Otaku and Zen Buddhism?

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Tokyomango: Summary of Joi and Lisa’s session about Japanese obsessions at Foo Camp

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.

W. David MARX
September 18, 2009

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

68 Responses

  1. MattAlt Says:

    The original article implies some sort of connection between moé icon Hatsune Miku and the Japan Communist Party. Does the fact that the JCP streamed its speeches on NicoNico Doga, essentially Japan’s answer to You Tube, really imply a connection between them and the moé content that is also posted there? Seems like a stretch. Perhaps I’m simply missing part of the argument, reading about the speech secondhand.

  2. Peter Says:

    The Joi and Lisa link here is a synopsis of what they said, and so it has a bastardized feel to it.

    Regardless, it seems that there are strong hints of pandering to the home crowd (if we assume that crowd to be devotees of O’Reilly Media) in the cog-sci hacking statements, exotification of Japan with their whole “Zen = Buddhism = mainstream Japan” syllogism, and many statements that left me saying “So what?”; in the end, the connections they are trying to make to root “otaku” culture deep in Japanese social history seem largely unfounded. Or at least woefully argued. I want to hope that the actual presentation was more pithy than what they put on that post.

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    Trying to explain otaku with the Japanese caste system strikes me like explaining the chemical reaction between baking soda and vinegar with the Big Bang Theory. There are much more immediate causes to be dealt with first.

  4. Durf Says:

    In trying to explain the obsessiveness of otaku culture, they were quick to whip out “cultural explanations”

    They were apparently just as comfortable describing this culture as similar to geek obsessiveness in the United States. I guess I do need to confess that I don’t know many pasty CounterStrike champs, though; maybe their identities are actually informed by the four societal divisions of Tokugawa Japan.

    This whole “impromptu talk” looks a lot like they were asked to chat about otaku, and since they’re Japanese, they felt obliged to drag a whole bunch of aspects of Japanese culture into their off-the-cuff narrative. (The Communists on NND don’t look to me to be tied in very closely to anything else—just some stream of consciousness stuff there. Hatsune Miku is on this video sharing site, and hey, by the way political parties stick videos up there, and that reminds me that we’re talking about otaku, and they sure did comment a lot on those videos that would otherwise have been ignored.)

  5. Adamu Says:

    See the Zen Japanese Pillow-Humper! His mother never loved him, and now he’s a raging hormonal maniac! Children, don’t stand too close or he’ll kidnap you and take you to his cartoon kiddie porn dungeon!

    The business of being a “[voice] on Japanese culture for a global audience” reminds me of running a circus sideshow. You can present an oddity from a strange land, give it an exotic explanation, and presto people pay to see it. The only crime of stories like 2-D Love is that they appear in the NY Times which is at least supposed to pretend to be serious. She should be writing for Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

  6. MattAlt Says:

    Putting aside the totally loaded question of the validity of “wacky Japan” reporting, the thing that really strikes me about this (and once again, we’re reacting to a secondhand report of what appears to have been a pretty informal talk) is that Joi and Lisa don’t really seem to be talking about otaku. Their examples are pure “moé.”

    Otaku obsessed over the pop culture that inspired them. Moé fans, on the other hand, traffic almost exclusively in sexual imagery: “body pillows” festooned with nubile young anime girls, “itasha” cars festooned with nubile young anime girls, figurines of nubile young anime girls, coffee shops staffed by nubile young girls “anime-fied” with maid costumes, etc. At its heart moé is essentially a fetishization of childish innocence and naiveté. You can argue that this is “brain hacking” all you want, but I suspect the average Japanese regard moé fans’ attempts to frame their interests in non-sexual terms in much the same way Americans regard a Playboy subscriber’s claims that they only read it for the articles.

  7. Joi Ito Says:

    A few thoughts. First of all, I do think the caste system is an instance of a more general trend in Japan to focus on your role in society. Of course, there are exceptions and rebellions, but I think that overall, there is still a great deal of respect for following in the footsteps of your family. I am the 17th generation on my mother’s side of the family and the expectation is that I continue their legacy, while on my father’s side – a merchant family from Nishinomiya, the expectation is that all of the family members stay in their class. My parents were disowned when they were married, my father’s side criticizing him for marrying a “useless woman who can’t even wring her own rags” and my mother’s side for “marrying a low-class shonin.”

    I think a more modern dialog about the focus on craft in the shape of the whole Keidanren discussion about “monozukuri no nihon” is also about this obsession around quality and focus on craft rather than on the “money game” – another name for a kind of irresponsible desire for social mobility.

    I really can’t see how you can so easily dismiss Japanese expectancy generally of their role in society compared to the US where the opportunity (real or imagined) is the key to “freedom” vs Japan where happiness is pursued much more locally.

    As for “zen and the art of obsession”… Have you have sat around and talked to or listened to great Zen monks? I think there is a kind of license to obsession with abandon that comes from not having a monotheistic God telling you what you should do and a teaching that allows you to focus and obsession with abandon until you see light. In addition, the animistic roots of the Shinto religion support rituals that provide spirits to objects and tools. We were hypothesizing that these religious roots allowed the kind of obsession empowered things like the 2D pillow lover who didn’t have as much of the “voice of the moral majority” holding him back.

    As for the “fuck off and die” button episode. My point was that as the end and the dumping ground of culture of the silk road, Japan has always been a synthesizer of culture. As you point out, often this is very commercial and superficial. My point was that some of the commercial “punks” were focused on a very neutered version of the punk scene and happily embraced and obsessed on certain aspects of it while retaining their core cultural training. It was part of a longer discussion out the assimilation of cultures into Japan.

    I do agree that the whole bosozoku and yankii culture is a different animal but I would suggest that the roots of that come from a very different issue in society and doesn’t really have much to do with the aesthetic layer obsession that we were talking about.

    As for the relationship with Hatsune Miku and the Communist Party. We just explained the Miku phenomenon and showed how it manifest on NicoNico Doga. After that I showed a video that the CPJ posted on NicoNico Doga and how much more the younger generation embraced the CPJ after that and how many comments and views they received. The context was to try to show how the CPJ was reaching out to the youth in their own medium to try to communicate with that and how it was successful.

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    Joi,

    Thanks for joining the discussion.

    “First of all, I do think the caste system is an instance of a more general trend in Japan to focus on your role in society.”

    I don’t want to dismiss it outright because I agree that Confucian ethics have much more potency in Japan than any sort of Western protestant worldview. I just wonder whether obsession and role fulfillment is solely predicated upon that particular historical legacy.

    “I am the 17th generation on my mother’s side of the family and the expectation is that I continue their legacy”

    But does not obsession with legacy and family lines not also speak to specific placement within a contemporary class system? Is this as important within communities in which families are broken and offspring move around and unroot themselves? How much of this is predicated on family and geographical stability?

    Keidanren discussion about “monozukuri no nihon” is also about this obsession around quality and focus on craft rather than on the “money game”

    But the problem is that Japanese customers have ceased caring about monozukuri as much as leaders believed they did. Japanese consumers were once so rich they would be willing to spend premium prices on high-quality items (and due to cartels often had no choice), but now the kings of retail are not monozukuri no nihon but Uniqlo, Nitori, Shimamura, etc. In this case, talking about an eternal need for “craft” in Japan is more about trying to establish a national character for functional and rational business purposes. Japanese businesses tend to do away with customs that do not fit their model of capitalism. The post-war elite had to work hard to convince everyone that “消費は美徳” after a long legacy of being indoctrinated with the opposite. All of these historical values can be mended when necessary, or dragged out to prove the case against change that would damage the current power-holders. Claiming “culture” or tradition is very powerful, and we have to look at why and how this power is being wielded.

    “I think there is a kind of license to obsession with abandon that comes from not having a monotheistic God telling you what you should do and a teaching that allows you to focus and obsession with abandon until you see light.”

    Is there not a history of rabid Christianity and Islam? The question is not whether pillow humping resembles Zen buddhism but whether there is an actual causative relation (因果関係). I think otaku obsession is mostly a result of much more mundane and nearby social pressures. Is Zen even the most widespread Buddhist ideology in Japan? What do True Pure Land values say about otaku?

    “It was part of a longer discussion out the assimilation of cultures into Japan.”

    Yes, I think we are in agreement here. I guess my point is, all that discussion is basically about middle-class consumerist Japan. The yankii are a different issue, but they are still Japanese, right?

    Thanks again for clarifying your points and adding to the discussion.

  9. Joi Ito Says:

    While I will concede that Zen may not be the entire driving force behind the otaku and moe movement, I’m just suggesting that there is an influence and some causality.

    I also agree that the changes in taxation and economics that cause a shift in geography have changed some of the focus on lineage, but as you point out, I still think that the Confucian ethics are strong in Japan and help prevent a great percentage of Japanese from being distracted by a yearning for unreasonable upward mobility. (Whether this is “fair” or not is another discussion.)

    I also agree that the consumer has abandoned much of the “monozukuri” in the traditional sectors, but I believe that some of that sensibility has just shifted to other areas such as media and hobbies.

    I do agree that indoctrination of the population is a common and usually relatively successful policy of the rulers of Japan. I do think that much of the core “ethics” survive some of the superficial changes society and the focus of the population.

