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

The third and final installment 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 Part One and Part Two of our interview with Patrick W. Galbraith, author of Otaku Spaces, we talked about how the otaku fit into “Cool Japan” and 21st century society, the pitfalls of “otakology,” and the fact that lolicon is not a new aberration but has always been part of the subculture.

This time we go deeper into that final point — why is there more social anxiety about otaku obsessed with little girls than ones obsessed with robots? And while we’re at it, why do anime companies push their fans to buy so much stuff?

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

I get that modern day otaku have the same passion as before, but this argument avoids the issue that obsessing over robots and manga fits better with general consumerism in Japan than the moe otaku’s use of money and time on a pursuit that links more directly to their sexual needs. Isn’t this the root of the discrimination?

If I am understanding correctly, you think that interest in robots and technology is more normal?

It’s less about normalcy and more about attainability. A fascination with robots and spaceships is a fascination with things that we can’t have because they don’t exist. Moe involves a fascination with the lives and happenings of girls and young women, who, last time I checked, are real.

Robots and spaceships don’t exist? I think what you mean to say is that there are robots and spaceships that only exist in manga and anime. The fiction in science fiction. OK, the same way, robot maids, magical girls, angels, cat girls, and so on exist only in manga and anime. They are no more attainable than super robots, and exist only as fiction. I’m prepared to go even further. I don’t think that girls and young women exist in the same form in reality and fiction. We cannot forget that these are fictional characters, drawn and animated. No one is confused about the fictionality of bishōjo characters. They are attracted to fiction as such. We have to date had far too many misunderstandings about otaku because we assume that what they desire in the so-called two-dimensional world is the same what they want in actual reality, or the three-dimensional world. There is not a one-to-one relation between these things, so we need to understand the complexity of engagement with images on their own terms.

Let me get back to your point about attainability. In a country like Japan, where there are government slogans such as “living together with robots” (robotto tono kyōsei), technology is extremely close to everyday life. That is why I thought you meant that desire for robots is more normal than desire for bishōjo characters, which often have no basis in reality. At the same time, with robots, there is a gap between what people dream of and what’s available. This might inspire work in engineering or robotics to make the dream a reality, or consume enthusiastically to feel closer to the dream, to feed it. I have met some people who seem to support a theory that this is productive of actual engagements in the world. Ishizaki-san, who I interviewed for Otaku Spaces, is totally into robots and ended up working as a mechanical designer. But, then again, Ishizaki-san is also an avid player of bishōjo games! It isn’t easy to separate interests and oppose them.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that bishōjo media fulfills the “sexual needs,” immediate or otherwise, of fans. Pornography does that, and we should not confuse the two. I’m not sure that we can categorize it as bishōjo or moe anime, but in any case Haruhi Suzumiya is not pornography. It is a complex, character-driven story. Yes, she is cute, but let’s not stop the analysis at the level of the surface image. I thought that was the problem with moe fans! “They aren’t deep enough.” As critics, I hope that we don’t become that which we criticize.

Anyway, Haruhi is not a porn star — not even a human being. She is a drawing, a fictional character. A desire for Haruhi is not the same as wanking to a skin magazine, in that there is no body, no “money shot,” no climax, no sex — only the continuous movement of desire. Rather than fulfilling sexual needs, bishōjo media accelerates and intensifies desire for something other, something that does not exist. Bishōjo fans are romantics, perhaps even more devoted to their ideals than fans of giant robots. Unlike someone how can try to build a robot or mobile suit in physical, material reality, bishōjo fans can’t ever realize the ideal or dream. And I suspect that most don’t want to. Remember Honda and the two-dimensional character/wife, which can act as an alternative to human relationships.

Okay, sure. But if you take it to the logical extreme, doesn’t this essentially put relationships with a fellow human being on the same level of fantasy as, say, piloting a giant robot? I think that’s what rubs a lot of people the wrong way.

I see what you’re saying, but there’s no need to take things to the extreme. Manga and anime already offer us enough such scenarios! So, for the sake of argument, let me be more specific. I think that a series like Chobits, which depicts a romantic relationship between a boy and his computer, anthropomorphized as a bishōjo, is every bit as fanciful as piloting a giant robot. You could say that Chobits is at its core just about young love (boy meets girl) or is a parody of intimacy with technology, meaning that it is about “real life,” but that is really reductive. If we equate a robot girl or a bishōjo with an actual girl we are doing both a disservice. They are not the same, and we should not treat them as such. What rubs people the wrong way is not respecting the distinction.

I agree with you that the root of some of the discrimination against so-called moe otaku is likely the fact that their pursuit of pleasure in the two-dimensional world is “unproductive,” though it fuels consumption of media and material. Perhaps it is not “productive” for Japan and its future to have moe otaku around, as they disrupt the social reproduction of the nation/family. But saying that the mainstream, majority, or politically powerful in Japan are anxious about moe otaku is not the same as explaining why other fans have a problem with them. That’s a tough one, and we all have to think long and hard on it.

I’d like to pick at the idea of normativity a little more. Who is to say that it is more appropriate to dream of super robots than fighting girls? To dream of martial artists than magical girls? It seems that we may be drawn to violence a little too much. When we talk about a director such as Oshii Mamoru, for example, why do we always end up praising Ghost in the Shell and trivializing Urusei Yatsura?

I think it’s about relevance. For whatever it’s worth, I think Beautiful Dreamer is a great film, but Ghost in the Shell just felt more relevant to our times.

Beautiful Dreamer is a great film! For me, on a meta level, it draws attention to the endless loop and inescapablity of the “school festival” or pleasure space that is anime. Haruhi also did this during the brilliant “endless eight” arc. But more than his films, I was thinking about Oshii Mamoru’s work on the Urusei Yatsura TV series, which was a big hit with otaku.

