Rorikon figurines: how they survive and their interpretations in a strict Singapore

Written in early 2008 for an undergraduate class on The Sociology of Deviance.

Explicit rorikon figurines with graphic details are freely circulated in the market in Singapore, despite strong censorship guidelines. This paper seeks to identify how such “cartoon pornography” has managed to fall under the radar of the Media Development Authority, and explore the interpretations of the subculture comprising collectors of such figurines.

Background

Rorikon manga is a genre of Japanese comics catered to adult men that surfaced towards the end of the 1980s in Japan. These manga usually center on scantily-clad female leads with voluptuous features that are infantile and child-like, yet tough and strong-willed. Storylines involve these characters in conquests against other masculine male characters, and the assertion and vulnerability these girls exhibit in their highly unorthodox sexualized lifestyles. Rorikon figurines are miniature plastic dolls modeled after these comic characters. They frequently bear explicit details of the female’s private parts, and figurines are almost always set in a sexualized or suggestively compromising position. Also, despite their controversial nature, these toys are often not accompanied by labels signposting their explicit “not suitable for the young” content, or “Parental Warning” caution.

Censorship board

The Media Development Authority (MDA) governs broadcasting and censorship issues in Singapore. One of its primary responsibilities is to regulate the “arts entertainment” locally. Pornography can be defined as “sexually explicit pictures, writing, or other material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal” (The American Heritage, emphasis added). Under the MDA’s Public Entertainments and Meetings Act, mediums of pornography include “any exhibition of models, reading matter, pictures, (and) photographs of statuary or other forms of representation of human or animal figures” (Media Development Authority, 2008) Hence, just like graphic adult magazines such as Playboy or Penthouse, the public display and focus on privates on rorikon figurines fall under pornography. Their sexually suggestive depictions serve the same stimulating purpose as the graphics in pornography material, although the latter uses the human female body in pictures as opposed to plastic dolls. Simply put, rorikon figurines can be said to be ‘cartoon pornography’.

Methodology

My plan was to study rorikon figurines in detail, and to observe patrons and their reactions to these dolls. I stationed myself around the vicinity of a hobby store on three separate days of the same week, usually around noon till one pm where the lunch crowd was relatively larger (read Interview transcript for more information on the store). Of the three days, two were weekdays and one was on the weekend. This was to capture an average spread of the usual crowd.

I observed patrons from a distance, away from the entrance without their prior knowledge. This was to prevent any intrusion from me on their ‘contact’ with the collectibles, yet at the same time, the vicinity allowed me to distinguish Asians from Westerners. Also, I did not want to cause any disturbance to the shopkeepers should they perceive my constant presence in the store to be a nuisance. Because the layout of the store distinctly separates rorikon figurines (on the left) from other Japanese character toys (on the right), stuffed toys (at the entrance) and miniature plane models (in the centre), I was able to see where patrons spent more time gazing at.

I also visited the store four times spread out within a month to study the figurines on display. Although there was little rotation even after the third round, I continued to observe if the rorikon figurines on the showcase shelves had become less or more explicit. My findings were that the pieces usually stayed on display for long periods, thus I could not determine if newer figurines were getting more controversial.

Patrons

Westerners tended to engage in longer-drawn gazes at rorikon figurines than Asians did. Also, they appeared to be more intrigued and interested by the nature of the figurines, often directing friends’ attentions to the showcases and displays upon first contact. Asians appeared to shy away quickly after stealing a few glances at the provocative collectibles. This could be because Asians are less liberal than Westerners, given their cultural codes of conduct, and their exposure to such controversial material depending on the autonomy of the mass media in selective broadcasting in the different regions.

More males than females were observed entering the store. This could be attributed to the fact the hobby store also offered a wide array of ‘boys’ toys’ like miniature plane and fighter jet models. The semi-minimalist exterior of the store also suggested that it was catered more for the male consumer. However, for reasons which I shall explain later on (read Interpretations of rorikon subculture), the rorikon subculture is still largely a male-gendered community.

