Mediamatic Magazine vol 5#4 Volker Grassmuck 1 Jan 1991


Japanese Kids colonize the Realm of information and Media

The rise of the Otaku generation is one of the most striking phenomena of contemporary Japan. In the last Mediamatic Issue (volume 5#3), Gabin Itoh, editor of the Japanese magazine Log In, already mentioned the game-Otaku, children lost to everyday life by their fanatical enthusiasm for all manner of different computer games; there are also Otaku who read and know everything about comics, there are Otaku who collect all the facts and details about films and film stars, there are Otaku who know everything there is to know about pop music and pop musicians, etcetera. In the article below, Volker Grassmuck, at this moment stationed in Tokyo, investigates the source and the descent of the japanese Otaku children.


Otaku -

On the first of November Japanese TV reported a car accident. A minor had driven his fathers car out of it's garage and tnto the neighbour's garden. The boy was twelve months old. The father told the press that the kis had learned to drive in the video game parlour to which he'd been taking him every day.

We're talking here about a 'new humankind', a shinjin rui. At the very least, if we chose to read it shinjin rui, it'sa ‘new kind of human'. Well, if nothing else they’re new and they're one of a kind. Nothing more is certain about the oiaicu, even their humanness is being doubted. They might very well be from outer space.

If you ask different people for a definition of the term otaku you get contradictory answers. In different phases of its dissemination it changed in meaning, and people look at it from different angles at any given time.

Their phenomenology varies widely. Some otaku hunt for photographs of the music industry's synthetic starlets, some are fanatically into computer games, many are immersed in comic-books much of their waking day, others are plastic model maniacs, and yet others prefer hacking into car-phone conversations. Otaku is not concerned with a certain subject matter, but is rather a mode of being. There are magazines catering to them, fairs, pornography, videos, and computer networks, and there is the Book of Otaku. According to an estimate by the editor of Do -Pe one of the otaku-magazines, there is a hard core of 350.000 of them around, but, he says, how many 'light otaku' exist, nobody knows.

The few common denominators are that otaku are teens or twens, mostly boys who usually wear jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, which might not sound very characteristic, but in fashion-crazy Japan it is. They despise physical contact and love media, technical communication, and the realm of reproduction and simulation in general. They are enthusiastic collectors and manipulators of useless artifacts and information. They are an underground, but they are not opposed to the system. They change, manipulate, and subvert ready-made products, but at the same time they are the apotheosis of consumerism and an ideal workforce for contemporary Japanese capitalism. They are the children of the media.

Take, for example, game-otaku Riko Kushida She is an exceptional case in the computer-otaku world where the overwhelming majority is male (98.3 per cent of the readers of Log In, the game magazine for which she works as an editor, are male).

Her small room is Uttered with arcade-machines and two or three hundred naked boards that she can slot into the consoles. She wears a blue denim jacket and skirt, and looks a Uttle bit lost in between the sterile, industrial partitioning walls of the reception area of Log In magazine. She looks at me with lowering reservation, as if cautious, but speaks with self-confidence and looks into my eyes (therefore she doesn't quite qualify as a hard-core otaku). When she was eight or nine she started playing home rv-games like Ping Pong and Block. At ten she went to the game-floors of department stores which offered higher quaUty graphics than the Tv-games, and started to program her own games in basic. In those days kids would home-assemble radios, and it was in amateur-radio magazines that special sections for writing games on home-computers first appeared. By the age of thirteen she had made friends with the manager of the game-parlour to which she now went daily. He introduced her to second-hand game-machine dealers. Their customers up to then had been exclusively managers of game-parlours. Then the game-otaku discovered them. They sell boards of used machines - considered garbage before - for upwards of 5.000 Yen, and complete consoles and rare items foraround 250.000 Yen. Such an investment can break even in a matter of weeks if the player does not have to feed the coin-slot for every game.Kushida identifies Space Invaders as the turning-point in the history of video-games. Introduced in 1979 by Taitö, the game was copied, often illegally, by software firms all over the world and it created a whole generation of game-addicts. It was followed by the classic Pacman and - the all-time number one, according to Kushida - Pong from Atari (first released in 1971). In the post-Invaders days the market exploded. Companies like Namco or Nintendo grew big, some very big. Originally a playing- card maker,Nintendo - the videogame empire - was the top earner of all Japanese companies in 1989 for the eighth consecutive year. They raked-in 250 billion Yen in sales.

Talking about the birth and rise of the game phenomenon Kushida is taken with sentimentality. In those days she dreamt of games. But, she says, it was not the games which took over her imagination, but her imagination which originally led her to the games.
Today Kushida is twenty and studies philosophy. No, she does not find that choice of field surprising. The game world includes the 'real world,’ and vice versa. So, there is certainly a relation between philosophy and games, but a very complicated one that she can't quite explain, she says, and laughs.

New generations

The Japanese, maybe more so than other peoples, want to find out who they are and where they’re going. It is only in the last fifteen years that the accumulated wealth can be felt in society. This didn’t happen without radical changes and ruptures. Internationally they are mostly acceptedand praised for their technology. A shakey base to build an identity on. Changes in attitudes and mentality are most visible with the young. The wish to understand
what they are up to brings forth the coining of a ‘new generation’ just about every year. The term otaku has had many predecessors in the debates about contemporary
popular culture.

