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Mimi Ito on Otaku culture and cultural soft power

Ian Condry offers an extended introduction to Mimi Ito’s work… because her plane has been delayed and it’s likely to be another half hour before she joins us at the MIT Media Lab. Her topic is “Fandom unbound: Otaku culture in a connected age”. Otaku is a term that refers to a specific type of Japanese geek, geeks obsessed with information about their particular field of interest.

Condry heads MIT’s “Cool Japan” effort, explaining that if you study cool, you are almost inherently uncool. But the term comes from a 2002 article on Japan’s “gross national cool“. The article suggests that Japan has been redefining the nature of the superpower. Japan emerged as a national superpower post-WWII as an economic and manufacturing powerhouse. When Ian was studying Japanese, he tells us, most of his fellow students were economics student, who hoped to make money in Japan. But as the Japanese bubble collapsed in the 1990s, leading to “the lost decade”, Japan’s confidence as well as economic power suffered.

During that lost decade, Japan began to ascend as a cultural superpower, exporting anime culture and cinema. Students who study Japan no longer are obsessed with making money – they’re obsessed with manga, anime, videogames, and subcultures like Yaoi.

This isn’t “soft power”, as defined by someone like Joseph Nye. Japan’s formal attempts at this – a blue robot cat as a cultural ambassador to China, a set of “cute ambassadors” (women dressed in schoolchildren’s clothing sent to anime conventions), perhaps this beats sending cruise missiles as a way of asserting power. Cultural power is more indirect, more subtle and perhaps more effective.

Condry, doing a laudable job of vamping, walks us through Mimi’s book “Engineering Play“, an examination of how a technology used for serious business and military uses turned into a tool for play. He proceeds to unpack “otaku” – a fandom usually associated with video games, anime, or other media fandoms. “Otaku” means “your house” or “your group”. “O” is an honorific – you’d never use it to describe your own house, as Japanese humility prohibits talking about your honorable house. “Otaku” may have come about as a term at Japanese scifi conventions – the home group you represent as a fan.

The term can be controversial – it’s used sometimes to refer to individuals who literally shut themselves away in their apartments. And a serial murderer, MIYAZAKI Tsutomu, was found with an apartment full of manga, and while that material proved not to be particularly transgressive, the connection between otaku and danger was made in Japanese news media.

More recently, otaku culture is also seen as a sign of successful, entrepreneurial net creatives…and sometimes, craziness. 2chan, the predecesor to 4chan (a reference to the fact that there’s no channel 2 on the Japanese television), reflects some of this tension. 2chan has shared secret documents as well as pranks and trolling. And “Train Man” is an example of the rehabilitation of otaku culture. An otaku, returning from Akihabara, carrying a shopping bag of sexy figurines, confronts a drunk man on a train who’s harassing a pretty woman. The geek in question posts on 2chan, talking about the experience, and bemoaning the fact that he didn’t get the woman’s name. As a proper Japanese woman, she sends him a thank you note… and a set of Hermes teacups. He becomes “trainman” and she becomes “Hermes”, and they end up dating… assisted by real-time commentary on 2chan advising him on what to do on a date. Condry notes that it’s a charming story, and likely to be real.

Mimi arrives 35 minutes into her introduction, and Ian’s still going strong. He explains that fandom may offer hints for how popular culture can influence civic media and connect people who are often excluded from political discussions into civic life.

Unlike Henry Jenkins, who identifies as an academic and fan, Mimi tells us that her interests in fandom comes from understanding her bicultural identity as American and Japanese. Her cultural identity between different contexts leads her not to think about straightforward comparisons between cultures, but to seek out points of mutual agreement. It’s hard to talk about Japanese culture, she tells us, without talking about American culture. We need to consider this broader, transnational flow of culture.

Anthropology traditionally considers national, or more local communities. Mimi is more interested in transnational cultures, spreads of media and identity across multiple locations. We need to consider Japanese culture on a transnational stage, even “traditional” Japanese culture, which is created in part as a reaction to the hypermodern, international and connected modern Japanese culture.

If culture flows mean that it may be more popular with American kids at MIT than Japanese audiences, how do we understand how to situate a culture? In her experience, being able to call herself American or Japanese has taken continual maintenance – our cultural identities may not be connected to ourselves in the future in uncomplicated ways.

Mimi’s forthcoming book comes from research she began in 1999, when she moved back to Japan. She became fascinated by Japanese mobile phones and Pokemon. A prior book focused on girl culture and mobile phone, while Fandom Unbound (forthcoming) is focused more on boy culture, including otaku culture. Empowered in part by the internet, otaku culture expanded from niche culture to what Clay Shirky calls “a superniche”. As Japan has moved from a hardware exporter to a software – and really, cultural – exporter, there are interesting questions about why certain aspects of Japanese culture jump across national borders.

Markets aren’t sufficient to understand the spread of net culture, particularly fan to fan, peer to peer, end to end. It’s not that the anime industry has figured out how to build an international market. It’s that the fans have figured out alternative distribution channels, and that there’s a deep affinity between fans and consumers. The businesspeople and cultural elites aren’t always in control in a network culture age – instead, there’s complex dynamics of transnational flow of culture.

Mimi notes that people often ask about phenomena she’s documented, “Is that a Japan thing?” The distinction seems to be between an unexplainable Japanese culture, and human attraction to technology – SMS is simply something humans are interested in, while Yaoi might be one of those strange things only attributed to Japan. That’s a cop-out, she warns, and something we need to avoid.

