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An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith on Otaku Culture - Part Two

The second part of Matt Alt’s interview with popular author, academic, and super fan Patrick W. Galbraith on the key controversies in otaku culture and his new book, Otaku Spaces.

Otaku Spaces
Chin Music Press (2012)
Buy on Amazon

In the last installment, we talked to Patrick W. Galbraith, author of Otaku Spaces, about how Japanese society defines the word “otaku,” and why he decided to interview so-called otaku directly to break through the stereotypes.

This time we look at some long-standing debates in the otaku discourse, including whether otaku are “cool” thanks to Cool Japan and whether recent “moe otaku” are continuous or a break from the original 1980s subculture.

OTAKU SPACES © 2012 by Patrick W. Galbraith and Androniki Christodoulou. Photographs reproduced by permission of the publisher, Chin Music Press

Both your intro and the experts you interview define otaku as “super-consumers.” When you think of the economic downturn in Japan and the decline of consumerism, that must mean that otaku really, really stand out as consumers. Has this new economic power legitimized otaku? It’s pretty ironic to see the powers that be suddenly anoint these perpetual social outcasts as “Japan cool.”

Yeah, or try to! There is no doubt that society’s revaluation of otaku is linked to shifts in capitalism and consumer society. One of the interviewees in the book, University of Tokyo professor Yoshimi Shun’ya, describes otaku as paradigmatic of “information-consumer society,” which spread in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. Or you can see the revaluation of otaku as linked to the rise of immaterial or communicative labor and cognitive capitalism. (Thomas LaMarre has an article on this, for those who are interested.) In 1989, manga artist, editor, and cultural critic Ōtsuka Eiji voiced the zeitgeist by saying that Japan doesn’t produce anything anymore but rather just “plays with things” and produces information. This is an apt description of immaterial labor, which spread with advances in media and communication technologies. But Ōtsuka didn’t see it that way at the time. Instead, he criticized the consuming Japanese nation as a land of “shōjo” (girls), as opposed to the ideal producing salarymen of the past.

Retrospectively, people also see in the 1970s and 1980s a shift from the salaryman producer — mature and masculine — to the otaku consumer — infantile and feminine. This has been the source of endless social anxiety in Japan about youth, individualism, and the future.

The 1990s was then a turning point in this debate. On the one hand, it was a bruising decade of receding economic and political significance for Japan, and on the other, there were reports of Japanese popular culture (and, it was hoped, influence) spreading throughout Asia. As early as 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō made a speech to the Diet about making Japan an “intellectual property-based nation.” The high visibility and praise of manga and anime in North America and Europe bolstered such propositions, along with Douglas McGray’s “Gross National Cool” article in 2002. Not long after this, in 2004, the Nomura Research Institute released its infamous “revaluation” of otaku as “enthusiastic consumers,” who fuel hobby and pop-culture markets that remained strong despite the recession. According to this and other reports, otaku were supposed to be the engine driving innovation in media such as manga and anime, which fit well with the “intellectual property-based nation” idea.

So we have social, economic, and political reasons for the normalization of otaku. Remember that Asō Tarō served under Koizumi as Minister of Foreign Affairs. His rise to power in the Liberal Democratic Party is emblematic of larger power dynamics. As is well known, Asō touted otaku as a major wellspring of creativity and at least partially responsible for the global competitiveness of Japanese anime, manga, and games. But we have to be careful, because when Asō started to associate himself with a certain type of otaku in Akihabara, he lost some mainstream support. People can rally around works by Tezuka Osamu and Miyazaki Hayao (especially Spirited Away) as national culture, but maybe they are a little less comfortable with titles like Rozen Maiden or Strawberry Marshmallow.

Didn’t Asō specifically mention Rozen Maiden as a personal favorite? Looking back it seems like a calculated pose, but I suppose that the reality of his interest is less important than the fact that a politician even mentioned a moe manga in interviews.

