electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Article 7 in 2011
First published in ejcjs on 30 September 2011

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Re-Narrating Social Class and Masculinity in Neoliberal Japan

An examination of the media coverage of the 'Akihabara Incident' of 2008


David H. Slater

Associate Professor
Sophia University


Patrick W. Galbraith

PhD Candidate
University of Tokyo

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About the Author


This paper examines the media response to the slayings in Akihabara in 2008, particularly coverage of the perpetrator, Katō Tomohiro, as a way to understand the contradictions and anxieties of this moment of neoliberal capitalism, namely the dissolution of key components of the postwar Japan national project in an age of precarious labor and fractured gender identities. We trace representations of Katō in the blogosphere and mainstream media as a failed worker and failed man, his attempt to reestablish what could be called an "otaku masculinity" in an age of "love capitalism" and finally his extended struggle to find connections, digital and fantastic, in the period leading up to the "Akihabara Incident."

Key Words

Masculinity; irregular labor; neoliberal capitalism; blogosphere; Japan; youth; popular culture; media; Akihabara; otaku


On 8 June 2008, Katō Tomohiro, a 25-year-old dispatch worker stationed in an automotive factory in Shizuoka Prefecture, rented a truck to come to Akihabara, Tokyo's famous electronics shopping district and a center for Japanese anime and game culture. He headed for the Sunday "Pedestrian Paradise" (hokōsha tengoku), an outdoor arcade on Main Street (Chūō dōri) that at the time drew tens of thousands of visitors. Rather than joining the festivities, however, Katō drove the two-ton vehicle into the crowd, jumped out of the cab and rampaged through the streets with a knife. When the carnage was over, seven lay dead and as many as 10 injured. The police cornered, captured and interrogated Katō, then released his statement: "I am tired of life. I came to Akihabara to kill people. It didn't matter who they were. I came alone." Partially because this was one of the worst mass slayings in the history of postwar Japan, and partially because it occurred in Akihabara, which was at the heart of promoting Japanese popular culture to the world (Galbraith 2010), the media response was intense and prolonged. While the initial attempt to understand Katō's horrific actions focused on individual pathology, the subsequent media explanations shifted to a broader focus to make some sense of what would be called the "Akihabara Incident" (Akihabara tōrima jiken).1 The coverage was diverse, but one of the most recurrent themes was Katō's "irregular employment" (hiseiki koyō), a precarious status he shared with a significant percentage of young men in his generation. One news magazine reported that, "Had Katō been a regular employee this tragedy might have been avoided" (Shūkan Gendai, 28 June 2008).

As the story developed, Katō's frequent messages to online bulletin boards were taken up to create a portrait of his compromised status. Posts such as "I'm lower than trash because at least the trash gets recycled" were widely quoted in the mainstream media and re-posted in the blogosphere.2 So was his mournful statement, "If only I had a girlfriend…" In the media narrative, in both mass and alternative outlets, Katō's tragic, and in the end fatal, escape into digital fantasy was motivated by his search for those things that society once offered — identity, connections — but are no longer available to many young men. After weeks of headlines and months of speculation, the image of Katō as a failed social being and a failed man had been firmly established. The fact that he was without stable work or relationships (with family and the opposite sex) was offered as what counted for an explanation.

The lack of regular work, of secure participation in a stable institutional context, was represented as even more shocking to society and traumatic to Katō because he was from a supposedly "normal" middle class family. What was newsworthy was the shock that came from the descent from the middle class, a "fear of falling" (Ehrenreich 1999) that is afflicting a generation of young men in Japan. Along with his compromised class status, the media made clear that the foundations of male respectability also eluded Katō due to his precarious work status. Thus, the focus of this media narrative was firmly on loss, the loss of a class and gender identity that was once assumed as stable, even a normative state for those in the middle classes (instead of, for example, a focus on the struggles of those already at the bottom, or working classes, although these have also been exacerbated during Japan's long recession). The problem of class instability was not equally shared by women, who have long served as a reserve labor force, but one that was distinct to men. The problem was men being "feminized" by this instability, this failure to find "regular" and stable employment. When men began to share this precarious work status with women, they in effect failed to live up to masculine cultural ideals and expectations that still hold significant sway in Japan (Hosoya 2009, p. 60). The Akihabara Incident became a prism to explore, in vivid and often lurid ways, the personal consequences of a set of larger dynamics that until this point were primarily represented only through the abstraction of labor statistics. Katō's story opened up and legitimated a new set of concerns in the mainstream media.

