Book review

Fandom unbound: Otaku culture in a connected world, edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji

Nele Noppe

Japanese Studies Research Unit, Catholic University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

[0.1] Keywords—2chan; AMV; Anime; Cosplay; Dōjinshi; Fan community; Games; Japan; Manga; Otaku; Trains; United States

Noppe, Nele. 2015. Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World, edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji [book review]. In "Performance and Performativity in Fandom," edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul J. Booth, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 18.

Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe and Izumi Tsuji, eds. Fandom unbound: Otaku culture in a connected world. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012, Kindle edition, $35; paperback, $38 (352p) ISBN 978-0300158649.

[1] Language barriers have kept Japanese scholarship about fans relatively inaccessible to English-speaking researchers. Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World, edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji, is an invaluable door into the young but important field of otaku studies in Japan. The collection showcases a wide variety of Japanese fan practices, using mostly ethnographic approaches to clarify how otaku communities come into being, organize themselves, develop community-specific rules and ethics, and use infrastructure, especially the Internet, for networking and creation. The book also attempts to show how otaku practices have become unmoored from their Japanese origins to find expression in overseas fan communities. While Fandom Unbound is sure to be of interest to many audiences, I will use this review to evaluate its usefulness for English-language fan studies scholars in particular.

[2] Fandom Unbound has been released in print and e-book formats. It includes a detailed index, and most chapters have black-and-white illustrations and/or tables. The book consists of an introduction and 12 chapters, divided into three parts that focus on "the particular cultural logics of otaku culture, the underlying peer-to-peer infrastructures that enable it, and the varied niche subcultures that these logics and infrastructures have encouraged" (Ito, location 132). The chapters are a mix of translations of key otaku studies texts by leading Japanese scholars such as Azuma Hiroki and Kaiichirō Morikawa, new contributions by younger up-and-coming Japanese otaku studies researchers such as Hiroaki Tamagawa, Daisuke Okabe, and Kimi Ishida, and also several US-based scholars of anime and manga studies. Just as otaku does not quite translate into "fan," otaku studies is not easily equated with fan studies. Fortunately, editor Ito's introduction offers a comprehensive framing of the scholarly background of the book in general and the individual contributors in particular, which should make this volume mostly easily accessible to readers who are unfamiliar with Japanese fan practices or Japanese scholarship on fans.

[3] That same introduction also situates the individual chapters within the book's overarching theme: how otaku practices inside and outside Japan fit in with broader cultural logics of peer production and open culture. All chapters serve to situate varied otaku groups and practices within a common framework of community-based exchange, creation, and learning, which Ito argues is typical of the kind of networked peer production that the Internet has enabled for many kinds of publics. Attempts to connect fan culture with broader open culture are increasingly turning up in English-language fan studies as well as Japanese, and Ito's assessment of fan culture's place at the vanguard of peer production is articulate and highly useful. In this context, the included excerpt from cultural critic Hiroki Azuma's 2001 book Otaku: Japan's Database Animals gains a new relevance. Database Animals is still one of the touchstones of scholarship on otaku in Japan and beyond, and also one of few Japanese otaku studies works that have been translated into English (Azuma 2009). Azuma's linking of otaku culture with postmodernism, including a framing of fan work creation and reading as database consumption, is so strongly theoretical that it may feel slightly out of place among the other chapters. However, it also offers a framework for interpreting fan activities as a cultural phenomenon that bolsters Ito's arguments about how otaku production fits in with related open movements that function in a similar way.

[4] A particular kind of community formation and organization is one of the key traits of networked peer production–focused cultures, and Fandom Unbound pays ample attention to many different kinds of otaku communities. To scholars who are relatively unfamiliar with otaku, the chapters that focus on various kinds of Japanese fan communities are an eye-opening introduction to how varied otaku culture really is. Nevertheless, many of the identity and community formation practices that these disparate-seeming communities engage in will sound familiar. Daisuke Okabe, for instance, describes how practitioners of cosplay enter cosplay communities, find mentorship from more experienced fans, and protect the noncommercial nature of cosplay by policing actions that are seen as unfannish. Researchers of gaming cultures will find familiar notes in Yoshimasa Kijima's account of how fans of fighter games structure their relationships with likeminded fans to form a community, setting themselves apart from more casual gamers through particular constructions of competitiveness. When Daisuke Okabe and Kimi Ishida examine the ways in which fujoshi, female fans of boy's love products, shape their identities in relation to each other and to nonfans, they reveal that the practice of concealment of fan identity by fujoshi is not merely a strategy to hide potentially embarrassing or illegal hobbies, but a rich source for social interaction and a weapon against ridicule by other fans or outsiders. Fandom Unbound contains several other interesting analyses of fannish rhetorics, from users of 2chan, the world's largest Internet forum, to overseas fans of manga and anime who refer to themselves as otaku.

