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You Are What You Buy Postmodern Consumption and Fandom of Japanese Popular Culture

Japanese Studies
ISSN: 1037-1397 (Print) 1469-9338 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cjst20
You Are What You Buy: Postmodern Consumption
and Fandom of Japanese Popular Culture
Carolyn S. Stevens
To cite this article: Carolyn S. Stevens (2010) You Are What You Buy: Postmodern
Consumption and Fandom of Japanese Popular Culture, Japanese Studies, 30:2, 199-214, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/10371397.2010.497578
Published online: 10 Sep 2010.
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Japanese Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2, September 2010
You Are What You Buy: Postmodern Consumption
and Fandom of Japanese Popular Culture
CAROLYN S. STEVENS, University of Melbourne, Australia
In recent years, Japanese popular culture has received much attention both inside and outside
the academy. Its success overseas has contributed to theories of transnational cultural flow, ‘soft
power’ and ‘Gross National Cool’. At the same time, public opinion of fans, both in Japan and
overseas, remains low. This article attempts to rescue fandom from its current association with
social ostracism, placing it instead in a logical structure of a historical consumer culture in Japan
and in the West. Fandom can be considered a rational consumer strategy, rather than a deviant
psychological attribute, when considered within the hyper-developed context of a mediasaturated, late-capitalist consumer society. Fandom, when viewed from this perspective, can be
distinguished from pathological behaviour and focuses on pleasure, the pursuit of social capital,
and individualised identity building, especially in a society where traditional corporate groups
such as the family or the workplace no longer offer the same attraction.
Consumption, and its specialised subset ‘fandom’, of Japanese popular culture – in
particular, anime, manga and video games – are at the crux of many scholarly and lay
debates regarding contemporary Japanese culture. While modern Japanese consumption
of Western popular culture has been well documented in academic research,1 public
interest is now focussed on the increasing visibility of Japanese popular culture in East
Asian and Western societies, which has been explained with reference to the strategic
use of popular culture as ‘soft power’ in Japan’s relationships abroad. Joseph S. Nye Jr.
defines soft power as the ability to influence through ‘co-option’ and ‘attraction’, as
opposed to traditional military or economic levers that nation-states use to achieve their
ends. Nye contrasts the soft power of Japanese products with those of American goods:
Although Japanese consumer products and cuisine have recently become more
fashionable, they seem less associated with an implicit appeal to a broader set
of values than American domination of popular communication. The success
of Japan’s manufacturing sector provides it with an important source of soft
power . . .2
Douglas McGray, in his now ubiquitous 2002 article in Foreign Affairs entitled ‘Japan’s
Gross National Cool’, recognised Japan’s soft power as a force so powerful that it
See Tobin, Re-made in Japan, and Raz, Riding the Black Ship, for research on the effects of
‘Westernisation’ of Japanese popular culture. For a discussion of the Japanisation of Western popular
culture, see Iwabuchi, ‘Marketing ‘‘Japan’’’.
Nye, Soft Power, 169.
ISSN 1037-1397 print/ISSN 1469-9338 online/10/020199-16 Ó 2010 Japanese Studies Association of Australia
DOI: 10.1080/10371397.2010.497578
Carolyn S. Stevens
rescued Japan from the mire during the 1990s recession.3 Christine Yano’s research on
the global spread of Hello Kitty products, which she identifies as part of the
phenomenon called ‘pink globalisation’, documents this trend in East Asia and North
America.4 What interests me particularly, however, is not the interrogation of content
within or the effectiveness of Japan’s soft power outside its national borders, but the
cultural baggage that has been projected onto some consumer products that have found
significant audiences outside Japan such as manga, anime, video games and pop music.5
Take, for example, the 2009 New York Times Magazine article that portrayed ‘2-D
lovers’ (individuals who conduct relationships with anime or manga characters as if they
were three dimensional, ‘real’ people instead of flat, two dimensional images) as ‘a
subset of otaku culture – the obsessive fandom that has surrounded anime, manga and
video games in Japan’.6 This article, which made the subsequent daily ‘most e-mailed’
list on the New York Times website, was clearly of interest to foreign readers who
voyeuristically desired a peek inside the ‘twisted’ world of Japanese obsessive culture.
Later in the year, The New York Times followed this with an op-ed piece entitled
‘Japanese Obsessions’ where the editorialist suggested that otaku culture (here, defined
as a ‘monomaniacal geek-like obsession’) stemmed from the fact that Japanese society
had become too ‘rich’ and too ‘bored’ with postmodern life and was rushing headlong
into ‘electronic obsessions’.7 Another example of this stance is Pico Iyer’s 2004 essay on
Japanese fans, which includes the observation that
Japan is a culture of hobbyists, you soon see, of connoisseurs who make their
tics acceptable by turning themselves into fanatics . . . I sometimes feel, around
the narrow lanes, as if I am lost in a circuit board of mad enthusiasms.8
Clearly there is an attendant fascination, with a connected condescension and even fear,
that the enthusiastic reception of Japanese popular culture overseas may also spawn
‘anti-social’ behaviour. A way to adequately understand this ‘baggage’ is to look
critically at fandom in both contexts (Japan, and ‘not’ Japan) and to ask if there are
inconsistencies in the critique of consumers of Japanese popular culture, and if this
constitutes a misunderstanding – and the need for a re-framing – of the social reality of
most fans of Japanese popular culture.
