A place of their own




By Patrick W. Galbraith, photographs by Androniki Christodoulou (Seattle: Chin Music Press, 2012, 240 pp., $20, paperback)

Patrick Galbraith is no newcomer to the otaku scene in Japan. A journalist by training and the author of “The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan” and one of the main contributors to Tokyo Realtime’s Akihabara tour, he takes his latest project directly into the homes of otaku (people with an obsessive niche hobby).

Galbraith, the Tokyo University Ph.D. candidate, argues in his new book that the media forms the otaku identity without the input of otaku themselves. The depictions of otaku have fluctuated over the years, from negative to positive and once again back to negative. Galbraith sees the 1989 arrest of Tsutomu Miyazaki for the grisly murders of four young girls as the pinnacle of negative portrayals of otaku. The positive depiction of the otaku culture hit its apex during the last 10 years. But Galbraith argues that these depictions were through the media’s perceptions and not by otaku themselves.

Looking beyond stereotypes, Galbraith hoped to take photos — with the help of Androniki Christodoulou — of otaku in their rooms and allow them to express themselves. “We intervened in their lives and collaboratively articulated otaku space,” he wrote. “These are real people sharing their spaces and stories. We did not question their authenticity.”

Twenty otaku are featured, each of them in their own space. Galbraith also includes his writing about otaku and media portrayals, interviews with “The Experts”: Shunya Yoshimi, a modern history scholar on post-war Japan, and Kaichiro Morikawa, “a design theorist, subcultural expert and archivist,” who is behind the Tokyo International Manga Library in Akihabara. Alongside the personal interviews are Galbraith’s tours of various gathering spaces for otaku in Japan, with everything from the well-known Akihabara and Otome Road, Ikebukuro in Tokyo to Osu, Nagoya, a surprising center for otaku who love to build robots, which gained in popularity within the last decade.

Readers will be surprised to learn about the numerous facets of otaku-dom. The portrayals are not hyperbolized, as in the case of Akiko Higashimura’s manga “Princess Jellyfish,” nor are they talked about and picked apart into post-modern theory, like through the essays of Hiroki Azuma in “Otaku: Japan’s Database in Animals.” The interviews feel frank, and while interviewees are acting or posing because there is a camera and voice recorder on them, the micro-biographies and snapshots of otaku feel more natural.

The first interviewee is truly intriguing. Norihiro Ono, one of Japan’s leading experts on Russian science fiction, collects calculators, martial arts equipment and musical instruments. He professes that he considers himself an otaku, but does not buy anime, manga or figurines, the regular staples. Likewise, following Ono is a collector of “underground paraphernalia” such as items from the KKK, religious cults and political extremists. The book continues with figurine collectors, a man who has spent about $20,000 on toys from tokusatsu (live action special effects) shows, anime, and other forms of entertainment and a race queen with 13,000 volumes of manga.

Also featured are an electrician, a professional boxer and Danny Choo, the famous blogger of all things otaku. These ethnographies of otaku formulate neither a single identity nor a comprehensive one. Each subject is varied and not one of them embodies any other’s self-concept of otaku either. At its core, “Otaku Spaces” describes the very individualism exhibited by otaku, which strays away from the collective frame the media portrays them in with overarching stereotypes and generalizations central to much of Japanese culture.

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