Right. He actually thought that it was innocuous to say that he liked it, if not beneficial to his political career. We know how that worked out for him! (See UMSL Professor Laura Miller’s article on “pimping” pop-culture, where she specifically calls Asō out.) But anyway, what’s so interesting about “Cool Japan” is that it opened up a space for people to say and do things that they never would have before. The fact that suddenly Akihabara, otaku, and moe were on the radar along with anime and manga opened up a contested terrain where the boundaries of subculture, pop-culture, and national culture were (re)negotiated. The backlash against Asō points to a simple fact: Not all “anime” is “popular” culture or even agreeable to the mainstream inside and outside Japan. This came out most dramatically in the recent “non-existent minor” debacle, where representatives of the Tokyo metropolitan government stated that they find no artistic merit in manga and anime, which thus need to be legislated against as a threat to the normative development of “healthy youth.”

Getting back to the place of otaku in Japan today, let me return to the position of Ōtsuka Eiji, who characterized shōjo girl culture as being about consumptive pleasure suspended from (re)productive functions. The shōjo became a symbol of this herself, and otaku, oriented toward images of shōjo, were similarly seen as “unproductive.” With the contemporary nostalgia for “Japan, Inc” and the Japan that makes things, we see that otaku fit uncomfortably in “Cool Japan.”

So otaku don’t fit well into Cool Japan?

As I argued in the case of Akihabara, the idea of otaku is a lot easier to deal with than the people themselves. We can just slap a Densha Otoko bandage on it, redeem the consuming Japanese male with a new look and girlfriend and all live happily ever after. But what about people like writer of light novels and cultural criticism Honda Tōru, who instead advocate marriage to fictional characters? Those who reject the redemptive narrative and live outside acceptable norms, even intentionally, publicly mocking them? That is a problem for Japan, both in terms of internal politics and external image campaigns.

Sure. Otaku allegedly marrying pillows and videogames and whatnot was a popular soundbite among foreign media outlets for a while, but I’ve always questioned how widespread the phenomenon actually ever was.

The “phenomenon” is not widespread, but men and women who don’t fit into the Densha Otoko or “cool otaku” mould are rather common. They are invested in different sorts of networks, relations and meanings than mainstream Japan. These are the otaku who disrupt Cool Japan, because they are neither perceived as “cool” nor assisting in the (re)production of Japan. Think about all the debates surrounding people not getting married or having kids, people not curbing “childish” enthusiasms and taking on “adult” roles and responsibilities at work and home. This often translates into stock criticism of the individualism, selfishness and “antisocial” behavior of young men and women. So otaku are both revalued as an asset to the nation (for their creativity and consumption) and demonized as poisonous to its future. Academics Sharon Kinsella and Anne Allison both have great articles on this, which, though published a decade apart, show that the major anxieties and tensions surrounding otaku in Japan have not changed all that much.

The otaku that have always been seen as most problematic are those orientated toward bishōjo, or the fictional girls of manga, anime, and games, which raises issues about social and sexual development. Simon Fraser University professor Melek Ortabasi suggests that the male otaku in contemporary Japan is akin to the prewar moga, or “modern girl,” in that this lived identity and media creation crystallizes concerns about individualistic and indulgent consumption, gender and sexuality, and acceptable socialization. This extends beyond mainstream reactions. If we go back to the original articles on otaku from inside the fan community in the early 1980s (translated into English and published on this site), we see that these same concerns were crucial to the formation of the otaku discourse there, too.

There is this lingering notion that manga and anime “pervert” the mind, as we saw in the debates surrounding acceptable depictions and interactions with “non-existent minors.” We see a problematization of “otaku sexuality” and “otaku psychology,” for example in the work of clinical psychologist Saitō Tamaki. For what it’s worth, I think that there’s a politics to consuming in certain ways, which often entail rejecting (re)productive roles at work and home. In the aforementioned Honda Tōru’s critique of “love capitalism,” for example, he advocates that we escape from dating based on consumption and pairing based on income and earning potential. This leads to traditional roles and responsibilities at work and home, which he also wants to escape from. For Honda, what is preferable to this, and offers a means of escape, is idealized relationships with two-dimensional characters. (MIT’s Ian Condry wrote a book chapter on this.)

