Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 50, December 2023

Patrick W. Galbraith

The Ethics of Affect: Lines and Life in a Tokyo Neighborhood

Stockholm University Press, 2021
ISBN: 978-9176351598, 360 pp.

reviewed by Weichen Si

The Ethics of Affect by Patrick W. Galbraith is an insightful exploration of the interplay between reality and fiction within Tokyo's Akihabara district, known for its vibrant otaku (geek) culture. Through meticulous fieldwork, Galbraith examines the societal and ethical dimensions of bishōjo (beautiful young girl) games, adult video games featuring anime-style female characters. His analysis extends from historical contexts to the psychological impact of these games, providing a comprehensive look at the cultural shifts, legal challenges and moral questions arising from the blurred lines between virtual and real relationships. The book is structured in a way that delves progressively deeper into these themes, offering a critical lens on contemporary Japanese society and its global influence.

The introductory section explores the complex boundaries between fiction and reality, focusing on Akihabara, Tokyo's hub for manga and anime culture. It explores the ethical considerations and societal perceptions surrounding the consumption of bishōjo games—adult video games featuring manga/anime-style female characters. The author discusses his fieldwork in Akihabara and reflects on the interaction between virtual and real worlds, examining the ethical implications of imaginary sex and relationships within these games. The introduction sets the stage for a nuanced exploration of affect, ethics and the interplay between reality and fiction in contemporary Japan.

Chapter 1 is pivotal in understanding the broader socio-cultural and legal contexts in which the book's discussions are situated, particularly regarding bishōjo games and their impact on society. This chapter begins by exploring the historical context of sex and crime in Japan, underscoring how Japanese society's attitude towards these topics has evolved over time. It traces the roots of modern perceptions of sexuality and crime back to the Meiji period (1868–1912), a time of significant transformation in Japan's legal and social landscape. This period marked the beginning of Japan's shift towards western models of governance and morality, which had profound implications for how sex and crime were perceived and regulated. Central to the chapter is the discussion of how Japan's legal system has grappled with issues related to sexuality, particularly in the realm of obscenity and public morality. The author examines key legal cases and legislation that have shaped Japan's approach to these issues, shedding light on the often-contentious debates surrounding what constitutes acceptable expressions of sexuality in the public sphere. This examination is crucial for understanding the contemporary challenges and controversies around bishōjo games and other related forms of media. Another important aspect of the chapter is its analysis of the cultural and societal factors that influence Japan's handling of sex-related crimes. The author delves into the societal norms and expectations that govern sexual behaviour in Japan, highlighting how these norms have both reflected and influenced legal decisions. This chapter provides valuable insights into the complex interplay between law, culture and morality in Japan, offering a nuanced perspective on how Japanese society navigates the delicate balance between freedom of expression and public decency. This chapter also addresses the impact of globalisation and technological advancements on Japan's sex and crime landscape. The proliferation of the internet and digital media has introduced new challenges for regulating sexual content, complicating the already intricate relationship between law, morality and technology. The author discusses how these developments have affected the production, distribution and consumption of sexually explicit material in Japan, including the rise of bishōjo games and other similar media.

