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Man, Nation & Machine
The Otaku Answer to Pressing Problems of the Media Society
Volker Grassmuck
Jan van Eijk Akademie, Maastricht
In a world interconnected by media and often termed an 'information society', it is not surprising that people voice the desire for authentic, direct, person-to-person contact. All the forms of telepresence and distance dealings, virtual community and virtual enterprise may offer practical benefits, yet in conversation with people whose socialization took place prior to the outbreak of the digital revolution such topics tend to quickly provoke words of praise for flesh-and-blood, face-to-face contact. Nowadays, it is not romanticism that motivates such criticism. But even if none of the critics really subscribe to the counter-notion of non-artificial, direct and natural relations with the world, their unease is based on the feeling that a man-made world is not human.

The opposite stance is taken by people who prefer to conduct their business with what is artificial and skillful ­ if by no means always artistic -- than with other human beings in the flesh. This group finds its fulfillment in the world of things and information. Recluses, unsociable hobbyists and eccentric collectors have existed throughout the ages, but never before have there been so many ways to see and to operate without establishing human contact. Never before so many instruments of the senses, complex micro-worlds, information without informers. The machines that the humanist views as tragically irreconcilable with the nature of mankind are simply second nature for a generation that grew up with TV, telefax, and TV-Games.

At the end of the 20th century, young people withdrew from their parents' physical world into a networked digital sphere. Older people, too, are familiar with the cocooning that takes place in concurrence to a crisis in the public realm. Urban violence and homeworkers, pizza delivery services and telephone sex are the setting for an existence under protective wraps or, perhaps more aptly, under the distancing protection of a 3-mile zone. The youth cultures I want to talk about today were named after the distance they keep not only from other cultures but also from their own peer group.

The otaku is a withdrawn, shy being that monomaniacally pursues a sphere of interest with a view to wholly mastering this field and all too readily paying the price this demands, masking out everything else.(1) The word, if not the phenomenon, has spread around the world after originating in Japanese pop culture. In everyday usage, 'otaku' means nothing more than 'house' and, by connotation ('your house'), you in the polite or familiar form of address. The Japanese language's degree of social differentiation demands that a speaker exactly judges his position in relation to the person spoken to in order to choose from dozens of possible personal pronouns the appropriate form of address. If there is insufficient information to hit upon the correct degree of familiarity, politeness or subordination, the politely neutral otaku can be used. It bridges uncertainty. Used among acquaintances, it can express irony or sarcasm. According to the historical myth of the otaku phenomenon, the change in usage first came about among collectors of anime pictures, that is to say the cells used to animate cartoon films. In the mid-1980s, young members of such circles began to address each other with otaku. 'Please show me your (otaku-no) collection.' This conveys a basic feeling of distance. It signals, 'Don't come too close.' If you imagine teenagers addressing each other as 'Sir' or 'Madam', that gives you an idea of the degree of formality and alienation. In view of the root in the word 'house', a sloppy but not inaccurate description for the otaku is the 'stay-at-homes' or 'homies'.

Otaku have a fragile physical and mental constitution. They are not angry young men, but lacking in confidence when it comes to interpersonal contact. That's why they prefer over-polite, defensive forms of speech. In order to avoid mistakes, and even more so in order to have a screen to hide behind. This way they get away without having to exhibit themselves, without giving themselves away, and consequently being exposed to the risk of possible rejection and disappointment.

For the pop journalist Akio Nakamori, this new form of social relationship was so characteristic that in 1984 he coined the notion of the otaku-zoku ­ the otaku tribe, or the otaku generation. As a type of lifestyle, it was already widespread by the late 1970s. This new label permitted uniform external ascription, usually with negative connotations, as well as a defiant self-description for the various sub-groups of youth culture. An otaku is considered to be somebody who can't look other people in the eyes, who prefers to be alone and pursue his or her own hobby, who doesn't bother about their appearance and obsessively follows their own field of interest. Their respective object of passion is derived from pop culture. Anime or manga (comics) are core areas, along with 'idols' (music-industry-standard teenage singers of either sex, immortalized by William Gibson's "Idoru"), video games, model kits, militaria, technology in general and computers in specific. Meanwhile, however, people also talk about aquarium, football or health otaku. Otakudom has nothing to do with any specific subject; it is about the way people relate to a subject.(2)

Social seclusion is not the only characteristic of the otaku. Another central element is their information behavior. Since the volume of published information is multiplying at ever-shorter intervals, everybody has to find their own strategy for dealing with the deluge. One answer is the form of parallel processing of the multiple personality described by US psychologist Sherry Turkle in her book 'Life on the Screen'. The multiple's attention skips from one window to another on the monitor, from a word processor to a mathematics program for homework, to an online game, e-mail and a news channel. Your identity on the computer is the sum of your distributed presences."(3) The otaku is, by contrast, a monomaniacal personality. He pursues an information strategy of radical confinement to one section of the world, and screens out everything else. Whereas the multiple dives into the stream and wants to know as much as possible about a lot of things, the otaku seeks out a tiny area about which he wants to know everything.

