Introduction to Otakuology

el-expresidente-de-gainax-toshio-okada-abuchea-gundam-g-no-reconguistaWhen I think of “otaku” writers, one of the first names that comes to mind is Toshio Okada, the co-founder and former president of Gainax and self-proclaimed “Otaking”. Yet despite his enormous influence on Japanese and English-language scholarship on otaku, none of his works have been translated into English. That has only been partially fixed very recently. Excerpts from Okada’s Introduction to Otakuology (1996) were translated by Keiko Nishimura and published in the anthology Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (2015).

Since the book is quite expensive, I thought I’d make Okada’s writing more accessible to a non-academic audience by posting a condensed version of the chapter on my blog. I highly recommend you get a copy of the anthology to read the full chapter in context, along with Patrick Galbraith’s insightful introduction. Or better yet, read Introduction to Otakuology (Japanese title: オタク学入門). Somebody please translate the whole thing one day…

As you read this post, it’s important to remember that, much like Tamaki Saito, Okada started speaking up publicly about otaku after the infamous Tsutomu Miyazaki incident. Okada’s primary intent was to fix the otaku’s negative image and present them as worthy objects of academic study. As far as English-language scholars are concerned, however, Okada is a rather controversial figure. I’ll let you make up your own mind about him.

anonymoose-otaku-no-video-01-bd-10bit-42004491-mkv_snapshot_46-49_2015-04-11_13-34-41anonymoose-otaku-no-video-01-bd-10bit-42004491-mkv_snapshot_46-51_2015-04-11_13-34-45Note: Okada wrote the script for Otaku no Video (shown above). I highly recommend watching it.

Transformation from counterculture to subculture

In this section, Okada explains what he perceives as the difference between counterculture and subculture.

Counterculture arises from class struggle or from resistance against a dominant culture. The greater the oppressive power, the greater the resistant response. However, in North America, where there is less apparent consciousness about class, counterculture turned into subculture. Instead of resisting against a classist society, American youths decided to resist against ‘being an adult’ in and of itself. At the same time, subculture is born out of America’s consumerist culture. Because mass consumption is the antithesis of the puritan attitudes of the early settlers, the consumption-based subculture of the youth came to be seen as transgressive.

In essence, youth subculture values things that are considered ‘chaos’ in the dominant culture, and it highlights the sensibility of ‘children’ as the representatives of chaos. Therefore, when a doodle by Keith Haring is valued as art, it means that subculture ‘won’ against dominant culture.

The art of Keith Haring
The art of Keith Haring

To sum up: culture was originally linked directly to class. High culture belonged to the upper echelons of society, and low culture to the masses. However, when high culture opened up to the masses, a class-conscious citizen had to acquire the popularised version of the aristocratic culture, which is now the ‘dominant culture’. However, those who resist classism resorted to counterculture. This spread throughout the world via anti-war protests, but in areas with less severe oppression there was no ‘class’ to resist against, and thus counterculture was forced to transform into subculture instead.

Japanese subculture as fashion

According to Okada, imitation comes naturally to the Japanese. However, Japan did not originally have ideas such as resistance against adults, so the Japanese can only imitate what is on the surface. To quote Okada:

More than fifty years have passed since the end of the Pacific War. Japan’s economy has recovered – the country has even surpassed the level of those countries that were in the ‘winning group of WWII’. However, the culture of this country has not moved out of the shadow of the colonial idea that ‘American style is cool!’


The reason why Japanese fashion and subculture is so uncool to Western eyes is because Japan appropriates so many aspects of Western culture without understanding their historical or cultural significance. Okada describes it as “the uncoolness of wearing a Malcolm X cap with a smile and being questioned by a black guy, who asks, ‘Do you really understand!?’” Thus, Japanese subculture is not valued at all in the world (read: the Western world; Okada doesn’t mention Japan’s interactions with other East Asian countries).

The only exception he sees is otaku culture. However, part of the the reason why he thinks otaku culture caught on is because he doesn’t actually see it as subculture. It didn’t develop out of resistance to adults or out of class warfare.