On the surface, Urusei Yatsura is a bawdy comedy, but for those who care to watch the whole series carefully, the real appeal is the complexity, conflicts, and emotional depth of Lum in her tumultuous relationship with Ataru. More than the tiger skin bikini, I suspect that it was the appeal of Lum as a character that attracted fans and held their attention over the course of months, years and decades. That Oshii was able to adapt Takahashi Rumiko’s manga and reach so many people on an emotional level with the Urusei Yatsura TV series is every bit as much of an achievement as the realism and philosophical posturing of the Ghost in the Shell films. Preferences for film over TV in critical and academic circles aside, the valuation of Ghost in the Shell over Urusei Yatsura inside and outside the otaku community is telling, and speaks to the divisions between sci-fi and bishōjo fans I mentioned earlier.

We also seem to demand conflict in our stories. Consider the fact that the world of Magical Princess Minky Momo is one without enemies or bad people. The entire story is nothing more than a girl helping people find their dreams. What’s wrong with that? Think about when the protagonist of the film version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind saves her world from the “god-warrior” instead of, say, piloting it to defeat the enemy. I find this incredibly satisfying, if a little ham-fisted with the religious iconography.

So why insist on putting kids in the cockpit of war machines? Minmay sings for peace, though her song is perverted and used as a weapon, so why are we supposed to be more interested in dogfights and war than love and peace? By focusing only on the machines and confrontations in space, we seem to be missing so much of the internal struggles of the characters and the melodrama — it’s a soap opera, really — of their interpersonal relationships on the ground.

I will confess to fast-forwarding through Minmay’s concerts and Hikaru’s dithering over girlfriends to get to the battle scenes.

And that’s fine. But what I’m getting it is that some fans might be more interested in the concerts and human conflicts, and that’s fine, too. For those who say that representative works of anime today have “no story,” think of Miyazaki Hayao’s My Neighbor Totoro. Acclaimed as the “best last film of the Shōwa era” by Kinema Junpō magazine — and it has no story to speak of. Or at least no “grand narrative.” The director says that he would have been satisfied to depict nothing more than the excitement of a typhoon — nothing more than a child’s emotional response to a meteorological phenomenon. Imagine what kind of a film that would have been! Instead, he ended up focusing on what Thomas LaMarre calls “girl energies.” By minimizing the boy’s role in his stories, Miyazaki imagines “a series of minor adventures without grand design or teleology.” Are small adventures involving girls exploring the world and struggling emotionally somehow less valuable than grand adventures of boys saving the world or struggling against enemies? Totoro is moving in its depictions of small things — the joy of discovery, the power of imagination, the pang of loneliness. You become attuned to the characters and their moods. In this sense it is something like moe anime. Nothing happens. In this sense it is something like “atmosphere anime” (kūki-kei anime). And that is not to diminish it.

Why do we prefer robots destroying things? As LaMarre points out, it seems that male characters experience technology as a problem to be solved, something to be mastered or optimized. This leads to fetishism of technology and ultimate destruction. Female characters experience technology as a condition to be understood. This leads to salvation. Rather than fighting with and against technology, living with technology seems much more productive to me.

One of my favorite anime is Mahoromatic, which juxtaposes the everyday life of a robot maid with scenes of horrific violence from her past as a military weapon. I don’t think I’m alone in wishing she didn’t have to fight and finding myself shedding a tear as she is brutally beaten by her enemies. I wish that those quiet days in her idealized home didn’t have to end, which is why the anime works so well.

I won’t deny having a techno-fetishistic streak myself, but I question whether a fascination with giant robots equates into a fascination with destruction per se. It’s more about strength, protection, and becoming a hero.

Right. I don’t mean to imply that all giant robots or mecha shows are necessarily about war and destruction. It just seems that all too often technology is mastered and optimized to deal with problems, which results in violent conflict. LaMarre is suggesting that Miyazaki Hayao realized this in the early 1980s, which accounts for his shift to female leads as a way to imagine some other type of narrative and resolution. Maybe bishōjo media is rife with the “girl energies” that LaMarre speaks of, which is one reason to consider seriously its alternatives.

Another criticism of otaku culture has been that the companies are now just making money by forcing fans to buy lots and lots of products instead of focusing on making high quality series.

We hear a lot about this, don’t we? Especially since the figure boom in the late 1990s. But maybe we need some historical perspective. Marc Steinberg’s new book Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan is a really good place to start.

Steinberg takes us back to 1963, when Tezuka Osamu’s Astro Boy first aired on Japanese television. This was the first weekly 30-minute animated TV show in Japan. It established the super-limited animation style that we recognize as “anime,” which is distinct from Disney, Toei, and Ghibli’s full animation. (Miyazaki Hayao, by the way, hates it when people call his stuff anime, and he blames Tezuka for the degradation of the moving image in Japan.) Tezuka’s curse, as people call it, was underselling his anime to make it attractive to broadcasters — who did not think anime in this form would be profitable, if even possible — and to pre-emptively undercut his competitors. Tezuka could do this because he was already a successful manga artist.

Steinberg estimates that Tezuka sold each episode of Astro Boy in Japan for ¥750,000, even though the actual cost of production of each was ¥2,500,000. This is why, from the beginning, the anime model that Tezuka established in Japan was dependent on licensing — both to foreign markets and for merchandising. Astro Boy became a hit, and was possible to produce, because of the national craze for Astro Boy stickers given away with Meiji Seika candies.

Sponsors and merchandising are crucial in anime. As you yourself have noted, Matt, robot shows in the 1970s were dependent on toy sponsors and, dare I say, sales. Yes, Mobile Suit Gundam changed the paradigm of robot narratives, but it only succeeded in shifting toy sales from children to adults. Today, with fewer children in Japan and less money to be made from foreign licensing due to digital piracy, anime depends on merchandise targeting adults.

