Child pornography and English language learning

“Child pornography and English language learning”?! Could there be a connection?! Difficult to believe but true – I’m referring to a best selling English phrase book for Japanese high school students, Moetan: English phrase book.

Moetan’s storyline involves a smart high school girl, Inku, who has a crush on her classmate, Nao, an underachiever. To help him improve his marks in English, she magically turns herself into a witch, Pastel Inku. Yeah, right! Moetan has many illustrations of Pastel Inku and her magical friends. Some of these illustrations are extremely disturbing in their explicit pornographic content. Although Inku and Pastel Inku are supposed to be senior high school students, they look to be somewhere between 8 to 12 years old. In many of the illustrations, Inku and Pastel Inku are sexualized:

• their under pants are shown (11 illustrations)
• they are almost naked (2 illustrations)
• they are shown with no under pants (1 illustration)
• they are in pajamas but their underwear shows (1 illustration)
• they pose in sexually seductive positions (11 illustrations)

I cannot reproduce any of these images in this blog because they are in violation of child pornography laws in many countries, including Australia where I’m based. In fact, viewers from outside Japan are blocked from viewing certain images on the Moetan website. In contrast to most other countries, child pornography laws in Japan apply only to photographic or live-action video content of real children, not to manga, anime and video games (see this Age report for more details). This makes Japan and Russia the only G8 countries where “it is legal to own pornographic images of children, provided people do not intend to sell or distribute them.”

Moetan is obviously designed to appeal to Japan’s ‘otaku’ demographic, i.e. Japanese men who have a fetish for young girls or anime/manga characters that depict them. I’m aware that there are many different kinds of otakus, but the one Moetan is geared towards is those obsessed with the imaginary ‘sister culture’ in which young girls are a symbol of innocent sexuality and look up to men as dependable older brothers. None of the illustrations resemble Playboy-type adult pornography – the otaku’s fascination with young sister-like girls’ sexuality seems closely linked with their inability to relate to adult women and the promotion of incestual desires.

Moetan has been incredibly successful. To date, more than 200,000 copies of Moetan have been sold, making it one of the best-selling English phrasebooks in 2003-2004. Following this phenomenal success in the highly competitive English textbook market, there have been further Moetan products, including more phrase books, DVDs, CDs, figure models, Moetan DS (produced by Nintendo – if you choose to click on this link, please note that you may find the images on the site offensive) – all of which are even more sexualized and pornographic than the original Moetan. The website proudly claims that 200,000 Moetan products such as above have been sold.

It is not only the images of Moetan that are disturbing. The English phrases that are taught are equally sexualized as the following examples show:

• Accept: “Even if you are a man who is only interested in two-dimensional beautiful girls, you will accept the real girl when she declares herself” (p. 22).
• Broadcast: “They broadcast the scene of glance at the panties of the national icon” (p. 32).
• Appropriate: Taking my futon away by my sister or childhood friend is the appropriate way to wake me up (p. 165)
• Beat: I’ll never stop beating you until you cry (p. 168)
• Female: I cannot get interested in a female in the real world anyway (p. 179)
• Confuse: The boy was confused when a girl fell down from the sky (p. 185)
• Tiny: You can feel at ease. Some men prefer the tiny breasts (p. 197).
• Bet: When I fell in love with her, I thought that the girl was my stepsister. I bet if I had known she was my real sister I would not have fallen in love with her (p. 198).
• Wish: I wish I could be a brother to all the sisters all over the world (p. 201).

Similar to other foreign language learning materials we have analyzed, the language learning value of Moetan is close to zero. The Moetan phrases are created by two academics in foreign language education, Professor Watanabe of Saitama University and Suzuki of Seibu Bunri University. Watanabe and Suzuki are fellow experts in foreign language education but I find their judgment in participating in the production of this type of English learning materials appalling.

When I showed my copy of Moetan to a Chinese colleague, she said, “This kind of English learning material won’t be allowed in China”. Unfortunately, she’s wrong there: Moetan has in fact already made it into the Chinese market, and there is a talk of a Taiwanese version on the horizon.

English language teaching without a conscience and without morals? An industry out of control? As far as Moetan is concerned, that is clearly so. For many decades, applied linguists have been working hard to problematise gender inequalities in foreign/second language education by analyzing textbooks. However, textbooks used outside formal school contexts, such as Moetan, have gone largely unchecked and unchallenged. As child pornography in educational disguise spreads into other Asian countries, it is high time the English language teaching industry adopt basic ethic standards.

Ingrid Piller & Kimie Takahashi (2010). At the intersection of gender, language and transnationalism. In Nikolas Coupland. Ed. Handbook of Language and Globalisation. Malden, MA: Blackwell. (Preprint)

Author Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江

高橋 君江 is Visiting Associate Professor at International Christian University, Tokyo. Before joining ICU in 2014, she was Lecturer at the Graduate School of English at Assumption University of Thailand (2011 - 2014) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Australia (2007 and 2011). Kimie is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Linguistics, and continues to co-supervise several PhD students with Ingrid Piller at Macquarie University.

More posts by Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江
  • Quite apart from anything else, those phrases are rubbish:

    “Taking my futon away by my sister or childhood friend is the appropriate way to wake me up ”

    “They broadcast the scene of glance at the panties of the national icon”

    Does anyone take this seriously as a way of learning English or does everyone know it’s porn?

  • I gotta agree with neuroskeptic. Is that even English?

  • Ingrid Piller

    Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of English language teaching materials! By definition, as a language learner you are not in a position to distinguish between “good English” and “rubbish English” …

  • Kimie Takahashi

    Thanks, Neuroskeptic and Livia Blackburne, for your comments. Otakus are one of the most powerful consumer groups – they actively buy and collect what they are interested in. As far as Moetan is concerned, I’m not even sure if the quality of English is relevant to them. I have a feeling that to some extent Moetan products have become collectors’ items…

    You guys better watch out for “Moetan: Neuroscience 101″…

  • Vahid


    I think now we can talk about “Sexualization of English books,” which is definitely related to “sexulaization of public sphere.”

    Good for them!

  • Ingrid Piller

    Good for who???

  • Vahid

    Definitely for those who write/produce such books!

  • Vahid

    An ironic good for them of course! since I think no one can stop such sexualization processes. Sexualization of books is I think a true reflection of the route all big businesses have been taking. Books are just a small part of this process. Children are bombarded with semi sexual images more when they even walk in the street.

    health and peace

  • xiaoxiao

    I wonder why such English learning material can be popular and even worm into the Chinese market. What are the selling points? Also I wonder what the English language learning materials for Chinese kids are like. As far as I know, a best-selling English learning magazine in China is collection of original English TV and radio programs and movies. But not sure if it contains any pornographic elements or not.

  • Kimie Takahashi

    Thanks, Xiaoxiao, for your comment. Well, English TV programs and movies are also popular English language learning materials in Japan, too, and that’s something I look forward to blogging about in the near future;-)

  • steven

    another addition to the fantasy land that is English in Japan

  • xiaoxiao

    Kimie, i’m looking forward to that blog:)