In Defense Of Hentai: Is Rapelay Really Dangerous?

Last week, CNN reported on the continuing availability of Rapelay, a Japanese-made rape simulation video game, online. Over the weekend, animator Nogami Takeshi submitted an open letter in defense of hentai and, by extension, Rapelay.

The CNN article has been accused of cashing in on an old controversy, one that should have died down months ago. The original piece was harmless enough, and mainly focused on the difficulties of banning an online phenomenon. Attempts to crack down on distributors of Rapelay outside Japan have been somewhat successful, but persistent gamers are able to find the file fairly easily through other outlets. CNN reports that some human rights advocates have suggested that the Japanese government should play a larger role in monitoring the creation of video games, yet others deplore the idea of censorship.

Perhaps more interesting was the follow-up article, written to address the question: Why would Rapelay thrive in Japan? Kyung Lah interviews Kyle Cleveland, an associate professor of sociology who teaches at Temple University in Japan. Cleveland argues that Rapelay is the product of a historically patriarchal society. "It's no surprise that this is expressed in mass media and pornography. The moral entrepreneurs that are scrutinizing Japan have both a feminist history and cultural tradition that is simply not in play in Japan." He continues, "Japan has ways of expressing sexuality that are practically indecipherable to a Western sensibility but that are so normalized in Japan that the Japanese don't often understand or acknowledge the critiques that are made against them."

The otaku blog tsurupeta calls the CNN article "a cultural-essentialist explanation of why Japan is so perverted" and argues that reporters for CNN were trying to "stir up gratuitous controversy." However, this criticism comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. Just to put things in context, it is interesting to note that Tsurupeta is a blog that places "particular emphasis on the central icon of contemporary Japanese visual culture that is the cute young girl." There is also an explanation of the name:

It is a Japanese portmanteau word combining two onomatopoeias: tsurutsuru [つるつる], which means smooth, polished, especially hairless; and petan [ぺたん], which means flat, devoid of bumps and holes. So tsurupeta [つるぺた] describes a female body that's flat above and smooth below.

But Tsurupeta only translated the open letter, which was originally written in Japanese by a mangaka (cartoonist). Nogami Takeshi takes CNN to task for trying to "stir up fear, prejudice and misunderstanding" with their take on Rapelay and hentai in general. He defends Japan against charges of sexism:

Men and women are equals in politics and in the law. Your society and ours are no different there. Moreover, the crime rate statistics for both general crime and sex crime in Japan are, with all due respect, several times lower than in the United States. Did you, for instance, fear for your safety while walking the streets of Akihabara, or Ikebukuro (holy ground of hentai books for women)? They're probably many times safer than the streets of New York, let alone those of the suburban housing districts around. (And guns are illegal, too.) Furthermore, in our Akihabara and Ikebukuro, there is no persecution of men or women alike, or of sexual minorities like homosexuals. We all live together in peace, expressing ourselves freely.

It also goes without saying that human trafficking and violence against women are serious crimes in Japan too. As a Japanese citizen, I am deeply offended by the insulting implications of that so-called expert who associates Japanese people at large with heinous criminals.

Rates of reported rape per capita are much lower in Japan than in the U.S. (to support: here is a fascinating visual analysis of data from the UN on incidence of rape by country), but this does not necessarily excuse the existence of a game that appears to actively promote rape. Takeshi goes on to argue that Rapelay will not cause further rapes, and when enjoyed only by rational adults, it is basically harmless. He writes: "You surely don't believe that a rational adult would be influenced by such a game into committing rape, do you?... We make works of art. Let me say that again. It is just art. I assume that you are capable of distinguishing fiction from reality like we do."

Unfortunately, Takeshi does not address the underlying problem. Even if Rapelay is a work of fiction, it encourages users to take pleasure in role-playing the rape and abuse of women. Not only this, but the existence of games like Rapelay - and the celebration of a female body that is "flat above and smooth below" - reflects a certain acceptance of violence against women, and the infantilization of women. In defending Rapelay as a work of art, Takeshi does not seek to explain why this is pleasurable to some, which is my main issue with his letter. He is right to point out that there are plenty of people who have fantasy lives that have absolutely nothing to do with reality. Is every man who has played a game like Rapelay a rapist, or even harboring secret desires to rape? Probably not. But even though we may be capable of distinguishing fiction from reality, it is important to look at where these fictions come from. How did the "cute young girl" become a "cultural icon," and why has she become the subject of such violence? Similarly, those who enjoy gonzo porn would benefit from asking themselves why does this turn me on? We may not be able to control everything we find sexually exciting, but through looking at the underlying causes, we can at least better understand sexuality and the relationship between our inner world and the real world. Although fantasies are not inherently dangerous, they can reflect a social trend that is far more threatening. Rapelay may be "unreal," but rape is a reality for many women, as is sexism, pedophilia, infantalization, objectification, etc (you get the idea). A video game is not responsible for physical assaults, but both the crime and the enjoyment of the fictional crime arise from the same place. And this is what we need to fight.

'Rapelay' Video Game Goes Viral Amid Outrage
[CNN]
Why Would Rapelay Thrive In Japan? [CNN]
An Open Letter To CNN [Tsurupeta]