A Brief Digression / Notes on “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”: Part 6 – The Dissociated Human

My summer in Japan is a strange one.

What do I mean by that? For one, I’m actually doing astronomy research at an institute that is entirely in English, with mostly foreigners (外人 [gaijin]). Furthermore, I’m actually staying a ways out from Tokyo in what’s know as a bedtown (essentially a suburb where the majority of residents commute into Tokyo to work every day and simply return home to sleep. Yes – this is a “suburb” of 400,000 people – Tokyo is that big), and at a dorm for international visitors rather than a host family. So I’m quite isolated from much of Japanese culture here, both in terms of job and in terms of location. I don’t get to see what the work environment here is like, or how people bustle around in Tokyo throughout the day. Or get a chance to hear and see Japanese workers having normal conversations at restaurants and cafes. Or get exposed to what life is like in Japanese homes. All of these I get secondhand through anime – which means they’re distorted – but I’m not sure exactly in what ways they’re biased. So all my exposure to Japanese culture is gleaned either on weekend trips into Tokyo/the surrounding areas or in passing interactions – seeing seifuku being commonly worn among students, attempting to listen in to conversations on the sidewalk, watching young salarymen play their 3DS’s during their commute home late at night on the train. I also got a chance to visit a high school English class as well as talk with some Japanese college students at a conference in Yokohama, but you only can get so much from events like those.

Some of my friends who have internships, for example, get a better sense of what this is like.

Some of my friends who have internships, for example, get a better sense of what this is like.

It gets even harder though, since I’m 1) still not very good at Japanese and, more importantly, 2) a gaijin. Now, for a tourist, having either 1) and/or 2) be true is fine. You’ll get exposed to the culture in passing, see some sights, and have some good memories. But for someone who’s trying to really get a feel for the culture while he’s here over the summer, being an outsider both in terms of communication and ethnicity makes things tough. And doubly so because Japan naturally is insular – I’m pretty much by default excluded from much of the society simply by being a gaijin. While this means you can get away with a lot of things that otherwise might be bothersome, it also means it’s difficult to figure out what real customs and rules are when people don’t try and enforce them on you. What makes it tougher is knowing just enough about Japanese culture and the language to know that this is happening and not really being able to push back because you don’t know too much more than that. However, it does make for some great reading (the entire blog is pretty great).

Sadly, I'm not as cool as Dan Eagleman though.

Sadly, I’m not as cool as Dan Eagleman, although my adviser likes to joke that most Japanese see us gaijin (especially Americans) this way.

Finally (and this is the main one) the fact that I’m visiting Japan because I’m an anime fan tends to skew things. I’ve essentially flown to a new country and gotten a job over the summer in part because I wanted to better be able to access stuff related to a fantasy world. Reality and fantasy intersect in interesting ways…

There are some more upsides to this though. Which is that I can say that I now know about lots of stuff that functions around anime – how intense anime fandom is here in Japan and some of the differences between Japanese otaku and their Western counterparts (I’d guess us), for example – and have gotten a better sense of perspective as to where I fit in among all of this. However, I can’t say I’ve learned nearly as much about all the stuff that really goes into anime itself. While I have an improved perspective on things, I don’t really have a good grasp on my perspective of my perspective. I see the blurred edges of the world just outside the edges of my rimmed spectacles, but still ultimately don’t know much about my prescription.

Megane is justice.

Megane is justice.

Still, I feel at this point I’ll probably be able to leave Japan in about a month and a half with at least a decent takeaway, Plus, my time here has already rekindled my desire to take Japanese once school starts up again, and I’m already considering trying to attempt to get an internship at JAXA next summer, so that’s at least pretty good, right?

Score 1-0 for Japan.

Score 1-0 for Japan.

My meanderings have gone on for long enough though, so let’s see what Azuma had to say next…

Part 6. The Dissociated Human

Notes on the notes:
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. See Part 1 for context.
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. 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).

There is a contradiction to Azuma’s arguments thus far; within otaku culture, there is an increasing interest in the drama within a work. If there is no need for a grand narrative, real or fake, then why is there more interest in narratives?

To answer this question, Azuma first goes off and looks at eroge…whose main features are simply text and illustrations; the player is much less active than in most games. Due to the fact that they’re mostly images and text, they’ve evolved over time to effectively trigger emotion with the texts and evoke moe through the images. This development has made them into a genre that efficiently reflects the passions of the otaku.