I can illustrate this attitude with an anecdote from one of the otaku festivals. Twice a year, the largest of these komike (a contraction of the words 'comic market') attract hundreds of thousands of these shy and retiring people to an exhibition site near Tokyo. Manga circles, above all, sell their pamphlets at the endless rows of tables, but other otaku sub-groupings present their products there too. I stopped at one stand and started leafing through a journal with photos of athletes from the former German Democratic Republic. That kind of collector's area, which is concluded in historical terms, is particularly suitable for accumulating useless detail knowledge with an aspiration to completeness. The seller, a not very sporty looking girl aged about eighteen, asked me if I knew the athletes depicted. I had to admit I didn't. Immediately she replied, 'You don't know them? Goodbye, then.' She was not curious about the only Western foreigner in sight, not interested in conversation or converting me to her hobbyhorse. Communication outside the closely demarcated area of specialist otaku knowledge doesn't happen.

In what is called the information society, the predominant basic feeling is a bad conscience about never having acquired enough information, never having communicated enough. The otaku avoids the shock of the ever-new by another form of attention economy. He targets closed-off systems in which one can believe. In the sea of information he creates islands on which one can feel secure and prepared to cope with all eventualities. The collector, the hobbyist, the player and the fan are basic anthropological prototypes. Applied in monomaniacal fashion to a tiny section of the world, the term otaku is used for such a type in Japan and elsewhere. No metamorphosis takes place inside the cocoon, no butterfly emerges to conquer the world. The web with its multitude of electronic connection points has become their habitat.

Otaku in Europe

Obviously, the otaku do not represent an exotic phenomenon that would only prosper in an outlandish biotope like Japan. There are signs of increasing Oktakism in Europe and North America as well. In a Western context, the 'trekkies' spring to mind, the fans of the 'Star Trek' TV series. Germans use the term Computer-Freak or HiFi-Freak to describe somebody who becomes unusually engrossed in an esoteric area of everyday life. American English now has the terms nerd or geek, both with similar roots in fairground freak shows. Nerd puts the emphasis on the lacking social competence of those given the epithet. Geek implies a fascination with some object that is usually technical. The word geek meteorically rose to fame along with the Internet, and is associated with young, highly motivated and well-paid computer workers. Otaku has components of the nerd together with the obsessive aspects of the geek. Common to all three (from the perspective of the culture of the majority) are the negative connotations of bespectacled, socially incompetent book- and media worms. As Mike Sugarbaker puts it in the editorial of Gazebo, The Journal of Geek Culture: Science fiction fandom, the computer and video-game worlds, and hobby gaming are the purest examples. But for the purposes of our research in GAZEBO, a geek culture is really just a niche culture that gets laughed at."(4) They love logic and systems. At they same time they are 'uncool', because they get enthusiastic and excited about certain things. They are active, because nobody with a passive consumer attitude ­ no matter how excessive and exclusive ­ will qualify as a geek or otaku. A developmental-psychology aspect is the secure micro-worlds that children and youngsters learn to master: worlds made of things, because people time and again prove to be ungovernable.

Like other derogatory labels, otaku, freak and geek are also used self-reflexively, with a certain degree of pride. Jean-Jacques Beineix, the director of the films 'Diva' and 'Betty Blue', devoted his film 'Otaku' of 1994 to reporting on the phenomenon.(5) It played a part in disseminating the Japanese term in the West. Fans of Japanese comics and cartoons adopted it for themselves. Ever since then, you can spot young people wearing T-shirts sporting the motto 'Proud to be otaku'. Beineix' report avoids references to comparable phenomena in the West and pays tribute to unbridled exoticism. All the same, one of his interviewees establishes the connection. The idol otaku Masakazu Uenomura says to Beineix, 'I'm like Jules in your film Diva. Jules worships that opera singer and follows her about. I'm like him.' In retrospect, Beineix embarked upon a flirtation with his subject, and in one interview admitted that he himself, as a picture fetishist, felt like an otaku.

The genesis of a lifestyle

The socio-psychological figure of the otaku only becomes possible through the disintegrating binding character of socialization environments. Even the closest, most intimate reality-production machines like family and work are becoming contingent. Some otaku live with their parents, but without communication. They don't pursue a career, they have jobs. Any allocation to social contexts becomes optional. The 'operatively closed system', as the end product of social disintegration, lives by the motto, 'Alone but Not Lonely'.

The Japanese family structure, the educational system, the professional perspectives and, naturally, the media are generally cited as explanation of the otaku lifestyle. In Beineix' film, the psychiatry professor Takahashi says that the mother-and-child bond of the Japanese often becomes an insurmountable hurdle that stands in the way of the emancipation of children and their maturing process, especially in the case of the otaku. I am sure that this phenomenon is more pronounced in Japan than elsewhere. Actually it's even one of the main differences between Japan and the West."(6) Although such statements are part of the stock of Japanology, caution is advised when they are articulated so sweepingly, especially as indication of Japan's special position compared with other cultures. All the same, the absentee father who is married to his company indubitably fails to provide a role model for children and adolescents. It is probable that technical devices are taking the place of the caring mother as well. According to the diagnosis of economic scientist and cultural commentator Akira Asada, the sci-fi fantasy of paternalistic Big Brother dystopias, such as in Orwell's '1984', has shifted towards the maternal figure of a 'mother computer' controlling a 'mother ship' or 'mother city'. Infantilization through a type of electronic womb is demonstrated, he says, by the video games.(7)

Such a genderizing of technology appears to be plausible, also considering that no transfer to the opposite sex takes place. For male otaku, bachelor machines take the place of flesh-and-blood girls. Characteristic examples are the so-called 'breeding games' (sodate geemu) such as Gainax' 'Princess Maker'. In order to make a princess, the player takes multiple-choice decisions about her life, and controls her progress on the basis of scales of skill and well-being. Tamagotchi similarly belong to the breeding-game category. Among girls, the most popular manga genre is that of the yaoi.(8) Drawn by young women, the comics show homosexual relationships among princely young men. Girls don't appear.

