This is an on-going series trying to dissect and analyze the nature of fanservice, particularly in Japanese culture. Read part, What is Fanservice?, here.
One of my primary issues of struggle when discussing fanservice in video games and anime is the difference between cultures. Many feel that there is no problem critiquing a foreign culture as if it were your own. These issues with sexism, poverty, and prejudice are all universal, are they not? Then what does the differences between cultures matter?
The devil is in the details, or so I believe. Many of these shared problems are broad, but they don’t all necessarily have the same roots. Understanding where they are coming from and why they exist is important. If you don’t understand how plants work then you’ll never know to tear the weeds out by the root.
This leads me to Otaku, the sub-culture that many Japanese video games and anime are primarily targeted towards. They are essentially the enthusiast pop culture market in Japan, and in for the past several years one of the only markets in Japan. If it seems like a lot of these tropes are much more common these days than in the 90’s or 80’s, then it is because Otaku and similar niche markets are the only reliable market. No one else is spending money, or at least not at the rate that Otaku do.
So what’s the deal with Otaku, then? Does this essentially mean that just the geeks and nerds of Japan are purchasing this stuff? Not exactly, because you then start getting into separate cultural perceptions of what makes someone a geek and a nerd.
This is where language and meaning begins to matter, yet people so often skip over them. Do Americans even understand what an Otaku is? In America, we have our own variation of what an Otaku is, but it doesn’t come with the same sense of shame. People in America that are invested in anime want to be identified as Otaku. Americans that play a lot of video games want to be identified as a gamer.
The largest obstacle between North American and Japanese cultures is that ours (assuming that you, like me, are from North America) is a contradictory society. We are all about individualism, but latch desperately onto community and labels as an identity. We praise and idolize the rebel, the vigilante, the warrior for justice and against totalitarian oppression, yet at the same time we try to replace it with our own definition of justice for everyone to follow.
When I think of America, I think of all the kids in my high school that self-identified as punk, rebelling against those trendy designer clothes like Abercrombie & Fitch by wearing real skateboard clothes. T-shirts, hats and jackets for skaters, by skaters, switching one over-priced designer label with another over-priced designer label. They marked their individualism with a manufactured brand and then referred to their style as “punk”.
You could argue that this isn’t really what “punk” was, and that this only happened after punk went mainstream, but this is overlooking the fact that punk, and likewise even metal, had a distinctive style that could be turned mainstream.
Despite how desperately we cling to a larger community, a greater sense of belonging, we’re obsessed with individualism. We want to feel as if we’re unique. It’s not enough that we be some small speck of a greater whole, we must be the foundation upon which that whole is built. Remove us, and the entire structure collapses. It’s why being “left out” is such a rejection. We feel less special, less like a unique individual, and instead feel replaceable.
Japan, on the other hand, is about the whole before the individual. Based on the Wikipedia article concerning Japanese values:
“Children learn early to recognize that they are part of an interdependent society, beginning in the family and later extending to larger groups such as neighborhood, school, playground, community, and company. Dependence on others is a natural part of the human condition; it is viewed negatively only when the social obligations (giri) it creates are too onerous to fulfill…”
This view of one’s role to society is what leads to the cultural notion of Wa, meaning “harmony”, as well as honne and tatemae. In essence, what is most important in society is maintaining Wa, or harmony. In a lot of anime and Japanese video games, a character’s actions may make no sense to a Western culture. You could imagine that disruption is our lives. Look at our television and how it thrives on drama, especially in regards to reality television. In a Western television show, a love triangle will be explosive and it will be painful to watch.
As such, a lot of anime or video games may have moments where the actions of the character make no sense, or seem lacking in confidence or drive. You want the protagonist to just haul off and punch someone in the face, but they don’t. You wish they’d just pick a love interest and end this love triangle already. Yet instead, the story progresses with the effort to maintain Wa.
I’m going to reference Genshiken Nidaime here, a sort of “second generation” of characters following the events of the original series Genshiken. In the second series a most unlikely character, Madarame, finds himself in the middle of a “harem” situation. There are anime whose genre are defined by the term “harem”, where a rather plain but well meaning protagonist finds himself surrounded by women, many of whom are attracted to him. Protagonist Madarame finds the notion of himself within such a harem situation laughable, as it comes off as a sort of fantasy. How can so many women be attracted to him?
Yet there’s a moment where he comes to the realization that, in real life, you can’t make everyone happy in this scenario. Someone’s feelings are going to get hurt, and it is a crushing blow to him. He is not prepared for such a heavy burden as a woman’s feelings, let alone multiple. The situation is only made worse because everyone seems to be giving him bad advice, in particular trying to force him to choose someone.
Most notable in this scenario, however, is the character Yoshitake. Though she frequently comes off as quite naive, she is certainly aware of one fact. The whole scenario could ruin their social circle. It could, in other words, disrupt the Wa.
