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Otaku: Japan's Database Animals

by Hiroki Azuma

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In Japan, obsessive adult fans and collectors of manga and anime are known as otaku. Hiroki Azuma's 'Otaku' offers a critical, philosophical, and historical inquiry into the characteristics and consequences of this consumer subculture.
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Otaku, subjectivity and databases: Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s database animals

In 2001, the same year Azuma Hiroki published the first print of the book under review here in Japan, new media theorist Lev Manovich released The Language of New Media (MIT Press), which puts forward surprisingly similar ideas concerning databases, and which turned into a globally cited standard work on digital culture (featuring translations into Italian, Korean, Polish, Spanish and Chinese). Meanwhile, Azuma’s book, despite becoming a bestseller in Japan, did not traverse the Japanese language border until its first English translation was published in 2009. This substantial delay for the translation of a key contribution to ongoing discussions about digital culture is another example of how existing global hegemonies of thought impact on transcultural scholarly dialogue.

In order not to get tangled up in questions of plagiarism (which often merely re-enacts the geopolitical asymmetry described above), we will put questions of originality in this review aside. We will rather try to take both books (and the intentions of their authors) as local inflections of global phenomena such as the digitalisation of the world and the growing importance of popular cultures seriously and discuss Azuma’s work on otaku culture in Japan as an autonomous perspective on questions of global interest. This review hopes to stimulate further thought on these questions and further aims to contribute to the overcoming of “Western” universalism, while at the same time developing a critical position towards the traces of “Japanese” essentialism (nihonjinron) found in Azuma’s work.

On the surface both books approach totally different cultural representations and processes. Whereas Manovich deals with new digital media within the (Western) histories of visual and media cultures of the last centuries, Azuma discusses what he calls contemporary “otaku culture,” comprising anime, manga, digital games, science fiction, special-effects films and its agents/consumers/conveyors, the so-called “otaku” in Japan.1 Nevertheless, Manovich’s overlaps with Azuma’s book in two key subjects: the duality of inter-/surface and database and modularity of (digital) popular cultures.

For both authors, ‘[t]he database becomes the center of the creative process in the computer age’ (Azuma, 2009, p. 227). Azuma (2009, pp. 31-33) explains this by a ‘postmodern’ epistemological shift from the world image (sekaizō) of the ‘tree’ model to one he calls the ‘database’ model. Referring to Jean-François Lyotard’s idea of the collapse of the grand narratives (Lyotard, 1984), Azuma claims that this ‘deep inner layer’ (the ‘grand narratives,’ namely ideals or ideologies) is replaced by a huge database in the postmodern age. Whereas the modern era was characterised by a structure in which a single grand narrative controlled the diverse small narratives (cultural and social criticism thus consisted in analysing grand narratives as reflected within various small narratives), in the postmodern era, people may grasp any number of small world images based on a database, which, ‘[a]s a cultural form, […] represents the world as a list of items, and […] refuses to order this list’ (Manovich, 2001, p. 225). However, Azuma stops short of addressing the questions of how the database is established and structured and whether it contains ideological underpinnings that structure everyday life. He not only remains vague about the evaluative criteria put in practice by the consumers, but is also, at times, rather uncritical towards the ‘postmodern’ subject he sketches—although acknowledging the global dimensions of the phenomenon (Azuma, 2009, p. 10)—even praising its Japanese form (the otaku) as being at the forefront of this process.

Nonetheless, the fact that Manovich, while agreeing with Azuma’s view on databases as ‘a new way to structure our experience of ourselves and the world’ (2001, p. 219), has not much to say about the new subjectivities and patterns of perception coming along with the growing importance of the database structure behind digital culture makes this notion of subjectivity a very stimulating aspect and a key feature of Azumas work. He defines otaku as a postmodern subject position in the global process of ubiquitous digitalisation and ‘databasification.’ With reference to Alexandre Kojève’s (1969) distinction between two forms of ‘post-historical existence’––the ‘animalization’ of American society based on consumerism and the highly formalised and aestheticized ‘snobbism’ of the Japanese—Azuma (2009, p. 53) asserts that otaku developed a ‘double-layer structure of consumption’ (shōhi no nisō kōzō) that reflects the two-layered structure of the postmodern itself.

