Japanese Popular Culture
December 9, 2007
“Enchanted Commodities,” Online Subcultures, and Japanese Capitalism
Soulbonding and Amanda
It would not be a stretch to say that Amanda, a young, talented model with flowing golden hair, could attract any gentleman whose attention she might want. But alas, young men; her heart already belongs to someone, and she will spurn all advances. Amanda will tell you that she’s not simply attached, but married as well. Do not expect, however, to find her husband hovering around her photo shoots, or sitting quietly with her in a café. Amanda is rarely afraid to discuss her unconventional relationship around sympathetic ears. She acknowledges that she is missing out on many of the things that normal couples do together, but feels that the strength of her love makes up for this. “I am aware that I’ll never have the physical bond that conventional couples have. I’m aware that I may be alone in the physical world, but I’ll always have Sephiroth,” she says.1
Amanda will tell you that she is married to Sephiroth, popularly known as the primary antagonist of the popular consol RPG Final Fantasy VII. She says that, though he does not exist physically in “our world,” he exists spiritually, and that, on a spiritual level, their minds meet to exchange vows and express their mutual love. Amanda says that, within her minds eye, she can see Sephiroth, and speak to him.
Amanda belongs to a large (and growing) online community of people claim to be friends (or even lovers) of anime and manga-style characters, with whom they claim to have elaborate conversations on a daily basis. Within this community, the term soulbonding is often used to refer to the experience of having a friendship or other relationship with a fictional character, and the term soulbond refers to the character. Soulbonders describe the experience as that of having a fictional character living inside one’s mind. Some soulbonders, like Amanda, say that they communicate with their soulbonds in an internal, mental world, which they may conceptualize as another “plane of existence.”
Others simply experience the soulbonded character as a voice in their head, or a mental “presence” of which they are almost constantly aware. A popular website on the topic sums of the relationship of the soulbonder and the soulbond thusly: “(Soulbonds) may be confidants or mentors, guardians or guides, encouraging you and providing a means for you to explore your own self and examine your motives. Some may reflect a person you'd like to be, or a side of yourself that you have difficulty expressing; your darkness, or even your light. Some may be lovers; some may just be friends.”2
This may seem to resemble the imaginary friendships many of us had as children. The soulbonding subculture, however, consists mainly of young adults, and they take this very seriously. Online forums for the discussion of soulbonding make it quite clear that its practitioners view soulbonding as they would a relationship with another human being. Livejournal, an online blogging and social networking site, has become a hub for soulbonders, and many even have separate online journals for each of their soulbonds to write in3. On the Livejournal-based community, ~soulbonding, members express the intricacies of these relationships and the joy they provide, but also make ample mention of soulbonds as a source of tension. Apparently, relationships with fictional characters can be just as dysfunctional as any other relationship. A user going by the name “Erisacles” confides that she has had major disagreement with one of her soulbonds, and contemplates asking him to “leave” her mind. In the same post, one finds emotionally-charged descriptions of fights, sometimes violent, between soulbonds in their mind.4 In another thread, users discuss the issue of “fronting:” a term they use for when a soulbond leaves the soulbonder’s mind to take control of his or her body.5 A member going by Kangetsuhime identifies himself as a soulbond who “fronts,” often without the explicit consent of his soulbonder, and notes that she (the soulbonder) often has a “foggy memory” of what happens during these periods.
Another member, using the name Baaing_Tree (a college student), says that her soulbonds often “front” during her classes, and that one of them handles most of her academic writing, whereas another takes care of her Japanese classes. It is, naturally, up for debate whether or not this constitutes a violation of academic integrity. Still other soulbonders say that they often share their consciousness and interaction with the physical world with their soulbonds, and call this “co-fronting.”6 There are even tales of soulbonds and death. Member Gabycat says that her soulbond, Saedel is in pain after being “dumped” by a lover, and that his pain is making her physically ill. Because of this, she wishes to “kill” Saedel and end his (and, presumably her) suffering. The ~soulbonding community reacted to this post with vitriole, treating the potential “killing” of a soulbond as fundamentally the same as murdering another human being “If you think being dumped by a lover is cause enough for murder then you are going to have a very unhappy future ahead of you,” member Russand0l says. Taken as a whole, ~soulbonding and other communities like it express the deeply-held belief that fictional characters with whom one has soulbonded are equivalent in most ways to human beings one meets every day on the street. They can love and be loved, hate and be hated, and generally deserve the same respect as physical humans.
