by Miroslav Imbrišević
A PhD student of Japanese Studies at Manchester University (UK) recently published a paper in Qualitative Research, which has been condemned in the media and is now being investigated by the university and by the journal. Two things have caused offence: the research method (masturbation); and the material used during masturbation (shota, a Japanese genre of self-published erotic comics that features young boy characters). I don’t object to the “research method” as such. I can think of a different context where masturbation may be appropriate, e.g. when a sexologist or a neuroscientist is doing research on the phenomenology of orgasms. Then, it might be helpful to know what it is like to have an orgasm. But I think in order to understand shota culture it isn’t necessary for the researcher to jerk himself off, so in this context the “research method” is inappropriate.
The chosen material is problematic, to say the least. The author, Karl Andersson, appears to acknowledge this, because he would like to know whether (2022: 2) “sexual desire for fictional boys is connected to sexual attraction to actual children.” Strangely, the author never answers this question. Was it necessary for Andersson to join in the shota practice in order to answer the question? No. He could have just asked his research subjects, surveyed the relevant literature, and looked at the relevant crime statistics.
Readers may have expected some reflection and information about legal issues in Andersson’s paper, as these comics are legal in Japan. [i] Is this (using comics rather than other materials) a way to evade being in possession of illegal photographic porn? Does the production/consumption of shota lead to child sexual abuse or otherwise normalise it? What is the view of criminologists and researchers of sexuality on this topic? Secondly, by joining in, Andersson appears to condone the message of shota comics, which would be a violation of research ethics. He even characterises the comics as containing “often extreme content.” [2022: 7] According to the Times Higher Education: “possessing fictional images of minors in a pornographic context is banned in the UK” (and also is, in many other countries).
Because Andersson joined in the practice (masturbating to shota comics), rather than remaining an outside observer and researcher of shota culture, the paper fails to uphold commonly accepted research ethics. But does it have any merit as a piece of scholarship? Does it tell us anything important/interesting about shota culture in Japan? Several people obviously thought so. Andersson thanks his supervisor and another academic for comments on an early version, as well the reviewers for “useful feedback.” And the editor/s of the journal also thought that it had scholarly merit. For the remainder of this essay I want to assess the scholarship of the paper.
The author tells us that there are regularly big shota conventions in Japan, so for an ethnographer (or sociologist) this might be a legitimate subject of research: Why does Japan have a shota culture? And what does this tell us about Japanese society and individual shota consumers?
Andersson claims that he hit “a wall” in his research, because “[s]emi-structured interviews … can only take you so far, especially when the topic is sensitive.” [2022: 1] But then inspiration struck: “My understanding of my research participants’ experience remained largely intellectual. What I needed was a method that could remove the ‘separation of mind and body’ …, and so give me an embodied understanding of my topic.” [2022: 2]
Does a researcher need “an embodied understanding” of shota culture? This seems implausible. Furthermore, Andersson is not Japanese, so his experience may tell us something about his socialisation and cultural background, and how this is intertwined with his embodied understanding of autoerotic sex. But it will not tell us much about shota culture. Secondly, his individual experience may not shed any light on shota consumers, particularly, since he is neither a producer nor a regular user of the comics within that particular sub-culture, as he admits himself. That’s why he should have restricted himself to interviewing his subjects. Asking members of the shota community may be helpful in understanding the practice, but making himself a subject of study, is merely to indulge in role-play (as well as sending out an ethically dubious message).
The author explains: “I tried to inquire about the details of these masturbation sessions, but it was hard to know what to ask, and the conversation sometimes stalled.” This suggests incompetence/lack of preparation on the part of the researcher. There should be a uniform catalogue of questions, to provide a data set, albeit with some scope for follow-up questions. Even if the subjects were reluctant/embarrassed to answer questions in person, Andersson could have devised an anonymous survey (or he could have combined in-person interviews with a questionnaire).
Andersson mentions the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who also used the “ethnographic method.” What is this method? The SAGE Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods tells us:
Ethnography is a qualitative research method in which a researcher – an ethnographer – studies a particular social/cultural group with the aim to better understand it. Ethnography is both a process (e.g., one does ethnography) and a product (e.g., one writes an ethnography). In doing ethnography, an ethnographer actively participates in the group in order to gain an insider’s perspective of the group and to have experiences similar to the group members. In writing ethnography, an ethnographer creates an account of the group based on this participation, interviews with group members, and an analysis of group documents and artifacts.
Interestingly, for Andersson there is no group (activity) to join. He believes that he is doing “participant observation” in the tradition of Malinowski, but he is only observing himself – an outsider. [2022: 4] The author is aware of these methodological problems: “But masturbating to shota also gave me findings that I don’t know if [sic] are unique to me or shared by my research participants.” [2022: 6]
An ethnographer will look at people in their cultural setting, so, the first rule will be only to observe. If the researcher were to join in, this might alter the practice, because the research subjects might try to accommodate and help the outsider in engaging with the practice. By joining in, the researcher runs the risk of altering the evidence. If you want to study and understand Balinese cockfighting, you don’t need to bring your own rooster to the fight. Of course, there are situations where anthropologists need to join in, such as when all observers of initiation rites must themselves be initiated.
