Hiroki Azuma: The philosopher of 'otaku' speaks

Hiroki Azuma: The philosopher of 'otaku' speaks Hiroki Azuma Photo by Fritz Schumann

TOKYO —

Familiar scenario: you’re going to be marooned on an island and you can only bring X number of books with you. If that island happens to be part of the Japanese archipelago, you could do a lot worse than schlepping a copy of Hiroki Azuma’s “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals.”

First published in Japanese nine years ago and now available in English translation, this buoyant mishmash of philosophy, theory and pop culture has become a key text for people trying to wrap their heads around the current “otaku” boom, and the state of noughties Japan in general.

Azuma’s work explores “otaku” production and consumption, and what they suggest about man’s search for meaning. He argues that today’s “otaku” no longer crave narratives and wider significance, but are instead gratified by reading for character “elements”—things like cute cat ears, maid uniforms and loose socks. The upside is that you can find the spiky-haired, ramen-slurping protagonist of your dreams with an online search engine. The downside is a “world [that] drifts about materially without giving meaning to lives” and “humanity [functioning] at the level of database.”

The co-director of the Tokyo Institute of Technology Academy of Humanities, Azuma has penned six other books, and won the Suntory Literary Prize in 2000. He speaks about his goals for this one-of-a-kind bestseller, which he says was published as a “cultural intervention.”

Why did you write “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals” for a general audience?

In the late ’90s, Japan’s market for criticism nosedived. I felt a need to replenish and broaden it. There wasn’t really any criticism dealing with subculture, so I thought an analysis was overdue. Basically, we just had [influential economist and philosopher] Akira Asada’s new academism. New academism promised to explain subculture using postmodern theory, but it was totally biased.

That said, I didn’t go into “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals” wanting to analyze “otaku” culture. Rather than using a theoretical paradigm to analyze culture, I tried to change theory by using subculture on it. I also hoped to build a common language for discussion. Therefore, it would be a misconstrual to read this book as an analysis of “otaku” culture using postmodern theory.

According to your book, anime narratives and coffee mugs are afforded the same kind of social status. Could you please tell us about this?

We’re now celebrating the 30th anniversary of Gundam. Three decades ago, Gundam’s coloring was chosen at the request of a toy company in order to sell robots. This kind of thing is standard practice. From the beginning, Japan’s anime culture has been based on selling toys. For this reason, there’s hardly any purpose in poring over Japanese anime or game narratives in and of themselves—they’re being produced to sell merchandise. There is a method called “Media Mix,” which was developed by Kadokawa Shoten Publishing. “Media Mix,” meaning to publish a series across different media channels, spurred on the production of manga as both a marketed good and as a vehicle to market goods.

What do you think about your book becoming a bestseller?

Well, I’m pleased that the readership continues to increase each year and that my peers’ ideas, particularly those of Eiji Otsuka and Shinji Miyadai, are gaining exposure from my references. But actually, I didn’t write this for scholars. To be honest, I have no interest in whether or not the book is read by Japanese or American academics. I wrote this book for creative people. I also hope that junior high and high school students read my work. I want younger people to go through it in Japan and abroad. But since this may take years to accomplish, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll be read primarily in universities.

So you aren’t interested in academic acclaim?

I don’t care how scholars interpret “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals.” American graduate students may read my book and say, “I want to write my PhD dissertation on ‘moe’” or “I’m going to do research on Japanese maid cafes” — but very little good will come of these kinds of research projects. I hope to liberate university knowledge from high culture. In order to achieve this goal, I selected “otaku” because I believed they might become the intellectuals of the next generation. I don’t have any interest in investigating subculture within the university system. I want a new group of readers to engage with theory as well as the creative process.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

  • 0

    kokorocloud

    “I want to write my PhD dissertation on ‘moe’”

    Hahaha! I actually KNOW guys who would do this.

  • 0

    Yelnats

    Dumb

  • 0

    beowulf

    Nothing about this guy strikes me as dumb, or did read the wrong article and the wrong book?

  • 0

    tkoind2

    Let's really look at Otaku culture. Socially disfunctional individuals with declining interpersonal skills, minimal economic viability, disaffection with reality and real relationships and rabid consumerism of intellectually and culturally empty commercial products.

    So where is this great wealth of creativity? Do most Otaku contribute to the knowledge and development of humanity? Do they contribute to the betterment of others. Do they provide a foundation for Japan's economic future? Could they survive once Mom or Dad cut off the funding? And if so, will that survival be adequate to even sustain Otaku culture?

