Otaku Talk

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,
Anatomical diagram of "Flaming Monster Gamera," 1967
Anatomical diagram of "Flaming Monster Gamera" from An Anatomical Guide to Monsters, 1967
even on natural disasters. For example, the reaction of Kaiyodo's3 executive, Miyawaki Shuichi, to witnessing the destruction of the Great Hanshin Earthquake4 in 1995 was, "I know it's insensitive to say this [after such terrible disaster], but I think Gamera5 got it wrong." You know, the aftermath of a real earthquake was used as a criterion in otaku criticism.
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
Akihabara today
still think of Akihabara the way it's been portrayed in commercials for household-appliance stores. This gap reflects the state of Japanese culture and society today.
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
Shinyokohama Arina
Shinyokohama Arina in Akihabara, 2004
want to grow up, although financially, they are adults. These days, you're not welcome in Akihabara if you aren't into moe.
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."
Translator’s Notes
The translator wishes to thankToshio Okada, Kaichiro Morikawa, and Yoshiyuki Mashimo for their assistance in compiling the notes.
  1. The term otaku signifies "obsessed fans, primarily of anime and manga." First introduced to the print media by the critic Akio Nakamori in 1983, the word defies any simple (or simplistic) definition. While the word otaku sometimes carries a derogatory connotation in Japan, it can have a positive meaning as a Japanese loanword in the West, signifying knowledgeable or hardcore fans of anime. For its etymological origin, see Noi Sawaragi's essay in this volume.
  2. The word dame (pronounced "dah-me") originated in the Japanese game of go, signifying spaces of no benefit to the player claiming them—i.e., useless spaces. In contemporary idiomatic Japanese, this versatile word variously means "no good," "worth­less," "incompetent," "unacceptable," "pathetic," or "inept."
  3. Established in Osaka in 1964, Kaiyodo is a pioneer in shokugan (literally, "food toys") and "figures" (see note 18).The company initially worked with confectionary manufacturers, but since 1982 it has devoted much of its business to developing original products. These now amount to some two thousand different items, ranging from "capsule toys" featuring characters from Evangelion to those of the natural history series Aqualand and Dinoland.
  4. The Great Hanshin Earthquake struck the region between Kobe and Osaka early in the morning on January 17, 1995. More than 6,000 people died, with more than 43,000 injured and nearly 320,000 evacuated. In an earthquake-prone country, it was one of the most devastating single events, comparable to the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, which destroyed much of Tokyo and its environs.
  5. Gamera is a tokusatsu (special effects) monster-film series featuring a gigantic mutant tortoise (kame in Japanese, and hence the creature's name, Gamera). The original Gamera cycle consisted of eight movies produced from 1965 to 1980, with a second series of three movies appearing from 1995 to 1999. In each installment, Gamera wreaks havoc on Tokyo and other Japanese cities while battling an array of other giant monsters.
  6. At 764 meters, Mt. Mihara crowns Mt. Oshima, located on Izu Oshima Island south of Tokyo. When the volcano erupted in November 1986, the island's entire population, some ten thousand altogether, evacuated the island within a day, as the flowing lava rapidly encroached upon residential areas.
  7. In the 1989 film Godzilla vs. Biollante, Godzilla appears from behind Mt. Mihara.
  8. The term moe originated in a computerized transcription error, when the character meaning "to burst into bud" (moeru) was substituted for the homonym meaning "to catch fire." Moe in otaku jargon denotes a rarefied pseudo-love for certain fictional characters (in anime, manga, and the like) and their related embodiments. For further detail, see Otaku: Jinkaku = kukan = toshi / Otaku: Persona = Space = City / Otaku: Personalita = spazio = cittaa, exhibition catalogue packaged with a figure (Tokyo: Gentosha, 2004).
  9. The presentation of Otaku: Persona = Space = City at the Japanese pavilion of the Venice Biennale's Ninth International Architecture Exhibition (September-November 2004) was organized by commissioner Kaichiro Morikawa. It included works by the architect KenzoTange, the otaku critic Toshio Okada, the company Kaiyodo, and others.