It’s important to understand the urban density of Japan, and Tokyo in particular. One of her collaborators is a train otaku, a fairly common identity in Japan. She shows us a photo from 1976, where early train otaku are photographing a subway train. There’s a new twist on the culture where certain trains are now identified with cute girls. This probably won’t be popular overseas – it’s likely connected to a particular form of urban density.

The specialization of parts of Tokyo is also significant. Akihabara was the electronics district in Tokyo, and about a decade ago, turned into otaku central. This wasn’t an urban planning decision, to transform the neighborhood where you went to buy a washing machine to a place that sells erotic videogames. This was the product of lots of small shifts, not a planned decision. It’s now virtually a theme park for otaku culture. Ikebukuro has now emerged as a center for female otaku, while Akihabara is for men. You’ll find maid cafes in Akihabara, butler cafes in Ikebukuro. The ability to create dense niches help create spaces for cultures that aren’t as easy to transmit digitally. These neighborhoods support specialty stores and events that would be hard to imagine in the US. Events for specific fandoms like Naruto or Full Metal Alchemist happen weeks – forget “Comicon”, this infrastructure supports very granular fandom.

There’s a sense of craft that underlies arts like cosplay, both in terms of the quality of the costumes and the policing of fan behavior that’s hard to understand from the US. It’s also hard to understand the volume of production of media like manga. In a day, Japan produces as many comics as the US produces in a year. As a result, there’s more diversity and experimentation. This helps explain “boyslove”, which would be called “slash” here – rewriting storylines to create homosexual storylines, written by women, for women.

Given the incredible diversity of media creation, Mimi asks us to consider the question, “Why do some of these media get circulated, and some don’t?” It’s not that “someone gets it right”, and the local suddenly goes global. Instead, it’s that global networks allow people to connect globally niche to niche, subculture to subculture. She reminds us that anime producers have traditionally been ten steps behind the fans. The emergence of phenomena like fansubbing shows how far behind the producers actually are – after fans figure out how to build rich translation networks, only then does the business case for translated materials become clear.

The transnational market for some of this content is making content more visible to Japanese markets. It’s unthinkable that, ten years ago, “boyslove” manga would be easily findable in bookstores. Based in part on the recognition of an international audience, it’s now visible in major bookstores.

One of the cultures Mimi studies is AMV – music videos made from clips of anime, usually set to popular American or European music. Mimi interviews a videomaker who builds videos around hiphop, fairly unusual for the scene. His motivations involve talking back to the stereotypes of the space… and what is created is a wonderfully culturally fluid object.


A first question observes the similarities between AMVs and fanvids and wonders why there’s so little overlap between those subcultures. Mimi suggests that this may have to deal with origin stories. AMVs started recently, a post-digital phenomenon, while vidding grew from slash fiction decades earlier. It’s possible that the genres have different rules due to this divergent history.

A questioner mentions a visit to a university in Japan that offers a concentration in manga, and a manga creator who asserts that non-Japanese audiences could possibly understand contemporary manga. How are creators thinking about their emerging international audiences? Mimi wonders if there’s a cultural pride about the non-translatability of Japanese culture that’s stronger in past generations than in the current one. Ian, who works with anime creators, tells us that directors are often ambivalent about international audiences – they’re afraid of being misinterpreted. But they’re also afraid of the cheapness of DVDs in other markets, as compared to the very high price in Japanese markets. Hollywood is looking to global audiences more than Japanese animators.

A grad student asks whether patterns of media consumption outside Japan constitutes appropriation of culture. Mimi allows that fansubbing has been a demand-driven process, not a market driven one, and this reflects audience power, if not appropriation.

A question from someone who teaches at Tufts and studied Japanese culture at MIT offers the idea that in the west, the body is free but the mind is captive, while in Japan “you’re stuck wearing a suit, but you can draw tentacle porn”. Mimi suggests that deviance is well tolerated in Japan, due to religious values, and to the overall safety of the real world for Japanese youth.

Sasha Constanza Chock, my partner in crime at Center for Civic Media, talks about the Naruto video she showed at the end of her talk. He references a video made to “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting” that looked at cultural resistance over the course of hundreds of years – can we complicate the video by looking at this transnational mashup of hybrid genres? Mimi suggests that martial arts is a space that’s got Asian origins, but is now owned by transnational cultures. How owns medieval fantasy? Ninjas? Fast cars?

I offered a question about what advice Mimi would give to the Nigerian filmmakers I’ll be meeting with at Georgia Tech next week about how Nollywood culture could become more viral. Mimi suggests that anime and manga can travel because they’re deodorized of cultural reference. Naruto doesn’t look Japanese – he’s got blonde hair. Power Rangers, a live action show, had to remade with white actors, while Sailor Moon didn’t need to – they already looked white. Live dramas can circulate within Asia, while cartoons seem to be more capable of being transmitted internationally. Perhaps we need Nollywood cartoons to help Nigeria take advantage of cultural power?

2 Responses to “Mimi Ito on Otaku culture and cultural soft power”

  1. charles says:

    Except that a Nigerian animated series may not contain characters who look very “white”. Unless the characters aren’kt human, that would help

  2. Except that a Nigerian animated series will not contain any white characters, unless they are non human, that would help …

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  4. Connected Learning Research Network | Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World - […] on the book at MIT. You can see some video excerpts here, and Ethan Zuckerman did a nice write-up …

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