Honne and tatemae are ideas that, in America, would likely be considered two-faced. A person’s true inner feelings and beliefs are referred to as honne. These thoughts are typically kept private or are only shared with very close friends. Tatemae is the facade, the thoughts, ideas, and beliefs you project in public. These are typically designed to fit the larger group’s belief. Tied into the notion of Wa, the tatemae is a sort of necessity, and yet is an idea that, in Western culture, seems counter-intuitive. If someone says something to go with the flow, it’s often viewed as weak-willed or, in certain contexts, villainous.
For example, Brian Ashcraft ofKotaku leveled suspicions at Famitsu for selling out, noting a variety of potential conflicts of interest in their perfect score for Metal Gear: Peace Walker. The idea is that, due to Famitsu not only being in the game, but also having ties to the game’s advertisement campaign, the magazine ends up seeming bought out.
However, a year prior, Wired also pondered as to why Monster Hunter Tri received a perfect score. Within the article, an anecdote is shared where games developer Mark Cerny asked The Last Remnant development team why there was a large discrepancy in review scores for the game between America and Japan. Their response was that they “felt that American game reviewers only considered what they themselves felt about the game, but that Japanese ones were more open-minded and considered what other players would think”.
Naturally, the author of the Wired article is calling this response into question. In America, the journalist’s job is to let the consumer know the odds of whether a game is good or not (at least, that’s how review scores should be received; the likelihood that the game will be enjoyable for the consumer). Yet as can be seen in American culture, review scores are often points of conflict. Harmony is thus disrupted.
So if Famitsu scores are based on what Japanese players may think, then it is possible that a Japanese reviewer could be acting on the concepts of Wa and Tetaeme. I am not saying that is definitively how it is, but it is a possibility.
“Dammit, man, what does this all have to do with Otaku?”
I am almost there. Keep in mind that there’s more to what makes a “geek” than a simple love of certain media. If you watch a film like October Sky, you’ll find that the typical root is in one’s inability to excel at whatever the society values at the time. Homer Hickam is not “cool” like his older brother because he’s not strong enough to be a football player. He lacks strength, an important trait to possess in a town where just about every man is forced to work in the coal mines. A character like Quentin is outcast because his talents and values are of little perceived worth in a society where strength is the most demanded resource. You can add into this any individual whose interests lie instead with novels, pulp fiction, comics, poetry, science fiction or fantasy, and a picture starts to become made clear.
Fast forward several decades further, and now we have a culture that demands its citizens go to College and get a white collar job, a duty where strength is meaningless. Now we see comic book movies making major profit at the box office, science fiction video games like Destiny and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel are highly anticipated, and young adult genre fiction is frequently flying off shelves and getting turned into Hollywood blockbusters.
It’s not that geek or nerd culture has become mainstream, it is that society has changed to the point that traditionally geek interests and media are more accessible based on society’s values.
Otaku culture began very differently in Japan, at least based on the research found in Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World. Note I did not get to read the book itself, so I will be referencing a three part interview found on the personal blog of Professor Henry Jenkins. As such, the assertions may be imprecise.
According to the interview, much of Otaku culture was born with interests in trains and military, intellectual interests that could be used to further the advancement of Japan in a pre- and post-World War II era. A strong mind had societal value and worth for some time, even if it lent itself to obsessive behavior.
Once Japan began to develop a consumer culture in the 60’s and beyond, Otaku began to shift to more media-focused eccentricities, but masculine values also began to change. By the 80’s and 90’s, the obsessive young men that would have been valued to make Japan a better place were now undesirable. So while you’ll still find plenty of train and military type of Otaku, the most common fall into anime, video games, manga, or other media-based forms of obsession.
While there are a lot of similarities between geeks in America and Otaku in Japan, one of the largest differences is that the Otaku are accepting of their shame. There is no sense of rebellion to society. They accept their role as being “gross” and “disgusting”, and find interaction intimidating. There is an understanding of Wa, where the Otaku do their best to put on a tetaeme at their jobs and in public, keeping their honne secret.
It is very different than an American geek or nerd. A “brony” will shamelessly wear their My Little Pony t-shirt and backpack in the open and in daylight. As noted in the interview, cosplayers in Japan don’t really leave the convention grounds in costume, whereas in America you know such an expo is happening because you’ll see such outfits on the streets, in the Burger King, and in the hotel lobby.
For the most part I’ve been discussing Otaku as if they are mostly male. While I believe the ratio still leans that way, there has been an ever growing population of female Otaku over the past couple decades as well. However, all of this information, the differences between cultures is important for understanding what sort of fanservice male Otaku seek. American geeks may have an inner sense of shame due to what society has told them, but time and time again they find ways to stand up and assert their place in the world. It is a very rebellious attitude, one brought about by a culture that celebrates individualism. It is completely different from Japan.
Wa, honne, tetaeme and Japan’s rejection of Otaku values as masculine and, therefore, useful, all add up to create the Otaku that prefers the “pandering” nature of anime and video game women. My next post will go more in-depth into trying to understand such tastes.