The Only Good Otaku…

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

I love the Genshiken manga – to me, it’s right up there with Azumanga Daioh and Kindaichi Files as a top favorite. It’s actually the only manga I read right now, but that’s just fine by me. Every time I go to a bookstore or comic shop, I check for a new volume. So, I finally got around to watching the first two discs of the Genshiken DVD series this past weekend and enjoyed it a great deal. Like the manga, the anime gives me exactly the kind of pseudo-ethnographic / pop-intellectual kicks I most desire.

First, it treats otaku culture respectfully – but not too respectfully – as its own subculture, with its unique interests, priorities, and rationales. There’s nothing more thrilling than unravelling the jargon, minutiae, and chains of reasoning of a new hobby – it’s a slow turning from gibberish to sense. Think of the first time you were able to identify all the members of Morning Musume and the strange, glowing satisfaction that knowledge bestowed on you.

Second, I’m a sucker for meta-narrative and this series has one of the best – and most obvious – of them I’ve ever seen in J-culture. The anime series that the Genshiken crew obsess over in the manga version of the series, Kujibiki Unbalance, becomes full episodes in the Genshiken anime. An anime within an anime, a mise-en-abyme of otaku-ness, providing some nice counterbalances and commentary.

And watching the anime series, I found myself asking: what makes for a good otaku? This being America, we’re talking about anime otaku and its related fields – which is the only kind of otaku we really see in Genshiken. So of course, let’s expand it: What makes for a good Jpop otaku? Are the same general precepts for anime otaku applicable to Jpop otaku? And are there different standards – such as they are – for otaku overseas?

So, what is the difference between a good Jpop otaku and a bad one? For those who haven’t seen it yet, there’s this now-month-old article in the Mainichi where a female manga artist Sakamoto Mimei rails against the recent otaku fad – epitomized by Densha Otoko – and professes disgust at people who take on otaku fashion (basic nerd with layering of clothes) and especially at the promotion of moe fetish. She thinks the worship of young females is pedophilic and perverse, and that real otakus never go out.

The last paragraph of the article is a doozy, worth quoting in full:

“I’m a fully-fledged otaku. I used to shut myself away from the world. A real otaku would never go out and about in the world because they wouldn’t believe anything good could happen to them if they did so, anyway. They all believe the world is out to get them,” Sakamoto tells Shukan Bunshun. “Real otaku should go back and shut yourselves off from the world again. The true value of being a real otaku lay in the belief that nobody else understands you.”

I’ll set aside my usual misgivings about cults of authenticity – claiming to be a “real otaku” and that others are just posers is silly and pathetic in some ways. But the kind of person she’s describing is not only fatalistic and pessimistic, but also paranoid, anti-social, and willfully cut off from the world. But an otaku is not into young girls – that would be just plain wrong.

You see, I’m too old for this shit. I used to get the whole gloom and despair and romantic vision of the outcast and “the world doesn’t understand my inner genius” thing, as did many people of a certain age throughout human history. But sooner or later most of us grow up, face reality (but not too much reality – always leave a lot of imaginative space to roam in life), deal with the startling notion we don’t have to be isolated and that our antisocial tendencies are not proof of being better than others, and move on.

Part of me now suspects Sakamoto was just out to give good headline and her tongue was firmly in cheek with that interview. I could be wrong, but at least it gives her the benefit of the doubt.

If anything, the cast of Genshiken have a considerably healthier view of what a good otaku is. For them, being otaku can be social, but it’s primarily the mastery of skills related to one’s interest. An otaku knows certain things, appreciates the finer points of seemingly esoteric knowledge. Why is spring best for making models? Why is anime porn better than porn with real girls? (I don’t agree with this – not by a long freakin’ shot – but the reasoning given in both the manga and anime at least has its own internal logic, and borrows nicely from Scott McCloud.)