    I argue that it is one more piece of evidence of the dumbing down of humanity into mindless consumers hell bent on collecting stuff to gratify needs that have been fed to them by marketers. While they may demonstrate some creativity within their world, what good does it do society and what benefift to the welfare of Japan beyond the modest contributions to niche industries?

    If Otaku want to be bastions of creativity, they should forget maid cafes and Shade created virtual cuties and turn their attention to inventing new products for Japan's future, solving global problems or working to be contributors to the development of long term real culture instead of shallow commercial culture and social isolation.

  • 0

    bdiego

    In the west they're geeks. You being on the internet and using a PC should be thankful.

  • 0

    kokorocloud

    I think it depends on how far you want to take the definition of "otaku". Yes, there are those that are the typical guy holed up in his apartment, surrounded by various figurines of busty and/or cute anime girls, eyes fixed on their computer screens and only leaving their room to run to the nearby conbini for some more cup ramen. These are the people that need help, that aren't contributing to society because they're trapped in their own little fantasy world.

    However, there are plenty of people who aren't like this, and I find that a lot of the people I know who are into this sort of thing are in it because it's like any other hobby. Do people who collect coins/rocks/build model train sets/etc. need to think about solving global problems? You can be creative and into your hobbies while still being an active member of society.

  • 0

    LFRAgain

    I aggree in principle with a lot of what this guys has to say, but this part:

    "I selected “otaku” because I believed they might become the intellectuals of the next generation."

    Good gravy, I hope to hell not.

  • 0

    lostrune2

    Well, geeks did inherit the earth. Hahaha!

  • 0

    tkoind2

    kokorocloud. Everyone has a responsiblity to contribute to the development of society. That is why it is a "society." The problem with modern Japanese, and people in most other countries, is that they are too busy consuming and finding ways to entertain themselves to care about the bigger picture. Thus social problems are only addressed by a select few who do not always have the best interests of the people and planet in mind.

    "I selected “otaku” because I believed they might become the intellectuals of the next generation."

    I just don't see where this guy gets this idea. Based upon what? Real intellectuals are engaged in the world. They are exploring science, philosophy, political and social sciences, creating the arts or somehow contributing.

    Sitting in your room collecting dolls or spendin too much time with your head buried in a computer is hardly contributing to anything. Your average Otaku in Japan seems almost unaware that there is a real world out there. So how then could they contribute to reality when they seem so afraid or unaware of it?

    Give me a break. This guy is a pseudoscietist with dreams of glory for a community almost incapable of rudimentary social functionality. The next Einstein will not be some maid cafe guy. It will be someone who is devoted to learning about and exploring the real world of science and not wasting time on obsessive hobbies.

  • 0

    Cliffy

    Hummm! I think I can be classified as a part time otaku (I do have wife, kids and job). I do watch anime and build models. I do surf the internet quite often, but only to look for information for my projects (electronics, physics, computers....). However, I have multiple hobbies (too many) and I switch from one to another depends on what I feel like to do. I do not read manga though as I prefer technical books more.

    And, for kokorocloud. I think there is a term for thjose who hole up in their apartments and only venture out for foods - Hikikomori or neet. I have a co-worker had that issue couple of months ago. She had some panic attack and was just afraid to go out in pulic. She is recovering and returned to work, but with help from doctors.

  • 0

    bdiego

    Saying you'd only buy/try something on a deserted island is not exactly praise of said item.

  • 0

    drbeastly

    To tkoind2, you certainly have not read the book. Azuma uses the Otaku culture to explain contemporary transformations of the present postmodern society and show possibilities of where this will take us. I suggest you read it. It is one of the best books I've read on Japanese subculture sociology. He explains the concept of database and how we have moved from consuming narratives to consuming data elements that we can customize, using the otaku as an example to explain something that is happening globally in our consumer culture. He even says so in this article:

    "I didn’t go into 'Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals' wanting to analyze 'otaku' culture. Rather than using a theoretical paradigm to analyze culture, I tried to change theory by using subculture on it. I also hoped to build a common language for discussion. Therefore, it would be a misconstrual to read this book as an analysis of 'otaku' culture using postmodern theory."

    I find it amusing how people skid over text in order to look for fragments of things that call their attention and end up ignoring the argument as a whole. What people are doing here with the "otaku as intellectuals" quote is precisely that. The article is NOT about Otaku being intellectual. Its not even about Otaku. This is also an effect of what Azuma talks about in his book: taking fragments and repositioning them as we see fit, an effect of postmodernity.

