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  • Transformation of Semantics in the History of Japanese Subcultures since 1992
  • Miyadai Shinji (bio) and Thomas Lamarre (bio)
    Translated by Shion Kono (bio)

Editor's Introduction

A sociologist known for his work on pop culture phenomena and also something of a cultural phenomenon himself, Miyadai Shinji has authored and coauthored dozens of books on topics ranging from government policy and film criticism to sex and subcultures. These include Sabukaruchaa shinwa kaitai (1993, Dismantling the subculture myth, with Ishihara Hideki and Ōtsuka Meiko), Maboroshi no kōgai (1997, The phantom suburbs), and Kibō, dannen, fukuin, eiga (2004, Hope, abandonment, good news, film), to name just a few. The essay that follows reviews and updates some of his early work on subcultures, with an emphasis on formations relevant to the study of otaku and anime. Miyadai's focus is on the semantics (imiron) surrounding these subcultures. "Semantics" here is a frame informed by the work of Niklas Luhmann, what translator Shion Kono glosses as "a set of concepts and statements that enable communication within a certain social context."1

Miyadai's essay is interesting for the way it investigates some of the conflicting images and stereotypes surrounding otaku and Japanese youth—that they are socially withdrawn spectators yet compulsive digital communicators; or sexual naïfs whose literacy lies in pornography; or ineffectual fans who harbor apocalyptic fantasies. Miyadai provides an overview but also [End Page 231] complicates these tropes by arranging them into different phases or stages in the evolution of otaku and other youth subcultures. For example, he juxtaposes otaku with youth sexual cultures such as enjo kōsai—part-time sexual or dating relationships between young teenage girls and older sugar daddies. For Miyadai, these new kinds of sexual relationships and the world of the otaku are two sides of the same coin, both indicative of an age in which the paramount concern is maintaining the outlines of the self, whether through aggressive sexual engagement or passive withdrawal.

Miyadai links these trends to broader currents in Japanese society. His equation of sex and religion as parallel sources of self-definition is striking, for instance. He situates the rising appeal of the withdrawn, fictional world that drives the rehabilitation of the otaku's image not only in terms of a reaction against youth sexual cultures of the early nineties, but also in terms of reaction against the violent intervention of the terrorist attacks mounted by Aum Shinrikyō in 1995. The association between Aum and otaku culture is a familiar one in Japan: there much of the media coverage that followed the subway gas attacks focused on Aum as a group, portraying its plots and personalities as part of a bizarre, science fiction-influenced cult, culture, or indeed subculture. Yet Miyadai brings new sophistication to such discussions.

He shows, for example, how the changing profile of the otaku is intertwined with a shift from the Armageddon or apocalyptic tropes of Aum and Akira to a more intimate sphere of "world type" (sekai-kei) anime—domestic or school-days dramas that confine themselves largely to the protagonist's insular inner world. And he traces the shift from the "world type" to the "battle royale." While the latter offers a more active, even combative form of social (often online) argument and engagement that appears activist, Miyadai argues that it nonetheless remains resolutely focused on the internal self. The battle royale's attempts at dialog always end in irony or self-reference. Finally, Miyadai's essay takes on a self-referential or ironic quality of its own, when he compares otaku and the other objects of his study to the culture of sociology itself, showing how the study of other worlds is not autonomous of their social production.

Transformation of Semantics in the History of Japanese Subcultures Since 1992

Since 1993 I have been describing the history of postwar Japanese subcultures by using the framework of social systems theory, in such works [End Page 232] as Sabukaruchaa shinwa kaitai (1993, Dismantling the subculture myth).2 The framework of social systems theory is a monistic model based on communication, in which the dynamism of a system is described without requiring any element other than communication, unlike...


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