Also, a good otaku knows how to establish cameraderie within his otaku circle, if not a sense of well-being with the otaku community at large. Madarame may be a bit extreme, but he never truly alienates his fellow Genshiken members nor ever seeks to do so. Saki, the girlfriend of clueless otaku Kohsaka and reluctant member of the group, causes the most moments of tension and dread in the series. She may seem to do this out of spite, but what astute readers / viewers can see is that she causes trouble first and foremost from her ignorance.

Put simply, she’s immersed in otaku culture but doesn’t want to understand it. She doesn’t get the values and perceptions an otaku holds in their various interests. And while she is slowly educated by the others, she actively refuses to subscribe to the way of thinking involved. That is, she lives among the otaku tribe but remains distinct from them – and in that disparity lies the main dramatic (and comedic) thrust of the series. It is possible to understand another group’s values, to spend time with that group, and still not buy into it. Ask any lapsed Catholic.

So while Sakomoto and Genshiken both see being an otaku as a frame of mind, a way of seeing the world, it’s very different perspectives indeed. And in the same way Sakomoto has her opinion of what a bad otaku is – a poser and/or a pedophile – the Genshiken crew also have their own standards. Sakomoto values an otaku’s solitude and antisocial leanings – the Genshiken folks value cameraderie and a respect for a rather quirky decorum. In Genshiken, the bad otaku are those who don’t know how to play well with others: those who scheme, like that guy who is in the club but recruits for the rival Manga Club; those who are rude and not considerate of others’ needs, as well as those who make too big a deal of their interest in showy, unflattering ways – all of which applies to Kuchi in episode seven; those who they’re better than other otaku and rail against posers, such as that other freshman from episode seven. Modesty and an awareness of one’s strengths and flaws is appreciated, as seen in the model-making episode: not all otaku can do all things, one can have specific specialties and interests.

And of course, I’m going to bring it back to being a Jpop fan outside of Japan. For starters, I have to admit that it still annoys me a bit that the title “otaku” refers primarily – almost exclusively – to anime fans here in the States. When people who know me in Japan first heard of my Jpop interest (including my bemused mother-in-law), they used the word “otaku” because they had the broader understanding of the term. Here in the states, if I described myself as an otaku I’ll get grilled on Naruto or whatever other series is out there and popular among the kiddie crowds.

As a result, I do find myself gravitating more and more towards the term “wota”, if only because the association with anime isn’t there yet. It’d be nice if “otaku” is used for the anime fans and “wota” used for fans of Jpop culture that features live human beings, but I’m sensing there’s a flaw in my reasoning there.

Further, I should stress: to me, otaku and wota are indeed pejorative terms. You don’t gleefully call yourself these things unless you are aware of the negative connotations involved and can live with them, if you can admit to yourself that your obsession in some aspect of J-culture has gone a bit too far and requires a specific term to classify that sickness. Which doesn’t mean you can’t revel in that sickness and appreciate it on its own terms, nor does it mean locking yourself up from the world because they don’t get where you’re coming from. Contrary to what Sakomoto implies, it’s possible to not be understood and still get along with others – I don’t explain my highly detailed and gruesomely explicit cannibal fantasies to every person I meet, but that doesn’t mean I can’t wish them a good day and have casual chats about reality TV or whatever.

But as for Jpop otaku – or wota – what are the assumptions and beliefs that most all of us share? And I’m talking across the boards, not just the girlpop I love but also different other genres in Jpop. I can think of three basic tenets, but I’d love to hear everyone else’s input on this.

Art and commerce are not diametrically opposed. That whole rockism versus poptimism debate in music circles is moot for Jpop wota, since Jpop values that which is marketed well and doesn’t believe an artist must be poor and anti-corporate to have credibility. Actually, the very issue of credibility can be moot, given the proper frame of mind.

Image does count. A corrolary to the first point, but worth pointing out, I think. Jpop is a visual culture and how one presents oneself visually is often as important – if not more important – than the music. Hinoi Team is a supreme example of this, I’d say – recycling old para para songs seems to be a means to promote how cute the girls are, but that doesn’t necessarily make Hinoi Team an “illegitimate” Jpop group by any means.

