“The Internet has democratised content, and the gatekeepers are no longer in control.” –Andrew Zimmern
“One day, everyone will be an otaku“, Zero proclaims from his home in Kawagoe. It’s 1993, and Wired Magazine has concluded with an interview with the sullen software trouble-shooter, a member of the otaku subculture. Characterised as Japan’s socially inept but often brilliant technological shut-ins, it seemed inconceivable that such individuals would ever become commonplace at the time. Unbeknownst to Zero, some three decades later, his prediction would come to pass. The internet has evolved from being a curious form of communication to a ubiquitous resource responsible for handling everything from transportation to banking, cumbersome dial-up modems have been displaced by sleek fibre optic networks, and smartphones are now more powerful than room-filling mainframe computers. Attesting to these profound changes in the world, my own days resembles that of Zero’s: after starting my day at the gym or read through the latest news, I get to work tracing through iOS and Android source code to expand an app’s function, or identify existing bugs so I may fix them. Eight hours later, I unwind with a good book, exchange thoughts with an online community about the things I find in anime, chat with my friends or otherwise, put on the season’s latest anime series. Nowadays, the process is as simple as opening a streaming service, sitting down and taking it easy. However, I remember a time when things were not quite as straightforward. When I began this blog ten-and-a-half years ago, anime streaming was unreliable, choppy and limited. Back then, anime fans would’ve had to navigate the grey area of fansubs (anime episodes with subtitles provided by other viewers, rather than professional translators) to keep up to speed with a given season’s shows. I was a novice anime fan at the time, swapping videos with my friends on flash drives and exchanging stories on how quickly our down speeds allowed us to pick up fansubs. In that era, finding anything worth watching was tricky: the fansubbing groups were fond of imposing their presence on those who consumed “their” videos, and to this end, would create what were colloquially referred to as “trollsubs”, which contained excessive honourifics, translation notes and occasionally, blatantly incorrect translations designed to muddle comprehension and enjoyment. Video codecs were chosen to be exclusive, demanding people specifically use Media Player Classic and warning anyone that, if they had less than a 2.4 GHz quad-core CPU, the videos wouldn’t decode smoothly, and they didn’t deserve to watch their fansubs anyways. Those who uploaded soundtracks to shady file-sharing sites enjoyed encoding files in obscure formats like .ape, and the origins of fanart accompanying blog posts were jealously guarded secrets. Japanese fans refused to share location hunt comparisons in images wider than 210 pixels and even blocked right-click on their travel blogs to prevent distribution of their images, while other fans uploaded custom animations only to NicoNico Seiga at low resolutions and routinely caused phony takedown notices to delete videos from anyone who reposted their work to YouTube. Blogging was still a relatively limited pursuit, and giants of the day saw themselves as the sole authorities on which anime were “objectively” good. It seemed unusual that the anime community of the time was so insistent on making the hobby as difficult to participate in as possible, especially in a hobby that was already a niche one.
Reading through the Wired interview some ten years earlier, however, I found a modicum of understanding behind the behaviours within the community. In this interview, the article describes the otaku Zero as a dropout from Keio University’s math sciences department because he “didn’t like being ordered around by teachers to whom he felt superior”. Despite failing to finish his degree, Zero landed on his feet: by day, Zero earned his keep as a remote help desk technician to the tune of 350000 Yen per month (about 48000 CAD per year, adjusted for inflation), enough to comfortably pay the bills and keep up with rent in his Kawagoe apartment. By night, Zero acquired and analysed game cartridges for bugs and defects with the aim of, in his own words, “exposing the phony computer experts who invented the game in the first place”. Zero’s life revolved around disseminating information that was not previously known to others – in this zero-sum game, Wired describes the otaku as seeking out information solely for the purpose that they got to it first, and others didn’t. Being able to have something no one else had was the prize, and those who consistently could acquire information became widely respected: when one of Zero’s online friends posts information surrounding a concert, Zero is impressed. However, this feeling evaporates when Zero reads a seventeen-page report on how one game apparently utilised the same underlying code as another game. Zero’s known this for at least a week and gets to work writing a message warning others to pay this user no mind. The Wired article is telling: Zero’s motivated by two, seemingly conflicting factors. Posting something before anyone else, in Zero’s mind, would prove his own brilliance and gain him approval from others. Yet, Zero is also reported as