i wrote about the otaku encyclopedia a while ago: it’s so well-written i couldn’t let go of it even if i’m not necessarily an otaku and i believe that’s no small feat for a writer. its author is us-born, tokyo-based journalist patrick w. gaklbraith. click here for the otaku abcs and then start reading the insightful interview below!
how is your phd coming along? it must be the coolest job i’ve ever heard of – researching otaku culture in tokyo!
it sounds a lot cooler than it is, i suppose! lots of archival research, writing and so on. it’s a lonely business. i think that is why so many people like to attend conferences, and publish as a way to engage in dialogue. kinda like doujinshi, huh? in my case, i really like conducting “fieldwork,” or rather working through a field of relations, because it gets me out of doors and with people. interviews, participant observation – any sort of learning that is social. anyway, i am almost finished with my ph.d. at the university of tokyo. the writing took quite a long time, but this is my last year. but, due to my masochistic streak, i decided to do another ph.d. in cultural anthropology. maybe i just don’t want the responsibility of a full-time job?
what is your take on the current uproar caused by sopa/pipa/acta? japan seems to be one of the founding members of acta. i am surprised they would be interested in such a restrictive piece of legislation given the very civilized progressive way the dounjinshi phenomenon is treated in japan.
you are right to be concerned about this kind of legislation and state intervention. even as media flows increasingly across borders, there is a tendency for governments and institutions to become more adamant about controlling their intellectual property rights. in my view, this has to do with economics, plain and simple. in post-industrial nations, it is ideas, not things, that are the most valuable commodities. japan is in a situation where it has placed a lot of emphasis on its “contents” industry, namely the export of manga and anime as global popular culture. so, it necessarily sees “piracy” as a threat to its national “assets” and seeks to defend them. you are very shrewd to juxtapose this with the situation with doujinshi in japan, which are under fire more for sexual and violent content than copyright infringement. what this seems to suggest is that fans and industries, industries and governments, and government, industries and fans in different areas are all struggling with different values. i think we need to give credence to local community standards and not just impose a draconian international standard. we should also recognize that without fans and their illegal localization projects, manga and anime would not have exploded as it did outside japan. when i say community standards, however, i mean that fans should be aware of how their actions impact the market and creators. if no one buys products, then there is no money to produce new works, right? my position on this is that we need not to instill fear of legal reprisal, but rather a sense of responsibility into fan communities, a mutual ownership of the product that is opened up in translations and transnational circulation. this is something that we must do as fans: show that things like sopa/pipa/acta are not necessary. comiket is very careful about making sure there are no copies of commercial works going on. every doujinshi sold there is an original work based on established characters. this does not hurt the original market, and may even help it by raising awareness of the works. so the problem is a little different than fansubbing and so on, but i think we can learn something from the community standards of comiket.
what is the current status of otaku?
well, the second international otaku day is on august 18, and there is a new book on otaku out, fandom unbound, so it seems that fans and academics are still very invested in the word. on the other hand, i recently met with otsuka eiji, the editor of manga burikko when the term otaku was coined in the magazine’s pages, and he implored that we stop using the word otaku, which he sees as a fiction. it was originally a joke, then taken up by the mass media, academics and finally the government. otsuka brings up a valid point when he cautions us that neoconservatives and nationalists are latching onto the word otaku to demonstrate the japan’s “soft power” and the influence of its popular culture overseas. look! they like anime! they call themselves otaku! they want to be japanese! we should be proud! this tends to bolster local confidence and make a joke of international fans, which is a far degree removed from the original in-joke of otaku in otsuka’s magazine. so, basically, i think he is warning us that we are playing right into political strategies and power relations here – playing with forces far beyond us. there is so much anxiety and tension surrounding otaku, which i find fascinating. i am for using the term otaku reflexively or performatively as a way to disrupt the hegemonic discourse. but in any case we have to be careful when using the word these days, and realize that it is not just our word. it is a discursive construct imbedded in a field of contestation. i think what okada toshio meant when he wrote you are already dead (otaku wa sude ni shindeiru). he was asking us, what is at stake in otaku culture today? why are otaku significant? it behooves us to seriously consider his questions rather than writing him off as a grumpy old man.
were otaku or the otaku arts influenced to any extent by the 3/11 events or by their aftermath?
it is hard to say. on the one hand, at chaos lounge: chaos exile, an exhibition held in akihabara 22.10-6.11.2011, the message basically seemed to be that otaku culture has lost its critical edge. according to the organizers, there is little chance of manga and anime leading to disruption, social engagement or productive change. in fact, they argued that most people in tokyo escaped into media after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. akihabara for them was a symbol of escapism and basically the death of the social and/or public sphere. azuma hiroki has also commented on social media in japan being used as toys rather than tools. we might also note the rise in nationalism after 3/11. so the outlook is bleak. but i am not pessimistic. like many others, i want to believe in the power of manga and anime – the possibility of opening up new ways of seeing and being in the world.
has the otaku museum opened in tokyo, as planned? i visited the kyoto manga museum as well as hiroshima’s manga library. is there a need for such museums or is the online sufficient?
i think so, yes. the cynical reading is that this is just a ploy to use manga and anime, and more often famous artists, to reinvigorate rural and local economies with tourism. of course, the government supports this, which is in line with the agenda of legitimizing japanese contents. however, i think these museums serve a purpose. they make us aware of certain artists, works, genres and media that we might not otherwise encounter. they bring together fans, educators and scholars. i think these sites of sociality, learning and sharing are important for the growth of manga, anime and fans.
what are your top 10 favourite things in manga/anime?
choose 10 elements of character design, setting and plot! i love the characters, from the way they look to the way they interact with one another, the world and the story. without characters, we would not be drawn into the world and stick with it.
are you still giving tours of akihabara?
yes indeed! but not as regularly as before. unfortunately, my responsibilities at the university are increasingly keeping me away from akihabara.
i read that the work on your book took around five years. are you currently working on another book?
yes, i have two upcoming books. one is otaku spaces, which is a discussion of the spaces associated with otaku. that is, rooms, stores and neighborhoods (in tokyo, nagoya and osaka). it includes photographs and interviews with 20 men and women who invite us into their private space and share their thoughts. i hope that by meeting them we can open new dimensions of the space of otaku discourse. i am also co-editor of a collection of academic articles titled idols and celebrity in japanese media culture.
i may be an otaku wannabe. can you please help me with an otaku starter kit?
an otaku starter kit? wow! i wonder what that would look like. maybe billy’s boot camp! yeah, a video on the intensity and duration necessary to be a fan. do your thing! everyday, all the time. never stop, never quit! work it! lift those knees!
what are your favourite places to hang out in the entire world?
the library. people are quiet, and there are books and videos all around! my library lets me drink tasty carbonated beverages while working, too. come to think of it, maybe it reminds me of a manga café? so is my favorite place to hang out a manga café? that would explain a lot of my nights in tokyo…
thank you very much, patrick! looking forward to reading your second book!