- Otakuology:A Dialogue
Thank you for agreeing to this dialogue, which I hope will open some new perspectives on the study of otaku, or "otakuology." With the transnational success of manga, anime, and Japanese videogames, the term "otaku" has become common across a variety of popular discourses, as a sort of identity designating the consumers or users of these products. But I believe that we've come to an impasse in our discussions of otaku, precisely because the term has become so familiar and ubiquitous that we run the risk of naturalizing an otaku identity without exploring its significance for our understanding of the interactions of culture, technology, and economy. With this goal in mind, I would like to begin by asking about your academic interests in general.
My general interests lie in the history of perception. So my basic questions are about how people perceive the world, how they experience it, at different historical junctures. These kinds of questions grow out of intellectual history. But the history of perception, sensation, or experience is different from the history of ideas. The history of ideas can rest content with an archive of texts or documents that are clearly established as philosophical, theoretical, or intellectual in nature. The history of perception or experience, however, turns to a broad range of materials that were traditionally ignored by historians—the stuff of everyday life. This makes for a vastly expanded empiricism. In fact, the archive threatens to become unmanageable. Histories of experience or perception have tended to turn to "aesthetic" materials that range across art history, literary studies, and media studies—art, visual culture, design, media, architecture, and all sorts of texts, fictional, philosophical, pedagogical, and discursive. The basic goal is to unearth the contours of a historically specific set of material orientations that guide or shape patterns of experience, or the material orientations that set up a field of possibilities. My interest in the history of specific sets of material orientations has gradually led to a focus on media, especially those associated with technologies of the moving image.
I also am interested in material conditions, but I chose to conduct extended participant [End Page 360] observation in Akihabara, an area of Tokyo associated with otaku, because I wished to introduce the voices of otaku into our discussions. Even in Japan, the voices of otaku have been largely missing from academic discourse. The term "otaku" began to appear in popular texts and "New Academism" in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but there was, and still are, very few examples of those identified as otaku speaking for themselves. Akihabara presents one narrow window onto one small segment of otaku culture, insofar as we imagine it to exist, and that window is anything but clear. Still, it offers a place to start to consider how otaku speak about themselves. How did you become interested in otaku?
When I first went to Japan in the late 1980s, I developed a love for manga and anime. So when I started teaching at McGill in the early 1990s, I offered a course on Japanese popular culture in which I tried to introduce students to manga and anime. There were not many anime with subtitles and very few manga in translation at that time, so it was tough putting together a decent syllabus. What surprised me was that a large number of the students loathed the materials, complaining that they were juvenile, incomprehensible, misogynistic, or worse. Also, the late 1980s and 1990s were a time of major transition in discourses on otaku in Japan, particularly with the arrest of Miyazaki Tsutomu in 1989, which encouraged a general pathologization of otaku in the media. As a result, even though my interests led me toward anime, manga, and so-called otaku culture, it took years of teaching and reading for me to make the connection between my interest in the history of perception and my interest in the otaku stuff.
A great deal conspired against making such connections, not least of which is the fact that there was not, until the late 1990s, any sense of...