“I may not be popular, but I live on.”
These are the words of Toru Honda, a Japanese cultural commentator and self-identified otaku. Despite his obscurity in the English-speaking otaku world, he did attract buzz in Japan about ten years ago for his controversial ideas. He also coined the phrase “2.5D dimensional space”, which is pretty useful for understanding maids and idol culture. For that, at least, he deserves more discussion in English than he has currently received.
Honda first came to fame by pissing over Densha Otoko, the film that made otaku “cool” in the eyes of the mainstream Japanese public. As far as Honda was concerned, the protagonist of Densha Otoko was a traitor to otaku. By renouncing his otaku ways and becoming a “normal” lover, Densha Otoko merely fed into a system Honda calls “love capitalism”, wherein a man’s attractiveness is measured by his economic worth.
Honda himself has renounced romance and other human relationships, choosing instead to live vicariously through his love of moe and cute anime girls. Giving up 3D for the sake of 2D is what he calls the “Love Revolution”, an act of rebellion against the vicissitudes of capitalism.
At first glance, it’s easy to be dismissive of Honda. He seems to play up the “kimoi otaku” stereotype for effect, all the while dressing up his thinly veiled misogyny with pseudointellectual references to Western philosophers. But when he talks about his own life, I could start to see where his attitude comes from. At the very least I think there’s some worth in translating his words, especially to put a human face on the people who argue passionately for the superiority of 2D anime girls.
This post is a translation of an interview with Toru Honda on Mammo.tv, an educational site aimed at high school students. The focus is on philosophy and not on otaku particularly, but I think you can see how his attitudes as an “otaku” were formed, and how they’ve been influenced by his experiences and the philosophical texts he’s read. I’ll leave it to you to make up your mind about him.
And now, without further ado…
Toru Honda (author)
Let’s say you want to be acknowledged by people and become popular with the opposite sex. However, in order to be popular, you’re judged on your physical appearance, sensibilities and economic worth. In truth, you’re measured by your worth to society right from the get-go. The act of falling in love has become an economic transaction. That’s what Honda-san calls “Love Capitalism”, but what exactly does it entail?
You explained the concept of Love Capitalism in your book, but just how are love and capitalism connected?
A long time ago, money and love were opposing things, but around the time I graduated from university, Japan was right in the middle of what we call the Bubble Economy. It was as close as you could get to a prosperous period of history. To put it simply, there were a lot of people who would hold a fan like Bubbly Aota and dance around.
The magazines and dramas were also reinforcing ideas like, “If you don’t own an automobile as a university student, then you can’t go on dates with girls,” or “If you can’t take her out to skiing or to a hotel, then you won’t be popular with the opposite sex.” That sort of thing was regarded as common sense. There was this prevailing attitude that if you didn’t have money you couldn’t find love. And that was how love became commoditised by a capitalist society during the tail end of the 1980s.
I, who am loved, have worth. And that worth is decided by the market.
When love has been commoditised, then people without economic worth cannot find love. And they say that people who cannot find love are beyond saving.
The ideology of love supremacy has become like a religion in this day and age.
I dropped out of high school and attended a prep school for the University Entrance Qualification Examination. The people who went to that prep school were yankee and otaku types. There were people of both extremes, but since they were all dropouts who didn’t fit in with their current school, they were rather emotionally unstable.
Maybe it’s the anxiety of falling off the course of a “credentialist” society, or perhaps it’s the feeling of isolation from society during your teen years. Whatever it is, it’s an existential crisis. You start thinking that if you connect with others through something like love, then you might be saved from the pain inside of you. Many people felt driven into a corner by the thought that they had no worth if they couldn’t be loved.
And so it immediately becomes a grandiose problem of life-or-death. Perhaps it’s because they lived in the kind of world that Yutaka Ozaki sang about. Because they had poor communication skills, they were unable to save themselves by connecting with others. They’d end up seeking validation from others as their only recourse.
The prep school might have been a stepping stone for university, but so many of my friends were left crippled by their relationships.
I saw those kinds of things happening, and so I thought, “It’s a bad idea to be too fixated on love, so I’ll leave that kind of thing for after I get into university.” But when I eventually moved to Tokyo and started high school, the Bubble was in full swing, and everyone thought that if you didn’t have money you couldn’t find love. I used up all my money on school fees and didn’t have a penny on me. But, well, given my case, it would have been hopeless for me even if I did manage to scrape together some cash.
In other words, after the 70s, the grand narrative broke down and love became a religious system. And then, I believe, it became industrialised. That was the Bubble period for you.