This paper examines the media response to the slayings in Akihabara in 2008, particularly coverage of the perpetrator, Katō Tomohiro, as a way to understand the contradictions and anxieties of this moment of neoliberal capitalism. The media story was at first about the unavailability of certain social markers and status of young men, but then broadened into a critique of the dissolution of key components of the postwar Japan national project in an age of precarious labor and fractured society. In order to understand loss, or change more generally, we first attempt to provide readers with the relevant frames of reference that informed the disintegrating ground that Japanese could assume as they followed and contributed to the story of Katō. We then show the media representation of Katō as a failed worker, someone who was unable to secure class status and cultural citizenship.  We focus on the ways the media contributed to what we call the "sexualization of failure": how Katō's failure as a regular worker was linked to his failure as a man (and vice versa). We finally extend the discussion of failed masculinity into the context of digital and fictional alternatives, the realm of so-called "otaku" with which Katō was aligned. His broken digital connections and decent into the world of fantasy sexuality seemed to many observers to lead directly to the Akihabara Incident.

Blogosphere and Mainstream Media in Digital Civil Society

This paper arises from an odd paradox: Why should such a horrible and singular incident (armed violence is far less common in Japan than, for example, the United States) come to be represented in the Japanese media as a narrative about the impossibility of establishing a respectable social identity — a middle class identity — and a productive masculinity? This is even more paradoxical when we consider that this precarious status is shared by a whole generation of young men in this age of destabilized, irregular labor, none of whom have resorted to such acts. To the extent that we can ever "explain" such a terrible event, why did the media invoke and make "problematic" (Rose 1999) social class and masculinity at all? While we could dismiss this as media spectacle, we try to read the coverage of Katō as a way to understand the contemporary mediation of capitalism, irregular labor and its effect on constructions of social identity, personal subjectivity and masculinity in recessionary Japan.

Representations of Katō and the Akihabara Incident were situated by the media — mainstream and minor, print, TV and digital — at the intersection of a number of important trajectories that traverse recessionary Japan, but rarely emerge as the object of explicit reflection. While in Japan, as in other neoliberal societies, class and gender have been under strain for some time, such topics are not often openly addressed in the media. We argue that the Akihabara Incident functioned as a rupture, creating new terrain on which to explore the complex and often conflicting anxieties of this moment of neoliberal capitalism. Judging from the amount of attention this event generated, it is a narrative that resonated with many.

The paradox continues in that rarely was Katō completely vilified, even in the mainstream media. In the blogosphere, by which we mean blogs, bulletin boards and other forms of alternative social media, he was often represented as a victim. As such, the mediation of this event was a sort of inverse of the "moral panic" dynamic described by Stanley Cohen (2002). Instead of Katō being portrayed as a "folk devil" condemned and stigmatized as a way to stop other potential transgressions, the media more often used Katō's situation as a mirror to reflect upon the changes in society at large. It was surely a cautionary tale, about the dangers lurking for young men who do not stay within the narrowing confines of middle class trajectories, but it was also a meditation on the very impossibility of doing just that — on the impossibility of realizing those ideals of gendered class status in contemporary Japan. It was about the crumbling economic and social platform, which was once the assumed basis for securing stable class and gender identity, and the human costs such deteriorations were extracting. The coverage often reads as an indictment of the shape that Japanese society has taken in the past 20 years, and, in particular, the ways in which economic struggles have undermined stable work and home, and in turn impacted the ideals of middle class masculinity. Thus, rather than a media-driven attempt to "police the crisis" (Hall et al 1978), this quickly became an attempt to "publicize the crisis." The tragedy served to shine a light onto the economic and social causes, and the human and cultural contradictions of irregular labor and neoliberal capitalism in Japan. More than the story of a young man gone bad, Katō became part of a counter-narrative, where he was often sympathetically represented as someone who earnestly followed established scripts and struggled to live up to the expectations of middle class masculinity. The message became that these virtues today are impossible to pursue, making the sorts of class and gender claims they once constituted equally problematic.

