Ask John: How Did the Word ‘Hentai’ Get Adopted Into English?

Question:
Do you know how Americans came to use the term “hentai” to refer to anime pornographic videos? Did the usage of the word “hentai” evolve among fans or did some company like A-18 call their erotic anime videos “hentai”? In Japan the terms “AV” or “ero” refer to porn, with “ero anime” being the native term for animated porn. So why do Americans call ero anime by a Japanese word that even Japanese people don’t use to refer to it?

Answer:
Since I’m not aware of any etymological analysis of the American adoption of the Japanese word “hentai,” I’ll have to rely on my own memories and subjective perspective. So while “Ask John” responses are always my own, personal evaluations, this particular answer should be especially taken as unverified speculation rather than certain fact.

The Japanese term “ecchi” means “lecherous” or “lewd” while the Japanese term “hentai” means “abnormal” or “perverted.” The word “ecchi” is equivalent to the English term “risque.” The Japanese term “hentai” doesn’t exclusively refer to pornography. In fact, within anime the word “hentai” is most often used as an insulting label for lecherous men. Further complicating matters, the word “ecchi” is pronounced in Japanese similarly to the sound of the English letter “H.” So the English letter “H” has been adopted by Japan’s anime community as an abbreviation for “ecchi.” English speakers not entirely familiar with Japanese often instinctively presume that the Japanese abbreviation “H” is an abbreviation for “hentai,” although technically “H” in Japanese has no correlation with “hentai” at all.

I believe that the American adoption of the term “hentai” was a natural, unplanned event that occurred in the early and mid 1990s. As erotic anime like Cream Lemon and Urotsukidoji, and imagery from early Japanese erotic PC games began to filter down into the American fan community in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, American fans developed an awareness that pornographic manga and anime existed. At the same time that outright pornographic anime began reaching America, there were also risque but not pornographic anime like Fandora, Dream Hunter Rem, and Mamono Hunter Yohko coming to the attention of American fans. The late 1980s and early 1990s were also the heyday of the “anime shower scene,” “fan service” shots of female characters nude in the bath or shower that seemingly appeared in virtually every anime of the period.

Suddenly faced with both risque and hardcore pornographic anime images, America’s fan community quickly developed a need for appropriate terms to identify these two types of content. The idea that “ecchi” referred to mild erotica while “hentai” referred to hardcore pornography became a quickly adopted easy distinction. The widespread use of the term “hentai” was probably encouraged by two things. In May 1993 Antarctic Press published a comic titled “H-Bomb,” an English translation of Japanese erotic Dirty Pair doujinshi. The title was intended to be a parody romanization of “ecchi bon,” (erotic book), but for many readers the “H” in “H-bomb” associated with the hardcore sex content of the comic solidified the idea that “H” was an abbreviation for “hentai.” And “hentai” meant “hardcore sex.” Furthermore, with the advent of Japanese erotic visual novel games and the early 90s “dot com” explosion, the internet was inundated with illicit commercial websites selling access to collections of Japanese erotic PC game images. And virtually every single one of these websites managed to use the word “hentai” in its title. In effect, it could be said that it was the web that primarily popularized the English language association of the word “hentai” with “Japanese comic pornography.”

Recently there have been stirrings in the American fan community to discard the word “hentai” and in its place adopt the Japanese term “ero” (a Japanese abbreviation of “eros”). As justification for the movement, proponents cite that Japanese speakers don’t use the word “hentai” to identify pornographic manga or anime. I must admit to being a biased toward retaining the American term “hentai” because it’s well established, and especially useful in English discussions of anime and manga. While “ero-manga” and “ero-anime” may be natural and familiar in Japanese, the term “ero” sounds incomplete and un-natural in native English. Furthermore, there’s little need to emphasize a strict equivalence between Japanese and English terminology.

In fact, the borrowed word “anime” does not have the same meaning in Japanese that it has in English. Maintream Japanese speakers use “anime” as an abbreviation for “animation.” (Members of Japan’s anime community have a greater tendency to distinguish “anime” as specifically Japanese animation.) America has adopted the Japanese word “hentai” and given it a unique English language meaning. Japanese language has done the same with English terms. The word “mansion” in English refers to a palatial house while in Japanese it refers to a condominium or high class apartment building. The English term “feminist” describes a proponent of women’s rights. In Japanese the borrowed word “feminist” describes a man that is especially considerate to women.

I may be mistaken, but in my recollection, the term “hentai” came into use in America during the early 1990s and evolved out of necessity from Americans’ limited, incomplete knowledge of Japanese language. Unlike the popularization of terms including “yaoi,” and “shonen,” the American use of “hentai” wasn’t helped along by corporate effort. Like many borrowed words, the term “hentai” has developed its own, exclusive English definition, and within English conversation and usage, I think that’s just fine.

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