In this article, I will unpack notions of consumerism, fandom and Japanese popular
culture in a number of contexts to understand the pleasures, and not just the dangers, of
Japan’s ‘soft power’. My aim is to re-frame fandom as a kind of specialised consumption,
which has wide-ranging resonance with many consumers living in post-industrial, late
capitalist societies. This essay includes a discussion of developments in Japanese
consumerism through the modern period, seeking connection as well as disjuncture in
McGray, ‘Japan’s Gross National Cool’, 47.
Yano, ‘Wink on Pink’, 682–683.
Foreign critics are not alone in their criticism of Japanese fandom. For examples of the Japanese mass
media’s cool to negative reaction to otaku culture since 1989, see Driscoll’s article ‘Debt and
Denunciation in Post-Bubble Japan’, especially 171–172; and McLelland’s ‘(A)cute Confusion’,
especially sections 11–12. Another example of the Japanese wider mass media condemnation of fan
behaviour is recounted in Stevens, ‘I Quit My Job’.
Katayama, ‘Love in 2-D’.
Cohen, ‘Japanese Obsessions’.
Iyer, ‘Land of the Rising Fan’.
You Are What You Buy
consumer beliefs and behaviour over time.9 Understanding the Japanese context
provides an empirical anchor for the attitudes that have arisen in both Japanese and
overseas contexts, and will help to unravel some of the negative behaviour associated
with fandom – complete with its excessive nuances – to suggest that in many cases
specialised consumption of Japanese popular culture is not always obsessive, but merely
a rational reaction and a reasonable strategy in the face of a highly stratified market
place. With this understanding in place, I would hope that non-Japanese sceptics could
then be persuaded to understand the pleasures of these transnational cultural border
crossings better in their own social setting.
Defining Consumerism
This article’s title takes its name from an advertising campaign in the mid 2000s, which
used the English catch-phrase ‘You are what you buy’ to promote the EPOS card, a
personal credit card company and subsidiary of the Marui Group. Throughout the
Tokyo metropolitan area, EPOS billboards dotted public areas such as train stations and
buses, showing attractive young Japanese women shopping for food, home wares,
clothing and accessories with the English copy clearly written above. What struck me
about this series of images was that while the models’ faces, arms and legs were clearly
outlined, the rest of the body was blended into the background. Physically, the shopper
had taken on the form of the products consumed; the shopper’s identity had merged
seamlessly with the image and values associated with the product.
This ad campaign articulates a commonly held (but seldom expressed) belief that the
consumption of objects and services is a positive and beneficial practice, associated with
values such as personal freedom and individualism. Giddens suggests that consumption
is directly constitutive of self-identity when he writes
Each of us not only ‘has’, but lives a biography reflexively organised. . ..
Modernity is a post-traditional order, in which the question, ‘How shall I live?’
has to be answered in day-to-day decisions about how to behave, what to
wear – and many other things – as well as interpreted within the temporal
unfolding of self-identity.10
Self-identity is further defined by Giddens as something that ‘presumes reflexive
awareness. . . [it] is not something that is just given. . . but something that has to be
routinely created and sustained in the reflexive activities of the individual’.11
Accordingly, in a ‘modern’ society (where most production is indirect), personal
consumption constitutes an individual pattern, sustained over time, and is a major
contributor to self-identity, along with other personal attributes such as gender, class
and ethnicity.
Giddens’ concept of consumption and self-identity meshes with Bourdieu’s
concept of the ‘field of cultural production’, where individual actions (like
production and consumption) have important transformative social and ideological
For an in-depth history of Japanese consumerism from 1600 to the present, see Francks, The Japanese
Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, 14.
Ibid., 52.
Carolyn S. Stevens
properties.12 Bourdieu sees culture existing spatially in a conceptual ‘field’, where there
are ‘forces’ that ‘struggle’ with each other to maintain the artistic status quo, or that
forge new ideas into wider acceptance.13 In this field, consumption is considered an
action that creates specific knowledge (or ‘taste’). Taste is derived from the habitus, a set
of personal attitudes that links ‘practice’ and ‘situation’.14 The habitus maps the actions
of an individual against a set social structure, creating a ‘sense of one’s place’ in the
wider socio-economic and cultural field.15
The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile – in a word, natural –
enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an
affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated,
refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the
profane. That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed,
consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating
social differences.16
Participating in ‘enjoyments’ (either ‘coarse’ or legitimate, or probably somewhere in
between) and their ongoing mutual contestation generates different self-identities, and
in the case of ‘superior enjoyments’, power and social capital for the consumer.
Giddens’ and Bourdieu’s ideas recognise the potential for new modes of
consumption, such as transnational ones, which challenge the established local field
of production. These create new self-identities, often termed sub-cultural groups. It is
this challenge, presented by new forms and new ways of consuming Japanese popular
culture, which has spurred international media reactions, ranging from amusement to
Another important point to remember: consumption is not just about financial
exchange. Socially, consuming is both a bonding and an individuating experience.