Chapter 2 offers a deep dive into the unique cultural landscape of Akihabara, Tokyo. Known as a hub for electronic goods, anime, manga and video games, Akihabara holds a special place in the world of Japanese otaku culture. This chapter focuses on how this district has become synonymous with the public consumption and celebration of bishōjo games and related media, exploring the intricate relationships between these forms of entertainment, public space and societal perceptions of sex and morality. This chapter begins by painting a vivid picture of Akihabara's transformation from a post-war black-market area into a mecca for electronic goods and, later, a centre for otaku culture. This evolution is crucial for understanding how Akihabara became a space where unconventional forms of sexuality, particularly those portrayed in bishōjo games and other otaku media, could be publicly embraced and consumed. The author examines the history of this transformation, highlighting key events and changes that have shaped Akihabara's unique cultural identity. This chapter is the exploration of bishōjo games themselves. These games, which often feature romantic and sometimes sexual relationships with fictional young women, are not just a form of entertainment but also a medium through which players explore fantasies and desires. The author examines how these games, while fictional, have real-life implications, influencing perceptions of sexuality, relationships and gender roles in Japan. Galbraith discusses the controversies and ethical debates surrounding these games, especially regarding the portrayal of women and the blurring of lines between fiction and reality. A significant aspect of the chapter is its examination of the public display and consumption of bishōjo games in Akihabara. Unlike other parts of Tokyo or Japan, Akihabara offers a space where the otaku culture, including its more sexually explicit aspects, is openly showcased. This openness challenges conventional Japanese norms regarding public decency and sexuality. The author investigates how Akihabara, as a physical space, facilitates a unique kind of public discourse on sexuality, one that might be less permissible elsewhere in Japan. In 'Coming of Age in Akihabara,' the author also reflects on the broader implications of this phenomenon for Japanese society. In this chapter, Galbraith investigates the societal and generational changes reflected in Akihabara's culture, exploring how the district's acceptance and celebration of otaku culture signifies shifts in Japanese attitudes towards sex, fantasy and public morality. The author uses Akihabara as a lens through which to discuss larger questions about the intersections of technology, entertainment and ethics in contemporary Japan.

In Chapter 3 the author delves into the world of bishōjo games, particularly focusing on the emotional and affective experiences these games offer to players. This chapter provides a nuanced understanding of how games, featuring 'cute girl' characters, blend fiction with reality, and create complex emotional landscapes for players to navigate. The central theme of the chapter is the exploration of the emotional engagement that bishōjo games facilitate. These games, often featuring romantic or sexual content, are not just about visual aspects but they also create a sense of connection and affection between the player and the game characters. The author examines the design elements of these games, including character development, storytelling and interactive features, to understand how they evoke feelings of affection and intimacy in players. This exploration offers insights into why these games are compelling and what emotional needs they might be fulfilling for players. A significant portion of the chapter is dedicated to discussing the ethical implications of these emotional connections. The author introduces debates surrounding the nature of relationships players develop with game characters. Are these relationships merely a form of harmless fantasy, or do they have implications for how players perceive and engage with real people and relationships? This discussion is crucial for understanding the moral and social questions that bishōjo games raise, especially in the context of blurring the lines between virtual and real experiences. The concept of moe, a term used in otaku culture to describe a particular kind of affectionate attachment to fictional characters is also raised in this chapter. The author investigates how moe is cultivated and experienced in the context of bishōjo games, analysing its role in the popularity and appeal of these games. This analysis helps readers understand the complex emotional landscapes that these games create and the cultural significance of moe in contemporary Japanese society. Furthermore, 'Moving Images: Affection by Design' examines the broader cultural and societal context in which bishōjo games exist. The author considers how these games reflect and influence contemporary Japanese attitudes towards sexuality, romance and interpersonal relationships. This aspect of the chapter provides a broader perspective on the place of bishōjo games in Japanese culture and their impact on societal norms and expectations.

Chapter 4 takes an in-depth look at the complex world of bishōjo games, focusing on the moral and ethical considerations both for those who produce these games and for the players who engage with them. This chapter provides an intricate exploration of the bishōjo game industry in Akihabara. It highlights the challenges and ethical dilemmas faced by game producers and players in creating and engaging with content that often blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Galbraith discusses how these games, featuring animated young female characters in various scenarios, including romantic and sexual situations, prompt players to confront and reflect on their own moral boundaries. One of the key themes of the chapter is the concept of 'drawing lines.' This refers to the decisions and distinctions players must make regarding what is acceptable within the context of the game. The author explores how these games force players to engage in self-reflection, creating what Galbraith terms an 'ethics of moe.' This ethics revolves around managing one?s emotional and physical responses to the game characters, balancing personal desires and societal norms. This chapter also contrasts bishōjo games with other video game genres, particularly noting the difference between emotional and moral engagement. Unlike the often violent and less critically reflective nature of first-person shooter games, bishōjo games involve a deeper emotional connection and raise more direct questions about morality, care and the abuse of fictional characters. The author argues that this can arouse a moral sense in players, influencing how they perceive and interact with both the virtual and real world. Galbraith's analysis extends to the societal and cultural implications of these games. This chapter delves into how these games reflect and potentially influence broader societal attitudes towards relationships, sexuality and the treatment of women. It also examines the impact of real-world events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, on the Akihabara game industry, providing a contemporary context to the discussion.

