Otaku Interviews: Patrick Galbraith

Otaku Interviews: Patrick Galbraith

Patrick W. Galbraith is the author of the recently published The Otaku Encyclopedia. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Tokyo where he is doing his cultural anthropological study on otaku culture, primarily its history and particularly the phenomenon of moé. He is also the tour guide for the "Akihabara Tour", a walking tour for English speaking tourists that visit the otaku Mecca. He is a well known face in the pop-capitol with his iconic cosplay of Super Saiyan Goku from Dragon Ball Z. In combination with a review of his latest book, we interviewed Mr. Galbraith on his life and thoughts on otaku culture.

T-ONO: First, to start off, are you one of the only foreign people researching otaku culture at The University of Tokyo?

Patrick W. Galbraith: As far as I know I am the only Ph.D. student at the University of Tokyo taking on otaku as a research focus.

It isn't exactly the most popular topic in academic circles. I presented a paper on moé at this one conference, and this guy took me aside afterwards and said in all seriousness, "Look, you are at an elite university headed for the top. You have all the opportunity and resources in the world. Why are you wasting your time talking about moé?"

I spent the next hour trying to convince him that this wasn't a joke, that I actually do see merit in sustained study of this emerging concept. He finally gave up and told me I would be far better off with economic history.

 

T-ONO: Well, how about the scholars that already study them? What do they think about your work?

PG: Even scholars who are dealing with otaku have told me that I should first establish myself in a discipline and then approach otaku from there: Morikawa Kaichiro is design theory, Azuma Hiroki is philosophy, Saito Tamaki is psychology, and so on. I was advised that anyone who focused on otaku for the sake of otaku - that is, not to test or prove a preconceived theory or notion - was doomed to lose all credibility and end up as a journalist or otaku. Indeed, most of the people who talk about otaku are journalists and otaku, for example Otsuka Eiji and Okada Toshio, respectively.

 

T-ONO: Then why go straight in to otaku?

PG: I always thought that there was something wrong with the academic discourse. Before we theorize otaku I think we have to understand them. This requires ethnographic immersion and participant observation, which is currently the core of my dissertation project. I think university is the perfect place to do this. I have research funds to keep me going and time to spare for an intensive survey over a long period of time.

A journalist or otaku alone does not have this privilege, and academia currently discourages the topic. It also became clear to me that there was a dearth in literature concerning this area, both in terms of academic writing and in first hand information from Japan in English. I came to Japan, started taking classes dealing with contemporary culture, talked with Japanese professors and otaku, and most importantly, read books in Japanese. I realized that there is such a wealth of information that has yet to be accessed and disseminated in English.

 

T-ONO: So why did you choose The University of Tokyo in particular to do this research, the location?

PG: There are two answers to this. Officially, I chose the University of Tokyo because there are people there doing interesting work on contemporary Japanese culture. My adviser, Yoshimi Shunya, is one of the leaders in Japanese cultural studies. I was also attracted to the fact that Okada Toshio had given his "otaku studies" lectures here, and that Azuma Hiroki was an alumnus. At the University of Tokyo, there are good people working on media, information and technology as related to culture and society, and some of them have been commenting on otaku. I am blessed to have them to guide me in my thesis project.

 

T-ONO: And the second?

PG: Well, in the end I chose this institute because of Tokyo Daigaku Monogatari. I took a page out of the manga and aimed for the top.

 

T-ONO: How did the university react to your application? Did you have to sneak in "under the radar" what with how otaku in academia are treated?

PG: The applicants are really not privy to the discussions that go on in the selection process, but I was accepted as the first Ph.D. student in my department in the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies. I am very honored that two great anthropologists, Anne Allison and David Slater, recommended me and the former dean, Yoshimi Shunya, also took an interest in my work.

That said, I am told that most people don't quite know what to do with me and my focus on otaku. I have a very narrow range of allowance. I think in my case it was less about the university and more about this new program having a place for my research.

