On The Battlefield of ‘Superflat’

Post-WWII ambiguity causes otakudom
anime, NGE, criticism, sociology, Little-Boy
by: Noi Sawaragi 2012-05-182012-05-18 finished certainty: log importance: 0


This tran­script has been pre­pared from a PDF scan of pg 186–207 of Lit­tle Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Ex­plod­ing Sub­cul­ture, ed. Mu­rakami, pub­lished 2005-05-15, ISBN 0300102852.

On The Battlefield of “Superflat”: Subculture and Art in Postwar Japan

by Noi Sawaragi

Trans­lated by Linda Hoaglund

[pg187]

Cap­tion right, op­po­site page: Godzilla, 1954, Film poster, Ap­prox. 72 × 51 cm

Japan­ese Neo Pop is a dis­tinc­tively Japan­ese form of artis­tic ex­pres­sion dat­ing from the 1990s, rooted in Japan­ese sub­cul­ture and per­fectly ex­em­pli­fied by the work of Takashi Mu­raka­mi. The term “sub­cul­ture”1 here refers to wide­spread el­e­ments of Japan­ese pop­u­lar cul­ture in­clud­ing man­ga, ani­me, and tokusatsu (spe­cial effect­s).2 Upon hear­ing these terms, read­ers more or less fa­mil­iar with Japan­ese pop­u­lar cul­ture may think of As­tro Boy (Tet­suwan Atom), Hayao Miyaza­ki, and Godzilla (fig. 3.1). But Japan­ese Neo Pop is not a mere ap­pro­pri­a­tion of the im­agery of sub­cul­ture—anime, man­ga, and tokusatsu—into the realm of fine art. Such a sim­plis­tic in­ter­pre­ta­tion un­duly con­signs this Japan­ese phe­nom­e­non to a sub­cat­e­gory of Pop Art as its East Asian vari­a­tion. I hope my dis­cus­sion here will help clar­ify the cul­tural and crit­i­cal mean­ing of Japan­ese Neo Pop and place it prop­erly within the his­tor­i­cal and so­cial con­texts of post­war Japan.3

Let us be­gin by ex­am­in­ing Japan’s sit­u­a­tion in the 1960s, when the sub­cul­ture that Japan­ese Neo Pop has mined so pro­duc­tively first arose. The early 1960s saw Japan strug­gle back to its eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal feet after the chaotic post­war years, with the na­tion’s goal shift­ing from re­cov­ery to rapid growth. In

[pg188]

this re­spect, the Olympic Games held in Tokyo in 1964 were a sig­nifi­cant event, at once sym­bol­iz­ing the coun­try’s re­newed eco­nomic strength and bring­ing to fruition its pre­war am­bi­tion of host­ing the games.4 As part of this na­tional pro­ject, Tokyo re­ceived a huge in­fu­sion of re­de­vel­op­ment funds and was linked by su­per-high­-speed “bul­let” train to such ma­jor cities as Nagoya and Os­a­ka. In­di­vid­ual fam­i­lies, ea­ger to see live tele­casts of the Olympic Games, rushed to ac­quire tele­vi­sion sets. This turned the whole na­tion into a net­work of house­holds shar­ing an in­flux of iden­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion. Japan’s lo­cal tra­di­tions and cus­toms, long handed down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next within each re­gion, grad­u­ally lost cur­rency un­der the ho­mog­e­niz­ing effect of the pop­u­lar me­dia im­ages trans­mit­ted by the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. At the same time, the age-old in­for­ma­tion di­vide be­tween ur­ban and rural area was rapidly clos­ing. As a re­sult, chil­dren through­out Japan were en­thralled by the same sub­cul­ture events. No­tably, this phe­nom­e­non tran­scended class and eco­nomic differ­ences, in part due to the clos­ing gaps in in­come among the Japan­ese peo­ple, which re­sulted from the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion poli­cies in­sti­tuted by the Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tion forces in the late 1940s. Such poli­cies in­cluded the dis­band­ment of the za­ibatsu (fi­nan­cial con­glom­er­ates), which were the ma­jor cul­prits of war profi­teer­ing; farm land re­form; and the in­tro­duc­tion of the La­bor Stan­dards Act. This was the key his­tor­i­cal con­di­tion that set the stage for the uniquely Japan­ese aes­thetic of Su­per­flat, which has dis­man­tled the hi­er­ar­chy of high art and sub­cul­ture and lev­eled the play­ing field for all kinds of ex­pres­sion.

While Japan­ese chil­dren bonded with each other on an un­par­al­leled scale by means of the ho­mog­e­niz­ing and ho­mog­e­nized me­dia en­vi­ron­ment, the gen­er­a­tion gap be­tween them and their par­ents proved to be far more pro­found—and far less bridge­able—than that ex­pe­ri­enced by any pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion. In the 1980s, as these chil­dren (that is, the “sub­cul­ture gen­er­a­tion”) reached adult­hood and be­came ac­tive mem­bers of so­ci­ety, main­stream Japan­ese so­ci­ety, through the cu­ri­ous eye of the mass me­dia, be­gan to scru­ti­nize and crit­i­cize their ap­pear­ances, be­hav­iors, and val­ues, which var­ied widely from the es­tab­lished norm. The word otaku5 came to epit­o­mize this con­flict. Otaku—lit­er­al­ly, “your home”—is de­rived from a habit of the sub­cul­ture crowd,

[pg189]

whose mem­bers called each other by this generic pro­noun in­stead of us­ing their in­di­vid­ual names. “Home” in the lit­eral sense of otaku im­plies nei­ther fam­ily lin­eage nor blood ties, more ac­cu­rately points to the phys­i­cal struc­ture or place of the “house”. The use of otaku, how­ev­er, was not ex­clu­sive to the sub­cul­ture gen­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to Mari Kotani, a critic of sci­ence-fic­tion and fan­tasy lit­er­a­ture;

This is merely spec­u­la­tion, but I think that chil­dren be­gan to use the word otaku be­cause it was al­ready be­ing used in their nu­clear fam­i­lies, in par­tic­u­lar by their moth­ers dur­ing the era of rapid growth…If these chil­dren be­gan us­ing the word un­der the in­flu­ence of their moth­ers, they also as­sumed their moth­ers’ shad­owy iden­tity as pos­ses­sions of the home, or even iden­ti­cal to it.6

