The Politics of Imagination: Virtual Regulation and the Ethics of Affect in Japan

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Galbraith, Patrick William


Allison, Anne

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In the past decade, responding to the scourge of child pornography, countries around the world have passed legislation that erases the distinction between actual and virtual forms. One result is that comics, cartoons and computer/console games featuring “underage” characters engaged in explicit sex are now against the law. Even as scholars draw attention to a subtle but troubling shift from protecting children to stopping imaginary sexual violence, such laws have passed without much debate in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. A notable exception is Japan, which maintains a legal distinction between actual and virtual and allows for explicit depictions of sex and violence involving “underage” characters in comics, cartoons and computer/console games. If a line has been drawn in the battle against child pornography, then, for many, Japan is on the wrong side. On the other hand, there are people in Japan drawing their own lines: Artists drawing the lines of cartoon images and sex scenes, people lined up to buy their work, lines that are drawn and crossed when producing and consuming such images. Following these lines, this dissertation explores the contours of an emergent politics of imagination in Japan and beyond. Most especially, this dissertation is focused on the line between the virtual and actual, which is drawn and negotiated everyday by Japanese men and women producing and consuming images of sex, violence and crime. These men and women insist on the distinction between actual and virtual, fiction and reality, and in so doing draw a line. This line is not always clear and clean, which is precisely why it is insisted upon and maintained through collective activity and practice. Opposed to virtual regulation by the state, fans of comics, cartoons and computer/console games in Japan speak of moe, or an affective response to fictional characters, and an ethics of moe, or proper conduct fans of fictional characters. What this means in practice is that they insist on the drawn lines of fictional characters and on drawing a line between fictional characters and real people. In the ethics of moe, proper conduct is to keep fictional characters separate and distinct from real people, even as fictional characters are real on their own terms and affect individually and socially. The contrast between these men and women in Japan and much of the world, however inadvertent, is political: It points to other ways of understanding imaginary sex, violence and crimes, and other ways of living with fictional and real others. To get at the lines of this politics of imagination, this dissertation focuses on bishōjo games. “Bishōjo” means “cute girl,” and it refers to characters that appear in Japanese comics, cartoons and computer/console games. Bishōjo games are a genre of adult computer games that allow the player to interact casually, romantically and sexually with cute girl characters. The dissertation draws on 17 months of intensive fieldwork in Akihabara, a neighborhood in Tokyo where bishōjo game producers, retailers and players come together and share affective responses to fictional characters.





Galbraith, Patrick William (2017). The Politics of Imagination: Virtual Regulation and the Ethics of Affect in Japan. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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