Otaku Culture in a Connected World: An Interview with Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji (Part One)

Over the past several decades, there has emerged a significant body of academic research in Japan which looks at Otaku culture — that is, the culture of a technologically literate segment of the population which is characterized by their impassioned engagement, skilled reworking, and intellectual mastery over elements borrowed from many aspects of popular culture, including not only anime and manga, but also games, popular music, digital culture, even history or trains. So far, relatively little of this work has been translated into English, which means that Fan Studies as practiced in the United States and Otaku Studies as it has developed in Japan have largely been autonomous fields. In practice, they have much to learn from each other, including forcing scholars to be more attentive to the cultural specificity of various fan practices, identities, aesthetics, and ideologies.

This is why I was so excited when I saw an advanced copy of Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World, edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji, and bringing together works by leading Japanese and western researchers interested in Otaku culture as both a national and transnational phenomenon. In many ways, the book represents a bridge between the western work on participatory culture and networked publics (represented by the kinds of work shared here by Ito and Lawrence Eng, among others) and work from Japan which has tended to be more rooted in critical sociology and postmodernism.

The collection represents a surprisingly diverse range of different kinds of fan practices — from the previously mentioned train watchers to cosplay, fan subbing, music video production, model building, and amateur comics publishing. A strong strand running through the book concerns the different locations (geographically, culturally) and networks (material and digital) through which Otaku culture unfolds. Given the three editors’ ongoing interests in forms of informal learning, there is also a strong focus on how these cultures reproduce themselves, how they recruit and orientate members, how they pass along core knowledge, and how they share resources towards common ends, all of which can add to a larger discussion about the nature and motivations for participatory culture. A solid introduction helps to situate these essays in larger critical conversations about Japan and its cultural impact on the modern world.

The three editors have graciously agreed to be interviewed for this blog, so over the next three installments, I am going to share some of their core insights about the project of Otaku Studies and the place of Japanese fan and geek cultures in an era of transnational cultural flows.

The term, Otaku, is clearly a contested one and each chapter adds some new nuances to our understanding of it. Yet, it seems important to have at least a starting understanding of the concept to help frame this interview. What do you see as some of the unifying features of Otaku culture?

Mimi:

Yes, otaku is a clearly contested term, and one that has continued to evolve over time, and as folks overseas have taken up the term. In our book, Lawrence Eng has a chapter that looks extensively at how the term was first introduced to the US.

Izumi:

The conventional view of otaku is that are people who have a high degree of affinity with fictional worlds depicted in media, and that they are poor at relating with people in the real world. Until recently, otaku culture was dominated by men.

Mimi:

As otaku culture has become more mainstream and more international, I think it is slowly beginning to be seen in a more positive light.

Daisuke:

Personally, I like Toshio Okada’s definition of otaku culture as “a culture that enjoys the craftwork involved in artistic works.”

Mimi:

I’ve thought of otaku as inhabiting the space between what in the US we associate with “fan” and “geek” culture. It’s a media-centered geekdom that exhibits fannish enthusiasm and the pursuit of esoteric knowledge, a strong orientation to remix, amateur DIY making, digital technology and P2P communication. There’s a focus on the media types of manga, anime, and computer games, though as you’ll see in our book, there are other kinds of otaku culture that might be less familiar for US readers such train otaku, political media otaku, and the game arcade scene.

Many of the essays capture a sense of “shame” or “uncertainty” about the status of the Otaku, especially when read against the more empowered or defiant discourse of American fandom. Why has the Otaku been such a troubled figure in Japanese culture? And how do we reconcile this sense of shame with the scope and scale of Otaku activities? American fans would dream of a more or less dedicated fan district (Akihabara) in a major American city!

Izumi:

Otaku culture has been a destination for upper class young men who have fallen off the status ladder. In the postwar period, at least until the period of rapid economic growth in the sixties, I don’t think that it was shameful for men to have otaku tendencies. Young men who were not very oriented to the opposite sex, attracted to fantasy and the imagination, and highly knowledgeable were actually called with respect “Hakase-Kun” [Mister Professor]. An orientation to knowledge and expertise was considered valuable in the pre-war period for the work of the empire building, and in the postwar period, for economic development. After the growth of consumer culture in the seventies and beyond, however, certain forms of masculinity started to become irrelevant. Those folks who couldn’t quite adapt to these new social changes, and continued to embrace prior masculine values, began to be labeled as otaku.

