This essay outlines some of the artistic and theoretical developments of the ‘otaku generation’ with regard to Japanese identity in its historico-political context. It traces the way in which the otaku as a marginalised group, have been aesthetically commercialised in the art of Murakami Takashi and theoretically framed by Azuma Kôki. A discussion of the theoretical/practical approach by Japanese performance company Gekidan Kaitaisha and its director Shimizu Shinjin, is used to demonstrate some ways of dismantling the effects of the global-media system from within this context and its otaku phenomenon. The premise rests upon the idea of releasing ‘the body’ from its instilled illusions, so that its own meaning may be found in relation to ‘history’.
The sensation of not being human or real, of alienation stems from ‘not existing’ because one’s society does not grant one equal rights. The critical strategy used by those considered as marginal, is to empty out the self, so that one is from nowhere, without identity and withoutpersonality (Ôtori H., 2004).
From the body as unified soul and flesh in the 19th century, to the fragmented and copied original of the 20th, to the multiple ‘representations’ of the actual in the 21st, a gradual transformation of subjective ontology in the modern human condition has taken place. From intense realism to intense virtualism, from discreet and isolated agency to a technological interconnectedness with the world, the past two decades have witnessed an intensified virtual expansion in parallel with an intense physical retraction for those living in urbanised environments. And yet several more bodies are of course hidden within this system. A cosmogenic animist view of the body otherwise forced out and left behind since the industrial ‘enclosure’ of the commons, when synthesised with the Cartesian body, presents a potential for escape from tightening restrictions posed in the age of ‘globalization’.
The unstable subject is a key condition of postmodernity. With cynical regard for the 18th century Enlightenment project born in the deformed ruins of World War I, new forms emerged in art (DADA, futurism, surrealism), film and psychoanalysis (identity and stress disorders, selfhood, repression), through a general critique of grand narratives of nationhood. The seeds planted in the body from relations between capitalism, nationalism and the emergent experiences of war at the beginning of the 20th century, had come to fruition by its end. In the first decade of the 21st century, as the global reach of wars for resources have deepened, the interrogation of molar institutions of self, gender, family, nation, race and ‘human’ has also continued apace.
Currently known as globalisation, the present transformation is financial and technological. It is marked from the 1980s in which, together with the end of the Soviet Union (9.11.1989) and the end of the Showa era in Japan, after which a general onset of ‘devolution’ of the social responsibilities of the State began. Led by the policies of the administrations of Thatcher and Reagan, their trademark deregulating approaches have proliferated in post-industrial capitalist States leading to increasingly integrated national and financial markets. Contrary to their ‘free market’ rhetoric however, territorial and capitalist logics of power have intertwined, in deploying selective tactics of protection and interference. In re-introducing ‘original accumulation’ techniques, while smaller than ‘world wars’, direct military interventions and forcible appropriations of geo-strategic natural resources have become more frequent. 1 In the institution of electronic financial systems, access to the internet has become a nearly ubiquitous quotidian activity of urbanised life, precipitating a transformation in the socio-ontological foundations of existence. This kind of life is typically exemplified in Japan.
Since the early 1990s, Japanese cultural critics (Asada Akira; Azuma Kôki; Sawaragi Noi; Suga Hidemi; Fukuda Kazuya) have sought to theorise the globalisation of Japanese pop culture (manga, anime, video games) in relation to the term Otaku /お宅, with the ‘O’ becoming a postmodern ideograph for Japan. Azuma posits the source of Otaku culture in American subcultural genres, the Otaku mind as being occupied by things American, and the Otaku body as standing on ‘occupied ground/占領地’. Otaku are characterised as shy and socially inept enthusiastic consumers with an obsessive interest in SF, war and anime media (models, computer games/hacking, manga, film etc), as precipitated from lives of relative isolation. In limiting social interaction through avatars in internet clubs or ‘cosplay’ festivals, where they dress as their favourite anime characters, the solipsistic character of the otaku has been created in mutual feedback with the IT and media technologies they surrounded themselves with. Due to a capacity for ‘anti-social’ behaviour, otaku have been pathologised as hikikomori/’shut ins’/引き蘢, a term attributed by the psychologist Saito Tamaki, or hininbyou/misanthropy/離人病.
The otaku ‘trend’ has received significant criticism in generalist commentaries both in Japan and in the US. Until the recent tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku-Daoyu Island dispute, China was a most desirable consort for US critics, who dismissed the prolonged economic gloom in Japan as symptomatic of a ‘European condition’. As if to eke revenge for having once been usurped as economic hegemon, these commentators have magnified the otaku as representative of the entire national condition. As obsessive escapists who prefer the seclusion of the virtual to the national ideals of virile productivity, Japan’s uninspiring economy is equated with the lack of ‘authentic human contact’ in the otaku. Pathologised as ‘protecting their ego against anything that would diminish [them]’, the otaku condition is sometimes blamed for Japan’s economic malaise (Cohen, 2009).
While associative possibilities certainly do exist between the otakuphenomenon and a historical legacy of insular nativism (sakoku/closed-society) in Japan, this past is also not without correspondence to US and western policies of forced trade and unequal treaties. The synchronicity of otaku inertia and the crash of advanced neo-liberal economies in 2009, warns of an over-reliance upon a database lifestyle, and as I will discuss in the following, a suppression of the body.
