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Interview with Patrick Galbraith

Editor's Note: Patrick Galbraith's The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insiders Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan offers fascinating insight into the subculture of Cool Japan. With over 600 entries, including common expressions, people, places, and moments of otaku history, this is the essential A to Z that every fan of Japanese pop culture needs to know.

Galbraith will read at Powell's City of Books on Burnside on Tuesday, September 1, at 7:30 p.m.

Powell's own Gerry Donaghy recently had a chance to talk with Galbraith.

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Gerry Donaghy: You live in Tokyo. Have you had a chance to visit the giant Gundam robot yet? What's it like?

Patrick Galbraith: I have to admit that I am one of those painful otaku who was sleeping in the park waiting for the Gundam to be unveiled. It is truly an amazing sight, standing proud at 18 meters tall, right on the path Godzilla took to attack Tokyo. I can only dream of what it would be like to see two such giants of pop culture duke it out! Seriously, it is awe inspiring. There is a gravitas, a presence, and you feel it in the pit of your stomach when you stand before the RX-78-2. What really shocked me was how much this show is loved. People of all ages from all over Japan came to see it. Gundam is really this national series that a generation grew up on, something that transcends generational and territorial boundaries.Gundam is really this national series that a generation grew up on, something that transcends generational and territorial boundaries. Families, women, and children were shoulder to shoulder with camera-wielding otaku, next to fashionable kids snapping pictures on their cell phones, next to groups of international tourists. Something about this story of war and peace in space age really struck a chord. Even little kids weren't afraid of this giant robot towering above them. They shouted, "It's Gundam!" like the robot was a superstar, hero, or dear friend. I went down last Friday, August 21, at night to catch this special Gundam live DJ event, and the park was filled with people. For an hour and a half they listened to a digest of 30 years of music from the Gundam franchise. The crowd was so silent and reverent. If you step back for a minute, all these people were standing in front of a giant toy model with a moving head and flashing lights and listening to anime music. I could feel that this fantasy really impacted their lives. I spend most of my time indoors watching anime and avoid clubs and large crowds, but the Gundam seems to evoke the best in humanity.

Gerry: How long have you been living in Japan? How dramatic was the culture shock when you first arrived?

Galbraith: I first came as an exchange student in 2004, returned to the States briefly in winter 2005, and moved to Tokyo permanently in early 2006. For me, the culture shock was huge, but not so much because of any real difference I encountered in Japan. I had been consuming Japanese pop-culture products and studying about Japan since I was in junior high school, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. In fact, the problem was I thought I knew a lot more than I really did! I had been watching anime, reading manga, and listening to idol singers thinking that this somehow brought me closer to Japan. When I arrived, it became very clear very fast that I was totally out of touch with the people around me.When I arrived, it became very clear very fast that I was totally out of touch with the people around me. Somewhere along the way I had become closer to the otaku subculture than mainstream Japan. I knew about voice actors and actresses rather than TV stars, rarified knowledge on niche anime series rather than basic table manners. I remember putting soy sauce on my rice and then sticking my chopsticks into my rice right off the plane, and my host mother chiding my rudeness, or drawing on words and grammar I learned from Fist of the North Star or Sailor Moon and totally offending people. I was painfully awkward and out of place until I finally ended up with the otaku crowd in Akihabara. Some people thought I was funny and befriended me. They set me straight, and also knocked me down a few notches! I felt like a kid again because I was having such fun and learning so much.

Gerry: What surprised you the most?

Galbraith: The lack of mecha. I mean, come on, I was seeing schoolgirls everywhere, but where were the giant robots and hard suits? I was equally shocked that women didn't speak in the same high-pitched tones I had come to know and love in anime. I was depressed for months. Then I discovered maid cafes and have never been able to leave. Seriously, maybe I was most surprised by the coexistence of old and new elements of culture, both domestic and foreign in Japan. The culture seemed very hybrid and adaptable.

