Otaku: The Last Nerds Left Standing

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Fujiwara Hiroshi and Fujiwara Hiroshi #2 (usually known as Nigo) live on the top two floors of glamorous Roppongi Hills — the most concrete and visible symbol of achievement in contemporary Japanese society. Both run fashion labels and provide consulting services for multinational brands (Nike and Louis Vuitton, respectively), but neither have a background in fashion design nor make their bales of cash from directly artistic pursuits. If I had to give an obnoxious Malcom Gladwell name for these men, they rose to fame as pointers: giving monthly magazine readers a short list of hot items and must-haves. Nigo, in particular, used this editorial-lifestyle approach to guide his brand A Bathing Ape’s creative direction and offer style pastiches of his favorite items — be them Buddy Holly glasses, ’60s sci-fi films, or British knit sweaters.

Good editorial on a particular topic requires an obsessive mind and endless quest to pierce the bounds of general knowledge and find hidden gems lurking below. Engaged consumers do not need someone to tell them what they already know, and legitimacy is only often gained by being one step ahead of the crowds. A soft rock “expert” will not win points for recommending The Association to fans, nor will a Wired columnist win points for introducing you to Gmail.

To be quite frank, the Ura-Harajuku guys, Cornelius, DJ Shadow, Beck, and all the other wonderboys of the ’90s were nerds, always aggressively digging crates and photo plates to win the arbitrage game of cashing in unknown or forgotten information. Japanese consumers and fans in particular internalized this info-obsession and ultimately judged the quality of their heroes on their nerdy levels of cutting-edge, yet trivial knowledge. Nerdiness breeds a maniacal energy — much more than the resignation to just buy whatever is two-feet in front of you. Running around, researching, and comparing notes give birth to high levels of involvement in culture.

Then came the God damned Internet: too much information, too much easy access. We still need editors, but anybody can find secret emeralds now, not just those “in the know” like Fujiwara and Nigo. The free-for-all democracy of the Net destroyed the distinctive, invidious pleasure of pointing to objects before the masses could. So, Nigo and Fujiwara went bling bling and started to distance themselves from the common folk by showing how many diamond-encrusted watches and vintage automobiles they could own. Instead of talking up Barbara Kruger and Karl Marx, Fujiwara is now content to show fast cars, travel pictures from Capri, and a two-shot with Zidane on his Honeyee.com blog. (Although the dude is way into John Mayer.)

Editorial is out, and with it goes a very dependable source of energy and consumer involvement. Why be a modest nerd now when you can be covered in jewels while driving your red Ferrari? Fans know what Ferraris look like, know they will never have one, and then stop thinking about them.

That being said, there is still one group of nerds that has not gotten the memo: the otaku. But thanks to their absolutely and utter lack of coolness motive, they go on being obsessive and highly-involved with their own personal interests — despite the internet or changes in the Zeitgeist.

And this is exactly why we are living in an otaku boom, because they are the last nerds standing in a cultural economy desperate for youth obsession. Normal kids could care less about much of anything and are especially suspect of any actions that require what used to be called “effort” (and is now referred to as something like “面倒臭さ”). So the media shifts all attention to Akihabara, because they still purchase items, go the extra mile to find rare artifacts, and show an envious loyalty towards their heroes and icons. It’s not that anime or manga are “cool” all of a sudden but they are the only ones to show up on the field. Mainstream society would find very little nice to say about otaku but they do have energy. And energy is what we need.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
August 31, 2006

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

23 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    “And energy is what we need.”

    Where we = what? The Japanese trend reporting media?

  2. marxy Says:

    I mean “we” as in 朕.

  3. nate Says:

    what wii needs is creative game designers.

    In general, old money’s already made its choices. That new money and borrowed-from-aifuru money have latched onto old names like LV and burberry is perhaps a fluke owing to lack of innovation, but I think more likely it’s the product of concerted effort from the old names. They made their dime, and now are slowly receeding back into the mahogany.
    the cool kids who don’t get off JR at harajuku to shop are among the most selective and smart in the world. I still think tokyo makes ny look underdressed for the new millenium.

