Tokyo Idols’ Update by Next Subculture Leader, Shinshi Okajima
 -Vol.1 : What is Subculture? (Part 2)

ネクストサブカルリーダー・岡島紳士のTokyo Idols' Update 第1回 サブカル 後編
Tokyo Idols’ Update by Next Subculture Leader, Shinshi Okajima
 -Vol.1 : What is Subculture? (Part 2)

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For the first volume of this series, we’re exploring the meaning of the word “subculture” unique to Japan. In the first part, two experts on the topic, Akio Nakamori and Sayawaka, came to give us their thoughts on comparing and contrasting subculture and otaku culture deeply rooted within it, as well as “the circumstances that brought opposition to otaku culture”, “subculture of the 90s”, and “the period background of otaku and subculture’s existence”. For this second part, we’ll mainly be hearing from Mr. Sayawaka on topics such as “the difference between otaku and subculture” and “the way subculture functions as a word to ridicule”.


Otaku isn’t a word that refers to a particular group of people, but the attitude towards a certain genre or work, such as “~ otaku”

With changing times and the evolution of technology, the otaku culture and subculture market spread. But what exactly is the difference between the two? Sayawaka, a critic claiming to be an “otaku king”, analyzes it like this, citing a statement from writer Toshio Okada,

“At the time when Evangelion was deemed part of subculture, Mr. Okada held the attitude that , ‘Fundamentally, otaku and subculture are different.’ He defined ‘otaku’ as giving value to things that did not originally have value. In short, he proposed the idea that originally works of otaku culture such as anime or manga did not have any value, however we otaku, as an audience were able to realize the skills of creators upon going out of our way to view them. On the other hand, as I previously mentioned, subculture is a culture where “all contents have equal value, and its expressive techniques are shown”.

“However, this understanding of otaku culture that Mr. Okada advocated collapsed in 2003,” says Sayawaka, and goes on to explain otaku culture and subculture from the year 2000 onward.

“The first chapter of writer and thinker Hiroki Azuma’s 2001 work Doboutsuka suru Posuto Modan – Otaku kara Mita Nihon Shakai (Kodansha Gendai Shinsho) was a criticism of Mr. Okada, and it was written that instead of the otaku snobbishness of ‘daring to presume (something)’, it would be better to look at things from a pragmatic or animalistic perspective. And in fact in that same vein, content like ‘it’s okay if girls are cute, and become objects of infatuation’ or ‘I cried!’ then went on to become popular. Furthermore in 2004, Otaku: Personality = Space = City was exhibited at the Ninth Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition, and from the large online forum 2Chan, the book Densha Otoko was penned and became a hit. This gave rise to the so-called Akiba boom (a movement that focused on Akihabara as the otaku holy land), and it was at that time that otaku culture became successful, and good points about otaku culture, ‘such as the charm of anime, manga, light novels, and other genres’, became generally accepted. However, I think that part is mistaken, and what was amazing was the the attitude towards consumption, and not toward the genres themselves. My point being that otaku was no longer a word refering to a tribe (a family or a particular group) like Mr. Okada had expressed. We can see where the expression “(something) otaku” began to spread, like with anime otaku, idol otaku, or train otaku, with otaku refering to the “attitude” of the recipient, and not the genre or content itself. Although this hadn’t changed from Mr. Okada’s era, it was during this time it accelerated and ‘otaku’ became just a kind of label people stuck on, much like a tag on a YouTube videos. Simply put, the age of the otaku as a tribe had come to an end. And due to how big the idea of subculture existing as a virtual enemy of otaku since the 90s was, after otaku were no longer a tribe, the popular meaning of subculture from the 90s inevitably crumbled.”


Sayawaka: “Even main culture, if understood through the lens of subculture, becomes subculture.”

Otaku, which had once been refered to as a tribe, actually meant “attitude” instead, points out Sayawaka. So then what does the word for subculture presently mean?