The pronounced pressure to conform in Japanese culture is based on an inner exclusion mechanism. A significant negative factor in the genesis of the otaku phenomenon is ijime, translatable with 'bullying' or the more recent notion of 'mobbing'. Face-to-face groups are formed and reinforced by the exclusion of one of their members. A victim of ijime can be anybody with a distinctive difference, be it a weakness or a strength, a dialect from a different region, a long period of residence abroad, or a special gift for, say, mathematics that causes them to be branded a swot . The group of pupils reinforces its inner homogeneity by unanimously turning against this specific difference. It may merely take the form of teasing, but can also escalate to a level where the victim sees suicide as the only way out.

For some 20 years now, a trend in the labor market has been one of the positive conditions supporting the possibility of an otaku lifestyle. The American cultural sociologist Richard Sennet in his book "Flexible Man" describes as the end of the 'normal biography' the current change in the overall social climate. After the Second World War, an era of relative stability was created by the combined forces of strong trade unions, guaranteed welfare benefits, and large companies. After a job for life had been gained, the further steps up to old-age pension were mapped out in advance. That generation hoped its dreams of social advancement would not end with their own biography, but would be continued in the lives of the offspring for whom they wanted better things. Yet the ideal expressed in the notions of 'career' and 'character' over a period of some 30 years is now breaking up into a patchwork of 'projects'. Restless changability is replacing a clearly organized ladder according to which people can plan their entire lives and be integrated in loyalties and obligations. It is the temporal dimension of new capitalism, more so than the high-tech data or the globalized market, that touches the emotional life of men outside the work place the deepest. Transferred to the family these values of a flexible society mean: stay in motion, don't engage, don't get obliged, don't make sacrifices."(9)

The societal system of regimented courses of education, of employment for life in the core enterprises, of group orientation, of loyalty to institutions that promised security, and of a national identity that saw the native archipelago as an oasis of stability in a sea of revolutions and unrest, survived longer in Japan than in the Western industrialized nations. Since the 1980s, however, there have been increasing signs of structural transformation and changing values. Children growing up in such a world continue to feel their families' expectation of complying with a long-term, and stable, social role model. And at the same time the labor market and consumer world are sending them contradictory signals demanding flexibility, lifelong learning, and internationalization. They too must face up to Sennet's questions: How can long-term goals be pursued in a society geared to short durations? How can durable social relations be maintained? How can a man in a society consisting of episodes and fragments bundle up his identity and life course into a narrative?"(10)

The reaction of growing numbers of young Japanese is to delay taking the step into a potential career. After students have taken college entrance examinations, they experience the four years at college as a chance to pause for breath. Student life is a license to pursue one's own interests and hobbies, to travel and to consume. Support for such a lifestyle is offered by Japan's temporary-job agencies, since the 1980s the market segment with the largest growth. The yuppie generation that preceded the otaku entered into Japan's pop culture under the name of shinjinrui ­ that is to say, 'new people' or the 'Generation X' of Douglas Coupland's novel. This generation funded its hedonistic and materialistic lifestyle with jobs in advertising, software, networks, video production, TV and games. The attitude of the otaku is contrary. The end in itself is the hobby, as opposed to ostentatious trappings of luxury. They earn the necessary funds through part-time jobs demanding a minimum of effort and commitment, for instance in the 24-hour supermarkets. In Japan, casual employees are described as 'slackers', a term derived from the 1991 American film of that name. While they do the dirty work for the service society, they also refuse to take orders. Seen from the viewpoint of a professional career, their state is one of drifting. The 'psychosocial moratorium' described by psychiatrist Keigo Okonogi(11) fails to adequately comprehend this state, implying as it does that it involves a temporary phase of life leading to a normal, if delayed, form of biography.

Having thus fallen out of the abstract structure of society and the more tangible physical contexts of family, groups of friends and workplace, the otaku settles down in a media-based Diaspora. In terms of media history, a prerequisite for this can be seen in the transition from TV to TV game, which transformed the screen from a site of passive reception into one in which the player can intervene with the aid of the controller, can exercise influence and act. With the advent of computer bulletin board systems in the early 1980s, this space opened itself up for exchange with others. The nature of the 'virtual communities' described by Californian network-culture theorist Howard Rheingold(12) ideally accommodates the otaku style of communication. Amateur radio is a forerunner of this type of two-way channel, and in Japan there are in fact many licensed CB enthusiasts among the otaku specialized in computers. Subscribers using pseudonyms use the electronic forums to present their latest finds to like-minded spirits. The more outlandish and difficult to procure an item is, the greater the acknowledgement received from fellow otaku. Certainly, the background of the otaku phenomenon involves a number of factors, but the decisive element are new media and media usages permitting a different access to the world.

Otakudom, then, is by no means merely an escapist movement. Pleasure gain and added sense benefit must be listed under its positive motivation. The otaku succeeds in creating coherence in a small section of the world ­ coherence that is scarcely to be had elsewhere.

