At the start of many DVDs from the now-sort-of-defunct ADV Films, a promotional video would play that explained the question “What is anime?”. (http://bit.ly/92wvoR) It's not exactly famous, but my friends and I like to joke about it.
“Anime is... straight from Japan! Totally unexpected! Not kids' stuff!”
“Not kids' stuff” is really important. I've said on the column before that there's a general stigma that animation and comics will always face here. Most American adults will not be caught dead reading a comic, and that includes the classy stuff like Urasawa and so on.
More than once, I have described the story of Monster to people without saying it's a comic: they get really interested and say “wow, I want to read that book!” Then, when I say it's a comic, they just stare back blankly and lose all interest.
It doesn't compute. That stuff's for kids, you know?
And so American otaku push back in the opposite direction, which is understandable. Nobody wants to see their favorite series dismissed as some trash that's beneath any normal adult. You Japanese otaku probably know a lot about that too, right?
Here's how far otaku were pushing back in the 90s. When I watched traded tapes with my friends in junior high (see “Tape Trading In A Dark Room”), sometimes the subtitles for Rurouni Kenshin or Dragon Ball Z (remember, these weren't official copies) would contain a ridiculous amount of profanity added by the translators. I will paraphrase from memory.
“F*** you, Kenshin! You're just too much of a p**** to f***in' kill these a**holes like you're supposed to! Aku soku zan, d***face!” - Hajime Saito
I can't speak for the intent of the fan translators responsible for these infamous scripts, but in the age of Toonami it was understood that these shows were being censored for US broadcast. It was impossible to notice that the camera abruptly cut away every time little Gohan was hit, or when Ryoko stood up in the hot spring and was now clothed in a bikini that was clearly digitally painted in.
So fans pushed all the way back in the opposite direction and assumed that all their favorite series, especially the big Shonen Jump titles, were really 18+ material.
“In the real Japanese Dragon Ball Z they swear all the time, and there's even a whole episode where Vegeta and Bulma have sex!”
Rumors spread, even as the original versions of these shows as seen in Japan were made readily available. People just liked the idea.
Today it's hard to just lie like that, because everybody knows what happens in Shonen Jump the day it hits the stands in Japan. But the violence in Jump comics, even today, is a long way from most American children's entertainment, so the idea has changed a little bit. The line you hear now is “Actually, in Japan Naruto is intended for adults.” Though this isn't really the case, I think fans use it to protect the honor of their favorite anime/manga series... and of course, to make themselves feel justified as fans.
Though I should note that a few months back, my little cousin asked me if it was really true that Naruto just ended in Japan with a ninja wedding between Naruto and Sakura.