Freedom of otaku culture


Okada explains:

In Japan’s ‘culture of children’, we treat a child as an individual human being with the same entitlements as a fully-fledged person. Of course, there are things that they cannot do or understand on account of their age. However, we do not jump to the conclusion that they would not understand something and so should not be exposed to it. Even as we let a three- year-old take the stage in Kabuki, we introduce mature themes such as desire and conflict in such materials without hesitation. There is no fear of exposing the child to such themes.

He also uses some anime examples to illustrate his point. For example, in Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974), the emotional conflicts of Alm-Onji (Alps-Uncle), an adult character, is given more emphasis than in the original series. In robot anime, the pilots’ internal anguish over war is given heavy focus. Crayon Shin-chan (1992–ongoing) depicts the effects of capitalism. The content is presented in a way that younger children can understand and enjoy, but at the same time, mature themes are inserted into the narratives.

Crayon Shin-chan
Crayon Shin-chan

Okada argues that the ‘culture of children’ is unique to Japan. Otaku works are created within this worldview and form a synthetic art (sōgō geijutsu) that borrows the outer form of children’s culture. Like Hollywood films, Japanese otaku culture has a framework that is widely accessible to people of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

There is also another important characteristic of Japanese culture that is present within otaku culture: the consumer culture established during the Edo Period.

Otaku culture = artisan culture

Says Okada:

I consider otaku culture to be a legitimate heir (seitō keishōsha) of artisan culture, which was part of the consumer culture of the Edo Period. In other words, the otaku form of enjoyment (otaku- teki na tanoshimi) is the gratification of appreciating an artisan’s work. This means admiring the work’s craftsmanship, learning about its origin and appreciating its refinedness. With its way of appreciating a work at the level of ‘world’ and ‘design’ as well as the abstract level of judgement, otaku culture has evolved in a similar direction.

In other words, consumers develop a kind of sophistication (iki) equaling and even surpassing that of the creator. For example, in the Edo Period, the ‘connoisseur’ (mekiki) was a serious occupation in the world of the tea ceremony. They were regarded with greater respect than the actual artisans. Sen no Rikyū had a profound influence on the world of the tea ceremony, but he couldn’t actually make teacups himself. Still, whatever teacup he regarded as good quality was in turn highly regarded by the family that owned the teacup. He was such an artist that his words were able to draw out the beauty of the teacup.

Sen no Rikyū

The teacup itself doesn’t change just because of Sen no Rikyū. An informed point of view leads to a reevaluation of the object.

The same thing happens in otaku culture. If creators cut corners, consumers respond with criticism, but they are also able to appreciate a high level of craft when they see it. On a fundamental level, Edo Period consumers are no different from the otaku watching Mahōjin Guru Guru (Magic Circle Guru Guru, 1994) and appreciating the meta commentary on Japanese role-playing games.

Magic Circle Guru Guru

Okada states that this interaction between creators and customers is a unique characteristic of Japanese culture. The reason why rakugo is becoming extinct is because there are less consumers who understand the principles behind it. No matter how intricate the art, if nobody understands the technique, it all goes to waste. In the Western art world, on the other hand, the creator is a god. Artists never listen to the receivers. And the receivers in turn just have to accept what the artist does.

A society of liberal brainwashing

Okada asks: How will the world change with the shift from an advanced industrial society to an advanced information society? In his previous book, Bokutachi no sen’nō shakai (Our Brainwashing Society, 1995), he argued that society is moving from liberal economic competition to liberal brainwashing. The economic activities that have previously only been accessible to the elites have been opened to the general public. This gives everyone the means to brainwash others through disseminating propaganda. Given this change, Okada suggests that the Western-centred value system of rationalism and democracy is on its way towards imminent collapse.

According to him, this is due to one huge change, namely the decline of dominant culture. Now that the values system that belongs to the dominant culture is in decline, only subculture remains. However, Okada also foresees that subculture, which draws its potency through resistance against the dominant culture, will lose its influence in the future. He predicts that when the first generation of otaku enters retirement, the dominant culture will be gone, subculture will not be as apparent, and otaku culture will be mainstream in the world.

(Note that Okada’s attitude here possibly explains why he tends to look down on moe these days. It’s the product of another generation of otaku, who simply don’t understand what made otaku culture so cutting edge in the first place.)