Tobin has argued that in post-war Japan the individual has gradually distanced from
traditional social groups (family, community and workplace), and personal identity
increasingly rests on ‘styles’ of economic consumption.17 This demonstrates that
Bourdieu’s theorisation of Western society can be applied to a non-Western society –
while the details of the practices might differ, the underlying ideology as operational in a
late capitalist, industrial society is similar. Here I note that this discussion is particularly
aimed at the large middle class found in the developed societies of Europe and Japan.
Consumption is an individual yet collective personal act that engages both financial
exchange and abstract ideologies of pleasure, power and status.
Japan’s Consumer Landscape
Japan’s consumer landscape has historically been rich in detail and choice; here I will
focus on consumer choice and identity building in the modern period. Descriptions of
See Bourdieu, ‘The Field of Cultural Production’.
Ibid., 51.
Bourdieu, Distinction, 101.
Ibid., 466.
Ibid., 7.
Tobin, ‘Introduction: Domesticating the West’, 8.
You Are What You Buy
these experiences can be found from both Japanese and non-Japanese authors. For
example, Lafcadio Hearn, the American journalist who emigrated to Japan in the early
1890s, wrote copiously about life in Japan. In this 1894 passage, he describes the
pleasures of shopping:
It then appears. . . that everything Japanese is delicate, exquisite, admirable. . . .
The bank bills, the commonest copper coins, are things of beauty. Even this
piece of plaited colored string used by the shopkeeper in tying up your last
purchase is a pretty curiosity. Curiosities and dainty objects bewilder you by
their very multitude: on either side of you. . . are countless wonderful things as
yet incomprehensible.
But it is perilous to look at them. Every time you dare to look, something
obliges you to buy it, – unless, as may often happen, the smiling vendor invites
your inspection of so many varieties of one article. . . that you flee away out of
mere terror at your own impulses. The shopkeeper never asks you to buy; but
his wares are enchanted, and if you once begin to buy, you are lost. Cheapness
means only a temptation to commit bankruptcy . . . The largest steamer that
crosses the Pacific could not contain what you wish to purchase. For, although
you may not, perhaps, confess the fact to yourself, what you really want to buy
is not the contents of a shop; you want the shop and the shopkeeper, and
streets of shops with their draperies and their habitants, the whole city and the
bay and the mountains begirdling it, and Fujiyama’s white witchery
overhanging it in the speckless sky, all Japan, in very truth . . .18
Note his wonder at the variety of goods offered, the skill of the vendor in bringing in
business and the pleasurable power the consumer feels when he buys just one object,
which then becomes a dozen, two dozen, the whole country . . . The visitor is dazzled by
an array that was already present for the Japanese consumer. Note the visitor’s desire to
consume the entire lot: consuming the nation equals complete mastery of the culture.
Even without complete mastery, the desire is heady; this American man is mesmerised
by the exotic cultural offerings. This is perhaps one of the first accounts of ‘transnational
fandom’ written in English, yet what is striking in his account of nineteenth-century
Japan shopping is its similarity to today’s intense experience at shopping malls.
Obviously, consuming is what the Japanese have done very well for many centuries. I too
have felt this rush of consumer adrenaline upon emerging from a subway station such as
Shinjuku or Shibuya in Tokyo, or Umeda in Osaka. Another aspect of this is the
foreigner taking ‘control’ of Japanese culture through consumption: the tourist wishes to
take the entire country home with him, to possess it on his terms. A form of this mastery,
I argue, has resurfaced in contemporary discussion of Western consumption of Japanese
popular culture.
Fast-forwarding to the twentieth century, Japanese consumers were also heavily
involved in the intense shopping landscape. As we have seen above, consumerism was
always present but in the pre-war period it co-existed with a competing ideology of
militarism, which fuelled Japan’s war effort. This contributed to an ongoing moral reexamination of the mass consumerism that was flourishing alongside Japan’s economic
growth. Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s short story ‘Aoi Hana’ (written in 1922 and translated into
Hearn, Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan, 8–9.
Carolyn S. Stevens
English as ‘Aguri’) gives a critical description of pre-war shopping on the part of
Japanese consumers; the heady adrenaline that thrilled Hearn rather leads this story’s
main character, Okada, to feel unwell, as the materialism of the store’s wares, the
shopkeeper and his eager companion overwhelms him.19
After 1945, however, an idealised democratic consumption society was promoted
with two gendered stereotypes: the ‘salary man’, who worked and played hard; and the
‘hands-free’ housewife, who relied on new household appliances and other convenience
products to be free to enjoy other pursuits. Instead of soldiers sacrificing themselves for
the Emperor, postwar Japanese men were encouraged to fight for the company, and
consume vitamin drinks so they could work harder, which in turn resulted in higher
productivity and personal wealth – which allowed Japanese consumers to consume even
more. Concomitant with this was a desire for modernity which was, for ‘modern’
women, often translated into a lifestyle where traditional chores were streamlined to
allow more freedom to pursue other activities – or, in other words, to refine one’s
identity as a consumer of an even wider range of products. Shunya Yoshimi makes this
argument cogently with regard to the consumption of home electronics in the 1950s and
1960s, stating that:
Throughout the high economic growth period, the Japanese people have
affirmed their own cultural identity by consuming more advanced and varied
electric appliances even while living in restricted accommodation.20
These identities were highly gendered. For example, to be a completely ‘modern’
woman, one should buy washing machines, electric rice cookers and vacuum cleaners
to create a smiling new image of the consuming ‘housewife’.21 Men, on the other
hand, were to desire masculine objects such as stereophonic equipment and
automobiles. Both stereotypes’ pleasures and longings completed the circuit of
desire and production that fuelled Japan’s postwar economic recovery. Therefore, the
formation of personal and even national identity through consumption has been
operating in Japan for many decades, and illustrates the importance of academic
attention on popular culture and leisure activities. As Giddens noted, this is not just
‘play’, but serious identity work that has consequences in other public arenas such as
the political and economic sphere, especially considering its core question (‘How
shall I live?’).22 Whether the object of consumption was fashion, food, trinkets or
electronics, the Japanese consumer class has bolstered its identity through its
pleasures; as Sandvoss notes, ‘fandom. . . mirrors conditions of popular culture’23
and it
fulfils a double function. . .: as communication, in that our consumption
choices articulate our complex class position, and as identity building, in that
this communication is as much directed inwards as outwards, forming a sense
of who we are and believe ourselves to be.24
Tanizaki, ‘Aguri’, 71–72.