The importance of the victory of the Democratic Japan Party in 2009 (DJP), was not only the challenge it posed to US bases in Japan. The ‘fraternity’ policy (Yûai/友愛) of the Hatoyama administration marked a shift in the last half century of Japanese politics, particularly with regard to a re-emphasis on Asian ties. While the Hatoyama leadership was unceremoniously ended due to his failure to fulfil his electoral promises to move the US Futenma base in Okinawa to Guam, for the first time in sixty five years the allegiance to US foreign policy, otherwise held sacrosanct during the long reign of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was publicly questioned at a political level. It also marked the first time in this period that two discernible oppositions emerged in the political arena. Asia, and even China, may have represented a way out of Japan’s confinement.
However in this context, perhaps unintentionally, the theoretical/aesthetic analyses of otaku provided by Azuma Hiroki and Murakami Takashi respectively, suggests conditions which are not exclusive to Japanese society, but which are created from life in densely urbanised environments operating under a globally integrated economic system. As Azuma argues, otaku are important in Japanese contemporary culture not only for their large population and social impact, but for the proclivity for intense absorption in virtual media (Azuma, 2009, p. 34, pp.131-132). 2
As an otaku theorist, Azuma posits the prototypical Otaku generation as being during the boom-years from the 1970 Osaka Expo to the 1995 AUM sarin gas attack. Yet, Otaku subject-formation is traceable to the flattened void of urban scapes in the immediate post-war, in which grand (Imperial) ambitions were reduced to a simple (animal) logic of lack and satisfaction – extreme expansion to extreme retraction. Many humiliations accompanied defeat and occupation – life in the blackened ruins, prostitution to foreign soldiers, petty corruption, wholesale imitation of American culture and products, loss of family, traditions and the national figurehead of the Emperor. Even the Constitution, initially handed down by the Supreme Command of the Allied Forces (SCAP), had to be translated into Japanese. In a familiar trope, Azuma describes this condition as ‘dysfunctional castration’, which may associate with Murakami’s ‘flatness’. This aesthetico-ontological ‘caesura’ delineated prewar modernist singularity (subject/object) from postwar postmodern ‘ghostliness’ (sub¬object/亡霊).
If it were not for Japan’s favourable geo-strategic position, its economy may not have been recovered from the defeat in such a ‘miraculous’ way. Having favoured the archipelago with industrial contracts, loans, trade and construction contracts as its ‘forward-deployment’ during the Cold War, the US privileged the Japanese economy with significant benefits. Obliged to ‘embrace’ America and naturalise its relationship with its former enemy by internalising its humiliation, as concrete filled the great holes of destroyed buildings the memories from the Japanese Empire were concealed in a great reorientation project. A combined US-Japan governmental effort had served to insulate both of their war-shocked societies via an artificially induced euphoria of economic surplus and material wealth. Instead of ‘exorcising’ the pain of war and taking responsibility in public recollections/confessions, a process of accelerated amnesiadeveloped. Yet the experience of life on ‘Americanized soil’ concealed the scar of Japan’s own aggressive conduct and history, leaving only a suppurating abscess of victimhood to soothe.
The intrinsic inferiority complex was permitted to contort into ambivalence and bitter self-effacing irony, which Azuma describes as characteristic of the otaku. In the face of America’s interpenetrating ‘pop’ culture and the ever-present suspicion of right-wing/右翼 denialism of Japanese military ‘war crimes’, Azuma regards the possibility of a healthy nationalism as having been crippled.
However, Azuma neglects the way in which postwar socialist initiatives to mobilise civic responsibility towards a healthy democracy had been squashed and replaced with a strident nationalism by the late 1970s. While eliding the serious contributions by Japanese journalists during the Vietnam War (such as Honda Katsuichi), Azuma correctly identifies a satirical cynicism which began to purvey popular media during the ‘bubble economy’ of the 1980s. As a faddish and narcissistic postmodernism spread, a younger generation collected along the Chuo-line, burrowing like hermit crabs in the rarefied private realms of internet prototypes (BBS’s), pop-culture fan-clubs, and trading electronic equipment in Akihabara. According to Azuma, otakuwere hoarding cultural artefacts to fabricate an ‘artificial sense of wholeness’ (Azuma, 2009, p.27, p.92). In characteristic obsessiveness, they classified themselves into three categories: Mania – war/SF media with part-time jobs and families; Otaku – limited social contact on internet clubs or ‘cosplay’ festivals; Hikikomori – minimal to no social contact, still living at home without any specific obsessions.
While the outspoken politician Ishihara Shintaro led the attack on negative western stereotypes (ie ‘economic animals’, or ‘zombie-clone consumers in a capitalist paradise’) by proposing to reverse the flow of cultural penetration by ‘Japanising America’, otaku were quietly re-claiming products once-scorned as cheap American imitations (Azuma, 2009, p.13, p.18). For Azuma, the hybridised SF-folklore fantasies of the 1950s rooted the otaku identity in a specific experience of Occupation. In the narratives of a weaker otaku state overcoming great adversity (rebel factions or monsters) with innovative technology (robots/weapons), anime such as Space Battleship Yamato or Gundam reflected Otaku nationalist dreams of a Japan becoming a ‘normal’, autonomous nation-state (albeit through discipline and sacrifice). In their all-Japanese narratives of spiritual self-sacrifice, these artefacts demonstrated artistic attempts to re-formulate prewar philosophy, and Japanese nationalism in general. In their nostalgia for ‘heroic’ and ‘mature’ role-models, they were mourning the loss of an uncompromised, self-sufficient Japan.
