Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 25, February 2011
Azuma Hiroki

Otaku: Japan's Database Animals

trans. Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono
Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009,
ISBN: 978-0-8166-5351-5 (hbk); price: $54.00, 200 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-8166-5352-2 (paper); price: $17.95

reviewed by Mark McHarry

      A model gun must strive to be … as close to possible as the real thing, and yet unable to cause injury. Such is [its] nature. We're military fans, not soldiers!
    Hobbyist in Otaku no Video 1982[1]

  1. In 1989, a twenty-six-year-old printer's assistant and passionate fan of anime and manga, Miyazaki Tsutomu, was arrested for the mutilation and murder of four young girls in and around Tokyo. There ensued a moral panic whose result was to stigmatise fans as 'otaku' (オタク), a word fans themselves had adopted as a humorous riposte to claims they lack skill at relationships.[2] Dozens of men and women were arrested and thousands of dōjinshi (fan created manga) were seized from stores.[3]
  2. Twenty-one years later, while some in Japan see otaku as positive, many do not. Richard Gardner writes that some characterise otaku as 'young people out of touch with mainstream social life,' spending most of their time at home and having 'an obsessive' interest in manga and anime, one that may turn violent.[4] They symbolise, writes Melek Ortabasi, 'a rejection of or challenge to society.'[5]
  3. Otaku have resisted these descriptions. In defending his hobby, the fictional military otaku in the widely-viewed fan-made video Otaku no Video 1982 asserted that the replica weapon he held is, like otaku themselves, incapable of harm.
  4. Otaku are also linked to problematic conceptions of gender and sex. Many people, including Azuma, see otaku as male.[6] Others do not. Sharon Kinsella writes that the news media extended the label 'otaku' to all Japanese amateur manga artists and fans as a result of the Miyazaki panic,[7] and Otaku no Video 1982 depicts a fictional female otaku introduced as 'an expert on pretty boys and alcoholic beverages.' Some, though not Azuma, critique otaku as inadequate in their masculinity. Thomas Lamarre writes that otaku discourse slips easily from ascesis and play into playing with oneself. It sets 'male potency as an autonomous force—autonomous of women,'[8] 'an unqualified masculinity that…appears pathetic,'[9] with even otaku-created products depicting otaku as 'the site of pathology.'[10]
  5. Otaku have resisted these charges, too. A recording studio assistant in his twenties, one of several real people interviewed in the otaku video, was asked about the first time he had sex with another: 'I'm still a virgin, but so what? I mean, the two-dimensional world…well, the screen can show things that satisfy me plenty. [I]sn't that normal?'[11]
  6. In the United States, 'otaku' lacks pejorative weight. Fan events such as the anime/manga conventions Otakon and AnimeLand Otaku Mex promote U.S. otakudom, as do OTAKU USA and other magazines and Web sites. Few in the West seem to consider otaku dangerous.
  7. The critic Azuma Hiroki has written a fascinating work about otaku, widely read when it was published in Japan in 2001. He elaborates a postmodern theory of otaku cultural production and consumption that is insightful and deeply interesting but with a significant flaw.
  8. He situates otaku in a nation fractured by more than a decade of economic decline and social malaise. Taking as given the end of modernity's grand narratives and the importance to otaku of fiction, Azuma seeks new descriptions of how otaku organise meaning. A major part of his thesis is that otaku have a unique way of relating to fiction and that this is a significant indicator of postmodernity's influence. Rather than determining subject through narrative (a view associated with modernity), otaku, he argues, represent a new kind of postmodern consumer, 'database animals,' who assemble erotically desirable characters out of affective elements called moe yōso (moe elements), easily readable signifiers attached to characters, such as the green hair, large socks and tail of the shōjo (girl) character Di Gi Charat. Moe yōso emerged as a way for otaku to recognise characters in the absence of an overarching narrative and have become preferred over it as a way to invent and re-work character.
  9. As the key example of how otaku use moe yōso Azuma cites the Japanese Web site TINAMI. Users search on keywords and names to identify art and artists in manga, anime, video games and related works:

      [T]he user can search for the desired characteristics of things like 'cat ears' and 'maid costumes,' or can set 'the percentage of characters appearing' at more than 75 percent, 'the age of character' at between 10 and 15, and 'the degree of déformé' at 5 in order to find desired characters (p. 43).