[5] Also closely related to Ito's framing of otaku culture as part of open culture in general are the infrastructures that fans use for creation, distribution, and community formation. Fandom Unbound focuses not just on the Internet but also on connecting online practices with the kind of off-line fannish infrastructure that is particular to Japan-based fan communities. Hiroaki Tamagawa gives a highly detailed account of how Japanese infrastructure for distributing the zines called dōjinshi evolved into a dense web of conventions and shops fueled by both commercial and noncommercial motivations from participants. Tamagawa makes skillful use of survey data from Comic Market, also known as Comiket, the massive fan-organized dōjinshi market that served as a blueprint for Japan's particular fan convention format. The fact that Japanese fan cultures rely on extensive off-line infrastructure is further highlighted by Kaichirō Morikawa's chapter, which traces the growth of two famous fan-oriented shopping neighborhoods in Tokyo, Ikebukuro and (especially) Akihabara. Like Azuma's chapter, Morikawa's analysis of how Akihabara transformed into an otaku neighborhood through demand-driven concentration of fan-oriented shops rather than formal planning is another key text in Japanese otaku studies, and its inclusion in Fandom Unbound is fortunate indeed, particularly in light of the recent interest in off-line fan activities and fannish infrastructure that can be seen in English-speaking fan studies. The use of virtual infrastructures by fans for collaborative creation and community formation is also taken up in many chapters, from Azuma's theoretical account of how technology transformed otaku consumption in general to more specific practices of forum users, cosplayers, fighter game otaku, and—again—otaku communities outside of Japan, from anime and manga fans in general to the particular communities around fan subbing and anime music video creation.

[6] Four chapters about non-Japanese otaku are included in Fandom Unbound for a specific purpose: to illustrate that otaku practices exist outside of Japan, and to argue that these are not just extensions of Japanese otaku culture but distinctly localized identities that cannot easily be called Japanese. Lawrence Eng offers a highly detailed history of the term otaku in the United States, attempts to identify an otaku ethic that is supposedly shared between otaku in Japan and overseas, and traces the history of anime and manga fandom in the United States to frame it as "an early prototype of peer-to-peer network culture even before the advent of the internet" (location 3822). Eng's account of how American fans encouraged the establishment of a manga and anime distribution industry within their country, as well as extensive off-line and online fannish infrastructure, is an excellent description of how fans can bring about direct change in the commercial media offerings available to them. In her chapters, editor Mizuko Ito also focuses on overseas otaku and their networked infrastructure, community organization, noncommercial motivations, and use of digital tools for creation, communication, and distribution. Ito's analysis of fan subbing as an almost professionalized system that supports and directs massive amounts of volunteer translation work, and the various sets of motivations of the many kinds of fans who are in some way involved, is a particularly good illustration of how some fan activities are organized in ways that are more than reminiscent of the open source software production that is often seen as the paradigm expression of open culture.

[7] Fandom Unbound is the most up-to-date and comprehensive collection of works on Japanese fan cultures available in English today. As such, it (unintentionally) illustrates the divisions that exist between English-language and Japanese-language scholarship of fans and even within various branches of English-language fan studies. There are several English-language fan studies traditions, and they are sometimes great strangers to each other. One particular rift in English-language fan studies that has often been pointed out is that between studies of Western media fans with strong roots in media studies, and research on fans of Japanese popular culture, which has more often emerged from anime and manga studies. Fandom Unbound is clearly meant to appeal to scholars from the second kind of fan studies. In her introduction, Mizuko Ito situates the volume squarely within anime and manga studies by almost solely referencing authors who are household names within those fields—Anne Allison, Roland Kelts, Sharon Kinsella, Susan Napier, and the like. One reason it is important to engage with this different branch of fan studies and its canon is that reading Kinsella or Napier can be a shortcut to learning from Japanese-language fan studies, a large body of fan studies scholarship that is virtually unknown to most English-speaking scholars. Parts of Japanese scholarship are becoming accessible through numerous recent translation efforts—for instance, in books like Fandom Unbound, the Mechademia series of edited books, the conference papers translated through the International Manga Research Center of Kyoto Seika University, and several translations in Transformative Works and Cultures (note 1). However, the essays by Japanese contributors in Fandom Unbound drive home that Japanese fan studies are at least as disconnected from English-language fan studies as the converse. While the Japanese contributors reference some English-language sources, almost none of the chapters refer to scholars from media studies–based Western fan studies. Only Henry Jenkins, who gave feedback on the collection (note 2), receives several mentions, and many of those are to older works like Textual Poachers (1992). One hopes that learning from Fandom Unbound will inspire English-speaking fan studies scholars to make their work more accessible to Japanese-speaking colleagues, perhaps by having important works from English-language fan studies translated into Japanese.

