Tiny Use Case 2: Can we test one of the points from Hiroki Azuma’s “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals” with the JVMG database? Part 1: Formulating a hypothesis

Hiroki Azuma’s Dōbutsu ka suru posutomodan: otaku kara mita nihon shakai (Animalizing postmodern: Japanese society as seen from otaku), published by Kōdansha in 2001, has been one of the most influential treatises on not only Japanese otaku (the word roughly translates to avid fans of anime, manga, games, etc., similar in meaning to geek in the English language domain), but also on the production and consumption paradigm defining Japanese anime, manga, light novels and games in late modernity. The books impact on the discourse around otaku and the just enumerated domains is truly international thanks in part to the English translation, which was published in 2009 as Otaku: Japan’s database animals (introduction and translation by Jonathan E. Abel & Shion Kono, University Of Minnesota Press, all quotes in the following are from this English edition).

With almost twenty years since the original publication in Japanese and more than ten years since the English translation was released, the concepts and frameworks outlined by Azuma have become almost taken for granted cornerstones of this scholarly discourse. However, even though Azuma’s line of argument contains a number of potentially testable statements, to the best of our knowledge these have so far not been subjected to any large-scale empirical test, as they are most often only invoked in relation to various case studies. The aim of this Tiny Use Case was to identify a testable major point from Azuma’s seminal work, and to test it with the help of the database assembled within the framework of the JVMG project.

In his book Azuma positions otaku culture as originating in Japan’s post-war reception (or more precisely “domestication”) of subcultural works from the United States, and as such it represents a move towards the postmodernization of culture. In this sense the sensibilities and production/consumption patterns found in otaku culture foreshadow changes beyond the realm of the subcultural, and it is also for this reason that it is so well received outside Japan. Two of the hallmarks of postmodernization found in otaku culture is its embracing of derivative works on the one hand, and the substitution with fiction (for an earlier generation) or the complete letting go of grand narratives [see endnote 1] (for the newer generation) on the other hand.

This generational shift is exemplified by the emergence of chara-moe, an emotional reaction felt by the consumers to characters and their specific elements, such as cat ears, glasses, and so on. As a result “a database for moe-elements that generates the characters has been established” (p 47). For Azuma the metaphor of the database captures the space of imagination shared by creators and consumers – the lines between the two already blurred by the prominence given to derivative works – that gives rise to new works, settings and most importantly characters, but which is devoid of any structuring grand narrative. “As a result, many of the otaku characters created in recent years [the late nineties to two thousand] are connected to many characters across individual works, rather than emerging from a single author or a work.” (p 49)

Although Azuma’s arguments in the book go far beyond a simple description of the changes characterizing consumption/production patterns in otaku culture with the emergence of database consumption; this point in relation to its impact on the way characters become increasingly derivative of each other is one of the most well defined and potentially testable in relation to the central notion of the database. The following quote illustrates what characters being increasingly connected to other characters across works actually means in Azuma’s view.

“I believe that it is more appropriate to use the image of the database to grasp this current situation. The emergence of Ayanami Rei did not influence many authors so much as change the rules of the moe-elements sustaining otaku culture. As a result, even those authors who were not deliberately thinking of Evangelion unconsciously began to produce characters closely resembling Rei, using newly registered moe-elements (quiet personality, blue hair, white skin, mysterious power). Such a model is close to the reality of the late 1990s. Beyond Rei, characters emerging in otaku works were not unique to individual works but were immediately broken into moe-elements and recorded by consumers, and then the elements reemerged later as material for creating new characters. Therefore, each time a popular character appeared, the moe-element database changed accordingly, and as a result, in the next season there were heated battles among the new generation of characters featuring new moe-elements.” (p 51-52)

Let us then formulate a testable hypothesis based on this idea of how characters become increasingly connected as they draw on each other, or rather the database elements into which they are broken down into. If Azuma is correct in that such a shift did take place in the way characters become more dependent on characters that came before them, as opposed to the potentially more diverse creative input of creators that supposedly characterized previous eras, then we should find the following two things:

    1. The number of new characters with shared traits should increase over time.
    2. The number of shared traits among new characters should increase over time.

The first hypothesis is a direct consequence of the above cited statement that “many of the otaku characters created in recent years are connected to many characters across individual works” (p 49). If there is indeed a change in this respect in character creation, then we should find an increasing number of new characters to share traits with other characters.

The second hypothesis relies on the idea that there must have been traits that characters shared (e.g. gender, age) even before this change in the way characters are created. However, once the trend of drawing on other characters for traits becomes a dominant practice the number of traits that characters share with other characters should also increase.

In the second part of this series on TUC 2 we will discuss how to approach these two hypotheses from the perspective of actual data, and how we analysed the JVMG database to start testing these hypotheses.


    1. The term grand narrative was most famously used by Jean-François Lyotard in his work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), in which he pointed out that the major driving conceptual frameworks – the grand narratives – of modernity (e.g. Enlightenment, Marxism, etc.) have started to lose their appeal.