The Japanese government estimated in a 2005 report that the market for licensed merchandise based on fictional characters is 10 times that of anime itself. But, in reality, this too is becoming less profitable for Japanese animators. Kubo Masakazu surveyed the anime scene for the 2005 government report, and notes that there were 72 weekly anime TV series in April, with 37.5 percent being new while only three series crossed the two-year threshold, which is in some ways crucial to success. A one season (13-episode) anime makes it very difficult for companies to release merchandise, because they might find themselves overstocked with unknown and unpopular character goods. It takes time to gauge the market and produce things. The high volume and fast turnover of series also limits the appeal of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs, because series are quickly forgotten amid a torrent of new material.

Kubo calls the shortening length of anime series and fast turnover a “death spiral.” He waxes nostalgic about Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, but we do see similar long-run hits like Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece. The problem is the other 70 series that are on air. Can we really blame the producers of those series for targeting Japanese who actually do purchase merchandise and physical media? Maybe this is a death spiral of a different kind, as things become more insular — otaku targeting otaku in an accelerated and intense circuit that confuses and alienates mainstream and foreign audiences.

Yet if there is no money to be made from other markets anyway then we really don’t have a leg to stand on for criticism. So maybe digital piracy is yet another death spiral — foreign fans loving anime too much to wait for a localization and too up-to-speed thanks to the Internet to care about buying old series, circling the anime studios they love faster and faster and draining the life from them.

It sounds funny, but perhaps this is the perfect time to encourage otaku consumption! Of course you can be an otaku without consuming anything, which seems to be the source of many problems for the industry today. This is also another reason why Okada Toshio is fed up with fans today, who do not seem to be invested enough in the industry and the community to take responsibility for it. If you don’t pay for anime, it disappears. How much do you want it?

Maybe the trend toward digital consumption of disposable series and characters is one reason why it was so refreshing for me to meet the people I interviewed for Otaku Spaces. They were just so into their fandoms and devoted so much time and energy to them! If there is a criticism to be made, it is that they loved certain characters, series and media too much, buying into their fantasies to a fault, but that’s not a criticism that I want to make. I think that they are awesome! Their hobbies seemed to be a huge part of their lives, colonizing their inner spaces and personal spaces, and spilling out into public spaces.

This is another point that Steinberg makes, but he draws our attention to the mono komi, or “thing communication” that occurs in the anime media mix. Manga, anime, stickers, and toys all gave Astro Boy different movements and made him an intimate part of kids’ lives. “Thing communication” refers to the ways that people communicate with and through commodities, which is to say person-thing and person-thing-person communication, but — and this is Steinberg’s point — also thing-thing communication. These things were in dialogue with one another, creating a space of Astro Boy, each image and object acting as a tiny opening into that world. The fans of Astro Boy shared that world with the character and with one another. They actively “stickered” their physical surroundings to provide openings and to expand that world. That kind of intimacy with the character, series and between people just seems like what being a fan is all about. There are multiple overlapping and resonating worlds of consumption open to otaku these days. It is in hopes of inspiring readers to explore these other worlds that I wrote Otaku Spaces.

In case you missed them: Part One and Part Two of the interview.

Matthew ALT
May 25, 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 http://altjapan.typepad.com.

44 Responses

  1. Chuckles Says:

    Matt;

    Great series, great interview.

    Is there a paradox here – with Otaku as Lolicon consumers vs Normies as consumers of Mecha media? If the thing with Lolicon is identification with the powerless (your response to Leonard Boiko in part II) whats the thing with Mecha – identification with the powerful as demonstrated through destruction? Or, situated in an emasculated political Japan (SDF and all) simultaneously fantasizing about power springing from a root psyche already identified with the powerless? The more I think about this 3 part interview, the more I come to see Otaku as the “normal” Japanese. And Indeed, Otaku spaces as such, as the spaces of post war Japan in which all Japanese perdure.

    The idea of Otaku as reluctant insiders fits marvelously with this, as does Taro Aso’s position. There is the risk of stereotyping; overgeneralization, etc, I agree, but we must critique the otherization of Otaku by the Japanese and not accept it, or explain it – for it could well reveal, like I mention above, Oedipal anxiety toward the Otaku, or, a certain attempt to construct an acceptable Japanese self by negating a primordiality represented by Otaku.

  2. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > For what it’s worth, I don’t think that bishōjo media fulfills the “sexual needs,” immediate or otherwise, of fans. Pornography does that, and we should not confuse the two.

    Ah man, but it was precisely the relationship of otaku with pornography that I wanted to see discussed. I mean, ok, Haruhi isn’t pornography, but what percentage of Haruhi fans consume unofficial Haruhi porn (NSFW!) from Comiket, etc? Isn’t this the thorniest issue about lolicon?

    I think the character-driveness of Japanese pop culture serves to fill an emotional need, and I don’t see any problems with that (I can’t cast the first stone; things like Sailor Moon or Fruits Basket were intensely therapeutic for me back then). What gives me mixed feelings is the lolieroticism of, say, Kodomo no Jikan or Discommunication: Seireihen, not to mention actual porn (eroge, etc)—notice the characters in such works are still impossible, romanticized ideals catering to emotional needs, but in addition they’re intended as sexually titillating. And then there’s the thing where any “cute” character becomes pornography fodder for doujin etc., despite authorial intentions (i.e. when fans want to consume Haruhi porn because they’re Haruhi fans). Apparently Miyazaki has expressed discomfort with this (I always thought the not-so-subtle prostitution motifs in Sen to Chihiro were a jab at that culture.)

    I’m not saying I think it should all be banned because moé eroticism would always escalate into actual pedophilia, like the periodic outbursts of moral panic tend to do. Just… dunno, I’d like to read more on this topic. Does Spaces deal with otaku porn and sexuality?

