ICAS Event: Academic Conference
'OTAKUOLOGY' - Challenges and New Directions

Saturday, September 11, 2010
2:00 - 7:00 p.m. (doors open at 1:30 p.m.)
TUJ Azabu Hall 206/207 (Access)
Patrick W. Galbraith (The University of Tokyo)
Kyle Cleveland (Temple University, Japan Campus)
Free. Open to general public.
RSVP is now closed

Conference Overview

With the transnational success of manga, anime and Japanese videogames, “otaku” has become common across a variety of discourses, as a sort of identity designating the consumers or users of these products. A whole generation of people, previously marginalized with labels such as “geeks” and “nerds” are now calling themselves otaku and displaying their rarified, radical knowledge and hobbies with pride. American magazine OTAKU USA calls for otaku to unite, and tens of thousands of regular readers do. Japanese newspapers report “otaku exchange students” are converging on Japan to learn about the people and places they have encountered only in media form. The millions of otaku in Japan spending an annual $3.5 billion are dwarfed by the crushing wave of the global otaku revolution. Herein lies a problem for the many scholars in Japan Studies taking up popular culture. The discourse on otaku is frame d almost entirely by mass media. Discussions of otaku have come to an impasse, precisely because the term has become so familiar and ubiquitous that we run the risk of naturalizing an otaku identity without exploring its significance for our understanding of the interactions of culture, technology and economy.

This conference is part of an ongoing series of events organized by TUJ’s Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, which brings together scholars from both inside and outside Japan to infuse renewed theoretical and disciplinary rigor into the study of Japanese popular culture.


1:30 p.m.
2:00 p.m. - 2:15 p.m.
Kyle Cleveland (Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies; Temple University)
2:15 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.
Paper 1: Are Otaku Part of “Cool Japan?”
Morikawa Kaichiro (Meiji University)
3:00 p.m. - 3:45 p.m.
Paper 2: “Otakuology:” Problematizing the Study of Otaku
Patrick W. Galbraith (The University of Tokyo)
3:45 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Coffee Break
4:00 p.m. - 4:45 p.m.
Paper 3: The Common Sense that Makes the “Otaku:”
Labeling and the rules of consumption in contemporary Japan

Kam Thiam Huat (National University of Singapore)
4:45 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Paper 4: The Modern Practice of Otaku Labeling: Identity and Roleplaying (Games) in “Postmodern” Conditions
Björn-Ole Kamm (University Leipzig/German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo)
5:30 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.
Roundup Discussion, Q & A

Paper Abstract

Paper 1: Are Otaku Part of “Cool Japan?”

Speaker: Morikawa Kaichiro (Meiji University)

In the past decade, manga, anime, games and related Japanese pop-culture have collected growing interest from the Japanese government. They were discovered to be golden eggs, attracting buyers worldwide. The government even planned to erect a national museum to promote and elevate this culture. The problem is the goose that laid the eggs — the otaku — was, and is, considered ugly. The more attractive the eggs became, the more problematic the goose's ugliness became. Authorities started to try to separate the goose from the eggs and to cleanse its cage. Little consideration has been made that this segregation and cleansing could be a serious threat to the fertility of the goose. The focus of this lecture will be on the actual events that constitute the present state of otaku culture.

Morikawa Kaichiro is a design theorist most known for the book Learning from Akihabara (2003), where he suggests personality has taken on geographic dimensions. The concept was taken to a global audience with “Otaku: Persona=Space=City” at the 9th International Architecture Exhibition at Venezia Biennale in 2004. In 2008, he began a career at the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University.

Paper 2: “Otakuology:” Problematizing the Study of Otaku

Speaker: Patrick Galbraith (The University of Tokyo)

In the burgeoning scholarly discussion of Japanese popular culture, “otaku” has been naturalized. This is problematic, as understandings are based almost entirely on received media stereotypes. The definition of otaku is often assumed and never questioned. Many commentators present themselves as otaku, implying a sort of hermeneutic symmetry and foreclosing discussion. There is also a dearth of dialogue with experts in Japan, who operate in the context of a social and historic debate about otaku. The danger is that otaku get caught up in assumptions of difference and uniqueness, the rationale necessary to uphold interest in, and study of, Japan as the exotic Other.

Patrick W. Galbraith is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Institute of Interdisciplinary Information Studies at the University of Tokyo. He is the author of Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara and The Otaku Encyclopedia. Recent and upcoming publications include “Moe: Exploring Virtual Potential in Post-Millennial Japan” (Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies), “Akihabara: Conditioning a Public ‘Otaku’ Image” (Mechademia 5) and “Fujoshi: Girls and Women Exploring Transgressive Intimacy in Contemporary Japan” (Signs).

Paper 3: The Common Sense that Makes the “Otaku”:
Labeling and the Rules of Consumption in Contemporary Japan

Speaker: Kam Thiam Huat (National University of Singapore)

Why are there “otaku?” The conventional approach to this question is to examine people participating in particular consumption, without explaining why they are called “otaku.” I propose to approach this question by looking at “otaku” as a label: people are called “otaku” because they are judged by themselves or others to fit or fail certain rules. It is necessary to examine the people who use the label “otaku” and the rules they base their judgments on. This paper focuses on the labeling process undertaken by a group of Japanese university students and the rules they invoked. My analysis of interviews with these students revealed that there are four rules which they use to determine who is and is not an “otaku,” and which I have named as reality rule, communication rule, masculinity rule and majority rule. The four rules constitute these students’ common sense on consumption.

Kam Thiam Huat is a Teaching Assistant at the Department of Japanese Studies, National University of Singapore, having graduated with a M.A. from the same department. His research covers the consumption and discourses of popular culture in Japan, with a specific focus on “otaku” as a labeling phenomenon. He is currently exploring the “otaku” phenomenon in relation to issues of identity and capitalism.

Paper 4: The Modern Practice of Otaku Labeling:
Identity and Role-playing (Games) in “Postmodern” Conditions

Speaker: Björn-Ole Kamm (University Leipzig/German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo)

Attempts to redefine otaku or remedy stereotyped representations not seldom fail to recognize in-group differences and the necessity to locate otaku research exactly in this ongoing struggle over meaning. In answer to this problem, my Ph.D. research uses an interactionist perspective focusing on transactional self-labeling processes intertwined with the otaku stereotype. My research investigates the meaning an otaku label might have for the daily lives and the self-images of individuals.

The paper presents first results from participant observations of an otaku roleplaying community in Tokyo, combined with qualitative interviews in- and outside the Tokyo area, as well as with industry professionals. Preliminary findings show that face-to-face actualization is a decisive factor for the politics of in-group belonging/not-belonging. Individual experiences and self-images are extremely diverse, ranging from self-confident, politically active working-class otaku to people hiding behind pseudonyms in fear of harassment from co-workers and strangers.

Björn-Ole Kamm majored in Japanese Studies and Communication & Media Studies from 2002 until 2008 at University of Leipzig and Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto. The title of his M.A. thesis was "Fujoshi: Uses and gratifications of Boys' Love Manga in Japan and Germany." Since 2009, he has been a doctoral student mentored by Prof. Dr. Richter (University of Leipzig) and the administrator of the Japanese Studies' homepage. He received a research scholarship from the German Institute for Japanese Studies for his Ph.D. project.

About ICAS
The Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies (ICAS) is an organization dedicated to fostering study and research on various topics related to contemporary Japan and Asia.

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