Gerry: What initially got you interested in things like manga and anime? Subsequently, what got you interested in otaku culture in the more broad sense?

Galbraith: It was curiosity. When I was a small child in Alaska, my oldest brother had VHS tapes of anime from Japan, like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Bubblegum Crisis. Partly because it was my brother and I wasn't allowed to watch, it seemed very cool. What I did see was this world that was deep and complex far beyond what I could comprehend, more so because it was in a language I didn't understand. I mean, at the time, I was still singing along with Disney animated musicals, so to see animated images in this style used to tell a more mature story was shocking! I was drawn to the visuals, and also to the feeling that there was so much more to it than I was getting. We moved to Montana when I was just about to enter the sixth grade, and I had trouble adapting. People say I began to obsess over anime, like repeating Japanese words and writing essays on the strategic appeal of animated girls. The more my peers ostracized me, the deeper I went into this alternative world of anime, manga, and videogames.The more my peers ostracized me, the deeper I went into this alternative world of anime, manga, and videogames. It was something I was comfortable with and understood, to some extent, like my thing. Bad experiences in high school with team sports, friends, and this one girl I had a crush on basically crushed all my desire to be part of the society I found myself in. I threw myself into my hobbies, but it got to be a lonely business. I fantasized about this group of people who had advanced knowledge of anime, this culture built up around media and technology. otaku. I wanted so much to be one of them. This was all terribly naïve, but I followed through on it with the obsessive-compulsive streak I had come to be known for. In university, I double-majored in Japanese and journalism, and came to Japan to investigate otaku culture.

Gerry: What do you think would be the equivalent of Disneyland?

Galbraith: For me? It would be this fictional place called otakuland seen in Otaku No Video, an OVA released by Gainax in 1991. There, otaku are among other otaku and free to revel in their hobbies without reproach. There is peace and tolerance there, so everyone just goes nuts. The vision was of pieces of all these classic anime series scattered around a replica of the SDF-1 from Super Dimension Fortress Macross. I have often given myself over to wild flights of fancy wherein I build otakuland, though in reality the fact that rival companies own all these shows would prevent it from ever happening. Some people say Akihabara is the otaku Disneyland, but I have trouble agreeing with that. There are no rides and no uniformed staff to guide you along the well-manicured paths to the next attraction. Seriously, Akihabara is a nightmare of pedestrian traffic control. It is like a labyrinth of niche and fetish that only the most determined dare navigate. I find myself stuck in stores and alleys even guiding a group of 10 people!

Gerry: Your book was released in Japan late last year. How was it accepted there?

Galbraith: The response has been incredible. otaku have been super into it, and it has been mentioned on Akiba Blog and, and in Figure Oh and the manga magazine Afternoon. I was so surprised to see it for sale in stores in Akihabara! That was a rush. Most people are really excited that it isn't making fun of otaku culture or examining it from a supposedly superior vantage on the outside. I tried to offer information from the inside and make it as accessible and understandable as possible. Japanese otaku are reading it as a way to know more about what otaku overseas see in them and to get more information on the scene outside of Japan. I am hoping that otaku in the United States will conversely find this a fun and interesting way to know more about the culture in Japan. I hear that some Japanese people are using the book to learn English because they know the topics and the text is journalistic and simple in style.I hear that some Japanese people are using the book to learn English because they know the topics and the text is journalistic and simple in style. The biggest complaint is that the book is hard to carry around in public because of the bright colors on the cover and image character saying "moe." I guess it might take a dose of courage to read on the train, and a few more years to build up the tolerance needed to accept this cover.

Gerry: I have to ask this: Do you encounter any grouchy older otaku who complain about how hard it was to be otaku back in the day (let's say late '80s) before DVDs, widely available manga in translation, Adult Swim, and high-speed internet?