Yoshimi, ‘Made in Japan’, 152.
Ibid., 159.
Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, 14.
Sandvoss, Fans, 3.
Ibid., 34.
You Are What You Buy
The British novelist Pico Iyer notes a disjuncture between his Western take on Japanese
identity-building and how actors themselves interpret their actions, but concedes the
rationality of reconciling public and private selves:
You come, in time, to see in Japan that fandom is at once an assertion of
individualism, an attempt to brand yourself as a character, and a longing to join
yourself to a chanting group – in a different key (I will become one among a sea
of people wearing yellow-and-black Tiger shirts, instead of just another
flannel-suited commuter, nodding off on the 8:43 express.) Foreigners often
talk of how there is a private self and a public self in Japan – there are actually
different words for them in Japanese – and, to outsiders, the maintenance of
two different faces suggests friction or hypocrisy. But the Japanese seem adept
at keeping both in place, with equipoise. This is who I am to the world. This is
who I am to myself.25
Postmodern Consumption in Japan
In Hearn’s and Tanizaki’s time, the shopkeeper, though in possession of a beguiling
display, was probably an independent operator rather than a low-ranking employee of a
complex multinational company. With its layers of management, as well as its complex
imagery, shopping in Japan today is truly a postmodern experience. Marc Augé writes
that our public life has changed dramatically in the modern period with the emergence
of ‘non-places’. These include not only shopping malls but also airports, train stations,
and any other transient place where human relations are abstracted to the degree that
anonymity reigns.26 While the quality of human relations is the defining characteristic of
non-places, these spaces are also usually visually uniform, especially consumer culture
focussed on brands. When the logos of the products take centre stage, spatial attributes
fade from prominence; the shop (or restaurant, or theatre) becomes a blank launching
pad for the specific attributes of the product. This ‘blank slate’ helps to contribute to the
internalisation of the brand’s meanings and associations, which, according to Naomi
Klein, is one of the most important aspects of the consumer experience. She elaborates
[a]dvertising and sponsorship have always been about using imagery to equate
products with positive cultural or social experiences. What makes nineties-style
branding different is that it increasingly seeks to take [product] associations out
of the representational realm and make them a lived reality.27
Klein notes that in the Tommy Hilfiger brand, the logo is ‘the central focus of everything
it touches – not an add-on or a happy association, but the main attraction’.28 In other
words, once the brand’s meaning is decided upon, accepted and affixed with a
recognised logo, the product itself is rarely important.
Brands are no longer externally observed and appreciated but internalised on several
levels: product, practice and lifestyle. By consuming a well-known brand, we can
Iyer, ‘Land of the Rising Fan’.
Augé, Non-places, 77–78.
Klein, No Logo, 29.
Carolyn S. Stevens
communicate our consumer aesthetics and values to an observant audience. According
to Klein, the product no longer really matters – it is the carefully created brand and its
attendant image that strike a chord with its audience. Objects for sale under a single
brand have proliferated, but their presence in the non-space has become so internalised
to some, they appear everyday and bland. I suggest that the proliferation in consumer
non-places – typified by the first world’s large shopping mall with its retail outlets, food
courts, movie theatres and services such as massage, beauty and nail salons – has in fact
inspired a generation of consumers otherwise uninspired by the uniformity of the
consumer environment and the mass-produced objects for sale therein. There are
certainly many consumers who find satisfaction within the shopping malls and branded
outlets that populate landscapes in America, Australia and Japan. What about the more
discerning consumer, seeking the thrill as described by Hearn?