[8] In spite of its great contributions, Fandom Unbound also has some imperfections. Several authors have multiple essays featured, which detracts from the otherwise impressive variety of the collection; introducing a few more scholars may have made the book more useful for those new to Japanese fan studies. A more vexing issue is that, with a few exceptions, most contributors do not clearly articulate the gendered aspects of the otaku culture they discuss. This is a problem for various reasons, but particularly because the word otaku itself is ambiguously gendered. While otaku can mean both male and female fans, it is often used to refer specifically to male fans—and many chapters fail to make it clear whether they are speaking of male fans, female fans, or both. The collection makes frequent pronouncements about otaku culture or otaku ethics that do not specify whether otaku is used in its all-inclusive meaning or in its meaning of male fan. This risks leaving readers confused about the gendered dynamics of fan communities in Japan, because male and female fans often have distinctly different practices, despite many similarities and areas of cooperation. It may also give the impression that male fans make up a larger percentage of all otaku than they actually do, both in Japan and overseas. Female fans have kept a relatively low profile in contemporary Japanese fan culture until recently, but they were active core participants from the start and are estimated to make up at least 40 percent of all otaku, as well as a majority of all otaku in dōjinshi, cosplay, and Vocaloid fandom (Yano Research Institute 2012, 642). Finally, while Fandom Unbound makes an invaluable contribution to growing scholarship on the transcultural functioning of fandoms, its examination of how influences flow in "the US–Japan cultural corridor" (Ito, location 218) is not an unqualified success. While the collection adroitly interprets fan culture as online networked culture, several chapters fail to consistently keep in mind that the online communities they discuss may very well consist of individuals of many nationalities. Descriptions of how overseas anime and manga fans relate to other English-speaking fan communities are also vague at best, and include a few important mistakes about non–anime and manga fan communities. Gaining a more useful understanding of online transcultural fannish interactions will probably take more sustained efforts across disciplines and language barriers.

[9] Fandom Unbound's broad scope, numerous contributions by Japanese scholars, and skillful framing of otaku culture within broader cultural movements make the collection a must-read for anyone concerned with the cultural function or functions of fandoms across the globe. For English-speaking fan studies scholars who are relatively unfamiliar with scholarship concerning fans of Japanese media, this book will be an essential introduction not just to Japanese scholarship but also to a lesser-known but important English-language fan studies tradition that has grown from anime and manga scholarship. The collection is a diverse and pleasant read, appropriate for readers without an academic background. The editors apparently intend for it to be read by a wide variety of audiences, with the book stating that it is available in its entirety on the Web site of Yale University Press. Unfortunately, an online copy of the book is not to be found, although a copy of Ito's introduction is available ( I hope this will change soon, so Fandom Unbound can receive the broad attention it deserves.


1. See Mechadima (, IMRC (, Hori (2013), and Suzuki (2013).

2. Jenkins also conducted an interview with the editors on his blog:,,

Works cited

Azuma, Hiroki. 2009. Otaku: Japan's Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hori, Akiko. 2013. "On the Response (Or Lack Thereof) of Japanese Fans to Criticism that Yaoi Is Antigay Discrimination." In "Transnational Boys' Love Fan Studies," edited by Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 12.

Suzuki, Midori. 2013. "The Possibilities of Research on Fujoshi in Japan." In "Transnational Boys' Love Fan Studies," edited by Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 12.

Yano Research Institute. 2012. Cool Japan māketto/otaku shijō no tettei kenkyū 2012. Tokyo.