    I guess the main difference between Zen obsession and Christian and Islamic is that I think that Christian and Islamic obsession tends to be a bit more prescriptive about the specifics of what you’re supposed to obsession about – Zen being a bit more about yourself and open ended. Not being an expert on Christianity or Islam, I may be wrong. Do you disagree?

    I do agree that much of otaku obsession is mundane, but I guess the purpose of the discussion that we were having was to explore what if any influence Zen/Shinto and other traditional cultures in Japan might have on the otaku movement and to explore how this might contrast with similar obsessions in the US and elsewhere. Also, what interests me the most is what, if anything, is unique about those non-Japanese who are obsessed with Japanese obsession and is there any connection to religions influences.

  10. MattAlt Says:

    I can buy into animism as an influence on the spirit of Japanese craftsmanship, but I’m not sure that I buy into the connection between craftsmanship and otaku obsessions.

    For one thing, there is a huge gulf between dedicating oneself to a craft or other creative pursuit and dedicating oneself to consumption. The average otaku or moe fan defines themselves by what they watch and buy, not so much by what they make. For another, otaku behavior seems to me to mirror not religion but the Japanese educational system (with rote memorization of anime shows & info substituting for rote memory of historical facts, anime conventions substituting for school festivals, etc.)

    Just a thought. Thanks for jumping in the conversation!

  11. Joi Ito Says:

    I think that the Japanese consumer/otaku/moe fan generates a great deal of content and culture. Much of it is not original and derivative in nature, but if you talk to the companies that produce the anime, games and other media that are the platforms of this obsession, it’s clear that the process is two way and very iterative. I think that it is this obsessive iterative process that causes much of the anime and other works to become increasingly extreme – each round trying to outdo the last one. I think that the speed of evolution exceeds the evolution of media and fan fiction in most other countries because of this – although I suppose you can attribute some of the speed to the sheer size of the fan fiction and derivative content communities.

    Where I see the parallel between things like dojinshi and old-school craft is that the creativity is exercised within very strict boundaries and parameters. Students follow the master and extend the form, mimicking their masters rather than going sideways and creating their own styles. I think that a lot of the social norms of fan content in Japan adheres to this principle, whereas in the West, artists tend to influence their students, but not necessarily dictate the rules.

    I suppose you could generalize this into community based art forms like haiku or waka or コミケ and more solo things such as modern Western art… and I suppose there are examples in the West of community based works such as house music.

    But I digress…

    I do believe that Japanese education, without a doubt, influences the post-school behavior of the population. What I’m trying to tease out is whether there’s more too it than that.

    I will say that from personal experience, interacting with an urushi craftsman talking about his craft resembles on many levels conversations that I’ve had with the “high otaku” talking about their obsessions – personifying and worshiping their tools at a nearly religious and sexual level, being participants in a tightly nit group or guild of fellow members and a level of social acceptance of this behavior as “special” rather than just plain “weird”.

    Do you remember the Japanese TV show Cult Q?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjw62Mi6QdI

    Admittedly, this show was mostly about rote memorization otaku… but was fun none the less.

  12. Peter Says:

    “We were hypothesizing that these religious roots allowed the kind of obsession empowered things like the 2D pillow lover who didn’t have as much of the “voice of the moral majority” holding him back.”

    Joi, are you saying that most Japanese have these “religious roots”? Is religious roots really even the right word for the influence on otaku that you’re hypothesizing about? As one commenter already mentioned, is “otaku” the right word for the personality type you’re trying to analyze?

    I’m not trying to be a pissant — rather I am trying to flesh out the hypothesis.

  13. M-Bone Says:

    First, in traditional times, did Zen Buddhism ever have a widespread impact outside of the samurai class? Scholars argue that its really widespread influence was in the modern period when it was dragged out to support imperialism.

    “I think that the Japanese consumer/otaku/moe fan generates a great deal of content and culture. Much of it is not original and derivative in nature”

    Can’t we say the same thing about the anime subcultures that exist in the United States? Or the majority of the graphic art / fanfiction subculture that exists online? And Marxy, are Star Trek fans any less concerned with rote memorization? Often, trying to make these kinds of parallels is not profitable.

    As for the class system, why stop with Edo? Why not go back to the Heian Court where the philosophical foundations of the later class system were first laid down?

    “Students follow the master and extend the form, mimicking their masters rather than going sideways and creating their own styles. I think that a lot of the social norms of fan content in Japan adheres to this principle, whereas in the West, artists tend to influence their students, but not necessarily dictate the rules.”

    The West has certainly seen its share of patterns and rigid conventions from Roman sculpture to Medieval painting to Icons to the dreary natural realism and portrait painting of the early modern period.

    In Japan we can easily find tremendous innovation in art/craft at all periods. Ukiyoe became famous for breaking conventions (and there is a massive diversity among arists) during the Japonisme boom. Or look at the range of Medieval Buddhist sculpture(Unkei and others).

    The very good book “Mirror of Modernity – Invented Traditions in Modern Japan” has pretty much deconstructed these attempts to draw strict connections between many elements of contemporary and “traditional” society. Marxy is correct – things like monozukuri have been mobilized by elites in the modern period and have very different meanings and contexts than they did in traditional times to the point where connections cannot be suggested on anything more than the most superficial level. Debates like this one seem better suited to academic writing and the verdict of the existing scholarship against the “feudal” legacy view and in favor of looking at how those legacies have been dramatically reshaped in modern times to the point where they can no longer be recognized. I’d like to hear why Ito and Katayama have decided to go outside of all of this scholarship. If you want to argue against it, that is fine, but it can’t be easily dismissed in what is fundamentally an academic discussion.

    These thinks tend to get really muddled up. “Matsuri” is used in discussing the consumption attitude of otaku at present but does this have anything to do with Shinto? Is it really that different than the identical “carnivalesque” critical concept in the West? In a way, isn’t all of this an enlisting of more familiar traditional language to discuss things that are changing so rapidly that they are difficult to grasp?

  14. Chuckles Says:

    […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:…]

    Good point.
    The elaborate nature of the talmudic laws in the face of a degenerate canaanite superculture:
    “Be Perfect” – the Xtian dictum in the face of mediterranean bacchanalia.
    The constant pressure on certain subcultural ethnies in the USA to super excel academically in a culture where industrial and economic might is read as a function of academic intelligence.
    And other less socially conscious examples.

    Unfortunately, what it doesnt explain is the rise of the culture itself – I doubt that the Otaku subculture rose because its pioneers desired a priori, the mastery of symbols that didnt even exist: One might as well claim that the founding fathers moved to xtremes of perfecting democracy simply because they were subcultural in Europe and rather, not because of a response to alienation. Of course, history shows us the reality, that the Xtreme democracy practiced by the founders was a sham, conveniently superceeded by elements of the old country – i.e. the superculture, when appropriate.

    It is the historical – cultural – materialist explanation that views the performance within the subculture as an extension of what birthed the culture – thus, Xtian dictums are an outgrowth of Judaism, Judaism itself plagiarized from other ANE sects, hyperachievement of minority groups in USA not that spectacular, and Otaku perfectionism a mere continuation of previous modal historical and cultural processes in Japanese society. Present time focus on structural relations between present subculture and present superculture entirely unneccesary.

  15. Confusion Says:

    “I’m not trying to be a pissant”

    Ah yes, so you claim. but re-reading your post and I can’t but disagree

  16. W. David MARX Says:

    I don’t want to suggest that all cultural explanations are meaningless, but I think you have to link them with, as you said, historical and materialist factors. They very rarely end up explaining anything on their own.

    I don’t think you can talk about Otaku without talking about the wider consumerist explosion of the early 1980s. Matt Alt’s stuff on Yappies right now shows how much early Otakuism was a nerdy side-cult of the ’80s rich city boys (same values, different interests). Now with moe, otaku culture has turned into a fetish cult that is in constant denial about its own sexuality.

  17. Peter Says:

    Touche, Confusion.

    My point was that we’re wallowing in abstraction here, trying to discuss some connection between “Zen” and the otaku, when neither term has been defined.

    Otherwise, it is very easy to say “Zen has this aspect” and “Oh, otaku culture also has a similar aspect” and realize that they are both Japanese, and finally, to complete the syllogism, argue there is causality.

    T.R. Reid did this all over the pages of “Confucius Lives Next Door”.

    I think Marxy sums up the problems with the cultural analysis in his second and third paragraphs. I agree, in that there is way more evolution–more small but calculated changes in direction–in this society than people give it credit for.

  18. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > First, in traditional times, did Zen Buddhism ever have a widespread impact outside of the samurai class?

    Did it even had that much of an impact in the samurai class, even? I’m just an aficionado, but the scholars of classical martial arts (koryū) I’ve read tend to agree that, other than specific cases (e.g. Yagyū), the samurai mind had more influence from Confucianism and esoteric mikkyō Buddhism. (Though Zen did certainly influence some key high-brow arts such as chanoyu and poetry).