The otaku high culture, the otaku underground

Like any other world, the otaku realm has its heroes and kings. Such a role was occupied in the early 1990s by Taku Hachirô. As author of a column entitled 'otaku Heaven' in the magazine Spâ! and as a guest on TV shows, the self-styled otaku spokesman told the general public what was going on inside their children's heads. His presentation was not that of a distanced social psychologist, but of somebody showing 'authentic' otakudom in a format suitable to the mass media.

The Japanese otaku have meanwhile gained another spokesman on a higher, if not to say the highest, level. Toshio Okada is a graduate of Tokyo University and co-founder of Gainax, an important otaku-anime studio. He held vastly popular seminars on 'Otakism' at his alma mater, which tops the Japanese university pyramid, and published an 'Introduction to Otakuology'.(13) In his book he attributed to the otaku a pioneering role in the information society, also at international level. His concern is to establish otaku as a new type of expert who focuses on the style, special effects and signature of individual comic artists. Where Gutenberg-schooled readers detect a story, writes Okada, the otaku first of all refer to the syntactic levels. Their judgement is based on an extensive knowledge of the particular genre allowing them to decode quotations, grasp references, and appreciate nuances. Although his assertion that the origins of otaku culture lie in university science-fiction clubs is dubious, it is indicative of his desire to remove the taint of unrespectability from Otakism, and connect the phenomenon with a discourse on high culture. Even if the otaku relate to objects of pop culture, Okada is saying, the way they relate to them would do credit to any art-museum visitor with an education in aesthetics and art history. Drawing up a historical scheme that is in itself comic-like, he presents otaku culture as the rightful heir to Japanese cultural tradition, as a continuation of 19th-century popular tradition both through and beyond children's culture and bridging the chasms left behind by the nuclear bombs.

The awarding of an ­ism by a representative of one of Japan's most sacred halls of academia imbued the otaku with the dignity of an intellectual structure. For the purposes of worldwide dissemination and recognition, the self-designated Otaking" founded an 'International Otaku University' on the Internet. Okada's plans to launch an otaku TV channel delivering the latest news from the ramified branches of Otakism 24 hours a day seem to have come to nothing so far. Okada and two fellow academics now tour the country in the capacity of 'otaku amigos'and spread the glad tidings as guests at special events and talk shows.

In spite of all the attempts to open up, the otaku have essentially remained a subculture underpinned by an infrastructure in the dôjinshi circles, the manga self-published by fans for fans, in the regular komike (comic markets) and other events, and finally in the electronic BBS's. Yet, The problem with otaku is not that they are an underground but major and at the same time completely closed, 'anti-social' and isolated. Their number is very high...".(14) Even if they are anti-professional and outside the scheme of salaried employment, considerable sums circulate in their black-market networks.

From inside their monads, the otaku do indeed communicate with like-minded spirits. According to pop-culture researcher Kyoichi Yamazaki, however, this communication system would be better described as a network than as a community.(15) Similarly, the mode of communication is not interactive inside these channels. Their utterances do not permit follow-up communication, unless in the form of overbidding with new or even more esoteric information. Yamazaki says that the number and quality of Komike participants has scarcely changed since their 'discovery', whereas since the mid-1990s there has been a rapid growth in the group of network otaku.


Okada traces otakudom back to the classical spirit of a Japan largely isolated from traffic with the rest of the world. By linking the otaku to the discussion about cultural uniqueness, he heightens their degree of distinction. Western youngsters who are 'proud to be otaku' also gain in distinction, namely in exoticism. While mediatization, isolation, information overload are global phenomena, they remain connected to a grid of nations. Game-otaku can be found everywhere, Mario the Plumber and Sonic the Hedgehog are citizens of the world and at the same time unmistakably Japanese nationals. If the national US-American identity can be said to be built on microprocessors, Hollywood movies and software, then the Japanese identity must be said to be founded on memory chips, games, and Japanimation. Moreley and Robins introduced the notion of 'techno-orientalism'(16) to underpin their thesis that the technology project, as the identity-forming core of Modernism, has migrated from Europe via America to Japan. 'Japan has become synonymous with the technologies of the future ­ with screens, networks, cybernetics, robotics, artificial intelligence, simulation. (...) If the future is technological, and if technology has become 'Japanised', then the syllogism would suggest that the future is now Japanese too.' [1995: 168] This motif crops up in economic and political discussions, just as it does in sci-fi products ranging from Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner' to William Gibson's Cyberpunk novels. The West is in the process of setting up a techno-mythology according to which Japan will lead the world into a kind of 'postmodern mutation of human experience', a realm composed of the wholly different electronic signs, images and sounds we encounter in the technological format of karaoke, computer games and Virtual Reality.

The Western construction of a techno-orientalistic difference is complicitly aided and abetted by the Japanese reflecting upon themselves and the outside world. The intellectual elite of the Japanese establishment likes to take the credit for the success of anime and games throughout Asia and in the West. On the other hand, it worries about the mental and moral health of the youth of today.

