Editor’s Desk: The Animating Principle

As an outsider attending a Japanese otaku sales exhibition such as Comiket, one is inevitably bewildered by the crowds, the smell, the lurid spectacle, the unparalleled frenzy of consumption. It’s hard to imagine those in attendance taking the opportunity to engage in anything approaching the sort of interpersonal interaction that occurs at Western anime conventions.
Luckily, to find a decent “insider” depiction of Japanese fan socialization we need look no further than Genshiken (the anime, since it’s currently freshest in my mind) – in specific, the series’ depiction of Comiket through the eyes of its various cast members. What follows is a quick and dirty attempt to parse the event from their perspectives, in the hope that it will dispel some of the more outlandish notions of Japanese fan misanthropy.

Our Hero
Our Hero

Sasahara: As the everyman otaku protagonist of Genshiken, we follow Sasahara from his first Comiket through subsequent events until he finally attains the hallowed dream of circle participation.
His is the prototypical progression of fan to creator, moving from the initial shock and awe phase of his first event through a period of “prosumerism” in which he learns how to target exactly what he wants, and finally his graduation to the ranks of circledom.

Genshiken at Comiket
otaku style

Through it all he is accompanied by friends, but only those he brings with him. This is one of the fundamentals of Japanese fandom, the idea of the small in-group (Genshiken, in this case) rigidly demarcated from a broader community and within which all social interaction takes place. While the anime’s fictional narrative must dictate boundaries of character interaction by necessity (it’s unlikely the various members of Genshiken don’t have friends outside the group, especially later in the story), the tightly-knit circle remains a foundation of otaku socialization in Japan.
It’s hard to think of an analogue to this in Western society, but perhaps a gang of buddies who gather to watch sports together on the weekend could serve loosely as an example – a group of people who get together to hang out based on the pretext of a shared interest, but the interest is so ubiquitous (as otakudom is in Japan) that they choose their affiliation ultimately based on friendship and comfort with the group than with the shared interest in question.
It is important to note, however, that all fan interaction of the Sasaharan type has a shared appreciation of media culture at its core, and Comiket (and other similar sokubaikai, or sales conventions) are a reflection of this. Such events are constrained in purpose both by their size and by social norms of broader Japanese culture and the peculiar quirks of the fandom with which they are associated. The fact is that Japan has no analogue to the Western-style anime convention, and those expecting to find quick friendships (or swinging singles) at Japanese events will come away empty-handed. Those who are able to forge relationships prior to the event, however, will often find them satisfactorily consummated when the appointed day arrives.

Ohno is Goddess.

Tanaka and Ohno: Genshiken’s “otaku couple” par excellence represent another archetypal method of social interaction among Japanese fans, one not so blatantly tied to an exchange of goods but just as equally dependent on the careful cultivation of relationships prior to their fruition at the event.
I lack the first-hand knowledge of the cosplay community necessary to comment on the couple’s participation in that side of Comiket, but casual inspection of the cosplay pavillion corroborates the notion that a large portion of cosplayers are acquaintances and use the medium as pretext in the same way that small doujin circles do – as an excuse to gather with friends of similar interests.

Tanaka and friend
I haven’t seen
you for half a
year. Here, have
a picture!

