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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.↩︎