    As for the whole otaku thing — I always though it was just the Japanese localization of Western fandom, which started way back with sci-fi fans. Didn’t the trekkies antedate the otaku? And don’t sci-fi fans and their cousins — comic-book geeks, Twin Peaks/X-Files/Buffy/Harry Potter nerds, &c. — exhibit all those obsessive otaku traits, including cosplay, conventions, romantic/erotic fanworks, and so on? What’s exactly uniquely Japanese about otaku? Doesn’t the very existence of Western otaku (in large numbers) suggests that, whatever may be the social reasons for fandom, they are to be found in contemporary global society, not in ancient Japan?

    Consider for example the impact of Dragon Quest-style medieval fantasy in today’s otaku mythos. In my mind there’s a clear line from Tolkien to miniature wargames to D&D to DQ to Lodoss War — and their fans look pretty much the same to me, despite the geographic and cultural distance. If you’re trying to understand the otaku, you might have more insights looking at the 70s Chainmail geek than at Ikkyū or Takuan, IMHO.

  19. M-Bone Says:

    “Did it even had that much of an impact in the samurai class, even?”

    You are correct. I wouldn’t argue that it had a decisive impact on samurai thought either. What emerged as bushido during the Edo Period was a mishmash of influences of which neo-Confucian thought was probably the leader. And what “samurai” was changed radically from Kamakura to Edo – think Hideyoshi’s solid gold “zen” tea house. A collision of cultural influence and power/wealth issues that has just as much to do with contemporary Japan as the more ascetic Zen of the middle ages. And in any case, they all get mediated by centuries of other developments to the point where drawing linkages becomes problematic.

    I think that you are also on the right tract with the otaku genealogy. Star Wars in particular had an absolutely decisive influence on the development of obsessed fandom in Japan – both on its own and in terms of its influence on Japanese shows. Let’s not forget, for instance, that Yamato was a failure the first time that it was aired on Japanese television – it was only when the US blockbuster mindset started to set down cultural roots that it had the fertile ground to blossom into the fandom that really coalesced in 1984 with Nausicaa, Beautiful Dreamer, and the Macross film.

    However, I think that this is more than a case of a transplant of American experience – we see similar developments in consumption everywhere in this time period and “fandom” seems to have just as much to do with the switch to post-industrial capitalism (dominance of service, knowledge industry, advertising, subculture) than the spread of an American pattern internationally.

    I also agree quite strongly that both otaku and the Trekkie, etc. fandoms (all of which are quite heterogeneous) that Leonardo mentions seem very similar on so many levels. There are even similar levels of sexualizing – it is my understanding that a great deal of Buffy/Harry Potter, etc. fanfic is smut or cross-over pastiche – the two main areas of otaku expression in Japan.

  20. MattAlt Says:

    It’s very fashionable now to portray Japanese otaku as more “iterative,” collaborative, obsessive, and creative than, say, American SF geeks. That makes it incredibly tempting, even for myself on occasion, to try and dream up a pop-cultural Grand Unification Theory that ties Jomon era Dogu pottery to gashapon or whatever. But I’m with David in that you can’t expect to be taken seriously unless you lay down a foundation of more immediate and practical influences.

    The sheer population density of otaku in an urban area like Tokyo amplifies their behavior in ways that you simply don’t see among geeks in the States, because fans there are far more diffuse. If every Trekkie lived in the same American city, and enjoyed roughly the same standard of living, and didn’t have to worry about copyright laws and lawsuits, they’d probably have started creating their own versions of their favorite shows, too, like Hideaki Anno and his pals did with their amateur Daicon Film animations, their live-action shorts, and eventually going mainstream with Evangelion.

    On the other hand, the rise of moe, I’d argue, has more to do with the hollowing out of the anime industry than it does with attaining spiritual enlightenment. You’d have to be either absurdly dedicated, crazy, or otherwise unemployable to continue toiling under the conditions in the anime industry today, and lo and behold, the knot of people who haven’t moved on to greener pastures are creating weird entertainment that doesn’t really appeal to anyone save themselves and their friends. What is the last non-Ghibli animated film to really grab the nation’s attention? The real story to me isn’t so much that dedicated fans are remixing what’s out there, but that the industry is in serious danger of losing its ability to appeal to the mainstream. I suspect that if you conducted a random poll, you’d find that most Japanese think hump-pillows, dating simulators, figurines of scantily-clad anime girls, and maid cafes as weird as Americans do.

  21. Confusion Says:

    I’ll give William’s explanation the benfit of the doubt on this one. I am sure ancient Zen Buddhists would turn in their urns if they knew they were being connected with modern day Otaku filth

  22. Joi Ito Says:

    “We were hypothesizing that these religious roots allowed the kind of obsession empowered things like the 2D pillow lover who didn’t have as much of the “voice of the moral majority” holding him back.”

    Joi, are you saying that most Japanese have these “religious roots”? Is religious roots really even the right word for the influence on otaku that you’re hypothesizing about? As one commenter already mentioned, is “otaku” the right word for the personality type you’re trying to analyze?

    I guess that is the core of my hypothesis is that Japanese “religion” is originally Shinto, and then a mish mash of Buddhism that is taken seriously at varying levels, but that fundamentally, society doesn’t have “moral” foundations, but rather the Shinto animistic superstition-like rituals and the Confucian social norms. My sense is that this influences both the content and the way that consumers, including otaku and moe, interact with that content. One effect, I think, is that the Japanese are more quick to abandon absolute morals without guilt.

    My sense is that in “the West”, there are similar behaviors, but they either tend to be bogged down with guilt or other inputs that either hold them back or driver them further underground.

    I’m not a scholar and my thoughts come mostly from personal experience and interactions with fan cultures and artists in Europe, the US and Japan and I’m backing into the hypothesis based on the type of conversations that I seem to be having.

    I am not asserting that the otaku culture was first or is completely original, but rather trying to identify some of the differences in the Japanese version of fandom and obsessiveness and see if there is a causal link to the religious backdrop.

    As for the influence of “Zen” – maybe I should reframe it as non-monotheist influences including Confucian, Shinto and Buddhist thoughts in rituals.

  23. Joi Ito Says:

    I suspect that if you conducted a random poll, you’d find that most Japanese think hump-pillows, dating simulators, figurines of scantily-clad anime girls, and maid cafes as weird as Americans do.

    I’m not so sure about that. It seems to me that Japanese are more tolerant of “weird behavior”. For instance, Ikko, the transgender TV talent is quite respected and shares the stage with a number of cross-dressing men who are opinion leaders in Japan.

    I think the first meeting between our company, Digital Garage, when we were considering an investment in Kakaku.com was held in a Cosplay Cafe. I think the suits were slightly uncomfortable, but probably not nearly as much my average VC friends in Silicon Valley. (We ended up investing in Kakaku.com.)

    You could just chalk it up to “we’re just more used to it” an the intensity of the weirdness to just the population density, which I do agree does have an influence.

    However, I believe that things like homophobia or the lack thereof are also, again, a result of the religious backdrop.

  24. M-Bone Says:

    “However, I believe that things like homophobia or the lack thereof are also, again, a result of the religious backdrop.”

    Here is an example of the historicized way of looking at this – open pederasty was common in medieval monasteries and famous samurai like Nobunaga and Takeda Shingen all had favorite “youths”. This has left no mark on modern times. Bisexuality seems to have been the mark of an Edo pleasure quarters dandy. Things changed in the modern period when the government cracked down on this sort of thing and in the period of the ascendancy of modernized Shinto in the late 1920s through 1945, open expressions of homosexuality were more than frowned upon. There are plenty of stories of men who were considered effeminate being violently bullied until suicide after being drafted into the Showa army. Things changed again because of the postwar gay club scene resulting in normalization to some degree, something that Mark McClelland has written about in considerable detail. Expressions of sexuality in the West have also underwent radical change over time.

    So Japan gets its “weird” in the form of gay entertainers while America might get its in the form of gun toting rightwingers at town halls. Now the constitution is an important preface to a discussion of that but you need to look at the long history of that constitution and some very radical changes in mindset to explain why a few people have thought that openly carrying assault weapons is the best way to express their dislike of Obama. In this case you CAN go back to John Locke or Aristotle in forging an explanation, but when does something like that just end up confusing a difficult issue further?

    “One effect, I think, is that the Japanese are more quick to abandon absolute morals without guilt.”

    Let me assure you that Westerners have had little problem abandoning absolute morals without guilt time and time again in history. One of the major outlets of Western creativity has been making escape clauses to that whole ‘thou shalt not kill’ thing. Situational morality is a red herring.

    “It seems to me that Japanese are more tolerant of “weird behavior”.”

    That’s a powerful argument for individual freedom if you want to spin it that way.

    This idea that Western fan cultures don’t go as far because of Christian ideas of guilt and universal morality isn’t going to hold up to empirical scrutiny.

  25. M-Bone Says:

    Just check out some of the fandom expressions in this –

    http://whythefuckdoyouhaveakid.com

  26. pettis Says:

    “One effect, I think, is that the Japanese are more quick to abandon absolute morals without guilt.”

    Really? Do you mean to imply a kind of situational ethics, like “generally I believe adultery is wrong, but as long as no one is hurt I suppose it’s ok”? If so that might be somewhat true, though not that different from many other cultures.