At first blush, many would dismiss soulbonders as insane, and soulbonding websites often go to great lengths to distinguish the phenomenon from voice-hearing as part of well-known mental illnesses. “Schizophrenics are unstable, unable to cope in everyday society, and often dangerous to themselves and others,” says one soulbonding website, “Soulbonders are not that.”7 Despite this, accusations of mental illness tend to follow mentions of soulbonding outside of the subculture. Portal of Evil, a moderately-popular website dedicated to showcasing (and often mocking) strange websites, devoted an entire forum to soulbonding, the tone of which ranges from mild contempt (“This sure is a convoluted definition of daydreaming!”) to concern (“There is another name for this: Schizophrenia.”)8
It would be simple to dismiss soulbonders as mentally ill if there were not so many of them. The sheer size of the subculture suggests that the phenomenon should be viewed from a societal, rather than a psychiatric, standpoint. Paying heed to communications from unseen, disembodied entities should be familiar to any denizen of the early 21st century, and, in other contexts, few would see it as a sign of psychosis. A recent poll reported by The New York Times determined that slightly more than one in four Americans have friends whom they have never physically met, whom they have no definite awareness of aside from digital communications. In a world of cell phones, instant messengers, and e-mail, friendship need not entail physical contact.
We engage in a growing portion of our day-to-day interactions as disembodied entities in digital space. These interactions are almost always infused with a faith that the entity with whom we are communicating is really who they present themselves as, but this is never guaranteed, and reinventing oneself via a digital persona is common. These personas, though fabricated, can easily affect others as strongly as real people, and, as such, can take on what one might call a life of their own. “The Internet has put persona-hopping within the reach of all Americans, and even might be helping to train us for life in a more protean future,” says John Schwartz of The New York Times.9
Soulbonds may be entirely fictitious characters, but, to the soulbonders, they might easily seem just as real as the other disembodied characters populating their lives. Though Sephiroth is a fictional character designed by Tetsuya Nomura for Square Enix, Amanda’s love for him may very well be as real as that felt for a physical human being.
Amanda firmly believes that Sephiroth loves her back, and this perceived exchange clearly affects her just as much as any physical relationship might. When one examines soulbonding from a relational standpoint, the existence or non-existence of the fictional soulbonds becomes moot; their effect upon the soulbonder is real and quite powerful. Put simply, to soulbonders, it does not matter that their companions might not be real; what matters is their loving relationship, which most certainly is perceived as real.
Otakukin and Hilda
“Hilda” (not her real name) is twenty years old. Unlike Amanda, she provides little information about her life or her hobbies. She says that her background is “middle class,” and that, as a child, she was outwardly normal, though “bookish,” by her own admission. From a young age, however, Hilda claims to have been haunted by a feeling of her own foreignness, and a sense that her real home was somewhere else. “I used to demand to be allowed to “go home” even if I was in my own room,” she says. At age fourteen, she began watching dubbed episodes of the anime series, Digimon Adventure 02, on the popular Fox Kids Saturday morning cartoon block. Hilda found herself drawn to the character of Ken Ichijouji, and describes having “powerful, visceral emotional reactions out of proportion for just watching a TV show.”
She reports having strange, very vivid dreams in which she seemed to relive the plot of Digimon from Ichijouji’s perspective, and even claims that these dreams made her oddly aware of crucial plot points prior to certain episodes reaching the United States. Still, at other times, Hilda was unable to shake the feeling that something was missing from the show. To Hilda, parts of the story had been left out; parts which she became aware of in her dreams.
