Why is slavery such a common plot device in isekai web novels? It’s something I’ve touched upon in earlier blog posts and Twitter threads, but it’s only become a big question within the last year or so, thanks to The Rising of the Shield Hero‘s general popularity with the Western anime community. What was once a curious oddity within the light novel subculture has gotten much more visible now. And thanks to America’s fraught history with chattel slavery and persisting political issues regarding how that history is taught and remembered, isekai slavery is a more controversial topic there.
As a result of all the recent chatter, I became curious about why slavery became such a trend on Narou in the first place. I stumbled upon a story called よくある異世界奴隷事情を現実的に考えてみた (“I Tried Thinking About the Common Isekai Slave Circumstances Realistically”). It’s an essay/short story that explores the topic. I thought it was interesting so I reached out to the author ε-(´∀｀; ) and obtained their permission to translate it. Here is the translation:
I Tried Thinking About the Common Isekai Slave Circumstances Realistically
“Hey, big brother. So I’ve been reading this light novel lately…”
My little sister Misa showed me a trending novel on the popular novel sharing website Shousetsuka ni Narou.
“I Formed the Strongest Party Out of My Slave Harem in the Other World.”
Yeah. It was one of those novels that were jam packed with my least favourite tropes. This sort of lazy, by-the-numbers storytelling was dime a dozen on Narou. There were a bunch of crappy stories where almost every sentence seemed lifted from somewhere else, but there were some hidden gems among the rough. My sister was a casual light novel reader, but because she had no money she got into this website. Sometimes, she asked me about things that caught her attention.
“What’s the problem with this novel?”
“Well, um, see this bit?”
My sister pointed to the part where the protagonist treats the heroine like family and she falls in love with him, all according to the template.
“Why’d she fall for that guy?” she asked bluntly.
That’s the part of slave light novels that we’re not supposed to talk about openly, I thought, but I gave her a straight answer anyway.
“Because it’s the template.”
My sister was unconvinced, so I went into a more detailed explanation.
“Listen, my sister. Think of the average guy in your class who has no standout features.”
“Okay,” said my sister, closing her eyes and thinking of someone.
“Now imagine you’re the black sheep in the class. People bully you and make you do their errands. But there’s a reason behind it. You committed a crime and you have to pay back the people who are now bullying you.
“But then that average guy helps you out. When you ask him why he did that, he gives a vague response like, ‘I didn’t feel good.’
“Now then, my sister, what would you think?”
“Erm? I’d think of him as a weirdo, I guess?”
“And there you have it.”
My sister’s eyes widened and she tilted her head.
“So many of those generic light novels you see about a guy buying slaves and making a harem depict the guy being kind to his slaves or refusing to exploit them. The reason being is that a Japanese person wouldn’t be able to stomach the idea of handling a slave. And most of these protagonists are pretty average-looking.”
You wouldn’t fall in love with a guy like that. At worst, you’d think of them as expendable, and at best you’d just think of them as okay. It’s getting harder for guys without any charm whatsoever to stumble on romantic opportunities in this world.
“I mean, just think about it. The guy has suddenly come up to you and bought you, and for some inexplicable reason he’s being nice to you? In a world where slavery is commonplace. Of course you’re going to be weirded out before you start thinking of him as a nice guy and so forth.”
If we were talking about a very young slave, you could argue that they hadn’t yet learned the norms of society. But to most people, he would be a weird guy who goes against common sense. The first thing you’d feel upon being bought by him would be fear.
“There are also a lot of novels where the guy abruptly releases the slave. I find this hard to swallow as well. What would happen if you suddenly release a slave in a world where slavery is commonplace? The slave would probably suspect an ulterior motive. But this never happens in most light novels. Instead, they just ask why, and when the guy gives them some vague response, they’re like, ‘Wow that guy is so nice! Let me tag along with him!’ Would that really happen in real life?”
“I guess not. If I got a vague answer, I’d find it hard to believe and start wondering if something was up.”
“Hence, the reason why slave girls fall in love with the protagonist is because they’re written to be love interests, and that’s the template.”
- It’s assumed that a “heroine” will fall in love with the protagonist.
- Because she’s the heroine, she can’t go against the template.
- The heroine has to blindly trust the protagonist.
“If the writer is experienced or a pro, they can write it in a more believable way. But when a novel has gained popularity because of its cute characters and entertaining plot, then people stop fixating on that particular point. Including the author.
“When it comes to a long story, the people who were put off will stop reading at the beginning. As a result, only the people who have a positive opinion will write their impressions. The author stops receiving criticism and starts relying on cliches more and more for the setting and plot. Only the casual readers who aren’t reading too much into it will keep up with it. The others will just keep up with out of force of habit,” I said, then spread my arms to the side. “Look, I just made a crappy story.”
Well, you could say this about any generic story.
Because the threshold for writing novels is so low, you get both the wheat and the chaff. And since most users are used to the chaff, they don’t mind it. Not many people on this site take the novels they write that seriously.
“Well, if you really want to read an interesting story, you should look for a novel that’s been published as a book so you can get feel for the plot and whether it’s your kind of thing. And if that doesn’t work, you’re left with the search option, digging around for things that interest you. And if that doesn’t work, you may as well just buy light novels since that would be less of a waste of time.”
If you’re willing to compromise, you can just pretend to not notice the rubbish parts. You’ll be just like the other users in that sense.
Alternatively, you could read a story with over a million Japanese characters. Even if there are bits that annoy you at the start, the author’s writing gets better as it goes along. Once you get used to the style, you can enjoy it.
“Anyway, long story short: Barring the small minority of genuinely interesting stories, most of the stuff you find here are ripoffs. I think it’s fine to just enjoy the atmosphere. That applies to most of the stuff that’s in the all-time rankings, too. The rankings just tell you whether the story has caught people’s eyes. Anything below the top 150 tends to fluctuate easily, so they’re unreliable.”
When I was done speaking, I turned toward my PC. And then I resumed my search for an interesting-looking novel in the fickle sea online.
ε-(´∀｀; )’s note: And yeah, that’s the gist of it.
Personally, I’m iffy about stories with a slavery emancipation movement, too. It doesn’t feel convincing when a powerful person lends his strength to weak people in order to spark a revolution.
The disempowered conspire and remove the slavery system, overthrow the regime, and establish their rights as citizens. When a powerful protagonist gets involved from above, I don’t feel that it’s realistic even if it works according to the template. It makes me wonder what would happen if the protagonist went away. Or what would happen if you forced slavery to end before the economy and culture had reached the point where slavery was no longer necessary. It’s a pity how so many stories don’t think that far ahead.
You don’t really see stories where the protagonist is put into the same position as the slaves and sparks a slavery emancipation movement that way, do you?
Translator’s note: Thank you to the author for kindly giving me permission to translate. Also, be sure to take this story as only one person’s opinion. Other explanations for the popularity of slavery in isekai go along the lines of “Since the protagonist is sent to another world and has no pre-established relationships with anyone, slavery is a convenient way to establish trust between him and a girl. Thanks to slave magic, slaves can’t betray you, after all.” What are your thoughts on this web novel trope?
Edit: The ground rules for the comments are no kink-shaming (i.e. insulting/making fun of people who enjoy fictional depictions of slavery) and no justifications of real-life slavery. Thank you!