Comparing Japanese and American Pornography

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Based off Merriam-Webster, pornography is the depiction of erotic behavior, in the form of pictures or writing, that is intended to cause sexual excitement. This nonbiased definition is standard worldwide; however, other cultures and societies have differing views of what constitutes sexual activity and excitement, and overtime what is deemed culturally or socially acceptable changes (Rissel, Richters, Visser, McKee, Yeung, & Caruana, 2017).

It’s very intriguing to learn how cultures differ with one another, and that awareness is even more of a necessity nowadays. In modern day society, the world is more connected with one another through the power of the Internet. Finding shared resources worldwide, such as pornographic material, is more convenient now that it is easily accessible online. In relation to pornography, this may open people to new sexual discoveries in the safety of their own home. However, some cultural differences that are important to be aware of are the differing legislations. It’s important to understand these discrepancies between cultures for personal safety. This paper aims to answer how and to what degree Japan’s porn industry differs from the United States’.

Early Forms of Pornography


Shunga (??) is one of the oldest forms of pornography in Japan that was developed during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). According to Hayakawa and Gerstle (2013), shunga is believed to be the equivalent of modern pornography or contemporary erotic photography. However, unlike America’s modern-day view of pornography being “something that we should be embarrassed to view”, shunga was appreciated by people of all ages, gender, and socioeconomic status (Hayakawa et al., 2013). Despite shunga being illegal, it was not uncommon for families of all classes to include shunga in bride’s trousseau, because they were interpreted as talismans that would bring birth of children, good and intimate conjugal relations, and a successful household (Hayakawa et al., 2013). These woodblock prints often contained images of “massive genitalia, ingenious sexual aids, coupling of all kinds, a wide array of fetishes, bizarre viewpoints, physical anomalies, bawdy comedy, and satirical vignettes” (Brena, 2009). This is one of the forms of pornography that Japan has produced, and is quite different from the United States. It would be quite odd to see it as a necessity to offer a bride in the United States some erotica novels or a sexy calendar of men as a wedding gift. Overtime, the Japanese government steered the attitude towards shunga to one that is more negative, even frowning upon viewing it as an academic subject (Hayakawa et al., 2013). This shift in view of shunga further proves Rissel et al. (2017) point that what is deemed culturally or socially acceptable changes.


Much of the earliest pornography in the United States has not been academically documented and is often coinciding with European culture. The oldest documented form of pornography is daguerreotype. It is an exquisitely hand-colored photograph that exhibits careful arrangement of lighting and the model’s pose (Hannavy, 2008). Unlike shunga, it was initially designed as a person deluxe item to be enjoyed by the privileged. It wasn’t until the 1800s that a cheaper format was created and was made accessible to the working class. According to Hannavy (2008), the setting where the female is usually placed in is a private bedroom or toilet. The woman is often photographed appear as though she was caught stripping, or her private parts could be openly displayed. The woman is also often accessorized with jewelry, flowers, drapery, and lace. This created vivid contract of texture from the naked flesh (Hannavy, 2008).

Porn for Men

Hentai versus Pornographic Live Films

In modern-day Japan, two popular visual media that are classified as pornography are erotic anime and manga. The subgenre catered towards men is hentai (??), and the subgenre targeted towards women is yaoi (???). Anime can be perceived as the Japanese equivalent of America’s cartoons, and Japanese manga is similar to American comic books. American pornography is typically produced in the form of a magazine or live films. Despite having highly sexual cartoons such as Betty Boop, the Western attitude towards cartoons is that it’s childlike and very far from reality (Brena, 2009). For the most part society sees it as normal for men to watch pornography. However, the target audience for hentai is often recognized as otaku— “immature, socially awkward males unable to distinguish between fiction and reality and who would rather indulge in fantasies with animated, ultimately inaccessible girlfriends than interact with real women” (Brena, 2009).

Hentai, utilizes the idea of being far from reality and allows the audience to fill in their desires and incorporate their fantasies and imagination. The direct translation for hentai is “changed or strange figure”, and it typically refers to sexual material “of an extreme, ‘abnormal’ or ‘perverse’ kind” (Brena, 2009). It is also abbreviated as “H” and means “perverted” or “sexy” (Cornog & Perper, 2007). Much of hentai’s content is fixated on preposterous rape and nonconsensual sexual violence, and may have relations with sexual aggression (Reysen, Katzarska-Miller, Plante, Roberts, & Gerbasi, 2017).

Many of the elements, such as massive genitalia and wide array of fetishes, that makeup hentai are influenced by shunga. Western culture often views the content within hentai as grotesque and carnivalesque (Brena, 2009). To put into context of what abnormal sexual material hentai contains, Sudargo & Widjojo (2011) identified abnormal sexual terms from the DSM-IV and applied them to hentai. These include: fetishism, pedophilia, frotteurism, sexual masochism and sadism, transvestic fetishism, and voyeurism. However, they make the point that labelling hentai strictly as a pervert pornography for people with abnormal psychology no longer stands, and it is now a common form of pornography. For the most part society sees it as normal for men to watch pornography.

A big distinction between American pornographic live films and Japanese hentai is what the audience wishes to experience (Brena, 2009). With American pornographic live films, it’s all about the viewers imagining themselves as part of the film. However, hentai taps into the sensorial memory. It takes objects that are recognizable through touch, smell, sight, and taste, and can create a body of sensations that viewers know from their own physical experiences. An example provided by Brena (2009) is that hentai girl’s animated breasts stimulate sensorial input and “send(s) our mind into a series of barely conscious analogies: objects that are soft but firm, warm, pulsating”.

Majority of the depictions of women bodies in hentai are relatively uniform, which can be appealing because it leaves general human physical traits to be interpreted and “filled in” by the viewer, and it “becomes a vessel for viewers’ own desires” (Brena, 2009). Not only does hentai allow viewers to project their own fantasies, they are also able to disconnect from responsibility and reality and travel to an “imaginary space”. An analogy provided by Brena (2009), is that the difference between live films and animation are the equivalent of the differences between photography and painting. A photograph is a genuine record of reality, while a painting is open for interpretation and can be a symbol of reality. 

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Comparing Japanese and American Pornography. (2021, Dec 31). Retrieved December 1, 2023 , from

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