Patrick Galbraith discusses his book, Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan

Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan

Interview by Xiao Xe

https://www.dukeupress.edu/otaku-and-the-struggle-for-imagination-in-japan

Xiao Ke: It was an absolute joy reading this provocative and rigorous book on Japanese “otaku”and manga culture, especially during the pandemic. Given that “otaku” literally means “your home,” we now might want to compare notes with “otaku” – whether seeing them as “cool” or “weird.” In doing so, perhaps we could reflect on, and better our own experiences at home. Can I make a detour to firstly ask: has anything new come up in the manga/anime market in Japan relating to the COVID-19 lockdown that you would like to share with us?

Patrick Galbraith: Thanks for inviting me to chat! I appreciate your kind words about the book, and this opportunity to exchange ideas. So, life and love in the time of COVID-19. I hesitate to make too much out of “otaku” meaning “your home,” at least when written in specific Japanese scripts, because it is in that sense more or less just a polite second-person pronoun used in certain settings and regions. It has always been my experience that stories of the basement dwelling, socially awkward geek are greatly exaggerated. I mean, Henry Jenkins was already highlighting it as a trope in his foundational contributions to fan studies in North America in the early 1990s. All it takes is a visit to a convention or an idol concert to disabuse ourselves of the stereotype. If anything, the absence of the hyper sociality of fan gatherings was a felt difference in 2020. All of us, not just “otaku,” were spending a lot more hours at home alone. We are seeing fascinating new ways of engaging online and through social media to generate shared experiences. This was all happening before, but with more time and fewer options, things exploded last year. The rise of virtual YouTubers, for example, and not only in absolute numbers, but also their broad and diverse followings outside of manga/anime fandom. That’s striking, because this form of masking, or animating a character rather than exposing yourself, is so prominent in manga/anime fan cultures in Japan, but many believed it was sort of niche or limited in appeal. Similarly, the fact that anime was trending on streaming services accessed around the world speaks to the ongoing normalization of fannish interests and lifestyles, including manga, anime and related media and material. Indeed, aren’t we all sort of being cultivated into fan audiences by streaming services and social media? Personally, I was stunned by the reaction to the manga/anime franchise Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. It was serialized in the flagship magazine Shōnen Jump from 2016 and received an initial anime adaptation of 26 episodes in 2019, but last year, as the manga completed its run, printed volumes took all the top spots on sales charts and the first animated film became the highest-grossing release in Japanese box office history. With only 26 episodes of anime released! And it’s not a standalone film by a famous director intended for all audiences, but a simple continuation of the animated series based on a relatively young manga series for boys! And it broke this record during the pandemic! The manga and anime were everywhere, on everyone’s lips. I confess that I did brave the outdoors to see the film in a theater on its opening weekend in Tokyo, and, even socially distanced and masked, the energy and excitement in the room were just incredible. Unbelievably social, sharing an experience then and there before, if you’ll forgive the analogy, going out to spread it further in the community. It really is awesome animation, both in the television series and especially the film, but there can be no doubt that the manga/anime-industrial complex, creating a steady stream of fans and fueled by their collective movement and power, exceeded all expectations in 2020. The amount and quality of anime coming out right now? Overwhelming.  

Xiao Ke: Despite being a long-term on-site participant observer of Japan’s anime culture, you spent half of your book tracing historical discourses since the 1970s instead of ethnography proper: from male bishōjo (beautiful girls) fans, lolicon (those who are obsessed with Lolita figures), to the formation of the otaku label and the affect called moe (to sprout, or perhaps a response to erotic and lively cuteness). We also saw how these subculture discourses are transformed into – or how they cashed-in on – seemingly new or exotic stories in the mainstream. Why and how did you choose this archive- and discourse-centered method in writing this book? Also, in doing this, did you receive pushback from reviewers at different stages?

