In Defense of Moe: An Interview With Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Three)

To what degree is moe a collective as opposed to a personal experience?

That’s a great question! Responding to fictional characters seems like a very personal thing. Insofar as one is describing what he or she responds to as moe, everyone has his or her own definition. However, I would say that it is more collective than we might at first appreciate.

Characters come from somewhere, right? Someone has to first imagine the character, which might be in textual or visual form. So, for example, a storywriter comes up with a character, or an artist sketches a design. Then, if it’s animation, someone voices the character. A voice actress described her job to me as “imaging” (imēji suru) the character and “matching” (macchingu suru) the image of others involved in the project, which is quite telling. I think that this imaging and matching is actually quite common throughout the creative industries of manga, anime and games, as well as figurines, merchandise and so on.

Ian Condry’s book, The Soul of Anime, describes something like this. People are collaboratively creating the character, which both moves and is moved by those interacting with it. It’s a kind of shared imaginary, maybe. We could take this further and consider how people draw on existing characters when imagining a new character. It is not a coincidence that many manga and anime characters look alike, because they are assemblages of affective elements – I’m thinking of Azuma Hiroki, who is interviewed in the book – which both precede and exceed the work in question. What creators respond to, and design others to respond to, that is, “moe characters,” are not really contained in any one form or possessed by any one person.

The response is similarly collective. Writing about otaku, Thomas LaMarre refers to a “collective force of desire,” which could be taken to mean the shared movements around moe characters, which are then “otaku” (movement). What LaMarre refers to as otaku movement resonates with moe, or that which moves, collectively. More simply, it is said that affect is contagious, so the movement of one quickly becomes the movement of many. I’d say that even fan activities that appear to be the most personal, for example writing fanzines about a favorite character or costuming as him or her, are also about sharing the character’s movements.

What is cosplay if not imaging the character and matching that image to those of others? In this way, cosplay resonates with what the voice actress I mentioned earlier says that she does. In a similar way, fanzine authors work with characters and worlds provided by manga and anime, which, as Ian Condry points out, is not so different from what professionals do when creating anime episodes using characters in a world developed by others. It maters that the characters used in fanzines are known to others, because they are then shared objects of affection, making personal imaging of them part of a collective articulation.

The question is does the image match or not, which means that another image must already exist in the minds of those responding to the fanzine. As Condry points out, there is a “dark energy” or “intensely inward-focused energy” of anime, which fuels its spread, because fans wish to share their moe with others and have it recognized. The shared production of moe characters contributes to shared expressions of affection for them.

Along the way, you give us some glimpses into the role which moe plays in shaping the Japanese creative industries. We’ve seen in recent years an emphasis by the national government and others on the concept of “Cool Japan” as a source of “soft power.” How comfortable are these government groups to some of the more intense forms of “moe” culture you describe in the book?

This is something that I’m looking into as part of a new research project in Akihabara, but what I can say now is that some people in the government are very concerned about certain forms of manga, anime and games circulating abroad and coloring perceptions of Japan. They are fine with celebrating Tezuka Osamu as the father of contemporary manga and anime, or the critically acclaimed and almost universally loved films of Miyazaki Hayao, but they are less excited about the prospect of being associated with fanzines centering on sexual parodies of Tezuka or Miyazaki characters or computer games that simulate relationships and even sex with cute girl characters.

I have heard this expressed in many ways, but one of the most memorable was when members of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) organized a symposium in Akihabara in March 2012. A local business owner, who I probably shouldn’t name, asked representatives of METI straight out what their intensions were in using Akihabara to promote Cool Japan. To this middle-aged gentleman, who runs an electronics store with a storied history, Akihabara needed to be cleaned up or tourists flocking to the area would leave not with fond memoires of Cool Japan, but rather stories about “Porno Japan.” Those are his words, not mine! Very provocative stuff, but I think it touches on serious tension.

The dynamic is as follows: The increasing visibility of otaku brings to light things that are generally considered to be niche. Axiomatically: The normalization of otaku proceeds with the discovery of new abnormality. We all know a story or two – or fifty – about “weird Japan,” or that story that makes us stake our heads and say, “Only in Japan!” In fact, the recurring story about the male Japanese otaku who marries his fictional girlfriend, is in a committed relationship with a body pillow, is building a sex robot or doll in the likeness of an anime characters – all of these could be lumped together into sensationalist reporting that contributes to an image of Japan, male otaku and moe as perverse. This one man’s charge to METI that the government is promoting “Porno Japan” reminds us that not all forms of manga, anime and games are considered “cool” in Japan, and not all of them necessarily reflect “Japan,” and certainly not in the ways that some people wish.

Even one does not have a problem with hoards of men and women, young and old, reading One Piece or watching Ghibli films – such an interest is normal, after all – there are always things that will shock and challenge. For better or worse, many of these things are on display in stores in Akihabara. So when the government comes into this neighborhood and starts talking about manga, anime and even otaku as components of a branded national culture, as representative of “Japan,” that is when the subcultural and countercultural elements are going to generate some friction.

It was really interesting for me to see in summer 2014, right around the time when The Moe Manifesto was published, how Akihabara figured into international news reports that Japan was not cracking down on manga, anime and games as “child abuse materials.” CNN, for example, went to a shop in Akihabara specializing in fanzines and filed a video charging that this material is “fueling the darkest desires of criminals.” Hyperbole and questionable claims aside, this report does not just accuse Japan and otaku of being weird or perverted, which can still lead to some laughs, but rather Japan as a empire of child porn and the people in Akihabara, the “Mecca of Otaku” (otaku no seichi), as straight out sex criminals.

What is the evidence for this claim? Drawings. The reporter takes a manga book in his hand and condemns those who draw and are drawn to it as “criminals” harboring the “darkest [of] desires.” This then feeds back into reactionary and conservative discourses in Japan, where there are calls to regulate manga and anime more strictly to avoid “unhealthy” thoughts and desires. One such Diet member, a proper bureaucrat, appeared on an episode of TV Takkuru in September 2014, where he was told that Japan is being treated like an “empire of child porn.” When asked, “Should violence and underage sex in manga and anime be regulated,” his answer was, predictably, “Yes.” The show then sent a reporter to follow a group of otaku around Akihabara. While the tone of this “reporting” is significantly lighter than CNN, it shares the impulse to look at otaku in Akihabara and their relationships with fictional characters and ask whether or not regulation is necessary. This tension within the discourse between “Cool Japan” and “weird Japan,” between “good” and “bad” manga, anime and otaku, will not be resolved anytime soon. Rather, as we approach the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, it seems likely that the debate will heat up around Akihabara, moe and global norms versus community standards.

 

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).