17. Otaku vs. Geeks vs. the World

I know that last week I had said that I would be writing about the similarities and differences between talking about manga at cons and academic conferences, but something that I ended on last week, the stifling prerogatives of masculinity, has been nibbling at my brain all week long and won’t let up.  Given that and how I’ll be speaking at AnimeIowa this Friday (EDIT: at noon), I thought it would be best to deal with the whole con vs. conference thing when it’s fresh in my mind.

The Discrete Charm of Geekdom

A nerd in [her] element

A nerd in [her] element

I have a deeply ambivalent relationship to fandom, which is not to say that I don’t enjoy the company of (fellow [?]) fans, but there is far more to fandom than the simple aggregate of persons who self-identify as fans.  There is the merchandise, the merchandising, the iconic figures over whom fans regularly fawn (be it a Joss Whedon or Anno Hideaki), the conventions, specialty retail shops, blockbuster films, unique trappings (cosplay, for instance), and so forth.  All this combined is what constitutes, for some, fan culture, a subject which, of late, has been garnering more and more attention but which I have mostly felt is a navel gazing dead end.  The more and more one focuses on this peculiar cultural artifact as the center of any discourse surrounding manga, anime, pop culture, etc. the more certain arbitrary assumptions ossify and become a kind of norm to which people more or less conform, even though fan cultures have their origins in a kind of nonconformity that all too often marginalized one from mainstream culture.  One of the reasons why I spent so much time with Kingyoya koshoten was because it betrays these assumed norms, norms which have become so pervasive and, ahem, normalized that there are hardly any perils at all to self-identifying as a geek or nerd or dork or dweeb or whatever.  In fact, for some it is a mark of distinction.

My ambivalence toward geekdom stems from a certain retrograde conservatism deeply embedded within it.  By “conservatism” I don’t mean American political “conservatism,” whose meaning seems to change on an almost daily basis, but a certain nostalgia for and romanticizing of political and social institutions that our contemporary society has more or less moved away from, to my mind, for the better.  You can see this in something like George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (and it’s HBO adaptation), deservedly praised for its more honest portrayal of, for instance, women as, at best, pawns in political alliances or, at worst, simple human chattel.  Yet, this “honesty” is not a meaningful deviation from the lives of lords and ladies that rule high fantasy epics or medieval romances but rather simply a different way of doing it that, to Martin’s credit, is far more nuanced and attentive to character.  A true inversion of this dynamic might be something like Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu, where half of the story is about a woman trying to raise a young girl nearly burned alive and the other half about a wizard learning to be an ordinary human being after losing his powers.  I want you to keep this conservatism in seeming novelty in mind, dear reader, as I take a look at two apparently similar yet very different phenomena.

Maid cafes are a staple of life in Akihabara, the ersatz capital of geekdom in Japan.  Of course, not all otaku like to go to maid cafes, but their sheer number and density in Japan’s nerd Mecca makes for a rather obvious association with otaku culture, even if that association contravenes the whims and wishes of individual self-identified geeks.  Maid cafes, like kyara-moe elements in the designs of anime, manga, or game characters, are emblematic of what Azuma Hiroki refers to as the “animalizing postmodern” (dōbutsuka suru posutomodan) in which otaku consumptive practices and desires are “animalistic,” because in modern society “consumer needs are satisfied immediately and mechanically, without the intervention of the other.  The objects of desire that previously could not be had without social communication, such as everyday meals and sexual partners, can now be obtained very easily, without all that troublesome communication, through fast food or the sex industry.” (Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals trans. Johnathan Abel and Shion Kono, p. 87)

A mysterious Japanese delicacy...

A mysterious Japanese delicacy…

Azuma’s reading of otaku “needs” is woefully naive, not merely for his rather cursory readings of theoretical texts, but also for his failure to acknowledge both the ways in which all consumptive practices in a consumer society are highly mediated (though invisibilized) but also how the very objects of desire themselves reflect aspects of oppression in the larger society.  From one perspective, finding pleasure in being served by a young woman in a maid outfit, being addressed as “master” (goshujin-sama), eating shitty omuraisu, and playing silly games could be seen as simply one of many fetishes, the acknowledgement of which might be taken as the sign of a liberated sexuality.  Sure, why not.  However, it could also be a reflection of the ways in which Japanese women are expected to be servile in nearly all Japanese institutions, especially in the corporate world.  It is women who are expected to make tea or other refreshments for clients who come to do business, it is women who are subtly and not-so-subtly pushed out of white collar work, and it is women who are regularly ghettoized as temporary employees, on the assumption that they will eventually marry and leave, in a country where lifetime employment at one company was for the longest time upheld as the ideal.