Getting back to Introduction to Otakuology, however, Okada argues that while Western rationalism isn’t wrong, per se, it was imported into Japan in a twisted form. Problems such as the ‘occult fad’, religious cults, and commodified sex have come about as results of the major shifts in the world’s economy. This was visible in Japan from the early days of Westernisation due to its half-baked appropriation of Western products and thought, but there are signs of cultural collapse all over the world. The rise of a global otaku fandom is an indication of this.

1381927781016So how far up will Japanese otaku culture climb in the eyes of the world? Okada says: “I am excitedly keeping a close eye on developments.”

Note: The editors of Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons asked that I rewrite this post to comply with the scope of Fair Use. I have complied with their request. While I have tried to present Okada’s argument as honestly and as comprehensively as I can through this summary, please let me know if I have misrepresented his argument or quoted him out of context.


  1. “…Because it does seem at odds, sometimes, with these artists’ politics and their somewhat antagonism, their left-wing politics and antagonism to capitalism, in general.

    But in point of fact, mass culture was liberatory for the vast majority of intellectuals. A lot of these artists found that rather than the establishment or hierarchies of patronage that they had gone through, that this public sphere of mass culture offered them new opportunities, new liberatory modes of expression. And that these corporations, which many of them had very progressive company presidents who were deeply and hands-on engaged in the production of …”

    From a Visualizing History essay, on the Avant-Garde movement and the use of it in promotional materials in a pre-WWII Japan.

    This is why I’ve a problem with “Counterculture”. Is working or not working with the upper echelon in your society makes an artist’s arts are or aren’t counterculture?

    On the other hand, I agree much with the author.

    • This is something I’ve been thinking about as well, the extent to which people collude with the very forces they think they’re resisting. It’s something that comes up in postcolonial theory, but that’s a topic for another day.

      I don’t actually agree much with Okada here at all, but that’s neither here nor there.

  2. Fascinating. This a really fascinating read. I’m really sure what to think of Mr. Okada but good read none the less.

    Those comments about mature themes in children focused anime actually got me thinking a bit about Osamu Tezuka and Shotaro Ishinomori and their works. From what I’ve read Tezuka had a good deal of faith in children and their ability to handle mature themes. And when Ishinomori co-created Kamen Rider, he was out to create a horror story that you could tell children but still frighten them at the same time. To this end, Kamen Rider became about the struggle of nature vs industrial society, with the bug themed Kamen Rider representing nature and the organization SHOCKER, being an evil group turning people into machines deviod of free will. At the same time critiquing current Japanese soceity. And Cyborg 009 took place in a post Cold War time but still has many similar themes. Actually, that seems to be a trend in several of Ishinomori’s works that I’ve become interested in.

    • Your comment has gotten me interested in Ishinomori’s works! I’ve been planning to check out the original Kamen Rider manga for some time now :P

      • Cool! I’m absolutely interested in Tezuka and Ishinomori’s careers and bodies of work. These men have numerous titles ranging from sci-fi to shoujo. Their works are so vast in volume its almost daunting. Ishinomori’s are especially interesting to me, from the works I’ve engaged with so far I always feel their is this bit of sillness to them that keeps them grounded, even as the works darker themes shine through. Cause they can be a bit silly. I also really like their older art style.

        Kamen Rider’s creation is also really interesting. In 1971, Toei wan’t a superhero that rival the Return of Ultraman, to this end Toei producer Tohru Hirayama and Ishinomori created the hero [[ Crossfire.]] The executives loved it but Ishinomori began to fell it was too perfect. He wanted something groatesque, something darker. So Hirayama and Ishinomori went back and revised it, with the first tought being a skull themed hero like Ishinomori’s one shot manga the Skullman. But sponsors didn’t like the skull theme so they reevaluated and eventually created the grasshopper themed Kamen Rider.

        Also from what I’ve read at the time Television was becoming more relevant in the lives of people and many feared that it would overcome manga in terms of popularity among children and adolescents. So to combat this fear, Yoshinori Watanabe of Toei Studios decided to create what would later become known as Media Mix. Through collaboration between television producers and famous manga artists, new series and products could be made to satisfy audiences from the two mediums: television viewers and manga readers. In this time, new series would not only become a television show, but also a simultaneously-published manga as well. So both productions were created around the same time, they were not entirely related: Ishinomori handled the manga while Hirayama and his team produced the series back at Toei.