    I think the big difference is not an indifference to moral absolutes, but rather the basis for moral authority. In Japan this seems to be rooted in communal norms rather than ancient, codified religious dogma. I suppose this comes back to the guilt- vs. shame-based culture argument. Case in point, many ethical or behavioral norms in Japan are maintained not by inculcating a sense that rule X is universal and has been decreed by a supernatural power, but by an overriding fear of “what will my neighbors/co-workers think of me if I do this?”

    “It seems to me that Japanese are more tolerant of “weird behavior”. For instance, Ikko, the transgender TV talent is quite respected and shares the stage with a number of cross-dressing men who are opinion leaders in Japan.”

    Non-normative sexualities may be popular or accepted in media/entertainment, but how does this relate to the real world? I mean Ikko is basically treated as a novelty tarento, complete with the “dondake” catch phrase and all. This is like claiming Japanese are fond/accepting of Nigerian immigrants because Bobby Ologun is popular (at least until he caused a scene at his tarento gaisha).

    As much as you may see wacky moe or other otaku niche stuff on TV, I doubt the average Tanaka-san would feel comfortable discussing his pillow-collection or latest dating simulation software with his co-workers/friends over drinks cause they’d think he’s a freaking weirdo. Joking about fuzoku or porn, I can definitely imagine. But the moe stuff, no way.

  27. Joi Ito Says:

    I think the big difference is not an indifference to moral absolutes, but rather the basis for moral authority. In Japan this seems to be rooted in communal norms rather than ancient, codified religious dogma.

    I guess this is part of what I’m trying to say. I think that my hypothesis is that both Shinto and Buddhism tend not to provide moral authority, but rather ritual and process.

    I do agree that the acceptability of weird “tarento” is different than the acceptance of weirdness in the living room or the work place. I also agree that many Japanese hide their moe tendencies. However, I do know of a very well known corporate executive in a media company who is/was a publicly known cross-dresser and was able to become senior management.

    The comparison to gun-toting Americans is interesting, but I’m not sure that it hits the moral nerve the same way that cross-dressing could.

    The history of homosexuality is interesting. I think that the hoisting of Shinto as the banner under which to grow a military was a rather strange period in Japanese history driven in part by scholars who believed that wars were more effectively fought under the banner of a religion. I’ve heard some scholars say that this abuse of the Shinto religion was partially to blame of the loss of spirituality in Japan as the Shinto religion lost its power after Japan lost the war.

    One of the comments made by some of the hackers at the FOO camp was that they felt guilty spending too much time on a hobby. Where do you think that this guilt comes from? Is it a Protestant work ethic? I’m sure SOME Japanese feel guilty too, but I wonder if guilt isn’t something that is also based on religion.

    As you say, I think Japanese feel shame, but not to God, but rather to their family and ancestors. While this shame is real and drives a lot of the risk aversion of Japan, it seems less “deep” than something based on God – something you wouldn’t feel if you could “get away without being caught”.

  28. xee Says:

    Is there really a difference between feeling shame before god and shame before your ancestors?

  29. xee Says:

    i mean– both occupy the same sort of position in one’s everyday life, they are non-corporeal presences, internalised yardsticks for one’s behaviour. Mind you i guess one brings shame upon one’s ancestors, one doesn’t bring shame upon god (though you can bring shame upon yr church i guess).

    anyway this is an unimportant point.

  30. xee Says:

    especially considering “I’m not sure that [gun-toting] hits the moral nerve the same way that cross-dressing could.”

    you what?

    I don’t really like the point M-bone was trying to make with his “Japan gets its weird this way, the US gets its weird this other” but, heavens, all European nations have Christian intellectual foundations and I’d say that most of them have much less moral trouble with cross-dressing than with gun-toting.

    and poor old US, getting both the protestant work ethic and the catholic guilt at once!

  31. M-Bone Says:

    In “the West”, I would posit that in many cases “God” and the moral facets of divinity and belief are just code words for the gaze of the community. I think that non-religious people and people from outside the cultural milieu have a tendency to think of most Christians as being locked into some kid of guilt-ridden Kierkegaardian inner struggle to come to terms with their moral relationship with their lord and/or savior, but isn’t the reality a lot closer to, say, fear of being found out by the community to be an avid consumer of fetish porn or a closet homosexual? In this case, couldn’t it also be social pressure and shame that have so much to do with proscribing behavior? I think that approaching individual Westerners as if they were each a little corner of the Scottish Enlightenment or something is giving too much credit.

    I know that link I posted above goes from being very funny to very, very sad in a hurry, but I don’t see much evidence of guilt OR shame there – just a lot of (selfish) consumption-driven behavior. In this sense, are we really talking about something so different from otaku?

    “One of the comments made by some of the hackers at the FOO camp was that they felt guilty spending too much time on a hobby.”

    Have to ask – was this after you introduced the guilt/shame paradigm? This is rooted in cultural anthropology and is not something that people really think about. Sometimes we say “guilt” when we mean “shame”. The popular idiom “guilt trip”, for example, is something that get’s actively put on you by someone else so is really no different from discussing social or family pressure. Did they feel guilt before God? I doubt it. Was it guilt before family, a feeling that they should be doing something more constructive in their community? Well, we have another way of saying that – “shame”.

    “The comparison to gun-toting Americans is interesting, but I’m not sure that it hits the moral nerve the same way that cross-dressing could.”

    Not in the United States, but in Japan, wouldn’t this sort of openly violent/militaristic attitude be condemned by many as immoral or at least going against prevailing norms? Or drugs – Japan might have open “weirdness” in some spheres, but Americans like to joke about how much crack celebrities smoke. The fact that many Americans like to leer as their stars coke themselves into oblivion seems pretty weird to me.

    Japan has a huge range of social experience and rather than positing religion / moral backdrop as an explain all, I think that the current consumer environment should be the start point of serious analysis. On election day, of all times, I had a very different experience than the button guy incident that you described. A group of guys in their early 20s, all heavy tats (what looked like Sanskrit) were walking toward me on the street. The biggest guy (who looked near 300 pounds) through a shoulder into me for no reason, obviously wanting to start something in the middle of a shotengai at 1 in the afternoon. These guys were Japanese and I don’t know if they had a bone to pick with foreigners or if I was just the best potential fight around. How do we explain something like this? Are there Japanese who have just “graduated” from social pressure? Or are they just building toughguy personae out of whatever they buy to show off to their friends like these kinds of @$$sholes do everywhere? This is poor kids adopting esoteric gang style to try to arm themselves against a world that has contemporary class issues – working poor, etc. They’re a similar type of dropout to the most extreme otaku, trying to buy fantasies and identities in a society that no longer hands them over clear “know your place” packages like Edo classes, the wartime order, or high growth. Plenty of diversity in contemporary Japan, which is the main reason that you can only take psycho-historical essentialism so far.

  32. M-Bone Says:

    Threw a shoulder, tried to walk through me.

    “I don’t really like the point M-bone”

    Any reason? What counts as strange or deviant is society-specific and subject to historical change and you are exactly right – gun toting is a serious moral issue in just as many places as cross dressing for very good historical reasons.

    “Japan gets its weird this way, the US gets its weird this other”

    I think that is a fair point to make when Japan is being presented as “more weird”.

  33. M-Bone Says:

    Missed this point in the earlier post –

    “I think that the hoisting of Shinto as the banner under which to grow a military was a rather strange period in Japanese history”

    Can we really talk about “strange” periods in history? Writing off the war period as an exception is attractive in many respects, but I don’t think that it makes for the best historical interpretation. Are you aware that the Shame/Guilt ideas are from Benedict’s “Chrysanthemum and the Sword”, not from any Japanese analysis. One of the reasons why your comments are eliciting criticism here is that these ideas were originally taken as an explanation of why wartime behavior was the RULE for Japanese civilization. This idea that Japanese were essentially warlike because of feudal and religious influences on their social behavior was behind some shocking examples of racism like a survey of the American public in 1945 in which around 10% of respondents believed that every Japanese should be killed and the race wiped off the face of the earth as the best way of ending the war(this is quoted in Dower, War Without Mercy). The key, I think, is not to dwell obsessively on the war period but not to dismiss it either. In either case, the shame / guilt thing has often been bad news as an academic debate.

    “driven in part by scholars who believed that wars were more effectively fought under the banner of a religion.”

    In part, but that would be a small part. The political elite of the Meiji Period were interested in Shinto as it provided support for the imperial rule from which they gained their legitimacy.

    “I’ve heard some scholars say that this abuse of the Shinto religion was partially to blame of the loss of spirituality in Japan as the Shinto religion lost its power after Japan lost the war.”

    Who are these scholars?

  34. W. David MARX Says:

    I think that my hypothesis is that both Shinto and Buddhism tend not to provide moral authority, but rather ritual and process.

    But doesn’t this emphasis on social ritual make otaku an even greater hazard to Japanese society than they would be to “Western society”? They are breaking social protocol and it’s only been the capitalist needs to foster them as consumers that has basically excused their behavior.