Everything about the world of Digimon seemed achingly familiar to her. Ultimately, she says, she came to one conclusion: that she, Hilda, was Ken Ichijouji, and that everything that had happened to him in Digimon Adventure 02 (and then some) had happened to her. Hilda has concluded that, even though she is now a young adult in 21st century America, she once lived in the universe of Digimon, only to be reincarnated here.
“After a lot of soul searching, and lot of help from my friends, I accepted who I was, and gained a measure of peace with my identity… …I am Ken Ichijouji, then and now,” she says. Hilda does not simply identify with Ichijouji; she believes that he was once real, and that she, Hilda, was him. She now runs a small website known as From Fiction where she details her life as an “otakukin” and converses with other like-minded individuals.
“Otakukin” is a colloquial term coined from the Japanese word “otaku” (commonly used in America to refer to fans of Japanese popular culture) to describe individuals who experience this sort of extreme identification with anime and manga-style characters. Janet Houck, a columnist for Mania TV, bluntly describes otakukin as “people (who) believe that they are anime-related, fictional characters.”
In a brief opinion piece on the subject, Houck notes common tropes within the small but growing otakukin community, such as the widespread belief in multiple universes and reincarnation. “Reincarnation,” she explains, “works into the equation by saying that anime plots are based on events that happened thousands of years ago or merely occurred on an alternative plane of existence, and these souls…reincarnate in humans.”
In a long, rambling essay on a website called Temple of the Ota’kin, an unidentified, self-proclaimed otakukin discusses his/her belief system and its relationship to Japanese popular culture. He/She suggests that fiction in “the East” often draws more “accurately” from established mythology and folklore, and suggests that this lends veracity to the argument that characters from Japanese anime and manga may have existed in some form and at some point in history.
He/She suggests that anime and manga are spiritually compelling, and form a body of modern mythology, resembling earlier pantheons.10 This relates to the Jungian theory of the collective unconscious; a reservoir of archetypal experiences and personas, often seen in mythology and accessible to each individual. In Jungian terms, otakukin could be viewed as individuals who believe that they (or attempt to) embody an archetypal persona portrayed in fiction.11
Hilda’s own site takes a different tactic; rather than suggesting that these characters may have once walked the earth, he argues in favor of multiple dimensions. In a journal entry on the popular art site, DeviantArt, he says “I believe that there are an infinite (sic) number of alternate worlds/realities wherein everything happens. Every possibility is explored.”12 This idea resembles the “pantheistic solipsism” described by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein in his novel The Number of the Beast, wherein he asserts that particularly creative authors may be creating (or alternatively, discovering) alternate universes in which their fiction takes place.13
Regardless of how they justify their belief system, the otakukin identification with characters from Japanese popular culture is not to be taken lightly. As was the case with Amanda and other soulbonders, many see their identity as a double-edged sword, from which they derive both pleasure and pain. Though Hilda expresses the peace and self-certainty that came with accepting his otakukin identity, he also hints at emotional turmoil. “I am plagued by nightmares of sins this lifetime never saw, and by dreams of friends I'll never see again. Its no picnic being like this, okay?” On the Livejournal community ~From_Fiction, members recount the pain of remembering the life they once lead as a fictional character.14 There is even a support group on Livejournal specifically for otakukin to share painful memories of their past lives, which, as one would expect from fictional characters, were often tumultuous and violent.15
As was the case with soulbonding, otakukin overwhelmingly communicate the gravity of their beliefs and self-image. Though Hilda advises other otakukin to avoid talking about their identity on a daily basis, there is a clear desire among otakukin to be taken seriously and accepted.16 In a short essay entitled “Are Otakukin Crazy?” Hilda takes great pains in presenting otakukin as functional rather than pathological, and argues that otakukin are no more delusional than followers of other religious/spiritual beliefs.17