As outsiders, Japanese culture offers some particular aspect that is different from Western culture but worth embracing. And I’m leaving this one really vague because I think different kinds of Jpop wota / otaku are taking from different cultural belief sets. For example, I’ve stated repeatedly that I find the Japanese attitude towards sexuality – and teen sexuality in particular – less hypocritical and more enjoyable than in the United States. “Puritanical” can be used as an epithet here. I’ll also admit that by getting into the whole Shihono Ryo / Garo Aida / U15 wota thing, I’ve moved considerably past the attitudes of mainstream Japanese culture and am embracing something more fringe and less generally accepted (though still more acceptable than in the United States, I should add)… but that’s a progression that came from the initial preference I stated regarding a healthy attitude to sexuality.

So beyond that, I’ve got a stack of questions I haven’t resolved in my head.

  • How far can one fly the freak flag? That is, when is being a Jpop wota a case of showing off you’re an obsessed nut and not just being a good fan? I listen to Jpop on my headphones but don’t sing it out loud on the bus; I’ve got my Tsuji and Kago phone straps on the bag I carry around everywhere, but it’s not like I wave it in people’s faces.
  • What is acceptable clothing for a Jpop fan overseas? A replica Gatas jersey, good or bad? How about a jacket with your favorite idols’ photos pinned all over it, like at H!P concerts? What about cosplay at anime conventions?
  • What is acceptable conversation? Does one seek out the like-minded only, or preach to the unknowing masses who’ve yet to discover the joys of Jpop, or does one simply keep it all to oneself?
  • That whole pesky moe / U15 thing. How far does a good Jpop otaku accept the more fetishistic aspects of fandom? Not all Jpop fans like that kind of thing, while others absolutely live for it. (Guess which camp I fall into.) On the other hand, there are other aspects – such as Gothic Lolita, the karaoke subculture, and fanfic – that may also prove distasteful for one reason or another to certain fans. How far does one respect these boundaries in the overseas Jpop community, or is “live and let live” essentially a non-issue?

I may be making too big a deal of all this – but that’s my shtick, I guess, and the ethnographer in me does find it allquite satisfyingly intriguing. I don’t think it’s necessary to define the Jpop community in such explicit terms, as a kind of spontaneous order emerges in any vital community, patterns and relationships establishing themselves in an eerily appropriate fashion. (This blog and the English-language Jpop blogosphere in general is proof of it, I’d say.) The internet helps a great deal in that regard: growing the number of fans, providing them with media (I became a hardcore Jpop fan through Bit Torrents, fans are now emerging from YouTube), and giving them a means to communicate with each other.

Where it goes from here, how the Jpop community outside of Japan will develop – well, there’s no predicting, but I’d say there’s a lot worth discussing. These are my thoughts – what are yours?


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4 Responses to “The Only Good Otaku…”
  1. DS says:

    My local anime club is showing Genshiken. I’ve watched the first six episodes and I just found it depressing.
    Watching the empty & meaningless lives of a bunch of sad guys who masturbate over doujinshi isn’t really my idea of entertainment.
    Densha Otoko showed an equally exagerated portrayal of the ‘otaku’ subculture but it did it in an affectionate way whilst Genshiken just feel seedy and unpleasant.
    I’m glad some people can get some enjoyment out of it but for me its all the worst aspects of anime fandom combined in one package – a series that is just one nerdy, insular injoke.

  2. CJ Marsicano says:

    If I could find a Hello! Project related shirt that actually fit me, I’d be happy, but everything I see is Large and I’m an XL.

  3. Alice says:

    CJ: I made a replica -6% shirt (like the girls were wearing at that environmental rally last year) for myself on spreadshirt, maybe this would work for you until you can get an authentic one?

  4. Steve/Japonaliya says:

    I made a SweetS t-shirt on