    I think a lot of the otaku debate too must focus on the anonymity of Tokyo. No one is bound to any sort of community norms because no one knows either other — at least for suburban communities and the rural influx. Being outwardly otaku is a lot easier when you are bringing no shame upon your parents.

  35. M-Bone Says:

    This “consume anything without attention to the larger group” goes a long way toward explaining not only otaku but also U15, housewife magazines with husband murder fantasy stories, Channel Sakura, and no end of other stuff.

    If anything, in the US, we have been seeing outrage at other people’s consumption and self expression which suggests to me that “shame culture / guilt culture” is no longer a relevant discussion.

    BTW, Joi – Not out to get you or anything, your blog looks really good. I’ll be checking it out.

  36. RMilner Says:

    I haven’t got a coherent thesis to present.

    My main point is that otakuism is just another form of the type of obsessive behaviour found in many countries and ages, more common in men than in women. Examples include stamp collecting, train spotting (a very English hobby) and obsessions with sports stats, wargaming, and the Trekkie-ism others have mentoned above.

    This kind of obsessive behaviour is probably connected with the spectrum of psychological makeup that includes Asperger Syndrome and autism.

    In other words, it’s not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon connected with historical culture and religion, it’s an expression within a particular social system of a natural psychological drive.

    Regarding the ‘otakuism’ of some sushi chefs and other craftsmen, it’s reckoned that a mild degree of Asperger’s Syndrome is an asset in a job like computer programming, which requires obsessive attention to detail.

  37. Chuckles Says:

    […I don’t think you can talk about Otaku without talking about the wider consumerist explosion of the early 1980s…]

    This is one of the reasons why trying to explain social behavior is so difficult. Are we trying to claim that imports from China via Korea, and later on the Dutch etc do not lend themselves to localized explosions of consumerist behavior in Japans premodern history? The argument isnt that say, Otaku behavior is detached from consumerism – but that consumerism does little to explain the behavior, perhaps even zilch, when compared with the previous hypothesis advanced. For instance, pop scholarship usually links the advent of Manga and anime as peculiarly Japanese, to previous forms in the culture, Ukiyo-e to be precise. Wasnt Ukiyo-e directly located within consumerist culture – wasnt it mass produced, crafted to appeal to hoi polloi, pornographic, rife with appeals to non normative sexuality – and perfectionist? So, is the social organization that developed around Ukiyo-e and the perfectionism it exhibited due more to consumerism and structure and less to historical and cultural antecedents in Japan? Otaku are not particularly original, structurally, in Japanese society – and Otaku perfectionism, structurally, isnt original either. Both owe more to antecedents than they do to current structure. The history and continued development and reformation of Ukiyo-e attests to this.

    […I think a lot of the otaku debate too must focus on the anonymity of Tokyo. No one is bound to any sort of community norms because no one knows either other — at least for suburban communities and the rural influx…]

    Excellent – you will note too, that it was the rapid urbanization of premodern Japan that lent itself to the rise of Ukiyo-e. A Professor of mine, an Anthropologist once told me that today’s modern media has its antecedents in renaissance art. Weird, but the point is made. Again, let us remember that the point isnt that Otaku arent subcultural, but that their subalternity isnt causal vis-a-vis traits in exhibit – these same traits were in exhibit during the heyday of Ukiyo-e without Ukiyo-e being as or neccesarily subaltern.

  38. Joi Ito Says:

    Lots of interesting points. I think many require a bit more digging for sources than I can do right now while traveling in the UK, but I do think a lot of this is about degrees of causality. I accept that there is diversity in Japan, that there are obsessive sub-cultures in other parts of the world and the shame/guilt exist everywhere and have similarities. I realize this isn’t an academically rigorous position to take in the context of this discussion, but in my personal experience, I have noticed differences which I’m trying describe through hypothesis. Your feedback is helpful in considering areas that might be worth exploring for some more empirical data. I think on many of these issues, in the absence of some more research, further comments from me will probably not sway your opinion. ;-)

    I do think the influence of Asperger Syndrome on everything from craft to Silicon Valley startups is a fascinating topic which I’m actually exploring.

    Just for the record, the notion about feeling guilty about hobbies that was expressed by someone at FOO Camp actually came before the discussion about shame/guilt I believe in that context. I hadn’t really even considered that “hobbies” would be something people felt guilty about.

    “I’ve heard some scholars say that this abuse of the Shinto religion was partially to blame of the loss of spirituality in Japan as the Shinto religion lost its power after Japan lost the war.”

    Apologies for the unattributed reference. I remember this from a discussion that we had at Koyasan with the head monk there and some academics, but I don’t recall exactly who said it. I have a FEELING it was Shinichi Nakazawa but it could have also been the head monk of Koyasan. Here are some of my notes from that meeting: http://joi.ito.com/weblog/2002/08/27/some-koyasan-no.html

    And the relevant quote scribble from my notebook.

    They talked about the fact that Hirofumi Ito studied religion of the West and decided that one God and a unified religion were necessary for a strong nation. He split Shinto and Buddhism and made the Emperor the God of the Shinto religion, even until the then the Emperor was a great believer of Buddhism and most of them were buried at Koyasan. Then, Japan lost the war, the Emperor lost his power and Japan became atheist.

    Another point was that the world “religion” was imported during the Meiji Restoration and is a new word in Japan. Japan referred to the Way of Buddha or the Way of Shinto and believed in things, but organized religion was not defined until Japan started to copy the west.

    I realize that any part of history can be considered “weird” but I guess my point is that if the above quote is true, the war had a historically significant impact on religion and spirituality.

  39. M-Bone Says:

    Joi, since you seem very interested in following this up, I can recommend some articles easily available online if you want to fit your arguments more firmly into the scholarly context.

    Apart from the “Modernity” collection that I mentioned above one of the firmest teardowns of Nihonjinron thought in English is Dale, “The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness” (1986), the intro of which you should be able to peruse on Google Books.

    I also recommend that you check out the Kojiki references in Lafcadio Hearn’s “Japan: An Interpretation” for some of the most extreme examples of the (mis)use of tradition for a variety of coverall explanations in the period of modernization.

    On http://www.japanfocus.org Lummis’ “Ruth Benedict’s Obituary for Japanese Culture” and especially Charles Hayford’s critiques of the “samurai baseball” idea (this is the same type of argument as “zen otaku”) are important.

    In Japanese, I highly recommend Oguma Eiji’s works – 『単一民族神話の起源――の自画像の系譜』(新曜社, 1995年) and 『と――戦後日本のナショナリズムと公共性』(新曜社, 2002年). This 公共性 concept is a good Japanese equivalent for the “social pressure” ideas that we have been discussing above and nobody shows this idea as historically bound in as much detail as Oguma.

    “Apologies for the unattributed reference.”

    I think that you should straighten this out ASAP – the idea that Japan “lost” a fundamental part of its moral core with defeat is also being exploited by ultranationalists like Kobayashi Yoshinori (check out his recent Tennoron). I hope whoever said it would disassociate themselves from that sort of thing.

    Finally, I’m a bit concerned with another aspect of the quote – jumping directly from Ito, who was most powerful in the late 19th century, to the end of WWII… that’s skipping over a whole lot. I think that you can fairly argue that the end of the war caused a major religious change – but spirituality? Was there anything nourishing in a spiritual sense about the emperor-centered militarist order and if so, can we actually draw a clear line between that and the secular nationalism of the time? In addition, shortly after the end of the war, there was a boom in new religious movements (Sokka Gakkai) as Japanese sought new/different spiritual foundations than those that existed in Meiji/Taisho and early Showa.

  40. W. David MARX Says:

    I want to echo M-Bone’s point and say that the Oguma Eiji’s book is amazing. It’s available in English as A Genealogy of Japanese Self-Images.

  41. M-Bone Says:

    I’m really, really looking forward to reading Oguma’s latest – 2000 pages on 1968 focusing on the student movement (but not limited to it). These books are going to change the way that we talk about Zengakuren and all that – especially the legacy.

    1968〈上〉若者たちの叛乱とその背景
    1968〈下〉叛乱の終焉とその遺産

    The covers are fantastic as well. Now I just need to find 10 days off to read them.

  42. Joi Ito Says:

    Thanks for the references. I’m not sure when I will have time to take a year off and read all of them, but I’ll try to collect and read them when I can. It looks interesting.

    I think that you should straighten this out ASAP – the idea that Japan “lost” a fundamental part of its moral core with defeat is also being exploited by ultranationalists like Kobayashi Yoshinori (check out his recent Tennoron). I hope whoever said it would disassociate themselves from that sort of thing.

    I’m not sure if I will be able to track down the actual people who said this, but I’ll be seeing Shinichi Nakazawa who lead the panel soon – in November. I’ll ask him if he remember and will try to get him to clarify his thoughts and be more precise if it turns out to be his theory. It’s quite possible that he was paraphrasing a great deal as well since the audience was quite diverse.

  43. greatfool Says:

    How about the theory that the otaku phenomenon is just a modern example of a broad theme running through Japanese culture, which is the interest or obsession with the details, nuance, and categorization of things. In almost everything the Japanese have undertaken they have created many separate schools devoted to a very particular way of pursuing an activity, in a somewhat otaku like way.