Like soulbonders, otakukin meet with harsh criticism online. In a short essay entitled “Lifestyles of the Magical and Animated,” the owner of SixSixFive.com expresses an all-too-common view of the subculture, referring to otakukin as “a concept so monumentally f****d-up that it could only have sprung from the mind of Livejournal users who really, really like Japanese cartoons and don't get out a whole hell of a lot.”18
As was the case with soulbonders, the size of the subculture makes it difficult to dismiss, and certain aspects of 21st century life lend themselves to an understanding of otakukin beliefs. Digital interaction increasingly makes embodiment superfluous, and we now easily communicate without ever revealing our physical appearance. In such an era, why should embodiment have anything to do with identity? As Schwartz noted, technology provides us with the opportunity to construct our identity in any way we please. Older people can construct youthful personas, and vice versa. One can present oneself as male, female, or even, declining to specify a gender, androgynous. Most would agree that believing oneself to be an anime character differs greatly from simply pretending to be someone else online, but this difference is a matter of degree rather than kind. A fabricated online persona can often affect others just as deeply as a physical person, regardless of its fictitious nature.19 Similarly, as evidenced in otakukin forums and websites, the adopted identity of a fictional character provides an individual with a stable identity that directs and facilitates interaction. As was the case with soulbonders, the veracity of otakukin beliefs becomes superfluous if one examines the role played by these beliefs. The otakukin identity provides its adherents with community (with other otakukin,) and, more importantly, a comforting sense of self and one’s place within the world. Whether or not parallel universes filled with anime characters are real, these effects are undeniable.
What role does Japan play in the world of soulbonders and otakukin? Though the phenomen has now spread to encompass Western media, otakukin, as the name suggests, generally identify with Japanese fiction. The considerable minority of individuals who identify with Western media have adopted the term “fictionkin,” to distinguish themselves from the dearth of Japan-identified otakukin. In addition to Hilda’s own Digimon identity, his site features an essay by a girl who believes herself to be Vincent from Final Fantasy VII.20 Posts on Livejournal’s ~From_Fiction community focus almost entirely on Japanese media, with a few exceptions. Soulbonding, too, encompasses Western narratives like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, but a quick perusal of several soulbonding communities and websites leaves one with the distinct impression that an inordinate percentage of soulbonds hail from Japanese anime, video games, or manga. The proprietor of Soul Whispers devotes an entire page to her many soulbonds, all most all of which are anime characters, from such series as Neon Genesis Evangelion (Misato Katsuragi) and Card Captor Sakura (Tomoyo Daidouji).21 Catherine, the keeper of Fiction Connection soulbonds characters from Final Fantasy IV. For all intents and purposes, there appears to be a surplus of soulbonds from Japanese animation. It becomes clear that Japanese media, rather than its Western equivalents, plays the most central role in both the otakukin and soulbonding subcultures. Why is this the case?
Analogous phenomena exist with a decidedly more Western focus. In recent years, the “furry” community has drawn much attention in America. Members of this subculture (referred to colloquially as “furries” or simply “furs”) identify primarily with non-human (though often anthropomorphized) animals such as wolves or cats, and often attend lavish conventions dressed as their animal of choice. “Furries” see themselves as animals trapped in human bodies, and their expressed feelings of “otherness” resemble those of otakukin.22 Similarly, the “functional multiplicity” movement, made up of individuals who claim to be psychologically healthy, yet have loving, functional relationships with one or many “alternate personalities” within their minds, resembles the experience of soulbonding, sans the connection to anime, manga, and other fiction.23 Unlike otakukin and soulbonders, “furries” and “functional multiples” have few, if any, ties to mass media. “Furries” often produce their own art and animation, but rarely do they draw from preexisting, mass-marketed fiction, and very rarely are the alternate personalities claimed by “functional multiple” adherents based upon such fiction. Why do the most deep-seated beliefs of soulbonders and otakukin relate to Japanese media, while their Western counterparts seem divorced from mass-marketed fiction? It is easy to suggest that the link between otakukin, soulbonding, and Japan has something to do with the Japanese approach to mass media and commodities in general.
