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Japanese geek cool

by Gianni Simone

OTAKU SPACES, by Patrick W. Galbraith. Chin Music Press, 2012, 240 pp., $20.00 (paperback)

T he word otaku and the complex mass of ideas, people and trends variously connected to its constantly evolving meaning have been discussed and analyzed ad nauseam since this term was first used in a derogatory way by columnist Akio Nakamori in 1983.

Since then, media criticism of the otaku “community” has oscillated wildly between two extremes — a dark and evil side, associated with sociopath and serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, and a harmless and cute one represented by Densha Otoko. Fifteen years separate them.

In this relatively short time the otaku image has been progressively accepted to the point that it has mostly become synonymous with geek cool. The once feared and ostracized nerds now show their often cramped living spaces and exotic collections with pride. And yet the word itself remains remarkably difficult to define.

In “Otaku Spaces,” self-confessed otaku and all-round Japanese subculture chronicler Patrick Galbraith has successfully tackled this difficult task. The result is a book that provides a wider and deeper understanding of this phenomenon and the people who inhabit the otaku universe.

Galbraith, who in 2009 published “The Otaku Encyclopedia” and for several years could be seen guiding people through Akihabara while donning a Dragon Ball costume complete with a flaming blond wig, obviously knows his stuff, and this time leads the reader into the private rooms of 20 “extreme collectors.” The book, though, is not just a gallery of weird people. It opens with an insightful essay by the author “on the origin of otaku,” and closes with a couple of interviews with culture experts Shun’ya Yoshimi and Kaichiro Morikawa.

According to Galbraith, defining otaku is difficult because the term actually means nothing. As he stated in a 2010 online interview with anime fan website Otaku Dan, otaku is what you make of it: “Otaku-like behavior is being super deep and narrow in your interest, which is intense and long in duration.

You can be that way about anything and still not identify as an otaku. Conversely, you can identify as an otaku even if you are only casually interested in anime and manga. The word is arbitrary.”

As for the coexistence of the good and bad images, it is only possible “because it does not have, and never has had any basis in reality.” To exemplify, Galbraith tellingly opens the otaku interviews with two people who are not normally associated with this kind of subculture: The first one is almost 50 years old and belongs to the first wave of otaku. Contrary to the stereotypical image of the reclusive nerd who rarely leaves his room and only dreams about virtual love, he is married, has traveled a lot and mainly collects old calculators, martial arts weapons and strange musical and technological instruments.

The second interviewee is into underground paraphernalia and has accumulated a huge array of items from Japanese biker gangs, religious cults, political extremists and yakuza. The book also features many younger anime, manga and game enthusiasts, as well as toy and figurine collectors. Some of them openly state that they have no time or money to devote to real life girlfriends — or a social life, for that matter — because they literally live for their passions.

Galbraith’s aim here is to confound expectations, not to confirm them. According to the author, we need to be aware of who is using the term otaku, in what context and how. Sure enough, each person portrayed in the book seems to have a different opinion and a very personal approach to the whole phenomenon. Among them are five women, whose interesting stories contribute toward an even more layered and complex portrait of the scene, highlighting the fact that being an otaku has never been a male-only thing.

The book also features short essays introducing the Japanese meccas of collecting and related activity in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. More than 70 color photos complement this very good-looking and originally designed publication.

Some of the portraits (by photographer Androniki Christodoulou) are a tad dark and deserve a better reproduction, but this is only a minor fault in an otherwise beautiful edition.