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  • Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons ed. by Patrick W. Galbraith, Thiam Huat Kam, Björn-Ole Kamm
  • Ben Whaley (bio)
Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons. Edited by Patrick W. Galbraith, Thiam Huat Kam, and Björn-Ole Kamm. Bloomsbury, London, 2015. xxxii, 199 pages. $114.00, cloth; $39.95, paper; $30.99, E-book.

Editors Patrick W. Galbraith, Thiam Huat Kam, and Björn-Ole Kamm’s Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons is a welcome and highly useful edited volume that encourages readers to rethink the often taken for granted figure of the “otaku.” It begins [End Page 133] with the assumption that while the word “otaku” will likely be familiar to anyone with an interest in contemporary Japanese pop culture, there is little agreement over what the term signifies. To some, otaku are simply fans of Japanese manga (print comics), anime (animation), videogames, and related subcultures, both inside and outside Japan—a rough analogue for Western “nerds” or “geeks.” To others, otaku are extremely knowledgeable specialists who, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are often thought to be “poor at interacting with others.”1 At worst, they represent potentially violent youth with a dangerous inability to differentiate between fantasy and reality. That the figure of the otaku resists easy classification and analysis is a point that this volume capitalizes on beautifully, by clearly demonstrating how discourses about otaku have, since their inception, been the subject of debate and, furthermore, how these debates (both past and present) are central for understanding the critical stakes of the term.

A central aim of the volume is to “de-naturalize” otaku from its ubiquity in the Japanese pop cultural lexicon by reinscribing the word within key moments in contemporary Japan when it was under active debate (p. 1). Organizationally, the book’s ten essays are grouped by decade of significance (the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s), and a particular strength of the critical entries is that they are wide-ranging in content and represent varied methodological approaches, making them useful to scholars from different disciplines. For those in Japan studies, the numerous English-language translations of Japanese texts about otaku are a valuable inclusion, with highlights being the two selections by Okada Toshio, a well-known authority on otaku culture. This review briefly addresses each essay in order of appearance and concludes with some general comments about the volume as a whole.

The collection begins with a section dedicated to the 1980s and Patrick W. Galbraith’s “‘Otaku Research’ and Anxiety About Failed Men.” Galbraith discusses the beginnings of the otaku debate by examining the initial appearance of the term in four installments of “‘Otaku’ no kenkyū” (Otaku research), a column primarily written by manga and anime fan Nakamori Akio and published in 1983 in the niche magazine Manga burikko. Galbraith shows how Nakamori coined the term “otaku” first in critique of obsessive pop culture fans, only to later refine the term to refer to “failed men” who prefer fictional anime characters and are sexually uninterested in real women. The essay documents how an orientation toward fictional characters arose in the 1970s and 1980s from a more general desire for “cuteness” and “girl-ness” in two-dimensional images, which came to be reflected in girl characters that blended the visuality of shōjo manga with light eroticism (pp. 24–25). Galbraith briefly mentions a male manga artist [End Page 134] who visualizes his female characters from the viewpoint of a girl character within his manga (p. 26). This discussion of the messy layers of gendered identification with fictional characters proves insightful and more could be done to expand on this topic.

Yamanaka Tomomi’s “Birth of ‘Otaku’: Centering on Discourse Dynamics in Manga Burikko” builds on Galbraith’s entry to show a variety of reader responses in the aftermath of the “‘Otaku’ no kenkyū” columns, including outcry over the term and treatment of otaku as discriminatory, and readers’ initial self-identification as otaku. Yamanaka suggests that the then editor of Manga burikko, Ōtsuka Eiji (who has written the volume’s foreword), used the reader-submission section of...


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