Book Review – Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World

Ito, Mizuko, Daisuke Okabe and Izumi Tsuji, eds. Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Andrew Campana

What does it mean to be an “otaku” when once-unusual otaku-esque practices of participatory media engagement and fan production have become the norm in the age of social networking, video sharing and Wikipedia? How might we talk about characteristics that unite vastly different types of otaku without disregarding the historical and social specificities of each otaku community? What might the increasingly transnational figure of the otaku tell us about the nature of contemporary global media flows? These are some of the questions that form the core of Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World, a vibrant and skillfully-curated collection of twelve essays edited by Mizuko ItoDaisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji, published by Yale University Press earlier this year.[1]

At stake is the otaku’s relationship to “Japan,” and whether the otaku is forced into an uneasy international ambassadorship in the soft power-focused era of the “Cool Japan” initiative, or, conversely, participates in the active translation, distribution and transformation of Japanese-language texts outside Japan. Also prominent is the question of internet subjectivity. Might the otaku provide a practical or even ethical model of internet practice, at a time when online exchange has become inextricable from an increasingly vast proportion of our interpersonal communication and cultural production?

As indicated by the academic fields of Ito, Okabe and Tsuji—cultural anthropology, cognitive psychology, and sociology, respectively—the vast majority of Fandom Unbound is concerned with the active practices, concrete manifestations and underlying infrastructures of contemporary otaku cultures and communities, with almost every chapter centering around some sort of ethnography. (The major exception is the highly theoretical excerpt from Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono’s translation of Hiroki Azuma’s 2001 book Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, a work which needs no introduction here but whose inclusion provides a welcome if jarring contrast to the other essays in the volume. Marc Steinberg’s Mechademia review can be read here.) The authors of the essays frequently stress their position as otaku as well as scholars, not shying away from using their own experiences of fan cultures to illustrate their points. Furthermore, otaku communities in both Japan and America are well-represented and regularly juxtaposed. All of these approaches to Japanese pop culture studies have been somewhat underrepresented in the English-language scholarly literature thus far, and the fact that three-quarters of the chapters are new translations of Japanese-language scholarly work renders this book an especially welcome and singular addition to the field.

After a comprehensive introduction by Ito that summarizes and crystallizes common threads among the subsequent twelve chapters, Fandom Unbound is divided into three parts, each with four chapters. The first, “Culture and Discourse,” examines the development of otaku culture as a “complex set of resistances and accommodations” not just in relation to mainstream cultural production but to other subcultures in Japan and America as well as to Japan’s modernization (xxi). Along with the excerpt from Azuma’s book that describes his now-famous “database theory” of otaku consumption, in this section we find an essay by Lawrence Eng, “Strategies of Engagement,” that tracks the development of the American otaku community, culminating in an almost manifesto-like summary of Eng’s ideal “otaku ethic” (96). Eng highlights productive appropriation and resistance, the free movement of information, and the networking of communities of otaku as a proactive and effective response to our contemporary media-saturated society (96–102). In Akihiro Kitada’s “Japan’s Cynical Nationalism,” the spotlight moves to 2channel, the largest Internet forum in the world, in order to examine the complex interplay of sarcasm and sincerity vital to the formation of interpersonal bonds in the anonymous online space (70). Yet what lingers most from this section is Izumi Tsuji’s opening chapter, “Why Study Train Otaku?: A Social History of Imagination,” in which Tsuji not only finds a convincing precursor to Japan’s later otaku communities in the groups of male rail-fans that extend back to the Meiji Era and continue to the present, but uses the rise and fall in popularity of differently-scaled models, scientific and military magazines, bullet trains, and anthropomorphized “train girls” to trace the underlying trends and desires within popular imagination itself, or at least that of a certain group of Japanese men and boys.

