On the face of it, Hiroki Azuma calling otaku "Database Animals" seems self explanatory; you only have to look as far as sites like MyAnimeList or AniDB to understand the near feral desire to categorise and analyse and verify. Were that the whole story, Otaku: Japan's Database Animals would be an unfulfilling read which thankfully is far from the reality.
If that sounds a little like an otaku Escher painting you're not far wrong
Coming from Minnesota Press, the same publishing house house as Beautiful Fighting Girl, Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams as well as the Mechademia series, the book is in good company with its academically targetted, psychological study of otaku as a recent cultural phenomenom. Indeed core to the book's central theory is that otaku are very modern, only coalescing in the early 1970's.
Coming from the husband and wife team that includes Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku and WIRED fame, Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential charts the rise of schoolgirls in Japan from background to brand, exploring the details and influences that surround them. Printed in a stubby, easily held format, the book is littered with photographs and illustrations that support the content, but is also adorned with a variety of kitschy, gaudy paraphernalia like faux-diamond bordered hearts as image captions and heart stickers in the corners. The format is fitting for the subject matter, keying into the peppy and sparkly façade, but completely at odds with the variety and veracity of content that the book offers from start to finish. The level of research, care and attention that has been put in is gratifying for a book that could easily have been as vapid and frivolous as one assumes the eponymous schoolgirls are.
the writing is fluid and encourages extended reading with stand out chapters on fashion and the history of the uniform
The greratest triumph of the book is in debunking that mentality: that the schoolgirls, decked out in iconic sailor-suit school uniforms, are a product carried by a society that has a borderline hysterical lust for cute characters and intense consumerism. Subverting that impression to show the girls as drivers behind many of the sea-changes that happened in fashion and product development to moulding gender issues is cleverly done and achieved through example more than a stolid recounting of facts. The book is divided into eight chapters that begin by covering the history of the most obvious trait - the uniform - then moving on to idols, film, magazines, art and wrapping up with video games, manga and anime.
Alex Kerr is no stranger to Japan, his books and history demonstrate a continuing personal involvement and deep affection for the country which is hard to find in many foreigners. Perhaps best know for the seminal Lost Japan, Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan was published eight years later in 2002 and aims to get to the heart of how Japan as a nation has been degrading since the Second World War and before. At times it is a bleak and unforgiving book that aims with ruthless precision to uncover why Japan, once sequestered, then exposed, then devastated, then superior and now, supposedly irrelevant, has become that way. By and large it succeeds and prises open a world that no other book has had the courage to touch upon - indeed Kerr expands on this at many points throughout the ~400 page book. Unfortunately though it is hamstrung by many arguments which boil down to personal opinion and though convincing, it is difficult not to see this as only one side to a very complex and pertinent argument.
acts a touchstone for a country exiting a period of stagnation and turbulence but whether anything has changed in the meantime is the biggest question
I was first introduced to the book through Joi Ito's blog which also recommended and revealed a number of other alternativebooks around Japan that are currently on my reading stack. It is the first Japan related book that I have read that doesn't take either an educational or effusive stance on the country or element of its culture which was the greatest hurdle to overcome when starting out. The writing style is clean and precise which is excellent for getting across fact but not so when dealing with opinion. As Kerr mentions, the statistics he includes are accurate to the best of his ability but thanks to the idiosyncrasies of reporting and accounting, many are hard to verify; regardless the breadth of research that went into the book is awe inspiring and although it is now becoming dated, what is surprising is not only how relevant the book still is but how relevant it is regarding the recent economic turmoil suffered by the majority of the developed world.