Toshio Okada on the Otaku, Anime History, and Japanese Culture

Luncheon Talk

1 October 2003
Article by Eri Izawa

In the interest of writing a coherent article, I have taken the liberty of rearranging some of what Mr. Okada said into thematic sections, rather than keeping it strictly chronological. I have also taken the liberty of slightly expanding on some of what he said in ways that may not be quite verbatim to the original Japanese statements. Also, I have pluralized "otaku" with an added "s" - which may be confusing since oftentimes "otaku" is properly written as its own plural. My apologies. As always, this document may contain errors, most of which are probably my own errors of note-taking, understanding, or judgment.
| The Talk | The Q&A | Conversations Afterward |

Otaku, Anime History, and Japanese Culture

Mr. Toshio Okada (see the
29 Sept. 2003 writeup for a more thorough introduction) spoke today at MIT's Ashdown House for an informative pizza luncheon talk. This section will cover his prepared lecture (which "went really well because I actually prepared beforehand this time!").

What Is an Otaku?

MIT and Otaku

What is an otaku? They are like MIT students. Mr. Okada took a walk at Harvard yesterday and noted, just by looking, a big difference between the young people there versus those at MIT. The MIT students emanate otakuness! (He even went so far as to call MIT an "otaku daigaku" or otaku university.) He said he is quite good at detecting otaku, since sometimes in the city, just by observing a person from behind, he starts wondering if the person is an otaku - and then lo and behold, the person steps into an anime shop.

Otaku: playful and intelligent

So what characterizes an otaku? Mr. Okada suggested it is a combination of a high intelligence with childlike (perhaps playful?) interests. It is not enough to just be a fan of, say, "Star Wars" or "Star Trek"; many otakus will also go to a high caliber school, and most importantly they will ask themselves: "Why do I like this (show)?" It is in the seeking, questioning, and the desire to explain that otakus are distinguished.

World-shaking Otakus

Mr. Okada went on to name two particular big "otakus" (though readers of the previous paper will recognize the first name as belonging to the "Dropout" generation).

First is Mr. Hayao Miyazaki, the Oscar-winning director of "Spirited Away." He is considered a god of otaku; his works appeal to not just otaku, but to a broad audience as well. Yet, for all his mass appeal, he still manages to put his own personality into his works, such as by clearly showing his love of air craft, as well as strong young girl heroines (though at least one critic accused Mr. Miyazaki of displaying a Lolita Complex).

Second is Mr. Takashi Murakami, the "otaku who couldn't become an otaku" - a would-be giant robot animator who found he wasn't cut out for animation and wound up becoming an artist. His artwork features very anime-like characters and images, such as young girls with large eyes and green hair and anime proportions wielding a sword.

These otaku works are becoming known worldwide (e.g., the Oscar award for Mr. Miyazaki, and art exhibitions abroad for Mr. Murakami), which apparently is a great shock for most Japanese people. In Japan, "otaku" is often seen as being negative, and otakus are seen as stupid; no one expected worldwide recognition for them.

Mr. Okada himself had the unexpected opportunity to lecture at prestigious Tokyo University for three years - a bold offer on the part of the University, and an offer that has certainly never been repeated by any academic institution. The prevailing Japanese attitude is that foreignors such as Americans are only interested in "geishas, Mt. Fuji, and sushi" ... not otaku.

Japanese Animation History

A bit of animation history ....

Early Animation in the US

Animation had its roots in the United States, as a visual image culture. Windsor McKay's "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914) was a highly influential early animation, leading to a great rise in animation popularity.

The "pinnacle" of animation, Mr. Okada suggested, was Max Fleischer's "Superman," an animation series shown in theaters. (Although the cartoons were frequently full of anti-Japanese propaganda, Mr. Okada said that Japanese otakus cared mostly about the animation quality. (Leni Riefenstahl's pro-Nazi "Triumph of the Will" also apparently had very good animation despite its status as propaganda.) Creators were looking for usable scenes and images, technical presentation and so on, and largely ignored the socio-political messages. "Whether it's anti-Japanese, anti-American, or pro-North Korean, if the animation quality is good, it's good!")

Miyazaki's Reaction

Mr. Hayao Miyazaki was so taken with the "Superman" series that he copied the style extensively. The last episode of Mr. Miyazaki's TV series "Lupin III" apparently emulates the last episode of Fleischer's "Superman" scene for scene - though Mr. Okada thinks Mr. Miyazaki's work is of a somewhat higher caliber. (Editor: My notes are a little unclear about this section.)

(When confronted by this apparently piracy by one of his apprentices, Mr. Miyazaki apparently replied, "No, mine is better so it's OK." And apparently this reply itself was "stolen" from Victor Hugo's(?? editor's note: I have some confusion on this point) reply to his critics about "Les Miserables.")