The West initially granted recognition to post-2nd-World-War Japan for industry, thrift, technological precision, and finally for the macro-economic performance to which Ezra Vogel, with his book 'Japan As No. One' of 1979, awarded an Olympic gold medal. In 1980, Prime Minister Ôhira declared the end of the era of economism and materialism, and the beginning of a 'new age of culture'. Miyazawa, one of his successors, placed the 1990s under the motto 'Lifestyle Superpower' (Seikatsu Taikoku). Admittedly, this new quality of life continues to be technologically operationalized in the form of more communications and more media. Talk about social infrastructure can be smoothly translated into plans for the Internet and for broadband ISDN in every home. Yet these visions lack something that is difficult to plan, goes by the names 'creativity' and 'originality', and is necessary to put new flesh on the old bones. Although the vision of an information economy foresaw Japan's transformation into a 'soft society' (Hayashi Yûjirô) from the 1960s onward, experts discern a sustained weakness in Japan's software sector. Japan's failure to have produced any programming language or operating system with international success is a source of distress. Apart from the omnipresent video games, the only software visible on export markets is embedded in consumer products and manufactured goods.(17)

In the view of Imai Kenichi, Japan's industrial structure is at present shifting from hardware to software, and from manufacturing to service provision. The leisure and entertainment activities of any country mirror the technological conditions of the age in which they developed. In Japan's case it is therefore natural that electronic forms of entertainment ­ pachinko, karaoke and video games ­ have taken the lead." The Western acceptance of his country's comparative strengths in this area was, for Imai, a first step towards a new national self-confidence [Imai, 1996]. The information technologies will be dominated by the younger Japanese who have already demonstrated their ability to achieve world leadership in such areas as video games and animated films." [Imai, 1997] Nintendo is the Microsoft of Japan. Japanimation products such as 'Akira'and 'Mononoke-hime', which ran in the competition section of the 1998 Berlin Film Festival, showed how content rooted in contemporary Japanese youth culture could connect up at global level. 'Mononoke-hime' was made by Hayao Miyazaki, who co-shaped the otaku genre in the field of anime, and went on to become the Disney of Japan. Japan is proud of its otaku.

On the other hand, there is now more criticism to be heard. Sociologists and cultural critics are repeating the warning they issue about every new media generation: namely, that games are a pasttime which is, if not dangerous, at least worthless, and keeps young people from the more valuable cultural technique of reading books. Cases of epilepsy induced by video games and anime give cause for concern, like the 1998 incident in which 800 children were hospitalized after exposure to stroboscope effects in the 'Pocket Monster' TV series. Murders perpetrated by young people are taken as evidence of total reality loss due to excessive media usage. After the corpses of four girls were found in 1989, the statement that the murderer was a 'video otaku' was thought to be sufficient explanation of the deed. In May 1997, the severed head of a primary-school pupil was found outside the gates of a school in Kobe. On the basis of the anonymous letters written by the murderer, observers were sure the crime was perpetrated by a cold-blooded killer who took pleasure in playing with other people's lives. Deep shock set in when a 14-year-old boy was arrested for the crime two months later. People blamed the desolate residential blocks of the suburb he lived in, the school he wanted to take revenge on, and the media-saturated environment. In the ensuing period of self-contemplation, Japanese society found itself to be in a state of deep moral uncertainty. As the political scientist Yôichi Masuzoe put it in 1997: We have raised a generation that thinks nothing of killing. Now we are facing the shocking consequences." Although investigations are still in progress, one culprit is already established in Masuzoe's eyes, namely Virtual Reality. As evidence Masuzoe points to passages in the killer's letters he considers to be characteristic of the generation that has grown up with electronic games." He is referring to war-games in which blood, pain, suffering and death do not exist and players experience a sensation of magical omnipotence. Masuzoe's only antidote to the destructive effect of virtuality is 'actuality'. He recommends that parents and schools restrict the time children spend on TV and electronic games, and instead encourage them to read the classics, take up sports, to strike up a relationship with the world of nature and above all of flesh-and-blood people. Calls for severe punishments and censorship of game and media content have also become louder.

While the official Japan in this way seeks to reap the fruits of international success and keep under control the 'side-effects', the perspective taken by the young circles which produce the phenomenon is obviously somewhat different. Manga and anime remain the origin and core of otaku culture. The Gainax production studio, which specializes in anime and games, is one of the major institutions in the field.(18) The studio came about in the early 1980s through a group of amateurs who made the opening films for the 'Osaka Si-Fi Convention'. Okada was one of the group. With anime like Hideaki Anno's 'Evangelion' (1995), the game 'Princess Maker' and the mockumetary 'Otaku no Video' (1991), Gainax has repeatedly managed to comprehend and mirror back movements within the otaku scene.


Over the otaku world there hangs a paranoid basic feeling of isolation, brainwashing and puppet-like existence. 'Ghost in the Shell' (1996) by Mamoru Oshii, formerly a hardcore otaku anime-ka, is full of Cyborgs consisting of no more than a fraction of human, biological material. At the heart of the plot is a 'Puppet Master', an intelligence that emerged from the Net and in the capacity of a hacker now manipulates people's 'minds' and re-programs their memories.(19) Anybody who ever saw pictures of followers of the Aum Shinrikyô sect with electrode networks on their head cannot fail to be reminded of the plot.

Hideaki Anno's 'Evangelion' appeared 6 months after the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway was carried out by the Aum-Shinrikyô. The similarities between the plot and the real-life activities of the sect were such that Anno said he was forced to re-write the plot in order to uphold its character as fiction. The Aum presented Japan's cultural critics with an example of what happens when a group gets so caught up in its own seclusion and exclusiveness that it loses touch with reality and collective, paranoid fiction takes over. The same symptom of being closed-off in a mediated self-reference is attributed to the individual otaku murders. Taken somewhat further, it also designates Japan's self-view -- and a similar view of Japan from outside -- as a closed otaku system surrounded by the rest of the world.