In other words, the word otaku en­tered the vo­cab­u­lary of the ma­tur­ing sub­cul­ture gen­er­a­tion out of the vo­cab­u­lary of their moth­ers, ful­l-time home­mak­ers whose ex­is­tence was de­fined solely by their roles as wives and moth­ers. Cer­tain­ly, Kotani’s ob­ser­va­tion is com­pelling, and I would like to ex­pand fur­ther on her idea. Be­gin­ning in the 1960s, the Japan­ese gov­ern­ment pro­moted rapid eco­nomic growth over the preser­va­tion of na­tional cul­ture and tra­di­tion. This pol­icy prompted the dis­so­lu­tion of com­mu­nity life, sep­a­rat­ing in­di­vid­u­als from their ex­tended fam­i­lies, which con­sisted of many rel­a­tives and were rooted in lo­cal cus­toms and tra­di­tions. In­di­vid­u­als moved to large cities in search of jobs and rapidly formed nu­clear fam­i­lies, whose small­est unit was the tri­an­gle of “Dad, Mom, and me”. Given the in­hos­pitable ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment of Japan, where land was scarce and ex­pen­sive, nu­clear fam­i­lies had only two hous­ing op­tions: to pur­chase land in the sub­urbs where they could afford a small house, or to live in danchi, or “hous­ing com­plexes”, usu­ally con­sist­ing of mod­est apart­ment build­ings in which dwellings are par­ti­tioned along a grid. Fam­i­lies that chose the first op­tion caused the ex­plo­sive in­crease in the post­war pop­u­la­tion of Toky­o’s greater met­ro­pol­i­tan area. In these house­holds, hus­bands rose early to com­mute great dis­tances into the city cen­ter on packed com­muter trains. Trapped by high mort­gage pay­ments stretch­ing decades into the fu­ture, they stayed late to work over­time, leav­ing

[pg190]

their wives and chil­dren alone at home.

In the sub­ur­ban hous­ing tracts and danchi com­plex­es, wives were aban­doned to hus­band-less house­holds, where they were com­pletely alone once their chil­dren started school; they then ini­ti­ated ex­ten­sive re­la­tion­ships with other sim­i­larly sit­u­ated women. The word they pop­u­lar­ized through their fre­quent in­ter­ac­tions was otaku. Clus­tered in parks within danchi and other gath­er­ing places, they en­gaged in con­ver­sa­tion.

Otaku re­cently bought a color TV, is­n’t that so?”

Taku is con­sid­er­ing buy­ing a re­frig­er­a­tor soon.”

Here otaku refers to an­oth­er’s house­hold (with the o be­ing an hon­orific pre­fix), and taku refers to one’s own. By us­ing this amor­phous pro­noun that re­ferred to no one in par­tic­u­lar, women boasted obliquely to one an­other of their nu­clear fam­i­lies’ grow­ing ma­te­r­ial wealth, while pre­serv­ing their frag­ile ties. Mir­ror­ing the iso­la­tion of wives from ab­sent hus­bands, chil­dren in­ter­acted less with their moth­ers than with other chil­dren grow­ing up in a com­pa­ra­ble en­vi­ron­ment and at­tend­ing the same pub­lic schools, and shared sim­i­lar in­ter­ests stim­u­lated by tele­vi­sion and youth mag­a­zines. Their small rooms were filled with the para­pher­na­lia of man­ga, tokusatsu, and ani­me, all of which em­bod­ied the sen­si­bil­ity of the sub­cul­ture gen­er­a­tion, ut­terly alien to that of their par­ents. No doubt their rooms ap­peared in­ex­plic­a­ble—even creep­y—to the eyes of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, which had lit­tle pas­sion for these sub­cul­ture phe­nom­e­na. It is ironic that the mass me­dia, which branded these youth as otaku and re­ported neg­a­tively on them, mainly com­prised the very men who spent most of their wak­ing hours at work and aban­doned their wives at hoe. If otaku rep­re­sented a trans­fer­ence of the iso­lated com­mu­ni­ca­tion among aban­doned house­wives to their chil­dren, en­thu­si­as­tic for the sub­cul­ture that emerged in the post­war era of high eco­nomic growth, then the men who found otaku so creepy were in fact un­nerved by their very own wives and chil­dren.

In 1995, the vague sense of re­pul­sion to­ward otaku felt by main­stream so­ci­ety was val­i­dated by the Sarin gas at­tack on the Tokyo sub­way, in which a chem­i­cal weapon was re­leased on trains crowded one morn­ing with rush-hour com­muters. This ex­tra­or­di­nary at­tempt

[pg191]

at in­dis­crim­i­nate mass mur­der ter­ri­fied the pub­lic. Ter­ror turned to shock when the per­pe­tra­tors turned out to be not a po­lit­i­cally dri­ven group but a new re­li­gious cult called Aum Shin­rikyo (Aum Supreme Truth), which at­tracted young men and women of the sub­cul­ture gen­er­a­tion born in the 1960s, many of whom were dis­tin­guished by elite aca­d­e­mic cre­den­tials. Aum Shin­rikyo, founded in he early 1980s, ini­tially had been a rel­a­tively mod­er­ate group that ad­hered to an early form of Bud­dhism with em­pha­sis on phys­i­cal dis­ci­pline (such as yoga prac­tice). But when the Cold War ended and the mil­i­tary weaponry of the for­mer So­vi­ets en­tered in­ter­na­tional cir­cu­la­tion, Aum soon trans­formed it­self into an armed or­ga­ni­za­tion. Aum opened in­ter­na­tional branches in Rus­sia and else­where, ac­quir­ing every­thing from au­to­matic ri­fles to pro­duc­tion man­u­als for chem­i­cal weapons; in Japan it es­tab­lished new head­quar­ters at the base of Mt. Fuji and be­gan con­struc­tion of a se­cret Sarin fac­to­ry. All of Aum’s ac­tiv­i­ties were guided by founder Shoko Asa­hara’s proph­esy that Ar­maged­don would bring hu­man­ity to the brink of ex­tinc­tion in 1999. Asa­hara fur­ther proph­e­sied that his cult would sur­vive the Ar­maged­don to lead the world into a new era. In his dooms­day sce­nar­io, the fi­nal global con­flict, a pre­lude to the Ar­maged­don, had al­ready be­gun, with Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and hea­thens mount­ing daily chem­i­cal and germ at­tacks against Aum; it was time for Aum fol­low­ers to unite and fight as sav­iors to over­come the great­est chal­lenge hu­man­ity had ever faced.

In this con­text, Aum’s Sarin at­tack was at once a self­-ful­fill­ing prophecy and a pun­ish­ment on the Japan­ese pop­u­lace, which went peace­fully about the busi­ness of life, obliv­i­ous to these (imag­ined) for­eign in­fil­tra­tions. After the Sarin at­tack, the po­lice con­ducted an ex­haus­tive search of Aum’s head­quar­ters near Mt. Fu­ji, which com­prised sev­eral build­ings called satyam (derived from the San­skrit satya, or “truth”), and ar­rested many fol­low­ers and sus­pected per­pe­tra­tors. The po­lice un­cov­ered a vast Sarin re­fin­ery lo­cated within the os­ten­si­ble dojo (train­ing site for spir­i­tual and phys­i­cal prac­tices, such as med­i­ta­tion and yo­ga). In ad­di­tion, they ex­posed a plot de­vised by the sec­t’s rad­i­cal wing to mass pro­duce Sarin and spray it from a re­mote-con­trolled he­li­copter in or­der to mas­sacre morally cor­rupt Tokyo res­i­dents.

