Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Canted Desire: Otaku Performance in Japanese Popular Culture

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Canted Desire: Otaku Performance in Japanese Popular Culture

Article excerpt

-Introduction

The term otaku attracts much attention in discussions about Japanese popular culture, consumerism and technoculture. It is a complex and elusive term that addresses varied practices and fandom-related activities. The targets of otaku fans' interests can include manga, anime, games, the internet, computers, books, figurines, celebrities, special effects, and cosplay (costume play).1 While 'otaku' is roughly equivalent to the term 'nerd' in English and it usually refers to men, it can also be used for both sexes (although I won't be discussing female otaku here).2 The stereotype of the male otaku is that of an introvert, but otaku who frequent game arcades, on the other hand, are thought to be extroverts.3 While the otaku is typically regarded negatively because of his presumed antisocial attitudes,4 otaku fandom activities can also facilitate a collective social bond amongst members of a particular otaku subculture.5

Otaku culture is now regarded as a grassroots element of Japanese 'soft power', used in global strategies to promote Japan in the twenty-first century.6 Cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito states that otaku culture has been exported overseas, and is now 'situated at a transnational confluence of social, cultural, and technological trends'.7 Yet, in Japanese sociologist Shinji Miyadai's view, the West's interest in otaku culture is mainly concerned with manga and anime products, which would not provide a full picture of otaku culture.3 Unfortunately, the view of the otaku as a techno-geek is still prevalent in journalistic writing in the United States of America and in Australia, perpetuating the familiar rhetoric of 'techno-orientalism', which focuses upon the strangeness and exotic nature of the 'other'.9 The otherness of otaku culture is often represented in terms of the most controversial aspect of Japanese male otaku practice, which is to do with sexual fantasies about cartoon images of young girl characters. Male otaku are known to admire cartoon images of young girl characters, whether two-dimensional or three-dimensional, particularly in the context of fan subcultures, and can develop strong psychosexual bonds with these characters. How can this practice be examined without sensationalising it?

Western academics have examined the male otaku's carnal attachments in terms of Japanese relations between humans and contemporary technological artefacts. This is because the otaku's engagement with particular images can be viewed as a culturally specific instance of an engagement with what anthropologist of science and technology Lucy Suchman calls 'sociomaterial entities'.10 The male otaku's phantasmic practice needs to be conceived as a complex entanglement of technology, society and culture. In this sense, it is useful to look at the correlation between Japanese animism and technoculture. For example, Anne Allison coined the term 'techno-animism' to discuss the consumption of commodities, particularly toys, through the themes of an 'animist unconscious' ingrained in the Japanese psyche and the more generalised and widely recognised high regard for advanced technology in Japan.11 The figure of the otaku has been mentioned in relation to 'the national obsession with techno-constructed realities'.12 Taking their cue from Allison, critical theorist Casper Bruun Jensen and sociologist Anders Blok discuss an animism that is applied to technological artefacts in Shintoism in terms of the Latourian view of symmetries between nature and culture.13 On the other hand, Patrick Galbraith, a researcher on otaku culture, discusses bishöjo (pretty girl) games-dating simulation games with varying levels of explicit material.14 Galbraith sees possibilities for new relations between technology, self and the world in the otaku's intimate and invested interaction with young female animation figures. While Galbraith's use of Western theoretical concepts, instead of animism, such as 'techno-intimacy' (Allison), 'affect' (Massumi), or 'companion species' (Haraway), is relevant, these terms alone are inadequate to explain the otaku's engagement with cartoon images. …

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