  3. I think you should delete the tenth pic out (a man who stands before f*x sign). I mean, you wrote about “A society of liberal brainwashing” and you showed this man’s photo so I don’t think this is good idea. Safety first is the best.

    However, it’s up to you. This is just suggestion.

      • Yes, that person’s mouth is :z

        I understand you have not any bad attention but as your blog is popular, there’s possible (even if I think the possibility is so low) that person might find this pic and get upset or not get upset but find a way to gain BIG money via his lawyer.

        I read a blogger who were attacked by lawyer because he did A big mistake in his post. I forgot detail after that but he mentioned his real life changed completely in bad way. So he wrote his experience in his blog again.

    • …and now I’m curious to understand what that joke was :/.

      Anyway, I find it a weird choice of word to call it “liberal” brainwashing, because that gives it a political meaning, whereas it seems to me that the word here is used more in its economic sense, namely “liberalized”: as in, accessible to everyone on an equal footing. It seems to me he’s arguing that, while having one government trying to brainwash you into buying into one specific ideal may be bad, having *everyone* trying to brainwash you into buying into their ideals is far more confusing and ultimately worse. Meaning by brainwashing all those communication techniques that rely on more or less cheap rhetoric tricks rather than actually engaging with sensible arguments. See for reference all the various conspiracy theories or the antivaxxing movement.

        • Oh, I see.

          What about the word thing? Did you read the original text and do you know if the word has the same implications in Japanese as it does in English? For example the term “liberal” in Italian is used in a far more generic way and doesn’t explicitly mean a left-winger (in fact it usually evokes the sense of a moderate, centre mentality, if not even right-wing), so I was wondering what the translation had done here.

          • I’ll be able to give you a proper answer tomorrow since I’ll be borrowing the Japanese book from my uni library. My guess is that Okada was using the word 自由主義, which is closer to the European understanding of the word “liberalism”. It’s only really in America where liberalism is associated primarily with social liberalism. At least, that’s what it says on the Japanese wikipedia article lol.

            • Yeah, pretty much what I was imagining. I ended up using the word “liberal” to mean a left-wing person myself at this point due to how much US politics stuff I read (despite living in the UK) but the first times I heard it used that way it was really weird XD.

  4. Well, his prediction about otaku culture becoming the dominant culture came through, right? I already despize the commodification of said culture. Maybe this kind of feeling is the start of a new counterculture?

    • Hmm, I wonder. I feel that commodification has always been a thing in otaku culture. You’ve read Azuma, so you’re probably aware of his argument that commodification is otaku culture.

      But I get how you feel about commodification. Capitalism sure sucks sometimes.

      • I mean there’s commodification of works of art and then there’s commodification of the atmosphere of the hobby itself.
        Not sure if Azuma said that, then again it’s been awhile.

  5. I loved this post. Even though I disagree with Okada on certain points, it was a very fascinating read, and introduced some new concepts I hadn’t considered before. Thanks so much for making it available to us!

  6. One of the “Four Big Dudes” of early Otakology. I think there was a panel with him, Tamaki and Azuma in 2004 or 2005 and he ended up sputtering-ly angry (or was it Azuma?) over Tamaki’s insistence on the importance of schmex in the fandom. I can’t remember if the fourth horseman, Eiji Otsuka took part as well. (recall that he was in the thick of it as Manga Burikko’s chief editor way back at the dawn of time) (Btw, Eiji’s thing on Disney and Eisenstein is a hoot, which is rare for anything published in Macadamia

    Oh and thanks for your precis on Tamaki. Re-emphasising Butler is important, that gets washed out sometimes with all of ST’s other odd themes.

    Trying to get one’s mitts on these expensive thicky books is a chore. The Muse slip-arounds are spotty and publishers are wising up… grrrrr,,,, Oh well, patience…

    In the meantime, thanks and must update the bibliography (grin!)

    • I think there was a panel with him, Tamaki and Azuma in 2004 or 2005 and he ended up sputtering-ly angry (or was it Azuma?) over Tamaki’s insistence on the importance of schmex in the fandom.

      I’m pretty sure this was Azuma iirc.

      Also, glad you liked my post on Tamaki!

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