Chapter 5 delves into the more controversial and complex aspects of otaku culture in Japan, particularly focusing on the phenomenon of hajikon. This term, which can be translated as 'breaking' or 'snapping,' refers to the intense emotional and sometimes physical reactions that individuals have towards certain elements of otaku culture, especially in relation to bishōjo games and other related media. In this chapter, Galbraith explores the physical and emotional experiences of those deeply involved in the otaku subculture, particularly those frequenting Akihabara, the epicentre of this culture in Tokyo. This chapter examines how engagement with bishōjo games and other otaku media can lead to powerful reactions, blurring the lines between reality and fiction. This investigation is critical to understanding the intense, often visceral connection that some individuals have with fictional characters and scenarios. One of the key aspects of the chapter is its exploration of the moral and psychological implications of these intense engagements. The author analyses the debates surrounding the nature of these connections, questioning whether they represent harmless fantasy or a more concerning blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction. This discussion includes an examination of the ethical considerations around the consumption of otaku media, particularly in terms of how it affects perceptions of sexuality, relationships and consent. This chapter reintroduces the concept of moe, Galbraith investigates how this concept is manifested in the physical and emotional reactions of otaku, particularly in contexts like Akihabara. The analysis sheds light on the complexities of moe, revealing its multifaceted nature and its role in shaping the behaviours and experiences of individuals within the otaku subculture. Additionally, 'Hajikon: Bodily Encounters and Dangerous Games' illuminates the societal and cultural significance of key phenomena in Japan, including Bishōjo Game Raves—emotionally intense events blending virtual and real media with male and female bodies—and the Ethics of Interactions with Fictional Characters—examining how people ethically engage with manga, anime and video game characters—and The Ethical Encounter in Bishōjo Games—discussing the nuanced interplay between fiction and reality in gaming. These explorations collectively deepen our understanding of moe and its pivotal role in shaping the otaku subculture's behaviours and experiences, offering a comprehensive view of the broader societal and cultural implications of these phenomena. This chapter situates the otaku subculture within the larger landscape of Japanese society, exploring how it both reflects and challenges prevailing norms and values. This examination is crucial for understanding the place of otaku culture in contemporary Japan and the ongoing debates about its impact and significance.

The concluding chapter encapsulates the central themes of the book and reflects on the broader implications of its findings. This conclusion is not just a summary of the book's content; it offers profound insights into the significance and impact of the topics discussed throughout the book, particularly focusing on the intersection of otaku culture, ethics and societal change in Japan. The title 'A World that?s Ending: Do You Love Me?' is evocative and carries deep meaning. It suggests an ending, perhaps referring to the changing landscape of Akihabara and the otaku culture at large, as well as the broader societal and cultural shifts in Japan. The phrase 'Do You Love Me?' echoes the emotional and ethical questions raised throughout the book, particularly in relation to the connections between individuals and fictional characters in bishōjo games and other otaku media. It encapsulates the core inquiry of the book: the exploration of affection, ethics and the blurred lines between reality and fantasy in the world of otaku culture. In this conclusion, Galbraith reflects on the ethical dilemmas and emotional complexities that have been a focal point of the book. He revisits the concept of drawing lines—between fiction and reality, ethical and unethical, acceptable and unacceptable—in the context of otaku culture. This reflection is crucial in understanding the nuanced ways in which individuals navigate these boundaries, especially in their interactions with bishōjo games and similar media.

In conclusion, The Ethics of Affect presents a compelling journey through the intertwining worlds of otaku culture and ethical considerations in Japan. The book adeptly explores the multifaceted relationships between individuals and fictional characters, navigating the nuanced territories of emotion, morality and societal norms. It challenges readers to reflect on the impact of bishōjo games and the broader implications of otaku culture in a rapidly evolving society. This book stands as a significant contribution to understanding the complex dynamics of modern Japanese culture and its global influence.


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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6 Feb. 2024 1336, Last modified: 9 March 2024