Bringing Animation to Japan: Tezuka Osamu

The Japanese saw the American cartoons and decided they wanted to see cartoons like it on TV regularly. However, this was considered a financial impossibility, because animation is actually more expensive than live action. Mr. Osamu Tezuka, the father of modern manga, actually solved this problem in his production of the famous "Tetsuwan Atom" ("Mighty Atom" or "Astroboy") - his solution was to pay poor people low wages to do the work. (His studio went bankrupt three times, however.)

The Needs of TV Animation

This innovation spurred TV companies to develop regular animated series, despite the expense of animation. Two things became necessary for this industry to survive:

  1. Japanese animation must be cheap, and
  2. The series need toy makers and other sponsers to help cover the costs.

By the late 1960s, thanks to Tezuka's work, monochrome animation became a big phenomenon - in time for the post World War II baby boomer generation.

Post-War Japanese Culture

A Loss of History

The boomers also were receiving a very unusual form of education: They were being taught to reject Japanese history. Until the time of this generation, most Japanese were quite versed in Japanese history, able to give name after name of historic heroes from a thousand years in the past. In contrast, the post-World War II society rejected history. (Mr. Okada suggested an educated American will know more about Japanese history than many Japanese.)

The post-World War II Japanese became something like an American; since the United States is a young country, without ancient history, the people tend to focus on children's culture or current popular culture, unlike in the rest of the world. (Mr. Okada gave the example that even old people in the U.S. are still fond of Disney characters, which he suggested is not true in Europe.) Similarly, the post-war Japanese, no longer rooted in the past, took to popular culture instead.

The Now Culture

The result is that, with the post-war generations:

  1. They believe "there is only now. Whatever is now is what I like most." (Hence resulting in the notorious sudden fads and trends that quickly die away.)

  2. The most popular word is "now" ... the phrase "Oh, it's now" means "Oh, it's cool."

The Taint of Adulthood

Finally, there was a stigma associated with being an adult; adults were, at some level, "denied." Not only is a child's growth to adulthood seen as acquiring responsibilities, but it is also seen as the person becoming more polluted or dirty.

Hence (Mr. Okada argues), Hollywood coming-of-age movies show characters growing up and becoming mature, but Japanese culture prefers to show characters going back to the innocence of being a child.

Effects in Anime

The Japanese society post-war, then, inherited the combined heavy weight of love of now with a deep distrust of adults.

The 1960s-1970s saw this attitude in the TV anime creative staff. The products therefore placed a sort of faith or belief in children, and likewise showed the issues and problems of adulthood.

This resulted in the strange phenomenon that children's anime and manga became full of adult themes such as racism, rape, and poverty - and the adults did not mind the 10 year old kids seeing these issues. (When I asked Mr. Okada later for examples of these shows, he said they were too numerous to count. My impression is that shojo (girls') manga dealt frequently with issues of rape, and I know an example of a manga that touches upon racism is the classic Cyborg 009 manga.)

Don't Forget Merchandizing....

However, remember that anime also had to sell merchandise to be profitable.

So now these heavy societal issues of racism, rape, and so on, are combined with giant robots and superheroes.

The Interesting Mixture: Results

Many children who were not very intellectually inclined did not understand the deeper messages, and went on as adults to watch standard adult action TV shows. But many of the intelligent children were so imprinted with the impact of the anime shows ("traumatized") that they went on watching anime into adulthood. And, just like MIT students, they retained their childlike interests.

Questions and Answers

Fans and Creators

What's the difference between an fan and a creator? Mr. Okada suggested the difference is a very small one: it's the gap between "Yes, I'm 100% satisfied with watching this" versus the thinking, "Yes, this is nice but I could do it better." In some cases, even thinking, "I want to create something like this" will lead a fan to the path of creation.

Unfortunately (Mr. Okada said), teachers in Japan teach creativity the wrong way. They tell their students to create something original. Mr. Okada suggested the best way is for a student to copy something over and over til his own' style coems out. Otakus start by copying manga or anime exactly, then start writing their own dialogue, and then go on from there.

Computers and Anime?

Currently, computers are not much a help for anime creators. For Mr. Okada personally, the stress of dealing with computer crashes and the limitations of text conversations negate many of the benefits of using computers. In the animation industry, the computer has eliminated certain assembly-line work but has made the same work tedious. Even worse, a system may be developed to aid animation, but it goes obsolete in a few years and must be replaced. Mr. Katsuhiro Otomo is apparently working on a work called "Steam Boy," but since his animation system is being rebuilt every two years, he has already spent ten years on the project.