An older catch-phrase that was in use for a season or two is moratoriumu ningen (moratorium people). Keigo Okonogi, professor at the neuropsychiatric department of Keiö University, coined it in 1977. Originally, psychosocial moratorium refered to a period of training or study in which young people are suspended from fulfilling their obligations and responsibilities to society. In Okonogi's interpretation it becomes today’s dominant social character.

The description of this moratorium mentality provides a background for the Eighties phenomenon of otaku. The affluent consumer society, says Okonogi, has an infantilizing effect. Media and advertising appeal to the child in everyone. As the rate of science and technology- driven social change accelerates, everyone is forced to flexibly adapt and perpetually learn in order to keep up sophisticated skills. The frenzied demon's dance of cultural appearances and disappearances allows no other mode of being than a provisional, temporary one, permanently 'on call’. No other mode than a playful and leisurely involvement that maintains distance. Everybody has come to be both consumer and nonaffiliated, uncommited visitor within a controlling and protecting structure. Like otaku,the shallow human relations allow moratorium people to live isolatedly. The moratorium biographies lead to an identity diffusion syndrome and an ego vacuum that, according to Okonogi, have today become the normal state of affairs. The moratorium becomes an end in itself. But the situation also contains an explosive, destructive power.

Most of all, Okonogi blames the mass media, which produce an unreal state of existence (...) The self-dissociation characteristic of the mass media also typifies the psychological structure of young people (...) They have now become omnipotent through assimilation to the mass media, which have a magical power over society.

A tone of cultural pessimism runs through Okonogi's article even if at the end he tries to comfort us by pointing out first signs of a post-moratorium trend. We get a somber picture of isolated, solipsistic men and women, who lose themselves in the postmodern tides that even threaten to engulf the 'real society' from where Okonogi writes, the society of production and distribution.

From the moratoriumu ningen we pick up the general social tone that sets the mood for the birth of the otaku, a mood characterized by self-dissociation in hyper-reality. With their successors, the shinjinrui, we re-encounter the vacuousness, with the addition of a more joyful approach to information.

The word shinjinrui, like otaku, varies widely in meaning. As a non-technical term it can refer to any kind of new generation. But sometimes it gets connected with a specific group of young people for a while, like with Yuppies in the late Seventies.Those shinjinrui were college or professional kids in their twenties. Quite different from otaku they put a strong emphasis - and spend a lot of money - on glossy outward appearance. They prefer jobs in modelling or advertising which leave them enough time for their main source of pleasure: showing-off luxury goods and fast cars. The latest hit among them is a left-arm suntan, because it signals that this 'girl' or 'boy' drives a left- wheel import car. The shinjinrui were also called cristalhids, after Yasuo Tanakas award-winning bestseller Nantonaku, Kuristaru (Somehow Cristal) which became a sort of Yuppy-guide to Tokyo's 'in’ restaurants, boutiques, and clubs, a How-to instruction on being hip. It first appeared in 1980 in the monthly journal The Arts (bungei) and was imediately republished as a book which sold more than a million copies. Tanaka gives us an extensive inside view of the joyful life in empty forms, a life in which one truly and explicitly cherishes snobbery and affectation. His plot verges on nonexistence (Norma Field), but in four hundred and forty two notes he boasts all the information the trendy hyper-consumer needs. Because of the rapid change in fashion, most of the information was, of course, outdated the moment Somehow Cristal hit the masses. Though other info bits are here to stay. Through the shinjinrui, for example, the Japanese language was lastingly enriched by the 'brand name syndrome'.

The shinjinrui shares with the otaku his passion for details that take over the place of a connecting ideology. He has to be around town and has to have read the latest copy of Marie Claire and Popeye and Brutus. How else would he know that Armani is out, and Perrier is again de rigueur. And how else would he be able to participate in the table talk at Gold’s. Shinjinrui are well-informed snobs. Today the people are still around but the word has dropped out of use. So it is free again to signify the next generation.

The terms invented in order to be able to call the people in the postmodern, mediatized world by name - moratorium ningen, shinjinrui, nagara-zoku (the people who do many things at the same time), M(e)-Generation, etcetera - are coined by the professionally-concerned: neuropsychiatrists, journalists, and writers. They judge the young by their own values of 'depth', 'seriousness', 'history' and 'subject'. The grown-ups are disappointed that their kids don’t pick up where they left them the dreams they once pursued, disappointed that they just drop out of the ‘project of modernity'. Parents want to understand their children, but they refuse to express themselves. The birth of the otaku-zoku (otalcu-generation), the non-professional, non-lifestyle kids of the Eighties, was a new phenomenon.

Birth and rise of Otaku

The etymology of the word is not without blind alleys. Otaku, like shinjinrui, was plucked from the everyday language, and in the original sense means ‘your home', then in a neo-Confudan pars pro toto 'your husband', and more generally it is used as the personal pronoun 'you' (since a Japanese individual cannot be thought of without his connection to his household). As everybody knows, there are forty eight ways to say T in Japanese, and just about as many to say 'you'. Most of the time T and 'you' are avoided altogether, but if you do want to address someone you would use his/her name or anata (to a sodal equal or superior), kimi (to inferiors, and in some cases equals), omae (to intimate friend and inferior), or - otaku. Otaku is a polite way to address someone whose social position towards you you don’t yet know, and it appears with a higher frequency in women's language. It keeps distance. Used between equals it sounds quite ironic or sarcastic, but is meant in the sense of 'Stay away from me'. Imagine a teenager addressing another as 'Sir!'.

