Thoughts on life after the PhD
Academic conferences can be hit or miss–at the large ones you’ll usually see a couple of papers and presentations that really intrigue or inspire, and the rest will be fairly forgettable. Sometimes you’ll see truly dreadful papers (which, while depressing, always give me a slight confidence boost when I realize that I’m at least not the worst of the lot). So I was very pleasantly surprised when a recent conference called “Otakuology,” held at Temple University Japan, turned out to be one of the best and most informative conferences I’d ever attended.
For those new to the subject, the word “otaku” gets thrown around a lot in Japanese pop culture studies these days, and the debate over its proper use and meaning can get heated. Outside the context of fandom and obsession with certain kinds of media, it can just mean “your honorable country” (“Otaku wa?” / “Where are you from?”). Today it’s generally used to describe a specific subculture of adult Japanese (mostly men) who have a deep love of certain kinds of anime, manga, and games. Common wisdom holds that the term was coined by journalist Nakamori Akio, who wrote in the early 1980s of manga-obsessed men who referred to each other as “otaku” (a very formal way of saying “you”). These days otaku are often stereotyped as socially awkward and “geeky,” and the word is often translated as “geek” or “fanboy” in English, but as the conference illustrated, it’s a bit more complicated than that. However you might define the term, most would agree that otaku culture has become a very popular topic in Japanese cultural and media studies, and while otaku are still stigmatized by mainstream society, more and more are “coming out of the closet” and proclaiming themselves otaku with pride.
The Japanese media became fascinated by otaku subculture in an unfortunate way–through the grisly murders of four young girls by Miyazaki Tsutomu, a Tokyo man who was eventually executed in 2008. Dubbed the “Otaku Killer,” Miyazaki was arrested in 1989 and it was revealed that he’d had a huge collection of video tapes and comic books, many of them pornographic and / or slasher films. This was used to build a case against him, and suddenly any socially reclusive fans of anime and manga were marked as potential time bombs. The “otaku panic” of the late 1980s has often been compared to similar reactions to high-profile crimes in the U.S. (the fact that the [wrongfully convicted] suspects in the Robin Hood Hills murders listened to heavy metal, or the fact that the Columbine killers loved violent films and video games). (Note: I don’t mean to imply that Miyazaki’s crimes weren’t horrifying and inexcusable–they certainly were, and he was most definitely guilty–but the “porn and horror movies made him do it” argument, and the argument that anyone who was socially reclusive and collected large amounts of videos and manga was suddenly suspicious, seem to be a bit of a stretch).
These days all otaku aren’t generally seen as potential serial killers, but the negative stigma is still strong, despite the success of films like Densha otoko (Train Man), a love story about an otaku who manages to come out of his shell and build a relationship with a girl. (One of the presenters at the conference said that a self-described otaku he interviewed hated this film, claiming that it was sending a message that all otaku needed to do was put on a tie and take a girl out to a nice restaurant in order to be redeemed in the eyes of mainstream society). I’ll admit that I’ve frequently felt disdainful toward otaku in the same way that I often look down my nose at hardcore fangirls and fanboys in the U.S.–I think of them as kids who don’t want to grow up, I fall asleep listening to them rattle off endless streams of facts about their favorite characters / films / comics, and when I dated a couple of them in college I was annoyed that they’d rather play video games than hang out with me (“But honey, you can sit and watch!”). I was quick to write otaku culture off as something not really worth my time–as far as I was concerned they could live their lives however they pleased, but I wasn’t interested in getting to know them better. Well, smack me upside the head, because this conference made me do a total 180. It seems otaku are a lot less easily dismissed when you take away the stereotypes and start looking at the subculture from less superficial angles.
The conference consisted of four papers that all worked really well together and provided some really valuable background, points of contention (discussions occasionally got politely heated, which is always fun), and possibilities for the future. Some of the main points were:
1. The definition of otaku is assumed and never questioned, and tends to be based almost entirely on received media stereotypes. People rarely talk *to* otaku, they tend to talk *about* them, lumping them all into one group when they’re actually very diverse. There’s a dominant narrative (otaku were all bullied as children, otaku are all reclusive, otaku prefer interacting with dolls and machines to interacting with people, otaku can’t get a date), and any otaku-related news that falls outside that narrative doesn’t get much press.
2. Otaku are considered deviant (a la Geertz and Gramsci) because they don’t conform to certain “common sense” rules. Presenter Kam Thiam Huat argued that it’s socially acceptable for children to collect huge amounts of dolls and playing cards, or for women to shop excessively, but it’s not socially acceptable for adult men to do this. Otaku break one of the fundamental rules of adult society by focusing on “solitary play” that is not related to production. In this context, consumption becomes gendered, and men who “trespass” into the feminine sphere of consumption are problematic. Sharon Kinsella argues that the “otaku panic” of the late 80s was more of a backlash against the feminization of young men, men who refused the participate in the dominant model of masculinity and “productive” culture. Kam thus argued that it’s helpful to think of otaku as “deviant consumers,” an idea that I found intriguing–I’d never really thought of otaku as rebels, but they could be seen as people who actively reject certain “common sense” conventions.
3. Otaku are diverse. This is an idea that the dominant narrative in the mainstream media really rejects–stories in American, European, and Japanese media tend to promote the idea that all otaku are a) overweight and unattractive, b) victims of bullying, c) reclusive, d) socially inept, and e) consumers / collectors of the same kinds of media / data. As presenter Bjorn-Ole Kamm revealed with profiles of five “informants,” this is hardly the case. One was an engineer who enjoyed role-playing games and self-identified as an otaku but had a family and an active social life. One was a woman (there’s some debate as to whether the label of otaku can be applied to women–some argue that because it’s socially acceptable for women to be obsessed with goods or characters they don’t face the same social stigma that men do) who grew up in a “gaming family” and was actually paid an allowance to play games; she was now an active online gamer who experienced plenty of misogyny and harassment in the male-dominated gaming world. One was a construction worker who was involved in a local “hero club” (organizations of people who dress up as superheroes and take part in local festivals and community events). I’ll admit that this was, sadly, the first time I had ever gotten a detailed picture of self-identified otaku that went beyond basic stereotypes.
While many of the presenters and audience members disagreed or took issue with certain definitions and lines of reasoning, I came away from the conference thinking of otaku not as geeks or losers but as yet another group stigmatized by refusing to conform to extremely arbitrary rules of consumption, production, and gender. In layman’s terms, who says that buying a car or a house is more appropriate for adult men than buying action figures or comics? Why are we so quick to label even the slightest deviation from established societal norms as freakish? Why should the protagonist of Densha otoko have to dress up in a suit and tie and spend lots of money in a fancy restaurant before he can be accepted by mainstream society?
My gut tells me that I still probably couldn’t be best friends with a self-identified otaku, mainly because I’m just not into games, anime, or manga. But maybe that’s a stereotype I need to let go of, because as this conference revealed, in the end a label tells you very little, regardless of who’s doing the labeling.
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