In the end, many of those attending Comiket are there because they want to see friends they can only otherwise meet in person once or twice a year, such as many of Tanaka’s cosplayer acquaintances. Comiket thus becomes a gigantic communal “off-kai”, or offline meeting, for those who have cultivated friendships via other media for the half-year leading up to the event.
Among those properly termed “fans” (as opposed to resellers, gawkers , pro circles, and A-boys), I would wager that these two phenomena (going as a group and meeting long-distance friends) account for the vast majority of social subtext at events such as Comiket. In both cases the key is that relationships are formed prior to the event – and this, I would stipulate, is a trait shared across Japanese cultural strata. A desire for pleasant, structured social interaction is not particular to those labeled “otaku”, nor is it a sign of introversion or sociopathy.
With that said, the fact remains that the otaku stereotype of a socially malajusted media addict is grounded in reality. I don’t know anyone personally who matches this description, though most of my Japanese otaku acquaintances would be described charitably as “colorful” (not so charitably as “drab and awful”); the worst antisocialites are secluded away as hikikomori and never see the light of day, much less the light reflected off the forehead of an increasingly balding gaijin.
The fact also remains that the Japanese are not the most scintillating socialites on the planet. I could launch into a rambling pseudoanthropological rant about the reasons behind this, but that’s not the point of this post – suffice to say that spending a weekend wandering around a hotel looking for strangers with whom to engage in quality sexual intercourse and/or drama is not high on the list of Japanese national pastimes.
In summary: soylent green people are one of the core reasons Japanese fans attend events such as Comiket. The nature of the events, broader Japanese culture, and the people themselves just make it look like they are heartless sociopathic automatons who care for nothing more than acquiring vast boatloads of pornographic comic books.
Preemptive FAQ
Q. Your event reports read like the diary of a heartless sociopathic automaton who cares for nothing more than acquiring vast boatloads of pornographic comic books. What gives?
A. It’s a choice between that, livejournalesque entries detailing the trivial actions of myself and my friends (who most likely would not approve of having their actions broadcast over the internets anyway), and posts of utmost brevity.
I’m all out of brevity.
Q. You said you would be profiling the Genshiken cast, but you only got to three of them. What about the rest?

  • Madarame is stuck in the purgatory of “prosumer” mode and will likely be there until the day he dies. It’s highly addictive and nearly impossible to escape, a fact to which my wallet bears softly weeping testimony.
  • Ogiue approaches events similarly to Sasahara, only with a guilt complex the size of a former Soviet satellite. She is now developing her own network of acquaintances that will make events worthwhile from the human interaction perspective, a process expedited by her position as a creator.
  • Kousaka… is veiled in mystery.
  • Everyone else doesn’t matter, for purposes of this post at least.

Q. How did Japanese otaku interface prior to the advent of the internet?

Shoudai Kaichou: The Phantom Menace
he sees you when
you’re sleeping…

A. I don’t know, but aside from a few educated guesses (telegraph, smoke signals, semaphore, magic) there is the observation that beyond college clubs and science fiction appreciation groups otaku culture as we know it today didn’t exist in the pre-internet age. The obvious solution adopted by die-hard fans in the 80’s was to stay enrolled in college until the internet came along.
…and that’s a wrap, for now at least. The Japanese otaku is a curious beast indeed, and will no doubt surface again in further installments of this column – perhaps when I can figure out how to describe the situation I now find myself in without sounding like a bigger loser than I really am. Though something tells me that battle has already been lost several times over…
editor's desk logo
Shingo is a heartless sociopathic automaton who cares for nothing more than acquiring vast boatloads of pornographic comic books.

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18 Responses to Editor’s Desk: The Animating Principle

  1. Garry September 1, 2006 at 3:51 pm #

    It’s really something to watch all the kids (and I do mean KIDS, they all look 16 tops) meeting up at Otakon. It’s like Fire Island for geeks. “Hi, I like Hagaren, wanna hang out/hook up?” My group uses conventions as an excuse to spend a week together (though anime remains one of our chief diversions), so I can sympathize with (though not actually claim) that style of event.
    I remain mystified by Japanese culture. My current Japanese prof gave the cold shoulder to a visiting exchange student because of her casual speech. “These kids come here and they want to act too free…” Some things can never be understood by people who eat with forks.
    When I was still in Wapanese mode (first year of college), I studied the language and the culture so I could be a part of it. Now I study it so I can enjoy the differences between it and me.
    How bout you, Shingo? You like playing the outsider over there, or do you wish you could break through?

  2. Shipon September 1, 2006 at 5:14 pm #

    I think you failed to capture the smell of Garuge Sunday in setting the scene of Comiket. I would have devoted an extra 2 paragraphs to it’s rich complexity and vintage.

  3. Chikushou September 1, 2006 at 8:23 pm #

    Fat loot, more like phat lewtz.