Here are two examples of Japanese consumerism/fandom that offer insight into these
questions. One is my own fieldwork with fans of the musical group the Alfee, and the
other a discussion of the popular television series and feature film franchise, Densha
Otoko (‘Train Man’). These examples – one an empirical case study, the other an ideal
representation – are useful because they challenge our understandings of fandom within
the context of wider Japanese society. Both help us to understand, first, how social (that
is to say, not anti-social) fandom can be in Japanese society, and second, how the
normalisation of fandom exposes certain contradictions in Japanese views of consumer
For a number of years in the mid 1990s, I observed fans of the long-running Japanese
rock band, The Alfee (1974–present). Many call themselves ‘Aruch
u’, a word which can
be explained two ways: as a pun on an abbreviation of the term ‘alcoholic’ (arukōru
udoku is shortened aruch
u); and as a fusion of the first syllable of the band’s katakana
u (used in the same way as in
name with the Sinic reading of the character , or ch
u, ‘in a trance’). These fans are ‘entranced’ by the Alfee, so I have translated this
term as ‘Alfee-aholic’. In interviews with fans, I was constantly struck with their own
sense of social propriety. This is because they also knew how fandom is often seen as
transgressive. Music fans did not use the word otaku to refer to the ‘hard core’ fans;
instead, they used miha, which can also used to describe consumers who rush from one
trend to another without much thought. In this case it seemed, however, that the use of
miha focussed on the physical rush; fans who chased their idols screaming, instead of
properly keeping their distance, were considered fanatics. But I found in actuality most
music fans observe conventional social manners while consuming their pleasures
rationally and creatively. Over the two years I followed the band I never saw a fan
actually test the limits, and only heard occasionally of rumours of actual transgressions
(such as stealing napkins from restaurants frequented by their idol). Fans test the limits
but they are, for the most part, fully aware of what they are and where they sit in the
larger scheme of interaction.29 In fact, I found that the Alfee fans’ sociality was so
detailed and rich, their fandom could be seen as both ‘integrated and separate, both
bound and freed from the cultural icon to which it attaches itself’.30
If the Alfee fans are what they buy, who are they? They are dreamers, as illustrated in
this dominant imagery in the band’s repertoire (‘Yume Yo Isoge’ [Hurry up, Dreams!] is
the title of a 1983 song that they still perform in concert today); they never give up (‘ai o
For a more detailed description of fan behaviour at concerts and ‘crossing’ the lines, see Stevens,
‘Buying Intimacy’, 60–62, 67.
Stevens, ‘Saved by the Love Song’, 100.
You Are What You Buy
akiramenaide’ [don’t give up on love!] repeats in the chorus to the 1995 release ‘Jump
’95’) and they are optimistic about their future (the band’s 2005 single was entitled ‘Kibō
no hashi’ [Bridge of Hope], which listeners were urged to ‘cross over!’ [‘watare!’]). In
concerts, fans are exuberant creators, contributing to the musical performance both with
their own vocals and with choreography performed during the musicians’ performance,
complete with props such as flags or paper flowers. They form a ‘richly collective
sociality’,31 and prolong their enjoyment of the concert through pre-concert activities
(such as amateur fan performance outside the concert hall) and post-concert ones (some
fans rent hotel rooms near the concert hall so they can socialise after the concert instead
of rushing for the ‘last train home’). Their consumption of this rock group forms a
strong part of their identity, which includes real relationships with other fans.
Most Japanese and non-Japanese critics have instead focussed on the consumption of
anime and manga, or the otaku world. Japanese society first explicitly condemned otaku
culture after the Miyazaki incident in 1989, when four young girls were found murdered
by a man labelled an otaku by the media. This resulted in a negative impression of otaku
in the public sphere for years thereafter. Since 2004, however, a new discussion about
otaku emerged in Japan with the potential to transform understanding of otaku from one
of condemnation to acceptance and even respect. Reflecting that more recent discussion,
the book, television series, film and manga franchise all entitled Densha Otoko entail a
(semi?) fictional account of otaku consumption gaining acceptance in wider society. The
two main characters of this narrative find in each other an unlikely kindred spirit after a
chance encounter when Densha Otoko (the BBS nickname of the male protagonist of the
film) defends ‘Hermes’ (an attractive woman) against a drunken salary man on a train
(thus the ‘densha’ moniker). In this instance, the ‘nerdy’ otaku proves himself as more
ethical than a mainstream icon of postwar Japanese masculinity. The interaction sends
the two on a search for understanding of each other’s social position.
Two generalised consumer styles are portrayed in the film: those of the otaku
(interested in anime, manga and video games) and of the refined consumer (interested in
European imports). On one level, the portrayal defends the otaku as a ‘pure’ personality
who truly appreciates the value of human relations, yet in the end it does not attempt a
serious critique of contemporary consumer lifestyles. The ‘Densha Otoko’ and his
2channel chat room friends are portrayed as ‘uncool’ at first, and their consumption is
mocked by others. It is revealing, however, to compare the respective consumption styles
of Densha Otoko and Hermes. Her elite consumption style is also observed closely; for
example, the choice of an expensive designer gift for her rescuer is the first sign of ‘proper’
consumption. When Densha Otoko visits Hermes’ home for the first time in the film, we
are impressed with its spacious, elegant and spare beige interiors contrasting with Densha
Otoko’s cluttered bedroom, but this is merely another consumption style; Hermes’
consumption exists on a different end of the spectrum of class-based identity-building.
When Densha Otoko demonstrates his mastery of the many remotes that Hermes cannot
manage in her own home, the audience laughs at the otaku for his ‘nerdiness’, but we must
also remember that the elegant, ‘normal’ Hermes has participated just as intimately in
Japan’s consumer culture to amass these remotes. The real difference between the otaku
Densha Otoko and the socially acceptable Hermes is class-based ‘taste’, and the level of
engagement of the consumer with the complexity of their purchases.
