Nobody talks about lolicon. Not publically and certainly not in the mass media. That’s kind of the whole point. A Japanese portmanteau of the phrase “Lolita complex,” it refers to comics and animation featuring illustrations of what, to many Western and even domestic eyes, are alarmingly young girls engaging in often scandalous behavior. Even among aficionados it’s largely about the thrill of the illicit and underground, something to be giggled at, whispered about, and quietly consumed, but never ever to be discussed among the squares of mainstream society.

Yet that’s exactly what singer Pharrell Williams did he of the inescapable, quintuple-platinum selling single “Happy” with the video for his most recent single “It Girl.” Produced by artist Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki collective and co-directed by Mr., a longtime Murakami collaborator with a predilection for painting young schoolgirls, it is the polar opposite of its family-friendly predecessor.

As sexy lyrics play in the background, a bevy of bikini-clad anime lolitas frolic in the surf while the hiphop star’s animated avatar alternates between playing peeping tom and seduc-er of the youngest of the lot. This is pretty tame stuff by Japanese standards, where the flesh-and-blood equivalent of anime girls, “idol groups” like AKB48, rule the airwaves. But seeing it in an American music video threw me for a loop. How on Earth did we get from “Happy” to here?

I suspected even Pharell himself didn’t know. Convinced that few Americans would be able to decipher Mr.’s pastiche of Showa-era juvenile delinquency and sexuality, I pitched and sold a short piece about it to the New Yorker, who ran it on their website. Near as I can tell from a search of their archives, it was the first time lolicon had ever been discussed in their pages.

Perhaps inevitably, given the confluence of pop music and perversion, the article took off. Within 24 hours it was catapulted to the top spot on the New Yorker’s Most Popular articles list, giving me the pleasure of unseating the likes of Anthony Bourdain, even if only for a day or two. The online reaction was largely positive save for a flurry of furious comments on the magazine’s Facebook page, many of which sounded angrier about their favorite publication discussing cartoon sexuality than the article’s actual content. The usual aggregator sites rushed out with cut-and-paste remixes of the article. The Atlantic included it in a round up of weekly highlights; Esquire introduced it as one of their “long reads of the week.” My piece had thrust Japanese pop culture’s little secret into the spotlight.

A week later I had an unexpected surprise when Takashi Murakami posted a translation, along with a pointed critique in Japanese, on his public Facebook page. Mr.’s goal, Murakami wrote, was to construct a “landscape of an innocent summer dream,” though he realized, “it was very possible to imagine that this dream would seem like a nightmare when viewed from the stance of someone like the author of this article.”

But many of his comments focused on the issue of responsibility. “Lolicon . . .” he wrote, “emerged from Japan’s cultural castration after losing the war in the Pacific.” It was the result of “Japan’s impotence as a puppet nation of America,” welling up out of modern society “like festering pus.”

Then he questioned my bona fides: “is it culturally ‘just’ that this deformed culture is now being criticized for its very deformity from an American viewpoint? Is it ‘just’ for a nation to use its own culture as the sole yardstick by which to measure another nation’s deformed culture, while completely setting aside the fact that it continues to profit from fabricated wars? Connecting lolicon to pedophilia makes logical sense, but I think it can be argued that in Japan, which cultivates deformed culture, perhaps the aspiration for pure beauty may take such a form; that it can’t be understood using solely the Western criteria.”

Perhaps, but I can sure as hell try. I wholeheartedly agree that over-reliance on one’s own cultural yardstick often leads to what is commonly derided as “wacky Japan” reporting. And I while I can agree that the lolicon genre emerged from a subculture of “impotent” losers, they weren’t losing out to America, but to their own society.

Otaku is a hip buzzword around the world today. But mainstream Japan long treated these subcultural super-fans with ambivalence bordering on hostility. In their earliest incarnation, the decade from 1979 to 1989, the otaku were the antithesis of “cool Japan,” the dark yin to Japan Inc.’s incandescent yang. The macho, blinged-out financial tyrannosaur that Bubble-era Japan had evolved into wanted absolutely nothing to do with nonconformists who eschewed the trappings of adulthood for sexual relationships with cartoons.

Lolicon didn’t just materialize out of thin air. Japan has a long history of lowbrow parody illustration, such as the famed 18th century “fart battle” scrolls, or Hokusai’s legendary “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” featuring a nude woman being pleasured by an amorous octopus. In Japanese art, the refined and the vulgar have always co-existed side by side. This tradition never really ended. Unlike the U.S., with its draconian Comics Code Authority, Japan’s vibrant manga industry has until very recently operated almost totally unfettered by any sort of official oversight or regulations at all.