[pg192]

What in­ter­ests us here is the fact that the mag­a­zines and videos Aum fol­low­ers pro­duced to pros­e­ly­tize their dogma were rife with otaku ref­er­ences, read­ily ac­ces­si­ble to a sub­cul­ture gen­er­a­tion fond of manga and ani­me. In fact, their pre­pos­ter­ous vi­sion of us­ing their sup­posed su­per­nat­ural ca­pa­bil­i­ties—as well as the power of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy—to guide hu­man­ity to­ward sal­va­tion in the after­math of Ar­maged­don was cob­bled to­gether from var­i­ous con­ven­tions of post-1960s sub­cul­ture. Such con­ven­tions were en­tirely fa­mil­iar and ap­peal­ing to a gen­er­a­tion once pre­oc­cu­pied with sim­i­lar nar­ra­tives. As in­di­vid­ual con­verts rose through the ranks of Aum, they were be­stowed with “holy names” as Aum’s war­riors and donned col­or-coded uni­forms be­fit­ting their roles, the bet­ter to im­merse them­selves in the com­ing Apoc­a­lypse.

In­evitably we ar­rive at the ques­tion: ex­actly when and how did this Ar­maged­don fan­tasy in­vade both Japan­ese so­ci­ety, buoyed by the mirac­u­lous eco­nomic growth of the late 1960s, and the gen­er­a­tion poised to lead the coun­try into the rosy fu­ture? In re­al­i­ty, in 1970, the year when Expo ’70 (Asi­a’s first World’s Fair) was held in Os­aka un­der the ban­ner, “Progress and Har­mony for Mankind”, Japan­ese so­ci­ety stood at a cru­cial turn­ing point. As Expo ’70 was un­der­way, a rad­i­cal New Left group hi­jacked a do­mes­tic air­craft, and the nov­el­ist Yukio Mishima staged his sui­cide by tra­di­tional dis­em­bow­el­ment. In the next few years, a se­ries of ter­ror­ist bomb­ings hit down­town Tokyo, Pres­i­dent Nixon’s sus­pen­sion of the gold stan­dard and in­tro­duc­tion of fluc­tu­at­ing cur­rency ex­change rates pro­voked the “dol­lar shock”, and the in­ter­na­tional oil cri­sis pre­cip­i­tated the “oil shock”, which in turn caused spi­ral­ing in­fla­tion.7 These events spurred a na­tional doubt that the promised bright fu­ture would ever ar­rive. These years also saw en­vi­ron­men­tal crises plague the whole na­tion, with city chil­dren reg­u­larly ad­vised against out­door ex­er­cise be­cause of air pol­lu­tion. A new kind of pes­simism was per­va­sive, even among chil­dren.

In 1973, as Japan­ese so­ci­ety foundered in wide­spread de­spon­dence, the sci­ence-fic­tion writer Sakyo Ko­matsu pub­lished the novel Japan Sinks (Ni­hon chin­botsu). In this nov­el, far from achiev­ing a bright fu­ture, the en­tire Japan­ese arch­i­pel­ago sinks to the bot­tom of the sea in the wake of mam­moth earth­quakes, and

[pg193]

Cap­tion right: Space Bat­tle­ship Yam­ato, 1977, Film poster, 73 × 51.6 cm

state­less Japan­ese peo­ple scat­ter to the four cor­ners of the world. The novel shocked the Japan­ese, long ac­cus­tomed to liv­ing in their com­fort­ably in­su­lated is­land na­tion, and pre­sented an abrupt end with no clear fu­ture in sight. De­spite the pes­simistic prospects it en­vi­sioned, the novel be­came a record-break­ing best­seller, sell­ing more than four mil­lion copies and leav­ing no Japan­ese un­ex­posed to the phrase “Japan Sinks”, an em­blem of Japan­ese so­ci­ety’s fun­da­men­tal col­lapse. These col­lec­tive dis­heart­en­ing events ren­dered Expo ’70, the na­tional project that once ex­cited all of Japan with dreams of the fu­ture, a dis­tant mem­o­ry.

Dur­ing this time, a wave of fads traffick­ing in the sur­real and gloomy con­sumed the coun­try. In 1974, per­for­mances by the vis­it­ing “su­per­nat­u­ral­ist” Uri Geller, who claimed to bend spoons with the force of his will alone, pro­voked an ex­plo­sive boom in all things su­per­nat­u­ral, es­pe­cially among young peo­ple. The Japan­ese re­lease in the same year of the Amer­i­can film The Ex­or­cist (1973) trig­gered an oc­cult boom, par­tic­u­larly among school­child­ren, whose en­thu­si­asm led to the re­vival of var­i­ous spir­i­tu­al­ist prac­tices long ridiculed as un­sci­en­tific, in­clud­ing a div­ina­tion game called Kokkuri-san (lit­er­al­ly, “Mr. Nod­ding”). Most in­flu­en­tial of all in this oc­cult boom was Ben Go­to’s book, Prophecy of Nos­tradamus (No­su­toradamusu no dai-yo­gen), pub­lished as an in­ex­pen­sive pa­per­back in 1973. Es­pe­cially in mag­a­zines for chil­dren and teens, the writ­ings of the six­teen­th-cen­tury French as­trol­o­gist were adapted to in­cor­po­rate el­e­ments of sci­ence fic­tion and mys­tery, and be­came widely pop­u­lar. His proph­esy, “In the sev­enth month of the year 1999, the Great King of Fright will come from the sky and hu­man­ity will per­ish”, was en­tirely with­out sci­en­tific ba­sis. Yet given the tenor of the time, el­e­men­tary- and mid­dle-school chil­dren se­cretly be­gan an­tic­i­pat­ing that the world would end dur­ing their life­times, and lived in ter­ror of this ap­par­ent fate.


Against this his­tor­i­cal and so­cial back­drop, a sub­cul­ture land­mark emerged: Space Bat­tle­ship Yam­ato, first broad­cast in 1974 (and broad­cast in the U.S. as Star Blaz­ers; fig. 3.2, pl. 27). This tele­vised anime se­ries gained the over­whelm­ing en­dorse­ment of what would be called the sub­cul­ture gen­er­a­tion. It is al­most

[pg194]

Cap­tion left top: Down­town Tokyo after the U.S. fire­bomb­ing of March 10, 1945

im­pos­si­ble to find any­body in Japan’s Neo Pop gen­er­a­tion who has not seen Yam­ato, and those who most en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­braced it went on to form the defin­ing cur­rents of otaku cul­ture.

Briefly, the story of Space Bat­tle­ship Yam­ato un­folds in the fu­ture on planet Earth. Un­der vi­o­lent alien at­tack, earth­lings find them­selves at a pro­found dis­ad­van­tage be­cause of in­fe­rior weapon­ry. A con­stant bar­rage of “plan­e­tary bombs” (nu­clear weapons) has con­t­a­m­i­nated the en­tire sur­face of the planet with ra­di­a­tion; the earth has be­come a planet of death. Hu­man sur­vivors flee un­der­ground, where they find tem­po­rary pro­tec­tion from the en­croach­ing ra­di­a­tion, but their ex­tinc­tion is in­evitable. A timely mes­sage from friendly aliens in­spires the Earth De­fense Forces to con­vert the mam­moth bat­tle­ship Yam­ato, the pride of Japan’s naval fleet be­fore it sank in World War II, into a space­ship and em­bark on a jour­ney to the dis­tant planet Is­can­dar, where

[pg195]

Cap­tion right top: Urakami Cathe­dral, Na­gasaki, de­stroyed by the atomic bomb, late 1945

Earth’s sur­vivors hope to plan for the pu­rifi­ca­tion and re­cov­ery of their ra­di­a­tion-pol­luted plan­et.

