Joi Ito and Lisa Katayama are two of the most influential voices on Japanese culture for a global audience, but I was a bit troubled by some of their analysis of otaku for the O’Reilly Foo Camp.
In trying to explain the obsessiveness of otaku culture, they were quick to whip out “cultural explanations” — Zen Buddhism, the Tokugawa caste system, and ukiyo-e. Apparently Japan, despite massive social changes over a thousand years, has somehow retained the same “spirit” over time, which oddly manifests not in the middle of society, but in its strangest marginal outcast subcultures.
The danger of using the blunt “culture” explanations, however, is that it neglects to look at the actual and specific mechanisms which maintain or change culture. In most cases, these mechanisms are political or economic, and values shift according to structural situations. And most importantly, those within the system are often actively fighting against it. For example:
For generations, people have been taught to be happy perfecting their role in society, without necessarily viewing social or financial gain as a measurement of their success—it’s the shokunin culture in which focusing on one job allows one to obsess with abandon until they reach perfection on a very local level.
During the Tokugawa era, the rigid class system attempted to keep society stable by dividing society into four classes (five if you count the burakumin). At the bottom of society, however, the merchants actively worked against the system by pushing further and further with financial success. And you can make a case that this uneven financial gain of those at the bottom of the caste system led to the system’s downfall. Furthermore, when this class system was abolished in the Meiji Restoration, there was a huge rush of farmer’s and merchant’s sons successfully increasing their station in life — despite some kind of eternal Japanese “taboo” against this. In other words, there is no straight line of social stratification from the 17th to 21st century, and plenty of people have fought against the pre-determination of social class.
The real question, which these issues do little in addressing, is why otaku in particular tend to go to extremes of perfection. Surely there are cultural factors at work, but this kind of behavior is almost universal for subcultural units: in which participants tend to push further and further within accepted codes in order to show dedication to the group. There were surely British mods in the ’60s who were identical to otaku in their obsession with mastering their subcultural language of fashion signifiers. Some factors of Japanese culture make this more extreme, but there must be something about the unique social position of the otaku — and their birth in the high consumer years of a mature post-industrial capitalist economy — that serves as the best explanation.
Lisa mentioned that, when she was interviewing people for her 2D love story in the NY Times magazine, several sources likened the ability to fall in love with a body pillow to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness training.
I am sure if I openly loved an inanimate object, I too would be desperate to justify that love with some kind of ancient Japanese spirituality. I am not sure, however, that we are supposed to take this self-diagnosis seriously. Is there a way to demonstrate a path between these Buddhist values and a fringe sexual subculture? How did the pillow-humper access these Zen Buddhist principles? Are they just in the “ether” of Japanese society? Then why doesn’t everyone hump pillows? Again, the question about the otaku is less about their adherence to Japanese values, but their reason for anti-social and mostly frowned-upon behavior.
But this one bothered me the most:
While young Japanese people might have the outward appearance of rebellion, the majority follow a certain set of social rules. They will probably wait in line to get on the train just like any other good citizen. For example, Joi once bumped into a guy wearing a button that said “fuck off and die.” The guy promptly bowed, apologized, and walked away.
Note that the button did not say “Fuck Off and Die” in Japanese. And Joi did not run into a yankii guys who told him「死ね!」. The fact that the button was in English explains everything.
Now, I am sure the guy wearing the button generally understood the meaning of the statement, but we have to think about the actual mechanics of foreign culture importation in Japan. Punk culture —from which the button’s attitude comes — came to Japan explicitly through consumerist mass media in the late ’70s and early ’80s, mostly marketed to and read by the upper middle classes. This process automatically tends to purge the signifier of its original meanings and turn it into pure “fashion.” The media in which the message was spread in general does not spread or advocate a real “punk” view of society. Punk kids — whether in the UK or US “punk” mold — have always been primarily drawn from the consumer classes, and this consumer activity is correlated with higher placement in the social ladder. This ironically means that punk attitude has a real social risk for those most likely to buy punk fashion.
Japan’s real punks — the yankii, the bosozoku — are not a part of this consumerist world and embrace a “punk” attitude as part of their lifestyle. They would not bow to you if you accidentally bumped them.
So the reason that “rebellious-looking” teens follow the set rules is because they have imported a “rebellious” look as a look. Otherwise, their values are aligned with other members of middle-class society. This explanation that “punks are really polite,” however, only accounts for middle class teens. Working-class delinquent teens, who are not officially パンク系 but are punks in the broadest sense, are less likely to follow social rules.
I don’t mean to suggest that nothing in Japan can be explained by cultural heritage, but there are always enough exceptions and breaks in the straight timeline to warrant closer scrutiny. Furthermore, Japanese people themselves tend to use cultural tradition as a way to justify their own actions. This is basically true everywhere in the world. In the U.S., conservatives and liberals constantly fight over who has the most accurate interpretation of the Constitution and the Founding Father’s values. It’s officially our job to not take culturalist claims at face value, or at least, to discover the engines and pathways that make culture continue throughout time. Some of the otaku’s behavior is very Japanese. But in the end, they probably have little or nothing to do with Zen Buddhism.