Galbraith: I eat lunch with those guys at least once a week in Akihabara! Seriously, many otaku feel like the world has turned and kind of left them behind. This is true in Japan — for example, Okada Toshio — and overseas, though I won't mention any names here. They remember mail-ordering items through specialty stores in California, and trading for anime tapes at conventions. What comes through most in their stories is a sense of community. They stress that people used to do things together, like gather around a new tape in a university clubroom or neighborhood basement. There just wasn't enough material or information at the beginning of the movement, so people had to come together, share, and exchange. There is a real romance to the world they describe. I find nothing wrong with nostalgia, and am totally drawn to the period of early fandom as they describe it. I tried to include their voices and narratives in the book as much as possible. At the same time, I don't think it is fair to just dismiss all otaku coming of age in the late 1990s just because they had it easier. We should celebrate the fact that the culture is spreading and evolving. The criticism that otaku have lost their creative drive, curiosity, and community is, in my opinion, an unfounded one. I see tons of creativity in the amateur art at conventions on both sides of the Pacific. There is community among otaku there, and it is reflected in online activity. Perhaps that now Japan and the world are virtually not so distant has taken away some of the magic and mystery of the place, but not everyone feels that way, and there is a lot of love for the pop culture. We should nurture curiosity. I hope this book will bridge gaps between older and younger otaku in Japan and overseas so that we can revel in what we share and explore those things we don't.I hope this book will bridge gaps between older and younger otaku in Japan and overseas so that we can revel in what we share and explore those things we don't.

Gerry: I have to admit that when I first started going through your book, I was not expecting to find an entry on Creative Commons. Yet once I saw it, its inclusion seemed obvious. America and Japan seem to have very different relationships to intellectual property, and I was wondering if you wouldn't mind explaining how concepts like anmoku no ryoukai can actually help established properties and create new talent?

Galbraith: To quote Ichikawa Koichi from the book, there is really a culture of copying in Japan. It is a display of respect and a way to learn. One of the best moments for me in writing the book was talking with people involved in Comiket, a biannual convention for buying and selling materials produced outside official channels. The biggest and most famous aspect is doujinshi, or printed material produced outside official publishing channels. About 550,000 people gather over the course of three days. The quality is often on par with professional equivalents, and the creativity is just incredible. Works span from written criticism and novels to drawn pornography and computer games. However, a cursory look at the material reveals that the majority of doujinshi centers on characters from established commercial properties; for example, anime such as Neon Genesis Evangelion or The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi. The fans love these works and their characters so much that they want them to continue or want to explore aspects of them not seen in the original. This is blatant copyright infringement, of course, but they really mean no harm by it. They aren't tracing or photocopying the original for profit. These are limited runs targeting very specific audiences. The fan creators are inspired and make something new using the original concept or characters.The fan creators are inspired and make something new using the original concept or characters. There are three reasons why this is actually beneficial to the copyright holder. One, the people making these works are huge fans of the original and obsessively consume commercial releases. Two, these works serve to spread awareness of the original series among this core group of otaku. Finally, three, the "amateur" creators and their works become a pool of new ideas and talent. In fact, Gainax released Evangelion doujinshi and Kadokawa encouraged "mad" movies about Haruhi to tap this potential, and female manga cooperative Clamp got its start making doujinshi. It is a symbiotic relationship, so there is an unspoken agreement, the anmoku no ryoukai, to look the other way. The system seems to work for Japan because individual creators often retain the rights to their works and are reluctant to pursue civil suits against fans, and the fans themselves have a set of community values that teach not to go too far or make too much money and hurt the original creator or disrupt the community. This also seems to be the case among Trekkies, or Trekkers as you like in the United States, but I wonder if the model could extend further.

Gerry: According to your jacket bio, you're a Ph.D. candidate studying otaku culture. What will your dissertation be about?

Galbraith: My doctoral dissertation explores how shifts in capitalism and consumption impact otaku culture. I trace the rise of otaku in Japan, and then present moe as an example of affect emerging out of the weakening hold of society and strengthening appeal of media and material culture. The bulk of my research is ethnography, presented in the next chapters on maid cafes and fujoshi, female fans of the yaoi genre of homosexual male romance. Maid cafes are an example of moe in a bounded, commercial space, and fujoshi an example of the networks built up around the production and consumption of moe. There is still much work to be done, but this is the basic outline of my project at present.