In all its ab­sur­di­ty, what is sig­nifi­cant about Yam­ato is not so much the un­real fan­tasy it paints in typ­i­cal sci­ence-fic­tion fash­ion, but the set­ting in­escapably rem­i­nis­cent of the Pa­cific War be­tween Japan and the U.S. Be­lea­guered sur­vivors ek­ing out their ex­is­tence in an un­der­ground me­trop­o­lis con­jures up a pic­ture of Japan­ese cit­i­zens crouched in bomb shel­ters, des­per­ately wait­ing for air raids to end. Above ground, a civ­i­liza­tion burned to ashes closely re­sem­bles the im­age of Tokyo after the mas­sive fire­bomb­ing by Amer­i­can B-29s (fig. 3.3). An earth trans­formed into un­in­hab­it­able ru­ins by nu­clear weapons dropped by an alien race di­rectly points to Hi­roshima and Na­gasaki (fig. 3.4, pl. 6). And through­out the sto­ry, char­ac­ters who are dri­ven into life-or-death predica­ments often abruptly carry out sui­ci­dal at­tacks. Fur­ther­more, en­dan­gered earth­lings

[pg196]

Cap­tion left bot­tom: Tohl (Toru) Nar­i­ta, Kero­nia, 1966, Draw­ing for Ul­tra­man se­ries; ink on pa­per, 39.3 × 26.2 cm, Col­lec­tion of Ao­mori Pre­fec­ture

find their only hope for sur­vival in the bat­tle­ship Yam­ato—once con­sid­ered Japan’s last hope—now retro­fit­ted for space trav­el. All of these el­e­ments can­not be mere co­in­ci­dence. Ob­vi­ous­ly, this story is rooted in the Japan-U.S. war.

Ac­tu­al­ly, Yam­ato’s ref­er­ences to his­tory were hardly unique within the tra­di­tion of sub­cul­ture in post­war Japan. In the par­a­dig­matic tokusatsu movie, Godzilla, the ti­tle char­ac­ter is a pre­his­toric crea­ture awak­ened from his an­cient slum­ber by hy­dro­gen bomb tests in the Paci­fic, and “mon­ster­ized” through ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure (fig. 3.1, pl. 7). In 1954, the year the film was re­leased, the Japan­ese fish­ing ves­sel Fifth Lucky Dragon (Daigo Fukuryu-maru) and its en­tire crew were

[pg197]

Cap­tion right top: Akira, 1988, Film poster, Ap­prox. 72 × 51 cm
Cap­tion right bot­tom: Neon Gen­e­sis Evan­ge­lion: Death ad Re­birth, 1997, Film poster, 72.5 × 51.5 cm

ir­ra­di­ated off Bikini Atoll when the U.S. tested the Bravo hy­dro­gen bomb; im­me­di­ately after­ward, rain rid­dled with “death ashes” fell across the coun­try. In re­spon­se, a mas­sive an­ti­nu­clear move­ment arose. Japan­ese Neo Pop artists also fre­quently ref­er­ence the TV se­ries Ul­tra Q (1966), Ul­tra­man (1966–67), and Ul­tra­seven (1967–68; pl. 9), whose an­tag­o­nist mon­sters were de­signed pri­mar­ily by the sculp­tor Tohl (Toru) Nar­i­ta, who had worked in the tokusatsu de­part­ment on Godzilla. In his mon­ster de­signs, Narita often ap­pro­pri­ated im­ages of mil­i­tary weaponry or al­luded to ra­di­a­tion-in­duced mu­ta­tions (fig. 3.5). As he later re­called in his 1996 book, Spe­cial Effects and Mon­sters (Tokusatsu to kaiju), Narita him­self was a vic­tim of the Amer­i­can air raids; as an artist, he made it his life­long mis­sion to paint the mo­ment that the atomic bomb “Lit­tle Boy” ex­ploded over Hi­roshima at the end of the Japan-U.S. war.

After Japan’s de­feat, the sur­vivors of the war im­bued a sub­cul­ture aimed at chil­dren with a la­tent an­tag­o­nism to­ward the U.S., an an­tag­o­nism that formed the legacy of the Pa­cific War. This per­sisted as a po­tent sub­text when a new gen­er­a­tion of cre­ators en­tered the field, and anime re­placed the mon­ster-driven tokusatsu. For ex­am­ple, Kat­suhiro Oto­mo’s an­i­mated film Akira 1988) de­picts a fu­ture war of sur­vival, fought by teenagers with su­per­nat­ural pow­ers in a Tokyo ap­par­ently rav­aged by nu­clear weapons (fig 3.6, pl. 18). An­other mem­o­rable ex­am­ple is the TV anime se­ries, Neon Gen­e­sis Evan­ge­lion, in­tro­duced in 1995, the year of Aum’s Sarin at­tack, which went on to be­come a record-break­ing hit in the anime world (fig 3.7, pl. 33). In Evan­ge­lion, the four­teen-year-old pro­tag­o­nists, en­dowed with unique pow­ers, are called into du­ty—­much like school­child­ren mo­bi­lized to la­bor at fac­to­ries dur­ing World War II—and forced into nearly sui­ci­dal at­tacks against the uniden­ti­fied in­vad­ing en­e­mies called Shito (or “Apos­tles”) in Japan­ese (and An­gels in Eng­lish). The list of ex­am­ples goes on and on, but the im­por­tant point is that while the post­war sub­cul­ture that pro­lif­er­ated from the 1960s on­ward drew its nar­ra­tive in­spi­ra­tion from the Pa­cific War, Japan­ese art from the same pe­riod rarely ad­dressed this top­ic. Not that Japan­ese art never tack­led the sub­ject of war. Quite the con­trary: dur­ing the Pa­cific War, the on­go­ing con­flict was made an ex­plicit theme of paint­ing. This epoch-mak­ing genre

[pg198]

Cap­tion left top: Kei Sato, Deadly Bat­tle in New Guinea, 1943, Oil on can­vas, framed, 182 × 259.5 cm, The Na­tional Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, Tokyo (In­defi­nite Loan)

was called “war record paint­ing” (senso kiroku-ga), pro­duced pri­mar­ily for the mil­i­tary by com­mis­sion (fig 3.8).