Azuma claims that corresponding to the two layers of representation (database and simulacrum), one can identify two ways of how the otaku deal with the postmodern condition he described with the ‘database model.’ He calls one the ‘animalistic’ (dōbutsuteki) side of database consumption; that is the solitude and passive consumption of the many small narratives of digital games, anime, or manga, merely based on ‘combinations’ (kumiawase) of self-referential elements from the database. However, database consumption also has a second side, that is active or ‘pseudo-humanesque’ (ningen-teki) (in the sense in which Kojéve understands ‘human,’ namely not the rational human, but one which is defined by having desires). According to Azuma, otaku actively intervene in commodities by breaking down the narratives into their compounds, like screenplay, character, background in digital games, or single ‘moe-elements’ in manga. (Azuma, 2009, pp. 39-47) They thereby gain access to the database lying in the ‘depth’ behind the small narrations and are hence able to produce ‘derivative works’ (niji sōsaku) and new narrations or pictures themselves.2 Works in the otaku-culture thus have to be understood as accumulations of imitations and rip-offs, which are not distinguished from original works any more. The ‘double-layer structure’ (nisō kōzō) of deconstruction and reconstruction prompts Azuma to interpret the otaku culture as a deconstructivist and, thus, subversive form of cultural reception which brings it close to a deconstructivist method in contemporary literary theory that offers a subject position to intervene in existing cultural forms or the discourse. According to Manovich this is only possible, because ‘with new media, the content of the work and the interface are separated. It is [therefore] possible to create different interfaces to the same material’ (Manovich, 2001, p. 227); and ‘[i]n general, creating a work in new media can be understood as the construction of an interface to a database.’ (Manovich, 2001, p. 226)

The database model described by Azuma and the ‘humanesque’ side of otaku consumption is thus based on what Manovich describes as the ‘modularity’ of new media. According to Manovich (2001, p. 30), media elements (be they images, sounds, shapes, or behaviors) are represented as ‘collections of discrete samples’ in databases and in cultural products such as digital games. Just as with object-oriented programming, these elements can be taken either from the grand database or the database behind a particular (digital) cultural product and can be ‘assembled into larger-scale objects but continue to maintain their separate identities.’ (Manovich, 2001, p. 30) For Azuma, this means that a new level of simulacra is made possible, which derivate from an original but exist as equally original works (Azuma, 2009, pp. 82-83). To the otaku, he adds, it doesn’t matter any longer whether the ‘author’ of the small narratives they consume is a professional––‘authorized’ by one of the big manga or anime publishers––or an amateur who publishes self-made works (dōjinsaku) at events or on the Internet.

Why should all this matter? Because Azuma, similar to Walter Benjamin’s remarks on the ‘modes of perception’ regarding film and photograph, presents a theoretical approach to new forms of subjectivity in the postmodern era, which are grounded in technological developments, namely the materiality of new digital media. According to Benjamin, the modes of perception are not genetic or biological, but anthropologic and historical: ‘Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized – the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history’ (Benjamin, 2002/1936, p. 104). Benjamin differentiates between two modes of perception: one is contemplative, the other is ‘tactile’ or ‘habitual.’ The difference between both modes becomes extremely obvious if we think of the Internet. Other than the immersion into a book based on contemplative reading, “surfing” databases or the Internet can be described as what Benjamin termed ‘reception in distraction’ (Rezeption in der Zerstreuung) (2002/1936, p. 120). This mode of perception, according to Benjamin, is based on the ‘tactile quality’ of the object of perception––which was, in Benjamin’s case, movies and photographs (2002/1936, p. 119). The perception of the Internet is, to use the words of Benjamin, one of ‘tactile reception’ (taktile Rezeption) that is based on ‘habit’ rather than on ‘attention’ (2002/1936, p. 120). As with Azuma’s rather positive appraisal of otaku in Japan, it is important to add here that Benjamin’s perspective on habitualised perception is not totally pessimistic. Benjamin (2002/1936, p. 120) asserts that perception in a state of distraction ‘under certain circumstances acquires canonical value,’ since ‘the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points cannot be performed solely by optical means – that is, by way of contemplation. They are mastered gradually – taking their cue from tactile reception – through habit’ (Benjamin, 2002/1936, p. 120).