  4. Sydney2K September 1, 2006 at 9:08 pm #

    Re. Ohno and Tanaka and picking up at events: one of my expat friends is a big cosplayer, and was working as a teacher at a high school out in the Japanese alps. Being Western, she was that much forward with the opposite sex. Anyway, when we were palling out at Comiket one winter she met this guy (that most fangirls would squeal over.) Anyway, she got his number, they got together, and, well, she had the barefaced audacity to IM me “we had the best sex ever!” (You don’t tell guys that!) Even sent photos of them together (clothed, not in flagrante indelicato.)
    She’s now in New York :D

  5. rabidkimba September 1, 2006 at 10:46 pm #

    Hm, strangely enough, my social interaction at American anime cons sounds a lot like the interaction you describe earlier – bring some real life nerd friends and meet internet nerd friends- including people I see just at the artist’s alley at the con. All those other people around melt into a sea of people I don’t particularly pay any attention to, or, on occasion, people I roll my eyes at. Randomly meeting people at a con just seems off to me, almost doomed to failure, but that’s probably just the antisocial hikky part of me talking. Or maybe it’s that part that’s gotten me hit on by 3-4 (I’ve stopped keeping count) guys throughout the years.
    One more class to go till Dragon*Con!

  6. omo September 1, 2006 at 11:05 pm #

    Thanks for underlying the subtle subtext between the characters’ relationships in Genshiken. I know it’s there but I never looked at them like this.
    One thing I do have to say is that the relational aspect of American fandom isn’t really all that different. A good amount of the hardcore con-going population do use cons to “consummate” their prior relationships. Some of the events that mark the American anime con tend to be just more social and shared (compared to buying and selling porn), but it is still somewhat superficial given the type of relationship the closely-knit otaku circles are.

  7. hachi September 2, 2006 at 9:39 am #

    A. It’s a choice between that, livejournalesque entries…”
    I’m already reading this on LiveJournal!

  8. Sydney2K September 3, 2006 at 1:50 pm #

    >> Omo (sounds like a laundry detergent!)
    I think what you say is true, and certainly in the early years of US cons most groups attending cons did centre around the local anime clubs in your area- why go alone when you could go with like minded friends and enjoy the experience even more.
    With the Inertnet though (sic), and especially with Instant Messaging, internet organised hobby groups, such as cosplay, anime music videos, even disorganised websites such as 4chan, and just through e-mails people are meeting each other at cons for the “first time”. These prior relationships then are virtual, rather than personal.
    For example, a friend of mine who accompanied me to Anime Expo did so because she wanted to meet a certain “cosplay idol”, and because she knew I knew her, she wanted me to introduce her (which I did of course). I jokingly described my accompanying her as just an excuse to pump me for my cosplay friends.
    Cons are recognising the fact that a lot of singles are attending cons, with panels about how to be attractive to the opposite sex, and things like the dating panels. A lot of people do go to cons to meet and make friends and some even hope for lasting relationships- and why not? You are going to a gathering of people with like-minded interests. But don’t go for the cosplayers. The good-looking ones are almost certainly already with partners (more often than not they’re cosplayers too.) Go for the congoers who aren’t dressed up. Some of them can be just as attractive.

  9. omo September 5, 2006 at 11:38 am #

    Did you just suggest………..
    I understand what you are saying but LOL, don’t suggest it like that. I concur that while you’re at it, one form of “consummation” is no different than another, but now we’re talking about something completely different :)

  10. Richard "Pocky" Kim September 6, 2006 at 8:40 am #

    As for how fans interacted before the internet, the ways my friends and I recall (yes, I’m one of the older ones) are:
    a) keijiban – bulletin boards: usually at Animate and Manga no Mori, people could ask around for like minded groups/people. They could also buy and sell stuff on these boards sometimes.
    b) Newsletters/APAs: A monthly doujinshi that you and your friends would put together, usually just enough copies for the group, occasionally a few extra if you were looking to pick up new members. This was popular in the U.S. for a while, too.
    c) Much like Madarame, people who graduated from college kept in contact with the members of their circles (hell, they still do, no matter what circle you are/were in), and often times these circles just evolved into fully-fledged social circles. (I can attribute many a late-night karaoke binge to this, when the seniors would come back and kidnap us at the Chiba U Ani-ken).
    Man, I miss Japan.

