What 'Hentai' Actually Means

Screenshot: Hentai Kamen

“Hentai is brilliant,” reads the title of a recent Guardian article about a British game show contestant who won a round with the word “hentai.” But what does “hentai” actually mean, and how has that meaning changed? Let’s dive into the word’s etymology!

The Oxford Dictionary defines “hentai” as “A subgenre of the Japanese genres of manga and anime, characterised by overtly sexualised characters and sexually explicit images and plots.” The origin of the word in English is given as “1990s Japanese, literally ‘abnormal, perverted.’”

The first Japanese character (変) in the word hentai (変態) literally means “strange” or “curious” (変), while the second kanji character (態) means “state” or “condition.”

Countdown Contestant Wins Challenge With 'Hentai'

There’s got to be a grim sort of mental arithmetic you have to do when you’re faced with a very short time limit and a decision as to whether you’re going to bust out ‘hentai’ as an answer on an otherwise quite wholesome game show.

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Today in Japanese, the word does refer to people who are perverted or abnormal (as noted by the character Hentai Kamen, above), but that isn’t the only definition. Hentai also means “metamorphosis,” as in the complete changes insects make into their adult form.

Screenshot: Hentai Page, Japanese Wiki

As Kotobank notes, before that, during the 18th century for example, hentai was also used to note when the condition of things, such as the moon, for example, looked different.

During the early 20th century, the term hentai seiyoku (変態性欲) or “sexual perversion” was coined with seiyoku (性欲) meaning “sexual desire.” However, hentai seiyoku was shortened simply to “hentai” in colloquial speech due to Japanese speakers’ preference to shorten long words.

The term hentai then began to take on a new, sexual meaning. One early example dates from 1931 when the modernist writer Riichi Yokomitsu used “hentai” in relation to collecting a woman’s personal artifacts.

This definition continues. In contemporary Japanese, as website Takashionary explains, saying that someone has a “hentai hobby” (変態な趣味 or hentaina shumi) means that the interest is sexual in nature and abnormal.

The word hentai, it seems, also became the basis of the Japanese slang ecchi (エッチ), which is the Japanese pronunciation of the letter “H.” However, during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the slang term ecchi apparently referred to the “h” in the world “husband.”

However, in the decades that followed, it appears ecchi began to refer to the “h” in “hentai.” The term ecchi came into wider colloquial use by the mid-1950s, and by the 1980s, the slang “ecchi suru” (to have sex) was in use.

Writer and game translator Matt Alt points to a thread by Yoshihiro Watanabe, a producer at Studio Orange. Watanabe explains that the term “hentai” isn’t used in Japan to refer to a specific anime or manga genre.

It’s no doubt for the best that Kafka’s book is called Henshin (変身) in Japanese and not Hentai (変態). Though, I can’t say the same about Freeza’s ultimate hentai...

Screenshot: Franz Kafka Henshin, Amazon

Comments

    Guardian News & Media Ltd requests the pleasure of your syndication.

      Have to thank our new Pedestrian friends for this one; they spotted the hentai story first, and then let us re-run it.

      It's been a fun week for hentai news, I'll say.

    In the context of English speech, the word means exactly what the dictionary said it did. While it is a Japanese loan word, it doesn't necessarily have an identical meaning as it does in the origin language.

    Taking an example in the other direction, 天麩羅 (tempura) is a Japanese word describing a dish of deep fried seafood and vegetables. However it is also a loan word from Portuguese meaning seasoning. The Portuguese definition doesn't change what it means in Japanese though.

    This was a highly educational and stimulating article.

    I look forward to putting this newfound knowledge to good use when discussing with my younger sister the subject of Usagi’s Hentai when she powers up in Sailor Moon.

    What do you mean a pervert gentleman is a contradiction?!
    I would argue it's the only way to live!

      You don't want to be an uncouth pervert. That way lies madness and ostracisation.

      Gentleman on the street, Freak in the sheets. And the missus now wants to change her psn to Hentai Butterfly, but I doubt Sony is gonna ok that, TBH

        Ha! If Sony did let that one through she'll have to decline hundreds of friend requests from teenage boys every time she logs in!

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