’t anime’s those characters are just one of many archetypes used in anime, the problem is yours and fans of anime haven’t questioned a damn thing regarding the morality of loli characters let’s clear that steaming pile up now.

    What we question is the sanity, need to virtue signal you are others show, and the fixation you folks have on loli when no loli material in existence violates the only thing that does matter the LAW! You numbskulls keep equating fictional characters to actual children which is damn creepy considering you all only focus on the sexual aspect!

    Loli characters are just as often used for their appeal for being cute as they are put into sexual situations, but because that fact doesn’t serve to further the agenda you people have you all ignore it. Stop embarrassing yourself by talking about a subject you really don’t know anything about


    • Nathaniel Duncan

      April 17, 2019 at 3:03 pm

      You Sir are a pedo.


      • Maria Fergison

        May 21, 2019 at 1:29 am

        Do not be such a piece of human trash.


  5. KingWeeb

    February 10, 2019 at 9:13 pm

    Soooo… this is problematic now becaaause?


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