If applied to the cognition of the interactive structure of the Internet or the database layer behind popular cultural products, Benjamin’s and Azuma’s perspective refers to two ways of dealing with (digital) new media described by hypertext theorist Jay D. Bolter. The first is a mode of reception, according to Bolter (1991, p. 167) a looking ‘through the text’ in order to grasp and understand the meaning of the narration ‘behind’ the text. In the second mode, the user has to ‘look at the text, as a series of possibilities [a collection of hypertext links or media elements] that he or she (…) can activate.’ (Bolter, 1991, p. 167) This division establishes two modes of usage––one being active and ‘authentic’ and one being passive and “in-authentic”––rather than two strategies of dealing with digital, networked information. Azuma’s contribution, then, could be understood as an identification or localisation of these modes in Japanese popular culture—an attempt that, at the same time, expands their applicability beyond the realm of the internet and hypertext.

This strong English translation of Azuma’s book, along with its informative introduction, represents a very important step towards what Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000) has called the ‘provincialization’ of Euro-American thought through the introduction of thinkers from the periphery into the centers. However, the downside to the English translation is its title. Although Azuma himself, in various passages of his book and other occasions such as public talks, emphasises that he understands the subjectivity (not its cultural form) of otaku not as something uniquely Japanese, but as an inflection of the global postmodernization postmodernisation of the world in general, the publisher University of Minnesota Press jumped on the nihonjinron-bandwagon by limiting the title to the phenomenon of the otaku—Japan’s so-called “database animals.” Most likely, this is nothing else but mere marketing strategies. Placing the book in the broader global popularity of “Cool Japan’s” new soft powers manga and anime assures greater book sales.

Notes

1 In this respect, the translation is imprecise. “Otaku culture” rather corresponds to the Japanese term otaku bunka. However, in his Japanese version, Azuma uses the term otaku-kei bunka, which should be translated as ‘otaku-like culture.’ This small but important differentiation should not be interpreted as linguistic nitpicking. Anime, manga, digital games and so on are not just a cultural form related merely to otaku. It is also difficult to describe them merely as subcultures, since they are an important of Japanese popular culture in general.

2 Machinima (‘machine cinema’), the art of using a digital game to create a movie, is a similar active form of “recreation” by computer users. See: http://www.machinima.com

References

Benjamin, W. (2002/1936). The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility. In M. Bullock and M. W. Jennings (Eds.). Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume Three (pp. 101-133). Cambridge: Bellknap Press.

Bolter, J. D. (1991). Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.

Chakrabarty, D. (2000). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kojève, A. (1969). Introduction to the reading of Hegel. New York: Basic Books.

Lyotard, J. F. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Manovich, L. (2001). The Language of New Media, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Okada, T. (1995). Otaku-gaku nyūmon (Introduction to Otakuology). Tōkyō: Ōta shuppan.

Biographical Statement

Fabian Schäfer, PhD, is senior researcher at URPP Asia and Europe, University of Zurich. He is the author of Public Opinion, Propaganda, Ideology: Theories on the Press and its Social Function in Interwar Japan, 1918-1937 (Brill, 2012) and the editor of Tosaka Jun: Ideology, Media, Everydayness (in German; Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2011).

Email: fschaefer@gmail.com

Martin Roth is a PhD student at Leiden University and part of the Goto-Jones VICI project Beyond Utopia – New Politics, the Politics of Knowledge and the Science Fictional Field of Japan.
 
Is it possible to say anything truly new about the postmodern? Is it possible to make any contributions to a discourse on postmodernity that has been so thoroughly explored, theorized, argued over and regurgitated in Anglo-American as well as Japanese public discourse?

Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals replies with a resounding “yes.” Despite the term “postmodern” being rather moribund within the Japanese critical sphere at the time of its original 2001 publication, Azuma single-handedly brings the problem of postmodernity back to the fore through an engaging and inventive analysis of otaku culture. It is a great service to everyone – from academics to fans, Japanese culture aficionados to casual readers, from scholars and students of Japanese media studies, literary studies, critical theory and fan studies – that Jonathan Abel and Shion Kono have offered us their 2009 translation of Azuma’s text, published by University of Minnesota Press. This review will offer a brief critical overview of the book and its importance in the Japanese critical space of the 2000s.