Gerry: You also give tours dressed as Goku from Dragon Ball Z. What kind of groups do you mostly give tours to? Are they business people, tourists, fellow otaku, all of the above?

Galbraith: The tour gets all sorts of people from all over the world. We get groups of university students and otaku, media people and academics who want to know more about the area, families of mothers and children from as far afield as Germany and Brazil, even Japanese who want to go to a maid cafe but are embarrassed to do it alone. Akihabara, and the culture of anime, manga, and videogames it has become so associated with, have a really broad appeal, so I am blessed to be able to meet and talk with a lot of different people on the tour. In the beginning, oddly enough, I did the tour for business people scoping out the area and elderly Japanese who wanted to understand the area's youth culture better. Some of my best memories are taking those older ladies into a maid cafe and seeing them have a good time.

Gerry: How did you make the transition from being otaku to writing about otaku?

Galbraith: I never really did transition out of being an otaku. I am often criticized for being too narrow and specific in my focus and not considering other things, or simply for being otaku. In truth, I have always had trouble communicating verbally, and so I took to writing down all my thoughts. I wrote poetry, screenplays, and anime reviews in high school, though they were all just for myself. I never showed them to anyone. When I went to university to study journalism, my advisor, this old buzzard who used to be at the Washington Post, told me that he would fail me if I didn't publish articles in professional outlets. I did, mostly in online magazines targeting otaku. It became sort of a habit, like a way to organize my thoughts and notes. I just kept that up when I came to Japan. The book is based on a collection of notes I took while trying to orient myself in the otaku culture of Tokyo. There were all these new words and concepts, which I wrote down to reference and study. When this reached several hundred pages, I thought that maybe some of the information might be useful for other otaku, so I pitched the book.

Gerry: I really enjoy how thorough the book is. You cover quite a few things that I was never aware of. Were there things that you came across for the first time as you were putting it together?

Galbraith: Oh, yes, many. Almost all the information in the book was collected in discussions with otaku I encountered in Tokyo or in reading books on and by Japanese otaku.Almost all the information in the book was collected in discussions with otaku I encountered in Tokyo or in reading books on and by Japanese otaku. So much of it was new, and there was a thrill to learning it that kept me going. I think my favorite was tsundere, this idea of someone who can't be honest with his or her feelings and so acts totally rude. In practice, it is people being mean to you because they like you, which is very common in anime narratives. I was getting bullied by this maid and had no idea what it was all about, and the guy at the next table whispered, "Tsundere." I looked it up and it was just so funny. The bad service was actually the special service I had paid for! I followed up on that and debated people on the proper ratio of mean to nice in a character, or if tsundere was a character type or a pattern of maturation seen in certain characters who warm up as they learn to be honest with themselves. I also watched the concept get more specific and strange with iterations such as yandere and yangire. I felt that culture was this living, breathing, mutating form, and I was riding on top of it!

Gerry: What do you have planned for your events promoting the book? Will there be any kind of A/V component?

Galbraith: I was hoping I could attend the convention circuit in the United States this year, but that will have to come at another time. I will be going to Anime Festival Asia 2009 in Singapore in November, however. For this next trip to the United States, we have scheduled book signings at some great stores on the west coast, and some interviews. I will be going to these signings in cosplay in hopes that this will spread an image of otaku culture as interesting and fun. I will also be giving a PowerPoint presentation explaining how the book came about, and some example terms and interviews from inside the pages. Rather than a unilateral lecture, I am counting on lively discussions with audiences!

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Sayonara, Mr. Fatty!: A Geek's Diet... New Trade Paper $14.50
  2. Neon Genesis Evangelion
    New Trade Paper $9.95
  3. Dragon Ball Z Vizbig Editions #04:... Sale Trade Paper $7.98

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