'Evangelion' deploys otaku clichés with mechas and girls, with parodies and quotations from the history of the genre all the way back to 'Space Battleship Yamato' of 1974.(20) At the same time, Anno criticizes the closed nature of the Otaku circle, and its division into ever-smaller, strictly separated areas of interest.

The otaku would appear to be successfully escaping the shackles of one prison named society only in order to build themselves a new housing composed of technological mediatedness and self-referentialism. As Toshio Okada writes in his book 'Our Brainwash Society' (Bokutachi no sennô shakai, Asahi Shimbunsha, Tokyo, 1995), he too detects the main problem in this closing off.

From animism to animation

By identifying something as a 'phenomenon', one also creates the need for explanations. Why games, of all things, and why from Japan, of all places? Various strategies offer themselves in the quest for answers. A reading that might be termed romantic discerns an affiliation between new technologies and the oldest tackle of the nihonjinron. One response is to see pachinko and computer games simply as the postmodern equivalents of zen and kabuki. Like 'traditional' forms of Japanese culture, they too embody the exotic, enigmatic and mysterious essence of Japanese particularism."(21)

According to this theory, Japanimation may be the product of interaction with Western pictorial and comic styles, but its unique quality is irreducibly rooted in traditional Japanese visual and performing arts like the scroll pictures and kabuki. Similarly, religious explanations akin to Max Weber's Protestant Ethic are suitable for tracing contemporary phenomena to historical forerunners. Media researcher and curator Machiko Kusahara, for instance, explains the special affinity of Japanese culture to the genre of 'breeding games' such as 'Princess Maker' or 'Tamagotchi' with the fact that Buddhism has no myth of creation and therefore no hierarchy of existence. In the wheel of reincarnation, the difference between human being and animal is nothing more than temporary. Japanese culture is familiar, she says, with the notion of a virtual life alongside the real one. Moreover, she sees as fluid the boundaries between living bodies and machine bodies, as demonstrated by the androids in such Japanimations as 'Gundam' and 'Evangelion' [Kusahara, 1997]. After all, it is not difficult to find evidence of an animistic tradition in a media art form that goes by the name of 'animation'.

The presumption of continuity, however, is contradicted by the linguistic demarcation that separates the katakana word 'geemu' from the traditional game forms of tawamure, yûgi or asobi. A rupture labeled in this way is more a confirmation of Kenichi Ohmae's theory of global convergence within the Nintendo generation. In the opinion of management guru and globalization prophet Ohmae, this generation has more in common with people of the same age in other countries than with preceding generations within its own culture. [Ohmae, 1994].

An alternative reading is based on a reciprocal allocation of technology and soul. The Western view of techno-orientalism associates the technological successes of Japan with a cold, de-humanized and mechanistic culture lacking in emotional links with the rest of the world. According to the analysis of Slavoj Zizek, American ideology reacts to the growing economic predominance of the Japanese by reproaching them with not just the their inability to have fun. It's as if they take pleasure in their excessive foregoing of amusements, in their diligence, their incapability to 'take-it-easy', their inability to relax and enjoy themselves. And this attribute in particular is seen as a threat to American predominance." [Zizek 1992: 93 f.] The stereotypical barbarians have turned into robots that even enjoy their robotic existence.

The others are accused of technically rational coldness and an absence of emotion. Morley and Robins cite Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chairman of the Disney studios: 'Film-making at its essence ... is about the conveyancing of emotion. (...) The Japanese culturally err on the side of withholding emotion. In saying this, I am not simply offering an American perspective. The Japanese are the first to tell you this about themselves. This sense of discipline and self-control has no doubt been a major factor in achieving the Japanese economic miracle that has turned a small island nation into one of the world's pre-eminent industrial powers.' [Morley/Robins, p. 151] But, Katzenberg seems to suggest, the craziness, the fun, the carefreeness ­ in other words, the emotionalism needed for filmmaking, remains resident in the USA. Japanese hardware producers may own the Hollywood studios, but they don't make the films.

The allocation of technologism and emotionalism is precisely inverted in an investigation into the visual worlds of video games published in 1997 by the media sociologists Shirabe and Baba. In the course of a comparison between the newest game generations in the USA and in Japan on the basis of the cognitive and social aspects of interaction, they come to the conclusion that different emphasis is applied in either case. The background of their argument is the technological transition from two-dimensional computer graphics in games and anime to three-dimensional, so-called immersive environments. In the case of Sega's 'Virtua Fighter', for instance, the combatants are made up of polygons and textures obeying the rules of real-life geometry and optics and so contrasting with the flat graphics of such products as Nintendo's 'Street Fighter'. Once the Japanese entertainment industry realized that since the 1990s fictional game figures have had more recognition value than human Idoru, they were forced to launch a counter-offensive. Television broadcasters like Fuji TV commissioned computer-animated actors entitled 'virtual Idoru'. With 'Kyôko Date', the Idoru agency Hori Pro won the most attention. Kyôko is composed of 40,000 polygons, but her dance movements and facial expressions look realistic because they are scanned from real people with the aid of the motion capture technique.(22)

According to Shirabe and Baba's scheme of differentiation, US game designers emphasize realism and immersion. Their study concludes that players are wholly immersed in the role of soldier, pilot or Formula-One competitor. The 'typical' Japanese game, by contrast, does not force the player to dive into the virtual world. The researchers give as an example the game 'Super Mario', whose protagonist is controlled from an external perspective much like a remote-control automobile. The onus is on establishing an empathic relationship between player and game figure, on producing emotional participation. Of course, US video-game companies do not neglect the players' empathy, and Japanese ones do not take lightly the 'reality' of the game. However, the fact that video games as products of Japanese contemporary culture are widely accepted in the world cannot be irrelevant for the attitude to empathy. US video games connect the players with their word by their 'reality', while Japanese ones use the players' empathy.' [Shirabe/Baba 1997] To this end, the report implies, the Japanese place more value on the construction of the figures, on their 'ages, personalities, social backgrounds, personal histories'. It is a question of a cinematic style, because like film directors the games pay attention to the figures, even if the details are insignificant to the progress of the game.