As the original and translated titles imply (the Japanese title is Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai, literally, The animalizing postmodern: Japanese society as seen through otaku), Azuma makes the study of otaku his point of departure for exploring Japanese postmodernity. Otaku are those avid fans of anime, manga, computer games and their wider media circulation. The term is as current in the English language sphere as it is in the Japanese, and bears little of the stigma attached to it as recently as a decade ago. If the term otaku has undergone a massive revaluation since its nadir in the mid-1990s when it was equated with pedophilia and perversion, it is in part because of the work of writers like Azuma, who ventured to legitimate otaku as an object worthy of critical reflection. Otaku, Azuma argues, are at the forefront of Japanese postmodernity, and taking a close look at their consumption patterns, their attitudes towards narrative, and their structure of desire provides insight into the present era.[1]

The novelty of Otaku comes from the object of the study – otaku – as well as the questions the author poses about the postmodern. The two principal characteristics of the postmodern as Azuma defines it are relatively standard ones. The first comes from the classic work of Jean-François Lyotard and states that postmodernity sees the “decline of the grand narratives” of progress, enlightenment, and reason that formerly united a group of people into a unified whole. The second Azuma borrows from the other pillar of postmodern theory, Jean Baudrillard: the proliferation of derivative works, copies without originals, or “simulacra.” The significance of this book lies in taking these two rather stereotypical assessments of postmodernity and posing two new questions, which Azuma answers through an analysis of post-1995 otaku culture which “beautifully reflects the social structure of postmodernity”: (1) how do simulacra increase?; (2) “what becomes of the humanity of human beings” in a postmodern world? (29) The answer to the first comes in the concept of the database; the answer to the second lies in the thesis of animalization.

Azuma develops the concept of the database through his engagement with Ōtsuka Eiji’s analysis of “narrative consumption.”[2] In a 1989 essay, Ōtsuka had suggested that consumption of goods within the anime and manga worlds functioned through the consumption of small narratives or fragments in order to access the grand narrative or totality that lay beneath them. Accessing the grand narrative would allow consumers eventually to create their own narratives, in the form of fan production, or secondary production. In what is both one of the more important and one of the most questionable moves of the book, Azuma equates Ōtsuka’s use of the term “grand narrative” with that of Lyotard, and proceeds to argue that in otaku culture post-Evangelion, what otaku consume are not small narratives but “moe-elements” (character elements such as bunny ears or green hair, ways of speaking, even narrative tropes [42]). These moe-elements are affective nodes, elements that ignite the consumer’s desire, or need. Underneath thesemoe-elements is no longer a grand narrative, but rather the database, or “grand nonnarrative.” Otaku consumption, argues Azuma, is governed not by narratives small or grand, but by the non-narrative database that dictates what kind of moe-elements or simulacra circulate – and affect consumers – at a given moment. As with much of Azuma’s work, the double-layer structure is key here, wherein simulacra/moe-elements/characters are at the surface, and the database/grand non-narrative lies in the depths.

Azuma draws two diagrams, which appear in multiple iterations, to illustrate this state of affairs. The first diagram represents the structure of visibility, narrative and power of the modern era (32, 55, 60, 106), and bears witness to the influence of psychoanalysis on Azuma’s work. It is essentially a reworking of the diagrams on the visual field and the constitution of the viewing subject by the impersonal gaze that Jacques Lacan presents inThe Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.[3] In brief, in Azuma’s diagram we see how the subject, though the consumption of small narratives, is in turn determined by the single, unitary grand narrative that lies beneath them. The shift to what Azuma calls the “postmodern world image” or the “database model” sees a proliferation of information at the deep level of the database, and the rise of an active “reading” subject who picks out the simulacra of interest (33, 55, 62, 107). The modern world image essentially corresponds both to Lyotard’s vision of modern grand narratives as unifying ideologies, and, very roughly speaking, to the formation of the modern subject as conceived by Lacan. With postmodern database consumption comes an entirely different kind of subject, however, purportedly eclipsing that given to us by psychoanalysis. Here the subject is no longer in the presence of a transcendental Other (or even, at times, by an “other” person), and is therefore no longer even constituted as a human subject. Rather, and here Azuma brings Hegelian philosopher Alexander Kojève’s thesis on animalizationinto play, the consumer is merely an animal-like being that seeks to fulfill its needs. Unlike desires, which can never be fully satisfied, needs can be sated, whether by pornographic images or moe-elements. This satisfaction of needs can occur without the necessity for social interaction or communication, and therefore without the social interaction that makes humans human. Indeed, Azuma claims, in one of the more entertaining passages of the book, that: “the otaku behavioral principle can be seen as close to the behavior principle of drug addicts. Not a few otaku tell a heartfelt story that, having once encountered some character designs or the voices of some voice actors, that picture or voice circulates through that otaku’s head as if the neural wiring had completely changed. This resembles a drug dependency rather than a hobby.”(88)