 

T-ONO: Well, let's go back a bit then. How did you become so well versed in all of this in the first place?

PG: At first it was just watching too much anime.

When I was a young child in Alaska, I watched VHS tapes of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Bubblegum Crisis and other such shows with my brothers. They were often in Japanese, a language we couldn't understand, and I guess that kind of added to the mystery of the art and the country it came from, making me want more.

 

T-ONO: Where did you get those tapes, were they passed to you from the old method of passing a VHS tape around, or was there a lucky odd video store nearby?

PG: I have never really asked my brothers about it, but I assume they were part of the tape trading circles. My oldest brother was taking Pacific Rim Studies and learning Japanese in high school, so my guess would be he was in a class of proto-otaku and some of them had this material.

In Anchorage, many Japanese were passing through the airport on their way to Europe, and there were some Japanese in the area. I suppose stores targeting or run by them could have been another source.

 

T-ONO: Cool, how did your interest grow after that?

PG: We moved to Montana just before I entered the sixth grade and I was extremely depressed. I didn't make friends and dropped out of society. I started consuming more media to find solace. That's fine in grade school, but the transition to middle school was hell, and high school even more so. I couldn't get along with classmates and couldn't communicate at all. In high school I attempted to play sports, make friends and court this one girl, but realized it was hopeless within a year.

Rather than try to remedy this, I accelerated my anime consumption and started to write about it. I guess it was a way to build my own world and seek out some sort of identity. I devoted myself solely to studying anime and Japan. It had become a consuming obsession.

I started buying manga, dating simulator games, Japanese idol magazines, figures and merchandise when they became more readily available online. I was cocooned in the pop-culture of a world I didn't know or understand. I started teaching myself Japanese so that I could read the magazines and learn more. When I got to university, I double majored in Japanese and Journalism. I tried to soak up everything about Japan and voraciously read every book the faculty kicked my way. I also made use of the Net.

 

T-ONO: Oh, where did you go to school for your undergraduate work?

PG: I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Montana in Missoula.

It is a rather large and liberal school, despite the unfortunate location, and they had a very good journalism school. They also had an undergraduate degree in Japanese, which I understand is becoming a little rare, so I double majored.

 

T-ONO: So did you have any idea you would be in Tokyo studying otaku back then?

PG: I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I was locked up in my room watching anime every waking moment, attending classes when I had to and then applying the new knowledge to my personal studies on anime and Japan.

I dreamed of making it to Japan, and didn't really plan anything beyond that.

 

T-ONO: Well, now you're in Japan and studying. What do you think of studying in Japan so far?

PG: I think studying in Japan was a great benefit for me. It exposed me to so many ideas that I had never really considered before.

Being professionally trained as a journalist, and with a companion degree in Japanese language and culture, I really had no discipline when I arrived in Japan. It was very humbling to discuss Japanese culture with Japanese who were both members of and experts on the culture. It was sometimes painful when we held our discussions in Japanese. I was often treated as a halfwit, but that was all right with me. They explained things simply and from the basic level on up.

 

T-ONO: I've found that many academics are still discussing Japan in terms of post-war mentalities, do you find it hard to analyze otaku outside of this motif?

PG: I agree with you that academia can at times be cumbersome and impenetrable, but perhaps because I was doing it in another language and in a completely new environment it was always exhilarating and rewarding.

 

T-ONO: Well, we can see you're pretty serious on studying the culture, but what kind of otaku-dom are you most interested in, for yourself?

PG: Anime, no doubt. It's like air, food and water - something that I cannot live without. Among anime genres, I am most often accused of being a moé otaku.

 

T-ONO: A moé otaku?

PG: Someone interested in that euphoria that can only come from two-dimensional characters.

I like cute characters. Despite opinions to the contrary, the story, setting and character relationships do matter and are part of the process to create moé. I also pursue moé in physical form, or rather in representations of two-dimensional characters. This includes figures, idols, maids, seiyuu and so on.

