Defining A Phrase
Most people with even a small amount of knowledge of anime or manga are familiar with the term “fan service,” and usually with what it means. However, there is an interesting little story to tell about the expression; not so much the “fan” part, as the “service” part.
In Japan, “service” is what many would call Japanglish (“Japanese + English”): an English loan word. However, it must be noted that Japanese has a habit of defining loan words according to one meaning only, even if the original English had several meanings depending on the situation. “Service” is one such case. Japanese: サービス (pronounced SAAbisu, emphasis on the first syllable, regular cadence and tone for the rest).
In Japan, “service” is in the sense of customer service, but more specifically, free/ complimentary service to the customer. In other words, it is what Americans might flippantly refer to as a freebie, something you don’t have to pay for. Think of it as being just like the free pen offered by a business with the business’ name on it; the pen is “free,” but performs advertising for the company (even by the mere fact that you hold it for others, or even just yourself, to see).
Panty Shots = Free Pen
Therefore, fan service is complimentary freebies provided to fans of anime or manga. In practice, this refers to sexually suggestive (as opposed to sexually explicit) visual images that are essentially teases. They are, at most, so-called soft porn; soft-core rather than hard-core. This is because such teases are placed in anime or manga that is still intended for broad audiences, not adult-only.
Thus, a “panty shot” – a visual image showing at least a small part of a girl’s panties – is the “free pen” of so-called “fan service.”
Of course, this implies that normally, one would have to pay for such things. In fact, studios have been known to put out artbooks with much racier images than they felt at liberty to broadcast on television (at least, in the time slots their shows aired at). These artbooks are not free. (The studio Gainax is particularly adept at squeezing fans for money like this.)
This reinforces the idea that such imagery, usually offered in small, fleeting packages, is a freebie that keeps fans with an interest in such things, interested in the show or comic.
Of course, not everyone is interested. These people would be advised to limit themselves to more “serious” fare.
Censorship Is Relative
Japan has a very strict policy of censoring things that cross a certain line. The issue is that the line itself is considerably different than in many countries.
As a general rule, Japan’s censorship laws are treated as incredibly literal. In other words, the spirit can be lavishly and blatantly violated while the letter is followed. This means that what is suggestive can be very heavy, even if what is explicit is non-existent.
Japan has conservative factions, but they have, as yet, failed to make a dramatic dent in Japanese society’s tolerance of raciness and fan service. After all, it is not a country in the sway of a global monotheistic religion. Much of the argument for censorship is based on what Westerners will think of them.
On the other hand, Japanese society frowns on hugging and kissing in public. Perhaps this is part of why they are broadly loathe to clamp down on private entertainment; at least it’s private.