Patrons comprised mostly teenagers and young adults who were seldom accompanied by an older adult. Also, although young children (probably aged below twelve) were seen peering into display shelves showcasing rorikon figurines, neither their accompanying adult(s) nor the shopkeepers appeared to do anything about it. While young adults may make up the bulk of buyers, this could also be due to their financial stability that comes with age. Thus, many younger potential purchasers may have been excluded or side-lined from the subculture due to their (lack of) financial access and capacity. Shopkeepers rarely took the initiative to tend to patrons walking around the store. They only spoke when first approached by the other party for help or advice.

Figurines

While there were a handful of male character figurines, they were largely representative of gothic and devilish images, often the evil dark sides from anime and manga storylines. There were evidently fewer animal or animalistic figurines on display. An excessively large number of the displays were female figurines ranging from enchanting fairies to infantile school girls to sexy super-heroes.

In general, female character figurines bore disproportionate dimensions in their figures. The chest-waist-hip ratio was almost always extremely exaggerated and much enhanced. Figurines were set in provocative sexualized poses, including protruding buttocks, bended hips, clutching of private parts and questionable facial expressions.

Costumes worn by the figurines were also very revealing with unbuttoned and unzipped blouses, and skirts short enough to expose underwear. Among the wide variety were black bondage wear complete with leather straps and sex toys, girly lingerie with lace, and towel wraps. I shall describe three sexualized figurines in detail.

First, Matsumoto Rangiku from the anime, Bleach- She is seen in a Chinese kung-fu costume. Her long hair is thrown back and her chests are accentuated by her much arched back. Her two palms are tightly clutching her breasts, which are revealed by her parted V-shaped top. Ironically, her facial expression conveys the air of a fierce warrior.

Second, Tamaji Kousaka from the Japanese computer game, To Heart 2- Her unusually long and parted legs are seen in knee-high stockings. She has one palm on her ballooning chest. The other hand is undoing her underwear held up by ribbons at the sides, revealing bits of her pubic area. Her facial expression mockingly conveys innocence.

Third, Cammy from the anime and manga, Street Fighter- She spots a red beret on top of a braided blonde hair. Her very muscular physique can be seen through a green one-piece playsuit that reveals her arms and thighs. The playsuit ends in a very sharp V-cut that stretches above her hips, revealing much of the pubic area. Also, although chests are covered this time, the nipples of the figurine are very explicitly protruding through the costume, with both her hands drawing attention to that area. She also spots weapons attached to her lower arms.

Escaping the censorship radar

Given the nature of their controversial content, rorikon figurines have managed to be sold beside just about any other toy (refer to Observation methods). I plan to explain this phenomenon in three ways- Firstly, the medium of rorikon manga figurines, secondly, the permeating neutralizing effect of the label “toys”, and thirdly, the (in)visibility of the rorikon subculture in Singapore.

The MDA has classified its areas of broadcast for censorship into the following categories – Arts Entertainment, Audiotext, Competition Code, Films, Internet, Publications, Public Consultation Papers, Radio, TV, Videos and Video Games (Media Development Authority, 2008). Toys, presumably always implicitly taken to be innocent and harmless in nature, have been exempted from screening. Rorikon figurines then perhaps have fallen into this gap where supposedly risk-free toys are in fact overt material. This lack of screening for toys and collectibles could be why rorikon figurines are freely, albeit not always widely, available for purchase. Thus, pornography embedded in these toys escapes the arm of the law because its medium per se is exempted from screening.

Secondly, being labeled as a “toy” masks the content of rorikon figurines. Because toys are usually linked to children, toys like figurines are seldom taken to be dangerous or treacherous consciously. Thus, a body-baring rorikon figurine on display is less likely to raise alarms than say, a nude woman on the street. This neutralizing effect of being branded a “toy” trivializes the inherent pornographic element within rorikon figurines, allowing it to continue circulating in the mainstream.

