Japan’s Obsessive Collective: ‘Otaku Spaces’

Otaku is one of those words that can be either an insult or a badge of honor, depending on who says it, and how. Originally a Japanese word meaning “your home,” by 1970 or so otaku had come to mean a fan, particularly an obsessive fan, with highly specialized interests. In the Western world, the term most often refers to someone who is into anime, manga, and the like, but one could also be an otaku of baseball, old calculators, or Star Trek. Originally an otaku in this sense was considered to be something of a geek; odd, perhaps, but harmless.

That all changed in 1989, when Miyazaki Tsutomu was arrested for sexually molesting and murdering four young girls. The news media made much of the fact that Miyazaki was an otaku in a really extreme way: his small home was stuffed to bursting with slasher films, manga, and erotic drawings of young girls. Faced with a horrifying crime that defied explanation, some jumped to the conclusion that there was a causal connection between Miyazaki’s collections and his criminal behavior, and suddenly all otaku became suspect—who knew what dark secrets they might be harboring, what antisocial acts they might be capable of?

Fortunately, Miyazaki was one of a kind, and the image of otaku has since been rehabilitated. In fact, some credit these dedicated fans with spurring innovation in the media and in technology, while their expenditures are also welcome in a Japanese economy that has been stagnating for the past 20 years or so. Today, it’s trendy (or “otacool” if you are a fan of neologisms) to be an otaku, and Patrick W. Galbraith’s Otaku Spaces lets you meet some of these fans and their collections, while also providing background on the whole otaku phenomenon.

Even more than the text, Androniki Christodoulou’s photographs take you right into the world of these collectors, and the two most surprising things about them are how different they are from each other, and how self-aware most of them are. These otaku for the most part are neither antisocial nor maladjusted, but simply people with specialized interests who have found a way to indulge those interests.

Ono Norihoro, a translator and writer who knows four languages, is one of Japan’s premiere experts on Russian science fiction; he also collects books, martial arts weapons, musical instruments, and old calculators. He’s not an isolated loser but, in his own words, he is a man who has been able to make his hobbies become his work. Takano Toshiyuki, a university student of information technology, estimates he owns about 100 bishojo games (computer games featuring beautiful young women) and spends about three hours playing them every day. He has other hobbies, including golf and skiing, and likes to go out with friends, but says gaming is the only hobby he has “mastered”.

Aki is a nursing student who lives with her parents and whose interests include BL manga (“boy’s love” manga featuring homoerotic and romantic stories about young men) and radio programs featuring seiyu (voice actors and actresses). Her theory of the appeal of BL stories would put some professors to shame: she hypotheses that the appeal is that the characters “fall in love because they see each other as individuals” rather than “just because they are the opposite sex.” Nagashima “Jienotsu” Yuichiro works part-time as a kickboxer (he won five million yen just for winning one tournament in 2010) to support what he considers his real career as a cosplayer. He’s not much of a collector, but enjoys frequenting maid cafes, and sometimes dresses as a female character in the ring.

OK, some of the individuals featured in this book do fall into more expected stereotypes. One collects underground paraphernalia (items associated with the yakuza, Charles Manson, the KKK, etc.) and says his collection is his girlfriend; another painted his van with images of Ayanami Rei (a character in the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion) and keeps a full-size fashion doll in the front passenger’s seat. Still, both are aware of what they are doing, and have jobs and families; as presented by Galbraith and Christodoulou, they seem no stranger than, for instance, particularly avid sports fans.

Besides the portraits of individual otaku (20 in all), Otaku Spaces offers a guide to the terminology of the subculture, a guided tour of five areas in Japan of particular interest to otaku (Akihabara, Nakano Broadway, and Ikeburo “Otomoe Road” in Tokyo; Osu in Naboya; and Nippombashi in Osaka), and interviews with two scholars who are experts on the otaku subcultures: Yoshimi Shun’ya of the University of Tokyo, and Morikawa Ka’ichiro, from Meiji University.

Galbraith, author of the 2009 Otaku Encyclopedia and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tokyo, clearly knows his stuff, and also has a genuine regard and respect for people that it would be easy to make fun of. Christodoulou has a real eye for capturing the essence of the otaku world, and the large-scale format (9” by 9”) and high-quality color printing in this book show her work off to its best advantage. Even if you’re not an otaku yourself, Galbraith and Christodoulou do such a good job of capturing the flavor of these subcultures that reading Otaku Spaces is the next best thing to a trip to Japan.

RATING 7 / 10
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