Patrick Galbraith: Is the decision controversial? To my mind, it’s straightforward fieldwork. I touch on this a little in the introduction, but positioned in Akihabara, I was confronted with unfamiliar words and concepts. My basic field language is Japanese, but I also needed to learn this other language in order to think and speak as my informants did. Exposing those meanings and getting a sense of the language is a necessary step for the reader to enter into the field with me and see and be in the world otherwise. Moreover, these terms can be slippery and invite misunderstanding. So, right off the bat, notice how you glossed the terms bishōjo, lolicon and moe, which differs from what emerges in those first three chapters. It may not seem crucial to underscore the cuteness in bishōjo characters, or to say precisely how lolicon in this context defines Lolita figures in relation to the two-dimensional, but doing so sharpens the focus and clarifies why some manga/anime fans were labelled otaku. What about moe? You emphasized eroticism and liveliness, hedged with perhaps, but the concept is more holistically an affective response to fictional characters. There really isn’t another word for this concept specifically, which is why I spent time on it and traced the stories that people tell themselves and one another about moe and how an affective response to fictional characters makes sense in contemporary Japan. There’s a history here shaping meaning, and meaning not in the sense of definitions, but rather significance. This is why I wrote those first three chapters.    

Xiao Ke: In the first three chapters, you emphasized how manga consumers are imagining a kind of queer masculinity alternative to the normative salarymen in Japan. And I was fascinated by this recurring gender-crossing theme of being seen or treated not as men: from male bishōjo manga readers (46), otaku discussions (59), to male customers in maid cafés (214). Something that caught my eye is that you introduced a writer on this theme, Itō Kimio, as “a pioneer of men’s studies” (22). You also showed us that the Japanese public has very reflexive analysis of the otaku phenomena and East Asian masculinity, not unlike media scholars. Can you say a bit more about Japan’s ‘men’ studies’ and how it might have influenced you intellectually? And to what extent have Japan’s student groups and university scholars collaborated in constructing and negotiating the otaku scene?

Patrick Galbraith: Given all that was brought under the umbrella of men’s studies in North America, I understand why that might catch your eye, but, in the context of Japan in the 1990s, danseigaku meant something very specific. It starts with the realization that there is a problem with men, specifically friction engendered by rubbing up against outdated and ossified norms. In his first major publication on the topic in 1993, Itō Kimio casts into stark relief the stubborn rigidity of middleclass masculine ideals in Japan. Things have been changing so much – think Anne Allison’s Precarious Japan – and yet there is still this notion that men need to be stable income earners, start and support families and generally be a presumed normal. These are not normal times, and normal does not work for everyone anyway. I’m reminded of Jack Halberstam’s analysis of the common sense of reproductive maturity and growing up in a capitalist society. For Itō, the problem is that those not achieving the norm or unable to escape the long shadow of hegemonic masculinity are made out to be failures and feel like losers. The phenomenon is what Lauren Berlant calls a “normativity hangover.” I’ll be blunt in saying that insistence on norms that are no longer achievable for many or even most can be fatal. The norms are toxic, leading to seething resentment and anger and potential violence toward self and others. Japan is not unique in this, as jumps off the page in Guy Standing’s global analysis of masculinity among the precariat. In contrast, one thing that really stood out in the field was how the people I met were not committed to being normal or being real men. Looking back at manga/anime fandom from the 1970s into the 1980s, there appeared to be those who opened up space to imagine and create alternatives to reality. These are the failures initially labelled otaku, specifically in context those men who failed to be putatively real men getting with supposedly real women and instead fixating on fictional girls. One does not have to believe that every single fan so labelled was exclusively oriented toward the two-dimensional to grasp that they were doing something different, something understood to be wrong or weird, and that’s why they were singled out and labelled as other, as otaku. If what these fans did was fail, then I think Halberstam is quite right that we can “fail well,” and in so failing, imagine other ways of living and moving on in the world. It starts with a sense of unease with things as they are, which can lead to a rejection of the imperative to grow up, man up or face reality. Things don’t have to be this way. Embracing alternatives, imagining and creating them together, is how we leave behind the toxic sludge that keeps us stuck in place and poisoning ourselves and one another, poisoning the world. It is also an invitation to live with fictional and real others in a more-than-human world. This is something of the broader aim of Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan. Now, there is a tendency for Japanese critics, experts and authorities on otaku to denounce and deny contemporary movements, which undercuts emergent political potential. This is especially so when it comes to issues of sex and gender, which make some older, established figures nervous. The thing is these talking heads dominate popular outlets with a discourse that establishes their identity, historical moment and objects. This is really clear in the case of Okada Toshio, who I introduce at the beginning of the Akihabara chapter. Part of the reason I adopted a different approach to thinking about otaku in terms of movement and performance is because I am opposed to closing down and policing the boundaries of a supposedly true, authentic and real identity for otaku. Reviewing popular publications by otaku experts about otaku, it turns out that their closely guarded identity is very masculine, even exclusively so, which resonates with recent and ongoing discussions of toxic masculinity in fan cultures around the world. What I saw among otaku, especially those who in Akihabara were once more distinguished as weird otaku, is the possibility of something other than a macho world in stasis or decline. 