  4. marxy Says:

    But business and media are not interested in things with international perspective. Japanese kids are way cooler than those in Uganda – let alone New York. Everyone only sees this as compared to five years or ten years ago, and it’s easy to see why Harajuku or youth culture in general does not fit the old mold of “this is in – buy this.” Akiba does, however.

  5. Momus Says:

    I largely agree with your conclusion on this one, and I think two developments since 2000 have pointed to Japan’s increasing acceptance of its otaku class as a source of valuable energy.

    First, Takashi Murakami’s embrace of the otaku culture with his Superflat movement. Second, the Train Man phenomenon. Even although the otaku is “cured” of his furtive mania, there’s a certain Superman thing going on in the plot of Densha Otoko. Every otaku is potentially an alpha male who can get the girl. The message is clear: that “outsider” energy can move to the centre of Japanese society. The loser can win when he’s backed and encouraged by the whole society.

  6. Mulboyne Says:

    I don’t think it is only the Akihabara otaku who didn’t get the memo.

    I seem to recall reading that there are now more qualified sommeliers in Japan than anywhere other than Italy. There are master chefs the world over but there are countless tiny restaurants in Japan which are shrines to a particular cuisine or even just an ingredient.

    Japanese record collectors remain just as obsessive in virtually every genre of music. The magazines don’t sell as well but, as you say, the internet does a much better job. There were a number of reports recently about the success of Gibson guitars: you could write a similar article about ukuleles or accordians.

    Alin made a similar point in the discussion over the long tail theory as a counter to Chris B’s observation about the relative lack of a back catalogue in consumer markets. If the internet has taken some of the fun out of the chase, there’s not much evidence so far that the targets are any less valued.

    One of the few areas of culture in Japan which hasn’t been turned into a religion is religion itself.

  7. check Says:

    An interesting observation about the shunned becoming valid, simply by virtue of their asocial behavior.

  8. Chuckles Says:

    Superflat is on its way out I think, and Densha O was just another token wet dream.
    Sommeliers are so last millenium. The future belongs to the Sobalier – The Japanese bourgeoisie latched on to wine snootery, but that has almost run its course. Grapes have nothing on buckwheat noodles.

  9. marxy Says:

    Japanese record collectors remain just as obsessive in virtually every genre of music.

    I think the current state of the youth generation reveals that our understanding of “obsessive collectionism” as a Japanese national trait is flawed. Nerdy mania has a socio-economic component, in that you can only get hooked on something if you think you have the funds to go deep into it. Kids today feel as if they can’t buy 3 CDs let alone 150. This is what happens when active consumerism is the critical condition of “culture.”

    Or think of it this way: the idea of “being a fan” in Japan is so based on orthopraxical consumption of any and all items related to the decided theme that kids who cannot keep up generally drop out of the whole game rather than do it half-assed. Being half-assed (whether 中途半端 or 大雑把) has classically been a cardinal sin in such a Confucian society. These words are certainly used in perjorative reference to the Americans and American culture – rightfully so.

  10. alin Says:

    “being a fan” in Japan is so based on orthopraxical consumption

    you are mixing 2 categories here and generalizing. there are people who know, and know and know and i think that’s who Mulboyne was talking about.

    now i see a series of problems with the way you apply logic and draw certain conclusions:

    1. you are mixing those with genuine interest with what you call orthopraxists and draw big conclusions based on the later.

    2. when you make comparisons, with the US for example, you don’t consider that the equivalent (for better or worse) of say the LV (handbag etc) crowd are people who basically don’t give a fuck about fashion. (maybe you just did but usually you don’t)

    3. your idea of orthopraxy as a uniquely (am i wrong?) japanese phenomena is worth debating.

    I think the current state of the youth generation reveals that our understanding of “obsessive collectionism” as a Japanese national trait is flawed.

    i basically agree particularly in regards to material stuff.

    “buy 3 CDs let alone 150”

    what sane person in this world is buying 150 cds nowadays?

    same as the city of tokyo itself, young people’s dwellings generally don’t look quite like what Kyoichi Tsuzuki photographed 10 years ago or so. There is some serious de-congestion and what Buckminster Fuller called ephemeralization going on on every level.