Andersson’s claim that he was using the ethnographic method seems mistaken. When he regularly spent half an hour in his bedroom with shota comics, he did not observe a group, neither did he join in their practice; he only performed something which he imagined to be their practice. It was a wholly solitary affair.
When reading the paper, it becomes clear, the author doesn’t have a good grounding in research methods: “I would masturbate in the same way that my research participants did it.” [2022: 4]This assumes that shota fans all masturbate and use the comics in a uniform way, and this is obviously false, unless there is an official manual: “How to correctly masturbate to shota material.” The members of this sub-culture will have many things in common, and it would have been the job of Andersson to find out what that is.
So, what are Andersson’s research findings? I list them, followed by my comments.
 Consuming shota comics “has the power to provide an alternative past” in your imagination. [2022: 5]
Of course, this is one, very common, effect of fiction. You identify with a fictional character and perhaps relate it to your own life. As a research finding, it is trivial.
 “The whole structure surrounding the shared imaginations of shota and other genres creates a ‘feeling of oneness’.” [2022: 6]
Andersson could have gained this insight without spending all that time in bed. After all, there is a sense of community among Tolkien fans, Harry Potter fans, Star Wars fans, Trekkies, etc.
 Treating his masturbation sessions as a ritual “showed that I respected myself and that masturbating to shota was something to feel proud and not ashamed of.” [2022: 6]
But is this also the case for the shota community as a whole? Recall, that during his field work the interviews “sometimes stalled.” The weakness of Andersson’s approach is that he draws general conclusions from his particular experience.
The conclusion of the paper is seemingly paradoxical: We are alone when we have sex, but we are also not alone. The author’s experiences made him “wonder if all sex is masturbation, in the sense that people are focused on their own pleasure and use other people as ‘masturbation material’.” [2022: 8] He realises that “the autoerotic aspect of sex is there even when we are physically together.” But he also understands that there is more to it: “Others were there with me, both in the form of the characters that populated the dojinshi [self-published comics], but also in the form of the invisible creator of these characters and the other readers who were enjoying them.” [2022: 8] All of this seems trivial. Masturbation is (usually) a solitary activity, but people use their imagination while masturbating. Andersson claims that because of this, they are not alone. This interpretation seems far-fetched. It would mean that before Robinson Crusoe met Friday, he was never alone. So there was actually no need to seek the companionship of Friday.
It doesn’t occur to Andersson to apply some critical evaluation to his findings. The thesis that we are really alone when we have sex with another person may just be a predominantly male experience (linked to the current generation of men who are frequent users of pornography from a young age – or being a consumer of shota comics). Do women feel the same way? What about the female creators and users of shota? Are shota consumers really “less alone,” or is it rather proof that consumers of these comics are alone with their imagination (i.e. without companionship)? Does knowing that there are other shota users make them less alone?
Andersson never delves into the sociologically interesting questions. Will sex with another person morph (or has it morphed) into an auto-erotic activity because of the prevalence of masturbation to porn among young men? How does this alter the experience of having sex with a partner? What does it mean for long-term relationships? Do partners notice that they are being used, and how do they experience such objectification?
I am not an expert on Japan, but from news reports I know that Japan is turning into a society of singles, and many of these singles claim not to be interested in sex or relationships. And this raises another interesting research question: Is there a correlation between the atomisation of society and shota culture? Are our societies becoming more like Japan? Andersson is silent on all of this.
His essay fails in two respects: It falls short of common ethical standards, and it involves poor scholarship. Papers like this give the humanities a bad name and encourage politicians in their belief that funding should go mainly to STEM subjects. Andersson’s supervisor, the reviewers and the journal editor(s) should have seen this coming. They have all done a disservice to their field of study and to the humanities in general.[ii]
There was one redeeming passage in Andersson’s paper: “And so I realized that my body was equipped with a research tool of its own that could give me, quite literally, a first-hand understanding of shota.” This made me laugh out loud. [iii]
Today I noticed a removal notice appeared on the journal website: “Due to ethical concerns surrounding this article and the social harm being caused by the publication of this work, the publishers have now agreed with the Journal Editors and have decided to remove the article while this investigation is ongoing in accordance with COPE guidelines.”
[i] The age of consent in Japan is 13.
[ii] This paper is open access, so somebody (Andersson’s supervisor?) must have convinced the department and the university that this paper is worthy of being read widely. The fee for this would have been around £2500.
[iii] I can’t resist a little dig at the reviewers. If Andersson thought that he had to masturbate in order to understand shota culture, did the reviewers feel the same in order to ‘assess the quality’ of his work?