Nowadays, as a result of this development, many of these games don’t focus on pornographic elements anymore, but are more focused on the drama and/or story. He uses the example of Air, in which any sorts of pornographic elements are concentrated in the first half, delivering the “goal” right away. The second half is pretty much a straight up melodrama, very typical and abstract. It combines many moe elements such as “incurable disease,” “fate from previous lives,” and “a lonely girl without a friend.” It’s a barebones structure of combined settings that seems to leave important questions unanswered that was a great commercial success. The reason for success is the masterful combination of moe elements, not a coherent or deep story.

Commentary (10):
To say I was pretty pissed and indignant when I first read this would be putting it mildly, but after mulling it over for a while, I came to the conclusion that Azuma is pretty much correct. This was when I first started to really appreciate how the database model works.

Gao T_T

Gao T_T

The structure of these games is thoroughly postmodern: the substance isn’t in the individual story route, but in the system that generates these story routes. Traditional literary or film criticism breaks down when trying to analyze these games due to their peculiar structure. Rather than a narrative, they are a collection of simulacra generated from a database. But the database isn’t abstract like it has been in previous discussions – this is a literal database specific to one work. In other words, it structurally mirrors the larger moe-database from which otaku works are created.

The resolution to the contradiction, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is that the postmodern otaku are interested in small narratives and large databases, and there is no paradox in preferring small narratives to grand narratives.

As Azuma again notes: “Modern individuals need a path back from small narratives to a grand narrative; individuals at the transition from modernity to postmodernity needed snobbism in order to bridge the gap between them. However, postmodern individuals let the two levels, small narratives and a grand nonnarrative, coexist separately without necessarily connecting them.”

All those VN adaptations are starting to come back to me now...

All those VN adaptations are starting to come back to me now…

Obviously, the database is connected to the small narratives in a sense that it generates them, but that is just an abstract connection. For example, going back to eroge, the protagonist is not defined as a man who sleeps around and deflowers all the innocent virgin heroines. Instead, themes like “destiny” and “pure love” are emphasized. Each time. Every narrative is disassociated, despite their relation. All these parallel stories are not given meaning by a grand narrative, they create their own, temporary, meaning.

The Animal Age

According to Alexandre Kojève, animality and snobbery are the two choices post grand narrative, and this book has argued that the role of snobbery was merely transitional. Indeed, snobbery was part of the transition to the animal…In this perspective, it is clear that the moe-otaku is an animal rather than a snob. His interaction with otaku media is more like a drug dependency than a hobby. I don’t completely agree with this though – see Commentary (8).

I mean, just hanging around Akihabara gives me humongous cravings to buy large quantities of useless paraphernalia, so it's hard to argue against Azuma here.

I mean, just hanging around Akihabara gives me intense cravings to buy large quantities of useless paraphernalia, so it’s hard to argue against Azuma here.

Okay, now what about the conservative sexuality of the otaku? Why is it that there are so few real pedophiles among the lolita fans, so few homosexuals among the yaoi fans, so few womanizers among eroge players? Well, this is simple from the animalization perspective: human sexuality is being eliminated in favor of satisfying animalistic needs. Instead of communicating with a sexual partner, he can simply satisfy his carnal desires with imagery. Consuming so many perverse images means that there is less of a need for actual perversion…



It is possible to object here; perhaps the otaku’s attitude towards a work is animalized, but aren’t otaku known to be quite social with each other? However, Azuma argues that this sociality is sustained not by necessity, but rather by desire to exchange information. Unlike modern humans, they always reserve the freedom to depart the conversation. Another way to look at it that might make Azuma’s point more clear is that communication is now governed by need. If an otaku desires to talk to someone, then he can. It’s not the complex relationship of human communication unless this complicated relationship is actually what he desires. It is mimicry of the communication by necessity that characterized modern and pre-modern humans. The substance of communication is gone, only the form remains.

The otaku sociality can be understood better by going back to the double-layer structure of database and simulacra. The consumption of otaku media is divided between a desire to consume the database and a need for drama contained in the small narratives. The need for narratives is usually satisfied in isolation (an eroge isn’t a multiplayer game), but the desire for database requires sociality. The creation, purchase, and selling of derivative works is a social activity, and is not an emotional one. The social and the emotional are more or less split apart.


The postmodern human is animalized and consumes databases. Hence the phrase “database animals”. Azuma’s second question,

If, in postmodernity, the notion of transcendence is in decline, what becomes of the humanity of human beings?

is thus answered in his own words:

“The reduction of meaning to animality, the meaninglessness of humanity, and the dissociated coexistence of the animality at the level of simulacra and the humanity at the level of database”

I don't think this is what he had in mind though.

I don’t think this is what he had in mind though.

What do you think?

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