Book review

Otaku and the struggle for imagination in Japan, by Patrick W. Galbraith

Kristine Michelle Santos

Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City, Philippines

[0.1] Keywords—Affect; Anime and manga; Fan culture; Queer culture

Santos, Kristine Michelle. 2022. Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan, by Patrick W. Galbraith [book review]. In "Fandom Histories," edited by Philipp Dominik Keidl and Abby S. Waysdorf, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 37.

Patrick W. Galbraith, Otaku and the struggle for imagination in Japan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019, paperback, $27.95 (336p), ISBN 978-1-4780-0629-9.

[1] As an educator of Japanese studies, I often find students navigating their attachments to Japan, particularly how they relate with its cultural products, such as anime and manga. Some struggle with the banter of classmates who refer to them as weeaboo at the expression of their interest in anime and manga. Some take pride in their vast knowledge of Japan and would easily identify as Japanophiles. Interestingly, in the years that I have taught, none of my students have identified themselves as otaku. This is not a surprise. After all, the word "otaku" carries a negative stigma in social media discourses, often informed by various articles that associate this culture with perversion and pornography.

[2] Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan is a timely text that responds to the continuous barrage of features and discourses that perpetuate a paranoid understanding of Japanese fans who are intimately attached to and affected by popular media such as anime and manga. These fans are called otaku, a term and culture that Patrick Galbraith thoroughly unpacks throughout the book by examining its transformations in history and its impacts on contemporary Japan. As seen in Galbraith's book, negative impressions of otaku culture have been around since the 1980s in Japan and continue to persist in global news articles that vilify the interests and practices of otaku. In response to assertions that perpetuate mistrust of otaku culture, Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan offers critical counterarguments using key interviews with people related to otaku culture and significant examples that unpack the affective attachments and expressions of otaku through a broader, if not reparative, lens.

[3] Critical to Galbraith's book is his use of queer theory to examine otaku culture. In using queer theory, Galbraith hopes to understand otaku as a critique to what is normalized and nationalized, especially when it concerns imaginative processes, practices, and outputs that operate outside what is perceived as normal. Imagination is central to this book. Galbraith taps the imaginations of otaku to understand their aspirations, desires, and struggles in negotiating their fantasies in the real world. Galbraith also analyzes the lack of imagination in systems and people who immediately color otaku fantasies as weird and obscene. Lastly, Galbraith invites readers to have an open imagination, one that welcomes the immense potential of otaku imagination.

[4] Through seven chapters, Galbraith leads his readers into the process of creating the complicated cultural landscape that otaku imagination, identity, and culture occupy in Japan. The book provides striking pictures that illustrate the imaginations of otaku, immersing readers in their affective attachments and their various transformations. From the iconic Lum from Urusei Yatsura to crossplaying maid protestors at Akihabara, Galbraith illustrates how his sociohistorical study of otaku culture has actively negotiated real and fictional worlds in the last forty years.

[5] In the introduction, Galbraith prepares his readers for a theoretical shift by using queer theory to destigmatize perceptions of otaku and their culture. This shift is a bold approach, as it rethinks many opinions that have clouded otaku identity and practices, especially with regard to dominant and heteronormative notions of sexuality, fan practices, and gender. Galbraith invites his readers to broaden their perspectives so that they can entertain the different possibilities and potentials that otaku's imaginative culture offers. This is a very important intervention that sets the pace for the succeeding chapters.