  11. marxy Says:

    1. you are mixing those with genuine interest with what you call orthopraxists and draw big conclusions based on the later.

    I think if you took two “fans” of something from Japan and one from elsewhere, you would probably see more material dedication from the Japanese fan. This does deal with the maniacal collectorism that comes from an orthopraxic outlook – that owning and doing is more important than being a “fan” in one’s heart.

    3. your idea of orthopraxy as a uniquely (am i wrong?) japanese phenomena is worth debating.

    I don’t think orthopraxy only exists in Japan – it is a part of Judaism. British class culture, also. I do think that it has very little antagonistic forces in Japan so that it has managed to become more of the main justification for action than its opposite. Japan is more orthopraxic, but not the sole orthopraxic culture. I think orthorpraxic behavior in America exists, but often gets ridiculed for being misguided. Who would ridicule it in Japan? Makes sense in the total picture of things to collect every single record ever made by a single artist.

  12. Mulboyne Says:

    I was defintely trying (and clearly failing) to describe people with genuine enthusiam and genuine knowledge.

    I wonder whether a Japanese fan is necessarily more dedicated to material possessions than a fan from another country. You can only really make a comparison if both have the same disposable income. Some of the most vivid images of Japanese “maniacal collectorism” date back to the bubble economy. Incomes and bonuses were rising and the dollar was falling. It started 1985 worth around 250 yen and finished 1987 at only 120 which more than doubled Japanese overseas purchasing power. A move of that magnitude doesn’t just let you pick up the top of your wish list, you can probably get the whole top ten.

  13. marxy Says:

    Right. I think everyone agrees that a certain level of the “maniacal” spending of Japanese was economically-based. My question is, do people now – with less pocket cash – feel that they cannot live up to the level of their big brothers and just quit before they even get involved?

    What I am trying to say with this orthopraxy thing is that the only way you can show “genuiune enthusiasm” (in a Confucian-based society) is through concrete action, which for the most part, translates as consumption. Who is the bigger fan – the guy who listens to the same album every day or the guy who owns all the artist’s works and t-shirts and books, etc? Different cultures will have different opinions on this. Money made the decision much easier in Japan, and I think the lack of money is stifling interest now. I don’t think the “it’s the meaning/heart that counts” is the most natural thing for Japanese society to adopt all of a sudden.

  14. alin Says:

    it’s a chicken and egg situation and you can say that because pop music isn’t what it was in the 90s it’s hardly worth collecting – not only in japan,

    I think the “Japanese “maniacal collectorism” while definitely more evident (especially to the west) during the bubble goes way back in Edo jidai and earlier. the (quite chinese inspired taxonomies) (3, 100, 200, 300 famous mountains, 100 famous onsen, 100 famous views, 20 famous udon shops, you name it … collecting stamps in train stations, mountains, onsen, bus-stations etc etc

  15. Chris_B Says:

    1 “what sane person in this world is buying 150 cds nowadays?”

    me. CDs and records both. if you are gonna come back with some twitterism about downloading, man you cant even find what I like out there in the cesspits of filesharing.

    2 “akiba”

    The death rattle happened just after the turn of the century. Whats there now is the last twitches of a re-animated corpse pushed too far. So many of the old odd shops are gone, lots of the old buildings are gone with ugly high rises taking their places. They even put a high rise up over the old basketball courts. Not just that, but you now see lots of female shoppers there on any given weekend. Any “rare” stuff to be found there is part and parcel of pre-planned rarity.

    3 editors

    OK I’ll admit, I dont know alot about the two Fujiwara’s in the opening sentance and whats more, I doubt I care all that much, but, I do effectively take issue with the idea that pointing to consumer objects is actual editor work at all. Authorship yeah edtor? No. For the sake of the nerds themselves I hope they are allowed to go back to their quiet persuits of their personal interests.

    4 collectorism vs internet

    Yahoo! Auctions has had an interesting effect on collectorism in that “rare” things very quickly reached price parity both online and retail. If you are after some unusual old thing, sure the net makes it more convenient to search for it, but I’m willing to bet that over the long run, prices have been driven up for lots of things due to transparency. Odd how we expected the opposite.

