(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on July 31, 2010.)
Published in Japan during 2001, Hiroki Azuma’s book, “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, took a great deal of time to reach foreign audiences.” Now, with the help of translators Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono, this book is finally available to American readers and scholars. Despite the great lapse in time from its original release, it remains more relevant than ever due to the topic matter.
Otaku are obsessive Japanese hobbyists similar to the comic book fans of the United States. Its term has other applications, but more often refers to obsessive enthusiasts of anime and manga. They collect figures, posters, etc and it’s due to this that they maintain a salient imposition in Japan’s consumer market.
Hiroki Azuma’s ideas are extensive, but deal with postmodernism in a uniquely clear and concise fashion. A simple review hardly does it justice so I’ll focus more on his description of grand narratives and how it relates to Japan and the U.S.
Postmodernists reject the belief in grand narratives, theoretical explanations of reality (religion, nationalism, politics) in favor of fragmentary definitions of the world. As a result, postmodernism formed what Azuma’s refers to as the database model of small narratives.
This is associated with fictional consumption in a variety of ways. For example, the mainstream Marvel Universe is a grand narrative. Fans will purchase an issue of The Avengers or Spider-Man to get a better insight into the mythos of the super hero world.
Otaku, on the other hand, aren’t searching for grand narratives. What they want are simply characters or gimmicks to satisfy a desired trait.
Azuma cites the Digi Charot anime character as the genesis of this. Digi Charot was originally conceived as a company mascot with no back-story. Her narrative ultimately came about after anonymous responses in the market. In other words, the setting and character’s appearance became more pertinent to fans more than anything else. The story was written to accommodate the character not the other way around.
What this does is reduces the Otaku to an animalistic culture. The difference between animals and humans is that they pursue an unquenchable meaning to life. Animals, in turn, aren’t searching for meaning. They only want to have their basic needs met.
Azuma sees this framework as a reflection of Japanese consumerism in general. Take Jpop fans into consideration who favor an idol for her image, but pay little heed to her music.
“Database Animals” is special in that it’s one of the few philosophy books, which writes in a clear and concise language. Azuma doesn’t dwell high in an ivory tower and seems more concerned with having mainstream audiences understand his ideas rather than the academic elite.
If there’s one major flaw in his book, it’s his slight disorganization and penchant for tangents. The other flaw is the book’s short length. Azuma could have easily taken his theories even further and decided to describe more examples as he did briefly when comparing Otaku to the kogal fashion. The latter is forgivable given that its purpose is for readers to think critically and fill in the gaps he left behind. “The development at this point is left to each reader,” he writes.
Critics may be quick to apply this framework to American comic fans. The problem with is that comicdom is still heavily invested in the grand narratives of “their mainstream universe.” Spider-man fans are still devoted to his adventures in the mainstream “616 Universe.” Even without this, his separate story lines cross over to resemble a grand narrative of continuity. As far as consumerism is concerned, the database model grants an insight into the mindset of scenesters and hipsters more preoccupied with images rather than the greater meaning behind their tastes.
If this opinion rings remotely true, it’s all the more reason why Database Animals is worth reading. With the presence of the hypebeast, Otaku, and Japanese gamer subcultures breaching Little Tokyo’s haunts, this book offers a strong explanation to their habits.
Brett Fujioka is a recent graduate of Occidental College. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.