To describe this condition, Azuma cites the TV anime show ‘J-Saber Marionette’, which is set in a world in which all human life has been replaced with androids remotely controlled by a big computer. However, the protagonist discovers three females with human hearts called ‘marionettes’, who have been designed by the departed humans to trick the computer into exchanging them for the only real human female it keeps captive in a satellite. For Azuma, the plot’s poignancy lies in the choice facing the protagonist – whether to keep the marionettes with hearts, or to discard them for a real human girl who is a stranger. But the import is that the marionettes make the decision for him, which Azuma attributes to the ‘otaku condition’.
By the late-1990s, the otaku habit of introverted saturation in Japanese pop-cultural media products was being formulated into a globally distributed ‘apolitical’ industry known as ‘J-Pop’. This has been both criticised as signifying a general ‘junking’ of Japanese culture, and opportunistically promoted as a semi-utopian practice of liquidity and flows.
Yet akin to the 19th century flaneur, the nerdish otaku consumer cultivates a snobbish specialisation from within private enclosures, a trait which Kojeve intuited as particularly Japanese during a short trip to Japan in 1959. Replacing substance with style, seeking complete control over their tiny field, the otaku are oneiric spectators of others, of events and of themselves. By contrast, Azuma seeks to distance the otaku from this observation, arguing instead that the otaku are ‘anti-naïve’ in ‘animalising’ (de-historicised) the commercial globalised environment (Abel J. (tr.), Azuma H., 2009, p.xvi).
Although Azuma acknowledges a (de)mobilised, paralysed, uncritical condition created by the ubiquity of IT entertainment, he categorically rejects the ‘leftist’ critique of the deleterious effects of IT technology (surveillance, market-dominance, censorship). Instead he proposes the domestic usefulness of ‘ubiquitous networking technologies’ (i.e. ‘locating children’ with GPS) to bring a ‘broader worldview’.
For Azuma, IT entertainment is the main conveyor of narrative and ideology. Believing in the ‘sophistication’ of institutional controls over society, with a positive regard for the ‘somatic’ effect described in Brave New World, Azuma regards the latest otaku as happy consumers in servitude. As long as they remain addicted to entertainment, and do not get distracted by critical thinking, consumers will not notice ‘real’ negative conditions.
However, it is telling that Azuma disregards the connection between Otaku insularity and populist xenophobia and intra-racial conflict in Japan, which he dismisses as ‘immature’. In his eagerness to proselytise the otaku as a national cause célèbre, Azuma elides the connection between the profiling and pathologising of an ‘anti¬social’ menace (otaku-hikikomori), and the history of recurrent racial violence in Japan.
Otaku art as commercial/national ‘resistance’:
Concerned with narratives disseminated by otaku writers and game creators, Azuma cites artists like Ôtomo Katsuhiro (Akira), Murakami Takashi (Superflat) and Yoshitomo Nara (Japanese children) as having shrewdly articulated the childish yet knowing, vengeful otaku character. As Murakami and others have suggested, in their indifference and abjection, the ostracized otaku also offer resistance.
Combining his 2D pop-signboard-art (‘Signboard Takashi’) with his mini-models designed for the otaku market in Akihabara, Murakami broke into the art scene in the mid 90s, generating significant critical debate. Despite being criticised in the otaku community for a lack of ‘purity’ and for caricaturing and exploiting the ideas and talent of otaku (i.e. Fujihiko Hosono), Murakami has managed to assemble a stable of artists within his company (Kaikai kiki Co.) which commercialises the aesthetic combine of ‘pop’ and otaku (poku), which he has called ‘Super Flat’ (chô-heimen-teki / 超平面的).
In a quasi-post-colonial perspective Murakami regards the way in Greek sculpture is received compared to Japanese Buddhist sculpture (nyorai/如来禅) as representative of the ‘imposition’ of Western ideas of ‘Art’ since the Meiji era (1868–1912) (Murakami T., Mako W., 2000). Prior to this, the performing and visual arts were entertainment forms by the lowest class (hinin/否認 andkawaramono / 河原者), and were used by the ruling class to pacify political unrest and further economic prosperity (Screech, T., 2002, p.14). Murakami blames the postwar saturation of Japanese traditional arts with the saccharine pop of American ‘product placement’ (i.e. through American Occupation radio – F.E.N.). In this view, Japan had become a commercial laboratory for American corporations.
Murakami intends his ‘superflat’ theory to be a core aesthetic principle to maintain a continuum from pre-Meiji to the present, unbroken by modern European and American aesthetics. ‘Flatness’, Murakami argues, as derived from otaku theorists (Okada Toshio, Ôtsuka Eiji), reflects the ‘horizontality’ of Japan’s incomplete modernisation (i.e. two long 19th centuries). As opposed to the singular point of the modern gaze (遠近法) which penetrates the surface to reveal the hidden (fragmented chaotic), a multitude of floating comic-like pre/postmodern eyes stare out from a flat surface. For Azuma a ‘perspectival system’ of these eyes (or lack thereof) destabilises the way in which many different gazes are unified into one gaze by the picture. Neither staring back at the seer nor penetrating via ‘a camera eye’, their flat surfaces only reflect the viewer’s monological projection. Similarly, Azuma contends that users of the anonymous database only ‘see’ through multiple holes in a simulacra (medium/avatar), without voyeuristically scrutinising another’s gaze. In this version of postmodernity, multiple proliferations on the 2D database substitute for the unified and directed modern camera eye.