  3. Anymouse Says:

    Arguably there is a normalcy present in the margins of Bishoujo culture, (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/42/Clannad_characters.jpg) but this should not be taken to mean there is anything normal about lolicon culture as a whole.

    “we must critique the otherization of Otaku by the Japanese and not accept it, or explain it – for it could well reveal, like I mention above, Oedipal anxiety toward the Otaku, or, a certain attempt to construct an acceptable Japanese self by negating a primordiality represented by Otaku”
    I would agree, but that discussion must not exclude traditional Japanese society. The problem today is that nearly every discussion excludes the traditional and the normal. That leaves us incapable of finding a solution.

    I noticed that Galbraith seemed to gloss over Miyazaki’s well known hatred for lolicon. Miyazaki’s embrace of family life and the feminine should not be taken to be related to the consumerist embrace of fetishistic images. Some examples of moe culture such as episode 7 of the Idolm@ster nearly converge on traditionalism, but a distance is typically maintained, and sometimes the gulf is very large.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    Galbraith makes compelling arguments, but they often seem to cast the otaku crowd as misunderstood victims of broader social mores. My disinterest and often discomfort with 2ch/otaku/lolicon culture comes from the fact that the cultural principles are very much based on reactionary and conservative gender roles. As Leonardo pointed out before, otaku like little girls because they are weak and subservient.

    This obsession makes the lolicon side of otaku come off as incredibly troubled by the idea of female equality. Of all the taboo sexualities they could hold, they’ve chosen the one that would be most appealing to men who want desperately to feel superior over women. They have run away from contemporary “normative” sexuality first and foremost because it is increasingly based on the mutual respect and equal status of the two partners in the relationship.

    Besides their interest in kid’s stuff to start with, their focus on “two-dimensional” clearly comes from the fact that these desires in three-dimension would not only be criminal but completely unrealistic and laughable. Elementary school girls are wholly not interested in “serving” older men with low social status and low social capital. Matt in the piece says, “mecha aren’t real, but girls are” — yet these lolicon girls are complete and utter fantasy. There is a reason that the otaku hate the gyaru, because they represent the “real” face of young women. AKB48 has to basically invent its aesthetic by making 20 year old girls dress like they are schoolgirls.

    This does not mean that lolicon should be banned — neither should fiction about murder and other crimes — but I don’t think we need to celebrate it as liberating or transformative when it’s likely the opposite. This is mostly art meant as comfort to men who feel entitled to a world that has passed them by.

  5. Anymouse Says:

    “This is mostly art meant as comfort to men who feel entitled to a world that has passed them by.”
    And I would add unreflective to describe them as well. If they wanted good fiction about present day social problems they could get into real science fiction (the kind about societies, technological change and other interesting things), or Wendell Berry or any number of other sources of entertainment but instead they get into this stuff. I will admit to having very reactionary and conservative attitude towards sex and gender, and that is partially behind my interest in otkau/lolicon culture, but that doesn’t stop me from getting a bit repulsed by the general perversity and inability to do anything more than fantasize. There are young women like Nagisa waiting, if you are willing to do the heavy lifting. Throw off your bad taste in entertainment and get out of the middle class mainstream.

  6. MattAlt Says:

    I’m starting to detect a little scapegoating going on here. My personal issue with moe productions isn’t moral but aesthetic: the endless parade of pre-teen protagonists simply doesn’t entertain me.

    There is a compelling argument to be made that the “traditional” lolicon products (Aki Uchiyama’s stuff, the “magical girl” shows, Comic Burikko etc) are just another form of fetish play in a nation that pretty unabashedly embraces all sorts of fetish play. As mentioned, they fit a masochistic consumption pattern in which readers’ fantasies play out as a sort of virtual cross dressing / gender-bending / infantilist sort of thing. Just as few seriously believe “Bronies” or “Furries” are on the path to bestiality, or that S&M aficionados really crave violence and torture, it’s hard to argue that lolicon was anything more than a form of fetish play.

    21st century moe definitely has introduced a real-world power dynamic in the form of maid cafes and super-kawaii idol supergroups. Maid cafes make introverts the center of attention for a while, and I suspect most AKB48 aficionados aren’t projecting themselves but rather savoring the taming of actual flesh and blood by pushing it through an anime filter. It’s hard to blame otaku when hostess clubs and plastic performers being forced down our throats by jimusho have existed for decades.

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    Just to expand on that point, Matt: I think most 2ch/otaku values are basically mainstream conservative values — xenophobia, consumerism, patriarchy, etc. — taken to extremes rather than aberrations. 2ch commenters and posters see themselves as defenders of “common sense” rather than fighters of it.

  8. Anymouse Says:

    We could have a debate on that, of course but seeing as I am a traditionalist conservative I would naturally disagree. And many conservatives see consumerism as degenerate and unmanly. Of course in Japan the situation is a bit different, and I can’t say I can get behind the Prussian style modernization in the more right leaning parts of the school system. But we can certainly say that the most extreme parts of the Japanese right (like Ishihara) are not behind the 2ch types.

    Interesting: Search for ですね and get the following page. Idolm@ster is mentioned in the first result.
    https://www.google.com/search?q=%E3%81%A7%E3%81%99%E3%81%AD&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=ubuntu&channel=fs

  9. W. David MARX Says:

    Getting off subject, but Ishihara is a classic elite upper class conservative. 2ch net uyoku are more lower middle class male conservatives mostly motivated by resentment that liberalism has moved everyone forward except for them.

  10. Anymouse Says:

    Good point.

  11. MattAlt Says:

    “most 2ch/otaku values”

    Or rather, “values of the otaku who post on 2ch,” at any rate. I agree there’s a lot of xenophobic, uneducated comments on there, but is it representative of otaku as a whole? That’s an open question, I think.