These oil paint­ings—a sub­cat­e­gory in the larger genre of “war paint­ing”—de­pict scenes of Im­pe­r­ial Japan’s “Holy War” (or “Greater East Asian War”, as it was called by the Japan­ese gov­ern­men­t), and func­tioned as pro­pa­ganda di­rected at Japan­ese civil­ians. What made these war record paint­ings unique is that the Japan­ese mil­i­tary had no staff artists who spe­cial­ized in the genre. In­stead, the mil­i­tary re­cruited prac­ti­cally every fa­mous artist of the time to serve the na­tion with his paint­brush: some will­ingly painted com­bat scenes while oth­ers did so re­luc­tant­ly, but vir­tu­ally no painter re­sist­ed. These painters in­cluded such lu­mi­nar­ies as Tsug­uji Fu­ji­ta, who had won a glow­ing rep­u­ta­tion in Paris in the 1920s, and Ichiro Fukuza­wa, who had pi­o­neered Japan­ese Sur­re­al­ism in the 1930s. Es­pe­cially im­por­tant is Fu­ji­ta, who shocked his au­di­ences with his por­trayal of Japan­ese sol­diers sac­ri­fic­ing them­selves in bat­tles, ren­der­ing his sub­jects with a mer­ci­less verisimil­i­tude unimag­in­able from his pre­vi­ous paint­ings of cats and nudes. These war record paint­ings were con­fis­cated by the Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tion forces and even­tu­ally re­turned to Japan in 1970, un­der the bizarre terms of “in­defi­nite loan”. To

[pg199]

Cap­tion top right: Shigeru Ko­mat­suza­ki, The End of Bat­tle­ship Yam­ato, 1988, Oil on can­vas, 130.3 × 162.1 cm, Pri­vate col­lec­tion
Cap­tion bot­tom right: Tohl (Toru) Nar­i­ta, Study for Ul­tra­man, 1966, Ink and wa­ter­color on pa­per, 36.1 × 25.2 cm, Col­lec­tion of Ao­mori Pre­fec­ture

this day, the paint­ings have never been col­lec­tively ex­hib­ited in Japan, pos­si­bly out of con­sid­er­a­tion for the painters still alive (and the heirs of the de­ceased), or due to the del­i­cate diplo­matic re­la­tion­ships Japan main­tains with other Asian na­tions. Not even schol­ars have been given much ac­cess to the paint­ings, and an im­por­tant chap­ter of Japan­ese mod­ern art his­tory thus re­mains un­writ­ten.

In the world of sub­cul­ture, how­ev­er, things were en­tirely differ­ent. Most no­tably, the il­lus­tra­tor Shigero Ko­mat­suzaki was renowned in post­war years for his draw­ings re­lated to World War II, which em­bell­ished the boxes of model kits. His de­pic­tions of bat­tle scenes as well as weapon­ry, bat­tle­ships, and tanks es­tab­lished a vi­sual vo­cab­u­lary of war among chil­dren (fig. 3.9, pl. 26). Prior to the de­feat, Ko­mat­suzaki was the best-selling il­lus­tra­tor of his time, con­tribut­ing his pow­er­ful war im­ages to such mag­a­zines as Shonen kurabu (Boys club) and Kikaika (Mech­a­niza­tion). Through­out his life, he proudly re­mem­bered the praise heaped upon his paint­ing, This One Blow, by none other than Fu­ji­ta, the fore­most mas­ter of the genre. This paint­ing, which de­picted Ze­ros in an air bat­tle, was in­cluded in an Army’s Art Ex­hi­bi­tion in 1942. Leiji (Rei­ji) Mat­sumo­to, the cre­ator of Yam­ato, was greatly in­flu­enced by Ko­mat­suza­k­i’s

[pg200]

Cap­tion left: Kenji Yanobe, Atom Suit Pro­ject: Tank, Cher­nobyl, 1997, Light box, 120 × 120 × 21 cm

draw­ings as a child, and con­sid­ers him­self a Ko­mat­suzaki dis­ci­ple. It is easy to imag­ine that Mat­sumoto may well have cre­ated scenes for Yam­ato in ref­er­ence to his pre­de­ces­sor’s work. Tohl Nar­i­ta, who served as a de facto art di­rec­tor of the famed tokusatsu se­ries Ul­tra, was deeply in­flu­enced by pow­er­ful child­hood mem­o­ries of the war record paint­ings by Fu­jita and oth­ers, as clearly demon­strated by his mon­ster mod­els, weaponry de­signs, and art di­rec­tion of com­bat scenes (fig 3.10).

While post­war Japan­ese art ex­or­cised the raw ex­pe­ri­ence of the past war and the re­pug­nant mem­o­ries of war record paint­ing, some artists once in­spired by this genre rein­vented them­selves as com­mer­cial artists. Ac­cord­ing­ly, the theme of the Japan-U.S. war was up­rooted from high art and trans­planted into sub­cul­ture. In the early 1990s, when the artists of Japan­ese Neo Pop emerged, they will­ing­ly—and quite open­ly, for that mat­ter—ad­dressed the is­sue of war, long con­sid­ered taboo in the art world, pre­cisely be­cause they had been sen­si­tized to it in the con­text of sub­cul­ture. In other words, to­day’s Japan­ese Neo Pop—ex­em­pli­fied by the work of Takashi Mu­rakami, Kenji Yanobe, Makoto Aida, Yuki­nori Yanagi, and Kat­suhige Naka­hashi—is pro­foundly in­formed by this lin­eage of im­agery that sur­rounds the mem­ory of the war and of war record paint­ing, and that un­der­went what may be called a Su­per­flat crossover from the realm of high art con­sist­ing of man­ga, ani­me, and tokusatsu (figs 3.11, 3.12, 3.13, 7.2).

Some may ar­gue that Mu­rakami has made no di­rect ref­er­ence to war. His well-known sculp­ture Sec­ond Mis­sion Project ko2 (S.M.Pko2, 1998–99), how­ev­er, rep­re­sents a fe­male cy­borg whose body in­cor­po­rates a fighter jet (fig 3.14). Care­ful scrutiny re­veals the term “Air Self De­fense Forces” (Koku Ji­etai) im­printed on the thigh of this bishojo (beau­ti­ful young girl). Even more di­rect is Time Bokan (2001), which de­picts a skul­l-shaped mush­room cloud (fig 3.15). The work bor­rows its ti­tle and iconog­ra­phy from a TV anime se­ries that ran from 1975 to 1983, each episode of which ended with its pro­tag­o­nists’ mis­er­able de­feat, al­ways ac­com­pa­nied by a mush­room cloud rem­i­nis­cent of the A-bomb in the back­ground (pl. 3). (Bokan is an ono­matopoeic word sig­ni­fy­ing the sound of an ex­plo­sion.) Al­though Time Bokan

[pg201]

Cap­tion right top: Makoto Aida, A Pic­ture of an Air Raid on New York City (War Pic­ture Re­turns), 1996, Mixed me­dia on six-panel slid­ing screens, 169 × 378 cm, CG work: Mut­suo Mat­suhashi, Col­lec­tion of Ryu­taro Taka­hashi
Cap­tion right mid­dle: Kat­sushige Naka­hashi, Zero Project #601-1XX, 2003, Ap­prox. 25,000 c-prints, Di­men­sions vari­able

trafficked in an im­age al­most in­con­ceiv­able for chil­dren’s pro­gram­ming in the only coun­try that had ever suffered atomic bomb­ing, Japan­ese chil­dren ea­gerly awaited its weekly in­stall­ments—and its mush­room cloud. In a sense, it may be ar­gued that Mu­rakami has at­tempted to cre­ate “de­feat record paint­ing” (haisen kirou-ga), iron­i­cally com­ment­ing on a post-war Japan that is obliv­i­ous to its wartime his­tory and has be­come Su­per­flat, so to speak, with no clear bound­ary be­tween high art and sub­cul­ture—which are, in fact, in­tri­cately en­twined.

