Notes on “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”: Part 1 – The Otaku’s Pseudo-Japan

These are a series of notes compiled over time concerning Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, what I think is one of the most insightful books in the absolutely enthralling subfield that is anime(-related) studies. Or at least I think the book is important enough to deserve it’s own summaries, commentaries, and critiques. I haven’t encountered too much discussion of the book in my forays around the internet though, so I’ve compiled bricksalad’s notes on the book (over at The Dragorol), modified them a little bit, and added some of my own thoughts. As these turn out to be quite long, I’ll be splitting this series into several posts (following bricksalad’s own structure), which will eventually culminate in a book review. While these notes might not make full sense without having read a little of the book, I’ve tried to make this as standalone as possible, and if you have any questions or points you’re interested in feel free to note them in the comments.

The things I do while procrastinating finishing up shows from last season and starting any of the newer ones from this season.

Part 1. The Otaku’s Psuedo-Japan

Notes on the notes:
All the text formatting is on my end. The bold is meant to highlight key sentences, concepts, and explanations. The italics (oh the the irony of self-negating italics…) is meant to indicate running commentaries in response to bricksalad’s notes (which I’m drawing heavily from) except when indented where it simply is used for emphasis. Portions of his notes have also been altererd where I’ve either rearranged things or inserted some of my own thoughts (all the pictures and captions, for instance, are mine). Sections that have been explicitly cut out are noted by ellipses (“…”). Any use of a non-italicized ‘I’ is from the perspective of bricksalad, while an italicized one refers to me (Josh).

Edit: At the time of this project, I hadn’t yet learned the art of selective highlighting. I apologize if the excessive amount of bold proves to be distracting. X_X

Edit 2: Pontifus has also compiled a very accessible series of notes about the book.

Anime fuses the east and the west together. Sailor Mars, named after planet and Roman war god, part of a superhero team, totally hotheaded and modern, yet in touch with tradition, is a great example of how this looks. Azuma makes the claim that those able to embrace this hybrid imagery as “Japanese” are able to accept otaku works, and those who can’t find them unbearable.

While an absolutely terrible show (in the best way possible), Campione! is another example of a mix of Greek mythology in anime.

While an absolutely terrible show (in the best way possible though) and thus not really comparable to Sailor Moon, Campione! is another decent example of a mixing of East and West with Greek/Roman mythology in anime.

His analysis obviously applies more to Japanese viewers, but to Azuma, this is part of the heart of anime as a cultural phenomenon. Traditional identity was decisively lost in the defeat of WWII, and the psuedo-Japan of anime and manga is appealing because it helps fill that void. It’s also potentially repulsive seeing how it isn’t the real thing.

Commentary (1):
Note though that the Japanese “identity” has been relatively fluid from the beginning and was largely formed during the Meiji Restoration as a pushback against foreign influence. Also note the concept of a national identity is strongly tied to nationalistic sentiment, which largely didn’t exist before Japan was united around the same time under a strong government. However, the largest event that symbolizes this loss of identity is WWII, since Japan was bombed and rebuilt from the bottom-up by the US (and because during the Meiji Era, Japan actually managed to hold off the Western powers; furthermore, post-WWII shame contributes in large part to this loss of traditional identity).

In the eyes of Azuma, there was a sort of narcissistic arrogance in Japan in the 80′s, which collapsed with the economy in the 90′s. However, anime and manga became internationally acclaimed at that time, allowing this attitude to continue in the otaku subculture during the 90s.

As Azuma says: “A pseudo-Japan manufactured from U.S.-produced material” is now the only thing left in our grasp. We can only construct an image of the Japanese cityscape by picturing family restaurants, convenience stores, and “love hotels.” And it is, moreover, within this impoverished premise that we have long exercised our distorted imaginary. For those who regard these conditions as unacceptable, otaku are detestable; conversely, those who overly identify with them end up becoming otaku.

To the Japanese then, anime and manga are not necessarily praiseworthy for their Japanese-ness. Those who cling to Japanese elements are substituting a fake culture for a real one. This theme of substituting fake for real is also at the heart of the stereotype of the extreme otaku who claim anime characters as their wives, collect their figurines, sleep with their pillows, and such (this could be seen as an example of Napier’s fantasyscape idea, described here). A fake in the hand, a real in the bush. What’s worth more?