  16. alin Says:

    chris:

    good to see someone is keeping the japanese maniacal tradition alive

    the turn of the century death of old akiba is simultaneous with the rise of the new akiba one wouldn’t have happened without the other. however i don’t think the old akiba is dead as such rather the easts and west side are interestingly polarized (you can still find any old piece of crap you can imagine around radio centre etc.) .

    while i agree that there are a lot of pretty ugly structures around i get the feeling you’ve got an issue with anything that smells of concrete,
    glass or steel.

    it’s nice to browse for obscure stuff in the west side but i appreciate the convinience of going into the enormous yodobashi camera knowing that i’ll find whatever i’m after at the right spot.

    finally what i find most intersting about akihabara now is the sheer energy and commerce. looking at the masses of buisness people and families from every corner of the country speaking every ben around the east area you’d think it was nineteenseventysomething. i mean that’s the energy that made akihabara in the first place.

  17. Chris_B Says:

    alin,

    Actually I cant find the crap I want any more in that area. Sometimes I need a very specific tool or want a certain doohicky for a NEC Widgetron 886/A-8. Cant find the oddball stuff no more. The new yodoba impressed me at first, but again, they dont have much of what I need when I need it.

    The once great chain stores of akiba are now shells of their former selves. Sofmap used to be a great place to find old computer gear, games, MIDI gear, synths, whatever. Now they’ve become mostly overpriced same crap as everywhere and their music equipment is crammed into one tiny floor of the Mac Kan.

    Yamagiwa is also a husk of its former self. They used to have that big store on Chuo dori with really nice home electronics; exotic lamps, ceiling fans, oversized fridges. Gone now. Pity because I want to buy a nice ceiling fan for my bedroom.

    At the risk of becoming the Alex Kerr of Akiba, its true, I liked the old run down rathole version better than the concrete and glass blandness it is becoming. I love that crazy 80s sorta mural thing in the Suehirocho station or the ramen shop that people line up for two hours to get in.

    Glass and concrete is great for Otemachi, Marunouchi, Ginza, etc. But for me the charm of living in Tokyo is very much the shitamachi areas and back streets of any commercial district.

  18. alin Says:

    I love that crazy 80s sorta mural thing in the Suehirocho station or the ramen shop that people line up for two hours to get in.</i.

    i doubt they’ll be dissapearing too soon, some might get refurbished, the atmosphere basically stays the same (waseda douri, shinjuku, shimbashi … everywhere), get your point about patina but, to paraphrase marxy, i wouldn’t want tokyo to look like kaosan road.

    changes in scale can surely be problematic but somehow (to paraphrase deluze/guattari) ‘the molecular’ seems to always dig its holes and narrow tunnels in this city.

    sorry to say the obvious but don’t you think the rise in prices and increasing scarcity of those old gadgets also have a lot to do with the basic fact that they are becoming more antique and rare.

  19. alin Says:

    forgot to close the italics.

    that owning and doing is more important than being a “fan” in one’s heart.

    this should 是非 lead to a long, serious discussion on 心.

    Marxy, are you deliberately not using threads on this blog? it surely adds a lo-tech charm and i think it’s also a main ingredient to the fiery conceptual stew here.

  20. john Says:

    Then came the God damned internet: too much information, too much easy access. We still need editors, but anybody can find secret emeralds now, not just those “in the know” like Fujiwara and Nigo. The free-for-all democracy of the Net destroyed the distinctive, invidious pleasure of pointing to objects before the masses could.

    I would argue that even with the ubiquitousness of the Internet, the only people who still care to seek out little gems are these nerds. People still love the top 40, the high rated shows. One can still discover a band, via a small local label’s website or even MySpace without a lot of people altching on and knowing about them. Same thing could be said about a website or little game or piece of software or whatever. I would just say these pursuits are now more apparent and easy to connect with over people on the Internet, not that it has made if go out of fashion.

  21. alin Says:

    something that might be a sad indicator of how lame the internet is in japan

  22. Chris_B Says:

    sad. just plain sad.

  23. john Says:

    one further note, you should check out this nyt article on this sort of subject!

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/03/arts/music/03leed.html?ref=arts