For many years in the postwar era, manga were very broadly divided into three categories: those for boys, those for girls, those for adults, each with their own distinctive art styles, and never the trine shall meet. But while publishers kept the content separated, there was a great deal of crossover among the readership, and more than a few young men found themselves entranced by the beautifully sophisticated “clean” look and romantic plotlines of manga intended for the fairer sex.

In 1979, an artist by the name of Hideo Azuma self-published a series of comics that he drew in a soft and feminine style, but with plots straight out of porno films. They’re tame by modern standards (one of the very first, drawn by his assistant, involved Little Red Riding Hood getting it on with the Big Bad Wolf). But Azuma’s risqué creations sparked a phenomenon at Comic Market, then and now the world’s largest convention for self-published manga artists and their fans. In the years following, dozens upon dozens of imitators flooded the scene, each attempting to one-up their competitors.

“Is it ‘just’ for a nation to use its own culture as the yardstick to measure another nation’s culture?”

The professional publishing world took note. By 1982 a series of specialty magazines had emerged to service the untapped market. Suddenly lolicon was everywhere, even in the pages of the otherwise mainstream Shonen Champion magazine, which sold millions of copies every week. Designed purely by and for domestic otaku, none of this stuff was ever sold abroad. Which is why, even after a childhood spent ravenously consuming imported illustrated sci-fi and action fare from Japan, I was utterly taken by surprise when I encountered lolicon in its home country for the first time, years ago.

The fad had largely faded by the end of the Eighties, when its never proven but highly publicized implication in the 1989 case of a notorious serial killer of children drove the final nail into its coffin. Still, the concept of “girls’ comics for boys” stuck. Over the years it percolated and evolved in subcultural circles, re-emerging roughly a decade later in a de-sexualized incarnation dubbed “moé” (a pun based on a homonym for “burning” and “bursting into bud”). Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, the sci-fi action-adventure shows I grew up on are the marginalia and moé featuring supercute teenaged girls are the mainstream. So mainstream, in fact, that even such staid organizations as Japan Rail or the Japan Self-Defense Forces use perky anime-girl mascots. And the largely unspoken truth is that all of this started with a whole bunch of sexed-up illustrations of little girls.

For in an ironic twist, the otaku essentially won the cultural war by default. Their tastes, once so vilified, became the mainstream’s. The sultry sirens of postwar screens have been supplanted by cartoon girls like the ones in Pharell’s video; domestic rock ’n’ roll has been edged off the charts by the flesh-and-blood equivalent of cartoons, idol singers like AKB48. And if there was any question as to whether all of this represents Japan’s face to the world, AKB48’s architect Yasushi Akimoto was recently named to the organizing committee for the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Indeed, the nation’s penchant for things “deformed,” as Murakami puts it, has grown into perhaps its most wellknown characteristic abroad. Better known by its Japanese name of kawaii, it translates very generally into “cute,” but doesn’t neatly overlap with Western uses of the word. It’s essentially a visual shorthand, using clean lines, rounded shapes, exaggerated eyes, and adorably squashed proportions to convey childish purity and innocence. What started simply as a drawing style has become so ingrained that it has been transformed into the equivalent of a Photoshop filter that can be (and is) applied to nearly anything. When the kawaii filter is applied to illustrated romance stories, you get shojo manga (girl’s comics). When applied to pop music, you get idol bands. When it is applied to product branding, you get characters like Hello Kitty. And when it is applied to pornography, you get lolicon.

Murakami’s parting salvo expressed “hope that [the New Yorker article] provides a chance for America, which continues to act as the world’s police force, to re-evaluate its future endeavors in light of seeing the end result of castrating a country.”There’s something very lolicon about the concept of framing frolicking pre-teen girls as a critique of the U.S. military-industrial complex. So too in the ambivalence about lolicon’s existence, the idea that blame for its creation needs to be placed, wherever it may land. Whatever the case, there’s no questioning one fact. Lolicon and its descendants are the bedrock of Japan’s modern entertainment culture. The world of Cool Japan is shouldered not by a lone Atlas but rather countless scantily-clad cartoon schoolgirls.

Matt Alt is a Tokyo-based writer and translator. He is the co-author of Yokai Attack! and other books on Japanese culture.