  12. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    Marx: I have the same problem with BL manga, the uke/seme dynamic is so terribly gender-normative. (I was once asked which gay-themed manga is as good as Moore’s Strangers in Paradise; I though, er…) Even Miyazaki’s feminism is too essentialist for me; like, “I want to portray vulnerable heroes so I’ll use girls because the audience wouldn’t empathize with a crying boy” (but that’s precisely why we need crying boys! Shun was so important to me! more Shuns, please!) I recall being disappointed with the choice of a male protagonist for Ghibli’s videogame Ninokuni, and even more disappointed with their rationale, though I can’t find the exact quote right now. The only animelike product I can recall really questioning gender roles in a way that I found satisfying was Utena (and it’s not a coincidence that she’s the shoujo révolutionnaire, and that they hired J.A. Seazer, etc, but Utena’s the exception that proves the rule).

    I share your disinterest/discomfort. The thing is, the Brazilian otaku groups I came from were safe spaces for a lot of sexual outcasts of all flavours. It was sad to see my friends slowly realize the inherent conservativeness in anime and in Japanese culture as a whole. I feel like anime and manga promised us something we needed—“it doesn’t matter that you’re different, you’ll be accepted here!”—and then it faded away. Was it just a mistake? Why did we feel that way in the first place? I guess I’m still running after the traces of that ghostly promise.

    Matt: What I’m curious about is the psychology of this fringe sexuality. I don’t think it’s right to judge other people’s desires, but… I mean, I have a little experience with real-life fetishes, and for me at least, it’s something on a whole different level than pornography of any kind. Even the furries have their conventions and fursuits, but a “2D complex” is by definition unattainable. My question is: are otaku in fact happy with nothing but porn, games, and ero-figurines, conditioning themselves to a sexual ideal that cannot exist? (Alternative question: If maids in maid cafés are considered desirable, would otaku want to have sex with maid prostitutes?) Some people identify as asexual; is an “otaku virtual sexuality” also a thing, or are they just resorting to it for lack of better options? This is one area where I’d like to hear their own voices.

  13. MattAlt Says:

    “If the thing with Lolicon is identification with the powerless (your response to Leonard Boiko in part II) whats the thing with Mecha – identification with the powerful as demonstrated through destruction?”

    As I said to Patrick, I don’t buy into the fact that mecha anime necessarily celebrates destruction. That said I think they spring from a similar narcissistic desire for escape and protection. If one is going to put them at opposite ends of a continuum, you could say they’re expressed in opposing ways: by becoming weaker (lolicon) or by becoming stronger (in mecha anime.)

    For better or for worse I am not knowledgeable enough about lolicon/moe works to catalog examples, but Go Nagai described coming up with Mazinger Z’s rocket punch attack thusly: “by shooting off your fists, you can stay in your own personal safety zone, which I thought would be appealing to kids.”

  14. MattAlt Says:

    “It was sad to see my friends slowly realize the inherent conservativeness in anime and in Japanese culture as a whole. ”

    This is a really interesting take and I can see where you’re coming from, but I don’t agree that Japanese culture is inherently conservative when it comes to sexual activities, as one can see from a quick spin through any porn store. It’s just that what are seen as lifestyle choices abroad are seen as hobbies here, and hobbies have their place, and that place is deep in your private life.

    As much as moe aficionados claim it isn’t about the sexuality, it sure doesn’t look that way to outsiders, and I think that is what leads to a lot of non-fans’ uncomfortableness about the genre.

  15. W. David MARX Says:

    I don’t agree that Japanese culture is inherently conservative when it comes to sexual activities, as one can see from a quick spin through any porn store.

    You are meaning “conservative” here as “traditional,” whereas I mean conservative as inherently seeing sex as a place where the man is dominant and the woman has little to no agency. Yes, the extremities of Japanese sexual culture can be shocking, but whatever the form, the content always re-emphasizes man’s stature over woman.

  16. Chuckles Says:

    […I would agree, but that discussion must not exclude traditional Japanese society. The problem today is that nearly every discussion excludes the traditional and the normal. That leaves us incapable of finding a solution…]

    To be useful, it would have to include the traditional and the normal. I smirk when a society so variously transformed by modernization otherizes Otaku and fails to realize that it, the society itself, has already become, with respect to its own tradition, the Other it so rigorously despises.

  17. Yumeka Says:

    I just read all three parts of the interview today and they’re excellent! Using my blog as an outlet, I’ve observed and written about many aspects of anime otaku fandom – a handful about the moe boom actually – though without the wide array of academic knowledge you and Mr.Galbraith have.

    I don’t have much else to say other than I really enjoyed reading the posts and I learned a lot from them. I may possibly cite them in future posts I write :)

  18. MattAlt Says:

    You are meaning “conservative” here as “traditional,”

    What I was getting at is that sexual/gender behaviors seen as fringe or even unmentionable in the West are very much “on the table” in Japanese entertainment, particularly so in manga, but very little in society at large. Which can confuse foreign fans who are attracted to the openness with which they are handled in anime/manga — thus the failure to deliver on the “promise” Leonardo mentioned.

    This is a kind of bad example as homosexuality is neither fringe nor unmentionable (anymore) abroad, but given Japan’s tradition of “boy’s love” comics I find it ironic that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an openly gay couple of any gender walking hand in hand on the street here.

  19. Jeffrey Says:

    “. . . 2ch folk hero . . .”

    Please use English.

  20. W. David MARX Says:

    That may have been my edit and I stand by it. That’s what Densha Otoko is.

  21. Anymouse Says:

    Or 2ch urban legend. Same thing.

  22. W. David MARX Says:

    Urban legend makes it sound like some guy heard it happened to someone. It’s more like… a hoax that somebody intentionally played out.

  23. Chuckles Says:

    Has the font changed or is it a PC thing?