The second section of the volume, “Infrastructure and Space,” is perhaps the most focused, all four of its chapters dealing with the concrete infrastructures and physical spaces that support otaku activity. Hiroaki Tamagawa looks at Comic Market, the enormous dōjin (fan-made manga) convention central to Japanese otaku activity, tracking the evolution of the systems and hierarchies of dōjin production and distribution from the late 1970s to the present. Kaichiro Morikawa looks at another Japanese otaku center, the Tokyo district of Akihabara, and the developments that led to its transformation from the household appliances district in the 1980s to something like a “stereotypical otaku bedroom,” “blown up and recreated in the heart of the city” (134). Most intriguingly, he likens contemporary Akihabara to a version of the Internet “manifested in real space,” a conclusion in keeping with one of the book’s overarching themes of “real world” otaku phenomena prefiguring or reflecting the digital (152). A second chapter by Lawrence Eng shifts the focus again to America, further developing his portrayal of otaku communities as inherently networked, whether they take the form of anime clubs at schools, directories and forums online, commercial websites, or anime conventions.  Ito ends the section with “Contributors versus Leechers: Fansubbing Ethics and a Hybrid Public Culture,” a multi-faceted examination of the production, distribution, and consumption of fan-made English-language subtitles of anime. This is a legally grey (or sometimes purely illegal) set of practices that force every individual fan—whether “contributor” (producer) or “leech” (consumer) of these subtitled anime—to negotiate their own ethical stance with themselves and others. Touching on issues such as the vicissitudes of fan-industry relationships, the nature and motives of fan labor, and the development of hierarchies of taste and skill among American anime fan communities, this piece perhaps best embodies the aims of the entire volume.

Finally, “Community and Identity,” the third and last section, again looks at particular otaku communities, but this time with an eye to “how they organize membership, status, and identity” (xxv). In “Cosplay, Learning, and Cultural Practice,” Daisuke Okabe examines cosplay communities in Japan, providing both a general history of the phenomenon of (largely female) fans who dress up as their favorite characters at conventions, and a particular focus on how cosplayers share knowledge and create standards to evaluate each others’ work. Yoshimasa Kijima’s chapter on “The Fighting Gamer Otaku Community” is the only one that focuses on game otaku.  It treats the playing of fighting arcade games with other gamers as both a spectacle and a deeply interpersonal act, a far cry from the stereotype of the isolated otaku locked in his or her room (a preconception, indeed, continuously challenged throughout the entire volume). Another chapter from Ito returns to the question of American otaku communities, hierarchies, and fan labor, this time looking at the enormously time-consuming phenomenon of the creation of Anime Music Videos (AMVs), in which fans edit clips from their favorite anime and set them to (usually Western) music. Okabe and Kimi Ishida’s stand-out “Making Fujoshi Identity Visible and Invisible” uses several interviews to show how fujoshi (female otaku who read and create dōjin in which male characters are paired up in romantic relationships with each other) perform a complex combination of obfuscation, self-deprecation and disclosure, both online and off, in order to shield themselves from or anticipate criticism as well as to strengthen their bonds with other fujoshi.  In this way, the piece is similar in subject matter to Kitada’s on 2channel. Though the sample size of interviewees is quite small—a criticism that might be leveled at many of the essays in the volume—this means a more comprehensive view of “otaku” is exchanged for a richer and deeper depiction of a specific group. This is a rare and valuable approach in the English-language works on otaku up until this point.

Appropriate to its subject matter, Fandom Unbound exists within its own media ecology of sorts, and is easily accessible in a wide range of ebook formats. The book itself, according to its copyright page, should be available freely on the Yale University Press website under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 License. Though it does not appear there yet except in excerpts, one hopes that in accordance with the “otaku ethic” the whole volume will be online soon.  Such a move would make it extremely convenient to use the volume in the undergraduate courses to which it is particularly well suited. A video excerpt and write-up of a talk given by Mizuko Ito at M.I.T. last year are excellent, as is an extensive threepart interview with the editors of the volume given by the media theorist Henry Jenkins, a major influence on the volume who is frequently cited throughout. Special mention must also be made of the spectacular original cover illustration by Ulises Farinas, depicting a multitude of almost-familiar variations of beloved anime, manga, and videogame characters making their way through a packed city square.  It is a fitting representation of these figures’ endless capacity for movement, transformation, and unlikely juxtaposition, as well as the frequent conflation of Japanese popular culture with the landscapes of the postmodern.

[1] This review follows the practice set by the editors of Fandom Unbound of writing Japanese names in the Western order with given name first and family name second.