This seems like a good time to ask: Do you feel there is an inherent difference between old-school, 1.0 otaku and modern-day moetaku (moe otaku)?

I think that we need to be careful about imagining the history of otaku as a series of radical ruptures. This is endemic in “otakuology” (the study of otaku), and, unfortunately, commentators outside Japan too often follow the contours of the Japanese discourse instead of questioning it. Most of the experts in Japan like to think in terms of “generations” of otaku, which relate somewhat loosely to advances in technology — TV, VCR, computer, and so on.

In the most popular version of this narrative, otaku begin in the 1970s with people watching Space Battleship Yamato on TV. The story was complex, and demanded regular and engaged viewing, cultivating a mature fanbase. This was supported by subculture magazines about anime (the special issue of Gekkan Out in June 1977 is a landmark). Okada Toshio, arguably the most influential proponent of this narrative, adds that at the same time older fans became critically aware of stylistic differences in the continuity of Getter Robo. Then we have the taping, reviewing, and analyzing of anime using VCRs in the 1980s, not to mention the market for OVAs. This contributed to even more mature anime and fans. Finally, we have computers and games in the 1990s. We can update this with the Internet, social media, and portable linked devices, but Okada got sick of it and just declared otaku culturally dead in 2008.

Yes. I remember covering that. I assume you don’t agree.

Well, if you follow this line of thought, then there are no more otaku in Japan, be they interested in moe or not. I don’t think that is true at all. A trip to Akihabara reveals a thriving fandom. When you get down to it, Okada is interested in authenticity. One of the problems with Okada and people like him is that they can only see their version of otaku and degrees of separation from it. For Okada, that is sci-fi fans, who also got into anime. There is an original or authentic otaku against which all others can be judged. You said 1.0 otaku, but Okada tends to say otaku “elite” or even “aristocrats,” who are of a time past, his time. It would almost be comical if he wasn’t totally serious, and if his opinions did not carry as much weight as they do. When the self-proclaimed “king of otaku” (otaking) declares otaku dead, he effectively silences the younger generation, makes them invisible and leaves them to the mercy of mass-media pundits. Okada’s attitude as an “elite” fan naturally rubs a lot of younger otaku the wrong way.

There is a politics and hierarchy in the fan community that we should be aware of when evaluating the claims of otakuology. In the case of Okada, we should note the way that he saw otaku in the 1980s, which was as losers. Following Nakamori Akio’s articles, he and other sci-fi fans stopped using the word. Nonetheless, Okada popularized otakuology in the 1990s as an intervention into otaku bashing in the mass media. To create distance from the earlier subculture, Okada started using the katakana version of the word otaku (オタク). He also appealed to foreign fandom for legitimization. Ironically, due to larger social, economic, and political factors, otaku were naturalized and trivialized in the 2000s in a way that Okada could not have anticipated. The mass media and government picked up the katakana version of otaku and Okada’s strategies of creating distance from the “bad” otaku of the 1980s (those pathetic imagined beings Nakamori wrote about, and the pathological ones associated with Miyazaki Tsutomu) and showing how much foreign fans loved anime and manga and wanted to become (Japanese and) otaku. This upset Okada, of course.

About the negativity towards moe in the community these days, it’s kind of ironic that certain fans were called otaku in the early 1980s for liking bishōjo, and certain fans are now denied the moniker of otaku for liking bishōjo.

Okada wanted to set up the sci-fi, media, and technology otaku that he knew and identified with as the standard. With all due respect, his version of history misses a lot of things. For example, in emphasizing anime, it misses the importance of manga and dōjinshi, specifically certain readerships being demonized for the production and consumption of bishōjo characters and lolicon fanzines. Okada never really identified with these guys, so he tries to pretend that they weren’t around, though journalists such as Takatsuki Yasushi and Sasakibara Gō argue that mature desires for bishōjo characters and the lolicon boom were as important as the advent of mature sci-fi anime to early otaku culture. (If you want to read more about this, check out this article.) Okada is right that the emergence of otaku is a matter of changes in audience reception, but he is wrong that it was only Getter Robo and not also, for example, Magical Princess Minky Momo.