If Love Capitalism is “a dating sim set in reality”, then tell us the rules of the game.
In this society where love is equivalent to modern capitalism, all the parameters required to “win” in a capitalist society apply to love as well. I’m talking about things like your economic value and your academic history. That and your looks. Humans have biological urges, so that should go without saying. People who lack either quality would have to sharpen their communication skills—things like their personality or hobbies. And since the late 80s, the one’s deciding the rules of the dating sim would be the advertising agencies and the mass media. Magazines with dating advice like Hot-Dog PRESS were selling well, and the trendy dramas and Hoichoi films were spreading all over the place. The contents of those products created the dating sim known as “reality”.
You say that people who can’t be “consumed” in the romance market will be unpopular, but in your latest book A Philosophical History of Unpopular Men, you claim that “True philosophy begins from the agony of not being popular (motenai).”
Well, motenai doesn’t just mean being unpopular with the opposite sex; it can also mean things like not having money. In other words, the “unpopular” in the title refers to being deprived. A person in a deprived situation will apply their efforts and think outside the box in order to deal with their feeling of deprivation. From there, the makings of culture are born—philosophy and all that business. Deprivation is what drives development. People who get the girls or money are comfortable in their situation, so they don’t really get bogged down by an existential crisis.
If you chose philosophy, you must have had an existential crisis.
It was definitely not my first wish to choose philosophy in university. Actually, it was my only choice! I just read a lot of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard after I dropped out of school.
I was never suited to the school environment. I was close to what they’d call a learning disabled child nowadays, so I was generally erratic. I couldn’t pay attention in class or eat my lunch. But because I would get full marks on my tests, my teachers and classmates would pick on me. I couldn’t fit in at home either, so I really had no place to belong.
I wasn’t good at handling relationships, and I wasn’t popular with girls either. They thought I was disgusting. It all piled up, and eventually I decided that I couldn’t go to school anymore and stopped attending. Whenever I thought about changing myself to become more popular, I’d look in the mirror and decide it was impossible, that I wouldn’t be able to live if I didn’t rebuild my entire worldview from scratch. From there, I became the kind of person who is critical of just about everything, kind of like Descartes. You’re a full-fledged philosopher in my book if you say things like, “You might act all high and mighty saying this is reality, but the fantasy world is nothing more than an expression of human consciousness, after all…”
What did you do after you dropped out of high school?
For a while I shut myself in my room and watched anime all day. Depending on the situation, it wouldn’t have been strange if I’d killed myself, but I would think, “I can’t die until I’ve seen the last episode.” I didn’t have any money, and nor could I go outside. All I had was a mere pen and paper, so I wrote out the tenets of my philosophy, using an ethics textbook as a template.
As far as a philosopher is concerned, the concepts around 2D reality, such as Plato’s theory of Ideas, would apply to harem anime. I wrote about things like that.
I realised that the ideas these philosophers formulated were linked to their individual hopes and desires. That’s why I liked Freud. A human came up with these ideas, so they must have started with the dissatisfaction in their own lives, and from there they thought of all kinds of things.
A ridiculous amount of philosophers were alone or unpopular throughout their entire lifetime. It can’t be a coincidence that so many of them had been cast by the wayside and had stared death in the face.
These days, our lives are based around consumption. You have to keep using money in order to prolong a romance. That even applies to mature and lifelong romances. Even if you get married and have a child, you still have to do romance! I found myself thinking that in a society like this, I was worthless unless I could find love or make relationships with other people.
But because this is a capitalist society, not everyone can win at love. That’s why I believe there are more people in the mainstream these days that anguish about existential problems like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.
The modern man cannot be saved by grand narratives. He can no longer receive spiritual comfort from Christianity or elevate himself along with his country, as he might have done before. He cannot save himself by his own hand. He may seek small comfort through relationships such as romance or family, but if that doesn’t save him, he cannot preserve his sense of self. He’ll end up thinking that his life has no worth.
And so on one hand, you have people who are taking steps to revive the Hegelian grand narrative, and on the other hand you have people who think it’s impossible to revive the grand narrative. An existential crisis is gradually arising.
Nietzsche, the forerunner of existentialism, wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra after being rejected by a woman named Lou Salomé. The contents were basically, “I will forever be unpopular, but I live on.” This was in the 19th century. Nobody understood it because it was ahead of its time, and only forty copies of part four were printed. I don’t think it would be acknowledged as an example of what we’d call a doujinshi today. Well, Nietzsche himself might have thought it was one. Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s ideas pervade our capitalist society a century later.