    But in addition to Azuma's description of the searchable moe yōso of shōjo characters, TINAMI also has generalised descriptions attached to drawings of bishōnen (beautiful boys) created by fans of boys' love. Their labels describe mood and settings, not appurtenances. They are emotional, not elemental, and intangible, not reductive. In searching TINAMI for 'BL' (the Roman characters being a rubric in Japanese for the genre) as well as for illustrations of characters from the popular manga-anime Tenisu no ōjisama (Prince of Tennis) I found bishōnen images drawn by fans labelled 'Eternity,' 'Distant Self,' 'Tsu-kyu from Behind!,' 'Love Me,' and 'Drunken "Yes"'.[12]
  10. Some of the ways otaku approach erotically desirable boys' love characters may differ from how otaku approach desirable shōjo characters. Yet Azuma's theory excludes boys' love, as well as the female and male otaku who participate in it, even though these two groups outnumber male otaku attracted to shōjo in participation at Japan's most popular venue of otaku expression, Comic Market.[13]
  11. His lone rationale, buried in an endnote, is that the practice at Comic Market, in which most of the dōjinshi on the first of the three days is created by and sold to males and on the second day by and to females, reflects 'the gender divide in otaku culture [that] cannot be ignored.'[14]
  12. This divide may be more apparent than real. Japanese males create and consume boys' love products, albeit not publicly and not nearly in the same numbers as females, but obvious to those seeking evidence of it as, for example, I have by asking an editor of a popular boys' love magazine how many of her readers are male.[15]
  13. In his justification Azuma unproblematically reinscribes binary conceptions of 'male' and 'female' gender and sex, and sets them across a divide. In Western postmodern theory, the use of essential maleness and femaleness as a rationale for exclusion has been identified as coercive at least since Michel Foucault's observations in the 1970s that unitary notions of sexuality form 'the correlate of … power.'[16]
  14. One scholar whose work has gained currency in Western postmodern theory is Judith Butler. She characterises the idea of origin for gender (and hence its ascription to a sex) as suspect in hypothesising that there is 'no "proper" gender … which is in some sense that sex's cultural property.'[17] Rather, in her thinking, 'gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original,' 'produc[ing] as its effect the illusion of a prior and volitional subject.'[18] Reducing gender to sex and claiming a binary polarity for female and male reify the notion of culturally distinct (and proper) 'male' and 'female.' This approach erases gender and sex ambiguity, themes prominent in Japanese literature since at least the Heian period (794 to 1185 CE) in works such as the widely-read twelfth-century story Torikaebaya (The Changelings) and which are central in many contemporary manga and anime (for example, Ranma 1/2) as well as in music (visual kei bands) and performance (the Takarazuka Revue).
  15. Azuma provides additional, less problematic but no less interesting, examples of otaku activity. Linking the design of the otaku shōjo video game Yu-No to the idea of hyperflat, where visual displays show a world in differing (or overlapping) parallel layers, he speculates as to whether hyperflat fits the psychoanalytic concept of multiple personality as an allegory of postmodernity. His consideration of psychoanalytic implications of a hyperflat sensibility is intriguing given the increasing use of augmented reality technology in consumer devices such as mobile phones.[19] Azuma also engages Jean Baudrillard's ideas of simulacra and simulation, relating them to otaku aesthetics, and to otaku notions of Edo-period and post-Pacific War history. The translators provide a useful introduction to critical thinking in Japan about otaku and copious footnotes elaborating Azuma's cultural references.
  16. Otaku, male and female, are a force to be reckoned with in Japan.[20] They might become so in the West. Because of the breadth and originality of Azuma's ideas this book is highly worthwhile for Western scholars of Japanese popular culture. Nonetheless, readers should ask themselves how persuasive each point may be as a descriptor of human behaviour given that his analysis considers only male otaku attracted to shōjo.


    [1] Otaku no video 1982, dir. Mori Takeshi. OVA AnimEigo, 1992.

    [2] Sharon Kinsella, Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000, pp. 126–8. She gives the original meaning as a formal form of address, 'your home,' and its adoption by fans as occurring in the early-to-mid 1980s (p. 128). The Oxford English Dictionary notes that its metonymic use was as a second-person pronoun (OED DRAFT ENTRY March 2008, s.v. 'otaku').

    [3] Kinsella, Adult Manga, p. 132.

    [4] Richard Gardner, 'Aum Shinrikyō and a panic about manga and anime,' in Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, ed. Mark W. MacWilliams, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2008, pp. 209–10. Gardner writes that Aum members were described as 'manga-like' (manga teki) and 'anime-like' (anime teki) (p. 216).