At least, this is how it used to be. Then, back in the distant past (about ten years ago in realtime), some people started to use this expression of detachment for colleagues and friends. There is no consensus as to the exact date and place of this historic event. The most recent past seems to be the most uncertain, and it is handed down to us only in the form of rumours. It would take a historian of everyday life to unearth what happened yesterday. Some sources say it was in the advertising world, others say it was in the circles of animation-picture collectors: Please, show me your (otaku) collection. The most trustworthy rumour has it that it first came up among people working in tv and video animation companies. From there it spread to the viewers of animes and the closely related worlds of manga (comic-books) and computer games.

What exactly you have to do and to be in order to qualify as an otaku is a little more difficult to determine. The word implies distance and detachment. To know more about the usage of a currendy fashionable expression the first thing to do is to consult the Basic Knowledge of Modern Terms (Gendai Yogo Kisochishiki), an annual encyclopedia on all currents of trendy life and a cornucopia of insights into the rapidly changing Japanese language. In the 1990 edition it says under otaku: Has been used as discriminatory word among manga and animation maniacs. It spread after Akio Nakamoris 1984 article Manga Burikko (for more on burilcko see below under idols). It indicates the type of person who can not communicate with others, is highly concerned about details, and has one exclusive and maniac feld of interest. Otaku tend to get fat, have long hair, and wear T-shirts and Jeans. The word corresponds to ‘nerd’ which in the vsa is used for computer and sf fanatics. An American friend told me, that nerd does indeed have some similarity to otaku but is not completely congruent. A nerd was the guy at high school who would repair his glasses with Scotch-tape, the scientific type, carrying around a collection of pens in his shirt pocket, which had a blue stain, because one of the pens would always break, and, of course, he had no friends.

This image comes close to the one art editor and former journalist for the Yuppy magazine Popeye Kyoichi Tsuzuki draws. It was he who introduced me to the more hidden comers of the extensive ofaloi-world: In the beginning otaku was used in a very negative sense and meant someone who doesn't look good, who has no girl friend, who is collecting silly things, and is generally out of the world. As a definition I would say that an otaku is a person who is into something useless. Idol-, manga- or whatever-otaltu means he does not have anything else. But in that he really indulges. It’s a silly way of spending time, from a normal business point of view. They play games with the same seriousness others use for business.

They are easily visible, because they don’t care about the way they dress. They talk different, and look to the ground while talking face-to-face. They are not into physical activities, they are chubby or thin, but not fit, never tanned. They don't care for a good meal, they think they can spend their money on more important things.

With computers they get really involved. Computer game programers five on potato-chips that they eat with chopsticks, and on coffee-milk. They have a different rhythm, are awake for forty hours and then sleep for twelve. Computer otaku are said to be able to make love with a girl on the screen. But 1 think many want a girl friend, but can't get one.

Otaku are in several ways a media-phenomenon. The media created first them, then their name; they inhabit the media, and the search for them is a research into media- history. When Nakamori introduced the term otaku-zoku (otaku-generation) in his article in Tokyo's Otone kurabu (a cult communications/soft pom magazine) and in a public discussion with Koichi Yamazaki, there were already miriads of young people out there waiting for an identity boost. They were living in the media already, so it was just natural that they would want to become an object of the media as well. In that sense they are just like other Japanese, who have a distinct predeliction for mirroring themselves in social statistics and in the interpretational debates of cultural critics, as well as a strong instinct to call things by their right name. In any case, the new term spread very rapidly. An anonymous, silent mass had its coming out. As rumours have it, the first massive appearance that brought the new generation into public consciousness was the screening of the Spaceship Yamatoanimation. The video company had, as is usual, rented a hall for a couple of thousand people - and over a million came, all about the same age.

Otaku are a product of hyper-capitalism and the hyperconsumption society, says Yamazaki (born 1954), another historian of everyday life and an authority on otaku. Today, he says, otaku has taken on an extremely wide meaning. Originally it was connected with a precise, stereotyped image. It symbolized a human relationship for which the other forms of saying you would be too intimate. Otaku refered to the space between them, they are far from each other, not familiar. He sees the origin of the otaku phenomenon in the changes in Japanese culture in the Seventies. Otaku are the children of media and technology. They grew up as only children with daddy always out at work, and mummy very eager that her son should study hard so he can enter a good university so he can enter a good company. The cliché Japanese success story. And kiddy goes into hiding behind piles of toys, comics, and play machines.

Their parents are the Sixties generation, very democratic and tolerant. They want to understand their children, but the kids purpously look for the things their parents can't understand. In a sense the parents are themselves immature and childish. In Japan there is probably no obvious image of what a grown-up is. Everybody is a child.

The severe communication barriers between parents and children led to a series of killings of parents by their sons. It started in 1980 when a boy, who would today probably be called an otaku, had slain his parents with a metal baseball-bat. The kinzoku hat murderer, as he was known, was copied by five or six other youngsters in a very short time. And it still happens sometimes today.

The early Eighties were the days of school violence. The aggression of the students was stopped with disciplinary measures and school rules that prescribe even the way a students is supposed to walk and greet. They remind Yamazaki of Orwell's 1984. Otaku are the post-school violence' generation. Superficially they are good and well-behaved students, study hard, and get good grades, but underneath the surface they are run-aways. Otaku is a shelter for them.