  24. microbry Says:

    If Haruhi, a work of light literary sci-fi (with even a direct nod to western literary SF such as Dan Simmons’ Fall of Hyperion) with episodes of time travel, transhumanism, and other themes, starring a cast of high school students (with some poking fun *at* moe…though in a sort of variation of Poe’s Law the parody is difficult to distinguish from the actual article) is somehow “lolicon” other than in the same sense that nearly all anime stars teenagers, then as a fan I am unaware of it (other than perhaps a couple of throwaway gags), and I think any serious post suggesting it on any contemporary anime forum would almost get itself laughed off the internet.

    There’s some awfully strange conflation going on here. I think my comment also would apply to the general misconception that moe=lolicon, as most series identified as moe are about high school students. Yes, there is lolicon stuff on the fringes which makes itself disproportionally visible, but it is one fraction of a larger whole. Moe is largely based on seinen works, “lite novels”, and some “visual novels”/bishoujo games. Occasionally there is even some overlap from shoujo and jousei (such as the yuri “classic” “The Virgin Mary Watches Over Us), and as such usually features casts of mostly teenagers…like 95+% of anime does historically. So if moe is to be called lolicon, then where does that leave the rest?

    I think Patrick provided a number of examples of the “depth” that a contemporary moe otaku finds in their favorite works, but that’s getting missed somehow in the above comments, which seem more concerned with superficial surface impressions of the outsider’s view of these same fans and their apparent fancies.

    Leonardo: as another fan with a strong personal interest in gender identity and LGBT themes in contemporary anime, I agree that Utena was particularly good. Have you given the recent, critically acclaimed (but largely fan-rejected) Wandering Son (Houro Musuko) a try? The graphic novels are being published in hardcover by Fantagraphic Books and the anime is one of the more progressive and sensitive of such works I’ve seen yet, in sharp contrast to a medium where this sort of thing is usually played for laughs.

    This also leads me to the issue of politics and otaku. I do know that the Japanese otaku that I have met as well as mangaka who started out as doujinshi creators have generally been a very liberal bunch, with a more open view of sexuality, gender, and civil liberties than what the vociferous 2ch right wingers would have you think the community is like. But that is just speaking from my own limited experience.

  25. microbry Says:

    With regards to the doujinshi “exploitation” of characters, I don’t see much difference here between Japanese and western fans, as evidenced by the huge amount of Harry Potter, Twilight, etc. slash fiction and fan art that abounds on the internet.

    Japan’s fan tradition is more rooted in manga, and in fact the manga publishing industry relies much these days on recruiting from the more promising of these self-published creators, completing the circle. Not to mention that many highly popular mangaka also sell their own work independently at Comiket as well, without the restrictions of an official publication.

    The self-publishing culture is of course not limited to porn, and (IIRC by the Comiket rules) half of what gets sold at Comiket is non-pornographic works that are either homage, parody, or fully original. Many successes have come from self-publication, such as the supernatural mystery-thrillers of 07th Expansion, the magical realism of Type-Moon, the multi-tier explosion of Zun’s Tohou Project with its approved derivative works, and so on. Given the success of some self-published animated works (Voice of a Distant Star, Time of Eve, others), I think there is some interesting potential for a further rise in independent production as time goes on…

  26. W. David MARX Says:

    So.. half of an important and central otaku media form is explicitly pornographic?

  27. MattAlt Says:

    I agree that moe does not precisely equal lolicon. But the roots are undeniable, and even the most innocent of moe shows boils down, essentially, to fetishistically dressed teenage girls frolicking for the entertainment of adult male consumers. Denying any sexual subcontext seems to be a favorite pastime of moe fans, but for most non-aficonados those claims come across as mighty similar to “only reading Playboy for the articles.”

  28. Anymouse Says:

    Haruhi might be considered an exception. But there are other works that fit the paradigm of moe holding things back. The Air Movie comes across as superior to the Air TV series because it has a far more serious style, a style more appropriate to the subject matter.

  29. Anymouse Says:

    Idolm@ster Gravure for You is a game for people who like to admire the beauty of young women. Nothing creepy *at all*.

  30. microbry Says:

    “So.. half of an important and central otaku media form is explicitly pornographic?”

    Indeed, I won’t argue that at all, though I will point out that the majority of doujinshi of both types has historically been by and for women, just in case anyone is thinking this is just a sausagefest. And it has been this way since the 70s! Personally I think its great that there is an outlet for this kind of personal expression of both kinds. Why is it so repellant to some that people like to share erotic stories in some media but not others?

    I won’t deny sexual subtext like some do. For me that’s been an overt part of the visual look and appeal of anime since my own entry into the fandom as an adolescent in the early 80’s. I would argue that the sexual allure of these teen-oriented stories (in my case, shows like Urusei Yatsura, Kimagure Orange Road, Megazone 23, Project A-ko, Bubblegum Crisis, Ranma 1/2 etc…not that all of those are still to my taste decades later, mind you…) just was more icing on the cake along with all the mecha/SF/fantasy stuff I enjoyed. Also, the loli influences were fairly clear to me even back then as it was in a lot of the magazines of the day. Which is why I feel I can say from my own past constant following of anime and manga over the years that what you ascribe to the loli origins is only a small part of what made this boom. I’ll still stand by my comments I’ve made elsewhere that much of the moe phenomenon is also a partial evolution from the influence on fandom by the 90s shoujo anime boom, where the trappings of shoujo styling became further popularized (while in the face of a shortage of good shounen/seinen material).