Minky Momo being a sort of proto-moe show from the ‘80s.

Well, it’s more about fans responding to it as such. Minky Momo is an important series because we see that an unintended audience of adult men is watching an anime for little girls. This crossing of gender/genre/generation boundaries is important for the emergence of otaku. Maybe even more so than older fans getting into a giant robot show for kids, given the response to bishōjo inside and outside the community.

About Minky Momo, let me just say that Satō Toshihiko, president of Production Reed and a planner on the series, told me that he was unaware of the adult male fandom until after the show was on air and a group approached him about starting up a fan club. Satō says that Minky Momo was from the start an idea to sell magical girl toys for a sponsor. He called male fans and their activities “disgusting.” It seems likely, however, that some in the company, for example animators and scriptwriters, were a little more tuned in to the lolicon boom. In Minky Momo, the protagonist’s father watches from the land of dreams and comments on how sexy she looks when she transforms (parodying the male gaze). The following year, Studio Pierrot produced another magical girl anime, Creamy Mami, the Magic Angel, which again attracted older male fans. In a personal interview, Nunokawa Yūji, representative director of Studio Pierrot, told me that he was aware of older male fans when producing Creamy Mami and was far less upset by them. So this is something of a turning point in awareness of, about, and among otaku.

The sheer pervasiveness of lolicon themes in the ‘70s and ‘80s really took me by surprise when I translated Ejisonta’s 1983 article on the topic. I’d thought it was a recent trend, but it isn’t.

Yeah, there was a massive boom in the early 1980s. Enough so that if you pick up Gekkan Out, Animec, and Animage from that time, you’re likely to encounter articles about lolicon. Of course, there were subcultural magazines such as Lemon People and Manga Burikko, but we also see work by Uchiyama Aki, the “King of Lolicon,” appearing in Shōnen Champion (specifically his Andoro Trio, circa 1982). Mainstream manga, anime, and game companies were involved in lolicon, for example Enix, which put out the erotic game Lolita Syndrome in 1983. The first erotic animation in Japan was Lolita Anime in 1984. This boom reached far beyond the confines of what we commonly imagine as “subculture.”

But I am more interested here in bishōjo characters, as in those developed in the work of Azuma Hideo, than the specific genre of lolicon. Let me just stress that bishōjo were already there at the beginning of the otaku age of anime in the 1980s. Looking at a foundational work such as The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, what do we find? Mecha and bishōjo. War and romance. Looking at Okada’s own magnum opus, Gunbuster, what do we find? Mecha and bishōjo. War and romance. Okada himself once bragged that all you need to succeed in anime is a giant robot and a girl who goes into space. He and the Gainax team knew what otaku wanted — hell, they wanted it too! I personally just think that Okada is upset that his interests aren’t dominant anymore, in that now anime is more weighted towards girls and romance than robots and wars.

So are you saying that there were similarities between fan groups then and continuity until now?

Exactly, yes. The approach to otaku generations makes it seem like an emphasis on cute characters is something new. It’s not. It thus serves to mask the presence of fans of bishōjo characters who have always been at the center of the debate.

Further, we end up missing similarities between modes of engagement within the fan community then and now. In the good ol’ days, people noticed continuity differences in episodes of the Getter Robo anime and got fired up talking about mecha designs, battles or the Itano Circus. Well, right now people notice continuity across anime series and get fired up talking about character designs, relationships or moe elements. Otaku then and now are affectively attuned to the moving image and feel excitement when exposed to certain designs of movements, be they of mecha or characters. They still memorize information and share it. They still communicate with and through commodities.

