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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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…
Shingo is a heartless sociopathic automaton who cares for nothing more than acquiring vast boatloads of pornographic comic books.