    The aspergers-type, systematizing, categorizing, detail obsessed mind may be at work in a lot of the otaku culture but this kind of obsession with things might be much more prevalent in Japan than in other places because is it given license by something in Japanese culture. Maybe the Confucian veneration of learning and erudition has influenced Japanese culture so that expertise becomes a way of attaining or securing one’s position in society, and the fact that there may be millions of people in a single relatively small area means that expertise is necessarily limited to some tiny very specific subject area, because if you pick something not obscure enough, someone else will have already done it better than you.

  44. xee Says:

    Dale’s “myth of japanese uniqueness” is hysterical, where by hysterical I mean “characterised by hysteria” – it’s a great rollicking read but it’s a polemic, it takes its thesis just a little too far.

    I really don’t like the way this argument seems to be replacing one essentialism with another – “otaku perfectionist obsession is zen tradition is inherently japanese” with “otaku perfectionist obsession is aspergers is inherently male”. Okay for one I hate this medicalisation of absolutely everyday behaviour (so every eight-year-old who likes dinosaurs or pokemon and collects facts about them suddenly has aspergers now? where is the autism-spectrum line drawn between karaoke girls memorising pop lyrics and duffel-coated boys memorising train numbers?), but also… essentialism just doesn’t work.

    Obviously i’m coming from a funny position because most Japanese people I know are in their twenties, quite mainstream in tastes, and express the same shame about knowing anything in detail that American or European kids do. I’ve never hung out with people who were part of otaku culture (purely because our interests don’t really overlap): the particularly systematizing, detail-obsessed people I’ve known have been research students, and there it’s their job.

  45. xee Says:

    M-bone, I don’t like your guntoters/crossdressers local-image-of-weirdness example because I don’t really see what the two have to do with one another?

    Crossdressing tarento on television are part of mainstream popular culture, they get paid appearance fees, they have a likeable persona that’s expressed in various media; people who bring guns to town-hall meetings may be celebrated by glenn beck and may be mustered by local r-wing groups, but they have not been co-opted into the mainstream in the same way.

  46. M-Bone Says:

    “it takes its thesis just a little too far.”

    Yes, it actually isn’t a very good book. I suggest it simply because it shouldn’t be possible to write Nihonjinron after being exposed to the issues that it raises. The main problem with the book is that Dale seems to raise Nihonjinron itself as something uniquely Japanese and thus his polemic is actually a form of uncritical Nihonjinron itself. A huge failing, but I still don’t know of any single “go to” anti-Nihonjinron book that breaks things down clearly.

    As for the guntoters, the only similarity is this – when I look at the modern American scene (I’m not American), this townhall and teabagger stuff strikes me as being the most “weird”. On the other hand, I don’t really think that cross dressers on TV is weird or objectionable. In essence, I’m tired of online suggestions that Japan is the land of strangeness because they have a plush mascot for everything while Palin, bald Brittney, and Kanye strike me as infinitely more strange. This goes for so many areas of society. I think that most Japanese would be speechless if they were brought to a “megachurch”. My wife is shocked enough by Walmart.

    I also think that this protest stuff also has mainstream manifestations – Limbaugh has over 20,000,000 listeners (or so he says), Coulter and Malkin are nationally syndicated columnists and Coulter’s books are frequently huge bestsellers. In large swarthes of the country, I think that the lionization of this behavior (of which the guntoting is only one small manifestation, but not even the most confrontational) is mainstream in the Red parts of the country anyway. And let’s face it, the left has been criticizing it for reasons of ideological commitment, but also for ratings. Marketing outrage to people in New York who aren’t going to actually get up and do anything commodifies this behavior and spreads it as image.

    “So, is the social organization that developed around Ukiyo-e and the perfectionism it exhibited due more to consumerism and structure and less to historical and cultural antecedents in Japan?”

    Chuckles, was Ukiyoe perfectionist? The Ukiyoe of the innovative creators like Hokusai and others was. That’s why it survived and is cherished. What about the mountains of cash-grab mass produced junk that don’t make it into the art histories? Most Edo art was very, very crude. We talk about perfectionism in Japanese tradition only by ignoring history. The perfectionist ideas are related to the cultural stream that goes from the Daimyo sponsored art and craft (and has earlier roots) through to the postwar “living national treasures” but so much of what was popular art and craft in Japanese history just has a crude efficiency.

    As for the otaku, I think that you are being drawn into Katayama and Ito’s tendency to talk about them as primarily a form of producer. The vast majority are not. In addition, Edo Ukiyoe were collected like travel guides, calenders, or pinups – all more consistent with modernism (and thus our choice to describe Edo as early modern or a proto-modern culture). They have little to do with the hoard, memorize and occasionally make or perform style of consumption of otaku which was only possible when Japanese society (as the result of a whole lot of factors) started freeing ordinary people from labor (people buying ukiyoe in the Edo period wouldn’t have had many days off to stare at them) because their leisure consumption was more valuable. So while consumerism doesn’t explain the behavior (I think that we need to look strongly at individual expressed motives to do that) it does, I think, explain why the behavior became possible and why it is so different than anything in Edo.

    So, I think that while ukiyoe may share continuities on the creative side with manga, etc. the consumption parallels only exist on the very broadest level IMO and that parallel can also be drawn with the collecting of magatama in prehistory if you really want to (they also had networks of desire, meaning, and status associated with them but magatama don’t equal Louis Vuitton, not without a lot of essentialist gymnastics). Importantly, these parallels with manga, etc. are also something that we can establish as creators like Takahata Isao have, in very great detail, written about just what it is in ukiyoe and earlier forms of Japanese art that shapes their work.

  47. Chuckles Says:

    Excellent MBone. You will notice that I readily agreed that Ukiyo-e was marketed to basically what you would call hoi polloi and also had perfectionist elements and that it shared these characteristics with Manga and anime, in that not all Otaku, like those who argue from structure might claim, are perfectionist, any more than all manga or anime displays the artistic and psychological sophistication that many have come to associate with the genre – prolly a result of viewing it through the lens of NGE, GiTS etc.

    My point rather was that Otaku perfectionism has a precedent – as the entire subculture itself has a precedent, even to its mass availability, non normative sexuality aspects.

    [… I think, explain why the behavior became possible and why it is so different than anything in Edo…]

    How so? Consumerism as opposed to urbanization / metropolitanization? Lets be clear: rapid agglomeration of people under centralized authority has a pretty long history. No need to invoke consumerism: It is the need to coalesce an urban and metropolitan swarm that has always lent itself to the development of various forms of art, religion, etc. Shared signifiers, shared religion…We see the same thing at work in Europe, during the dark ages and the renaissance. We see the development of the finest forms of Pharonic art and religion during specific periods of urbanization. We see it in South America, we see it in West Africa, where what cultural productions retrieved exist parrallel with urbanization: Yes, urbanization is not independent of trade and agriculture – at least through out world history – but these forms would have developed without the mass consumerism that we are trying to invoke – why? For the same reason that mass religion developed without the neccessity of mass consumerism: How could it have possibly been otherwise, when until recently most people were simply too dirt poor and in bondage to function as consumers in any real sense of the word – as opposed to sociocultural serfs?

    Question, if we really want to push this: Are you willing to apply the same consumerist thesis to the development of religion as you are to art? If not, why not? Do you believe that the parrallel development of certain forms of religion and art is coincidental? Do you believe that these things developed on account of market behavior rather than the nature of cities and agglomerates?

    My understanding of consmerism is that the very act of cosumption is itself a deliberate status enhancing ritual as distinct from say, subsistence level consumption. My understanding is that this phenomenon by definition could not have been possible prior to the industrial revolution – even though marketing, collection of status enhancing goods predate the European nation state, predate the Mongols etc and appear even under very simple human conditions – even in groups like the !Kung. So then, how could consumerism be causal vis-a-vis Ukiyo-e and if the traits exhibited in that epoch are replicated in the 21st century, why the need to invoke consumerism, as opposed to a much more longer history of symbol creation that is clearly in evidence? How could peasants, serfs, lower caste members etc, even qualify as consumers? Can non persons qualify as consumers? As opposed to elements coopted by social and cultural symbol making in the process of civilization?

    But an excellent dissection from you anyhow.

  48. M-Bone Says:

    “But an excellent dissection from you anyhow.”

    Thanks, you certainly set up an important challenge to the ideas that we have been putting forward.

    “prolly a result of viewing it through the lens of NGE, GiTS”

    Exactly. I think that this is a good opportunity to take a step back and ask ourselves just why we started talking about perfectionism and otaku anyway.

    The most “perfect” anime – GiTS and Miyazaki’s work comes to mind has little appeal to the moe otaku hardcore (did the pillow guys even see Ponyo?) while the products that are for that group are often damn shoddy. I haven’t seen much, but the anime porno that I have been exposed to looked to have been about three frames per second – rubbish. So if anything, that group is far less demanding from their craftsmen than, say, the otaku who lean the Miyazaki / Oshii way. And those guys have mainstream presence as well.