Information -fetishism and in -animism

The education system, in which the famous ‘industrial warriors’ are trained, is generally acknowleged as a contributing factor in the emergence of the otalcu- generation. In school says Yamazaki, children are taught to take in the world as data and information, in a fragmentary way, not systematically. The system is designed for cramming them with dates, names, and multiple-choice answers for exams. The scraps of information are never combined into a total view of the world.

They don't have a knowledge value, but the character of a fetish.
For this emphasis on facts, on memory rather than understanding, the Japanese have again found a fitting catch-phrase - manual-education. It doesn’t prepare you for life but rather for the ubiquitous quiz-shows on tv where candidates have to produce minute details of the life of Amadeus Mozart, the comic character Ultraman, or the idol-singer Matsuda Seiko. Without any context this ’knowledege’ remains just a collection of info-chips. Information-fetishism is a central term for Yamazaki. The otaku continue the same pattern of information aquisition and reproduction they have learned at school. Only the subject matter has changed: idols, cameras, or rock ‘n’ roll. But content has become negligible anyway. Otucky people can be found in every genre. It's a mode of being. You find them even in fashion. Rather than dressing in trendy clothes for the pleasure of it, the fashion-otaku dresses in information. He shows it off, saying Do you know this? Oh, you don't!That's all. Similarly, a rock-otaku, does not listen to the music, but collects data on the recordings, the names of the musicians, producers, engineers, studios etcetera. The original otaku shows us that we are all information-fetishists, says Yamazaki. He caricatures the image of the Japanese.

Our own collection of info bits and pieces now seems to have come close to the core of the otaku phenomenon: it has to do with uselessness and information, but the role of media and technology remains ambivalent. Tsuzuki thinks it a mistake to identify otaku with media, it would exlude some of the people who are in fact otucky. So we pick up the Basic Knowledge again which is itself an expression of the culture of fractured knowledge and infochips. From the entry on otaku-zoku we learn that this generation can only think in the mode of me-ism as a result of a way to interpret and deal with the hi-tech society. It tends towards an isolated and non-human existance. These tendencies range from necrophilia, pedophilia, and fetishism to the ‘illness of partiality' and computer hacking. The phenomenon has cancerlike exploded with the inorganic “keyhoard society' as its center.

Japan is the most semiotized society; everything is sign, everything is surface and interface. The Japanese lead a magazine life style. Just by looking at people’s faces in the street you can tell which magazines they read. Everything comes in a ready-made package. Otaku are developing the Japanese mentality of hybridizing given information to the extreme. And they become, in fact, a closed-circuit hybrid with their machines. A media saibogu (cyborg - cybernetic organism), we read in the Store of Wisdome, an imitation of our esteemed Basic Knowledge, is a dependent person, e.g. a couch-potato (kauchipoteto). The media cyborg fives thanks to the media. In the age of cyber-medialism with its emphasis on simulation the hi- tech media become the condition for survival. The media cyborgs in their electronic womb are also called aliens.

The Japanese relation towards technology is indeed something peculiar. Japanese kids are geniuses in operating technology, like the one-year-old who crashed his father’s car. But, says Yamazaki, they can not talk and express their opinions well. They feel less at home with other people than with machines, materials, and information. Thus they tend towards a kind of in-animism.

Living beings are thought of as inanimate things. Yamazaki tells me about the pet-boom, and that dogs and cats are seen as a kind of mechanical toys. When they become boring they get dumped. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Silvester Stallone are big heroes for many otaku. They themselves wouldn’t even think about doing body-building and becoming strong. They think of these piles of muscles as a kind of robot, a very well-designed machine, not any different from comic figures like Gundam. By perceiving the world via screens and print the otaku-kids acquire what is known as the two-dimension complex. 2-d is more real. Image plus fantasy equals hyper-reality.

This in-animism may be the reverse side of the traditional Shintoist nature animism that is still very much alive in the current Japanese culture. Japanese people are in a sense fetish people. They don't tell the animate from the inanimate. This fact is an important background of the otaku. The two-dimension complex is a kind of animism. They treat humans as things and things as humans.

Computer-otaku and communication patterns

From what we learned about otaku and their relation to information, media and technology we should think that they appear the purest in the genre of computer-otaku. So I go back to the Minami-Aoyama office of Log In to meet contributing editor Gabin Itoh, recently curator and contibutor of an art installation at the Tokyo hyper-real exibition, and number one hero of the computer-game-oiaku. When he is recognized in the streets of Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district, he is not accosted directly, but a little later he can read the 'hot' info on some otucky bulletin board I saw Gabin!. Log In's target group is game fans between thirteen and eighteen, and it sells copies monthly. It carries mostly product information on pc-based games and on related hardware, manga and animation series, especially the darker ones like Gundam or Godmars.

I want to know about the content of otaku computer networks, and Itoh fists some of the branches: games, manga, rorikon (see below), music (swapping Mini-data of the latest arcade game soundtrack), war (air guns), anything you can imagine. There is one for every branch of otaku, though this does not make all of them computer-otaku. They use the electronic networks simply as media that allow them to stay at home and meet kindred souls without any physical contact.