For Kyôko, too, an entire biography was created. 3-D games are less popular in Japan, however, and also Kyôko failed to cut ice on the fan market. Kusahara's explanation for this failure is that Kyôko was too perfect and at the same time not perfect enough to be a plausible substitute human. To the Japanese eye, says Kusahara, a flat, non-perspectival, manga-esque representation of figures appears more familiar and 'natural' than realistic, 3-D models. This she attributes to viewing habits accustomed to ukiyoe woodblock prints and other shadowless visual syntaxes. In Kusahara's 'Praise of Shadow' reverbarates that by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki 60 years earlier. It is a not a hymn to the shading and shadowcasting of the Renaissance perspective, but of the shadow as a figure, as an image [Kusahara 1997]. In his essay of 1933 [1987], Tanizaki unfolds the entire spectrum of an aesthetic of the halftone, of the obscure, vague, cloudy; of the pause and omission, of the spectral beauty of women in earlier times; of the allusion to be padded out by the power of imagination; of a blurred half-light in which what one sees stimulates to transfer to the invisible." [Tanizaki 1987: 13] All this, in turn, is reminiscent of McLuhan's definition of the cold, low-definition medium. Tanizaki asked whether it was not the case that if the Orient had produced a scientific and technical civilization wholly detached from the Occident," then machines would have been designed that would harmonize better with our national character?" [ibid: 15] One example he draws upon is that of film, where in regard to Shadow and coloration the different national character somehow makes itself manifest" on the level of recording technique, wholly regardless to the type of acting and shooting of footage. If that is already the case when the same apparatus and chemicals are used, the same celluloid, then how much more would a photographic technique developed by ourselves have to be tailored to our skin, our whole appearance, our climatic and topographical circumstances." [ibid.: 18f.] One must come to the conclusion that the visual world of anime is precisely that representational form appropriate to the Japanese national character.

The argument about realism versus aesthetic form is often conducted also by the otaku anime-ka and those who have sold out to the mainstream. Hideaki Anno rejects Miyazaki's and Oshii's attempts to reconcile anime with life-like films. His intention is not to become more realistic, but to exploit to the full the abstract nature of anime that results precisely from the limitations of the medium. His images have a tendency towards reduction, are becoming ever-more simple yet more sophisticated at the same time [Woznicki, 1998].

In this discourse the artificial, the anti-realistic, the aesthetic form of restriction and omission enters into a connection with that most emotional of things ­ the empathy between human beings. It's the argument that depth of character is more important than spatial depth. We are of the opinion that beauty is not to be sought in the objects themselves but in the light-dark, in the play of shadows that arises between objects." [Tanizaki 1987: 53] It would appear to be the case that psychiatrist Bin Kimura's 'Inbetweenism' defines the social and aesthetic relationships in the game world as well. In relation to games, just as in society as a whole, it serves as an attribute marking a special position compared to the individualistic, cold and realistic West.

Although it will be easy to find examples opposing Shirabe and Baba's allocation of national 'typicality' in games, the difference they construct is significant all the same. On the one side motion-capture 'only', emotion-capture on the other. The West, they suggest, steps over the boundary of the media-based interface through visual access, through imaging, while Japan feels its way in. Realism and imitation in the Occident, imagination and irrealism in the Orient. Maybe it's an illusion that is nothing more than temporary, brewed together from light and dark. But for us it is sufficient, more we cannot expect." [Tanizaki 1987: 60]

If one takes the words of the Disney boss and those of the Japanese media sociologists as a basis for juxtaposing the attributes that US-American and Japanese ascribe to themselves and to the other side, the same figure emerges. Either side sees its own strategy as one by which animation succeeds, by which the world of machines is endowed with a living soul, whereas the opposite side only succeeds in terms of the machine. The own is whole, is one (technological) body and soul, while the other is seen as cold, technocratic, robotic, unsensual and amoral ­ only half-human, with no balance between 'Yin and Yang'.

Border crossers

The dynamic processes I have talked about today move along the trajectories of humans and technology, humans and information, humans and nation. What we are experiencing due to electronic games and digital media is the emergence of an imagined community, to (mis-) use Benedict Anderson's term, of humans and technology. The more technologically dense our environment becomes, the more urgent the need to create new links between machines and the soul, an emotional interface to the interactive structure.

In the interplay of difference and convergence, of closure and opening, in the multiple reflections moving between the 'West' and 'Japan', images are being generated that have the task of installing such a link between technology and the soul. A wholeness is imagined that more or less succeeds in terms of one's own culture, but for which the other culture lacks in emotionalism. Apart from the human-machine interface, then, it continues to be a matter of an interface between the nations. Despite all the talk about globalization.

The Internet can be seen as a Multi-User-Dungeon peopled by a family of mankind that on its travels encounters its own members ­ monsters, some times. In that process, it is a question of reviewing the old rules and trying out new ones.