While a sort of ‘amusement-park’ otaku culture is generally linked to the arts of the Edo era (‘yellow books’/erohon, Kabuki, Jôruri), Azuma argues that this is to deny the influence of post-war American subcultural imports and the introduction of postmodernism into Japan since the 1960s which has contributed to a Japanese hybridity (i.e. Alexandre Kojeve, Wim Wenders, William Gibson, Rem Koolhaas, Roland Barthes). Azuma regards a return to the original or ‘pure’ Japanese culture as an absurd nostalgia, and intentionally directs this towards those who continue to accuse certain aspects of Japanese culture of essentialism.
While for Azuma, Murakami’s hyper-stimulated figurative images satirise the unhealthy media-diet of the otaku, and reflect the ‘database’ era, for Murakami himself, his approach is responsive to the fluctuations of the cultural market. While in Japan, he calls his work ‘Ram’, and adorns popular luxury items (i.e. Luis Vuitton bags) with his ‘signature’ pop-eyed emblems (referring to the reciprocal fantasy ‘value’ of compensated dating, or enjo-kôsai/援助交際). In New York he calls his work ‘Sporn’, selling a Japanese world-view (Nichiren) in the form of ‘entertainment’ (i.e. iconoclastic 3-D anime figures) to audiences seeking to understand his culture. Capitalist advertising provides multiple opportunities for ‘meaning’, as in pre-modern Edo, Barthes’ ‘proliferation of signs’, Rauschenbergian ‘flatbeds’ or Warhol’s commercial instrumentalism.
Murakami seems to regard Japanese culture itself as subculture, within which further suppressed subcultures exist. These subcultures exist within a spectrum that includes the Aum Shinrikyô and variants of otaku. All experience degrees of marginalisation and discrimination in society, to which their numeracy and extremity attest. Murakami identifies both cases as evidence of media control, not only of their existence, but of public (mis)perceptions which exacerbate their construction and alienation. Murakami supports his claim by citing the media suppression of the Tokaimura nuclear plant accident.
Resentful for being subject to discrimination, and despairing in their isolation, often self-imposed for protection, otaku tend to repress their emotions and escape from reality through their fantasies. Yet these legions of the discriminated who suffer from skin disorders, obesity, hyper-anxiety, ugliness, unpopularity or deformity (for example), have established points of commonality and assembly. At annual events such as the Wonder Festival and comike, all converge in the costumes of their favourite anime characters to share in their alienated struggle. Yet even within these groups, the dynamics of competition inscribed by the broader society, tends to reproduce similar problems of ‘ otaku kings’ and paraiahs. Those who fail to win an ‘ otakudebate’ are barred from belonging to an exclusive competitive social group, and are marginalised.
While claiming to having been forced to move to New York because he was disliked by otaku and ignored by journalists in Japan, Murakami has appropriated an otaku perspective to make art as a ‘record of the struggle of the discriminated people’. As opposed to Pop, Murakami caters to the desire for the idea that resistance is still possible, and speaks to those who have resigned to lives of passive security (Murakami, Mako, 2000). At the same time, Murakami seems to also appropriate Ishihara Shintarô’s brand of triumphalism, in claiming that ‘‘superflat’ will dominate the world of the future’ (Murakami T., Wako M., 2000).
For Murakami, art is salvational, in the 13th century tradition of salvation practiced by Buddhist Shingon monks as described in Osamu Tezuka’s anime Hi no Tori (Fire Bird). In Tezuka’s manga, the lost protagonist, through spiritual encouragement of the priest, transforms to find self-fulfillment in the making of sculpture. Yet in critiquing American commercialism while celebrating Japan’s, Murakami seeks a continuous aesthetic theory which can overcome the modern nation-state imaginary otherwise known as ‘Nihon’.
Inspired by Marxist historiographer Amino Yoshihiko’s analysis, Murakami includes everyday lives in ‘premodern’ society, which have been otherwise occluded from the 19th century modernist narrative of originality and ethnic homogeneity. Importantly, Amino inverts this affective nationalism (ie Kobayashi Yoshinori, Ishihara Shintarô) which instrumentalised rice cultivation as the sacred occupation of a homogeneous people in the construction of a fictive and transcendent cultural identity (hyakushô). Instead, Amino contended that ‘Nihon’ was spread over a multiplicity of peoples living on an archipelago of 3,700 islands who were reliant not only on land, but upon the seas for regional trade and fishing (Amino Y., 1993, pp.5-37).
By contrast, Azuma’s (modernist) desire for a hybrid resurgent nationalism, as well as his rivalotaku theorists’ pre/postmodern connections, seem to be generally reluctant to properly address the ‘winter period’ of Japanese pre-war and wartime nationalism, or, Japanese Imperialism as an expanded form of the Japanese nation.