believing himself to be superior to others. He engages in picking apart game cartridges to show that other software developers are flawed, if someone like him could find bugs in their work, and believes that he can get by without ever “[needing] to deal with anyone like [professors]”. This mindset is mirrored amongst those of the anime community in the late 2000s and early 2010s: those who had made the so-called troll-subs openly claimed that only a subset of people deserved to enjoy “their” content, while bloggers fluent in Japanese would travel to Japan for the singular purpose of watching a film so they could say on a forum or blog post that they saw the movie ahead of anyone else. The Wired article had been most telling: Zero’s conviction in his own superiority, and the constant need to gain validation by shutting down others, was a sign of someone who saw themselves as being separate from society, rather than a part of it. Zero was, in short, a forerunner of sorts to the gatekeepers within the anime community I encountered. Having now read Wired’s article, I had my answer: the fansubbers, uploaders and bloggers of the time saw their pursuits as an exclusive community only open to a limited few. People had to either earn their way in through technical know-how, or put up with being insulted at every turn by those who felt themselves superior to others: fansubs patronised viewers, communities had rules that forbade questioning why certain codecs or encoding algorithms were used, and bloggers openly disparaged entire genres as being “anti-intellectual”. Gatekeeping is the act of deliberately obstructing or excluding someone from participating in a pursuit, to the extent where it significantly degrades their experience. Ten years earlier, gatekeeping was facilitated by the fact that the technology was still quite arcane. A great deal of time and know-how was needed to partake in the hobby in an enjoyable, meaningful way. However, while the motivations behind gatekeeping have remained quite unchanged since Wired’s interview with Zero, technology has changed dramatically.
Nowadays, streaming services make it easier than ever for fans to watch their favourite shows and listen to their favourite songs. Reverse image search algorithms allow one to swiftly determine where a character is from, and blogging is accessible to anyone with a mind full of ideas and an internet connection. In a world where accessibility has greatly improved, the ability for gatekeepers to operate as they did ten years earlier has been crippled. Elitist bloggers who believe only certain genres of anime are worth producing are few in number, and troll subs have largely evaporated. Anyone who’s a fan of Japanese popular culture is free to partake in the manner of their choosing. Advancing technology, and unprecedented accessibility means that, at least on paper, gatekeeping is beaten back, defeated. If a troll sub group decided they wanted to release a meme-laden set of subtitles, fans can simply hop on a streaming service. A streaming service that injects contemporary politics into its translations may similarly prompt viewers to fall back on another service, or abandon legitimate means for grey options, options where the translators attempt to produce a more faithful translation knowing they can be replaced if their work is below par. A YouTuber who claims to “own” concert footage and refusing to name the songs in said concert can be side-stepped by making use of Shazam and Apple Music, or perhaps Spotify. In spite of these advances, the contemporary anime community still appears to grapple with gatekeeping from time to time. However, upon closer inspection, this new gatekeeping manifests as individuals, or groups, posting to Twitter or Reddit that certain fans are not legitimate, certain genres are, in meme-speak, “mid”, ad nauseum. Although this form of gatekeeping is sufficient to spark off lengthy debate on who should participate in a community, what makes one a fan and the like, it is so feeble and ineffective that one wonders why anyone would let a 280-character string or upvotes impact what they do and do not enjoy. Today’s gatekeepers minimally satisfy the definition: while they seek to exclude, they are unable to negatively degrade one’s experience as the gatekeepers could previously a decade earlier: while an unplayable codec might stop a fan in the early 2010s from watching their shows, a poorly-written Tweet from someone with a few thousand followers doesn’t have that sort of impact (short of said user coming over to one’s residence and physically stopping one from pursuing their interests). The very technology gatekeepers had once counted on to rigidly control their hobby and the surrounding community has, ironically, become the very instrument that has made anime significantly more inviting, welcoming and accessible. This is largely in part a consequence of the increasing ubiquity of high technology: as more people become otaku, they take up positions at large technology companies and bring with them a wider variety of perspectives. These perspectives make their way into the technology and create a feedback loop in which more inclusivity makes technology easier to use, encouraging more people to become versed with its function. In this way, gatekeeping, as I’d known it in the late 2000s and early 2010s, is all but extinct.