    I don’t disagree with your generalization though, Matt. I think the sexual charge and possible taboos toed in anime are part of what gives it zest and differentiates it from the cartoons of much the rest of the world, which seems to view sex in a more negative light. I will however argue over the characterization when applied further to the stories and characters still. I mean, I’m not going to defend the Love Hinas, Strike Witches and Kodomo no Jikans out there, which are not my cup of tea either… but I will stand up for the shows that I think can hold their own by virtue of a good story or strong characters, regardless of whether they can be classified as moe or not (believe me, I like my share of both…I prefer a good variety of styles of art and stories). And I feel like there’s been still quite a few coming out each year that can do just that.

  31. Anonymous Says:

    I don’t understand why pornography is disgusting or even less than completely okay when it’s 2D, and tells us so much about the immorality of Those People who like it, when traditional pornography featuring real women (often made to look younger than they are) is such a huge portion of Internet traffic and always been, in the broader culture as well as in whatever subculture you want to demonize today.

  32. Anymouse Says:

    I would change that to “a few”. The Kodomo no Jikan’s have certainly become more abundant lately.

  33. Anymouse Says:

    I am not saying I am not a big fan of アニメ。But the good stuff has always been in short supply.

  34. W. David MARX Says:

    Pornography is widely viewed, yes. The issues are (1) There has been an effort to downplay the centrality and importance of pornography in otaku culture or make dojinshi just “fan art” (2) There is a legitimate issue of why the otaku spend a lot of their time and money on specifically otaku-taste pornographic media, compared to other subcultures and consumer segments who do not bring those pornographic elements inside the culture but keep porn as porn.

  35. Anonymous Says:

    Most doujinshi really are just fanart, you know! And most of those that are ero do not feature little girls at all, not only because female characters with large breasts and mature features are still very popular, but because most doujin authors are women and their work, if it is ero, is more likely to be yaoi. That seems to another thread running through the comments section here, ignoring the existence of the female otaku and fujoshi who are such a huge portion of the fanbase for anime and manga nowadays.

    As for the appeal of drawn pornography as opposed to traditional pornography, it seems obvious enough that fans of a visual medium would prefer different visual aspects in this area. This is not unique to Japan; search “Tijuana Bible” in Wikipedia. It’s not unique to this subculture to seek out pornography featuring one’s favorite characters either; Google “Harry Potter slash fiction” for one of the more prominent Western examples of this phenomenon.

  36. MattAlt Says:

    This discussion isn’t about whether porn (3D, 2D, or otherwise) is bad, and I am most definitely not ignoring the existence of the yaoi/”boys love” genre. The thing about fujoshi is that — in my admittedly limited experience — their titles tend to be more about the emotional or romantic connection and less about explicit sex (yes, I know there are always exceptions.)

    Then there is the issue that yaoi is being created by and about traditionally less powerful and/or disenfranchised members of society (made by women, for women, about homosexual men). Contrast this to moe, which uses less powerful members of society (pubescent girls) as entertainment for dominant members of society (adult males.) Given that women aren’t exactly on equal footing with men in the workplace here, it isn’t difficult to see why that squicks some people out.

  37. W. David MARX Says:

    Are there stats/numbers that show female participation in otaku culture? I am sure they are involved, but the arguments of their influence are often all predicated on completely anecdotal evidence.

  38. microbry Says:

    The one thing I’ve noticed with regard to fujoushi on this matter is that female fans that do want to draw erotica tend to wind up working on material more aimed at men (including even some of the more popularized loli stuff like Kodomo no Jikan, for one example…). This doesn’t mean there aren’t women that don’t read that stuff, too, but they are more the exception than the rule and the artists follow where the market goes, and the readers will follow as they see fit. But that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of explicit yaoi stuff out there, as you noted.

    As for stats, yes, there are. I don’t have the links handy, but will see if I can find them later. Comiket and doujinshi culture originally was predominantly female, and the first doujinshi I ever saw back myself in the mid 80s were stuff of male characters from series Gatchaman and Gundam…

  39. Anonymous Says:

    The characterization of moe anime as being about “explicit sex” could not be more wrong. I’d be hard-pressed to think of something that would turn moe otaku off a show more, actually. I wonder whether you even know what kinds of shows these people like, to be completely honest K-On!, Pretty Cure, Aria, Hidamari Sketch, Lucky Star, Puella Magi Madoka Magica – these are not racy titles! And they are not harems, either; they are very much about the friendship between girls, their experiences with hobbies and schoolwork, careers, even the fate of the universe, and their emotional responses to that – the viewer is not even involved the same way (s)he would be in something like Love Hina or Infinite Stratos. And these are definitely not more implicitly sexual than a title the appeals to fujoshi like Gundam SEED or Tiger and Bunny. If anything the way male and female otaku experience sexuality is more similar than it is for “normal” men and women in Japan or elsewhere; there are romance games and light novels for male fans like Clannad and Toradora and pornographic manga and anime for female fans like Junjou Romantica. I would not say the balance here is even, but it’s definitely more even within this subculture than without.

    As for the second part of MattAlt’s response, I’m not sure who’s being disenfranchised here – the characters? That doesn’t make any sense; these girls don’t have any political relevance or social aspirations in the 3D world because they are not real, and none of their fans believe or even want them to be real. The obvious counter-examples would be maid cafes and AKB48, but the men who go to maid cafes and AKB48 concerts are very aware of the artificiality here; though the aesthetic is very different I don’t think there’s an essential difference between this kind of thing and any other kind of service employee or celebrity. 2channers always go on about how they have no interest in real women, though it’s always read more like sour grapes than patriarchal reaction to me. Perhaps female otaku turn to 2D characters because they aren’t able to interact with real men on the terms they desire because of social conditions and gender roles, but male otaku as a group seem to be more the type who aren’t able to interact with real women on the terms they desire because they can’t interact with real women at all, not because they have outdated expectations.

