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Willing prisoner of Akihabara

American Patrick W. Galbraith enthuses on the joys of otaku life

by Gianni Simone

Special To The Japan Times

For better or for worse, some of contemporary Japan’s most recognizable cultural products come from the ever-ebullient world of pop culture. If this country’s heroes in the 1950s and ’60s were such intellectuals as film director Akira Kurosawa and author Yukio Mishima, today Japan’s calling cards — especially among younger fans — are manga and anime.

Since Frederik L. Schodt first tackled the subject with his seminal “Manga! Manga!” in 1983, scores of writers have tried to explain the intricacies of Japanese comics and animation to foreign fans. Most recently, American Patrick W. Galbraith has explored the complex mass of ideas, people and trends variously connected to the otaku universe. The 30-year-old graduate from the University of Tokyo has a Ph.D. in information studies, and is currently enrolled at Duke University, where he is majoring in anthropology.

The author of “Otaku Encyclopedia,” published in 2009, gave an interview at Granvania, a maid cafe near JR Akihabara Station in Tokyo. “I like this place because from the window seats I can check all the action outside,” he says.

Born in Alaska, and after living for many years in Montana, Galbraith came to Tokyo in 2004 and has since elected Akihabara as his spiritual home of sorts. For a while he could also be seen wandering the district donning a Dragon Ball costume complete with a flaming blonde wig.

“Yeah, that was fun,” he says, chuckling. “Together with a couple of friends, I had the idea of organizing free tours in order to introduce people to the joys of Akihabara. We thought about it as a kind of public service. For me in particular it was another way to do research and see what people thought of Akihabara.”

Galbraith blames his older brother for introducing him to the joys of anime. “He was learning Japanese at the time, always watching anime on videotapes,” he says. “I couldn’t understand a thing, of course, but was hooked from the start. When I was 12, my family moved to Montana, and being without friends it was just natural to retreat into my room and watch anime. From then on there was no escape.”

It was through his studies that Galbraith finally came to Japan. “While in university, I was required to study a second language, and of course I chose Japanese. This got me more and more interested in this country. I also had to spend one year in Japan, so in 2004 I got a scholarship and came here for the first time.”

In the last three years Galbraith has managed to pass to the other side of the educational front. Since 2009 he has been teaching a course in manga and Japanese popular culture at the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “Institute director Kyle Cleveland, Sachiko Horiguchi, Roland Kelts and I have been developing this program for a while and trying different things. I think it’s a great program, and it’s ideally located because when the class is over you can actually go out in the street and actually breathe and experience what you have studied.”

An indefatigable chronicler of Japanese subcultures, Galbraith often finds it difficult to restrain from riffing about his interests. “I try to keep it down,” he says, “especially with people who are not overtly interested in all things otaku.

“My in-laws, for example, are very nice people and have been very understanding. I only have to be careful not to be too hardcore when I talk about these things with them. I remember when they asked me to explain what ‘moe’ means. I went for it, but when I saw the expression on their face I realized I shouldn’t have gone for it,” he says laughing. “It nearly ruined the atmosphere.”

Galbraith’s life is currently split in half between Japan and the United States, where he has to go back about twice a year to take care of his college studies. “The last time I checked the otaku scene in America I was a little bit shocked because what I saw was a little different from what I expected,” he says. “Before coming to Japan, my upbringing in anime and manga was very personal. I wasn’t a part of the American fandom network, and I didn’t really have a full-immersion experience until I came to Japan. In my mind there were many people like me out there, and when I went back last year I tried to make an effort to go to conventions and make contacts, but I noticed that though all those people are really passionate, they are not necessarily into anime and manga. They have many different interests.

