Toshio Okada and Kaichiro Morikawa
Moderated by Takashi Murakami
(Translated and annotated by Reiko Tomii)
Takashi Murakami: Okada-san, Morikawa-san, thank you for coming. Our topic today is the culture of otaku1 [literally, "your home"]. After Japan experienced defeat in World War II, it gave birth to a distinctive phenomenon, which has gradually degenerated into a uniquely Japanese culture. Both of you are at the very center of this otaku culture.
Let us begin with a big topic, the definition of otaku. Okada-san, please start us off.
Toshio Okada: Well, a few years ago, I declared, "I quit otaku studies," because I thought there were no longer any otaku to speak of.
Back then [during the 1980s and early 1990s], there were a hundred thousand, or even one million people who were pure otaku---100-proof otaku, if you will. Now, we have close to ten million otaku, but they are no more than 10- or 20-proof otaku. Of course, some otaku are still very otaku, perhaps 80 or 90 proof. Still, we can't call the rest of them faux otaku. The otaku mentality and otaku tastes are so widespread and diverse today that otaku no longer form what you might call a "tribe."
Kaichiro Morikawa: Okada-san's definition of otaku sounds positive, as if they're quite respectable.
In my opinion, otaku are people with a certain disposition toward being dame2 ["no good" or "hopeless"]. Mind you, I don't use this word negatively here.
To some extent, people born in the 1960s are saddled with the baggage of an "anti-establishment vision." In contrast, otaku, especially in the first generation, have increasingly shed this antiestablishment sensibility.
It's important to understand that although otaku flaunt their dame-orientation—an orientation toward things that are no good—it's not an anti-establishment strategy. This is where otaku culture differs from counterculture and subculture.
TM: Indeed, otaku are somewhat different from the mainstream. They have a unique otaku perspective,
TO: At the time of the earthquake, I raced to Kobe from Osaka, hopping on whatever trains were still running, taking lots of pictures. I agree, Gamera got it wrong. To create a realistic effect of destruction, you need to drape thin, gray noodles over a miniature set of rubble. Otherwise, you can't even approach the reality of twisted, buckled steel frames. It was like, "If you call yourself a monster-filmmaker, get here now!"
When Mt. Mihara6 erupted in 1986, the production team of the 1984 Godzilla film went there to see it.7 They were true filmmakers.
TM: Morikawa-san will present an exhibition about otaku and moe8 [literally, "bursting into bud"] at the architecture biennale in Venice in 2004.9 Your association of otaku with architecture is unique. Please tell us about it.
TO: I was most impressed by your phrase, wabi-sabi-moe, in the exhibition thesis.
Moe is not an easy concept to comprehend, but when you linked the three ideas linguistically, it made a lot more sense.
Those who are unfamiliar with the concepts of wabi and sabi [meaning "the beauty and elegance of modest simplicity"] must surely wonder what's appealing about feigning poverty.
Likewise, with moe, until you get the concept, I'm sure people question the origins of this seeming obsession with beautiful little girls, bishojo.10 But once you get it, you start to feel like moe might become a megaconcept, exportable like wabi and sabi.
KM: The truth is, I made up that phrase to pitch the show. But suddenly it was a headline in the Yomiuri newspaper.
TO: That's awesome. The fact that it became a headline means everybody can understand it.
KM: It's a play on something the architect Arata Isozaki11 did in his exhibition, Ma,12 in Paris in 1978. He provided logical English explanations for such traditional concepts as wabi and suki [meaning "sophisticated tastes"] on exhibition panels.
The key Japanese words—such as wabi, sabi, and suki—were inscribed in classical calligraphy and accompanied by lengthy English explanations printed in Gothic fonts.
I decided I'd do the same with moe.
There is a huge gap between people who know the word moe and those who don't. Every otaku person knows moe. For them, it's so basic. But it's not like all young people know the term. While at graduate school, I asked my colleagues about moe but almost none of them knew it.
It dawned on me that most mainstream people just don't know it.
TM: That disparity is really intriguing.
KM: It clearly corresponds with another gap between those who know that Akihabara13 is now an otaku town and those who don't.
Those who do know couldn't care less that others are finally catching up, while those who don't know
To those who are unfamiliar with moe, I only half-jokingly explain, "In the past, we introduced foreigners to such indigenous Japanese aesthetic concepts as wabi and suki. These days, people abroad want to know all about moe." A lot of people respond, "Oh, is that so..."
TM: Morikawa-san, I'd like to ask you, then: What prompted otaku to gather in Akihabara?
KM: Otaku are self-conscious about being condescended to, when they go to fashionable places like Shibuya.14
But they feel safe in Akihabara, because they know they'll be surrounded by people who share their quirks and tastes.
Over time, the focus of otaku taste shifted from science fiction to anime to eroge15 [erotic games], as young boys who once embraced the bright future promised by science saw this future gradually eroded by the increasingly grim reality around them. I think they needed an alternative.
TO: I think kawaii16 [literally, "cute"] is the concept Murakami-san exported throughout the world.
Granted, Murakami-san's kawaii is alarming enough. But I wonder why I was further alarmed by Morikawa-san's formulation of wabi-sabi-moe. In a previous conversation we had for a magazine article, you said, "Otaku is about the vector toward dame.”
As a way of expanding on that, when otaku choose this orientation, they head in the direction of becoming more and more pathetic. At the same time, they enjoy watching themselves becoming increasingly unacceptable. If you think about it, in a very, very loose sense, this is wabi and sabi.