It then fol­lows that, as ab­surd and pre­pos­ter­ous as they may seem, the nar­ra­tives fa­vored by otaku are strewn with frag­ments of the dis­torted his­tory of Japan. Sim­i­lar­ly, the Su­per­flat ex­pres­sions of Japan­ese Neo Pop, which vary­ing-ly adapt these otaku nar­ra­tives,

[pg202]

Cap­tion left top: Takashi Mu­rakami, Sec­ond Mis­sion Project ko2 (Hu­man Type), 1999, Oil paint, acrylic, syn­thetic resins, fiber­glass, iron, 275 × 252 × 140 cm

ex­tend (though in trans­muted forms) the legacy of “war art”, which has been pre­served in the cir­cuit of sub­cul­ture that ex­ists out­side the do­main of fine art.

If this is the case, we must ask the ques­tion: why and how did the mem­ory of war end up be­ing con­fined to the ut­terly depth­less, sleek and Su­per­flat space of manga and ani­me, de­prived of any his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive? This is not an easy ques­tion to an­swer, but I would like to make a few points fun­da­men­tal to a dis­cus­sion of this is­sue.

Ar­ti­cle 9 of the post­war Japan­ese Con­sti­tu­tion, which came into effect in 1947, un­equiv­o­cally de­clares that “the Japan­ese peo­ple for­ever re­nounce war as a sov­er­eign right of the na­tion and the threat or use of force as means of set­tling in­ter­na­tional dis­putes”; it fur­ther states, “In or­der to ac­com­plish [this] aim…­land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war po­ten­tial, will never be main­tained” (pl. 8). Nev­er­the­less, Japan in re­al­ity main­tains the Self­-De­fense Forces (Jieitai), whose pow­er­ful ar­ma­ments rank among the best held by Asian na­tions. Their con­tra­dic­tory ex­is­tence—in­deed their very con­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty—is a mat­ter of on­go­ing de­bate.

Rooted in bit­ter re­flec­tion on Japan’s wartime mil­i­tarist in­va­sion of Asian na­tions, Ar­ti­cle 9 was in­tended to pre­vent sim­i­lar events. But once the coun­try was in­cor­po­rated into the West­ern bloc dur­ing the Cold War, it was as­signed the role of bul­wark against Com­mu­nism in the Far East, which ne­ces­si­tated it to rearm. Yet un­der the con­sti­tu­tion, Japan could not have any mil­i­tary forces of its own. This le­gal co­nun­drum was re­solved by al­low­ing the U.S. to es­tab­lish mil­i­tary bases through­out the na­tion (the largest be­ing those in Ok­i­nawa) un­der the U.S.-Japan Se­cu­rity Treaty of 1951. The treaty in effect made the Japan­ese forces—by de­fi­n­i­tion lim­ited to self de­fense—aux­il­iary to the Amer­i­can forces, which, un­con­strained by the Japan­ese con­sti­tu­tion, would de­fend the arch­i­pel­ago in the event of in­ter­na­tional con­flicts in East Asia that in­volved Japan.

The Cold War arrange­ment thus put in place in East Asia had a di­rect bear­ing on the po­lit­i­cal or­der of post-war Japan, as ex­em­pli­fied by the so-called 1955 regime main­tained by the con­ser­v­a­tive Lib­eral De­mo­c­ra­tic Par­ty, which in prac­ti­cal terms has stayed in power ever since, keep­ing the lib­eral op­po­si­tion, rep­re­sented by the So­cial Par­ty, on the de­fen­sive. At first glance,

Cap­tion left top: Takashi Mu­rakami, Time Bokan—Blue, 2001, Acrylic on can­vas, mounted on wood, 180 × 180 cm

the 1955 regime ap­pears to rest on the op­po­si­tional re­la­tion­ship be­tween the con­ser­v­a­tives and the lib­er­als. In fact, the two sides have main­tained an equi­lib­ri­um, cun­ningly avoid­ing lethal con­fronta­tions and care­fully pre­serv­ing their re­spec­tive power bases. As a re­sult, the regime has had a sta­bi­liz­ing effect on Japan­ese so­ci­ety as a kind of mini-Cold War dead­lock in which each party looks out for its own in­ter­ests.

The pos­i­tive vi­sions of “pace” and “rapid eco­nomic growth” up­held in Japan since 1945 were noth­ing but ar­ti­fi­cial con­structs, pre­served un­der the guardian­ship of the U.S. as head of the West­ern bloc, with a blind eye turned to the bloody proxy wars be­ing waged in Ko­rea and Viet­nam. Through­out the 1960s, the New Left re­peat­edly chal­lenged the power of the state, mo­bi­liz­ing young peo­ple and stu­dents who un­der­stood that such “peace” was a fab­ri­ca­tion pre­served through the con­flicts of the Cold War. But their de­ci­sive de­feat in the strug­gle against the re­newal of the U.S.-Japan Se­cu­rity Treaty in 1970 forced the New Left into ir­rel­e­vance. With all re­sis­tance to­ward the fic­tion of peace now si­lenced, the Japan­ese peo­ple rapidly with­draw them­selves into an ahis­tor­i­cal cap­sule, los­ing sight of their own his­tory and thus the sense of the wider world in which their past had un­fold­ed. This ahis­tor­i­cal “self­-with­drawal” (ji­hei) even­tu­ally led to what may be called an “imag­i­nary re­al­ity”: the “bub­ble econ­omy” caused by the spec­u­la­tive frenzy of land buy­ing in the 1980s. It is no sur­prise, then, that the bub­ble sud­denly burst in the early 1990s, as the Cold War or­der it­self col­lapsed.

The gen­er­a­tion of otaku and Japan­ese Neo Pop came of age in the after­math of the demise of the New Left, when Japan’s “self­-with­drawal” was re­in­forced po­lit­i­cal­ly, eco­nom­i­cal­ly, and mil­i­tar­i­ly. To this gen­er­a­tion, every­thing about war—the war Japan had waged, the proxy wars fought in neigh­bor­ing Asian na­tions, and even Japan’s own mil­i­tary (the so-called Self­-De­fense Forces)—was fic­tion; as such, it was fod­der for their pas­time fan­tasies of manga and ani­me. This may ex­plain why Japan­ese sub­cul­ture has often rev­eled in an ob­ses­sive fond­ness for mil­i­tary weapon­ry, en­gag­ing con­tently with this sub­ject as a fan­tasy while mak­ing no con­nec­tion to its im­por­tance in the re­al-life is­sues of his­tory and pol­i­tics. Grant­ed, the views pre­sented in sub­cul­ture may ap­pear ex­tremely right-wing, na­tion­al­is­tic, or mil­i­taris­tic. But the more

[pg204]

fa­nat­i­cal they sound, the more va­cant and fur­ther cut off from re­al­ity they ac­tu­ally are. (A sim­i­lar process of es­ca­la­tion and re­sult­ing empti­ness holds true for the other de­fin­i­tive arena of Japan­ese sub­cul­ture, the highly graphic de­pic­tion of sex.)