Additional Remarks and Comments
- At the opposite end of gatekeeping is the celebration of one’s hobbies. A decade earlier, there was no more visceral expression than otaku rooms, living spaces that are adjourned with figurines, wall scrolls and other anime merchandise. Danny Choo’s “Worldwide Rooms” was intended precisely for showcasing some of the more stylish rooms around the world, and it is from here these images are derived from. Among the otaku rooms highlighted, two stood out to me: the first was Tigra of Poland. Tigra’s immaculately-kept room drew the envy of those who saw the photos: the kanji 虎 (“tiger”) is embossed into a striking hardwood floor, and skylights flood the room with natural light. Recessed light fixtures create a sense of sophistication, reducing the aerial clutter in the room and pushing the occupant’s focus on the room itself. The slanted ceilings create an avant-garde aesthetic, and the light-orange ambience conveys a feeling of warmth. The space itself is classy, elegant and clean; a chic lounge chair and low-platform bed can be spotted, giving the room coziness.
- Adorning Tigra’s room and its shelves are figurines, piles of manga and the most cutting-edge electronics of its time: Tigra is a figurine and manga collector, and when Danny Choo posted this room’s contents in 2011, readers expressed admiration for the space, which struck a balance between form and function. Of course, being a shade over a decade old means that all of Tigra’s hardware is quite outdated by this point in time. Back in 2011, I was an undergraduate student and had run a Dell XPS 420 for my coursework. I still used a flip-phone, and while I had an HP laptop, it was a slower machine that struggled to start up. My current workspace is a ways cleaner than Tigra’s (the only sign I’m an anime fan is a Madoka Magica keychain, which I’ve affixed to my favourite USB for file transfers), and offers a gorgeous view of the city.
- Tigra’s room was, in short, the embodiment of “living the dream”. I myself was envious of such a setup when I first read through this post. However, fast forward seven years, and Tigra would write a blog post about her experiences with collecting figurines as a part of her hobby. In this blog post, Tigra details how her hobby turned into something of an addiction: it was always enjoyable to purchase a new figure, but once the new figure arrived, Tigra would already be thinking about buying the next new figure. One morning, she had arisen to a room full of figurines, manga and gadgets strewn about. It’d hit her that she’d collected things she didn’t even had time to properly enjoy, and Tigra found herself overwhelmed. The hobby had become exhausting, and chasing the rush of anticipation turned Tigra’s hobby into an all-consuming one.
- Fortunately, there is a happy ending in Tigra’s post: she began to sell off her collection and only keep the figures that only bring her joy. In doing so, the minimalism has brought Tigra new joy. Tigra’s learnings, of moderation, is the key to maintaining a sustainable and healthy hobby, and a massive collection is not always highly regarded – Danny Choo has shown off what he titled “The Ultimate Otaku” room, and comments here are a little more lukewarm. Some folks comment that such a room must be hard to sleep in, feeling more like a shop than a private space, while others wonder how much such a collection would’ve costed.
- It is clear that to fans, what makes an otaku room appealing isn’t the sheer quantity of items collected, but rather, the combination of how a space is utilised to strike a balance between expressing one’s hobby and maintaining an inviting, livable aesthetic. It is therefore unsurprising that what appealed to me most about Danny Choo’s top Worldwide Rooms weren’t the figurines or merchandise itself, but rather, the fact that a given space was tastefully organised. There are other several instances of Worldwide Rooms that are particularly inspiring and well done.
- The other otaku room I particularly was fond of was from Kraster of Denmark. This clean room is highlighted with green accents, making things pop. Shelving units are cleverly employed to increase storage space without amplifying clutter, and Kraster has done a good job of striking a balance between showing off their collection without overwhelming the space with stuff. Compared to Tigra and Kraster’s setups, mine is significantly more spartan. Folks will have noticed that I only have Gundam models in one shelf on the wall unit, and I have a small shelf dedicated for my manga and artbooks. Beyond this, I have no wall scrolls or posters. There is a practical reason for why so few of my Gundam models are out and about: I’ve chosen to only display my Master Grades, and all of my High Grades are in boxes. This is because dusting off things like figurines and models are tricky, and while the new place is significantly less dusty, I’ve made it a habit of dusting everything off, and sweeping the floors, once a day.
- Seeing some of the otaku rooms and the thought of having to dust all of that off makes me recoil. The me of a decade ago found these otaku room to be quite inspiring, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing how people set their spaces up. In the decade that has passed since I first read these posts, I’ve long finished my education and, in conjunction with my obligations and responsibilities, now have a bit of freedom to kit out spaces in my manner of choosing. I’m finding that a Konmari-style method, in which I only keep the stuff that genuinely makes me happy, is appropriate: space is a premium now, and there’s a certain joy in having a very clean living space that resembles something out of an AirBnB listing, albeit with hints of my personality interspersed throughout.