Thirdly, rorikon collectors form a (still) very much underground subculture in Singapore. Although these toys are sold freely and may be much sought after by enthusiasts, rorikon figurines are not extensively available in every toy store. Only selected hobby stores dedicated to specialized interests might carry them. Like rorikon manga, these collectibles are still undiscovered by the mainstream because they are exclusive – only few are imported by shops each time, and they range from SGD30 to thousands of dollars per piece. Hence, although rorikon figurines do disguise among other harmless toys, their exclusive availability and lack in quantity locally allow them to exist and be occasionally discovered, but not to the extent of being noticed by every layman. As mentioned by Polliner, “There is no deviance apart from the response… the fact that no one reacts to an act as deviant means that it is not deviant” (Pollner, 1974). Hence, if not enough people discover these, little attention will be drawn to its inherent deviant qualities.

Interpretations of rorikon subculture

I intend to explore two interpretations of rorikon subculture in Singapore – First, for sections of men to expressively cope with the increasing importance of women today, and second, deviant rorikon as a substitute for illegal pornography.

Modernizing society today sees a new breed of women, empowered and skilled to shine both in the workplace and in the home. Female executives in corporations are also making waves in their corporate success. Because this is in reverse with traditional gender norms of dominant males and subservient females, men with old-fashioned attitudes may not be completely accepting of these new women. This might enlighten the resulting Lolita Complex faced by these men, explaining their desire to collect miniature rorikon figurines which they can fantasize over privately. Kinsella also adds that

         “The little girl heroines of rorikon manga reflect simultaneously an awareness of the increasing power and centrality of young women in society, and also a reactive desire to see these young women disarmed, infantilized, and subordinated.” (Kinsella, 1998)

As such, these men might deal with such pent-up frustrations by depicting or imagining these ‘highfliers’ in demeaning and subordinated roles through the strongest subjugation men have had over women since time immemorial – sexual advances and exploitation.

Secondly, rorikon figurines, falling under the radar of the censorship board, may serve as a ‘legal’ alternative for individuals who hunger for pornography, which is illegal in Singapore. Thus, it is possible that beneath the guise of being a subculture with highly specific interests, the drive and true intention of these individuals to seek after rorikon might instead be lust and their inherent sexual urges. Once again, all these are easily masked by the very nature of rorikon figurines being ‘merely toys’.

Threading lukewarm waters

There appears to be a discrepancy with rorikon being deemed as only deviant and pornography as illegal when they are both essentially pornographic material, albeit in different mediums. The man found with graphic adult magazines may be fined, while the man who possesses rorikon figurines may or may not be deemed a deviant. Also, because these collectibles are compact and easy to store away, there may be many uncovered secret deviants invisible to the public.

This selective process of our rule enforcers and control agents suggests that the only difference here is the subjective definition of pornography. Let us take into consideration the Crazy Horse Paris Cabaret that closed its doors in Singapore a few months back. The women in the performances were revealing their privates to the audience, but age limit restrictions were set for entry. While that was still essentially pornography, the state allowed for the organization to operate in Singapore under the pretext of being mature art for a discerning audience.

Yet, what constitutes art and what is mere trashy pornography is never quite clearly set out by the state. When it was first brought here, two camps of people emerged. While the conservatives felt that these Western influences were paving way for our moral decay, the liberals felt that this move was refreshing and showed the government’s willingness to change with times. Even so, the continuation of the cabaret was supported by the state, and the institutionalized definition of the cabaret was that of mature art. The Crazy Horse Paris Cabaret was even featured in local primetime variety shows and praised in parliament.

Hence, it is clear that what constitutes pornography hinges upon the government’s packaging and presentation of it to the public. One could argue that this selection procedure favours state interest from tax collection and tourist dollars, but these deductions may prove to be inconclusive from a lack in evidence, because no state would admit to jeopardizing the moral fiber of its social fabric for the benefit of the economy.

