On Saturday, August 29th, Joi Ito and I gave an impromptu talk at O’Reilly’s Foo Camp about Japanese otaku culture and how it relates to hacking and Zen Buddhism. The talk wasn’t recorded so we don’t have an exact transcript, but here’s the gist of it:
We started by showing several photos that portray otaku obsessions—rows of figurines on a store shelf, cat cafes, itasha, body pillow covers, a man with his body pillow girlfriend, and a maid cafe bento box with a bunny rabbit drawn on the lid. We also showed some non-otaku photos, like a perfectly designed plate of cooked vegetables at the restaurant Daigo and Yoichiro Kawaguchi’s futuristic sea creatures lined up in front of a Yushima Seido temple. The obsessiveness of otaku culture, we said, can be seen even in more traditional and non-otaku Japanese aesthetic, from food presentation to religious display. And it’s this obsessiveness—which clearly goes beyond economical or functional rationale—that enables the precision manufacturing, cleanliness, punctuality, and politeness that we think of as stereotypically Japanese.
Joi noted that the caste system of Japan probably plays a role in this obsessiveness. For generations, people have been taught to be happy perfecting their role in society, without necessarily viewing social or financial gain as a measurement of their success—it’s the shokunin culture in which focusing on one job allows one to obsess with abandon until they reach perfection on a very local level. As examples, we mentioned waiters working for no tip and the guy at Narita airport whose only job is to tell people that their checked-in bags are on the revolving belt. As an example of obsession reaching a perfected end, Joi mentioned ukiyo-e, a type of woodblock printing that was popular during the Edo period. According to Professor Mitsuhiro Takemura, a media design scholar at Sapporo City University, the art form was essentially made more simple and abstract through rapid iterations until it reached obsessive perfection, and that was where innovation in this genre ended. (The actual end of ukiyo-e is attributed to the Meiji Restoration.)
We also wanted to ask attendees about their curiosities about Japan, and invited them to use the “weird Japan” lens to look at themselves. The overall societal otaku-ness of Japan, we think, is similar to American geek culture and the obsession involved in hacking. In other words, it’s the desire to dig deeper into something until it is perfect, or complete. Foo Camp is a gathering of many hackers and geeks who have successfully obsessed over a certain aspect of technology and are on their way to perfection in those realms. On the most basic level, Zen meditation involves hacking the brain by focusing on things that are simple on the surface, such as rock gardens or a mantra, and this type of mindfulness meditation is believed to lead to enlightenment. Otaku spiritualism is about hacking the brain at a different level, and sometimes about hacking emotions. In the US, it’s acceptable to hack the left brain—to obsess over hardware, etc—but hacking emotions is not encouraged or openly practiced. It’s possible that people hold back from exploring the hacking of emotions in the West because of the emphasis on morals and notions of good v. evil in Western religions.
Lisa mentioned that, when she was interviewing people for her 2D love story in the NY Times magazine, several sources likened the ability to fall in love with a body pillow to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness training. If love is just electrical signals from the brain, they said, then one should be able to train his mind to fall in love with anything, whether it be a figurine or a gadget or a body pillow.
We also talked about:
– Hatsune Miku, the anime depiction of a synthesizer app or vocaloid developed by Yamada and Crypton that became hugely popular a couple of years ago. Miku fans have made songs, videos, figurines, and all kinds of other paraphernalia themed around the character. There are thousands of videos of her on Nico Nico Douga, a video web site similar to YouTube that lets users stream comments on the screen in real time. NND is a huge hit among geeks and has unlikely users like the Communist Party of Japan. Nobody watched the CPJ’s speeches when they ran on TV, but on NND, geeks were analyzing every single statement in great detail.
– The happiness level and social aptitude of the body pillow guy. Lisa explained that his body pillow relationship was a conscious choice that he had made for himself in the absence of a real girlfriend, and that he was actually a really cool guy who was fun to hang out with.
– While young Japanese people might have the outward appearance of rebellion, the majority follow a certain set of social rules. They will probably wait in line to get on the train just like any other good citizen. For example, Joi once bumped into a guy wearing a button that said “fuck off and die.” The guy promptly bowed, apologized, and walked away.