This is a provocative passage, no doubt, and highlights Azuma’s rather short and underdeveloped presentation of his animalization thesis (one of the weaker elements of the book). Yet this does point to an element sometimes downplayed in Azuma’s account of otaku postmodernity: there is a power structure at work here, even if it is diffuse. Exiting modernity does not mean simply leaving the confines of grand narratives to a land of freedom and (drug-induced) happiness. The database is accompanied by new forms of control, and its own model of power. In fact it is precisely this new model of power that comes to the fore in Azuma’s immediately subsequent work, his widely read“Jōhō jiyūron” (Theory of information freedom) serialization in the journal Chūō kōron. Here Azuma developed the concept of “environmental power” that would inform the follow-up volume to Otaku, published in 2007 as Geemuteki riarizumu no tanjō: Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan 2 (The birth of gameic realism: The animalizing postmodern 2.[4]

Otaku ends with a challenge: “This book was written to create a moment in which great works such as [Yu-No] could be analyzed and critiqued, without distinctions such as high culture versus subculture, academism versus otaku, for adults versus for children, and art versus entertainment. The development from this point is left to each reader.” (116) Indeed, Azuma’s most lasting feat in the writing of this book was to create a discursive milieu in which popular culture and otaku and other subcultures could be analyzed in a serious, theoretical manner. And the author has actively fostered the development he hoped for through his work at interdisciplinary centers for study (such as GLOCOM, where he held his “ised” research group), and the creation and stewardship of magazines such as Shisō chizu (Thought map). Yet this discursive milieu is also, unsurprisingly, characterized by some of the weaknesses we find in this book: a tendency toward excessive periodization, or demarcating periods into smaller and smaller blocks of time; the tendency to ignore historical precedent and continuities in favor of the unilateral declaration of novelty (how different, for instance, are moe-elements from of literary or filmic genres?); a boys’ club mentality that privileges male otaku as the site of analysis, and downplays if not ignores gender or sexual difference; a looseness of writing and lack of rigor that comes in part from Azuma’s market-driven understanding of critical inquiry whereby high sales volumes replace theoretical precision as the model for critical thought; and a tendency towards the slotting of all of culture into dualistic categories (or “layers”) that pervade this book and most of Azuma’s work since.

That said, Azuma’s work, and this book in particular, has been key to the vibrant discursive milieu of Japan of the 2000s, and remains one of the most important critical and conceptual works on Japanese otaku. It has been the subject of critical engagement within English language scholarship, such as in Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Yet more work remains to be done. Happily, with the translation of this book, the translations of shorter pieces undertaken in Mechademia, and with the recent release of Saitō Tamaki’s Beautiful Fighting Girl, the English language reader is now privy to some of the landmark works in Japanese criticism of the 2000s.[5] One can only hope that this work of translation will continue unabated.

A final word should be said about thistranslation, then. While one could occasionally quibble over the choice of terminology – “multimedia” doesn’t sit well with me as a translation of “media mix,” for instance – this is overall a very readable and well-translated work. In this sense the translators have very much followed the spirit of the work, which was intended to be general–audience, and relatively jargon–free, as Azuma points out in his “Preface,” and as the translators note in their informative, critical, and very useful “Introduction.”(viii; xix) The translators have also added an extensive series of footnotes that provide background on certain books, events or people mentioned by Azuma, and on certain terminological peculiarities in the original work. Indeed, I would hazard to guess that Azuma may wish to add some of these notes back into later editions of the original Japanese itself.



[1]

Otaku are by no means a homogeneous group of people, and Azuma’s first move is to suggest that we think of three generations of otaku: those who were born around 1960, those who were born around 1970, and those born around 1980 and came of age around 1995, with the explosive appearance of the television series and franchise, Evangelion. The focus of this book is on the third generation of otaku.

[2]

See Ōtsuka Eiji, “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative,” trans. Marc Steinberg, Mechademia 5 (2010): 99-116.

[3]

Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 91, 106.

[4]

“Jōhō jiyūron” was republished in Azuma Hiroki, Jōhō kankyō ronshū: Azuma Hiroki korekushon S (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2007). See also Azuma Hiroki, Geemuteki riarizumu no tanjō: Dōbutsukasuru posutomodan 2 (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2007).

[5]

Saitō Tamaki, Beautiful Fighting Girl, trans. J. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
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In Japan, obsessive adult fans and collectors of manga and anime are known as otaku. Hiroki Azuma's 'Otaku' offers a critical, philosophical, and historical inquiry into the characteristics and consequences of this consumer subculture.

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