The meaning of technology, Itoh explains, is this: when we find something impossible we do it. Like the hacker who discovers how to destroy data, so he does it. He doesn’t think about the meaning. In the same sense they spread viruses for fun. When some techno-maniac manages to hack into the copy protection of dat recorders, even if he succeeds, don’t expect the real otaku to have any music to play. It's just a game, useless. If they can out-wit the protection-systems aren’t they pretty smart? Otaku is not excacdy synonymous with ’creative’, but a lot of creative people are otaku. Itoh thinks they have infinite possibilities.
The ultimate promise of technology is to make us master of a world that we command by the push of a button. The otaku are the avant-garde exploring this world. They grew up taking media for granted. Now they use them as their natural habitat for instant gratification of desires - desires, of course, that they only direct at what the media can give. The time structure of the otaku world is one of constant disposition. This attitude of consumerism is also applied to other people, which is a possible explanation for the intensive use of the telephone at every hour of the day.

Mostly, otaku avoid face-to-face communication, but communicate to excess via technical media. The structures of their exchange of information are uwasa (rumour) and feudri- feomi, (oral communication, gossip), minor communication and ofu-rekodo (off the record), rupture, fictionally, and play (e.g. telephone-games and -parties), dispersal of the self into the network, and in the last instance - discommunication. The importance is in speaking, not what is spoken. Otafeu characteristidy speak without context They live in the simulacrum of a self-referential system which is not subjected to content. Central is the awareness: there are media.

Basically they can communicate only with the same type otafeu. Their exchange is not interactive, they only show off their information. People categorize each other by their predeliction for certain details. If two of them find overlapping tastes they get along well, if not they don't have anything to say to each other. No proselytism drives them to preach their way.

Nagoya is todays centre of the otafeu. They make up whole neighbourhoods and relevant sectors of the population. Nagoya is a non-place, a dead, boring city with nothing happening, therefore the only thing to do is go into the networks.

Sixteen thousand alone-but-not-lonely-people in one spot

After so much talk about them we now leave the editorial offices and visit one of the rare occasions when the shy and unsociable otafeu meet. The komiketo (comic market) started out as a fair for non-commercial comics and is held twice a year. At the last, on the 18th and 19th of August in Makuhari-Fair, sixteen thousand anime-mania (animation maniacs) torn various countries gathered. They were joined by representatives of all the other major otucky genres: amateur radio-otaku, idol-otafeu, techno-otaku, plastic model-otafeu, uniform-otafeu etcetera, etcetera. All of them have their own magazines which are here littering the long rows of tables. These minikomi keep up the communication in the increasingly differentiating and specializing world of otafeu. Just about all of them contain manga. The special attractions in Makuhari-Messe were the kosu-pure (costume plays) scenes from favorite animation Tv-series are re-enacted - as comic figures in full gear, of course.

Manga are a big market. The estimated total circulation of all comic books in 1988 was 1.758.970.000. Some of them as thick as telephone books, they are omnipresent in subway-trains, restaurants, and book-shops. Successful series are re-made into book versions with again million copy sales, and into Tv-animation and video-games. The one with the highest circulation. Shorten Jump, sells five million copies a week. According to Yamazaki it is the most otucky magazine, containing a lot of violence, mechanics, fantasy, and combinations of all three like Gundam, or Ultraman.

Beneath the commercial manga - in the 'underground' if you will - we find the manga drawn by otafeu. They are produced in small print runs to be circulated and exchanged at komike or by mail and the more successful ones in manga-stores like lafeaofea in Kanda or Manga no Mori in Shinjuku. The bookstore Shozen in Kanda is another place where on a Saturday afternoon masses of otafeu in jeans or school-uniforms are grimly ellbowing their way through the narrow aisles, quietly browsing through comics and idol-fan magazines, soft-pornos and games, game music cds, Dragon Quest and plastic comic figures, phonecards with manga-characters and idols on them, posters, and plush animals. Here one finds a small selection of the garage comics from the komiketo with titles like Uncolored, Cupid, Hyperactive Paf Paf, Blind Logic or the one with the extended English title Wing. That’s Gret (sic) It covers various kinds of Comics and Novels which makes you feel at home.
In most cases these manga are hybrids or genre mutations of given commercial models. They show an attitude of joyful 'playgiarism' that does not even strive to be original. The only really 'original' aspect about them is that in contradistinction to the the ones you buy in the convenience store otafeu manga contain uncensored depictions of primary sexual organs. In a country where every single pubic hair intended for publication in film or print, has to be covered up or sandpapered out the fact that these manga show it all is almost revolutionary.

We can safely assume that a large part of the sex-life of otafeu is represented by comic figures in manga, animation and video games. Sex to them is not physical but medial. They don't have lovers, in part because they are afraid of girls and find two-dimensional satisfaction much safer. In that sense the guy from Sex, Lies and Videotape can be thought of as the Western correlate to the post-sexual otaku. Yamazaki offers another explanation: two-dimensional sex is a reaction to the pressure of male chauvinism. Boys refuse to grow up to become the regular mucho. They don't like to be aggressive. True, in the comics there is a lot of violence, sm, lashing, and bondage, but in the real world they could not do it - they're too shy.

A major genre in the manga porno world are little children. A term that frequently appears in this context is rorikon, from, according to our faithful Basic Knowledge of Modem Terms, Lolita complex (after Nabokov's novel). It signifies the strange sexual taste for teenage girls. It is so closely related to otafeu that the encyclopedia names it as most significant characteristic. One also calls the otaku a yaoi-zoku (the generation of fans of young girls).
The suspected child murderer Miyazaki's victims were between age four and seven [much younger than the teenager that rorikon are supposed to like]. So is it not a mistake to call him an otaku?

