Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan

Tom Mes

Like samurai, sushi, and geisha, the word otaku has become part of the English language, which means that it forms part of the standard vocabulary by which a good part of the world tries to make sense of ‘Japan’. Yet, for all the attention that the many factions shaping the discourse on Japanese popular culture have lavished on the otaku, few pause to ponder the significance of the term in a strictly linguistic sense, as an honorific reference to the other that uses the home as metonymy. It is all the more commendable, then, that Patrick Galbraith begins and ends his Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan with images of homecoming. ‘Is this your first time coming home?’, a staff member at a maid café in Tokyo’s ‘otaku paradise’ Akihabara coos oxymoronically in the last chapter of Galbraith’s tome, which began by discussing a television ad featuring a young salaryman returning home from another day of drudgery to the soothing presence of his ever-smiling virtual girlfriend.

Who or what exactly constitutes an ‘otaku’ (the term is consistently spelled in scare quotes throughout this book, and with good reason, as we gradually realize) is very much in the eye of the beholder – or, to be more precise, the stakeholder. The general view of the otaku is that of the socially inept male shut-in who sublimates unhealthy desires with an overly fond attachment to a hug pillow featuring the image of his imaginary girlfriend – a view Galbraith deconstructs with a thorough historical analysis that identifies the gatekeepers and stakeholders responsible for shaping it. The term ‘otaku’ means something quite different whether it is used in a playful 1983 polemic in the pages of Manga Burikko – a magazine catering to male fans of girls’ manga –, by a Twitter-trolling American teenager who gets most of his Japanese animation fix in the form of pirated torrents, or on a government PowerPoint presentation – yet it is the very lack of clear definition by any of the participants that allows for it to function in such a polyvalent manner.

Do the aforementioned neophyte customer of the maid café and young salaryman qualify as ‘otaku’? If so, what does this imply about our image of the ‘otaku’, as well as our image more broadly of ‘Japan’ (often written here with scare quotes as well)? Do we assume them to be lonely, socially awkward and unable to get a girlfriend? In other words, do we assume them to be exemplars of failed masculinity? And from where do we glean this unflattering image of a potentially large section of the Japanese population?

Having trodden this terrain for a good number of years, including in the excellent anthologies Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan (Patrick Galbraith, Thiam Huat Kam, and Björn-Ole Kamm, Bloomsbury, 2015) and Introducing Japanese Popular Culture (Alisa Freedman and Toby Slade (eds), Routledge, 2017), Galbraith proves adept at distinguishing the various strands of the debate, as well as clearly tracing their pedigree. He locates the contentious term lolicon, often conflated with paedophilia due to its Nabokovian origins, within a continuum that originates in a conscious dissatisfaction with and opposition to the alpha-male hypocrisy of the 1960s left-wing protest movement, whose male members shouted slogans of social reform while expecting their female comrades to welcome them back from the barricades, maid-like, with cups of tea. Such opposition manifested itself in a fascination with girls’ comics and cute characters that grew increasingly communal as individual, self-marginalising male practitioners realized that there were others like them – leading to a participatory movement of fanzine-making and social events such as the now gargantuan and globally renowned Comic Market. The ostensible ‘lolicon magazine’ Manga Burikko, in whose pages the term ‘otaku’ was first playfully coined, proves, under Galbraith’s scrutiny, to be one great experiment in gender blurring, with men reading comics in a style supposedly meant for girls, women drawing sexually-tinted comics squarely aimed at male readers, and artists hiding behind gender-neutral pen names so that even their own gender/sex remained unclear, just like the characters they drew. The author quotes leading feminist theorist Ueno Chizuko to point out that ‘[d]iverse participation in the cute movement, and the shifting gender identities and sexualities of those involved, not only disrupts overly simplistic discourse about lolicon and men desiring to deflower girls but also raises the possibility of men seeking an alternative to the hegemonic forms of masculinity and media and finding it in shōjo manga and characters’ (p. 21).