Yet, what does it mean for, say, the young women who hand sew their own elaborately detailed, embroidered dresses, very much reminiscent of the frilly maid costumes that serve as an object of otaku desire?  An early scene in Nakashima Tetsuya’s adaptation of Takemoto Novala’s Shimotsuma monogatari (Kamikaze Girls), beginning at 5:10, makes clear that even when the form is similar, the sense is not necessarily the same.  As Momoko wanders through the nowhere town of Shimotsuma, on her way to the train station, she is stopped by a man who sings the praises of a newly opened Justco (think Super Target, though Japanese markets are a very different beast) in the distance.  Nearly everyone present has a tale to tell about a great deal they got on a mass-produced article of clothing sold at Justco.  This is anathema to Momoko’s being, for she values things like detail, craft, and uniqueness, regardless of cost.  All these things render her an outcast in her hometown, and her desires reflect not a conservative tendency in Japanese society to maintain the servitude of women but rather an escapist fantasy, to opt out of both what Japan was (by looking to a foreign aesthetic, i.e. Roccoco) and has become (i.e. a hypercapitalist state).  What Azuma and other’s who might valorize otaku miss is that who desires, how they desire, and how those desires reflect on the larger society are perhaps more important in understanding the underlying ideologies (yes, plural) of fandom as any arbitrarily determined trappings of or practices within fan culture.

Rehabilitating Otaku

If geeks the world over have historically felt marginalized, at least they weren’t generally the first scapegoat the mass media turned to whenever a particularly sadistic murderer or child rapist was captured by the police.  Such has not been the case in Japan, so I have always found it rather quizzical when English speaking anime/manga fans self-identify as otaku.  From one perspective, it’s understandable that fans of Japanese pop culture would want to choose a distinctly Japanese marker of their fandom; on the other hand, it spoke of a gross ignorance to identify with a group that in Japan were for the longest time considered perverts and regularly associated with cultists, murders, and sex criminals.  One could argue that Anglo-American J-fans merely wished to show solidarity with their Japanese brethren, though from what I recall of fandom in the 90s, this was never the case.

Given that historical background, one of the things the Densha otoko (Train Man) phenomenon of 2004 did was to rehabilitate the image of otaku, to demonstrate not only that a “run of the mill anime otaku” (futsū no aniota) had the same concerns, desires, and dreams as anyone else but also, in a somewhat sinister fashion, to show that such a person could, in a sense, be rehabilitated and mainstreamed back into “proper” Japanese society.  Azuma later asserts in Otaku that insofar as geeks are often social, “no matter how much otaku engage in human communication such as competition, envy, and slander, these are essentially mimicry, and it is always possible to ‘drop out’ of them.” (p. 93)  Azuma assumes that otaku are always “outside” Japanese society, even if they occasionally enter into it, but what Densha otoko (hereafter DO) points to is the possibility that such an outsider status is ultimately a delusion, easily absorbed back into the Japanese Zeitgeist.

Nakatani Miki as the object of DO's desire

Nakatani Miki as the object of DO‘s desire

From one perspective, DO is a simple love story: a shy man boy does the first brave thing in his life, to confront a drunk man on a train accosting various women, and as a result ends up navigating the “virgin” territory (har har) of a relationship with a woman far more fashionable than he.  He is aided in his endeavors by regulars posting to 2chan, the massive Japanese BBS, who guide him through the trappings of a “normal” romantic relationship, like dinners out and walks in the park.  His relationship falters at one point, but by being “true to himself” he gets the girl in the end and they live happily ever… vomit.

From another perspective, something far more unusual is at play.  DO is marked by his haplessness, by his failure to understand even the most simple aspects of dating.  So, he treats dating the same way he would treat any of his fan hobbies, by making it an object of obsession and research.  In this, he is aided by his online companions who treat him as a kind of standin for themselves.  I recall, as a bright-eyed (read “stupid”) graduate student, sitting in the audience of a talk partially on DO by someone now very well respected as a commentator on anime, suddenly realizing that DO‘s companions were treating him no differently from a doll or plaything or the servile maids in Akiba cafes.  He was made–or perhaps coerced into performing a kind of objectified “normality” for them.  In doing so, he messes up, and his relationship nearly ends, because he engages in the trappings of “normal” romance as one outside it; even as he changes his appearance and tries to understand fashionable consumerism, he is still an otaku.  It isn’t until he succumbs to internalizing the trappings of normalcy, until he gives up on being able to “drop out” of ordinary socializing, that his relationship becomes a success.


535: [You’re] coming out as an anime otaku?

DO‘s final act is to have Hermes, who is named after the luxury goods brand not the god, read all the DO threads (including the one in which he admits to doing this) as a form of confession or, more literally, a coming out.  Whether the transliteration of “coming out” or the more Japanesey otabare is used, the sense is clear: he was previously a closeted otaku but is now out to his girlfriend, in a manner clearly reminiscent of someone gay or lesbian coming out to their loved ones.  The analogy to the situation of LGBTQ persons is telling, because it shows how the nature of contemporary Japanese geekdom is strongly conditioned by the social norms of the larger society, regardless of what theorists say.  In either case, whether DO is closeted or out, he still participates in the expectations of an overbearing, patriarchal society, whether he sequesters his otaku self in shame or confesses it and by doing so experiences a pseudo-religious relief of his “sins.”

But the analogy to the LGBTQ community poses another, far more difficult question: wouldn’t it have been better if social conditions had never compelled him to hide it in the first place?

Next week: I really will talk about cons and conferences, pinky swear!

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. “…but there is far more to fandom than the simple aggregate of persons who self-identify as fans.”

    This is so very accurate, and so very telling. Especially when one comes across those fans who identify as fans solely to be labeled as fans.

  2. […] of the larger “doesn’t fit in” group of societal misfits and unfortunates. (here is a good take on it and Train Man vs Database Animals)The whole of the Genshiken membership are […]

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