On this point we have to disagree with the Basic Knowledge. To identify otaku with the fairly mainstream cultural predilection for a teenage sex ideal would mean to ignore a whole wealth of more bizarre forms of otucky expression. For example In Spite of... you know it, Lemon Impulse and Submarine, which cater to the uniform-sex fan otafeu. Or Juggs for fans of big-breasted hermaphrodites. Or Samson a magazine with cartoon strips, photos and poems that is completely devoted to fat, old gays. The sex ideal that in this realm corresponds to Lolita would be the aged sumo. It is hard to imagine what a fifteen-year-old otaku would find elevating about these pornos.

Maybe they represent the pure, abstract sex, the simulation of stimulation. But we have to admit we cannot look into the hearts (if that’s the right organ - ed) of many young men.
Since we covered sex and rock ‘n’ roll you might also want to know about drugs. Answer: none. Otaku are anti-somatic. Information is their only drug, and its mainlined.

Comics have directly and indirectly influenced large areas of the Japanese culture, from advertising to junk stores that are exclusively devoted to goods with the mark of one single comic-figure. If a new trend comes up in one of the media it is instantaneously picked up by all others. Pop music idols are shaped by the Let’s-be-manga- figures trend, and they in turn cause new genres in manga, animation and games. And, of course, they have their own otucky devotees. Only the komiketo idol otaku were a little under-represented but they now have their own events and gatherings. Idols are mostly singers, but there are also puro-res (professional wrestling) idols like ‘Cuty’ Suzuki (21) and ‘Dirty’ Yamato (20). These living mixtures of battle- and rorikon-manga are also known as fighting dolls. But idol generally refers to young girls with cute faces who are mass-produced into 'talent singers'.

The Bask Knowledge 1990 is silent on the idol phenomenon, so we have to refer to the Store of Wisdonte again. Under idoru-shisutemu (idol system) we read: What we call the idol system of the Eighties is the fiction game, where the sender and the receiver become one single thing. And we have to separate this from the charisma of the earlier age of what was called the star system (staa-shisutemu). The Eighties are represented by the new type of idol like Masahiko Kondo and Seiko Matsuda. They concretized the spirit of the Eighties whkh has been determined by simulationization, thus making disappear the difference between reality and fiction.

The recent case of attempted suicide by Akina Nakamori was a break in the paradigms of idol-ism. Unlike Matsuda, she had separated her private life from her activity on stage, and thereby maintained a relatively mysterious nature. But she failed because the audience demanded coolly that its idols exist only inside the media.

The 'new type' that Matsuda represents is called burikko. The word is derived from buri (to act, pretend) plus -ko which makes it cute. It would roughly translate to 'sweet little pretender' or if you interpret it sarcastically you could also say ‘fucking little liar'. Burikko refers to unattractive girl singers who pretend to act especially stupid. They look way too cute with their wide-open big eyes and too much lace. They look like manga characters. They seem helpless, but, in fact, are not stupid and rule with an iron fist. Matsuda Seiko was a bom burikko. She has crossed eyes and protruding teeth. The kids went crazy and the older women hated her, because her simulated stupidity was an insult to women. The burikko ideal was, of course, immediately picked up by manga and animation.

This is the dominant entertainment culture. The otucky practice of idol worship involves collecting artifacts and information not only on one, but on ten or a hundred idols. Mostly they don't pick the big ones like Matsuda but the B-grade or 'minor' idol-singers. Of course, they have to keep track of their schedules and have to have all the records, postcards, T-shirts and other paraphernalia. But they wouldn't be otaku if they were satisfied with ready-made industrial products. They come in two subcategories: the videotaper and the photographer. The video-otaku checks all the Tv-programs in which his idols might appear, records them all, and then edits the tapes. The camera-otaku has chosen a harder task. The idols regularly give promotion or mini-concerts on the roof-tops of department-stores or in the summer in swimming-pools. Since unauthorized photographing is prohibited, the otaku sneak in. Sometimes three or four of them carry in the camera in pieces and then assemble it inside. Security on the way out can be really tough. So the kids run away leaving expensive camera equipment with huge tele-lenses behind. You can find whole collections after a concert. They only take the film, which is worth enough to buy new cameras. Three hours later they sell the photos on the streets in Harajuku. The highest value are shots in which the wind blows up the girls’ skirts to reveal their underwear.

The hybrid system of aidorus and aidorians is pretty hyper-real, but even weirder is the virtual idol Yui Haga (the 'name' is actually the word for ‘irritated, impatient, annoyed', literally 'a toothache’). Virtual she is because she does not exist. She is a phantom consisting of different girls who lend Haga her voice or her body. At concerts her face remains hidden and her voice is play-back. She is an assemblage in a way quite similar to the puppets in bunraku. When Haga recendy published a photo-book there were three girls at the book signing. People would stand in fine before the one they thought to be the 'more real’ Haga-chan. An exhibition with her 'original' art work, scheduled for early November, was postponed. But rumour has it that the actual paintings have been done by several renowned artists. The title of the exhibition will be: Does mysterious idol dream of human faced sheep?, a malicious homage to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which served Ridley Scott in the making Bladerunner.