    People should read more, enough said. Not to hear their own discourse fight with the text, but to hear out the discourse and then converse with it. I am a firm believer that people should educate their perspective before socializing it.

  • 0

    kurzweil1024

    @tkoind2:

    So where is this great wealth of creativity? Do most Otaku contribute to the knowledge and development of humanity? Do they contribute to the betterment of others. Do they provide a foundation for Japan's economic future? Could they survive once Mom or Dad cut off the funding? And if so, will that survival be adequate to even sustain Otaku culture? "I selected “otaku” because I believed they might become the intellectuals of the next generation." I just don't see where this guy gets this idea. Based upon what? Real intellectuals are engaged in the world. They are exploring science, philosophy, political and social sciences, creating the arts or somehow contributing. The next Einstein will not be some maid cafe guy. It will be someone who is devoted to learning about and exploring the real world of science and not wasting time on obsessive hobbies.

    You took the article out of context and lunged upon it like a lion of commonsense above rudimentary fallacy. If it was such an obvious mistake, then why argue with an idiot? You love expressing your superiority?

    It is true that the collective loosely referred to by the term "otaku" are degenerates as you said, but Hiroki Azuma is referring to otaku culture as a significant global industry that has enchanted the majority of the minds of the youth around the world and has, by cumulative advantage, attracted the greatest of artistic, musical, literary, and intellectual talents. The "patient zero" of this phenomenon is Hideaki Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion -- and Hiroki Azuma was referring to otakus like Anno and the rest of the Gainax staff who moved this rising culture to new heights.

    Knowledge now throbs through the veins of new media -- from quantum chromodynamics lectures in podcasts to the essence of "Bushido: Soul of Japan" in the contagious form of manga in Vagabond. If you want to hear great music, your best bet is from anime and videogame composers and so on.

    It is unfair and ignorant to say that otaku is merely a socio-economic demographic -- it would be more accurate to refer to the quality of the "products" themselves. Whether they are losers or not, they are no different from a "curator of modern art" who "consumes" an entire library of "avant-garde art of the 1950's".

    The influence of otaku products are mindblowing. The highest revenue-generating events in cities in the United States each year are all from Anime conventions!

    And from the entire popular culture, only the anime Stand Alone Complex was able to predict and analyze contemporary modern Internet phenomena years before they happened, such as 4chan's memetic Anonymous and the Wikileaks cyberterrorist Assange. Stand Alone Complex was based on Yoshiki Sakurai's media ecology dissertation -- the inherent economy of expression in animation allows for the intersection of academia and high arts with popular culture. Anime producers don't have to worry about risky artistic freedom, as opposed to expensive Hollywood productions.

    And as for belittling those who "consume" such products, I have to inform you that the people responsible for the dissemination of anime culture to an international audience, the Japanese-to-English translators of anime and manga mostly come from circles within American academia. Many are students from technology institutes such as MIT and Caltech, a few from Cornell, Berkley, VT and so on. We are simply drawn by the passion for "otherness"/"weirdness" of the otaku culture, just as the cultural elites of the 18th century western world were fascinated by "orientalism". And believe it or not, animation technology runs parallel with visualization technologies in all of science. I, for one, am applying fluid dynamics to computer rendering for both scientific and artistic ends.

    "Obsessive hobbies"/"addictions" are applicable to anyone. The world has changed. The top students in class (at least here in America) are almost always nerdmad about anime.

    Open your mind. Look out the window. The world has changed, old man.

  • 0

    Zenny11

    tkoin2.

    You know little about the true otaku culture. Most of them are very succesful in business(managers, etc) with families and often run their own companies.

    Look at what ONE Otaku did with a little 2nd-hand bookstore called Mandarake(JSE listed), or the girl that worked as a Maid and now owns and runs 10+ Maid Cafes, etc.

    Not going into people I know that work top-jobs at Toshiba, etc designing firmware for cameras, etc.

    Most of the true otaku are just people like you and me whose hobby is simply Anime, etc same as guys into hot-rods, Bikes, Model Railroad, etc.

    Otaku have shaped japanese Industry for a long time and that goes beyond people like Miyazaki, Katori, Takahata, Oshii, etc.

    The overseas image of a weak guy living in his parents basement simply don't apply.

  • 0

    bicultural

    drbeastly, thank you for your most informative comment. I'm actually quite interested in the book now. tkoind2, I think you just got schooled.

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