Even if this imag­i­nary re­al­ity man­i­fests it­self in a highly sleek and Su­per­flat man­ner, its emer­gence is no doubt in­formed by the sup­pres­sion of both the re­al­ity and mem­ory of his­to­ry. In fact, the Su­per­flat world of manga and anime was cre­ated amidst post-1970 po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion, which en­cour­aged a dou­ble am­ne­sia con­cern­ing the two kinds of vi­o­lence ex­pe­ri­enced by Japan in the war: the na­tion’s own ag­gres­sion in Asia, and the vi­o­lence in­flicted upon Japan by the U.S. in the form of myr­iad fire­bombs and two atomic bombs. Since the war, de­spite the end of the oc­cu­pa­tion and the restora­tion of Japan’s full sov­er­eignty and in­de­pen­dence, the fact that for­eign (Amer­i­can) power main­tains mil­i­tary bases on Japan­ese soil has cre­ated a pre­car­i­ous foot­ing for na­tional iden­ti­ty. Fur­ther­more, a se­ries of nu­clear tests con­ducted by the U.S. and the So­vi­ets in the Pa­cific Ocean and Siberia dur­ing the Cold War was more than enough to im­plant the fear of hu­man ex­tinc­tion in an al­l-out nu­clear war in the Japan­ese sub­con­scious. Yet, in the imag­i­nary re­al­ity of post­war Japan—in which the Self­-De­fense Forces can­not ex­plic­itly be called “mil­i­tary forces”—such mem­o­ries and fears have never been chan­neled into a le­git­i­mate po­lit­i­cal con­scious­ness. In­stead, they have been trans­formed into the mon­strous cat­a­stro­phes ad apoc­a­lyp­tic delu­sions de­picted in the bizarre world of manga and ani­me. These im­ages be­speak a pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal re­pres­sion. What is re­pressed, how­ev­er, main­tains the po­ten­tial to force it­self out into this world, when­ever and wher­ever it finds the slight­est open­ing. Japan’s sub­cul­ture must be un­der­stood as a dy­namic of am­biva­lent urges, vac­il­lat­ing be­tween the de­sire to es­cape from his­tor­i­cal self­-with­drawal and to re­vert to it.


By ex­ploit­ing the creepy imag­i­na­tion of sub­cul­ture—which has spawned mon­sters, aliens, apos­tles, and su­per­nat­ural wars—the gen­er­a­tion of otaku and Japan­ese Neo Pop has re-imag­ined Japan’s gravely dis­torted his­to­ry, which the na­tion chose to em­brace at the very be­gin­ning of its post­war life by re­press­ing

[pg205]

mem­o­ries of vi­o­lence and avert­ing its eyes from re­al­i­ty. Grant­ed, Japan’s sub­cul­ture gen­er­a­tion is seem­ingly sus­pended in a his­tor­i­cal am­ne­sia, hav­ing lit­tle sense of the past and with­draw­ing from re­al­i­ty. Yet com­mand­ing the imag­i­na­tion of sub­cul­ture, which it ac­quired in child­hood, this gen­er­a­tion con­tin­ues to mine the an­cient nar­ra­tive strata of the Pa­cific War and re­cast the re­al­ity of the Cold War into an­other form. How many times have they burned Tokyo to cin­ders, tire­lessly fended off in­vaders, and per­se­vered through ra­dioac­tive con­t­a­m­i­na­tion in or­der to chip away at the imag­i­nary re­al­ity that forced them into self­-with­drawal? Even though all of this takes place in the closed space that is the otaku’s “pri­vate room”, the true his­tory no doubt en­dures in this space—a mi­cro­cosm of post­war Japan—al­beit con­stricted and dis­tort­ed.

When we re­ex­am­ine the mas­sive num­ber of im­ages of war, car­nage, de­struc­tion, nu­clear ir­ra­di­a­tion, and ru­ins stored in such sub­cul­ture gen­res as man­ga, ani­me, and tokusatsu, we be­gin to un­der­stand that the Su­per­flat space of post­war Japan con­sti­tutes a re­flec­tion of the na­tion’s para­dox­i­cal his­to­ry—a re­flec­tion en­gen­dered by the sup­pres­sion of mem­o­ries of the twofold vi­o­lence Japan ex­pe­ri­enced as both vic­tim­izer and vic­tim­ized, as well as its fear of the Cold War. If we find any­thing au­then­tic in the work of Japan­ese Neo Pop that goes be­yond the sim­plis­tic la­bel of Far East­ern Pop Art, it lies in the artists’ sober ac­knowl­edg­ment of Japan’s para­dox­i­cal his­to­ry. The true achieve­ment of Japan­ese Neo Pop, then, is that it gives form to the dis­tor­tion of his­tory that haunts Japan—by re­assem­bling frag­ments of his­tory ac­cu­mu­lated in otaku’s pri­vate rooms and lib­er­at­ing them from their con­fine­ment in an imag­i­nary re­al­ity through a crit­i­cal re­con­sti­tu­tion of sub­cul­ture. In do­ing so, these artists have re­fused to take the delu­sional path of re­sort­ing to war­fare like Aum; in­stead, they have found a way out through the uni­ver­sal means of art, trans­fer­ring their find­ings to the bat­tle­field that is art his­to­ry. In essence, Japan­ese Neo Pop, as ex­em­pli­fied by the work of Takashi Mu­rakami among oth­ers, vi­su­al­izes the his­tor­i­cal dis­tor­tion of Japan for the eyes of the whole world.


  1. There is no gen­eral con­sen­sus on the de­fi­n­i­tion of “sub­cul­ture” in Japan. Al­though in the West sub­cul­ture is often un­der­stood as coun­ter­cul­ture or sec­ondary cul­ture vis-a-vis “high cul­ture”, in Japan, where high cul­ture is less per­va­sive and less au­thor­i­ta­tive, sub­cul­ture is less op­po­si­tional or sec­ondary in na­ture. In­deed, there is noth­ing “sub” about its cul­tural pres­ence: such sub­cul­ture gen­res as man­ga, ani­me, and games en­joy a more broadly based pop­u­lar­ity in so­ci­ety than that en­joyed by the sta­ples of high cul­ture, such as fine art and lit­er­a­ture. Ac­cord­ing­ly, suc­cess­ful cre­ators of man­ga, ani­me, and games are na­tional celebri­ties, and com­mand re­spect in every stra­tum of so­ci­ety. For this rea­son, the cre­ators of otaku cul­ture (which in­cludes man­ga, ani­me, and games) dis­like the la­bel of “sub­cul­ture”, which con­notes sec­ondary sta­tus. To them, sabukaru (a Japan­ese so­bri­quet for sub­cul­ture) is a pe­jo­ra­tive term de­not­ing those fol­low­ers of rock mu­sic and fash­ion im­ported from the West in the gen­er­a­tion prior to the emer­gence of otaku cul­ture. In fact, when seen from the em­pire of otaku cul­ture, “pure art”—typ­i­cally rep­re­sented by fine art—is mi­nor art, and thus may well be called “sub­cul­ture”. In this sense, it is in­ac­cu­rate to ap­ply the rubric of “sub­cul­ture” to man­ga, ani­me, and games. For the sake of sim­plic­i­ty, how­ev­er, I use “sub­cul­ture” in this text as a syn­onym for otaku cul­ture, out­side the West­ern di­chotomy of high vs. low cul­ture.↩︎