Azuma regards this form of cultural ‘dialogue’ as reflecting ‘an on-going crisis in which ill-fitting narratives are forced upon our [different] culture’ (Azuma, 2009, p.113). Using Lacan’s notion of ‘anamorphosis’ in Hans Holbein’s 16th century oil painting (‘The Ambassadors’), Azuma describes a gaze which permits the coexistence of two spaces, in which the unifying European perspective which cancels out other possible gazes is no longer possible (Azuma, 2001). He suggests that an oblique view of the (European) painting may preserve other perspectives. Fittingly, Azuma describes Murakami as a castrati who may have been a ‘samurai sculptor’ but who is ‘cut-off’ from the database (ie in obtaining a US Green Card), who becomes an envoy (or ambassadorial ‘animal’) for Japanese politicians seeking trade in ‘made-in-Japan’ products. Azuma seems to advocate strong bilateral Japan-US ties facilitated by the ambassadorial gaze ofotaku ‘intermediaries’, wherein their ‘lack’ is compensated by an intense consumerist diet.
In this way, while Azuma defines the national condition as ‘Postal’ (i.e. post-hyper growth, post-post war, post Cold War, post-colonial, postmodern), both Azuma and Murakami are keen to distance the otaku from the commentators’ attributions of ‘little boy’ infantilism (Murakami, 2005, p.122), but for different reasons. For Azuma, the public violence of the 1995 AUM sarin attack forced the youngest otaku generation in their ‘tweens’ from their ‘childish’ cocoons to confront social ‘reality’. For Murakami, otaku present a resistance (to cultural imperialism) through their uniquely Japanese cultural aesthetics. Azuma similarly valourises otaku as ‘database animals’ who occupy the multi-narrative game-logics of virtuality. In the ‘masculine (pornographic) rewards’ offered to pseudonymous representatives (avatars), instead of passive impotence, Azuma asserts that otaku are national heroes of the internet age, and has formed a consortium of lawyers, entrepreneurs and sociologists to evaluate the otaku industry. 3
Yet how new are these developments? While it may look and sound different, it seems the original game is simply being played through a different interface. Although an AmericanisedOtaku culture has concealed its symbolism within a superficial game architecture, which has been re-exported to America as ‘Japanime’, it seems that the otaku immersion into internet surfaces is being reinvested by theorists like Azuma with modern paradigms. ‘Super’ is the database, and ‘flat’ is the simulacra.
Nevertheless, a certain triumphalism continues to betray an anxiety to compare favourably with Europe and the United States. The impression of suspended adolescence from prolonged periods of physical inertia while being consumed ‘in’ virtual fantasies tends to reinforce general public concerns for ‘ambivalent, sheltered’ youth. In an obsessive return to Japan’s foundational agency established in the postwar (defeat, Occupation, re-Constitution, development, economic ‘maturity’), the desire to equal western countries continues. Despite the evident reality of self-righteous US demands for changes in Japanese policy, Azuma still remains inured to a rhetoric of ‘maturity’ deployed by US officials since the end of WWII, if not before. While repeatedly trading degrees of recognition of Japanese equality for a variety of returns, a cursory glance at the ‘accidents’ in and around US bases will demonstrate the double standard in those official US accusations. Nevertheless, Azuma seeks to demonstrate how otaku are fitting of the national image: self-reliant, upright, Japanese, male.
But ‘buffing up’ the otaku image is not simply derived from a sense of inferiority to westerners. Azuma tacitly situates the otaku on a political side that among other things regards Article 9, which stipulates that Japan shall not use land, sea or air-forces to settle international disputes, as the cause of this ‘abnormal masochistic passivity’ in Japan. Despite a thriving entertainment industry devolved from the otaku lifestyle, their passive introversion subverts ‘mainstream’ molar values, to which a Japan-US military bond is integral for its propagators. As Japan and its military capacity to ‘defend itself’ continues to be framed in terms of maturity by both Japanese and US militarist and nationalist conservatives, the otaku, or any other kind of ambivalent status, such as apologetic leadership (particularly male), will continue to be subdued. Taking responsibility for war crimes during the Imperial period, as an act of maturity par excellence, will continue to be buried unless Japan’s US partners also show similar maturity.
Otaku as a social problem:
During the rise of the otaku art stars, Japan was enduring economic stagnation. By the 2000s, it became clear that the otaku ‘phenomenon’ was far from an aesthetic, and more of a social ‘condition’ (freeter – partially employed casual labour; neets – not in employment, education or training; hikikomori – ‘shut-ins’). Between adolescence and their 40s, estimates range from 6 thousand to 1-2 percent of the population. The technophilic lifestyle in heavily mediated ‘rooms within a room’ (‘self-mediation’) was producing significant bodily side-effects (inertia, depression, paranoia, voyeurism, agoraphobia and/or violence towards others and the self).
Sometimes benign, sometimes dysfunctional, psychologists (such as Saito Tamaki) have identified bullying and/or over-protectiveness as the cause for hikikomori withdrawal. Individual cases have served to reinforce mainstream stereotypes of anti¬social, perverted and altogether horrible hikikomori who intimidate their parents, fail in school and relationships, beat up the homeless, nurture ‘grudges’, and even commit murder. The otaku-hikikomori tend to be characterised as maintaining a defensively closed circle against those who are not like them, generating paranoia and distrust for those outside the community (Jones, 2006). 4
While a spate of ‘otaku killings’ prodded a public ‘reform and reintegration’ program, in pathologising the hikikomori as ‘abnormal’ or ‘sick’, regarding them as social pests (immature, parasitic), or vilifying them as ‘dangerous’ tends to aggravate alienation and limit the possible changes necessary for recovery. When a construction worker went on a stabbing spree in Akihabara, otaku culture was blamed and fifty security cameras were installed in the area. When asked why he did it however, he said he was ‘tired of life’. In this sense, the otaku-hikikomoriseem to have become a social scapegoat (Matsutani M., 2010).