    In terms of perfectionism in trivia, I think that it is notable that Japan doesn’t see nearly as much stuff like “Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit” as other markets. In fact, dedicated anime trivia books are a rarity. Serious analysis like Azuma’s stuff has outsold the fan guides over the past few years and when you do see something like “Eva Kenkyu”, most of it is devoted to either profiling the characters in serious psychological terms (not necessarily a serious exercise but not “trivia” either) or providing context relating to the esoteric symbols (Kabbalah, etc.) that pop up. This strikes me as being more akin to the “Buffy and Philosophy” books than committed trivia.

    And anyway, what exactly would moe otaku be memorizing to perfection anyway? Asuka’s shoe size to the nearest half centimeter? It seems that there may be a strong trend toward perfectionism among GUNDAM or military otaku, but this is a pretty distinct group and have an exact parallel in technology fetishists all over (these guys scare me). I’m even less inclined to relate these guys to Zen than I am to relate guys who memorize the frequency of the Enterprise’s shields when they are being attacked with photon torpedoes as compared to phasers to Calvinism.

    In terms of otaku production I think that it is instructive to look at Genshiken. While the show isn’t “real”, it is widely regarded to have captured the otaku zeitgeist to the point where it is a useful addition to the discussion. When the characters in the show are trying to put together a dojinshi it is one episode of procrastination and artistic compromise after another. They are slackers and know that they are doing it halfass. I’m not even sure if perfection is an ideal here – the non-stop carnival of contemporary consumption seems to be it. And hey, there is also that scene in another otaku zeitgeist piece from a simpler time – Otaku no Video – where they decide to sacrifice some of the quality of their garage kits in favor of mass production. The Gainax crew sure didn’t always strive to perfection when they became producers (no perfection in filing their taxes either) when the best gave way to good which gave way to good enough.

    Finally, if otaku were into perfectionism in collecting, would Bookoffs be so full? And wouldn’t there be a market for first editions and the like on the level of the comic book and baseball card collections in the US? The conspicuous absence of these in Japan is important, I think. There certainly are nostalgia collectors who shell out big bucks, but these aren’t pimply moe otaku and they probably aren’t drawing their own dojinshi either.

    So in the end, we might be able to apply these idea of perfection to Murakami’s Boume, but to “otaku”?

    “My point rather was that Otaku perfectionism has a precedent”

    The problem of perfectionism aside, I think precedent is a good way of describing it in the meaning of “preceding and similar”. Causation, however, is another matter.

    Re: consumerism and urbanization. Note that I haven’t been pushing the Tokyo / urban angle. Otaku consumption may have started in Tokyo (perhaps partly because of the concentration of university students) but it now happens in every boondock. I think that time and lifepatterns is more fundamental to this than urbanization which is a facet of post-industrial freeing of labor but not the whole show.

    “a much more longer history of symbol creation that is clearly in evidence?”

    Sorry to jump over so many of your points, hope to go back and have another look when I am a bit less busy. Symbol creation is important. But first, isn’t symbol creation itself (actual symbols aside) so fundamental to human behavior that using it is an explanation of otaku is as vague as suggesting, say, that otaku have been shaped by “interpersonal relations”. Second, on the level of specific symbols, isn’t Zen one of the single spheres of the Japanese tradition where the types of set symbolic patterns that seem to define “otaku” as a collective experience have the LEAST relevance? If Katayama and Ito had compared (and not suggested causation) otaku culture with mikkyo (mandalas, secret knowledge, etc.) I might not have jumped in, but why Zen, something that has not only been largely internalized, limited to the experience of tiny groups of elites, and lacking the elaborate networks of symbols of just about every other Japanese religious practice?

    “Are you willing to apply the same consumerist thesis to the development of religion as you are to art?”

    I’m not applying it so much to the art as to the consumption and use of the art which I consider as distinct issues. This can also be applied to religion – to follow the otaku example, just look at Aum or the abovementioned mega churches. Knowledge of premodern symbolic networks is necessary to understand those on one level, but so are more immediate consumption / social contexts which mediate the contemporary meanings / use of symbols. When trying to understanding not the churches but the people who attend or join, I think that the symbols are of a much slighter significance than the atmosphere of consumption and relationships that surrounds them.

    “Do you believe that these things developed on account of market behavior rather than the nature of cities and agglomerates?”

    I’m not a Marxist but I don’t discount market economic factors. All of these things are factors and I think that market and city “natures” are subject to historical change. Changes to the environments that serve as the context for consumption are very important to consider.

    “My understanding is that this phenomenon by definition could not have been possible prior to the industrial revolution”

    That is coherent with my points. The industrial revolution and what you could call the post-industrial revolution (service, a decline in hours of work as society comes to value individuals as much as consumers as producers) are such decisive breaks with earlier forms of consumption (although mass produced Ukiyo-e are early modern in as much as they foreshadow machine reproduction of mass culture products) that drawing continuities with premodern production or Zen or whatnot seems extreme. Rooting around in the distant past for symbolic continuities is, I think, quite useful in understanding production and texts, but contemporary consumption is, as you mentioned, partly a status act that would seem quite alien, and indeed quite hateful, in a 13th century Zen temple.

    “causal vis-a-vis Ukiyo-e and if the traits exhibited in that epoch are replicated in the 21st century”

    I have a lot of doubts about this idea of “replication”. Continuities are evident in production to some degree, but you wouldn’t have found 17th century merchant sons going hikikomori in rooms filled with ukiyoe. Part of the point of much ukiyoe was also to advertise certain real world prostitutes or travel destinations. I’d be more comfortable talking about links between this and current actor/actress obsessions and kokunai ryoko / B kyu gourmet booms – all in the mainstream – than subcultural consumption.

    Given several hundred pages, you could demonstrate links between Yoshiwara to Meiji/Taisho geisha to the postwar red light areas to modern Soaplands on one hand Kyabakura on the other. You can work backward empirically (for example, there are families who ran geisha establishments who went over to prostitutes for GIs and to Toruko – we can follow their paper trail as well as those of the various gumi that they were involved with, this is a fascinating history) but, in the end, my main problem with the Zen to otaku argument is that it can only exist on a level of symbols with empirical connections on the level of the buying, selling, and using of cultural products impossible to establish. Too much ether to overcome the industrial and post-industrial gulfs and actually come up with meaningful associations.

  49. Chuckles Says:

    Brilliant – and I agree that with tortured attention to detail and enough paper continuity could be discerned between any group of disimilar epochs. Fair enough. I am not going to task you on your response, which is A+ but I am going to readdress myself to certain key issues: I’ll be brief henceforth, cause I think Marxy hates epistles in the comments.

    1. There are certain kinds of perfectionist behavior in Otaku subculture.
    2. Ito, etc, suggest a link with previous cultural forms in Japanese society.
    3. Marxy suggests that such behavior is typical of subcultural units. No need for Hegel type macro historical meta narrative.
    4. The point is made that structure doesnt explain the rise of the cultural behavior itself, whereas cultural continuity might.
    5. Consumerism is advanced and we all commment to our hearts content.
    6. Ergo, I surmise that if the Otaku subculture were extricated from Japan, and say transferred to a society with equivalent prevalance of consumerism, we would not see a diminishing of the traits in question? This is the key you know: Because if Japanese continuities are near irrelevant, then Japanese Otaku peculiarities ought to flourish everywhere subcultural status and consumerism are available – but everybody knows this is not the case. Japanese Otaku are peculiarly peculiar. Why? Or, are you making the rather astounding claim that Japanese Otaku and Candian, North American, South American, Filipino Otaku are on par?

  50. W. David MARX Says:

    I will give cultural explanations a certain amount of importance in that I think that Japanese society tends to be orthopraxical (although this isn’t unique as much as one part of a common binary typology) and that “knowledge” in Japan tends to be more about systematized facts/data rather than a holistic “understanding.” These principles are both visible throughout almost all layers of society — especially in the education system. They are not just “in the ether” but replicated and rewarded through specific systems and structures. (For example, the employment and exam systems in Japan specifically reward and punish based on orthopraxic and data-emphasized criteria. Kids who “get it” but don’t follow the rules don’t go far in life.)

    So I think these two (inter-connected) cultural influences both push the otaku to take on the above-mentioned “Otaku” traits, but I think the genesis of this system is much more complicated than just something like “Zen Buddhist influence.” There are political and material reasons for these education and employment systems to be in place — they are not there just because they are “obvious” based on cultural assumptions. And they were not dismantled or tweaked for a long time because the elite saw a positive correlation between material progress and the dominance of these systems.

    So there are certain philosophical or ideological dispositions that can be said to be a part of Japanese society, but I think it’s important to actually see them in action rather than just point similar spots in history and assume that a straight line can be drawn.

  51. M-Bone Says:

    I think that one of the differences here is that historians tend to see culture in terms of time and anthropologists (am I right?) tend to see time in terms of culture.

    “equivalent prevalance of consumerism”

    But it wouldn’t be the prevalence of equivalent consumerism. That manifests in different ways in different socio-historical environments.

    “Japanese Otaku and Candian, North American, South American, Filipino Otaku are on par?”

