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

Mimi, your own contributions to the book explore what motivates peer-to-peer production in the Fansubbing and Anime Music Video communities. How might this research contribute to a larger understanding of the motivations shaping noncommercial cultural production?

Mimi:

I think both cases help fill out the story about fannish motivations for production, and also add an important transnational dimension to the discussions of noncommercial production and P2P circulation. In the case of AMVs, in a lot of ways the community and the motivations for participation parallel other forms of fan remix and appropriation, whether that is the live action vidding, fan fiction, or fan art. What is unique about AMVs though is the fact that the practice centers on transnational cultural remix, that localizes foreign visual content to popular local music. So it definitely involves reframing, retelling, or digging deeper into a particular series, but it’s also about making it speak to local cultural referents. For example, many editors talk about their work in terms of evangelizing for a particular series that might not be well known outside of Japan.

Or when an artist remixes a ninja series like Naruto to the audio of a Matrix trailer, he is making specific transnational connections around Asian martial arts and US cyberpunk culture.

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For fansubbers, the role of cross-cultural brokering is even more explicit. Unlike most forms of fan production, fansubbing is less about creativity and self expression and more about fidelity and very disciplined and often rote forms of work. I was first attracted to the community since I am bilingual myself and know just how hard it is to do translation work between English and Japanese. I was fascinated with why it was that fansubbers put in so much labor — translating, subtiling, timing, distributing — all on a voluntary basis. And many groups work in a tightly coordinated way on very intense timelines so that they can keep up with a series that is running weekly. It’s really backbreaking work. I found, again, that there were a lot of similarities in motivations with other forms of peer production, like what we’ve seen with communities around open source software or wikipedia. People engaged in the community for learning opportunities, through a sense of broader mission, to build reputation, and be part of a community. But again, like with AMVs, the transnational component adds an important twist to this equation. Fansubbers are filling a unique void in transnational connection by providing a high value function of translation and localization. Thus their sense of mission, of making the media they love available to people who wouldn’t have it, is very high. And it also helps that they can reach vast appreciative audiences because they are work faster than the commercial localization industry, and often sub series and in languages that the commercial industry won’t localize.

Your title stresses the role of networked communications in these fan communities. Would the current Otaku culture have been possible in a pre-internet era? Why or why not?

Daisuke:

Otaku culture has used snail mail to send around fan zines before the Internet, so even without today’s online networks, otaku culture has developed. By around 2000, however, in Japan it has become commonplace for otaku to upload their cosplay photos and fan comics, and to use online sites as archives.

Izumi:

As Daisuke suggests, the origins of otaku culture predated the Internet so there was definitely a pre-Internet otaku culture. It’s more that the Internet speeded up the pulse of otaku culture that had been developing slowly over the years, becoming the trigger for a sudden flowering. Internet media radically changed how otaku could stockpile and circulate information. In the mid nineties, the knowledge and information that individual otaku were gathering became a shared stockpile in informationl spaces. Further, by sharing this information with the world, otaku culture became accessible. Since the 2000s, however, I feel like social media have made the flows too fluid and active, and there’s not enough attention to information stocks. Otaku culture has become too lightweight. Put simply, I fear that social media and otaku are not well matched. At the end of the day, the value of otaku is in their individual stockpiling of information.

Mimi:

I think what Izumi is pointing to is that we are in an interesting transitional period where the Internet and otaku culture have become much more mainstream, accessible, and out in the open because of the scaling up of these networks and the advent of social media. In the early years of the Internet, it was much more geek and otaku centered, and felt like a match made in heaven, but I think today there’s a different feel to the online scene in part because the commercial industries have also taken to online culture in proactive ways now.For example, I think the golden years of fan digisubbing are coming to an end now that your’e seeing commercial localization industries working with a more fansub-like online model. So the distinction between mainstream commercial media and fan networked media is much blurrier. I’ve really learned from your work in this respect Henry. We’re definitely seeing the interplay happening in otaku culture too.

What do you see as the biggest disconnects between Japanese and American versions of Otaku culture?

Izumi:

I think the uniqueness of Japanese versions of otaku culture lie in the postwar origins and the stigma of a defeated nation. In my chapter on train otaku I describe the transition from military otaku to train otaku after Japan’s defeat. In the manga world, whether it is Osamu Tezuka, Fujio Fujiko, or Leiji Matsumoto, the memories of wartime defeat are deeply etched. Coming late to modernization, Japan felt it needed to catch up to advanced countries like the US and England, and embraced romantic ideals in relation so science and the military. At the same time, young men could only direct these romantic ideals to fictional worlds, thus giving birth to otaku. I don’ think you see this same backdrop to US otaku culture.

My understanding is that US otaku culture celebrate a somewhat more universal set of values. I sense this in Star Trek fans’ embrace of multiculturalism or in the early MIT hackers giving birth to a global computer culture.

Daisuke:

I think the biggest difference is that American otakue are much more open that Japanese otaku.

Mimi:

When Daisuke and I move between conventions between Japan the US its always a bit of a shock to see US kids out in the costumes on the street and in local restaurants. You’d never see that in Japan except maybe in Akihabara. It’s not considered appropriate to be in costume outside of the convention centers, where mainstream folk might see you. Even though otaku culture has become much more acceptable, there’s still a lot of work that the community does to make sure that they stay under the radar. In the US, anime fans take pride in consuming a kind of cult media, but Japanese fans are reframing a local mainstream media form in ways that the mainstream doesn’t always think is appropriate. They are seen as deviant and sometimes perverse consumers rather than cult consumers, and that continues to influence how the fandom operates.

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.