While normative codes and ‘molar’ categories of self, family and nation are reinforced, tolerance for other abuses of power (i.e. those which Murakami satirises) exposes hypocritical traits typical in an advanced capitalist society. This limited tolerance for ‘failure’ (i.e. non-productivity) is demonstrated not only in Japan, but in technocratic neo-liberal capitalist economies. While otaku are not the cause, they remain the symptom, the ‘otaku-effect’ as an embodied reflection of governmental privatization (risutora), urban estrangement, social fragmentation, ‘disciplinary’ education policies including intensive surveillance mechanisms and xenophobic intolerance. Otakureflect the conditions society produces in its values and systems, and they are complicit in the production of these conditions.
However, otaku-hikikomori also pose positive possibilities in their non-violent mode of refusal. Neither attacking nor triumphalist, the otaku outlook of sheer indifference may yet undermine a system based on competition, exploitation, status, over-production and waste. Non-participation and non-productivity from unforced voluntary isolation and its concentrated alternative time-structure may offer both an act of resistance and a maturing process. In the ascetic tradition of the recluse (intonsha/隠遁), arduous isolation has long been standard practice for gaining inner clarity. While ascetics are often criticised as aloof or deviant in moral economies of social ‘belonging’, their ‘worth’ being framed within the unitary logic of capitalist economies before their ‘value’ is comprehensible, both ascetic and otaku-hikikomori potentially offer the capacity to return insight from ‘outside’ our daily grid of norms. In holding up a mirror to an exclusivist, privatised consciousness may offer options for change (Broinowski, A., 2006).
If, as social critic Suga Hidemi has argued, hikikomori belong to a renewed underclass, then their IT tools, ironically for social networking, may provide purpose, worth and even social change in their capacity to network with other underprivileged and/or ‘involuntarily withdrawn’ underlings (ie asylum seekers, civilians in war zones, prisoners, activists). Paradoxically, ‘withdrawal’ may renew solidarity, creating respite from the addictive traps being set by self-interested artist/avatars in the entertainment (E-) junkets. Going through an otaku condition may help appreciate the distinction between fake and real, illusion and reality. Coming to this understanding may precipitate a sharper ability to deconstruct nationalist manipulations, and precipitate an openness towards life outside the database. In so doing, what may be found?
Otaku and military-media-technologies:
The ‘media image’ is a simple principle. Its strength lies in it failing to recognise the ‘outside’. At its roots it has the same principle as that of the ‘community’
(Shimizu S., 2004).
One example of artistic practice (performance) which has been negotiating this terrain is the performance work of Gekidan Kaitaisha (Foucaultian/Derridean ‘de-spectacle’ performance). Having been part of the formation of the company in the late 1980s, director Shimizu Shinjin is familiar with but maintains a more critical view of the otaku phenomenon. Considerably transformed by the Persian Gulf War (1991), Shimizu chose to reject the technological fetishes provided for the bourgeois theatre of the period, and focus on the way in which media-technologies have conditioned what he terms as a ‘besieged body’ (Shimizu S., Ôtori H., 2001, pp.121-123).
1991, as seen in the critical analysis of the spectacular media-military displays on battlefields of ‘green darkness’ (i.e. Baudrillard, Virilio), exposed the way media-technology was being integrated into weapons systems. Shimizu has since critiqued the way in which a ‘media army’ repeats images and reduces bodies to statistics (data¬bodies) as a way of limiting information (i.e. civilian death-tolls in military conflicts). Alain Badiou observes a similar systemic process in that ‘what counts – in the sense of what is valued – is that which is counted. Inversely, everything that deals with numbers must be valued… Our soul has the cold transparency of the figures in which it is resolved’ (Badiou, 2008, p.8). Media technology Shimizu continues, is a masking surface which projects a ‘dream’ outside of which ‘nothing’ exists.
Given that the domestic internet relies on the same ‘media network’ system as do ‘military surveillance satellite networks’, media technology, once sold and distributed as weaponry, is repackaged for quotidian utility. For example, television (‘Silent Century’ systems) became ‘global entertainment’, ‘missile defense’ parts became ‘ubiquitous GPS systems’, and ‘multimedia feedback’ (used for torture and hazardous operations) became domestic robots (‘ASIMO’) (Virilio P., 2000, p.22) in the overall military transformation to a cyclopean global tele-surveillance system (‘global vision’).
The ‘avant-garde’ resides not in art but in military weapons. Pre-empted by the futurism of Marinetti, Virilio observes how ‘the limits of the unimaginable’ are already here (Virilio P., 2002, p.12). While that may be, the ‘avant garde’ is inaccessible. Advances in high-speed, minute and complex technical information engineering are protected by military, industrial and academic institutions.
As a sort of après-guarde action then, Shimizu deconstructs the limited material available. In what Virilio describes as the ‘logistics of perception management’, the impression of ‘factual evidence’, ‘accessibility’ and ‘ubiquity’ through media ‘surfaces’ tends to control perceptions of reality by through a regime of factual interpretation. In a market of renewable ‘differences’, for Ranciere the ‘surface’ is ‘the partition, or division and distribution of the sensible (partage du sensible)’ which cuts and trims nature, shape, volume and form of appearance (Ranciere, J., 2006). For Virilio it is the public itself, upon which ‘reality’ is inscribed (as a weapon).