    I’m not sure that such a claim is “astounding”. There are no “Japanese otaku” that we can identify as a coherent group. I would argue that film otaku and military otaku are virtually identical in mindset to groups that we see outside of Japan. Moe otaku are different. There are different otaku in the other environments as well. For example, Japan has relatively few people playing online games for 15 hours a day compared to Korea or the US. There are obvious differences in what is promoted and legitimized in different consumer environments, but I’m not sure that things are so different on the level of fundamental consumption behavior. Are a GUNDAM otaku and a Star Trek geek really doing such different things at home and in private? So different that we need to see a religious significance?

    So for differences, let’s take the example of “moe”. Where does it come from? “Young” women were a negligible factor in Edo period porn fantasies. One could argue that boys were actually more prevalent. While Japan and the US charged forward into subcultural consumerism what producers decided to prioritize was different (and here we can link to premodern symbols in some but by no means all cases, I think that moe is an example of a break) and what the larger societies cracked down on as deviant was different. For moe, Tezuka’s interpretation of Disney is important, late 70s idol culture is important, Onyanko Club and stuff like that is important, the fetishization of “seishun” and nostalgia for a pre-rat race life in postwar pulp culture is important, the sexual revolution producing (fake) “confessional” literature by (fake) high school girls helped the commodification. It’s not all about men either. The marketing of kawaii culture to girls provided many of the tropes and images that would be later used to sell moe to men. All of this can be contextualized in the postwar division of the public into men’s and women’s spheres than anything radically traditional. In the traditional farm village, women played a public productive role. The postwar environment is more or less the cooption and fundamental reinvention of samurai patterns (and those of the prewar middle class) in service of dividing the sexes between production and consumption. Each of these is a context that can inform our understanding of moe. I think that we have to sort through the maze of the postwar consumer environment before going back to Kamakura.

  52. M-Bone Says:

    ““knowledge” in Japan tends to be more about systematized facts/data rather than a holistic “understanding.””

    Zen, ironically, is one of the few areas where this isn’t the case.

  53. Em Says:

    I was with you on the absurdities that abounded up until you started in with the punk.

    While yes, it’s true the majority of Japan would have an association with punk as a commodity and not a legitimate subculture, punk’s origins in Japan come from lower classes in the late 70’s and end up having quite a lot of connection with bosozoku culture. Rebellion as commodity is the same in any consumer culture and the way that Japanese youth consumes punk iconography is not really all that different to the way that Americans do.

    And as the Tokyo Rockabilly Club might attest to, even the thuggiest, angriest creeps in town will still say apologize, unless you catch them in a bad mood.

    But I’ve always thought the otaku method had more to do with the education system than anything remotely zen. Students are indoctrinated to be precise and to rote memorize data obsessively… I really don’t know all that many Japanese kids who know anything about Budhism beyond the basic mechanics of the prayers.

  54. W. David MARX Says:

    punk’s origins in Japan come from lower classes in the late 70’s

    Do you mean punk in its US/UK mold or a Japanese version of “punk”? My point is that the rockabilly/yankii thing fits in the punk mold quite well even though they didn’t necessarily associate with the Sex Pistols. The people to most associate with Johnny Rotten etc. seemed to be the London Nite fashion crowd, and after that “punk” basically became a segment of the wider consumer market. (Hiroshi Fujiwara got a lot of cred for owning REAL Vivienne Westwood.)

    the way that Japanese youth consumes punk iconography is not really all that different to the way that Americans do.

    But I would argue that Americans at least believe that being a “real punk” means adopting a punk attitude on top of the fashion. Being called a “fashion punk” was one of the greater sins: it implies you don’t have the punk “heart.”

  55. Aceface Says:

    “But I would argue that Americans at least believe that being a “real punk” means adopting a punk attitude on top of the fashion.”

    Too true.I’ve witnessed that back in ’88 when “Sid and Nancy” was on long run at of all place in the world Shibuya’s Cinema Rise on “Spanish Hills”……

    But then again it just came to me that it was nobody,but Emilio Estevez being a punk in “Repo Man”…

  56. Confusion Says:

    God Joi Ito and Marxy in one thread –
    like some crazy on-line ego tripping wank fest

  57. W. David Marx Says:

    Well, no, dude. We were having a serious conversation about big issues. Your blanket dismissal is not particularly justified nor persuasive.

  58. Confusion Says:

    yeah just don’t give up your day job as a fashion hack

  59. M-Bone Says:

    I’ve assigned Marxy on fashion in a university course. Who is reading you Confusion?

  60. W. David Marx Says:

    My day job is not a “fashion hack.” Our rule at Neojaponisme is that all the trolls be at least accurate.

  61. Aceface Says:

    My mind exactly.At least people should try to prove themselves as “smart” first,when they are being smartass.Unfortunately our new friend forgot that.

  62. M-Bone Says:

    The scary thing is that as Neojaponisme trolls go, Confusion is actually more coherent than the last few.

  63. Em Says:

    Marxy —

    I mean the Japanese origins of punk which was in the hardcore scene in the late 1970’s right around the same time the rest of it was blossoming. I’m not going to say that it was an isolated island effort without influence from the western world, but Japanese hardcore would go on to be an influence to the famous hardcore acts the world over.

    Not to take the piss out of yankee culture though. I find yankee culture to be one of the most genuinely Japanese subcultures still around today and it’s no wonder to me that many yankees end up graduating into the punk scene here.

    But re: fashion punk, I think there’s a big difference at work between that and what goes on in Japan. Because I think there is a core Japanese punk scene that is truly a subculture, although I might laugh a bit at some of their more prudish interludes, a wanna-be (fashion punk) culture, and then a culture of punk that is truly in it for the fashion. I don’t think so much in the states we have the latter segment, except perhaps in the fairly extreme ends of total couture snobs who suck up Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood and the like and giggle about the punky elements.

    So yes, if you talk to a poser who wants to be punk but hasn’t clued into it enough to pass the authenticity litmus, then they’re gonna be pissed you’re calling them a fashion punk. In Japan though there are whole brands that base their image on fashion punk and the legions of (mainly, yes) girls who suck the shit up would call my scene terrifying and alien. While they may all rip up their clothes and wear patches they are no longer involved in the same cultures.

  64. P Says:

    Very interesting discussion even if it eventually became a little labyrinthine. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more use of Hiroki’s work, “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals.” I believe it would argue that Japan has produced something of a unique blend of geek. The production of simulcra and their legitimation and consumption is a fascinating contrast to Western geekdom.

  65. Mark Says:

    I hate to nitpick, but pairing together UK and US punk culture into a single “mold” isn’t so easy either. US punk was more about being intensely angry at your immediate surroundings and the people around you, while UK punk was more about being intensely angry at the aforementioned as well as your political and existential lot in life. I don’t think Iggy (who’s really just America’s Serge Gainsbourg) ever moved away to live in an anarcho-commune cultivating greens with his own bodily waste the way CRASS did at Dial House.

    When talking about anime’s appeal towards otaku’s materialism impulses, keep in mind the perpetual merchandising blitz many of the big titles are produced under. Many of these shows are based off comics that ran in weekly or monthly anthologies themselves packed with toy, videotape, models, whatever advertising. Shin Mazinger, a TV show that premiered early this year, is a remake of a famous robot cartoon from the 70s and whose ad breaks feature advertisements for “toys” clearly marketed at the 30-something males who watched the original show and are watching this remake. What came first, the merchandising blitz or the demand for useless pieces of plastic, I have no idea (the entire point of this discussion in brief, isn’t it? Oh well).

    Gundam is produced by Sunrise/Bandai, one of the most relentless of otaku merchandisers. Sunrise was widely known for being a mass producer of giant robot shows in the late 70s and throughout the 80s. They were also known for spewing out industrial levels of model kits for their properties and not hesitating to exercise their executive control to make a show more easily marketable. The stories of the most successful directors, animators and mechanical designers who started out in the Sunrise system almost always involve them endlessly battling the execs to gain a favorable compromise. Sunrise publishes entire glossy magazines for the sole purpose of selling their properties and toys (see “Gundam Ace,” still going today).

  66. Beholdmyswarthyface Says:

    Excellent article. I’ve come to agree with the basic premise of your article, namely that there is no eternal cultural essence or tradition, and that everything masquerading as such is simply made up (whether consciously or not) in order to obscure real contemporary political, economic or geopolitical realities. The only Japanese (and American, for that matter) critics whose judgment I trust anymore are those who have been indoctrinated in Marxism. We should never leave it to the turtle to explain turtle-ness.

    Also, I haven’t heard “pillows” and “humping” mentioned together since grammar school. Very nice.

  67. Chuckles Says:

    […namely that there is no eternal cultural essence or tradition, and that everything masquerading as such is simply made up…]

    Look, we can do the reductio even further. We can claim that the so called political, economic and geopolitical realities of which you speak are made up by humans to defray the painful biological realities of our existence as Homo sapiens. Are you trying to claim that Humans, Bonobos and Goldfish share the same realities? My genetics Professor taught me that culture is a uniquely human property. This is not a chicken and egg scenario. Culture isnt just made up because we are playing games – or make believe, or trying to mask this, that or the other: But I am getting into an entirely different ball game and I am not going to have a sociobiology argument on NeoJ.

  68. John Says:

    Practice of perception is both the purpose of Buddhism and Otaku culture.