    As far as the involvement of female fans, here are the statistics from the most recent Comic Market (December 2011):

    Touhou: 2690
    Tiger & Bunny: 1170
    Hetalia: 1000
    Sengoku Basara: 842
    Vocaloid: 492
    Prince of Tennis: 460
    Reborn: 458
    Gintama: 438
    Blue Exorcist: 428
    IdolMaster: 417
    Inazuma Eleven: 398
    Madoka: 350
    Tomodachi ga Sukunai: 322
    Nintama: 298
    Arashi: 282
    Durarara: 278
    Lyrical Nanoha: 271
    One Piece: 254
    Naruto: 244
    Magi: 227
    K-ON!: 200

    Three of the top five franchises and seven of the top ten are primarily for female otaku, in terms of ero-doujinshi at least. It would be overstatement to call Comiket a female-dominated environment but they are definitely a major force here. Blu-Ray and DVD sales tend to be topped by franchises that appeal to both genders; it’s worth noting that the best-selling TV anime from the summer 2011 season was a “reverse” harem about a girl who has to choose from among five attractive anime boys

  40. microbry Says:

    “The first Comiket (C1) was held in the meeting room of the Japan Fire Defense Building on December 21, 1975 by Meiku. Thirty-two doujin circles and 700 visitors participated. According to rumors, on the previous night, some fans camped out, loudly singing anime songs. About half of the circles were high school or junior high manga clubs, while some others were from popular creator Moto Hagio’s fan club. Ninety percent of the participants were schoolgirls who were fans of shojo manga.”

    (Just a sample above, the full article is worth a read to see more of the extent of the role of fujoushi in Comiket’s history over the years, notably often thickest during times we’d normally associate with male otaku booms, just showing how lopsided the coverage tends to be: http://comipress.com/article/2008/08/03/3636 ).

    Also this:

    “Over the 30 years up to 2008, women have represented 71 percent of those selling dōjinshi at the Comic Market (men, 29 percent) and 57 percent of attendees (men, 43 percent) (Comic Market 2008, 21). However, preliminary data from a survey carried out in August 2010 at Comic Market 78 by the Contents Research Team of Tokyo University and Tokyo Institute of Technology show that 60 percent of respondents reported themselves as male, 33 percent as female, with 7 percent not answering the question (Nakamura 2011).”

    (cited by Wikipedia http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/257/250#note2 )

    Two more Comiket histories I just found, too:

    http://alexrad.hubpages.com/hub/Comic-Market-History

    http://www.comiket.co.jp/info-a/WhatIsEng080225.pdf

    Hope that helps? I should note that the increase in male attendance by 2010 apparently has since peaked and declined, though I don’t have the exact source for that info now, so I’ll grant that it could be apocryphal. But most of the data out there will confirm that historically Comiket has maintained an impressively high ratio of female participation.

  41. MattAlt Says:

    Anonymous — I’m afraid you’re misunderstanding; I agree many moe productions are non-explicit in nature. However, they center on young women and are consumed by adult men. There is a sexual context that cannot be denied even in so-called “slice of life” shows. In fact, this lack of overt sexuality in what is obviously at some level a sexualized experience is precisely what some critics find disurbing.

    Disenfranchised refers to real-world societal demographics, not the fictional characters in the shows.

  42. Anonymous Says:

    As someone who actually enjoys these shows, I’m denying a sexual context. They are “atmosphere-type” series, I like them for the atmosphere and the lack of conflict, not for how attractive the chara design is. I do suspect it has something to do with the lack of power real women in Japan have, but the attraction is not to powerlessness as such but to the condition in which social power is not being exercised. And I have a hard time even imaging what a series about boys in that kind of environment would be like. Instead I’m being told I like it because of some sublimated pedophilic fetishism so subtle it’s barely even there! I guess that’s why K-On is so popular with women and girls, too. I’d also add that the closest Western analog for this sort of thing would be the recent My Little Pony series; presumably this is all about a sublimated desire to dominate horses sexually?

  43. microbry Says:

    See, now this is really kind of unfair. About 30% of K-on fans are female in Japan, and I suspect that number is higher here. Some have even been inspired to form their own school pop music clubs.

    I’ve read a few anime blogs by female fans who are otherwise not particularly enamored of the typical “loser fanboy” moe material who have adored this particular show. I’ve seen young K-on cosplayers at the local anime convention the last couple of years (two of whom surprisingly approached me for a photo of my Zeta Gundam shirt…who says new fans can’t appreciate old school…?) and even a pair of K-on cosplaying sisters on a local morning show doing a positive piece on the event.

    Why am I pointing all this out? Because clearly K-on has something broadly appealing about it that has nothing to do with fetishism, misogyny, submissiveness, or the male gaze. There’s a double standard at play here, where it’s nice if girls or women like something “girly” and creepy if guys do.

    I know K-on is a seinen manga/anime and what its main target audience is, I won’t argue that. But K-on is also an example of a manga that is clearly derived from shoujo manga and its appeal, and there is that sense of a gender bias here when criticizing it as Azuma does. Azuma is unhappy because K-on isn’t overtly soft porn like the stuff of his day. Others complain that all moe IS inherently soft porn. And so it continues…

    For my part, I thought K-on was a very likable, funny show (and manga for that matter), with some particularly well-crafted, amusing character animation and voice performances. I do think it’s perhaps overly popular for what it offers and could sometimes be a bit light on the story content, but in the end it’s still just about a group of kooky, lazy high school kids with an active interest in performing music who go through high school and inevitably somehow graduate. Everyman (or everywoman) stories will always have a broad appeal regardless of the original intended audience.

  44. miffy Says:

    I could have sworn I seen the exact same comments/arguments in the Anime News Network forums. Which means that this will be a Moebius circle, looping forever.

    Great interview btw. Patrick is probably the only person who can give a spirited defense of moe. His arguments usually makes sense or at least he is self aware enough. I miss the days when Patrick used to give guided tours of Akiba in a Son Goku Super Saiyan cosplay