Xiao Ke: On the one hand, your book offers us a view of the uniquely lively Japanese manga history and culture. On the other hand, we read the less well-known but common stories of gentrification, state branding, censorship, policing, occupation protests and crackdowns. As you demonstrate in your ethnographic chapters on Akihabara, “[i]n the promoting and policing of ‘otaku’ in Akihabara,” “otaku” performances are “trivialized, naturalized and domesticated” (182). In dealing with imagined excess and perversion, from your experiences as an American researcher on Japan, can you say a few words about the differences, similarities and connections between Japan and the U.S.?

Patrick Galbraith: While I am originally from the United States, I cannot speculate about the vibrant and diverse fandoms that are at times there called otaku.”However, there are a few things that I can say based on my fieldwork in Akihabara, a destination for international fans of manga, anime and related media and material. Indeed, one aspect of the fieldwork was leading tours through Akihabara for visitors, who I asked for impressions afterward. Many of the Americans I encountered identified as fans of anime, but they were a little shocked by what they saw in Akihabara. Pokémon and Studio Ghibli this was not. While famous for the density of stores selling manga, anime and related media and material, and really it was the eye-catching signs and packed shelves that people loved to photograph, Akihabara was still very much colored by its past as the epicenter of adult computer gaming. That is, games where the player interacts with manga/anime-style cute girl characters in ways ranging from casual conversation to explicit sex. From computers to computer games, Akihabara had subsequently transformed into a space overflowing with bishōjo manga, anime, games, figurines, costumes, fanzines and more. People were pretty open about what they were buying and selling, even extremely explicit stuff. Things have changed a lot with growing expectation of outside scrutiny and aggressive policing, but I remember many visitors from the United States back then being more than a little concerned about the imaginary sex and public sex culture. In general, there seems to be a lot of anxiety about the prevalence of sex in manga, anime and related media and material. And it isn’t just the United States or fans who are taken aback. The recent moves to strengthen regulation of imports of erotic manga to Australia come to mind. This incident, like so many others, was triggered by watchdogs stumbling onto images of manga/anime-style cute girl characters, specifically an example of moe media called Eromanga Sensei, which is far from pornographic, but nonetheless intended to trigger a response. Attempts to ban books crossing the border appear quaint when this and so much more is readily available on the internet, and I suspect many fans around the world familiar with manga/anime aesthetics wouldn’t even bat an eye as they download or stream the likes of Eromanga Sensei, but the anxiety about manga/anime sex is notable and consequential. New legal regimes are being formed and negotiated. The late Mark McLelland, a resident of Australia, referred to this as “juridification of the imagination,” which may well inspire us to seriously reflect on issues of freedom of imagination. 

Xiao Xe: Your last chapter is on maid cafés and the role-playing relationship between customer masters and maids. You seem to have a reserved stance regarding this space, and ended by citing Sara Ahmed’s “affect aliens” and posed the question: “those that do have to worry about their savings and are not as confident as King that things will work out. Where do they go?” (222) Did you leave out anything that you’d like to elaborate on but could not possibly fit into the book? Also, do you have anything to say about queer and straight female consumers – as well as laborers – of the manga/anime market in Japan?