Okada doesn’t like bishōjo. Period. Feminist sci-fi critic Kotani Mari notes that there is a sort of misogyny to the backlash against moe, in the sense that men are upset that properly masculine interests in mecha and heroism have been replaced by something else. Despite the fact that bishōjo manga, anime and games are not necessarily feminist texts (though that depends on one’s definition), I think that Kotani Mari has a point about the borderline misogyny of the red-hot rage that many express over the increased visibility of cute girls.

Along these lines, Meiji University’s Morikawa Ka’ichirō does a great summary of otaku history, which goes something like science to science fiction to science fiction anime and finally just to anime. He notes an increasing focus on the everyday and on bishōjo characters leading to the explosion in the 1990s and 2000s with the boom in bishōjo games, craze over the characters of Neon Genesis Evangelion and figurine boom. We see how these things relate to the transformation of Akihabara, a physical space that people like Okada can’t stand. But you see the problem, right? At a place where otaku are alive, Okada cannot see them, in effect saying that there is nothing going on.

The problem with otakuology as I see it is not that as a discourse it raises certain objects and people up as canonical, lionizing some while marginalizing others, but rather that it actually obscures important aspects of history and forecloses the study of otaku here and now. When talking about past generations of otaku and dismissing today as an afterthought, we make otaku into static objects of historical analysis and deny the living present of otaku. As an anthropologist, the living present is really what interests me the most.

So what has changed for otaku?

Certainly not the passion of otaku for manga and anime, or the desire to become involved in an intimate way as consumers and producers. I think that we are just looking at a different set of circumstances or a media environment that encourages different sorts of engagement. The definition of otaku that many people are working with is someone who is narrow and deep in his or her interests, but this isn’t really suited to deal with fandom today. There is so much information and media out there that no one can master everything, so they watch a little here and a little there and depend on others to fill in the blanks. We see a lot of networking and sociality emerging as a result, just as in earlier times people might have formed otaku circles to pool limited resources (art supplies, videos) and knowledge. About sociality, otaku today are going out more often and in larger numbers. Instead of staying cloistered away in a room watching anime with a closed circle, they are going out, staging events, making unexpected encounters. It’s a lot more open. Fandom moves, across boundaries and borders. Unlike Okada, who ultimately affirms an authentic otaku — older Japanese male with specific interests — we see movement across generations, geography, gender, and genre distinctions.

The critique goes that otaku today are wide and shallow in their interests. But what about, for example, the fans of Haruhi Suzumiya? Didn’t they get totally involved in working out the mysteries — writing books on the subject, by the way, not unlike Gundam fans writing encyclopedias of their chosen franchise? Watching episodes over and over to work out details and chronology? Checking against the original work? Following producers, staff, and vocal talent? Making trips to western Japan to painstakingly map and photograph location settings? I rather fondly remember when people from the States were visiting Azabu Jūban in Tokyo to track the Sailor Moon settings.

But there is a notable difference between my example of engagement with Haruhi and previous fan engagements. Instead of being devoted to a long-running and continuing series or set of works in the same universe, fans today have shorter series, faster turnover, and more works to sift through. When they do find a work like Haruhi that moves them, they have to follow the media mix across multiple platforms and piece together the franchise. It is less coherent, and in some ways even more difficult than it was when a work and its world came complete and ready to inhabit. Otaku now have to actively work through a field of relations to make meaning.

Otaku today probably consume more media — and might even devote more time and energy to reading and viewing than they did in the 1970s and 1980s, though perhaps they do not always spend a lot of time with specific series. Or pay for the media. Instead of fussing over the continuity of one show, they might produce fanworks or cosplay or write a blog about anime. How does that now show their understanding of the series and characters? Their devotion? How is their engagement not productive? Maybe otaku don’t transition into “producers” anymore, as Okada gripes, because the line between producers and consumers is so blurred.

