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[Trigger warnings: rape, rape culture]

Among the controversies du jour is one troublesome line from the recently-aired Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun. The original line, 「動くな。騒ぐと犯す」, was rendered in Crunchyroll’s translation as “No funny moves. Make one peep and I rape you.” If, in fact, that is what he said, this is a very shocking line indeed. But here’s the thing.

That is what he said.

This is not open for interpretation.

The primary male love interest in Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun threatened the protagonist with sexual violence.

The average anime fan with a dog in this fight tends to vastly over-rate either their Japanese literacy, their understanding of how language works, or both, so I’ll take this from the very top.

Words are small units of meaning that we string together into phrases and sentences and such to encode the ephemeral ideas we have in our head into a format that can be communicated to other people. Generally speaking, there are two “kinds” of words: function words and content words. The former, function words, are the mostly-meaningless words that we use to explain how other words interact—”the”, “from”, “and”, etc. Those aren’t really relevant here. The other kind, content words, are the sounds we map on to actual things to refer to those things. Rock. Yellow. Twelve.

Rape.

What’s tricky, though, is that content words aren’t always exactly cut and dried. Other than proper nouns, they usually refer to sets of things, and people don’t always agree on the exact contents of those sets. The border between things a word does describe and things it doesn’t describe isn’t a sharp line, it’s more of a gradient. Just ask any two anime fans what moe means.

Moreover, the words we say are not the sum total of our communication. Outside of semantics, i.e. the meaning of words, is pragmatics, i.e. the meaning of context. As much as what we say communicates meaning, what we don’t say, what we do, how we act, what has already been said and a million other factors all contribute to the meaning imparted to listeners. This can sometimes make it tricky to interpret what exactly a given utterance was intended to mean, even if the speaker and hearer are speaking the same language.

Naturally, this is even trickier when translating between languages, because different languages sort things into semantic groups differently. People even process color completely differently depending on what language they are speaking. Translation is a delicate art because precious few words are in perfect 1:1 correspondence between languages—common words’ semantic fields tend to overlap quite a bit, but rarely is the overlap exactly perfect.

This is why it is possible to get translations “wrong”. Without a nuanced understanding of the social and linguistic context in which something is said, it’s easy for an unskilled translator to fall afoul of unspoken pragmatic rules and nuance in the language they’re less familiar with. And, conversely, it’s easy for an unskilled student of language to fall afoul of nuance when criticizing the works of a competent translator—as happened last season with the controversy over a similar line in Kokoro Connect.

That is, in brief, how words work. So, rape.

The line spoken by Haru in Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun is 「動くな。騒ぐと犯す」. Let’s break down the structure of this utterance to sort out what it “really means”.

There are actually two main clauses here; the first, ugoku na , is simple enough: the verb “to move”, with a negative imperative ending. “Don’t move.” The second is a bit more complex: sawagu to okasu is a pair of plain-form verbs connected by a function word with an approximate meaning of “and”. Here, it implies that one action will result in another. The former is sawagu, which means “to make noise”; the latter is okasu, which is the apparent sticking point for so many people.

Okasu is, in fact, a word with a fairly broad and complex semantic map. According to Jisho above, there are at least three well-known kanji used to write the word, and each is given a very slightly different dictionary definition. This means there’s room for ambiguity, right? This one word means so many things, why does it have to mean rape?

Well, first and foremost, many of these meanings aren’t relevant to this grammatical construction at all. Sawagu to okasu is contextually very clear about the agent and patient of each action. Who is sawagu-ing? Shizuku is. Who is okasu-ing? Haru is. Who is being okasu-d? Shizuku is. Which means that okasu definitely does not mean “to assume” as in a surname,  ”to commit” as in a crime, or “to perpetrate”. Quite a few possible meanings of the word, in fact, do not make any grammatical sense in this context.

More important, though, is that even though a given word can mean many different things, those meanings are not completely disassociated. Consider that you are cornered in a dark alley by a complete stranger who declares that he is going to kill you. Are you struck by the confusing polysemy of the word? Are you worried that, rather than “causing your death”, he is going to “muffle” you, “defeat” you, cause you to feel “a smarting pain, as from a minor accident”? It’s doubtful. Given the existing context, it is not at all strange of you to expect, and prepare to deal with, the worst.

When Shizuku, upon being grabbed by a man she cannot see and pulled into a dark alley is told not to make noise or he will okasu her, the meaning communicated is very clear. As a rational human being with a native grasp of the Japanese language, sexual assault is almost certainly the first thing on her mind. And for all his naïveté, Haru is also fluent in Japanese. The most one could argue is that Haru’s neural development is impaired to such a degree that he does not understand the sexual nature of the threat he’s making—but at any rate, the utterance itself is a real and tangible threat.

And regardless, to Shizuku and any outside observer, even if Haru is somehow unaware of it, he has threatened Shizuku with sexual assault. However far down the rabbit hole of character psychology you go, “rape” is in this case an entirely accurate rendering of okasuno matter how you slice it.

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