In a departure from fetishism, the objects themselves are really not the point here. I am interested in feeling closer to the narrative behind the character merchandise. I channel Yamamoto Yutaka, whom I interviewed for the book, when I say I prefer the image to the actual person. I don't care what idols or maids are really like - they exist as fantasy characters for moé production.

What I am really after is an experience of the two-dimensional world with all its possibilities. I suppose my otaku interest lies in researching the two-dimensional and attempting to find new ways to access it. Yes, I am fully aware of how incredibly geeky this all sounds, but there you have it. I spend a lot of time in Akihabara were fans with similar interests hang out.

 

T-ONO: So then what do you think of the otaku culture today?

PG: I love otaku culture at any time! As I am a so-called moé otaku, it's recently been like paradise for me!

I know that many people have criticized the current generation of otaku as "self-serving" and "superficial." They say the "classic" otaku are supposed to be narrow and deep in their field of focus and that otaku today are too shallow and broad in their interests. But I don't buy the whole "otaku are dead" or "otaku are weak" criticism.

In my experience, young otaku are every bit as intense in hobbies over a long duration of time. The difference is that there is just so much more media and material out there and you just can't master it all the way the old otaku did. The Internet has also made it easier to connect with the community and consume information. The whole process of cultural initiation and maturation has been intensified and accelerated.

Of course there is also the problem with those who consume media online rather than buying it. The loss of revenue is hurting Japanese animators, who are often far below the poverty line. I am not blaming a desire for the product for this situation - it is actually a matter of the Production Committee System that benefits corporate sponsors rather than creators - but it does make it worse. Anime itself has become something of a promotional tool for merchandise and crossover media.

 

T-ONO: How then has the otaku culture changed through this?

PG: The old model of otaku is certainly a thing of the past. What has replaced it is a sampling and remix culture based in media and technology. In my opinion, otaku are more culturally sophisticated and creative now, which is why they are so adept at quoting works and expanding ideas in doujin works published outside official channels.

Media consumption and the production of knowledge surrounding it have changed. Not only has the rate accelerated, the focus has shifted from the media itself to networked meaning and the material surrounding it. Creation is taking place at an unprecedented scale and speed. For all these reasons otaku culture is more complex, confusing and chaotic than ever before, but I for one also find it more interesting.

 

T-ONO: Then in the case of new otaku and old otaku, would you say they are becoming mutually exclusive? The playing field has changed, as you say, so should there be a distinction between the old otaku and the new otaku?

PG: I know it may seem like I am advocating difference, but actually I don't think we need to further divide otaku by separating them into old and new categories. Otaku are changing, as all cultures change, with shifts in the media and material that they produce and consume. The environment conditioning otaku is changing.

However, I do not think that the definition of otaku has changed. Otaku are people with an intense interest in something that continues over a long period of time. The intensity and duration is such that they want to know and do more, and become experts and creators.

If otaku before were narrow and deep in their focus, then today they are broad and shallow, and I don't see that as a criticism. It is natural that otaku aren't going as deep because they have a lot more material to cover across diverse genres. Be it incredibly deep or incredibly broad, it takes an incredible amount of energy and devotion to pursue the otaku path.

 

T-ONO: Let's move on then to your book. How did you collect all the interviews?

PG: Collecting the interviews posed quite a challenge. I knew some of them, mostly the idols and maids, from my years with otaku in Japan. With media personalities in Japan it's really just a matter of getting an in, and then sometimes making a small payment to cover their time, makeup and image release.

I have also been a freelance journalist covering otaku since 2004 and had the opportunity to meet many people and make great contacts. For those I didn't know, I sent letters, made phone calls, pressured mutual acquaintances, whatever it took to get an in. Of course not everyone was receptive. A few people who didn't make it into the book were extremely angry at the proposal. In their mind, neither they nor their work are related to otaku.