Kelly, ‘Introduction: Locating the Fans’, 10.
Carolyn S. Stevens
Re-thinking Fandom
The above two examples – one ethnographic, the other a fictional media representation –
are important because they demonstrate the reflexive reality of consumption of popular
culture in Japan, and thus give us impetus to re-examine the current framing of
Japanese popular culture in the mass media. Why is this reframing necessary? While the
mass media in Japan has for many years engaged in mockery, trivialisation and
banalisation of fan activities in Japan,32 with the spread of Japanese popular culture this
trivialisation is now a global phenomenon. McCombs calls it ‘framing an object’: where
the way a news item is reported in the mass media becomes the dominant public
impression thereafter.33 He sees the junction of ‘framing’ and ‘agenda setting’,
including ‘status conferral, stereotyping, image building and gatekeeping’,34 as
processes that ‘shap[e] an opinion through an emphasis on particular attributes’.35
Harking back to the articles in the New York Times and Colors Magazine, the attributes
that emerge surrounding Japanese fandom range from pathological to merely neurotic.
In making this judgement, these critics were asserting their own consumption practices
(in Giddens’ words, their personal identity-building practices)36 as superior to those on
which they were reporting. Like Lafcadio Hearn, they are asserting control over
Japanese popular culture: this time not by buying it all and taking it home in a steamer
trunk, but by demoting it to a subordinate social status. Their articles framed the fans as
‘abnormal’ to amuse the reader in the first instance, but they were also making a
statement about their own social status in the second instance. They critique the
Japanese fans as ‘abnormal’, which implies that their own consumer practices are
‘normal’, but what is the difference between a ‘normal’ consumer identity and a ‘fan’
identity, exactly? Fans made the emotional commitment that other consumers didn’t –
and not just to the act of consumption, but also to each other, in terms of communitybuilding and maintenance.
Abercrombie and Longhurst state that ‘[t]hrough fan activity – which clearly involves
the deployment of imagination fuelled by the media in an imagined community – people
are helped to construct particular identities’.37 Furthermore, fans are distinguished from
other types of ‘enthusiasts’ precisely because of this close relationship with the broadcast
media.38 Abercrombie and Longhurst acknowledge that consumers/audiences exist on a
continuum of engagement (similar to the above case of Densha Otoko and Hermes),
ranging from the ‘fan’ to the ‘cultist’ and the ‘enthusiast’, each having a different level of
focus, media use and organization.39
In light of this, I suggest fandom can be more usefully defined as a kind of specialised
consumption, a hyper-consumption of a strongly branded product – one that is
associated with a particular individual (such as the Japanese vocalist Gackt and his fans),
or a particular company (Sanrio of Hello Kitty fame, for example). While some objects
Stevens, ‘I Quit My Job’, 146–148.
McCombs, ‘A Look at Agenda-setting’, 546.
Ibid., 549.
‘‘‘How shall I live?’’ has to be answered in day-to-day decisions about how to behave, what to wear and
what to eat. . .’: Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, 14.
Abercrombie and Longhurst, Audiences, 121.
Ibid., 132.
Ibid., 138.
You Are What You Buy
of fandom are highly individual, in the above cases most consumption of these branded
products still takes place in the uniformity of the non-place (think of HMV Shibuya in
Utagawachō, or the Sanrio outlet in San Francisco’s Powell Street mall). Though there
is certainly satisfaction experienced through uniformity – most specifically, when
consumer expectations are fulfilled – the specialised consumer looks to take the
experience another step forward.
Branded consumption is a powerful identity-constructing tool – if we are what we
buy, then we choose to buy objects that project our identity in ways that please us. While
the act of consumption is pleasurable, we can also see that this is not a socially discrete
action. Fans prepare to consume, they consume and then they reflect on their
consumption. Fans often say that their main motivation in participating in this kind of
consumer behaviour is the ‘fun’ they have in the preparation and the reflection as well as
the act itself.40 If we accept that prolonging consumption is a goal of specialised fans,
then we must consider its costs. Think of the time anime cosplayers around the world
spend in creating elaborate costumes to compete against each other in a ‘global cosplay
hierarchy’, and then discussing the results after the winners are announced.41 Or,
consider the hours spent by dōjinshi artists painstakingly recreating their favourite manga
characters, and the hours their komiketto colleagues spend examining them before
purchase.42 Alfee fans follow two seasonal tours a year and pay ¥6,800 per seat per
concert they attend; fandom is clearly committed consumption. While cosplayers and
dōjinshi artists are remarkably resourceful in creating their own pleasures, there are still
costs associated with this prolonged enjoyment. The cost of travelling to conventions or
concerts, as well as the accommodation required, cannot be overlooked.