Most effectively received in an abnormally intense state of ecstasy/paralysis or ‘immediacy’ (as the suspension between empathy and horror), the design is for the ‘surface’ and the body of the ‘substratum’ to mirror each other. Rather than its image of a pluralist democratic platform for a multitude of voices, Virilio and Ranciere independently observe how strategic doctrines interpellate bodily postures, organoleptic practices and cognitive attunements. In actuality, the ‘public life of sensation’ is a carefully managed domain of perception design. With the body as the target, the ‘surface’ shapes more desireable versions of history to be consumed and inscribed. Deconstruction of the ‘surface’ therefore is the departure point for the work in Kaitaisha, returning to the body its memory and meaning.
For Virilio, ‘politics’, or dialogue in the public life of the senses, collapses into (unilateral) speeds: military, tele-cinematic, techno-scientific (Virilio P., 2000a, p.45). Bodies in cinematic speed ‘dissolve’ via an acclerated frame-time and its rate/speed of perception. Blurring demarcations between ‘real’, ‘visual’ and ‘virtual’, only increases the retardation of being attendant to realities of the lived body. Although such technologies may provide help to some, a shared sense of (still) extant realities are fragmented, and/or deleted, while an accelerated view leads to an ontology of bodily paralysis (demobilization), dismemberment and live burial (Virilio, 1989, pp.79–89). Working with the body as a medium in a period in which politics are aestheticised, Kaitaisha’s work re-politicises not only theatre, but the public itself in its somatic relationship to time and distance.
Globalisation and the body:
What makes Kaitaisha unusual is the insistence on including a practical theatre of the body (micro) alongside a theoretical analyses of issues such as ‘globalization’ (macro). For Shimizu, globalisation is a networked global or world-system of national capitalism. Nationalism uses the media image as a medium of interpellation, and anticipation. Capitalism accelerates the rate of information consumption by reducing ‘the body’ to data. As Azuma also argues, in ‘the pleasure of speed and convenience’ provided by IT-entertainment network servers and data culture the populous is seduced.
In this matrix, nationalism and capitalism converge in their mutually shared target: worker and management production in the enforcement of growth. Nationalism finds popular expression through a program of ‘physicalism/ィジかリズ’ – a Bergsonian ‘vitalist’ analysis of a ‘theatre of life/violence’, in which the ‘rhythmic’ image (pulse or drum-beat) is a device exemplifying the exaltation of ‘flesh’/ 肉体 and the unified body/総(Shimizu, 2004).
While possibly an a-historical and de-contextualised approach, Shimizu re-appropriates ‘systematic thinking’ (functional pragmatism) to deconstruct the ‘physical expression’ the system produces. Laid out on a Klein matrix Shimizu describes a ‘map of globalised operations’ in four categories which interact within the ‘global regime’: nationalism, capitalism, physicalism, the media image. To each category, Shimizu appends a ‘movement’ concept and a technique devised by Kaitaisha:
• Capitalism -‘Transformation/生成変化’
• Media Image -‘Repetition/反復’
• Nationalism -‘Nervous System/神経制’
• Physicalism -‘Phantom Pain/幻影肢 ’
‘Transformation’ de/constructs stereotype by changing its form through ‘parasitism’ and ‘reversal’; ‘Repetition’ repeats actions in the recovery of forgotten memories; ‘Nervous system’ allows the emergence of more detailed ‘movements’ otherwise suppressed in the reductionist quantification in data-capitalism; ‘Phantom Pain’ suggests ‘missing limbs’ in contrast to the ‘despotic’ imagery of a unified and rhythmic ‘theatre of life’ (Shimizu, 2002).
For Shimizu, ‘transformation’ is at the core of the media-image system in which ‘system’ is a fixed and unified structure, and ‘form’ is ever-changing. As form is mimicked (parasitised) and proliferated in multiple bodies, it transforms into a multiplicity of new forms and ‘bodies’. The mutations are then re-introduced into (appropriated by) the main ‘system’. This circuit then repeats.
The reflection of the multiple body:
While otaku culture was forming, a multi-media system was also being recognised in theatre. For example, Ôtori Hidenaga cites a Mabou Mines production of Hajj (dir. Lee Bruer, 1984) in which an actress sat in front of a three-panelled mirror (a ‘Magic Mirror’), which refracted three strands of (her) subjectivity: memory (a childhood journey), immediate presence, self-perception. To this, Shimizu includes the actress’ voice as a fourth (temporary) strand.
In their synchronicity, Ôtori observes how an actual body is ‘masked’ by a multiple or ‘poly-harmonic’ collection of ‘surfaces/mediums’ (screens). Forced through a series of daily transformations, the everyday body is ‘beseiged’ by repetitive multiple‘supporting surface(s)’ projected via a ‘globalised body’. Elaborating upon Ôtori’s hypothesis, Shimizu regards the body as ‘a selfless double inscribed with a thousand layers’ which undergoes multiple divisions –a source of tax revenue, statistical material, productive labour, a desiring machine. In this view, the body is an empty space for ‘human’/non-human renderings.