The presumption from the beginning that otaku perform a perpetual play on the border between the animate and the inanimate seems to harden. Android, a somewhat old-fashioned term, is quite fit for idol Yui Haga as well as for the otaku. They look like humans but they aren't, and they’re playing with factoids (look like facts, but aren't). The idol is pulling her willing followers by the nose. Understandable then that they in turn need their puppets to manipulate.

Idols like Chisato Moritaka appear reduced in size but only marginally more plastic in the form of models. The model otaku, who were also present at the komikete at Makuhari Fair, house a wide variety of entities - real and non-real - in their miniature world: models of idols and comic figures, Godzilla and Garland, automobiles and militaria Again the real otaku distinguishes himself from the mere maniac in that he is not satisfied with the commercial kits. The garage kits they produce in runs of a hundred are really detailed and elaborate. One of the major magazines for the model otaku is Do-Pe. Identity Magazine For You with a circulation of 'only' 40.000.

One might get the impression that all otaku are technofreaks, but they do not dislike nature per se. There are even otaku into tropical fish and fossils - as long as they do it the otaku-way. The Attitude counts, nothing else.

But there can be no doubt that most strands of otaku have a close connection to media and technology. The pure techno-otaku has his major forum in Radio Life. This started out as a magazine for amateur radio operators, who came to be called akushonFandaa (action bander), which in view of their considerable subversive potential seems more appropriate. Radio Life features background and consumer information on electronic devices and components. For example, on police radar-systems and detectors, the smallest of which is for motorcycle-riders; worn at the side of the helmet it warns the wearer with buzzer or led. Or an article on satellite interception. By the way: the Trotskyist group Chükakuha (middle core faction) was recendy discovered to have prepared jamming stations on strategic roofs around the imperial palace to disrupt the live broadcast of the enthronement ceremony. So it's not as if no one is using this subversive information in practice.

Once a year Radio Life brings out an even more hardcore 'Underground RL’. The latest issue features a do-it-yourself kit for an electronic time fuse for any kind of bomb. The following article is on model-kits for hand grenades (the original German wwn model or if you prefer, the classic design of the American MKZ). The next one is on how to build a stun-gun from the condenser of a disposable camera. You can use it to give your next-door otaku a 35.000 - 80.000 Volt shock. The last example from this iniquitous hacker rag is the board lay-out for an adaptor that circumvents the DAT-copy-protection (a nasty little compromise between the music and the hardware industries that allows only one digital copy of every CD - the kind of misuse of technology that just begs to be hacked). In the Underground Radio Life the otaku with subversive ambitions gets the full description how it works and how to crack it.

Other fans of Radio Life are military and pohce-otalcu. They are girls into wearing the original uniforms of policewomen and boys driving around in 99.9 per cent 'real' police cars. The ads show where the sirens, radios, helmets, badges and accessories down to the official whistle and necktie-pin come from. Except for the guns - and even those are as-close-as-you-can get plastic models - everything is as real as the stuff the genuine military or police is using, simply because the otaku buy it from the same dealers the State does. When the real and the imaginary become indistinguishable the real becomes a fetish.


I don’t think that this is an expression of genuine militarist or terrorist intentions, nor is it the lure of the forbidden per se. Otaku also like to use technology for other than its intended purposes. But basically, it's an empty, content-less joy of technology and information that drives them. In that sense there is no significant difference between game-otaku and radio-hackers, idol-maniacs and magnet-card forgers. The structure is the same. Essential for every otaku is a web of technical details, whether on cameras or police cars, on fictional spaceships or 'art trucks'. Knowledge is important to be able to communicate. Information is the essence of the otucky life-style.

Though minuscule discrepancies in the informational level can have immense consequences for otaku, they seem to be less discriminating with ideologies. War and sex, fantasies of mass murder and sado-masochistic rape appear regularly in their media. And sometimes one of them finds it hard to discriminate the world in which no one dies because every one is a phantom to begin with, from the other one where little children, when you torture them a little bit, really die. Log In's Gabin Itoh told me the story about this guy who lived completely in a computer world. One day he saw a man standing on a subway platform and without any reason he pushed him down in front of the train. He didn’t think of death, says Itoh, it was so easy.

In July 1989, Tsutomo Miyazaki (27) was arrested for the suspected abduction and murder of four girls age four to seven and the attempted molestation of another girl. In his flat in Tokyo were found piles of manga and a collection of six thousand videotapes, mostly dubbed from rental-tapes, including child pornography and horror-videos. He was socially isolated, didn’t dare approach women, was jobbing as a printing shop assistant, was crazy about video and comics, and drew comics himself - easy equation to call him an otaku.
Shortly after his arrest it was suspected that Miyazaki had re-staged some of the horror-video scenes, like the one with the guy who cuts up a woman and then fondles the dissected corpse and plays with its internal organs. But the theory could until now not be confirmed. Miyazaki admitted the killings at the beginning of the trial on 30 March 1990, but denied that his crimes were connected with videotapes, though he did state that he took videos of two of his victims so he could view them later on. He also said he commited the crimes as if in a dream and without intent.

