Friday, January 29, 2010

Interview with a Saiyan warrior pt.1

When Patrick W. Galbraith isn't running around Akihabara dressed as Goku from Dragon Ball Z leading tour groups, he took the time to right the Otaku Encyclopedia. Mentioned here on the Things To Do In LA blog as a great Christmas gift for the Otaku in your life. The Otaku Encyclopedia holds within in it the phrases, people, places and events every Otaku should know or every outsider wondering about Otaku should glimsp.

Mr.Galbraith took the time to answer some questions for me about his book and his Eva loving self.

Interview :

Let me start off by saying what a great book, I bought it on Amazon after I checked it out at the Kinokuniya Bookstore in Little Tokyo. I love the book's design and Moe-pon (cute maid on cover) appearing every few pages.

I’ll ask right way, have you ever been to Little Tokyo in LA and is it anything like the real deal? Do you recommend any place or places there if you have been in Little Tokyo? I go there frequently for Shabu Shabu and special events like the Giant Robot Biennale and the special west coast Chiptune Concert.

I am sad to say that I have never actually been to Los Angeles. At least that I can remember. Apparently my parents took my four brothers, my younger sister and I to Disney Land once. However, I have always wanted to visit Little Tokyo. Staying up until late at night watching anime, I developed a wicked sweet tooth, and I love Japanese mochi. There is mochi as Fugetsu-do and Mikawaya, two of the oldest running food establishments in L.A., as I understand it. I am not really interested in issues of authenticity, and would simply like to try Mikawaya’s mochi ice cream someday! Actually, maybe it’s precisely because I have yet to see it in Japan that I kind of want to try it. I was hooked on Spam-musubi, like these fat rice balls with grilled Spam on top, when I visited Hawaii. There are all different flavors in the world and it’s interesting how tastes interact and develop into something unique. Culture is the same.

Getting back to the book, how long was it in development, was it a long process, or was it easy as your so knowledgeable about the subject of Otaku?

It took about five years to put the book together, or about four years of data collection and one to put it all together. The whole thing was occurring in tandem to my ethnographic fieldwork among otaku, which began in 2004. Every single time I talked to someone I’d encounter all these words and concepts that I was only vaguely familiar with, so I asked everyone to explain them to me. This is the one time that being a stupid foreign guy with limited verbal command of the language really helped me. I collected hundreds of pages of interviews and notes that were edited down and organized into the current book. There is so much more that could have gone in, but the publisher, Kodansha International, wanted to keep it a small size and affordable price. Anyway, the process of putting the book together was a long one because there was so much information out there to synthesis, and so many stereotypes to confront and work through. Coming at this as a fan and student of Japanese popular culture from outside Japan, I was very concerned with how the media portrays otaku and their activities, both in the sense of media images generated in Japan and those conventional understandings disseminated among fans outside Japan. The media image is especially important in the case of otaku, because the mass media played, and still plays the most important role in setting the parameters for discussion. And the mass media tends to construct easily recognizable types. Often the definitions are presumed in advance and never questioned openly, as if we all implicitly understood. This tends to make definitions appear self-evident, while reinforcing received stereotypes. My job was to interrogate constructed images and try to bring the faces and voices of otaku to readers, or to bridge generational and geographic gaps in the ongoing discussion of otaku.

The book has some risky subjects like Yaoi and Seme were they not that fun to research? Was anything a bit unpleasing to research? If so what was the worst? I try and stay clear of the Yaoi Nation (large booth) at Anime Expo and Yaoi paddles. BTW do you head to LA for the Anime Expo?

I sadly have not yet been to Anime Expo! I would love to go someday. My development as a fan of anime, manga, idols and bishojo games really followed a very antisocial path. When I was still in grade school in Alaska, my brother, who was learning Japanese, was watching a VHS tape of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which I thought was totally cool. But it was in Japanese. So, I focused on the pretty girl! I continued to do this, kind of use the bishojo as my entry point into this totally new and exciting world of Japanese sci-fi anime, for example Bubblegum Crisis and Akira, whatever my brother was watching. We moved to a farm in Montana when I was in sixth grade, and I had trouble adjusting to the new setting, and social interactions in general. I withdrew into my room and my anime. I started working and saving money to purchase anime and created a sort of cocoon of Japanese popular culture. I was in junior high school when I saw tapes of Sailor Moon and Neon Genesis Evangelion, and those were loves that sort of ruined me for life. I started tattooing my two-dimensional wives on my body, and I knew my life was over. I was reborn as something else, what some people call an otaku, and I’ve been studying ever since to get deeper into it all. So, I basically never hung out with my peers until I started seeking out otaku in Japan, which was at first more for research purposes. I met so many great people who I know consider friends, both from inside and outside Japan. During the course of writing the book, I was researching the fandom in the United States and got into contact with people such as Fred Schodt, Fred Patten, Gilles Poitras and Patrick Macias. I guess you could say it was only after I left that I was able to connect with the fan community back home. Now I am all the way across the Pacific! But someday I vow to do the convention circuit and get to know everyone better. About topics in the book, I found it interesting to learn about anything and everything. I was so happy that people invited me in and shared their worlds. Fujoshi, the so-called “rotten girls” who are into yaoi and BL manga centered on male-male romance, were particularly friendly. Granted, it took some time, but everyone was so generous with their time and passionate about their hobbies. Some people even debated whether I was a seme or an uke, which is less about sexual orientation and more about whether I am a dominant or submissive personality. I am an uke, apparently. Maybe the fact that I like to listen, and tend not to judge, facilitated data collection.