  10. The best-known bishojo is Usagi Tsukino (Serena in the U.S. version) of the popular TV anime series Sailor Moon (first broadcast in Japan in 1992). Her full title in Japanese is bishojo senshi, or "pretty-girl warrior." Moe-type bishojo (such as the ten-year-old Digiko of DiGiCharat, a 1999 TV anime series) are generally young, innocent-looking girls.
  11. Arata Isozaki (b. 1931) is a leading architect-theorist who represents Japan's avant-garde and postmodern architecture. He designed the Museum of Modern Art, Gunma (1974) and the Tsukuba Civic Center (1982), among others; and created Electric Labyrinth for the 1968 Milan Triennale. He is Artistic Director of Yokohama 2005: International Triennale of Contemporary Art.
  12. Organized by Arata lsozaki, the exhibition MA: Space-Time in Japan was first presented at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1978. Under the thesis, "Ma is the place in which a life is lived," as articulated in the accompanying catalogue (the English edition published by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum), lsozaki visual­ized different manifestations of ma (literally, "space") in Japanese culture through diverse installations.
  13. Akihabara is a huge electrics and electronics shopping district in Tokyo. Long dominated by household-appliance stores, Akihabara began to change in character in the 1990s, when large-scale stores specializing in personal computers and related products prompted its diversification, which in turn drew younger customers to the area. The rapid infiltration of otaku culture beginning around 1997 completely changed the face of Akihabara. Kaiyodo was a pioneer in this transformation, moving its stores from the fashionable Shibuya district, and was followed by other stores specializing in commercial and privately made merchandise related to anime, manga, and games, such as dojinshi (fanzines) and character-based products.
  14. "Shibuya is a district of Tokyo controlled by the Sezon and Tokyo groups, companies that promote a fashionable and sophisticated urban lifestyle through their consumer products. As such, the whole town has become a gigantic advertisement." (Morikawa)
  15. Eroge is an abbreviation for "erotic games." It is a subcategory of bishojo games (see note 22) that includes sexually explicit, adult content, and is thus unavailable to people under the age of eighteen. The most representative eroge is To Heart.
  16. For kawaii in contemporary Japanese art and pop culture, see Midori Matsui's essay in this volume.
  17. In Japan, a person who has a fanatical enthusiasm for or inter­est in something is called mania, derived from the English "maniac."
  18. "Figures" (pronounced figyua in Japanese) are a counterpart of American "action figures," broadly encompassing plastic representations of popular characters from anime, manga, and games.
  19. Kabuki-cho is an area no more than a few hundred meters square, northeast of Shinjuku's subway and railroad hub in Tokyo. In addition to many small restaurants and bars, it is crowded with massage parlors and other purveyors of sex.
  20. Hayao Miyazaki is an anime artist, film director, manga writer, and founder of the anime company Studio Ghibli. He first made his name with his manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1982-94) and its cinematization in 1984. Often centering on such themes as the conflict of nature vs. science and technology or the destruction and rebirth of civilization, he has created such popular anime films as Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime, 1997) and Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, 2003), which won the Academy Award for best feature-length animated film.
  21. Mamoru Oshii is an anime creator and director. He directed the TV anime series (1981) and cinematization (1982 and 1983) of Urusei Yatsura by Rumiko Takahashi, the anime science-fiction film Ghost in the Shell (Kokaku kidotai, 1995), and the live-action film Avalon (2001), among others.
  22. Bishojo games have two categories: eroge ("erotic games"; see note 15) and gyaruge ("gal games"). While the former include sexually explicit content, the latter do not. It should be noted, however, that the labeling criteria vary from manufac­turer to manufacturer, depending on the intended medium for the game software (i.e., a computer or a "game machine" such as PlayStation and GameBoy).
  23. Exemplars of the moe-anime genre are DiGiCharat (1999; see note 10) and Love Hina (2000).
  24. Released in 2004, Shukan watashi no onii-chan / Weekly Dearest My Brother is a series of boxed sets, each containing a bishojo-centered comic booklet and a figure. These depict the lives of girls attending a fictional private elementary school; figures are produced by Kaiyodo. To date, six different boxes have been issued in total.
Topics:  Art, Popular Culture

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