- Since this is a post that touches on gatekeeping, one might wonder if I have any gatekeeping stories to share. The most notable story I have involves a friend who had uploaded segments of a Gundam Unicorn live action concert for me to check out on YouTube, only to get his channel terminated when one PotKettleB1ack reported him. A week of effort was spent on appeals, to no avail, and the infuriating part had been the fact that this individual had not been the legitimate copyright holder. There was a happy ending here: both of us would later experience schadenfreude after learning PotKettleB1ack had his channel terminated for the very thing he tried to leverage against my friend, proving he most certainly did not own the Gundam Unicorn concert footage.
- As for me, the most egregious example of gatekeeping I’ve personally experienced came shortly after I wrote my Girls und Panzer: Der Film review. Japanese anime fans had somehow found said review, and on their message boards, some claimed that I had no business in the Girls und Panzer franchise. One individual stated that “また泥棒が違法視聴してるのか？金を出さないなら見るなよアニメ業界にとってお前らは寄生虫と同じだ。” (“Is this thief watching illegally? If you don’t pay for it, you shouldn’t be watching. You’re just like a parasite on the anime industry”), while another suggested that “サイトで見るような奴は真のファンじゃない。本当に好きな奴はDVDを買う” (“The person you see on [this blog] isn’t a true fan. Those who genuinely support [Girls und Panzer] would buy the DVDs”). Since Der Film‘s BDs had been available on CD Japan, I find it tough to believe these individuals would be ignorant to the fact that BDs can be purchased overseas. Such claims can only come from a desire to exclude foreign fans, like myself, from watching and writing about anime. In response to these criticisms, I shrug and get on with my day.
- Between myself and my friends, we have amassed quite the collection of gatekeeping incidents we’ve experienced. However, we recall most of these stories with a laugh: over the years, it’s become increasingly easier to ignore and bypass gatekeepers. When Gundam 00 was airing, fans could have their experience actively degraded by those who were too uptight to provide their fansubs in a playable format. Today, a streaming subscription gives one access to a plethora of anime for low prices, and these codec elitists have since faded to obscurity. On the other hand, fans who believe others shouldn’t be in their hobby can be negated by paying them no mind; the Japanese message board users certainly didn’t impact my Girls und Panzer experience to any capacity, and short of coming over to my place to physically stop me (incidentally, I’d like to see them try), are powerless to stop me from buying the BDs and writing about my experiences. Despite some of the issues surrounding improved technology and accessibility (especially on social media, where outrage is manufactured every other week), what I’ve seen over the past ten years leads me to a simple conclusion: it’s easier now to be an anime fan than it’s ever been.
Accessibility is, in short, the countermeasure for gatekeeping, and technology is the instrument for this accessibility. Having come upon Wired’s article a decade earlier, and finding it to fully explain a phenomenon that had made it tricky to be a fan of anime at the time, I was able to develop an understanding of why some folks were so insistent on hoarding information. Despite these hurdles, I continued to enjoy anime in my own way, and having now seen the evolution of things like streaming services and reverse image search, I can say with confidence that anime fans today have unprecedented access to the medium. The barrier for entry has never been lower, and this means folks are able to, more effectively than had previously been possible, watch what they enjoy, and discuss it with people who are respectful, reasoned and open-minded. Gatekeepers have been reduced to making quips on social media about who “should” be allowed to watch something, although with the ground constantly shrinking around them, I imagine that even this form of gatekeeping could go the way of the dodo. Zero’s prediction of everyone becoming otaku may have come to pass, but it has also gone beyond this: the Wired article had suggested that being an otaku, or technologically savvy, brings with it numerous advantages. At their best, otaku are hard-working individuals with a profound love of their chosen occupation. With the right encouragement, they can become team-players with unparalleled drive and passion, putting in a significant effort towards advancing the world in hitherto unimagined ways. Revisiting the Wired article anew in the present, it is not lost on me that, in many ways, I am a contemporary Zero. However, beyond the superficial similarities and vast technological differences (even the seven-year-old Series 0 Apple Watch skates rings around Zero’s Quadra 900 Macintosh PC, which cost 7000 USD back in its time), it is quite clear that the otaku world today is dramatically different. Sharing information and including people in communities has never been easier, while those who wish to play the “first past the post” game are finding it increasingly difficult to do so, and this suits me just fine: gatekeeping is defeated by accessibility and inclusion, so it follows that a world where things are easier to access, and more inclusive, would become correspondingly more challenging to gatekeep.