How does a specialised fan make a sustained commitment to his/her consuming
lifestyle, both in terms of financial investment and in time and energy? Here I would also
argue that fandom is a kind of consumer strategy. Confronted with a dizzying array of
consumer goods (now even more intense than in Hearn’s time), fandom helps to make
sense of purchasing behaviour. Giddens notes that ‘a fundamental component of day-today activity is simply that of choice . . . Modernity confronts the individual with a
complex set of choices and. . . at the same time offers little help as to which options
should be selected’.43 This information overload is further complicated by the fact that
‘the prevalence of mediated experience undoubtedly also influences pluralism of
choice . . . With the increasing globalisation of the media, a multifarious number of
milieux are, in principle, rendered [publicly] visible’.44 This plethora of options and
information makes the task of understanding choices and why we make them more
complex. Ien Ang concurs, noting in her discussion of television viewing that ‘it
becomes more and more difficult to delineate what ‘‘the television text’’ is in a mediasaturated world’.45 Nick Couldry writes ‘the flow of media inputs is so dense that we
receive many of them, perhaps even most of them, in a state of distraction’.46 It is fair to
say that Japan and other Asia-Pacific regional societies, including the US and Australia,
share the attribute of being a ‘society dominated by large-scale media institutions’47 that
Stevens, ‘Buying Intimacy’, 74.
See MacLachlan and Thang, ‘Importing Japanese Fan Practices’.
See Thorn, ‘Women and Girls Getting Out of Hand’, 170–171.
Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, 80.
Ibid., 84.
Ang, Living Room Wars, 41.
Couldry, The Place of Media Power, 10.
Ibid., 6.
Carolyn S. Stevens
offer a plethora of information 24/7. Bombarded with so many messages, Abercrombie
and Longhurst argue that ‘consumers are increasingly follower-like in their tastes, as
society becomes more media-saturated’.48 But what of those who desire a more active
consumer statement, a more active identity-building experience?
I argue that fandom can be seen as both an active response to media messages and as a
strategy to invigorate the self against consumer fatigue. Here I refer to a well-known
marketing phenomenon, ‘consumer confusion’, about which Mitchell and Papavassiliou
have commented,
The increasing number of products as well as the amount of information
carried by each brand can overload and confuse consumers and can result in
stress, frustration and sub-optimal decisions. This can be particularly acute in
high-involvement and complex purchases where consumers devote more time
and effort to gathering and processing information.49
Sources of consumer confusion include an ‘overchoice of products and stores’ and
‘similarity of products’.50 Furthermore, when consumers are ‘overloaded, they feel less
satisfied, less confident and more confused’ about their purchases.51 Consumer
confusions and consumer overload present an interesting argument for the consumption
of Japanese popular culture both in Japan and overseas. My first observation relates to
the otaku phenomenon in Japan, where specialised consumers move forward with a
narrower range of options. Fandom is a consumer strategy where pleasure is maximised
through fewer choices and greater investment in each purchase. This is in direct contrast
to the burgeoning choice offered to consumers of domestic electronics in the 1950s and
1960s described in Yoshimi’s study; obviously this is a numbers game, and the numbers
have changed drastically from the 1950s to 2010. But, it is still interesting to note that
consumer culture in Japan is moving away from being one which strives to encompass
ever more choices, to one which is looking to minimise choice and rationalise decisions.
But returning to Japanese fandom: if freedom from information overload and
increased pleasure are the upsides, what are the downsides of the ‘fan-atic’? William W.
Kelly, an expert on Japanese fans of baseball, wrote a very useful introduction to fandom
in Japan as part of the volume Fanning the Flames: Fans and Consumer Culture in
Contemporary Japan. His analysis includes the observations that:
. Fans are the most aggressive appropriators and the most brazen producers among
. Fans both know more and care more;
. Fandom is serious play – it’s about one’s personal identity, not leisured
. Fans seek intimacy with the object of their attention;
. Fandom can be solitary and private or a richly collective sociality;
. Fans test the limits between excessive and obsessive.52
Abercrombie and Longhurst, Audiences, 141.
Mitchell and Papavassiliou, ‘Marketing Causes’, 319.
Ibid., 320.
Lee and Lee, ‘The Effect of Information Overload’, 177.
Kelly, ‘Introduction: Locating the Fans’, 7–12.
You Are What You Buy
Kelly underlines the identity work that fandom involves:
Fans . . . are those who take leisure seriously. It becomes their arena for shaping
meaning and organizing the routines of everyday life. The normal divide
between work and play is abrogated. . . .
[T]he determination to fashion one’s identity as fan could be a kind of social
‘time out’ for discovering and shaping an other in oneself; that is, for some, it is
a way of taking a break from one’s usual role-bound self, for a more selfindulgent, creative, playful identity.53
Fans who break down the borders between work and play are both consumers and
producers, who draw on the object of their devotion to build an identity that is
recognised and valued in a discrete group of insiders which gives them pleasure –
considering the rapid pace at which American and Japanese societies are operating,
fandom as a ‘social ‘‘time out’’’ is a very attractive option. Indeed, Yano writes that
Japanese traditional elite culture was ‘sober’ and ‘gracious’, but that post-modern Japan
is not just ‘Japan at play’ but ‘Japan as play’ (emphasis in the original), both ‘benign and
powerful’, and distanced from its prewar shadowy past.54
On the positive side, the other ethnographic examples in William Kelly’s edited
volume express fan activity in positive ways, with examples from baseball to enka and
anime fans. This recalls the EPOS campaign’s motto, ‘You are what you buy’, which
communicates the seriousness of the ‘play’, and the centrality of identity making over
the mere passing of free time. This is in contrast with Katayama’s presentation of
Nisan, a man who subscribes to moe, or ‘fetishistic love for two-dimensional
characters’. His consumption is not seriously creating an acceptable identity; instead,
his interests forsake ‘expectations of an ordinary human relationship and expresses his
passion for a chosen character, without fear of being judged or rejected’.55 But this
focus on moe otaku skews our understanding of Japanese pop culture consumption.