I suspect this orientation is inherent in Japanese aesthetics. If you look for a Western equivalent, it would be Decadence, or the Baroque, though theirs is a tendency toward excessive decorativeness. I imagine such people think of themselves not in terms of "See what we've done. We're amazing," but more like, "See what we've done! How pathetic we are!"
TM: I have said this many times, but I am a "derailed" otaku.
Neither of your situations applies to me.
When I am talking to Okada-san, I remember feeling like I could never keep up with the distinctive climate of the otaku world.
So, I now want to explore the real reasons why I escaped being an otaku.
TO: Probably because otaku standards were so high when you tried to join them. Besides, I bet you wanted to go right to the heart of otaku, didn't you?
The closer you tried to get to the heart of the otaku world, the farther you had to go.
TM: That's not just true with otaku, though. The world of contemporary art is exactly the same. If you can't discuss its history, you won't be taken seriously and you won't be accepted on their turf. I kept being reminded of this while listening to you two talk.
TO: In other words, just as you once had to know the history of contemporary art, now you have to understand moe, right?
Otaku vs. Mania
TM: This may be a frequent question, but what is the difference between otaku and mania17?
KM: In otaku studies, we often argued about this distinction. Generally speaking, three differences have been articulated.
First of all, mania are "obsessives" who are socially well adjusted. They hold down jobs and love their hobbies. In contrast, otaku are socially inept. Their obsessions are self-indulgent. This point is raised mainly by the self-proclaimed mania, critical of otaku.
The second point concerns what they love. Mania tend to be obsessed with, for example, cameras and railroads, which have some sort of materiality (jittai), while otaku tend to focus on virtual things such as manga and anime. In other words, the objects of their obsessions are different.
The third point relates to the second one. A mania tends to concentrate on a single subject—say, railroads—whereas an otaku has a broader range of interests, which may encompass "figures,"18 manga, and anime.
Taken together, I would say—although Okada-san may disagree with me—that someone who is obsessive about anime likes anime despite the fact that it's no good, dame. That's mania. But otaku love anime because it's no good.
TO: Mania is an analogue of otaku. Obsessives are adults who enjoy their hobbies, while otaku don't
I was already a science-fiction mania when otaku culture kicked in. I can understand it, but I can neither become an otaku myself nor understand moe. [Laughs]
TM: And I'm nowhere near Okada-san's level. I failed to become an otaku. Period. [Laughs]
TO: I believe otaku culture has already lost its power. What you find in Akihabara today is only sexual desire. They all go to Akihabara, which is overflowing with things that offer convenient gratification of sexual desire, made possible by the power of technology and the media.
KM: But I think the sexual desire in Akihabara is different from that in Kabuki-cho.19
TO: Kabuki-cho is about physical sex.
Because the heart of otaku culture shuns the physical, it has renamed seiyoku [sexual desire] as moe.
Sexual fantasies are becoming more and more virtual and "virtual sexuality" proliferates in Akihabara.
KM: Many otaku think they like what they like even though they know these things are objectionable, when in fact they like them precisely because they are objectionable. This gap between their own perception and reality has made it difficult to distinguish otaku from mania.
If we define otaku through this orientation toward the unacceptable, it's easy to explain the three differences between otaku and mania. Because if you like something that's socially unacceptable, you will appear antisocial.
Another consideration is that material things are considered superior to the immaterial. So if you are interested in the debased, you naturally gravitate toward the virtual.
In addition, otaku don't just purely love anime or manga, they choose to love these things in part as a means of making themselves unacceptable. That is why their interests are so broad.
This dame-orientation is evidenced by the history of otaku favorites. Up until the 1980s, people who watched anime—any kind of anime, be it Hayao Miyazaki20 or Mamoru Oshii21 or whatever—were all considered otaku. Today, Japanese anime is so accomplished that one film even won an Academy Award. As a result, grown-ups can safely watch, say, Miyazaki's anime without being despised as otaku.
The upshot of this is, as soon as anime and games earned respectability in society, otaku created more repugnant genres, such as bishojo games22 and moe anime,23 and moved on to them.
TM: Morikawa-san, you're saying the essence of otaku is their orientation toward dame, the unacceptable.
KM: Yes, yes. But dame does not define something as bad or low quality. It's the self-indulgent fixation of otaku on certain things that is socially unacceptable.
TO: I totally disagree. Morikawa-san and I have two vastly different conceptions of who are the core tribe of otaku.
Morikawa-san, your otaku are "urban-centric"; they are the hopeless otaku who roam about Akihabara. That's why you say otaku are dame-oriented. You have to remember that only about fifty thousand people buy Weekly Dearest My Brother.24 It's wrong to define them as core otaku.
In my experience, otaku like science fiction and anime not because these things are worthless, but because they are good. Otaku are attracted by things of high quality.
Some otaku obsessions become hits, others don't. But according to Morikawa-san's definition, the question of "quality" becomes irrelevant in otaku culture.
But what's survived in otaku culture hasn't become unacceptable. It's survived the competition because its quality has been recognized.
Once something like a bishojo game achieves a certain level of quality, you buy it even if you don't actually like bishojo games. I feel otaku are tough customers who demand high standards. As a producer of videos and manga magazines, I was keenly aware of their standards and thought, "They make me work really hard because they won't fall for cheap tricks."