I won't mention any names here, but suffice it to say that these folks are key players in the otaku scene in Japan. I was a little shocked that they themselves did not see this, or no longer wanted to be associated with otaku. But in all most people were keen to talk to a young, curious, non-Japanese otaku, which I used as bait in my request letters. Many people in the industry find it terribly amusing that I study otaku at the University of Tokyo and talk about maids and moé at academic conferences, so I used that to my advantage.

Once we met, many seemed very happy to reach an international audience. They wanted to share what they know and help spread the culture. It made me proud to be an otaku to see their devotion and dedication to the community.

 

T-ONO: How long did you work on this book?

PG: I started taking notes on terms I was unfamiliar with in late 2004, after I first came to Japan to study otaku culture. I could read, write and speak Japanese and shared the culture of anime, manga and videogames so I arrogantly assumed I would be able to understand and communicate with Japanese otaku. I realized that there was a whole symbolic system and vocabulary beyond me. The more I talked to people, the more I learned, and the more I learned the more I wanted to know.

It was like a complete re-training as an otaku, a chance to experience the culture again from a different perspective. My journal of new words was at first a hobby, then a handy field guide for my research and finally the basis of The Otaku Encyclopedia.

 

T-ONO: So what inspired you to make those notes into a full-fledged book?

PG: I felt that otaku were perhaps the most talked about and misunderstood aspect of contemporary Japanese culture, and I thought that maybe I might be able to remedy that with the voices and narratives I was gathering.

There is a tendency to categorize in otaku culture. Otaku are so immersed in their hobbies for so long that it makes it hard to communicate outside a certain range of topics. Otaku culture is actually a scattering of small subgroups organized around competing interests, properties and consumption patterns. Rather than reaching out and building bridges, otaku tend to cut themselves off from others both within the culture and in the mainstream, something Yamamoto Yutaka mentioned in our interview in The Otaku Encyclopedia. This makes it very hard for anyone outside a given group to understand, one reason Okada Toshio has given up on all of them.

The mass media also played an important role in defining otaku in Japan, and mass media tend to construct easily recognizable stereotypes. Otaku are described based on naive psychological or behavioral parameters. It is very difficult to get past these stereotypes to get to the real people, and then from there to a new set of parameters. One of my biggest hopes is that The Otaku Encyclopedia will help in this ongoing process.

 

T-ONO: Do you think the image of otaku are improving at all?

PG: I think the image of otaku is becoming more complex. While you can see improvement in popular dramas centered on otaku and celebrities on variety shows proudly revealing otaku hobbies, news reports still talk about the otaku lifestyle as deviant.

There is still this suspicion about what otaku are doing and this manifests an irrational fear whenever there is a violent or disturbing crime. "Did he watch anime or play games?" As if this makes a difference in whether or not one is a sociopath.

Not all otaku or otaku hobbies are included in the improved image seen in the mass media and government white papers, for example fujoshi, and not everyone wants to be, for example wotaku (new-generation otaku). There is a continuing negotiation of the word. Even as it seemed to have been redeemed, prior meanings persist and new articulations emerge.

 

T-ONO: I'd like to now talk about something specific about your book. I noticed you did not mention one of the largest fandoms in Japan right now: Touhou. Why is that?

PG: You know, I came into contact with Touhou in early 2008. All my otaku comrades, Japanese and otherwise, told me it was going to be huge, and sure enough these predictions came true. At the same time, Touhou was a tricky thing to include in the encyclopedia. For one, opinions are divided. Some say it is just another game, and so should not be given special preference over other games that had more of an impact on the development of otaku culture.

In truth I did not include as much on games as they rightfully deserve due to issues of space and my own experiential bias. I play a lot of dating simulator games, but videogames in general are one of my weakest areas as an otaku, along with doujin works and tokusatsu (the old Japanese special effects shows). I am studying these things and trying to stay abreast of trends, but they are not my chosen genres.