[6] Chapter 1 examines the roots of otaku culture through the lens of male fans of shojo (girls) manga in the 1970s and their creation of lolicon. In this chapter, Galbraith highlights the community and spaces male fans navigated in order to unpack their growing interests and affection for characters and stories within shojo manga. In examining the community of interest surrounding shojo manga, Galbraith highlights the new avenues for male imagination and creativity that traverse the limits of gendered and genre media. Chapter 2 discusses the challenges of these male fans and the formation of otaku identity as it becomes increasingly visible in public and is pegged against normative notions of masculinity. The perceived escapism of otaku is further unpacked in the following chapter on moe, which Galbraith positions as an affective response to fictional characters and narratives. Through moe, the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred, and chapter 4 showcases the physical manifestation of these imaginations through Galbraith's examination of Akihabara, a town central not just to otaku culture but also to Japan's own imagination of technological progress. While chapter 5 highlights the social, political, and economic tensions surrounding expressions of otaku culture in public spaces, chapter 6 focuses on what can be seen as an intimate space for otaku imagination and their constructed realities—the maid café. Rather than painting maid cafés as examples of otaku isolation and escapism, Galbraith uses these spaces to showcase the ability of otaku to move between, outside, and within reality alongside others.

[7] In many ways, these chapters also reflect Galbraith's own anthropological journey as he navigates otaku culture. Readers witness his reflections as he processes images, practices, and spaces that fluidly navigate imagined and real worlds. The last chapter is a poignant summation of his reflections, one that captures the challenges that scholars, writers, and even fans of Japanese popular culture face when dealing with a complex culture that fluidly navigates between fantasies and realities and is increasingly utilized and sanitized for national purposes while also being denigrated in local and global conversations. Processing otaku culture demands open-mindedness, sensitivity, and respect. Through this book, Galbraith leads by example. Otaku showcases the possibility of handling the struggle for imagination and its affective social and political impacts with empathy. The care Galbraith places in handling intimate issues in Otaku is commendable.

[8] While it may appear that everything about otaku culture has been tackled in this book, Galbraith still leaves room for more questions. For example, the sparse representation of female otaku opens opportunities to explore the negotiations of female otaku with the feminine imaginations seen within otaku culture. It leaves one curious over the struggles female otaku confront when engaging with imaginations such as bishōjo and lolicon alongside normative notions of femininity. While iconic female figures in otaku culture, such as Takahashi Rumiko and Momoi Halko, were mentioned, I am personally curious whether women have a lasting and more successful presence in a space filled with imagined women. This book also invites readers to reflect on the ways Japanese fan culture has been embraced and adapted outside of Japan and whether these fan communities experience similar struggles for imagination. As a Southeast Asian scholar immersed in the transformations of Japanese popular culture, I am interested in the strategies local fans use to overcome prejudices against fan culture within highly conservative societies. If anything, the book serves as a valuable springboard for further studies on fan cultures in Asia and beyond.

[9] Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan is not just for anglophone fans of anime and manga who seek a deeper understanding of otaku culture. Rather, this book is useful to a much wider audience, from journalists who handle Asian cultural topics to educators and students of Japanese or Asian culture; cultural, media, or gender studies; sociology; and, of course, fan studies. This wide readership can appreciate the book's bold approach in actively engaging with the stigmas surrounding otaku and their culture by offering a queer perspective that seeks to comprehend and empower identities, sexualities, and practices that navigate outside of what is perceived as normal.

[10] Specific to fan studies, the book serves as a relevant example of the struggles of fan cultures, as it increasingly becomes embroiled in local, national, and transnational politics. Otaku also contributes to broadened understanding of fan cultures outside of Western contexts. More importantly, Galbraith opens an opportunity for people in fan studies to reflect on the impacts of fan imaginations. While extensive studies have been made on various convergent cultures, Otaku offers a fascinating perspective that situates the tensions between fan imaginations with national imagination. The book reveals an interesting facet of a fan community that actively engages with various political, social, and national issues while remaining immersed in their imagined worlds. While other communities are taken seriously when they take political action, the continued discrimination against otaku highlights the bittersweet reality of their struggle. Still, Galbraith makes a valiant effort in opening the minds of his readers. Hopefully, as this book makes its rounds in libraries, bookshelves, and classrooms, readers may come to understand, if not resonate with, a culture as queer as otaku. The book rests on the hope that local and global perceptions and coverage of otaku will change. Perhaps because of this book, I might even find a student or two who feels empowered upon reading this work and proudly introduces themselves as an otaku with a robust imagination.