From those essentially political origins, the author deftly examines the emergence of the moe phenomenon as an alternative lifestyle choice, where ‘loving a fictional character as though it was a real person’ (in the words of Azuma Hiroki) was a very conscious decision to disassociate oneself from social pressure to conform to expectations of reproductive masculinity that had lost their meaning and even grown toxic after the burst of the economic bubble brought on the precariousness of the lost decades. The adoption of this alternative way of living and loving would become most visible in the streets of Tokyo’s Akihabara district, in the form of street parades in which cosplay became crossplay, as men donned the costumes and guises of their favourite female anime characters – a trend that became a literal ‘struggle to imagine and create alternative social worlds’ (p. 22), as concerned local business owners and authorities attempted to suppress and regulate these displays of queerness, just as the national government’s ‘Cool Japan’ initiative sought to differentiate such undesirable ‘weird otaku’ from the ‘good otaku’ – those who, in the wake of the Train Man phenomenon, could be convinced that even the most socially withdrawn geek simply needed to find ‘the right woman’ to return to his proper social role. While they succeeded in sweeping the Akihabara street rallies under the proverbial rug, the powers that be found out that commodifying and nationalizing the ‘otaku’ for the sake of soft power and tourism was a lot more difficult than they believed – indeed, Galbraith, as a former guide for foreign tourists visiting Akihabara, draws from personal experience when he discusses visitors’ disappointment that the reality did not live up to the promise of a ‘Holy Land of Otaku’ painted in travel agent brochures and YouTube videos.

The suggestion that ‘otaku’ can be cured of whatever society considers amiss with them by ‘finding the right woman’ naturally implies that ‘otaku’ cannot be women to begin with – a serious misrepresentation that Galbraith acknowledges at various intervals, yet never fully investigates. For all of this volume’s many strengths, the story of female otaku remains untold. The author acknowledges the sizeable presence of women at various points in the narrative (they have long formed the overwhelming majority of Comic Market visitors, for instance), but his tracing of the origins of ‘otaku’ to several crises of masculinity results in a strictly male-focused discussion of the topic. A full ‘counter-volume’ remains, and arguably needs, to be written from a female perspective, lest this male-centred narrative around the otaku in particular and Japanese popular culture in general become the accepted norm (if it is not already). Such a perspective becomes all the more important at a time when women appear to be entirely absent from the governmental agencies which decide that it is a good idea to have Japan represented by images of what Jonathan Clements has described as ‘squeaky-voiced cartoon slave-girls’ (Books: Otaku & imagination, January 2020, https://blog.alltheanime.com/books-otaku-imagination, accessed 31 August 2020).

In his conclusion, Galbraith invokes Stuart Hall when he emphasizes that scholars play an important part in shaping the discourse around what is seen as ‘Japanese popular culture’ and, by extension, as representative of ‘Japan’. By conflating otaku and Japan, a focus on ‘weird otaku’ becomes a focus on ‘weird Japan’ as ‘the source of deviant and dangerous images’ (p. 230): when popular culture is presented as a direct reflection of nation and society at large, what follows is the repetition of old stereotypes. This is a notable danger when constructing narratives of historical continuity to ‘legitimise’ popular culture and its study, for instance by way of the oft-employed ‘return to Edo’, the rhetorical strategy of linking current popular phenomena to past forms of high art, e.g. the claim that manga originates in ukiyo-e woodblock prints, by way of little more evidence than Hokusai’s use of the term ‘manga’. The very same strategy can be identified in the Japanese government’s ‘Cool Japan’ soft power initiatives, in which the geisha girl becomes bureaucratically rebranded as a manga character, yet found itself shot down when brought before the Supreme Court as a defence against state-sanctioned censorship of pornographic manga.

Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan brings much-needed nuance to a debate that is too often characterised by gross oversimplification. It offers excellent guidance for how to approach such sensitive and potentially contentious topics as moe and lolicon in the classroom, but more than this, at a time when Humanities research has almost started to believe accusations of its own irrelevance, Galbraith provides fair warning to scholars about their own pernicious influence on shaping oversimplified discourse on the supposed identity and inclinations of an entire nation and its populace.