Patrick Galbraith: My concerns are related to those who cannot get a place at the table or feel at home. Right after that line you quoted I discuss the troubling case of Katō Tomohiro, who killed seven people and wounded 10 more on the streets of Akihabara in 2008. I was right there in a nearby café typing up fieldnotes when it happened. It’s not something I’ll ever forget, and I don’t want to forget it. In the frenzied media coverage, people debated whether or not this man was an otaku, and pointed out that he visited a maid café. This was obviously not what drove Katō to commit the heinous acts he did. His despair and desperation were much more directly rooted in precarious economic and social circumstances. In Katō, I saw someone without the time or money to come to a maid café and become a regular and part of the circle. So, there’s a limit to having social support systems and platforms tied to disposable income and free time, which not everyone has, especially now. There is, however, another issue, which I raised earlier. Katō wanted a normal life, the good life, and his conviction that he could and should achieve the status of middleclass masculine normalcy turned to resentment and violence. I co-authored a study with David Slater at Sophia University, which had us in part examining the online posts Katō made from his cellphone, and what we found there was chilling. Katō kept beating himself up for being a failure, pushing others away due to a compounding sense of shame, all while blaming himself and others for his failure and loneliness. This is the swamp of toxic sludge I previously mentioned, and it sucked him right down into its depths. To get out of the death spiral, we need alternatives. We need to imagine and create them, together. And we need to find ways to open up the circle and draw others in. The incorporation of characters and roleplay does seem to help in many cases, especially when fantasy and play are social and shared. Many maid cafés have transitioned to targeting primarily tourists, which makes them less amenable to long-term relations, manga/anime connections and roleplay have become less pronounced in these establishments and smaller niche places have shut their doors due to COVID-19, but there is a lot of potential here. To your question about the diversity of staff and customers, there are many cafés in Akihabara and beyond that attract men, women and trans and queer folk, and I know people behind and in front of the counter who are gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual and a dozen other orientations besides. There is recent and forthcoming work on this and related topics, for example from Sharon Kinsella, Michelle H. S. Ho and Shunsuke Nozawa. “Cultures of animation,” to borrow a turn of phrase from Teri Silvio’s tremendous book Puppets, Gods and Brands, seem to allow for new relations to and between bodies, fictional and real.

Xiao Ke: Two related concluding questions: Beyond the context of your book, do you have any thoughts regarding how people communicate and curate imaginations in general? What are other old or new ways, other than manga/anime and character-plays, that you recognize and would group into what you propose as an “anthropology of imagination” (16)?

Patrick Galbraith: I wonder about communicating and curating imagination, but a pressing issue is opening spaces of imagination. Spaces at the margins, spaces in between, spaces that push against the limits of reality. Concomitantly, of immediate concern is resisting the territorialization and colonization of the imagination. I regularly find myself rereading Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, and it seems to me that his dystopian nightmare of a withering of the imagination has only become more relevant with the acceleration and intensification of new technologies. Our minds are occupied, our attention divided up and sold off. We are alert and distracted, simultaneously hyper attentive and checked out. The ceaseless march toward the cliff seems inevitable. I recall hearing someone, probably Slavoj Žižek, quip that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a modest change in capitalism. What a stinging, scathing indictment that is, especially for anthropologists, who are committed to learning and teaching other ways of seeing and being in the world. We can do better, and perhaps that’s partly what you mean by communicating and curating imagination. As the late David Graeber so passionately argued, we can see from the ethnographic archive that things have been organized differently in other places and times. It does not have to be this way. There are already existing alternatives right here and now, and we should encourage the curiosity to seek them out and the flexibility to follow along. Back in the 1980s, Tanya Luhrmann wrote that anthropologists haven’t paid much attention to imagination, but after Arjun Appadurai’s intervention there has been so much groundbreaking scholarship contributing to the anthropology of imagination. You can look back to imagine alternatives, as Graeber does in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and Possibilities, or work through alternative modes of thinking and experiencing otherness that Ghassan Hage introduces in and as Alter-Politics. I especially like that this is not simply anti, and there’s a positivity we can get behind. Another world is possible, and it’s ours. What Teri Silvio is doing in Taiwan with cultures of animation as distinct from performance, and Eduardo Kohn presents as an ecology of selves in Upper Amazonia, are related, and the list goes on. Work like Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World is as poetic as it is provocative. Anthropology to some extent has always been about the imagination, a human imagination that does not stop at the human or human world as we know it. Embracing this legacy is our politics and our power. 

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