In essence

Rorikon figurines, albeit being cartoon pornography have managed to escape the censorship board’s filtering process because firstly, toys are seldom screened as they are inherently deemed to be harmless; secondly, with the preconceived notions of being merely toys, any deviant quality in rorikon figurines is easily neutralized; and thirdly, the rorikon subculture in Singapore has yet to have garnered enough attention to be officially processed, given its exclusivity and highly specialized interest.

Rorikon figurines may serve to under mind the growing strength and importance of modern women, especially when placed in the context of men with the Lolita Complex, because the female race is infantilized and subordinated in this culture. Also, because they are not sanctioned to be illegal and are capable of stimulating sexual arousal, secret voyeurs may take rorikon figurines to be a substitute for pornography in the human form.

Whether or not rorikon will remain as a neutral mature art form, a deviant subculture, or turn into an illegal and banned entity in the years to come would depend on its discovery by the mainstream, the reactions of this moral audience and the state’s response to them. However, I foresee that its over-riding neutralizing effect as a “mere toy” does well to disclaim any potential harm or detriment that rorikon figurines may incur, which may result in contestations of its official definition as pornographic material. This is of particular concern because it is dangerous for young impressionable children who engage with such toys without supervision, especially since there are no age limits for the purchase of these toys. My immediate suggestion would be for such rorikon figurines to be shrink-wrapped and sold with a consumer advice, just like how explicit adult magazines are sold. All that is left to do now is to sit back and watch the evolution of the rorikon subculture in Singapore.

Snippet of Interview transcript

Prior to the interview, I explained to the shopkeepers that I was an undergraduate from NUS writing a research paper on Japanese Anime and Manga. The following is an extract of the informal interview.

Q: Where are these (rorikon manga and anime) figurines imported from?
A: China, not Japan.

Q: But these are products of Japanese popular culture, so why not Japan?
A: Actually, even the figurines sold in Japan are made in China. Manufacturing costs are cheaper there, but of course, the ones sold in Japan are of a higher quality.

Q: Are there many Japanese among your patrons then?
A: No, I think the Japanese would just buy these from their own country, because they consider the ones here inferior. It’s mostly the locals who buy from here.

Q: Are there any age limits for the purchase of these (rorikon manga and anime) toys?
A: I want to clarify that they are not pornography. I don’t have any age limit set for buyers.

Q: I understand that these are purely rorikon manga and anime figurines, but some places might impose age limits for purchase because they are controversial. Your shop doesn’t?
A: I think it’s based on discretion. I don’t always restrict buying by age, unless the figurines are very explicit.

Q: For example?
A: It depends on their poses and the connotations behind them. Maybe I might consider the buyer’s age before allowing purchase, but I usually don’t, because I select the figurines to be sold here.

Q: Could you please elaborate on that?
A: The figurines that I sell don’t have removable clothes, or if the clothes are being taken off (figurines stripping) I make sure they cannot be removed all the way.

Bibliography

Lunsing, W. (2006). Yaoi ronso: Discussing depictions of male homosexuality in Japanese girls’ comics, gay comics and gay pornography.(12) Retrieved from http://www.csa.com

McLelland, M., & Yoo, S. (2007). The international yaoi boys’ love fandom and the regulation of virtual child pornography: The implications of current legislation. Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC, 4(1), 93-104. doi:10.1525/srsp.2007.4.1.93

pornography. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved March 25, 2008, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pornography

Media Development Authority (2008). Public Entertainments and Meetings Act. Retrieved March 25, 2008 from mda.gov.sg
website: http://www.mda.gov.sg/wms.www/actualTransferrer.aspx?c=10.1.6.&sid=135&eid=-1&fid=-1.

Kinsella, S. (1998). Japanese Subculture in the 1990s: Otaku and the Amateur Manga Movement. Journal of Japanese Studies, 24(20, 289-316.

Pollner, M. (1974). Sociological and common-sense models of the labeling process. In Roy Tuner (ed.), Ethnomethodology: Selected Readings. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

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