Shimizu has re-configured notions of the body first proposed by the Ankoku Butoh co¬founder Hijikata Tatsumi in media-network terms (Hijikata T., 1977, p.125). In a particular mixture ofbutoh and otaku bodies, Shimizu argues that the body is a screen that reflects dreams which are neither willed nor reflexive. ‘Normality’, he continues, is neither unified nor ‘substantial’, and is in fact ‘trance’. The body itself is a collection of abstract illusions or theories, including the notion of ‘globalisation’.
Shimizu applies the logic of butoh, or a bodily technique of being a medium, to the everyday body. In becoming the body as ‘media/medium’, the ‘inside’ is placed ‘outside’, or, the ‘inside is outside’ (Broinowski A., 2003). The ‘world/meaning’ is therefore defined in relation to the ‘outside/other’, and although it functions within the ‘locality’ of ‘flesh’, the subject becomes freed from a ‘closed circuit’ of thought which posits the body as a ‘unified subject’. In short, Hijikata was seeking an ontological exit from 19th century western notions of human subjectivity, which he found unsatisfactory to encompass his world-view. One of the distinctive characteristics in the ability to put the inside outside, both in butoh and in Kaitaisha, is a quality, as Hijikata described, of ‘being watched’ by the always present ‘past’ or ‘before’.
For Hijikata, modernity’s crisis could be identified in bodily form as a ‘corpse being stood up’, to which he contrasted with a body which is supported by an outside force (i.e. earth, atmosphere, pressure, energy, history). Yet, rather than the ‘closed society’ clichés of Tohoku/東北 (Northern Japan) village/furusato life where Hijikata grew up, attributed largely by his students of the 1970s-1980s and some western critics, this was not essentialist, as Hijikata also stated ‘there is also a Tôhoku in England’ (Hijikata T., 1985, pp.2-27). Shimizu contends that Hijikata was concerned with representing the ‘outside’.
For Hijikata, Tôhoku was the ‘other’ and was neither strange nor special. Both ‘factual’ and everyday, the other is generous, not narcissistic and remaining in the present. Within a system of ‘globalised’ images, similar to Virilio’s notion of ‘saving phenomena by saving their speed of apperception’ (Virilio P., 2000a), in ‘being watched’ from Tôhoku Hijikata found a way of departing from the trap of the ‘self’, to recover and be open to this ‘other’ being kept on the outside.
In short, the prohibited ‘Tôhoku other’ was the suppressed historical ontologies of rural peasants in northern Japan (Broinowski A., 2009). Instead of being dismissed as irrational, atavistic essentialism, a criticism which tends towards myopia in its own form of essentialism, Hijikata recognised the ‘dupe’ in modernisation theory, and sought to re-introduce those whom it excluded.
In the context of the aftermath of 9/11, Shimizu observed how the practice of prioritising difference in the media as part of the campaign of multiculturalism during the 1990s was peeled away and replaced with innumerable scenarios of suspicion and objectification. As part of a general totalising structure in the formation of a global regime, the binding process was accelerated post-9/11. In this transition period, Shimizu observed how the ‘human’ was being soldered to the ‘body’ (physicalism) by excluding difference from the mediation of the ‘human body’. By re-narrating difference as a motive, which has been repeated as both an accusation and a raison d’etre for racist violence, the rhetorical discourse most notably deployed by the Bush administration reverted from a same/different, to an us/them binary.
In this re-calibration of the coordinates of ‘human’, media images proliferated which celebrated ‘our’ global object of happiness and freedom as opposed to ‘theirs’, which was tyrannous and oppressive. In doing so, two globes were created once again, and ‘time-space’/空間 was reduced to satellite nodal points and detectable ‘body-time¬localities’. As Zizek has observed however, even when there were no computers, the ‘virtual’ screen upon which dreams are projected, always already existed. For example, like other mass phobias which preceded them (i.e. witch-hunts), a strong fear of the lethal effects of masturbation on both body and mind took hold of the public imagination in England in 1712, and spread throughout Europe. Neither a medieval remnant nor a by-product of religion, masturbation phobia was a modern phenomenon supported by the scientific findings of experts and specialists. Known as ‘onania’, this kind of solitary sex was depicted as a heinous sin of self-pollution, precipitating a long and painful deterioration towards premature death of European boys and girls, of which there were greater numbers caused than by any plague or war. As in Foucault’s notion of the modern fear of the irrational, the proselytisers of masturbation phobia and their believers were gripped by the spell of their construction. While masturbation reflected in sexual terms the very elements most valued by bourgeois society (solitude, privacy, imagination), as if to maintain a certain mannered opprobrium it had to be controlled so that it did not hinder productivity and the codes of marriage (see Lacquer, T., 2003, p.278).
However, the use of the ‘real’ as a masturbatory device in our fantasies does not preclude this material from existing (Zizek S., 2006, p.191). As subjective as our perspectives may be, the actual is not simply another window of the virtual. Instead, the ‘virtual’ of our imaginations is inherently infused within reality, there being no mind outside the actual. Yet, due to spatial restraints, this cannot be further delved into here.
(1.) For a description of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ by modern states see Harvey, D. (2003). The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 137–182.
(2.) Azuma also identifies the mediated tendency to replace the grand narrative with a fictive one in the exclusive modality of Aum Shinrikyô members.
(3.) See GLOCOM, [internet site, December 2009], ‘ISED’ http://www.glocom.jp/ised/ [accessed 7.1.2010]
(4.) Takuma Mamoru and Miyazaki Tsutomu are well-known examples of pathological cases of ‘otaku’ mediated lifestyles.
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15 Dec 2010