When 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.