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Japanamerica: Who is an Otaku?


By Roland Kelts.

I stepped out of the massive hangars of ExCel London, the city’s newest convention center, feeling depleted: three panel appearances, a book signing, and a lengthy magazine interview had siphoned off most of my adrenaline. Acute jet lag vacuumed away the rest. I wanted food, drink and solitude, a hot bath and a king-size bed.

The automatic doors opened onto a lengthy cement promenade. In the distance, and through the mists of a chill British rain, I could barely make out the facade of my hotel for the night.

After a full day inside the conventional hall, I figured the walk would do me good.

Then I was set upon.

It was an affectionate ambush, to be sure. First, an arm was draped around my shoulders, and a long, youthful South Asian face grinned down at me from one side. Then another arm squeezed lightly around my waist, and a short, freckle-faced, red-headed teenager grinned up at me from the other.

“We saw you,” one of them said in a rough English accent, nodding back to the conventional hall. “Nice.”

I mumbled my thanks, focusing on the handwritten sign thrust in front of me by a young Asian woman with wire-rimmed glasses: “Free Hugs for Yaoi Fans!”

Yaoi is a manga and anime subgenre, a casual abbreviation of yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi, meaning “no climax, no ending, no meaning.” Its narratives adhere to soap opera schemes; in Japan, most of the stories are written and read by middle-aged women.

But here in London, 6,000 miles from Tokyo, Yaoi is cool—and apparently for young boys and girls alike.

I posed in the rain for photos with the crew of five British teens, all decked out in cosplay fashions. I asked where they were from and why they liked Japan. I signed their books.

This was a book tour, after all, and today, writers are expected to behave like minstrels. Play for the court, and bow before your patrons. It just so happens that my patrons live thousands of kilometers away from Tokyo. And for them, being an otaku is way cool.

The spread of Japan’s popular culture in the West is predicated upon such misreadings. During my book tour in the United States, I was constantly barraged by young Americans who insisted that they were “otaku,” as if the very term conferred upon them a sense of cool, cutting edge, irrefutable intelligence.

Meanwhile, in Japan, I am reminded that no self-respecting citizen of the country self-identifies as an otaku.

This dissonance has complicated roots, the beginnings of which I’ll try to trace here.

In 1989, the term o-taku, which roughly translates as “hey, sir,” with both informal and formal connotations, took a big hit. It was employed by anemic, inward-looking, vaguely autistic Japanese males who began preferring “things” to “people.” That they may have been prophetic was beside the point. In the late 80s and early 90s, the implications were appalling.

In 1989, Tsutomu Miyazkai, a psychopath identified as an otaku, was arrested for murdering four children. He molested them. He cannibalized two.

The police found a lot of anime and manga in his apartment. Hence the subsequent clouds.

Fast forward to 2007: Kids and young adults in the United States proudly proclaim: “I am Otaku!” Young men and women in London proudly assault an author, bearing the Yaoi badge.

What does this mean?

On the one hand it reflects the obvious perversities of pop culture, in which a G-string bearing Madonna is lionized as a harbinger of the feminist future, and U2 is the last “supergroup.” Pop culture lives and dies by hyperbole.

On the other hand, it shows that Japan is clearly a leader in the world now, despite its modesty, claims of inferiority and native resistance to global prominence.

I am writing this from New York, where next month Kinokuniya will launch its biggest overseas bookstore ever, with me as one of their opening speakers. I see kaiju (monster) stickers on bars in the East Village, posters advertising Crayon Shinchan in the West Village. Uniqlo glares down at me from Broadway. Transformers is still rocking U.S. box offices, and Ultraman is among the coolest U.S. DVD releases, for American hipsters.

Japan is becoming, despite itself, a major world player. But it doesn’t want to be.

I am half-Japanese, so my perspective is skewed. But with China and India on the ascent, it seems to me that Japan can only thrive on its creativity, if it wants to. Kids from London to Paris to New York find Japan the hippest kid on the playground. Why not run with that?

Let’s God bless designer Nigo and his Bathing Ape clothes, Kinokuniya and its multilingual book inventory, and the legions of Japanese artists who are producing the best pop culture in the world. ‘Pop’ is ‘culture’ in the 21st Century.

Perhaps things really are better than people.

Is this an “Invasion?” Why not. Let it roll.

Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, out in paperback this November.

Picture: Roland Kelts outside Cafe Manga on London’s South Bank, by Andrew Stevens.

This piece originally appeared in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 14th, 2007.