By and large, the Internet remains a terra incognita. Where on medieval maps one might have read 'hic sunt leones' we now read 'hic sunt MP3 pirates". The preliminary results of the first large-scale survey of Internet usage in the USA were recently released, conducted by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society. Half of the US population already has access to the Internet. Norman Nie, a researcher involved in the study, said, Everybody is going to be a user soon, and access is growing by successive birth cohorts. (...) We've come to the point where if you are going to be part of the modern economy or society, you have to be connected." He calls Internet usage a contagion. The study showed a clear positive correlation between the number of years people have been using the Internet and the time they spend online and the number of things they do there. One might call it a learning curve. One might also say the Internet is sucking people in, and reducing the time they spend with friends and family, the time available for events outside the home. Nie concluded: 'The Internet could be the ultimate isolating technology that further reduces our participation in communities even more than television did before it.' He warns us to pay more attention to the psychological and emotional effects induced by 'more people being home, alone and anonymous.'

So are we all bound to become otaku? Hardly anybody is not affected by the flood of information and plethora of media. The increasing flow-velocity of our life processes forces us to simultaneously partake in ever-more projects in ever-more places together with ever-more people. One mode of reacting to the challenge is Sherry Turkle's 'multiple personality'. Resonance with the zeitgeist appears to demand more fluid identities, more flexibility, multiple attention management. Mobile phones, PDAs, notebooks point to a trend towards mobility countering the increasing home-ism. Another finding of the Stanford study: 'There are at present no indications suggesting the beginnings of telecommuting. (...) Working Internet users drive to work just as much as before.'

The otaku are trying out a solution that goes in the opposite direction. Their urge to appropriate the world is motivated by the ambition to swap the borderlessness of the social cosmos for the microcosmos of collecting, of games, or of the machine. This radical limitation enables them to form an identity and bundle together a life story as a narrative. If the multiple represents opening up, then the otaku represents closing off. Otakudom can be a carefree, happy hobby-oriented existence with its moments of happiness when a rare collector's item is acquired, a difficult move is pulled off in a game, or a self-created program runs for the first time. The dark side is a paranoid atmosphere of isolation and brainwashing, and a puppet-like existence.

It remains debatable whether insular solutions to the question of identity are desirable. There can be no doubt that the otaku lifestyle is here to stay. A generation that was shaped by the culture of the written word may well look upon this lifestyle with a mixture of skepticism and pity. All the same, otakudom is very successful as a strategy for mastering the social and psychological uncertainties of our age. A relaxed diagnosis of the present will attempt to accept and get involved with the otaku as fellow human beings.

Übersetzung: Tom Morrison



1. see also Volker Grassmuck, 'Allein aber nicht einsam" - die otaku-Generation. Zu einigen neueren Trends in der japanischen Populär- und Medienkultur. in: Norbert Bolz, Friedrich A. Kittler, Christoph Tholen (Hrsg.), Computer als Medium, München Fink 1993, pp. 267-296

2. in which they are comparable to hackers: Hackers can do almost anything and be a hacker. You can be a hacker carpenter. It's not necessarily high tech. I think it has to do with craftsmanship and caring about what you're doing." (Burell Smith, the designer of the Macintosh Computer, quoted in: Steven Levy, Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Delta Bantam, New York 1994: 434)

3. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen. Identity in the Age of the Internet, Simon & Schuster, New York, London, 1995, p. 13

4. http://www.bud.com/98/07/tkles/23.misuba.geeks/

5. otaku, Eine Reportage von Jean-Jacques Beineix und Jackie Bastide, Journalist: Etienne Barral, Cargo Film, France, Sommer 1993

6. otaku, Eine Reportage von Jean-Jacques Beineix und Jackie Bastide, Journalist: Etienne Barral, Cargo Film, France, Sommer 1993

7. Volker Grassmuck, 'Zum Verhältnis von Kunst und Technologie. Interview mit Asada Akira", in: Konkursbuch Japan II, Tübingen, pp. 59-72

8. yaoi stands for YAma-nashi, Ochi-nashi, Imi-nashi: no climax, no punch line, no meaning.

9. Richard Sennett, Der flexible Mensch. Die Kultur des neuen Kapitalismus, Berlin Verlag, Berlin 1998, p. 29

10.  ibid., p. 31

11. Keigo Okonogi, The Age of the Moratorium People, in: Japan Echo Vol. V, No. 1, 1978, p. 17-39

12. Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community. Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Reading, Mass. etc. 1993, Addison-Wesley

13. Toshio Okada, otaku gaku nyumon (Introduction to Otakuology), Ohta Verlag, Tokyo 1996

14. Azuma in Krystian Woznicki, 'Towards a Cartography of Japanese anime. Anno Hideaki's 'Evangelion'. Interview with Azuma Hiroki", in: Blimp Filmmagazine Nr. 36/1997 und http://www.nettime.org/nettime.w3archive/199802/msg00101.html

15. in a conversation with the author, Tokyo, October 1996

16. a reference to Edward Said's term 'orientalism'

17. cf. Cusumano, 1991: p. 44

18. http://www.gainax.co.jp/

19. http://www.manga.com/ghost/ghost.html

20. at the premier showing of which according to rumors the tribe of the otaku had their coming-out.

21. Morley/Robins, Spaces of Identity, 1995: 169

22. http://www.dhw.co.jp/~horipro/talent/DK96/index.html