This shift in theme and political deployment of the Akihabara Incident and Katō's story was, we argue, significantly linked to patterns of penetration of the blogosphere into mainstream reporting that today characterize the Japanese "mediascape" (Appadurai 1996). This was the first large scale media panic that not only played out in the blogosphere, but also where significant parts of the emerging story in the mainstream media were informed by the blogosphere. Not only were Katō's posts (made from his cell phone) to online bulletin boards widely circulated, but almost the whole incident was captured by photo and video cameras (often also on cell phones), and posted and reposted all over the internet.3 The mainstream media depended upon the blogosphere for important parts of their news. But it was more than that: the blogosphere offered an account and explanation of the incident that was gradually incorporated into more mainstream media. The blogosphere, while diverse in many ways, on the whole held society more accountable for its failure to provide the conditions that constitute the terrain on which claims to respectability, identity and masculinity are still supposed to be grounded. In time, this narrative became more generally incorporated into explanations offered by the mainstream media.

The particular configuration of media diffusion indicates the wider range of voices now present in the mediascape, shifting (and we think expanding) the range of mediated events and positions that can be taken relative to those events. This goes beyond what Angela McRobbie and Sarah Thornton (1995) identify as the less marginal position for folk devils in multi-mediated societies; it points to a more thorough reordering of the mediascape in post-industrialized societies, and especially the interpenetration of online participatory media within mainstream broadcast and print media. It would be naïve to suggest that the presence of alterative media represents a flourishing of the Habermasian "public sphere." However, if we take seriously the broad expanses of digital space to which individuals, sites and corporate media all contributed, we see something closer to what Guy Debord (1983) called "détournement," or the derailing of dominant narratives around this most spectacular event of capitalism. What seems distinctive here is the ways in which the views of bloggers, typically dismissed as a minority, received major exposure, even being positioned as a uniquely authoritative and legitimate source of information, in ways that often derailed, supplemented and even replaced initial mainstream accounts. Not only bloggers, but also activists exploited the potential of this rupture.4 We would suggest that in fact it is more productive to read such spectacular media events as a forum for the different voices of society and media to address underlying social and cultural contradictions through the concreteness of a single case. It seems that the Japanese mediascape and Akihabara Incident might provide an early example of such a fully developed case.

This dynamic, both configuration of media and emergent themes, is not without its ironies and contradictions. As we will note below, the blogosphere in Japan can be one of the most regimented domains of social life, seemingly geared to condemn alternatives and silence other voices. In the Katō case, it worked in different ways. More thematically, in order to critique today's flexible labor market and voice anxieties about class and gender instability, both mass and alternative media outlets invoked an idealized and romantic image of middle class masculinity taken from postwar and bubble-economy nostalgia. This was most obviously seen in the invocation of the characteristics often attributed to the image of the "salaryman," a sort of "hegemonic masculinity" (Connell 1995)5 of a middle class male doing white-collar work at a single company for his entire life. Repeatedly, these characteristics, including self-sacrifice and social embeddedness, were used to point out what today's labor regime lacked, those things that were unavailable in this age of fractured employment.

The irony is that the majority of the Japanese male population, even at the height of postwar affluence, did not achieve this glorious salaryman status. Moreover, the "suffocating embrace" of institutional capital, the abuse and indignities inflicted upon company employees, were key foundations for the left's critique of "management society" that disseminated through the popular media in the form of the often pathetic and even morally suspect salaryman of the 1980s and 1990s. In media today, this part of the story has dropped out, just as many negative features of "Japan, Inc." have been obscured and forgotten by a new generation facing new hardships that seem far more serious to a far broader demographic. Today, this salaryman image is resuscitated for new political deployment as cultural critique, not unlike many aspects of postwar Japan; while images of the past are put to a wide variety of uses, some authoritative and restrictive, retarding possibilities of the present, others function as alternatives to the present. As Japan attempts to make sense of the recessionary present, the past becomes an object of nostalgia, but also a source of critique, an idealized measure that alerts us to what we no longer have today.6 Of course, this irony of using a once-restrictive image from the past to critique the present is not distinctive to Japan, but rather is shared by many societies; the moral exemplar is often only ever embodied by, and accessible to, a small segment of the population. This fact does not limit its political utility to critique the present. Thus an image that once served to exclude the many and protect the privilege of the few is today invoked as part of a wider critique of the precarious conditions of a whole generation.

