Japan has long had a checkered relationship with its subculture of otaku, a word whose nuances cannot easily be translated to English but which more or less means “geeks whose hobbies border on the fanatic” (Ito). More often than not, these hobbies include consuming, collecting, and obsessing over manga, anime, and video games. Add in the fact that some otaku — though by no means all — specialize in sexually explicit hentai, and you have a ready-made target that sensationalist media can blame for all manner of problems. Although in the past 20 years otaku have gone from “symboliz[ing] for media commentators the downfall of Japanese society itself” (Galbraith, 210) to being appropriated as “Japan’s first, originated in Japan, human cultural export” (Meredith, 38), there is still some tendency to stereotype them as potential criminals and even call for censorship of their preferred reading and viewing.
The word otaku was first used to describe anime and manga enthusiasts in the early 1980s (Galbraith 214), but Japan’s real national conversation about the subculture began inauspiciously in 1989 with the so-called “Otaku Murderer.” Tsutomu Miyazaki mutilated, molested, killed, and ate parts of four girls who were between the ages of four and seven. When it was discovered that he owned almost 6,000 videos including some anime and hentai, a media frenzy erupted and all otaku were suddenly suspect. Makoto Fukuda recalls the biased atmosphere of the time:
I was a high school student who loved anime and manga at the time of Miyazaki’s crimes, and the cruelty and abnormality of his acts is not the only thing I cannot forget about them. I also was struck by a storm of otaku-bashing following wide media coverage that emphasized that Miyazaki was an otaku who owned an enormous collection of anime and horror videotapes.
I well remember being annoyed by widespread and sensationalistic headlines that looked as if they were trying to identify the abnormality of his crimes and the causes of his acts only with the fact that he was an otaku. There were also calls to abolish ‘harmful comics,’ and shops dealing with dojinshi self-published manga comic books, including some with sexual content geared for adults, became the targets of harsh criticism.
Never mind that the vast majority of otaku like Fukuda were just as horrified by Miyazaki’s crimes as the rest of Japan; the media had found a convenient scapegoat, not unlike what happened with the Brooklyn Thrill Killers in 1950s America. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, spurious connections between horrific crimes and otaku were often made well before all the facts were known. When a seven-year-old girl was raped and murdered in 2004, for instance, one journalist initially “tried to connect [the] grisly crime to otaku figurine collecting on the rationale that collecting plastic figurines was like collecting corpses — or something.” As it turned out, the killer was Kaoru Kobayashi, a previous sex offender who was not an otaku in the least.
The public perception of otaku was also not helped when Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that killed 13 people in a 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, was discovered to own a computer store in the city’s otaku central, Akihabara. According to Galbraith (217):
Their apocalyptic worldview was a pastiche of sci-fi technology and anime references…. This was evidence enough for many to deem Aum an ‘otaku’ cult. Both Akihabara and otaku suffered from the association.
Luckily, some more level-headed experts and government officials were available to counter the association between otaku and crime (particularly sex crimes against children), and to dismiss the calls for censorship of manga, games, and anime. Tamaki Saito, a psychiatrist specializing in otaku, noted that “‘there is no evidence that [reading] manga could lead to crime…. This culture is consumed as pure fiction, it hardly affects the daily sexual life of the people’” (Kadri). Even Sadakazu Tanigaki, an MP who co-sponsored a congress on child sexual abuse in 2001, recognized that “‘if you censor visual depictions not involving real children too much, that can undermine freedom of expression’” (Kadri). These few signs of establishment tolerance — along with the growing public awareness that manga are truly as diverse as the rest of publishing, and hentai is just one type — were at least enough to head off the fate that befell Australia’s homegrown comics due to their association with serial-killing writer/artist Leonard Keith Lawson.
But otaku were still far from exonerated where the more sensational media outlets were concerned. In 2008 a genuine otaku named Tomohiro Kato deliberately plowed his truck into a pedestrian crowd in Akihabara, then jumped out and stabbed bystanders at random. All told, the attack killed seven people and injured 10. Despite the fact that many of Kato’s victims were also otaku, and strong evidence that he had a history of mental illness, media speculation about a link between otaku and violent crime rose once again. Even some English-language coverage got in on the act; in a sidebar which in the print version was headlined “Sinister Cult?” Sangani opines:
Kato was a typical Otaku male. Japanese society is now asking itself if this ‘cult’ has a sinister side. The homicide rate in Japan is one of the world’s lowest, but a number of recent murders have been attributed to the Otaku obsession with Manga and social networking sites — which many in Japan now blame for the social alienation of many young Japanese.