Anne Allison’s book, Millenial Monsters, focuses on the global role of Japanese popular culture and commodities. She notes that, while some Western scholars see capitalism as disenchanting and alienating, the Japanese form of capitalism turns this view on its head. “(F)ed by folkloric and religious traditions, an animistic sensibility percolates the postmodern landscape of Japan today in ways that do not occur in the United States.” From the Japanese perspective, commodities are imbued with a life all their own, and the relationship between consumer and commodity begins to resemble an interpersonal relationship. When consumers treat them as comforting companions, commodities seem imbued with the sensation of life or spirit, becoming, Allison says, “enchanted.”24
Popular anime, manga, and video game characters, of the kind that make up both soulbonds and the otakukin identity, are perfect examples of this “enchanted commodity” phenomenon. According to Allison, the pressures of work and school leave contribute to what she calls “the unease of contemporary times” in Japan. Against this backdrop, mass-marketed characters have become a means of relieving stress and alleviating alienation. Appealing characters, according to Allison, can be “appropriated as symbols for personal, corporate, group, and national identity,” and may function as jikojitsugen, vehicles of self-awareness. Consumers can relate to characters such as Pokemon and Hello Kitty as constant and unconditionally loving companions, deriving a sense of shared joy and friendship from these commodities.25 In Japan, this alternative approach to capitalism produces mass media conducive to such a manner of relating to commodities. Japanese characters are valued for their “cuteness” and lovability. The more “enchant-able” a commodity is, the more popular it will be with the Japanese public.
There exists an obvious tension within this model of consumption. Consumers seek a unique self-definition through artifacts marketed to, purchased by, and enjoyed by millions. In his essay, “Fan Cultures Between Consumerism and Resistence,” Matt Hills identifies the apparently contradictory nature of the “enchanted commodity” consumer. By seeking to be original and individualistic, the consumer expresses values that contradict the homogeneity of mass marketing. At the same time, however, mass-marketed commodities become vehicles for originality for the consumer. Hills does not attempt to resolve this tension, however. One might suggest that the paradox between consumer and marketer is somewhat constitutive of the experience of both; the consumer of “enchanted commodities” playfully engages in the struggle to transform the popular into the unique, whereas the marketer, playing opposite the consumer, must balance an appearance of uniqueness with popular appeal.26
Much of this discourse on “enchanted commodities” echoes within the soulbonding and otakukin subcultures. Soulbonders, after all, view their soulbonded characters as loving (if disembodied) friends with whom they communicate on a daily basis, and from them they derive the same pleasure and comfort that would come from a relationship with a physical human. Otakukin, rather than developing friendships with these commodities, have adopted the commodities as cohesive, stable symbols for their own identity. With Allison’s concept of Japanese “enchanted commodities” in mind, it seems only natural that otakukin and soulbonders gravitate towards Japanese mass media. Though many members of both subcultures hail from America and other Western countries, it is altogether believable that they, like many 21st century Japanese, may experience the “unease of contemporary times” and seek escape from such a feeling in an extreme appropriation of Japanese “enchanted commodities.”
In the mid-20th century, long before Japanese animation and video games became popular in America, long before the Internet brought together diverse and strange subcultures, philosopher Viktor Frankl, in his seminal text Man’s Search for Meaning, noted, “As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asking. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”27
A survivor of the Nazi death camps, Frankl faced hardships of a gravity far greater than those experienced by most first world citizens today. His statement, however, is perhaps universally applicable, even within relatively peaceful, stable societies. The subcultures examined present possible answers to the challenge of the postmodern life. Ultimately, these answers themselves are superfluous, and their real value is derived not from any truth they may contain, but from the role in which they play in the lives of their adherents. Each person must find their own meaning in life, and this meaning is only valuable insofar as it answers for the life of the individual.