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  • Imagining DiversityMapping the Potential and Limits of a Queer Otaku Theory
  • Edmond Ernest Dit Alban (bio)

Since the emergence of manga and anime fan conventions in 1970s Japan, the various fandoms and communities now known under the umbrella term of “otaku” have always flirted with queer modes of representation. Comic Market, today the largest fan convention in the world, was first held in 1975, a time when Hagio Moto’s shōjo manga attracted both female and male fans with a combination of various genres including science fiction, horror, and homosexual romances.1 While the emerging homoerotic dōjinshi (fanzine) community supported by young women and the science fiction animation scene uniting mostly male animators had some issues while figuring out how to coexist, the diverse spectrum of otaku fandoms nevertheless stabilized during the late 1970s’ spatial convergence of the shōjo manga with anime fandoms.2 The exploration of homosexual romances in shōjo manga indeed met in fanzine events, including Comic Market, and bookstores due to the growing production of science fiction animation and paraphernalia.3 There, male and female otaku fans formulated different strategies to reinvent alternative modes of gender representation and existence. For these reasons, otaku fandoms have been from a very early point accustomed to discourses reflecting on the norms of heteronormativity, a perspective that has also transpired within the academic scholarship tackling the otaku phenomenon.

As the filiation between the erotic and provocative art of shōnen’ai and lolicon manga started to be recognized and celebrated by male fans and scholars in the 1990s, otaku theory was progressively formulating the dream of an another take on masculinity.4 Following the boom in masculinity studies in 1990s Japan, otaku theory sought a masculinity freed from reality, an ensemble of societal norms alienating subjects from their personal freedom.5 Built as a techno-philosophy, the field of otakuology (and to an extent Japanese fan studies) therefore emerged out of the practice of visual cultures and the theorization of how technology and media shaped reality, society, and the self.6 The term “otaku,” here defined as an alternative lifestyle seeking non-normative gender and sexual expressions through the consumption of manga [End Page 116] and anime, has since repeatedly appeared within discourses reflecting upon the creation of alternative masculine identities, male gazes, and desires.7 In recent years, scholars have demonstrated how feminine images typical of male fan cultures have progressively transcended the realm of otaku cultures to enlighten us on the dramatic social and cultural transformations faced by people in neoliberal Japan.8 While I agree with the existing literature on the crucial impact of otaku cultures on Japanese society, I also wonder about the recurrent reduction of queer aspects inside otaku cultures to the more visible examples, as well as the typical erasure of nonheterosexual and cisgender male voices, histories, and practices that have participated in forging the current state of both academic and fan otaku theory.

Here, my goal is to start a conversation about the default state of otaku theory, a sort of epistemological stasis that has produced an academic framework generalizing otaku culture’s diversity without engaging with it. This question transcends the field of otaku studies to echo with the current accelerated rapprochement of fan studies (“finally in color” to quote Rukmini Pande) with postcolonial and intersectional frameworks.9 We should moreover question the need for a queer otaku theory and its potential intrusion into a context that did not ask to be part of any of this. As a queer scholar who has engaged for more than ten years with female and LGBT fandoms in Japan, my wish is not to impose a certain idea of what represents an ideal “queer” otaku theory. I aim, rather, to dismantle discourses, practices, and theories that have perpetuated homophobic and noninclusive frameworks under the generalizing focus of otaku theory on technologies, nonsensical humor, and queerness as fiction. How has queerness been framed within otaku theory? For what purpose? Whose queer experiences and lives have been included? Despite its problematic origin as a Western concept, the current absence of LGBT articulations of otaku praxis betrays a certain disinterest toward otaku theory in...