- Beyond Domesticating Animal Love
In the sky, gray clouds effervesce, float and fizzleIn them, Tama, I search for your visage.—Horie Noriko, a Tama-chan fan
I went to see Tama-chan at the Tsurumi River. He was adorable and I watched him endlessly (zutto mite imashita). I bought a Tama-chan nightie and sleep with him now! Stay healthy Tama! I love you, Tama-chan.—Minato Yurina, a Tama-chan fan
The animal fan poses an interesting problem for environmentalism and consumption. An exploration of the animal fan can lead us beyond the room of the sequestered "train man" out into a world of politics and nature, beyond the fetishized human subject of the otaku to the environmental and zoological. What does the zoological mean to fans and the fans to the zoological? This essay takes up the challenge of this volume of Mechademia to [End Page 39] unfix the "otaku" as an object of knowledge by suggesting the importance of looking beyond the human subject (endlessly defining the characteristics of the "otaku," for example) and looking at the kinds of relationships and desires posed by the fan, especially with regard to animals. There are two kinds of animal fans—those who exhibit a domesticating animal love that essentially replicates anthropocentric culture and power structures involving humans and animals, and those who do not. The latter instance of fandom would be an embrace of the animal other that gives expression to the desire for a different way of being in this world for the human through, and with, the animal.
On August 7, 2002, a bearded seal, soon christened "Tama-chan," was discovered in the Tama River (the Tamagawa). For reasons unknown, it had left its cold sea home to swim up the temperate and murky Tamagawa and other rivers in the Tokyo-Yokohama area. A crowd gradually formed and within a few days the onlookers reached into the hundreds. Newspaper reporters, television crews, and local merchants selling food and wares flooded the area. The bearded seal had become a media sweetheart.1 When Tama-chan swam from the Tamagawa to the Tsurumigawa in late August, hundreds more flocked to the riverside. Eventually the hordes of television and newspaper reporters disappeared, but fans remained to videotape, photograph, draw, and write about Tama as he moved to the Katabiragawa, the Ōtsunagawa, back to the Katabiragawa, and then to the Nakagawa and the Arakawa in April 2003. Thousands of Web pages were dedicated to Tama and included maps tracking the seal's whereabouts; printed conversations of couples and friends watching Tama-chan from the riverbanks; and photos, prints, drawings, and written memories of journeys to the river by captivated humans hoping for a glimpse of the plump, doe-eyed darling.
Tama disappeared in 2004, but he remained a ghostly presence. After Tama's final disappearance, blog writer Miyazaki Shinpei visited the riversides where Tama had sunbathed and asked local residents to speak about their Tama-chan experience. Commenting on his interview with a resident at Tsurumigawa who knew that the river was too dirty to support wildlife but hoped and imagined that one day it would be possible, Miyazaki wrote:
Looking at it from others' perspectives, it may seem that the kind of [vibrant] river, with a seal and other creatures, that this woman hopes for is perhaps hard to realize (jitsugen no muzukashii), and hers is just a way of dealing with it through simple imagination (tannaru sōzō). But I want to support this imagination. The ability to imagine takes us one step closer to the [End Page 40] possibility of realizing [a healthy river]. So I decided to emulate this lady and dream of such a river.2
The degree to which Tama captured the imagination of city dwellers is vividly expressed in the thousands of contributions to the Keihin River Bureau Tama-chan Memory Gallery. People of all ages contributed art, essays, and poetry after Tama's disappearance in 2004. Some were simple drawings by elementary school children, others woodblock prints, and others were poignant thoughts on Tama-chan's appearance in the rivers. Contributor Kawakami Etsuko wrote the following...