Perfect Blue, anyone? This idea of fake vs. real were a running theme in Satoshi Kon's movies.

Perfect Blue, anyone? This idea of fake vs. real is a running theme in most of Satoshi Kon’s movies.

But, we are not all Japanese, so what’s with the foriegn otaku and their reaction to Japanese-ness? Let me speak personally here as an American and hope that I’m speaking for others as well. I am attracted to the psuedo-Japan of anime and manga simply because it’s not America. As the dominant culture, we are everywhere in the world. We have to watch as our culture suffocates traditions all over the world, and to be honest it feels kind of bad. I don’t like being part of this, yet there’s nothing I can do to fight it…So my reaction to the Japanese elements in anime is gleeful, because to me it is an example of a culture holding its own, preserving itself even while embracing the new world society. I get saturated with our culture every day and see it reflected back at me in other nations, but when I look to anime, I see a change – and this to me is refreshing.

In the end, I’m not even convinced that there is anything wrong with clinging to a fake culture. I’m not sure that’s what Azuma was getting at either, and I do not mean to elevate one nation’s otaku over another’s. But, regardless, we can sort of see that there are some differences, and that this book won’t be quite so applicable to non-Japanese otaku.

Commentary (2):
I tend to disagree with this view (“this book won’t be quite so applicable to non-Japanese otaku”), simply because – besides being slightly Orientalist – it’s fascinating to learn where the basis of a medium arises, as well as what it implies. Take Schodt’s Dreamland Japan, which does a great job of deconstructing manga and comparing it to comic books in America, and McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which does something similar from the opposite direction. Both are obviously relevant, even if they might not be applicable to the non-manga/comic expert. And they both clearly can give insight for non-Westerners. Azuma here is arguing for “otaku-ism” as the basis of a postmodernist, “animalized” consumer society that I think is a real, global phenomenonespecially today. Therefore it’s still quite relevant. 

A look at the way the modern Doctor Who fandom has developed/is  developing is a good example of this.

A look at the way the modern Doctor Who fandom has developed/is developing is a good example of this.

It’s been a while since Azuma first wrote the book (it was translated into English in 2009, but written quite a few years before that), and I’d say otaku culture, or at least anime culture, has really continued to expand as a global phenomenon. Also, interest in Japan and its history has grown for a number of reasons, and more than a few books about Japanese history, culture, etc. (take A Geek in Japan, for instance) have since hit the market. I’d argue that a modern-day otaku who’s decently well-knowledgable about “anime Japan” and/or “manga Japan”, and has done some follow-up on Japanese culture and history will have no problem understanding where Azuma comes from in the book. Having now been in Japan though, I do have to say some of the strengths of Azuma’s arguments – namely some of his observations of otaku culture – really are more easily grasped for the Japanese citizen. Having been to Akihabara a few times now (and the fujoshi district in Ikebukuro!), I have to say it’s really intense.

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6 responses to “Notes on “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”: Part 1 – The Otaku’s Pseudo-Japan

  1. I have to say, this is actually a cool idea. It’s like that round robin game where each person adds on to the story. It feels a bit strange having the definitive version of my own blog post on somebody else’s blog though!

    • Thanks! I can imagine it must feel a bit odd – hopefully my additions are okay so far. :)

      Ah, that round robin game. Always got some interesting results out of those. This is my first time trying to legitimately do a critique though, so if you have anything to add on your end in response (I mean, it’s been a while since you wrote this), please let me know!

      • The only thing I might add is that I think you mis-parsed my usage of “applicable to” in the last phrase you disagreed with. I didn’t mean “relevant to” or “of interest to”. I meant that his criticism of otaku culture is a criticism of Japanese otaku culture, and that as non-Japanese otaku we aren’t the subjects of analysis. Even though many of his points may apply to us, not all of them will. Especially not any points tying otaku-ism to Japanese national culture.

      • Ah, I see what you mean. That’s definitely true – we’re more curious onlookers at this point and not necessarily the subject of Azuma’s critique/analysis. Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Pingback: Understanding “Otaku Pandering” in Anime and Light Novel Culture | Fantastic Memes·

  3. Pingback: Colloquium: A Defense of Harems. Or…Whatever. | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

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