Canted Desire: Otaku Performance in Japanese Popular Culture

Yuji Sone


The term, otaku, which addresses varied fandom-related activities, is a buzzword in discussions of Japanese popular culture. This article addresses the most controversial aspect of otaku practice: the stereotypical male otaku’s admiration for, and investment in, cartoon images of young girl characters. While this practice has been discussed in terms of the notions of perversion and of queerness, I see this otaku practice not in terms of a sexual politics, but as operating through a highly culturally-specific tradition that understands signs in embodied terms. I consider how Japanese traditions of somatic and material conditioning relate to and assist to explain this practice. I propose the concept of ‘performance’ as a profound process for making social meaning, and the key term with which to understand the Japanese engagement with artefacts, in contrast to an idea of performance as essentially false, and to do with mere appearance. The article illustrates how an exchange between the male otaku’s coded gesturing and his embodied relations with the young girl cartoon image is derived from traditional concepts. The ‘radicality’ of the otaku’s ‘perversity’ lies in its aberrant construction of intersubjective communication through a cultural habitus that is extended to the Internet, merging the subject and the object of desire.

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