I think that moteru isn’t just about love. To me, it’s about receiving attention from people and living your life without expecting to be acknowledged. Doesn’t that require a strong ego?
But even receiving attention is nothing but a trial. You’ll always be conscious that you’re being watched by others. I think it’s better to live the quiet life.
It may be that in this world your entire being is determined by your relationships with others. But that’s not actually the case. If you think you’re okay with that, then that’s how it’ll be.
Nietzsche presented the concept of the Übermensch, but the Nazis appropriated it and altered the word’s connotations. It didn’t originally refer to someone with political power. “No matter what happens, I won’t be shaken. I can seriously believe that my life is fine the way it is.” In other words, it means someone who acts independently. It establishes the modern ego, or perhaps self-sufficiency on a spiritual level.
You can look to other people, but it’s not actually a good thing. There’s no resolution, no matter where you go. To put it in relation to the opposite sex, the first Qin Emperor gathered tens of thousands of beautiful women at the Epang Palace, but he wasn’t saved one bit. He was always afraid of death. As a concept, I believe that capitalism sidesteps the goal of happiness by focusing on the means of production: “endless manufacturing, endless consumption, endless expansion.” In truth, however, happiness is a mental state.
That said, a “mental state” isn’t something that can just take care of itself. In order to live alone, you need something tangible.
In order to achieve that, you need to strive to do something you really want to do, as trite as that sounds.
Honda-san, how did you find something you want to do?
Since I can’t do a desk job, I had no choice but to do any kind of work that didn’t involve being a salaryman. When I was a child, I wanted to become a manga artist, but in spite of my best efforts, you could say my artwork had an eccentric feel, or maybe it was gross. So I gave up on the idea. I wanted to draw cute girls, but I couldn’t draw them at all. Maybe my mental state slipped into my drawings, but the end result was like something from Garo magazine. Since then, I’ve switched to writing.
After I graduated university, I worked for a publishing company, but sure enough, I couldn’t adapt to it, and since then I’ve been a NEET or Freeter.
When I worked at a Kamaboko factory, my boss told me, “If you’re careless with that machine, your fingers might go flying, so be careful.” He said that, lacking fingers himself. I prostrated myself and asked him to let me quit, saying, “If I can’t type on a keyboard, then it’s over for me.”
So, yeah, things weren’t peachy for me, but thanks to the internet and my otaku hobbies, I’ve managed to put food on my plate. Now that I think about it, I’m glad I didn’t quit being an otaku.
When I was in university, I never really put myself out there. In fact, I shut myself in my room without going to high school. When I was well and truly a loner, I feel like I saved money. Back then, I read as much as I could and wrote down my thoughts. At the time, I thought I didn’t have a future, but now that I think about it, I might just be glad I had that experience of being a hikikomori. You could say I put myself through brain training on hard mode. I was definitely incapable of thinking of it that way at the time, though.
Humans have no way of knowing where the future will lead. So whenever you’re feeling driven into a corner, I recommend that you run away and try not to die, first and foremost.
For now, you should do what you like doing. If you get involved in something you’re passionate about, you’ll get by, so there’s no need to feel a sense of inferiority about your hobbies. Back then I, too, wondered if it was okay to watch anime of all things, but thanks to anime, I’m still alive to this day.
There’s no need to go out of your way to conform to societal standards of worth.
Marxism is in decline these days, marking the return of an extremely stratified society. I do wonder what we should do about it, but there are ways to live, even if you force yourself to get on board with capitalism for now instead of fighting it.
But if you just sit there, you won’t be able to eat. As long as you manage to get by on the lowest living expenses possible, I believe you can find things to enjoy within yourself.
If moteru is about having a title or money and using that to support yourself, then capitalism is made up of people who yearn to be moteru.
However, if everyone competes by those rules, then nearly everyone will become a loser. In that case, living a self-contained lifestyle should also be a valid alternative.
In any case, if there are any high school students suffering in their day-to-day lives who are reading this, then listen to me: As long as you’re alive, don’t bring death upon yourself. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t go to school. As long as you survive, then your situation may change. As long as you cling to survival as your number one rule, then you won’t lose even if you stop going to school for a while or become a NEET. It’s far better than killing yourself because going to school pains you, or committing violence at school and becoming a criminal.
The world doesn’t revolve around school, and for that matter money and love aren’t necessities either. I think it’s fine to immerse yourself in what you like doing.