(U.S. comics enthusiasts may be experiencing déjà vu at this point, as it was only a few months ago that some media tried to blame Batman comics and movies when a single deranged fan killed or injured dozens of other fans. Sensational claims that James Holmes “was transformed from a quiet medical student into a killer through his obsession with comics” are perhaps to be expected from tabloids such as the Sunday Express and the New York Post, but ABC News via Yahoo! has no excuse.)
By the time of Kato’s attack in 2008, however, something rather unexpected had long since happened: otaku became cool overseas. Foreign fans of manga and anime enthusiastically adopted the term for themselves — otaku was incorporated into the names of a popular fan convention (Otakon) and a widely-read video game blog (Kotaku) — and Western fans soon began making pilgrimages to Akihabara (often affectionately called Akiba) to see “real” otaku in their natural habitat (Galbraith, 217). The objects of their adoration were simultaneously bemused and flattered, but Japanese marketers, tourism officials, and government sensed an opportunity. Taro Aso, an enthusiastic manga fan who served as Minister for Foreign Affairs from 2005-2007 and as Prime Minister in 2008-2009, recognized that otaku and their interests had become valuable commodities representing the Japanese ‘brand’ for many young people abroad:
We have all grown up nourished by Shakespeare and Beethoven and other forms of culture emerging from the West. Yet we are now at the point where culture made in Japan — whether anime and manga or sumo and Japanese food culture — is equally able to nourish the people of the world, particularly the younger generations. We would be remiss not to utilize these to the fullest.
But the sudden interest from government and business came at a price: otaku were now expected to conform to the image constructed for them and refrain from doing anything too ‘weird’ that might scare the tourists away. Galbraith describes a 2008 corporate-sponsored Akiba Otaku Festival where
otaku were encouraged to attend but explicitly told not to dance spastically or dress offensively, which included cross-playing [dressing as an anime or manga character of the opposite sex]…. It should be noted here that the activities of so-called ‘weird otaku’ were at least in part facilitated by the media. Otaku were an important part of Akihabara’s position in the global imagination, a status perpetuated by media images; those on the street, who performed for the camera, could not be allowed to devalue the otaku image. The logic of the Akiba Otaku Festival was domestification: otaku animals corralled and disciplined. Akihabara was not a theme park so much as a zoo, as there was a danger to the beasts on exhibit, which could not be allowed to run wild. (223)
Around the same time, otaku were actually being targeted by muggers calling themselves otaku hunters, who “gambled that it does not take much to part a spotty-faced comic buyer from his cash” (McLeod). In response, some otaku began to carry unlicensed knives — a criminal offense in Japan — and police began profiling, questioning, and sometimes searching the belongings of people they thought could be otaku. Between the stifling of free expression, the muggings, and the profiling, Akihabara lost much of its former luster and a survey showed that only 30 percent of current residents actually identified as otaku — “the same number as Japanese tourists coming to the neighborhood to observe otaku” (Galbraith, 219).
While otaku are no longer the pariahs they once were, the tendency of some in the media to link them with crime persists. In June 2012, a random stabbing in Osaka left two people dead. The attack occurred in the shopping district of Shinsaibashi, but near Nipponbashi, Osaka’s Akihabara-equivalent. This was enough for journalist Akihiro Otani to proclaim that “‘it’s necessary to investigate to see if there isn’t a connection to otaku culture.’” In fact, there wasn’t — and this was already well known. Kotaku’s Brian Ashcraft elaborates:
Kyozo Isohi, the attacker, was already proven to be a former biker gang member and not an otaku. That isn’t saying all bikers are bad (they are not!), but what does otaku subculture have to do with anything?
Drug addiction, money problems, a criminal record, and a deeply troubled individual are in play here, not the Japanese nerd culture sold in nearby Nipponbashi.
In fact, the only possible connection to otaku in this case would be via one of the victims, Shingo Minamino, who wrote video game music for a living. Says Ashcraft:
Yet, this is also unrelated to the attack. It is related to Minamino’s life and work. Otani’s attempt to connect the attacker’s motive and otaku subculture isn’t only misguided, but it’s an affront to the work and memory of Shingo Minamino.
Obviously, journalists and police whose first impulse is to profile otaku as ‘weird’ potential criminals would do well to remember that they actually represent a cross section of society. Just as in the general population, a minority may have criminal tendencies, but the vast majority are simply trying to live their lives and do not deserve to be painted with such a broad brush.
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Thanks to CBLDF member Jeffrey Rolek for pointing us towards this topic.
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Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.