Let’s talk about otaku.
In 2004, the anime and video game industries surpassed the size of the steel industry in Japan for the first time, both in terms of the domestic market and exports (Leonard 3). In 2007, the size of the domestic marketplace for all otaku products (including video games, anime, manga and so on) was estimated at around $2 billion (Azuma xv). Moreover, this figure only includes the domestic market - the market for these products is growing most rapidly in markets of vital importance for other Japanese products, such as China, East Asia, and Russia. For Japan's economic future, plastic and silicon weigh more than steel.
In recognition of the need to switch from an industrial-based economy to an intellectual property-based economy, in 2004 Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) set up the “Japan Brand” Program to exploit the popularity of Japanese entertainment overseas in advance the economic and diplomatic goals of the nation. While not all of the Japanese entertainment considered by the Japan Brand Program would be considered part of the otaku marketplace, the program puts the otaku industry in a central position.
Although the peak of the global otaku industry occurred around 2008, the 1990s and early 2000s saw a rapid growth in global demand for Japanese anime, manga, video games, and related consumer goods. This growth opened up markets for Japanese entertainment goods in a way that few experts, whether Japanese or international had expected (McKevitt, 2010). This surprising development caused a reevaluation of the otaku industry by Japanese intellectuals, business leaders, and politicians who had to that point viewed the industry as insignificant at best and a social problem at worst.
In the post-bubble recession, any industry with the growth and global reach of the otaku industry became important to policy makers. When the Strategic Council on Intellectual Property was created in 2002 to transition Japan from an industrial-based economy to an intellectual property-based economy, one of its major goals was to capitalize on this rapidly growing domestic industry (Arai, 2005).
The goals of the Japan Brand can be summarized in two points. First, it aims to use the popularity of otaku entertainment products and Japan's “gross national cool” to expand the market for other Japanese products. This stands in stark contrast to the post-war policy of creating products divested of 'cultural odor' in order to be accepted more readily by as many international markets as possible (Lu, 2008). The Japan Brand attempts to provide a shared sense of “Japaneseness” to diverse products such as electronics, apparel, food, and automobiles.
Second, the Japan Brand aims to leverage Japan's “soft power” to support its diplomatic interest abroad. It attempts to shape international perception of Japan by presenting a unified cultural narrative which appeals to popular media narratives already being eagerly sought out by foreign consumers. Examples of this include setting up a “Nobel Prize of Manga” and appointing Doraemon as “manga ambassador.”
But it is one thing to appoint a cartoon cat as ambassador and quite another to navigate the intricacies of the otaku marketplace. Who are otaku? What motivates their consumer behavior? Is the consumer behavior of Japanese otaku the same as that of, say, American consumers of otaku products? As a somewhat marginalized segment of Japanese society, otaku occupy an in-between, uncertain state; admired for their economic power, yet subjected to stereotyping and surface-level pronouncements of “otaku are like this...”
The modern history of the word “otaku” began as a polite second-person pronoun used at the prestigious Keio Gijuku Yochisa Primary School. Animators at Studio Nue, many of whom graduated from this school, used it in their seminal anime Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and it quickly became a popular term in the Japanese Science Fiction convention circuit (Okada 3).
Science Fiction and anime fan's frequent use of the word otaku led to it becoming a label for the culture and self-description for its fans. The infamous serial murders of Tsutomu Miyazaki, and their subsequent media coverage as “otaku crimes” led to the negative connotations of the term - associations with social and sexual deviancy (ibid 6). It is a complex term, implying the consumption of products such as anime and video games but also a separation from mainstream Japanese culture that can sometimes take a sinister tone.
In its current usage, the term otaku primarily refers to a strong emotional relation to certain forms of media – primarily anime, manga, and video games. While non-otaku also consume these forms of media, otaku have a stronger affective bond with them, viewing them as central to their lives.
“Otaku” is sometimes still used as a pejorative term, but it is above all a self-description. Though it started as a second-person pronoun, it is now a first-person identity. For otaku, anime, video games, and so on are not simply works of art that exist outside of the self, but part of their central self-definition. As Azuma points out, one of the primary criteria for otaku in judging media is whether or not “it made me cry,” or to rephrase, “whether or not I felt an emotional connection with it.”
Which brings us to Azuma Hiroki. One of the first serious attempts to get beyond surface-level stereotypes of otaku was Azuma's Dōbutsuka suru posutonmodan: otaku kara mita nihon shakai, or roughly translated, “Animalizing Postmoderns: Japanese Society as Seen by Otaku.” Instead parroting social stereotypes of otaku, it attempted an academic understanding of what the otaku subculture means for post-modern Japan.
The book was an instant best seller, with over 16 re-printings in Japan and translations in French, Korean, and English. Released in 2001, three years before the establishment of the Japan Brand program, the book struck a nerve with a society that was struggling with understanding this complex, divisive, and economically significant subculture. It remains the only Japanese academic book on the otaku subculture to receive an English translation.[i]
In it, Azuma lays out what he calls the “Database Consumption Model,” which has formed the basis of most subsequent writings on the otaku subculture, Japanese and Western. Azuma argues that the otaku subculture and Database Consumption have arisen in response to changes in Japanese society, changes in how people relate to themselves and to the world around them. These changes are not limited to the otaku subculture but rather impact Japanese society as a whole.
This is why I care about Hiroki Azuma: because by understanding the otaku subculture, we can come to a greater understanding of what it means to live in a post-modern society.
Over the course of this series, we will be taking a look at the Database Consumption Model, the philosophy behind it, alternate models of otaku-ness, alternate models of post-modern consumption, and how Azuma’s theories relate to specific products and subcultures.
Next: [DC 002] What is Database Consumption and Why Should I Care?