The Encyclopedia has many different subjects which were the three you enjoyed writing about the most?

I can’t choose three, but my top five were moe, maid cafes, bishoujo games, doujinshi and Akihabara. Moe because it was so fun to interview people and listen to explanations. It was kind of like experiencing the discourse as it was evolving. Maid cafes because I spent a lot of time there writing. Seriously, there are few places I feel more at home and relaxed than this one café I frequent. Bishojo games make the list because this is where some of the best character designs and stories are coming from these days. The low production costs mean that people can make money with low runs and niche themes, even without corporate sponsorship. Think about it – a handful of people can produce a bishojo game, which has a simple operating system where static images and textual prompts appear. The images of bishojo are just so beautiful, so I don’t mind looking at them. The images don’t move, sure, but you are drawn into the emotional and affective depths implied by the character design. Japan might be behind with in making dynamic gaming engines, but the Japanese can do character design and story. That shows best in bishojo games. I wish more people would give them a chance, because not all games are about sex and violence. Doujinshi are similarly cheap to produce and accessible to a wide range of creators. Doujinshi are publications produced outside official channels, and a lot of creativity exists in this border art. With standard publishing suffering and only very stereotyped series and proven creators making it into weekly manga magazines, the existence of doujinshi is all the more important. The problem is how to harness the creativity among otaku to invigorate Japanese contents. Lastly, I chose Akihabara because this is where the conflict between subculture and popular culture is most clear. In the last decade, the private space and hobbies of otaku has been opened to the public, and that engenders a lot of problems. At the same time, there is enormous potential. This is precisely the moment I hope to convey in the book.

Reading through it, I got a real sense of hate towards Otaku in Japan and a feeling of embarrassment for being Otaku. Do you feel there is a lot of hate towards Otaku are they looked down upon?

It really matters what you mean by otaku. It actually originally is a second-person pronoun meaning “your home.” Written in Chinese characters, this is still the meaning (お宅), though it was only used among middle-class housewives and a few places in Western Japan and isn’t so common anymore. If you use the Japanese script of hiragana to write otaku (おたく), then you are talking about a subculture that really grew in the consumer class in the late 1970s and 1980s in response to new media and technology. The media associated this group with excessive individualism and antisocial behavior, which crystallized in the backlash against “otaku” as conflated with the Miyazaki Incident in 1989. It was seen as childish to like anime, manga and tokusatsu as an adult in the 1980s, but it became seen as a sort of pathology in the 1990s. I add to that the caveat of Okada Toshio, who in the mid-1990s tried to redeem otaku as the next stage of human evolution in an information-consumer society, though his influence on public perceptions is questionable. The word otaku was seen as discriminatory and banned by some TV stations and newspapers. At the same time, otaku was making its way into the lexicon of American fans, especially those into the anime subset of sci-fi conventions. This group can be described as otaku in Roman letters (OTAKU). In the 2000s, the popularity of Japanese anime, manga and videogames overseas grew to such an extent that it began to influence a new image of hardcore fans. The sort of international or cool otaku image can be expressed in katakana, which is a Japanese script used for foreign loanwords (オタク). The script itself makes it clear that this was not a local understanding, though it is gaining traction with the brighter, more cheerful image of otaku as seen in the TV drama Densha Otoko and other media outlets. Finally, some hardcore fans of anime, manga, games and related fields do not affiliate with any of the otaku categories that have come before, and they call themselves wotaku (ヲタク). These are often younger fans who are into moe media, idols and who hang out in Akihabara. All these otaku exist at once, which is one reason there is such a schizophrenic media image in Japan right now. Interestingly, while the word otaku seems to be becoming more positive in Japan now, it is becoming more negative in the United States. Those who do not want to be associated with the worst stereotypes of fans of Japanese popular culture sometimes call themselves “anime fans.” This is a really fascinating cross-cultural dialogue!