  11. Shingo September 6, 2006 at 11:36 am #

    “How bout you, Shingo? You like playing the outsider over there, or do you wish you could break through?”
    Good question. There are advantages and disadvantages to being the perpetual outsider, as all foreigners here are to varying degrees… I spend my time trying to leverage the advantages and mitigate the disadvantages, and generally fit in to the extent possible. I guess my goal is to ultimately “break through”, but it’s a difficult and complex path to tread, for me at least. Sometimes it seems nigh impossible, but perservere we must… This is an awfully vague reply, isn’t it. Still trying to figure out a good (post-worthy) way to approach the issue…
    >>rabidkimba, omo
    I’ve only been to one con in the US (ACen 2002) and that was with my college anime club, bearing out the whole “come as a circle” thing holding true across the Pacific. I can hardly claim to be an expert on US events based on that one experience, but it makes sense that most congoers wouldn’t be there deliberately to get into strangers’ pants. That said, American events are certainly more oriented toward socialization than Japanese ones are. That fact alone may have more to do with the type of socialization that happens there than any inherent cultural norms.
    Aha, so that’s where all those livejournal hits have been coming from. Quite handy, though I do wish it kept more of the original HD formatting of images and the like. :/
    From my experience (and from watching Comic Party) it seems that, prior to the recent explosion of social networking sites in Japan, most “virtual” communication leading up to events took the form of fan letters and emails to artists, and similar communication between artists. These would tend to lead to relationships based on the art being produced, and friendships based on respect and/or shared tastes… not a lot of coupling going on as a result, from what I’ve seen. With the advent of Mixi, though, all bets are off…
    >>Richard “Pocky” Kim
    I’m familiar with the “haunting your old college circle” phenomenon, though it seems the manken I was in while studying abroad was disbanded this year due to waning interest… ;_; I still have a couple of friends from it that I keep in touch with from time to time.
    The keijiban and newsletter methods didn’t cross my mind, though they make a lot of sense – I’m reminded of methods used by bands to attract members in the case of the former, posting want ads in music supply and instrument stores. How I would have benifited from that sort of thing in my local hobby shop here… I think the internet may have complicated otaku interaction unnecessarily, what with everything anonymous these days.
    I guess Mixi is a brutally effective replacement, but still.

  12. Sydney2K September 6, 2006 at 9:07 pm #

    I shudder to ask: what’s Mixi?

  13. Shingo September 7, 2006 at 9:20 am #

    Mixi is Mixi, Japan’s biggest social networking site. It’s spawned quite the following among otaku types over the past few years.

  14. Richard "Pocky" Kim September 7, 2006 at 12:18 pm #

    Sorry to hear that about your manken. I wonder how the ChibaDai Ani-Ken is doing… since Chiba is a big school, I’d hope it’d still be around.
    I still remember my ‘introduction’ to the club.
    Clubmate A: “ねえ、キームー!一番好きなときメモキャラって誰?”
    Me: “・・・美緒です。”
    Clubmate B: “なんで?”
    Me: “メガネっ子が好きですから~ *^^*”
    Club: *laughter/”one of us” chanting

    The keijiban lasted for a while (up until… 2002? 3?) from what I remember, but the ‘zines died once MLs were easy to access.
    And Mixi… damn, but all of my friends keep trying to get me to join it. >.

  15. Sydney2K September 8, 2006 at 12:38 pm #

    I guess that can be the topic of another column- I knew nothing of Mixi until this week, and I’m interested in hearing how this site has changed otaku-dom.

  16. unangbangkay September 11, 2006 at 5:06 pm #

    >> Omo (sounds like a laundry detergent!)
    IT IS (in Viet Nam).

  17. hl October 26, 2006 at 5:46 pm #

    this is a very impressive analysis of otaku sociality. thanks for the insight, and i hope you can find a way out of the vicious cycle of prosumerism!

  18. joki December 20, 2007 at 6:56 am #

    mixi? also my first time hearing about it, i agree that a post about it would be very interesting

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