    In asking a Tokyo woman, a stranger with whom I was travelling to Nikkō, her opinion of otaku, she frowned and mentioned Katō Tomohiro, a twenty-five-year old loaner who the year before killed seven people and injured ten more in the Akihabara, Tokyo's principal otaku district (Personal observation, 27 June 2009). Some news media articles and blog posts attempted to locate 'otaku' in Katō's crime. See, e.g., Philip Brasor, 'Akihabara killer followed plot mapped by the media', in Japan Times, 29 June 2008, URL:, site accessed 5 June 2010, and Tim, 'Is Akiba killer an otaku?' in Akibanana, June 9, 2008, URL:, site accessed 5 June 2010 (site no longer available).

    [5] Melek Ortabasi, 'National history as otaku fantasy,' in MacWillimas (ed.), Japanese Visual Culture, pp. 274–94, p. 278.

    [6] Azuma's translators give 'otaku' as 'Japanese, usually males and generally between the ages of 18 and 40' (p. xv) and this is how Azuma uses it throughout the book.

    [7] Kinsella, Adult Manga, pp. 130 –31. She quotes former dōjinshi artist Yahagi Takako, who became well-known for her original homoerotic stories, as rejecting the idea of otaku: 'What is an otaku? Isn't everyone otaku really?' (p. 131, italics omitted).

    [8] Thomas Lamarre, 'An introduction to otaku movement' in EnterText, vol. 4, no. 1 (Winter 2004 –2005):174 –175, URL:, site accessed 5 June 2010.

    [9] Lamarre, 'An introduction,' p. 166.

    [10] Thomas Lamarre, The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. 248.

    [11] Otaku no video, 1982.

    [12] Searches for 'テニスの王子' (Tenisu no ōjisama) and for 'BL,' on Tinami (Navigator of Manga Artists Website), URL:, site accessed 3 October 2009.

    [13] Over the past thirty years women have represented 71 percent of those selling dōjinshi at the Comic Market (men 29 percent) and 57 percent of attendees (men 43 percent). Comic Market, 'What is the Comic Market? A Presentation by the Comic Market Preparations Committee' (February 2008), URL:, site accessed 4 October 2009, p. 21. These demographics were observable when I attended Comic Market 73 in 2007 and Comic Market 77 in 2009 (each time on December 29 and 30).

    [14] Azuma Hiroki, Otaku: Japan's Database Animals, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. 125 n. 14

    [15] In response to my question at a press conference at the fan event Yaoi-Con, Iwamoto, the editor of two of the largest-circulation boys' love magazines, BE-BOY and BE-BOY GOLD, said that about 10 percent of her readers were male (19 October 2002).

    Mark McLelland reports a discourse arising from letters high-school age boys sent BE-BOY. One boy is quoted saying, 'It's not that I'm gay …[B]asically, if it's beautiful then either is OK' (which he follows with the character 笑, signifying laughter). Mark McLelland, Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities, Abingdon, UK: Routledge Curzon, 2000, pp. 249–50.

    Mark Vicars provides examples of his Japanese male lovers reading sadomasochistic boys' love manga such as Amai hari (Sweet Needle). Mark Vicars and Kim Senior, 'Queering the Quotidian: Yaoi, Narrative Pleasures and Reader Response,' in Boys' Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre, ed. Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry and Dru Pagliassotti, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010, pp. 195–99.

    [16] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, New York: Pantheon Books, 1978, p. 47.

    [17] Judith Butler, 'Imitation and gender insubordination,' in The Judith Butler Reader, ed. Sara Salih with Judith Butler, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004/1990, p. 127 (italics omitted).

    [18] Butler, 'Imitation,' pp. 127, 130.

    [19] See, e.g., Colin Gibbs, 'The unlimited possibilities–and substantial challenges–of augmented reality', The GigaOM Network, (2 October 2009), URL:, site accessed 11 June 2010; Antonia Mann, 'Augmented reality G1 mobile travel guide,' Mobile Trendpool, 24 March 2009, URL:, site accessed 11 June 2010.

    Others have discussed hyperflat, albeit not in this context. For example, in considering Azuma's theories as well as those of Murakami Takashi, Lamarre elaborates on what he calls a 'distributive field' in hyperflat (The Anime Machine, pp. 110ff.)

    [20] In addition to their economic power as otaku consumers, Azuma writes elsewhere that ranobe (light novels), a genre associated with science fiction otaku and written in a manga/anime-esque style, have played a key role in the novelisation of anime. See Azuma, 'SF as Hamlet' in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction From Origins to Anime, ed. Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., and Takayuki Tatsumi, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 75–82, p. 80.

    And Saitō Tamaki argues that sexually explicit dōjinshi have 'exerted a strong influence on the circulation and style of major commercial works'. See Saitō, 'Otaku Sexuality' in Bolton et al., p. 240.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 24 February 2011 1223