In Defense of Moe: An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Five)

You also give us a glimpse into the emergence of a generation of Japanese academics who regularly write about moe and otaku culture more generally. Most of this work remains in Japanese, though small samples are starting to get translated into English and have become part of conversations about the global dimensions of fandom. Who do you see as some of the most important thinkers to emerge from this strand of research and what arguments there do you think are pertinent to western researchers trying to address questions of fandom and media consumption more generally?

There are many really fascinating thinkers who in some way or another intersect with otaku culture! Ōtsuka Eiji is one that immediately comes to mind. Parts of Ōtsuka’s work on media mix have been translated by Marc Steinberg, and his arguments about the origins of manga and anime under fascism have been translated by Thomas LaMarre. As both Steinberg and LaMarre point out, Ōtsuka changes our perspective on old questions. For example, his world-and-variation thesis, which was originally published in 1989, brings up the idea of the active and productive fan, which resonates with work coming out of cultural studies, but Ōtsuka is coming at this from the perspective of the corporation. He worked at Kadokawa and Dentsu, a publisher and ad agency, respectively.

This is a broader point that I probably shouldn’t get into here, but I like the way that there is not such an insistence on resistance to, or a critique of, capitalism in Japanese discussions of manga and anime “subculture,” which means something very different in Japan. In Fan Cultures, Matt Hills talks about the need to get beyond the binary approach to fans that can be crudely divided into Frankfurt and non-Frankfurt, production side and consumer side, passive and active, bad and good. I remember reading that and thinking, “Japanese critics are already inhabiting that contradiction!”

Among the results of this, at least in Ōtsuka’s work, is, on the one hand, a discussion of fans gaining access to the mode of production and producing culture by and for themselves. On the other hand, because of his position as a content provider for fans, Ōtsuka also argues that fan activities and productions can be integrated into a system of corporate ownership and profit, which is very interesting. The “world” that is owed by the corporation and provided to fans is expanded and invigorated by the variation that fans produce within it.

To me, this sounds like an immanent critique of immaterial labor. Fans are active and productive, sure, but for whom does their productive activity generate value? That is not a simple question. As Ōtsuka points out, fan labor – and let’s call it that, because many fans work hard at what they love – is very meaningful for fans, even transformative, but it also contributes to corporate profits. How do we work through these entanglements? I don’t know, but it is unlikely to be a heroic refusal of the corporation or capitalism. Dick Hebidge said a long time ago that “subcultures” depend on commodities, and this is even clearer for fan cultures, but I think that he might have overstated the resistance of these cultures, which he thought would eventually lose their edge and be naturalized and trivialized through their own commoditization as styles.

In contrast to Hebdige, Tiziana Terranova has long said that “free labor” is fundamental to capitalism, and it is not the case that someone is outside the system and then gets reintegrated into it. The same is true for subcultures that generate “styles” or fan cultures that generate “content.” This is not to say that there is no meaning to what fans do, because there is, but Ōtsuka seems to be encouraging us to consider how people work and live within consumer capitalist society, how they use media and commodities and how these activities are valued and valorized.

There are many other thinkers in Japan doing similarly interesting work. Okada Toshio, for example, has a lot to say about the differences between “subculture,” “counter culture” and “otaku culture.” He also provocatively suggests that for Japan, and perhaps many other nations, there is not such a clear distinction between “child” and “adult,” which complicates narratives of resistance to the “parent culture.” For me, Okada also raises questions about how we define “child” and “adult,” and what the “youth” in “youth culture” refers to.

While Okada can seem a little narrow and at times even sexist, he is not the only one writing about “subculture” in Japan. Indeed, Kotani Mari’s Tekuno goshikku (Techno Gothic) is a great example of some of the work being done on “feminine subculture,” and it addresses some of the blindspots on sex and gender in Okada and others.

Getting back to what’s exciting about Okada, though! From the position of a content producer, Okada seems to be arguing for education and literacy with the aim of people better understanding and more effectively engaging media. Okada’s discussion of how fans themselves can evaluate media and commodities sounds a lot like Stuart Hall’s “popular discrimination,” but I think a more generous read would be the suggestion of intervening into the contested terrain of culture and taking a position, which is a form of politics that resonates with the later Hall. Perhaps you might call this “culture jamming?”

On the topic of culture jamming, I think it would be helpful to translate Ōtsuka’s book on otaku, ‘Otaku’ no seishinshi (The Intellectual History of ‘Otaku’), and Okada’s Otakugaku nyūmon (Introduction to Otakuology), simply because they are so different in their approach from the ways that I typically see “otaku” talked about in English-language publications. I think that the introduction of these texts into English would really help to shake things up! Two chapters by Okada are included in Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan, a volume I co-edited that will be out next year, but that is only the beginning.

Another way to push things forward would be to translate the very first book on “otaku,” aptly titled Otaku no hon (The Book of Otaku), which is a collection of short articles on “otaku” by the likes of Nakamori Akio, who created the label “otaku,” Yonezawa Yoshihiro, one of the founders of the Comic Market, Ueno Chizuko, a well-known feminist scholar, and more. The collection was published the same year as Ōtsuka’s world-and-variation thesis, 1989, and is just untimely enough to raise some interesting questions about what is meant by “otaku” and how a discussion of “otaku” might lead to insights for scholars beyond Japan.

A little outside of studies of “otaku,” I personally find Hamano Satoshi and Uno Tsunehiro to be exciting new thinkers, especially their work on digital media, networks and politics. To my mind, Hamano and Uno could very easily be brought into dialogue with thinkers from elsewhere in the world, for example on issues of nationalism and sexism online. One area that I think Japan really excels at is the study of manga, because comics are such a prevalent media form in Japan. Fujimoto Yukari and Ueno Chizuko’s work on shōjo manga offers some fascinating insights into girls reading comics and pornography. The specific genre of “boys’ love” manga has attracted much critical attention outside of Japan, and I think this scholarly discourse could benefit from translating the work of young scholars such as Kaneda Junko, Nagakubo Yōko and Azuma Sonoko. There is much to be said about the sexual politics of this kind of manga and what people do with it.

On that point, I personally have found Nagayama Kaoru’s Ero manga sutadīzu (Erotic Manga Studies) to be extremely helpful in laying out some of the most salient issues in an almost entirely self-regulated and relatively free creative market, which I think could break through some of the stumbling blocks to progress in discussions so far, for example the idea that pornography is made by and for men, harms or endangers women and children and has a generally negative impact on producers, consumers and society. Calling manga characters “male fetish objects” or assuming that otaku are socially and sexually immature men is based on an extremely shortsighted and biased view of manga, anime and games, which I think Nagayama, though concrete examples, challenges quite effectively.

The potential benefits of translation go the other way, too. Manga studies can be a little insular, for example not even building bridging with comic studies elsewhere in the world, let alone impacting disciplinary discussions on consumption, media and fans. We could say the same thing about otaku studies and fan studies, though there has been progress. In addition to translating more Japanese thinkers, we might want to try to get a dialogue going whereby critical traditions that are widely accepted in the North American and European academy might invigorate scholarly work in Japan.


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).