 

T-ONO: So you're not really a fan of it?

PG: I have never played Touhou, but I do see the regular top ranking of music and fan videos on Nico Nico Douga which have given me the chance to listen to the stellar soundtrack.

 

T-ONO: Anyway, back to Touhou. I still noticed you at least mentioning tokusatsu and such, so how did this not get mentioned at all?

PG: While some say it is just an average game, others claim it is newest thing to come out in recent years. It has its own genre at Comiket, for example, though this has more to do with the mass popularity of the work based on the game than the originality of the game itself. I was going to open a new entry for Touhou, but then the question came, "Why not Haruhi?" and so on.

There are a lot of original and popular works out there, but they all can't be given a full entry in a book that is only 250 pages long. So rather than making Touhou a footnote in the doujin section, an injustice that would upset its fans, I thought it best to leave that story for someone with a better forum to more fully explain its significance.

 

T-ONO: I see, then I have to ask: why was particular attention paid to select titles such as Akira, Eva, and Gainax in general? Was this mostly due to their explosive popularity and how they serve as a kind of foundation to a lot of current otaku discourse?

PG: I tried to cover works, regardless of medium or genre, based on their impact on the development of otaku culture. Akira was one of the most expensive and ambitious animated films ever made, and opened anime up to a more general audience in the United States. Neon Genesis Evangelion is a series that initiated a young generation of Japanese as otaku and ushered in a major boom in otaku culture in the late 1990s. It is also credited with perfecting a new business model for anime based on multimedia and merchandise franchising, and tapping otaku creativity by encouraging doujin works. Gainax is a company that rose through the ranks of otaku in the 1980s and 90s, and their success is a critical part of the otaku discourse today. Simply, I thought it was difficult to set the parameters for a discussion on otaku without including such works, companies and people.

 

T-ONO: So how does this differ from Touhou?

PG: Touhou would have to have been its own entry or included with doujin soft. I rejected the former because Touhou is not critical to the current discourse on otaku, and the latter because I think Touhou deserves more space than I could afford to give it as a footnote. The basic problem is that we don't have the essential building blocks of otaku culture mapped out and documented, so we can't contextualize or understand contemporary phenemonon such as Touhou. Without knowing about doujin, games and the new generation of digitally savvy otaku, we can't talk about what they are doing and why. I felt for this first edition of the encyclopedia it was more critical to get those basics of otaku culture down to build up understanding both inside and outside the culture. I hope that sometime in the future there will be a chance to make an expanded edition of The Otaku Encyclopedia and get a team of experts from inside and outside Japan to contribute their knowledge!

 

T-ONO: Well that's all I really wanted to ask about your book. Moving on, I have to ask, when did you decide to get the Goku cosplay together?

PG: I cosplay as Goku when I do the weekly Akihabara tour, which began in 2007.

At the time, the streets were wild with all these cosplayers and street performers, and by cosplaying myself the tour group would get these wonderful reactions. Some people invited us to go to maid cafés with them or to impromptu photo shoots, a lot of things. More than a few tour participants told me that our time together changed their minds about the scene, which made me very happy. I want to spread a bright, cheerful image of otaku and promote the culture. I'd be happy if people took it as a joke and my small way of doing otaku public relations.

 

T-ONO: So you don't wear it out much besides the tour?

PG: These sorts of connections were also great for my own research, so I wore the costume even when I wasn't doing tours. There was this vitality to the area and this camaraderie among the people that I wanted to share in!

 

T-ONO: So what about the tour? How has that worked out?

PG: On the tour I try to place otaku activity into historical context when I explain what happens in Akihabara, and what might happen next. As you know, the Pedestrian Paradise in Akihabara was closed indefinitely because of a tragedy that claimed several lives in 2008. I argue in an upcoming paper in Mechademia that this was just a flash point for longstanding tensions between locals and otaku. They separate good otaku who shop at their stores and leave people alone to so-called "weird otaku" who come down to play in the streets and, in the minds of many locals, hinder business. The crowds were thought to be a nuisance, and the performances damaging to Akihabara's image as an emerging hot spot. Police began to come down and question cosplayers, conduct "random" bag searches on otaku and generally harass those they wanted to leave.