Women Otaku

What about women otaku? Mr. Okada said that, of the 600,000 people who attend the Japanese Comic Market, 60% are actually female. If one just watches TV, one sees mostly males because the women are far more likely to run away from cameras. In fact, Mr. Okada went on to explain, women are very good at hiding otakuness. Males may wear embarrassing otaku T-shirts on the trains on the way to Comic Market, but the females wear staid business suits and pumps, and only once at the destination will they change in the bathrooms into their embarrassingly otaku cosplay clothes. (The applicable Japanese word is "gitai," implying camouflage or mimicry.) While men do not hide their otaku-ness from their wives, otaku wives apparently are very good at hiding their otaku-ness from their husbands, keeping their doujinshi and erotic doujinshi purchases in a hidden cache.

Computer Games and Anime and Manga

Computer games have had an influence on some manga techniques, such as depicting characters overwhelmed with windows and locking up or freezing up ("Oh, she's frozen"). As far as anime goes, there was a time when game companies requested a lot of anime for videos within the game; however, this is less common now. Perhaps the biggest influence on anime from the game industry (in Mr. Okada's view) is the idea of having multiple possible endings ("another scenario"). Hence, it now happens that a TV show may have a happy ending, but the video of the same story may have a tragic ending.

The US Market's Influence on Anime; Cultural Misconceptions

Has the US market influenced Japanese anime production? Not very much, not yet. Japan has only just figured out that many Americans like anime. Japan still makes a number of visible blunders in dealing with depictions of the West. An example is that the Japanese tend not to differentiate between Protestants and Catholics in anime - they are all just "Christian." So supposedly Western graveyards will all be filled with upright crosses instead of any other style of headstone, and every authority figure in a church must be a priest. When feedback started arriving about these issues, the Japanese reaction was a startled, "Oh really?"

A person in the audience noted that he actually enjoys seeing the Japanese view of Western culture, seeing his own culture transformed in the eyes of a different culture. Mr. Okada noted that American films also portray Japanese culture in mistaken ways that amuse the Japanese. For example, the film "Rising Sun" had Japanese scenes that were accompanied by strangely Chinese music. "Even now, Americans can't figure out the difference between Japanese and Chinese!" was the apparent reaction; and Mr. Okada noted the Japanese and Chinese are as different as hydrogen and helium (which anyone familiar with science will know are two extremely different atoms with hugely different properties!).

Mr. Anno ("Evangelion") apparently never read the Bible, despite the heavy Christian symbology of his work; he just (according to Mr. Okada) picked out a few interesting technical terms. Likewise, the anime creation staff might open a book on psychology and, rather than read it thoroughly, simply go through it picking out "great technical terms" to use in the anime!

What if American Amateurs Made Anime?; Copyright Violations

If American amateurs were to make anime with computers, the online equivalent of doujinshi manga, what would the Japanese community reaction be? Mr. Okada thought "They would probably be happy." However, one big difference is that Japanese creators don't worry about copyrights (unlike in the U.S.). Most mangaka remember copying their favorite authors when they were starting out, so they don't feel they can complain. Only high level publishing or anime studio executives tend to complain about copyright violations. In fact, Mr. Kenichi Sonoda, who writes the "Bubblegum Crisis" manga, apparently likes receiving doujinshi of his work, including erotic doujinshi depicting his characters in sexual situations. "How lucky I am to be able to read this without having to write it myself!" is his apparent attitude.

Japanese Society Structure

One very interesting question concerned American misconceptions of Japanese society - which Mr. Okada replied to by referring to corporate and societal hierarchy differences. The Japanese are, he said, not good at concentrating the power in one individual, unlike in America, where one decision maker tends to hold the power. In the US, when the President changes, the entire country is deeply affected; likewise, a change of a CEO will often change a whole company. However, in Japan, even if the top person changes, the rest of the organization tends to stay the same. The stereotypical "bottom up" applies in as much as the lowest person does have an effect on the decisions. Famous directors like Mr. Tomino ("Gundam") and Mr. Oshii ("Ghost in the Shell") may be at the top, but they gather good people - and when asked at an American convention questions like "What's the theme of your work?" or "Why did you do such-and-such?" they are quite likely to reply, "Ask my staff."

What's the Anime Industry <-> Otaku Overlap?

Anime industry people are, Mr. Okada said, 100% otaku.

How Have Computers Affected Japanese Otakus?

How have otaku in Japan changed in the past 20 years due to the influence of computers? Mr. Okada said that, in the past 10 years, otakus have seen less and less of a need to hide their otakuness. But more than this, the internet helps them connect with other otakus and make friends. However, a drawback is that they no longer sit under tremendous pressure - the dual pressure of loving anime and of yet having no outlet. The dual pressure often led to the person going out and doing something, but now, the fact they have outlets means they don't have the pressure pushing them to action any more.