  2. Tokusatsu (spe­cial effects) refers to a set of tech­niques used in Japan­ese films and tele­vi­sion se­ries to cre­ate re­al­is­tic de­pic­tions of fan­tasy scenes in­volv­ing mon­sters and mass de­struc­tion, typ­i­cally com­pris­ing such low-bud­get meth­ods as ac­tors in cos­tume and dio­ra­mas. Tokusatsu orig­i­nated in the pro­pa­ganda films made dur­ing the Japan-U.S. war by Japan­ese film­mak­ers, who de­vel­oped var­i­ous tech­niques for re-cre­at­ing his­tor­i­cal bat­tle sce­nes; after the war, these tech­niques were adopted in pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment gen­res, most fa­mously in mon­ster movies. The word tokusatsu sub­se­quently be­came a la­bel for the genre of films and TV se­ries em­ploy­ing a gamut of spe­cial-effects tech­niques. The best-known tokusatsu works in­clude Godzilla (by the stu­dio To­ho), whose spe­cial-effects di­rec­tor was Eiji Tsub­u­raya; and TV’s Ul­tra se­ries, cre­ated by his Tsub­u­raya Pro­duc­tions.↩︎

  3. Japan’s “post­war” (sengo) pe­riod be­gan in Au­gust 1945, when Em­peror Hi­ro­hito ac­cepted the Pots­dam De­c­la­ra­tion and the na­tion sur­ren­dered un­con­di­tion­al­ly. In con­trast to its un­am­bigu­ous orig­in, the end of the pe­riod re­mains a point of de­bate. Some con­tend that the post­war era ended in 1951 when the Japan­ese gov­ern­ment signed the San Fran­cisco Peace Treaty, which an­nounced the con­clu­sion of the U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion. Some see the rapid eco­nomic growth of the late 1950s and 1960s in gen­eral and the host­ing of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in par­tic­u­lar as sig­nals of its end. Other think that it ended in 1989 with the death of Hi­ro­hi­to, who was suc­ceeded by his son, the reign­ing em­peror Ak­i­hi­to. Yet oth­ers in­sist that the post­war pe­riod will never end un­less the Japan­ese Con­sti­tu­tion, en­acted soon after the na­tion’s de­feat, is amend­ed. per­son­al­ly, I be­lieve that the post­war pe­riod will con­tinue as long as Japan is bound by the U.S.-Japan Se­cu­rity Treaty, signed con­cur­rently with the San Fran­cisco treaty to al­low the U.S. to main­tain in­de­pen­dent mil­i­tary bases within Japan. In other words, it is my opin­ion that the post­war pe­ri­od, which be­gan in 1945, con­tin­ues to this day.↩︎

  4. Japan was awarded the 1940 Sum­mer Games, which were sub­se­quently can­celed due to the coun­try’s ag­gres­sion in Chi­na.↩︎

  5. There is a sig­nifi­cant differ­ence be­tween writ­ing otaku in hi­ra­gana and in katakana. (This dis­tinc­tion may not trans­late eas­ily into Eng­lish.) Hi­ra­gana (cur­sive syl­labary) and katakana (an­gu­lar syl­labary_, syl­labic scripts (sim­i­lar to al­pha­bets) de­vel­oped in the ninth cen­tu­ry, carry sig­nifi­cantly differ­ent im­pli­ca­tions in Japan­ese writ­ten lan­guage. Hi­ra­gana was orig­i­nally de­vel­oped as “wom­en’s hand” (on­nade), an al­ter­na­tive to the “men’s hand” based on Chi­nese char­ac­ters that was used by the cul­tured men of the elite. The ex­clu­siv­ity of the wom­en’s hand is ev­i­denced by the Tosa Di­ary (Tosa nikki, 935), a mas­ter­piece of clas­si­cal Japan­ese lit­er­a­ture writ­ten in hi­ra­gana by the male poet Ki no Tsurayuki, who as­sumed a wom­an’s voice and ex­pressly stat­ed, “I want to try a fe­male hand at this ‘di­ary’ that men keep.” In other words, Japan­ese ver­nac­u­lar lit­er­a­ture had a highly gen­dered be­gin­ning; it in­deed orig­i­nated in a “gen­der panic” on the part of men. If Mari Kotani’s ob­ser­va­tion is cor­rect, this gen­der panic was re­peated when the ver­nac­u­lar us­age of otaku was first adopted by house­wives and then trans­ferred to their sons. In this sense, the gen­e­sis of the term otaku ap­pears to have mim­ic­ked that of Japan­ese lit­er­a­ture it­self.

    By con­trast, katakana orig­i­nated in the guid­ing marks added to ren­der writ­ten Chi­ne­se—that is, a for­eign lan­guage—into Japan­ese. To­day, katakana is gen­er­ally used for writ­ing for­eign words (par­tic­u­larly Eng­lish words) in Japan­ese. (In this sense, it is some­what akin to the use of ital­ics in Eng­lish test.) Al­most with­out ex­cep­tion, words writ­ten in katakana are con­sid­ered “cooler” than in­dige­nous Japan­ese words. Otaku in katakana there­fore as­sumes a fic­ti­tious for­eign orig­in, while oblit­er­at­ing its na­tive ori­gin (as a word con­not­ing gen­der pan­ic) and its his­tory (as a deroga­tory term once at­tached to a cer­tain group of peo­ple). In other words, ren­dered in katakana, the word otaku is fig­u­ra­tively ex­ported as some­thing “cool”, and the con­cept is im­ported back as a “cul­ture of value” sup­pos­edly le­git­imized in the West­—in a process that may amount to a cul­tural laun­der­ing of terms.↩︎

  6. Mari Kotani, “Otakuin wa otakuia no yume o mitawa” [O­taqueen dreamed of otaque­er], in Amijo gen­ron F-kai: Po­su­to­modan, otaku, sekushuar­iti [Net­like dis­course F, re­vised: Post­mod­ern, otaku, sex­u­al­i­ty], ed. Hi­roki Azuma (Tokyo: Sei­doshoa, 2003), 119–20.↩︎

  7. The sus­pen­sion of the gold stan­dard in Au­gust 1971 led even­tu­ally to the abo­li­tion of the fixed dol­lar-yen ex­change rate, which had long kept the value of the yen low, thus ben­e­fit­ing Japan’s ex­ports. The dras­tic in­crease in oil prices and re­stric­tion of sup­ply by OPEC in Oc­to­ber 1973 fur­ther ac­cel­er­ated in­fla­tion in Japan, and caused eco­nomic pan­ic.↩︎