Mimi:

After the shift to a more consumer and media centered otaku culture in the eighties and nineties, we saw otaku culture being associated with more lowbrow and feminine cultural forms with a much stronger skew towards fan culture, manga, electronic games, and anime. We also saw the growth of depictions of what many people would consider “alternative” forms of sexuality, including a strong fantasy component or in the case of girl culture, “boy love” genres that resemble slash genres in the US. In the eighties, there was also a high profile case of a rapist-murderer who targeted little girls, and was involved in anime porn. All of this has contributed to a sense of otaku culture being deviant or shameful. At the same time, the esoteric, alternative and subcultural dimension of otaku culture is also part of the appeal. It has become a kind of zone of cultural tolerance for non-mainstream imaginative life. This is why it is such a thriving subculture that is increasingly out in the open in the urban districts like Akihabara and Ikebukuro, even as individuals may hide their personal involvement in it. As Daisuke describes in his chapter on girl otaku, there’s often great guilty pleasure to be had in sharing insider references with fellow otaku, but hiding their identity from their family, boyfriends, and mainstream peers.

What can you tell us about the context in the Japanese academy that these essays emerge from? There is now a thirty year plus history of American Fan Studies research. Is there an equally long history of Otaku research in Japan or is it a relatively new field?

Daisuke:

I think we can probably peg the start of otaku research to the publication of Shinji Miyadai’s Dismantling the Subcultural Myth. Before that, there were commentators like Akio Nakamori and Toshio Okada, but academic fan studies is about twenty years old. Since then, we’ve seen otaku research get some traction in sociology, cultural anthropology, psychology, media studies, and communication studies. It’s been in the past five to ten years that we’ve seen it becoming less rare for a graduate student to want to do their thesis on otaku culture. Today, otaku studies is flourishing, but it is a relatively new field.

Izumi:

As you see in the essays in our book, otaku culture research has developed largely out of sociology. There’s two reasons for this. One reason is that otaku were seen as antisocial and as a social problem, so they were taken up as an issue for communication research. Conversely, although people are beginning to recognize the value of the content of otaku culture, it took some time before it was taken seriously as an object of academic study. Even today, scholarly humanistic study in Japan centers on more traditional cultural forms, and content associated with otaku culture is generally taken up by more journalistic commentators. As a result, sociological approaches have tended to take the lead in Japan’s otaku culture research.

One key body of trailblazing work was conducted by a team led by Shinji Miydai in the nineties, which involved survey work among college students. They were able to demonstrate, though quantitative research, that the youth-centered consumer culture gave rise to both the street and fashion-savvy consumerist _shinjinrui_ [new breed], as well as the anti-communicative otaku.

Compared to fan studies in the US, Japanese otaku culture research has become fragmented. I feel it’s a problem that we don’t see the development of broad and systematic research. Sociology has taken up the problem of communication, literary studies has taken up the content focus, and internet researchers have taken up the topic of online media, but very little of this work is organically linked. Many famous otaku theorists who followed Miyadai, such as Hiroko Azuma and Tsunehiro Uno, have conducted sociological research but are not trained as sociologists. Since the nineties, work has been sporadic and dominated by one-off studies, and while there have been some exemplary works (some of which are represented in our book), but no single systematic “otaku theory” that unified this work.

The fragmentation of research based on different characteristics of otaku culture, and the fact that historically there has not been an organic link between this works, seems to be a difference with US fan studies. One reason for this weakness may be that Japan has few anthologies like the book that we have just put together.

Mizuko Ito is a cultural anthropologist of technology use, focusing on children and youth’s changing relationships to media and communications. She has been conducting ongoing research on Kids’ technoculture in Japan and the United States, and she is coeditor of Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, coauthor of Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Youth Living and Learning with New Media, and author of Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software. She is professor in residence and MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at the University of California, Irvine.

Diasuke Okabe is a cognitive psychologist specializing in situated learning theory. His focus is interactional studies of learning and education in relation to new media technologies. He also conducts research on Japanese anime and manga fan culture. He is co-editor of Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life and a lecturer at Tokyo City University.

Izumi Tsuji is a sociologist specializing in the sociology of culture. He has conducted extensive research on Japanese fan culture, including a study of fans of young idol musicians and train otaku. He is coauthor of Sore Zore no Fan Kenkyuu-I Am A Fan, a book on Japanese fan culture. He works as an associate professor at Cho University in Japan.