Very little fandom is about forsaking human contact; the Alfee fan data amply
demonstrate this, and the large-scale Japanese public appreciation for the moral
themes encoded in the Densha Otoko franchise similarly shows that a re-examination of
one’s own consumption ‘style’ and status results in new and rewarding human
Still, we must give due consideration to Kelly’s sixth characteristic of fans, the
fascination with testing the obsessive. It is the attribute that motivates negative
impressions of fandom, and is the clear overriding message in the above-mentioned New
York Times Magazine article on obsessive moe. This links back to McCombs’ discussion
of the media’s framing and ‘agenda-setting’; The New York Times Magazine’s portrayal
of Nisan as unhealthy and unattractive (he is ‘balding’ and grey at age 37, in poor health,
and ‘self-conscious’)56 reinforces the negative image of Japanese fandom as ‘fanatic’.
The later New York Times op-ed piece similarly uses adjectives such as ‘odd’, ‘kinky’ and
‘isolating’ to describe otaku interests; note that the writer does not describe otaku
culture as something ‘unusually Japanese’ but instead chooses to term it ‘peculiarly
Japanese’.57 This, I believe, unnecessarily conflates two different sets of personal
Ibid., 8–9.
Yano, ‘Wink on Pink’, 684.
Katayama, ‘Love in 2-D’.
Carolyn S. Stevens
qualities: those psychological and behavioural. Kelly’s attributes of creativity, attention
to detail and pleasure in intimacy are not considered anti-social in themselves, but if
they are combined with an aesthetic preference for cultural products outside social
norms (e.g. violence and sexual deviance) and/or general social phobias, the otaku is
suddenly translated into a more malevolent figure: the hikikomori, typically a young male
who is physically and emotionally withdrawn from wider society, communicating
entirely through anonymous computer media. Ironically, this conflation is also present
in the Densha Otoko franchise, even though it has defended and even elevated otaku
status. The film did this clearly when one of the otaku protagonist’s nameless supporters
is listed in the final credits as ‘hikikomori’. But it is unfair and unrealistic to project social
pathology on all avid consumers; not all consumers are fanatics, and not all fans are
pathological misfits. Instead, the majority of fans studied in Kelly’s volume belong to a
‘richly collective sociality’58 who would not dream of shutting themselves off from their
colleagues, and missing out on the pleasure that communal consumption offers.
Conclusion: In Defence of the Fans
My experiences studying music fans and consuming Japanese popular culture both in
Japan and overseas make me suspect a mis-framing bias in the English language media,
inherited from the Japanese media. Reporters represent a condescending and banal
image of fans, and at times even promote concern associated with extreme fandom. This
fear can be real when coupled with anti-social behaviours, but these behaviours are not
always paired with the act of specialised consumption or the object of the fan’s desire.
For the majority of consumers, sociality is key: pleasure and power are achieved;
horizontal social relations are cemented. Regardless of whether the consumer holds a
Japanese or an American passport, consumer styles are more closely related to socioeconomic status and an accompanying capitalist environment than they are to race or
language. Interest in Japanese popular culture could well be a result of domestic
consumer boredom or confusion, where some Americans, tiring of the innumerable but
relatively uniform choices available to them in large scale non-places, have chosen to
enjoy their consumption in a distinct and individualised way: through purposely
enjoying ‘Japan’.59 The pleasures and constraints (and the ills) of consumerism have
been well documented, but as any pleasure in excess becomes pain, the majority of
consumers strive to moderate behaviour that maximises pleasure while minimising
capital, emotional and time investment. Most fans/otaku understand this intuitively; the
critics who revile them are merely allocating their own resources in different fashions.
Thus, if we can isolate true psychological pathology from this discussion (and a direct
link between mental health and consumer habits is yet to be confirmed), perhaps it is not
the extent of the consumption – for nearly all contemporary urban residents must buy
just about all of what they consume; very few are self sufficient – but it is the style of
consumption that is at the heart of these critiques. The Japanese have been very skilled at
creating an attractive consumer landscape for centuries, and have integrated consumer
values into their personal and national identity. Still, an obsessive collection of teacups
does not make international headlines, while a vast collection of video games or comic
Cohen, ‘Japanese Obsessions’ (emphasis added).
Kelly, ‘Introduction: Locating the Fans’, 10.
This has been argued by Susan Napier in her public lecture ‘Transnational Power Play’.
You Are What You Buy
books does. Before we cast the first stone at the otaku, let us look at our own spending
behaviour and see what resonances ring true.
This article is based on a public lecture sponsored by the Japan Foundation, entitled
‘Border Crossings: Intersections between Japanese Popular Culture and Fandom’, 23
July 2009, the University of Melbourne. The author is grateful for the comments of the
two anonymous reviewers and for Anika Ervin-Ward’s expert research assistance.
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