Why Is Japanese Doujinshi Better?

Why is Japanese doujinshi seemingly of a higher quality level than American material? First of all, American society as a whole does not encourage emulation and copying; it is not very good at it. Mr. Okada said he believes creativity is built upon emulation. Japan is very good at emulation and copying, and children in Japan who like manga start copying manga at an early age, perhaps as young as six or seven. Moreover, the dedicated children are always, always drawing - they would be drawing or doodling through Mr. Okada's lecture.

Post-Luncheon Private Chats

Advice to the Aspiring; Further Questions

Later on, after the talk, I and a few others had the opportunity to hang out with Mr. Okada for a while. Among other topics, he briefly discussed:

Fanzine Cautions

(Note: My understanding of this particular conversation is fairly poor, and my notes are inadequate.) It is not healthy for Japanese Animation magazine editors to become "stars" - such as being invited to conventions and talking about whom they met. Just critiquing anime is not enough. Also, a website is not enough; a magazine must be printed and actually sold for it to establish its worth and to boost the egos of the staff. In Japan, the Comic Market has 600,000 people, but the important thing is they represent 25,000 comic fan clubs, which each makes four kinds of magazines. This makes for 100,000 kinds of magazines, full of doujinshi, articles, and reader reactions. The Japanese like to print their manga, and they need to sell their manga.

Yes, There Are Only Otaku in America

Mr. Okada apparently said yesterday that in America, there are no mere "fans" or "consumers" of anime - there are only otaku. When I challenged him on this statement, he pointed out that here it takes effort to keep up with anime as an adult American. Hence, the effort marks adult anime fans as "otaku."

Yes, Anime Has Had a Huge Impact on the US

I also mentioned that many, many Americans seem to be studying Japanese in large part as a result of becoming anime fans (my own email inbox testifies to this trend). Mr. Okada said he doesn't think Japan has any idea how much impact anime has had on the rest of the world.

Advice to Hopeful Animators

He also talked a bit about what it might take for a person to make their own animation. He said that when a person thinks of reasons he can't do something, he must get rid of those reasons. Make a list of what is necessary. Don't look at the final goal in all its monstrous difficulty - instead, break down the tasks into manageable pieces, and take things on in 30 minute or 1 hour pieces.

The project must be your project. You must truly desire to make it happen, and always keep working on it. As long as you keep completing the small pieces, someday the final product will be done!

And as the person with responsibility, you must be committed enough to write the script yourself, or find someone who can do it for you. Don't stop with a no - keep working until you find who and what you need.

When bringing in new people, never lord it over them; however, in your own mind you must keep the final responsibility yourself, the commitment to carry through even if everyone else leaves.

Ideally, a project will have three people. "Daicon III" had three core members: Mr. Yamano Akai, Mr. Anno, and Mr. Okada. Each was determined to carry on even if one of the others left - and supposing one of them fell over dead, Mr. Okada himself would have felt the responsibility of finding a replacement. (That responsibility is the role of the producer - and should the producer leave, a replacement should be found!) However, three people may be a luxury - most projects around the world have only one or two core committed people.

The idea of committing to a questionable project (in a form of "Banzai attack") is perhaps (Mr. Okada said) not a very smart one that would appeal to MIT people. After all, it might be folly to commit to something without knowing if you can actually succeed. But it is what is necessary. (And I argued that MIT people often do these kinds of projects with such things as MIT pranks.)

Also, if you are doing a project, Mr. Okada said, you should aim high. Rather than be content to do something less than professional, one should aim to at the very least match, or preferably surpass, the professionals. And choose the battleground so that it is winnable: even if you can't make a full-length professional anime, you could make even a 30 second anime so good it makes the professionals cry.

Don't worry about a message or story - concentrate on how you feel. "The story is not as important - just what you want to say and what you want to show" - these are important.

Why Does Japanese Anime Still Look Like Anime?

Why is Japanese anime still sticking with the traditional large eyes, small noses, small mouths, and strangely colored big hair? Because it is an established art style (much like every artistic era's notions of beautiful art styles) that the fans love. Mr. Oshii is among those who don't like it - he also doesn't like cute female characters that encourage a growing sense of attraction and connection - however, since he can't find or develop a new style, he chooses to make anime that looks realistic instead.

What Is Mr. Okada Doing These Days?

What is Mr. Okada working on these days? He heads Otaking Productions and he is working on a miniature model product line that is highly popular in Japan. The models are of various historic space crafts, along with fascinating relevant information, sold in "black boxes" that make the purchase a gamble (since one doesn't know what one is buying). For more about these models, see

Mr. Okada's 29 Sept. 2003 Talk

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