The defence counsel contends that the defendant is emotionally immature and has diffimlty making a distinction between himself and others. He lacks understanding of life and death, and has a strong desire to return to his mother's womb. The defence also argued that the audiovisual culture of videotapes and television, the lack of a sense of reality in the information society and the isolation of youth are behind the crime as sicknesses of modern society. The findings of a psychiatric test was that Miyazaki has little self-control and lacks emotions but is capable of being held responsible. The trial is still pending.The thrust of the public discussion on this otalcu-murder case was that the horror-videotapes and the media culture are somehow responsible. In reaction to Miyazaki, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government began to consider restricting the access of minors to videos that depict scenes of violence. The video market exercised voluntary restraints. The comments of the cultural critics split roughly into two lines of argument. Either he was a mental case, and therefore a sick exception or: there is a Miyazaki in every one of us. This technique is frequently applied when the Japanese culture has to deal with a nail that sticks out: either you exclude it as something extraordinary, preferably non-Japanese, or we are all...

According to Yamazaki these hasty conclusions are out of place: We want to understand him, hut we know we don't. Everybody asks ‘Why has he done that?' But we should rather ask 'Why don't we do it?’ Many otaku have the same lifestyle as him, hut I don't think they would do such a thing. Miyazaki's biography is not so special. He could not communicate with women, but that's not unujue. It was said that he lives in a fantasy world, but maybe we are all living in a fantasy. I don't think lie's crazy, because I can understand a part of him. So I'm scared. But I'm not a moralist. Many Japanese think Miyazaki's motivation is connected to our daily life with media and information, and to our human relations. So we are very shocked.

Towards a postmodern people

The opinions on the current development of the term otaku vary. The Miyazaki case was certainly a blow to the already not-very-flattering reputation of otaku. But we have to wait for the outcome of the trial to be able to tell whether society will use it to exercise pressure on and discriminate against otaku.

On the other hand the term has expanded in scope. While it first signifyed a quite distinct modus vivendi it came to include more and more phenomena, until it had taken over the function of ‘mania’. So today one can interchangeably talk about motorcycle-, stereo-, golf-, or music-maniac or -otaku. Previously, maniaku refered to people who are open for communication and have other interests besides their special craze. Both points did not apply to otaku. And otaku was never used for oneself, Many Japanese think Miyazaki's motivation is connected to our daily life with media and information, and to our human relations. So we are very shocked.

Towards a postmodern people

The opinions on the current development of the term otaku vary. The Miyazaki case was certainly a blow to the already not-very-flattering reputation of otaku. But we have to wait for the outcome of the trial to be able to tell whether society will use it to exercise pressure on and discriminate against otaku.

On the other hand the term has expanded in scope. While it first signifyed a quite distinct modus vivendi it came to include more and more phenomena, until it had taken over the function of ‘mania’. So today one can interchangeably talk about motorcycle-, stereo-, golf-, or music-maniac or -otaku. Previously, maniaku refered to people who are open for communication and have other interests besides their special craze. Both points did not apply to otaku. And otaku was never used for oneself, always for others. Through the inflationary use of terms we can perceive how layers of them pile up on top of each other. It seems to be true of all discourses for understanding self and other - they get bloated till everybody has room under them. We are all otaku. We are all Miyazaki. In the end they lose their power of distinction and get replaced by new catch-words.

Another trend is marked by the appearance of the adjective form otakki (otucky). Yamazaki supposes an etymological relation with teki, which is an earlier formation contracted from technology kids. The Basic Knowledge tells us: After Miyazaki had spoiled otaku, otakki was invented to refer to the original meaning and to the change that had taken place. The otaku had moved to a new level where people wear expensive, elegant Yuppy clothes. The otakki people try to improve their image from something dark to something bright.

The Basic is the only source that perceives a Yuppyfication of otaku. But that it shifted towards a somewhat more positive meaning - even in spite ofMiyazaki - is widely acknowledged. Though again, the reasons given vary. Some say society has come to realize that it needs otaku. Their fantasies and their detailed technical knowledge make them very attractive employees in, for example, the software industry. Otaku are well fit for Japanese capitalism. As has happened before, an underground might prove to be the testing ground from which the commercial mainstream supplies itself with fresh ideas. The former reality hackers graduate from the otucky life, go professional and might eventually even get married.

Others attempt to give an alternative meaning to otaku. They use the term strategically to depict an ambiguous possibility of a lifestyle in Postmodern society - a way of positively living with media and without meaning. Says Tsuzuki: Otaku is a way of involvement, an underground way of changing the ideas about the world. Otaku are not satisfied with consuming. They want to change things and programs. They are so much involved. The idol-industry wants consumers, otaku overfulfil their wish. They don't stand for a classic confrontation, but they do have the capability of an alternative view. Yamazaki is more ambivalent about them. In his opinion they are under- as well as over-estimated. In a sense theyare typical Japanese. They are no drop-outs, but part-time outsiders. I wonder whether otaku will create a new culture. It's a kind of experiment, but I think otaku are the only way. Whether they have a subversive potential? I hope so. I hope they they will become a real shinjinrui, a new kind of Japanese, I mean, a Postmodern people.In the end we raise the question whether the possibility exists for a mode of being outside oneself without being out of one’s mind, of being dispersed in cyberspace and still finding life worth living, and whether there might even be a subversive element in Postmodern media culture. But unfortunately the object of our inquiry does not answer. The centre of communication does not communicate itself, it is the blind spot without which we can not see. For as a Kotaro, self-proclaimed otaku said: The question Who is otucky? is like the zen-koan What is satori? It cannot be answerd because satori is inherently that which cannot be communicated.