I was questioned several times as well, and one magazine dubbed me a "monstrous foreigner" before they realized that I was a legitimate tour guide.

 

T-ONO: So the animosity wasn't strange?

PG: Even before the tragic slayings there were a lot of complaints from local residents and merchants about otaku being out of control, as in wearing strange costumes, encouraging indecent performances by street idols, drawing crowds that hindered business, injuring the neighborhood's image with strange behavior, and so on.

The slayings were really the critical point when all this came to a head. The bad publicity and increased authority sort of sucked the life out of the area, though some cosplayers are returning now. Things are a lot more controlled and sanitized than before, and new mega buildings and box stores are continuing to rise up.

 

T-ONO: Have the slayings then changed Akihabara as a whole?

PG: Morikawa Kaichiro has said that what makes Akihabara special is a lack of power that allowed for private interests to manifest on a public scale. The area was like an otaku's bedroom blown up to city scale. It is a shame, but the power has returned to Akihabara and otaku now have less free space.

 

T-ONO: So, what is your plan after getting a Ph.D., staying in Japan?

PG: I will be in Japan for the foreseeable future. My wife was born and raised in Tokyo, and informs me that the place has a hold on people. She can't imagine living anywhere else. It reminds me a bit of Rahxephon, you know, where Tokyo is perceived as this planet unto itself.

I agree with her that this is an exciting city. I can watch late-night anime in real time, go to theatrical openings and idol concerts, hang out in maid cafés, attend events and meet new and interesting people everyday. My research requires me to be in constant contact with otaku, and I am in Akihabara daily at least in part for this purpose.

My hobbies, research and work all converge in the otaku hobbies, and I can be close to them in Tokyo. I intend to continue writing and perhaps take up teaching, though the number of academic posts is down even as the candidates are up the world over. I guess I will take my chances and see how it goes.

The city provides me with unique opportunities that I want to follow through to the fullest extent of my abilities. It is also a place where I can learn and grow from those opportunities. I was born in Alaska and grew up in the mountains of Montana. I never had a credit card, used a train or saw a skyscraper before coming to Tokyo. The absolute reversal of everything I knew has made this a place that even now never ceases to amaze me.

 

T-ONO: If you are staying in Japan, are you going to be getting your citizenship changed?

PG: I will stay in Japan but I doubt I will change my citizenship. That process can take as long as 12 years and would require that I revoke citizenship in the United States.

The benefits are really not worth the trouble! I might be able to get back some of the taxes I pay into the national pension plan, but the way things are looking it will be bankrupt long before I get the chance.

If I was Japanese, I could vote, but the ruling party is corrupt and the major opposition party inept. I would vote communist, which would be symbolic more than anything. Rather than become a citizen, I think I will just keep renewing my "spouse of a Japanese national" visa until I become a permanent resident.

 

T-ONO: So what's coming up for you next?

PG: I am currently at The University of Tokyo writing my doctoral dissertation, which will be on how shifts in capitalism and consumption have impacted the otaku mode of social existence in Japan. I have my fingers crossed that this might be finished in two years.

At the same time I am releasing some academic articles on Akihabara, moé, maid cafés, fujoshi and so on. I am still writing a column for Metropolis, contributing to Otaku2.com and Otaku USA, and doing a weekly walking tour in Akihabara. This summer, White Rabbit Press is releasing an audio tour of Akihabara, which I narrate along with otaku experts Patrick Macias, Morikawa Kaichiro and Danny Choo. I am also in discussion about making a documentary film about otaku culture.

Photos Courtesy of Patrick W. Galbraith
Last modified on Sunday, 08 November 2015 17:47
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