“Since the Akiba boom, manga, anime, and other genres conventionally seen as otaku content now have the tendency to be lumped together with and seen as subculture. So for example, when a young person writes on their Twitter profile that they ‘like subculture’ they’ll list off anime titles, without perceiving a difference between otaku and subculture. The only people that believe there is a difference between the two are those who are older, that cannot go along with the younger generation and are still convinced that subculture and otaku are tribes. And since before we described subculture as a culture where ‘all content is regarded as having value, and shows a selective sense or expressive representation’, even appearing in main culture in television, newspapers, and major media, if understood through the lens of subculture, it would become subculture. For instance, since 2004 with Quick Japan, while it featured variety shows, celebrities, and idols, it was not limited to performers only, and it began to include interviews with creative staff, and while its approach was like that of a conventional subculture magazine, what it was really dealing with from the start was main culture.”


“Subculture” also functions as a word to ridicule idol otaku

Otaku is “attitude”, while subculture is “expressive representation”. We’ve come to see the present meanings of both words. However, for writers that have a career writing about the idol industry, there is something else to take note of. For the past few years, “subculture” has been used as a word among idol otaku to ridicule other idol otaku. Sayawaka proposes that, “It’s the selfish attitude of fans.”

“Idol otaku involved in the scene are always saying, ‘Once you go, you’ll understand,’ in response to not wanting what subculture people say about this and that in media and online to become mainstream, or in other words, are afraid that it goes against their personality of immersing themselves in the scene. But idol is a ‘a profession where you get people to love you’, so it would seem pragmatic that while attemping to analyze the lyrics, or while dealing with social commentary, from the perspective of the idol, anything should be okay. Even if now there is diversification on the form of ‘love’, it’s an accepting culture that forgives. Although I can’t bring myself to say the otaku in s way of thinking is selfish and therefore bad, although there are things you won’t know until you check out the scene for yourself, on the other hand, there are also things you might not understand unless you don’t.”

Additionally Nakamori points out, “But those that are younger, they don’t pay attention to subculture being used as an insult, nor do they care. Only the older generation makes a fuss. Like prohibiting mixes at rock festivals, or other reminders like that.”

“The clash between ‘otaku vs. subculture’ is now just a thing of the past. And if you first look at it from abroad, you might not find much difference between either, and consider both a part of so-called ‘Cool Japan’. I think it’s good to present this kind of context, as well as knowing the meaning of what these words have evolved into, as one way of enjoying each culture. From now on, taking on the title of ‘next subculture leader’, I want to continue watching over the scene.”


Akio Nakamori
Writer and idol critic. Born in Mie prefecture. Started working in a variety of media from the 1980s. His literary works include Idol Nippon, Tokyo Tongari Kids, Gozen 32ji no Nonen Rena”, the co-authored AKB48 Hakunetsu Ronsou, and others. His novel Anarchy in the JP was nominated for the Yukio Mishima Prize.

Writer, critic
Born in Hokkaido in 1974. After graduating from college and later gaining experience working in the music and publishing industries, he started his career as a writer. From 2007 he has written many critiques which have transversed a wide range of cultural genres and have appeared in Eureka, Quick Japan, The Asahi Shimbun, etc. In 2012 he published his first book, Bokutachi no Game Shi (Sekaisha Shinsho), and his presentation of the 30 year history of computer games from his own original context was highly praised. With his work AKB Shoho to wa Nan datta no ka (Taisho Tosho) in 2013, he designed a new idol formula through chart analysis and an overabundance of affection. According to younger people who were touched by the pop culture transformation from the new millenium, this work is the first comprehensive modern culture theory of its kind.

Shinshi Okajima
Born in 1980. Professional idol writer. His works include the co-authored Group Idol Shinka Ron, AKB48 Saikyo Kousatsu, Idol 10 Nen Shi, Idol Gakkyoku Disc Guide, and others. He was an advisor of the Saitama prefecture-sponsored Media/Idol Museum, and was head of all nine programs during the exhibition period and event MC. He has worked on the production and management of idol culture web site and DVD magazine, IDOL NEWSING.

The cover picture

Translated by Jami Koide

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Shinshi Okajima

Born in 1980. Idol writer. His works (includes joint works) : "Group Idol Shinka-ron" "AKB48 Saikou Kousatsu" "Idol Gakkyoku Disc Guide" and so on. Worked as a main adviser for "Media/Idol Museum" exhibition organized by Saitama prefecture. Manager of the idol contents website "IDOL NEWSING".

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