Today, the whole process of production is much more interactive and communal. I think that otaku engagements with anime, manga, and games reflect an intense interest that continues over a long period of time, which might be a fairer approach if we want to judge whether or not someone is an otaku. This is a qualitative, not quantitative, issue. How does one measure the intensity of engagement? By testing knowledge acquired or calculating dollars spent? Maybe we aren’t looking at things the wrong way. At a time when anime, manga, and games are commonplace, otaku are people who love anime, manga, and games in an entirely uncommon way. Things are different, but not necessarily worse.

Next time: What’s truly a weirder passion for adult men — being obsessed with robots or adorable little girls?

Matthew ALT
May 24, 2012

Matt Alt lives in Tokyo and is the co-author of Hello, Please! Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters from Japan and Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, among others. His blog can be found at

7 Responses

  1. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    The real original lolicon boom started with Young Murasaki in the Genji Monogatari.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    I’m not an expert on historical sexual mores, but my guess is that this isn’t true. In Genji’s time, I don’t think there were real taboos against either child brides, and certainly, pederasty was relatively common in samurai times. The whole thing about lolicon is that it’s intentionally taboo. They know that they’re not supposed to be into little girls.

  3. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    There was no taboo, yes; Genji waited patiently to have his way with her only when she became 14, that is, in the proper age for marriage. I was being facetious, but my point wasn’t about the taboo value but about the sexualization of vulnerability, which is (IMO) a defining feature of both Heian eroticism and modern moé. I mean, I’m not sure I agree that taboo is the whole thing with lolicon. Certainly there’s an element of “forbidden fruit” to it, but I always thought it was primarily a kind of neutralization of the sexual object; innocence, young age, cuteness all combine to render the female other unthreatening, powerless even—and the eroticization of that dates far back (for example, the 12th-century glossary Ruiju myōgishō glosses the word ai “love” which Chinese characters suggesting care, nurture, pity, compassion). As Childs (linked above) points out, this asymmetric view of eroticism applies even when we’re talking about the sexual attractiveness of males, something I’d compare (again, half-facetiously) to shotacon or to the standard uke type in BL manga.

    “Pederasty” (i.e. Edo-era nanshoku) is a different beast altogether; at least in my reading of the Nanshoku Ookagami, the prime value seems to be devotion (often to the point of obsession), which vulnerability being a secondary overtone often drowned by macho displays of finger-cutting and love suicides. Again there’s no strong taboo for age—the typical nanshoku relationship is adult-to-teenager, but when there’s a case of two child-lovers or two middle-aged lovers, they’re portrayed as comical but not as “evil”.

  4. MattAlt Says:

    I hope Patrick chimes in here, but it’s my understanding that (traditionally, at least) lolicon is more about identifying with the characters, becoming them, rather than sexualizing them per se. A way for disenfranchised/”outsider” types to revel in their own powerlessness rather than seizing power.

  5. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    I thought of it as a movement to avoid the intimidating aura of “normally” desirable women, which would be out of reach from the powerless outsiders in such a way that ruins even fantasies (so they turn naturally to a fantasy that isn’t so threatening or depressing). From this angle, for example, tsundere would be a way of deconstructing the threat into “our” safe sphere of vulnerability. So, Ken Akamatsu defining moé:

    > The person feeling it must be stronger: The object of “moe” is weak and dependant (like a child) on the person, or is in a situation where she cannot oppose (like a maid)…(*Tsundere only: There will be times where the stronger and weaker role is reversed).

    But I don’t really know what I’m talking about; in matters of otakuology I defer to your expertise.

  6. zoltan Says:

    This might not be related but how can moe be identification with the character when the voice actress for these characters usually have fanatical fans?

    I don’t remember voice actress in the 90’s breeding such fanatics.

    Or that’s related to idols?

  7. Anymouse Says:

    Is there any moral superiority about being into women who are willfully sterile and having intercourse with them vs being into fictional prepubescent to early teen young women? I know some will find that comparison offensive, but I think it is valid. A child bride is not a problem (assuming the marriage is consensual, although that gets into debates on power and capacity to consent yada yada) because it fits into a larger reproductive and traditional social order. People sitting in front of their monitor looking at little girls are really not that important at all. They only thing they damage is the market for anime.