“Growing up watching anime in the late 1980s and early ’90s, we were so desperate for content; we were hungry for anything coming from Japan. But now people are more knowledgeable and connected thanks to the Internet, and they are definitely more selective. Admittedly, when I go to America I’m based on the East Coast, so I haven’t been to some of the bigger conventions, like the Anime Expo in California or Sakura-Con in Seattle, and I’m sure there is a lot of energy there. This said, all in all I think that Japanese pop culture’s wave is slowing down. Nobody is saying that Japanese manga are going to save the publishing industry anymore. The dollar’s recent devaluation against the yen is resulting in higher prices for licenses, etc., especially for DVDs. You can’t pay these huge prices for licenses and expect to get that money back anytime soon.”

Galbraith is quick to point out other differences between American and Japanese fans.

“Generally speaking, it seems to me that a lot of the Japanese fans now are into slice-of-life stuff, like high school stories, or a series about a girl learning to play guitar and joining a band. It’s very character-driven stuff, and people really care for those characters because they are probably going through the same things. Also, the Japanese market offers many more titles which are devoted to niche content.

“On the other side, American fans, and especially younger people, are interested in action — something like ninja or robots — because they want to read about cool characters and epic sagas. Of course the million-sellers are the same titles everywhere (e.g. “Naruto,” “One Piece,” etc.) but here there is space for subtler, more complex stories as well.

“You also have to consider that there is a really fast turnover in Japan. There are always so many new titles coming out here and flooding the market. It only works here because there is a strong fan base going to Comiket and hunting for figurines and DVDs in Akihabara. And the smaller the niche, the more intense its fans are. To an observer from the outside it doesn’t really make sense, but this is what Japanese otaku live for.”

Upon returning to Japan after three months, Galbraith was surprised to see how many things had happened in his relatively short absence. “For one thing, the historical Radio Kaikan in front of JR Akihabara Station closed down for renovation. But apart from that, there are always five or six new events going on here, and all the stuff happening in the street. Every time I come back from the States I find so many new characters and games I don’t recognize. In Japan you can be a very deep and intense otaku, and still not know the latest series. It’s very hard to keep on top of everything, and financially demanding. You need to invest a lot of your time, energy and money.

One thing that Galbraith has never thought to do is to turn his passion into a business. “As I do research and write about otaku-related culture, in a sense I can call it a job, but to me it doesn’t feel like that because this is something I like. If, for example, I started buying and selling robots and figures, it wouldn’t be fun anymore. A friend of mine is doing just that. It started as a hobby, and now he buys limited edition toys and sells them overseas through his website. But he always has to stay on top of the trends in order not to go out of business, and I’m afraid if I did something like that, I probably wouldn’t enjoy it anymore. I don’t want that passion to ever die. My friend now lives and works in Akihabara, and he has reached a point where he wants to get out of here! But for me it’s different. I come whenever I want, talk to people, see things. I want to keep it fun.”

While manga and comics in general are generally considered low-brow art that is quickly consumed and promptly discarded, Galbraith hopes to see more of them preserved for future research. “Luckily some collectors want to share their stuff with other people,” he says, “and some of the more serious collections even function as archives and potential museums — like the guy who is into cult memorabilia who is featured in my book “Otaku Spaces.” He is sometimes contacted by journalists who are looking for a certain document or a book that’s been banned. So preservation is a very important aspect of collecting. Otherwise all these little pieces of history would disappear.

“Kaichiro Morikawa, for instance, is an associate professor at Meiji University who has been directing their Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library of Manga and Subcultures. As he said, we have to collect these magazines, books and fanzines without wondering whether they are valuable or not. Just collect them, and then in a few years we will be able to judge their real value.”

The interview over, Galbraith takes a last look at the people passing outside our cafe, before heading back to the station. “I just love Akihabara. Even when it changes, even when it treats you bad, you can’t but love this place. They are very open to any kind of person. Take the cafes, for example. You have guys dressed up as girls, girls dressed up as guys, ‘boys love’ cafes, cafes where everybody dresses up as cats. . . . And you can be a foreigner or a Japanese, whatever. People are just open and accepting. I have my thing, you have your thing . . . it doesn’t matter. They don’t judge anybody”

Patrick W. Galbraith’s book “Otaku Spaces” has just been published by Chin Music Press.