Clearly, Japan is not unique in being confronted with serious social contradictions during this period of neoliberal labor restructuring, anymore than it is unique in the rise of online participatory culture as a part of established media access (see Jenkins 2006). But just as the particular configuration of the Japanese mediascape is different from other societies,7 so are the configurations of cultural forms that serve as signs for work, class and gender. Social class anxiety and the threats to masculinity inherent in the flexiblization of labor are themes shared across the post-industrialized world. However, insofar as the cultural forms that organize and represent shapes of masculinity and the parameters of class membership and exclusion in postwar Japan are different from those found in other societies, the intersection demonstrates a specific set of contradictions in this variety of post-bubble Japanese capitalism. To understand these patterns of change, we need to review previous cultural forms, and the ways in which these forms come to exist in the capital contradictions and the cultural imaginaries of the present.

Middle Class Identity, Neoliberal Labor and the Media in Recessionary Japan

The first characteristic of the media surrounding Katō's story is that of class anxiety, a fear of lost stability and respectability that once were thought to characterize middle class status, especially for men. Despite the fact that shifts in the labor market have been as substantial in Japan as in many other post-industrial societies, with a huge increase in the number of jobs, especially for the young, in the irregular employment sector (Kosugi 2003), the wider recognition of the social and cultural costs of these shifts has been obscured by competing discourses. At times this shift into part-time, contract or temporary labor has been represented as a necessary "restructuring" of the labor force, a shift that serves the national interest as the inevitable by-product of the modernization of the Japanese economy out of the "feudal" rigidities that lifetime employment represented (see Chiavacci 2009).8 In the early 1990s, some viewed taking jobs outside of corporate Japan as a form of liberation, with "freeter" (furītā), those doing a series of part-time jobs, understood as somehow free from the suffocating demands of Japan, Inc. (Slater 2009). Even today some see this shift not as fragmentation, but as labor "mobility," even as something that facilitates the unfettered flow of young people to pursue options and develop non-corporate identities (a position that would be more defensible if the basic conditions of a living wage and job stability were more evident). Somewhat more insidiously, work refusal has been pathologized. "NEET" (Not in Education, Employment or Training), a term originally from the United Kingdom, where it carried a political connotation of young people refusing to accept the sorts of precarious jobs offered by an exploitative labor market, is in Japan more often associated with personal failure, social reclusiveness and even mental illness. The NEET "lifestyle" is often lumped together with acute withdrawal from family and society, medicalized as hikikomori and treated through many of the same semi-governmental institutions (see Miller and Toivonen 2010). Others in the academic and popular press correctly see this labor shift as problematically leading to a "lost generation" (Brinton 2008) unable to secure stable employment, adult career chances and full cultural citizenship. But even among those theorists who see irregular youth employment as the result of structural shifts in the labor market rather than personal failure, there is often some suggestion that the answer to these problems is an increase in young people's commitment to hard work and to develop more adaptive and flexible skill sets and identities (Genda 2001).

Against this context, the coverage of Katō is the most sustained and in-depth media case that links these structural conditions of employment with the social and personal costs they extract. And, at a time when labor instability and income inequality is starting to be spoken of as leading to class re-segmentation (Ishida and Slater 2009) and to the rise of an age-graded "reserve army" of temporary labor (Kariya, forthcoming), the vernacular of class has emerged as a way to understand the enduring effects of recession. While the bulk of the academic and popular media take a sort of sociocentric perspective — of a society divided between groups of winners and losers (kachigumi and makegumi, respectively), and even a "hope divided society" (Yamada 2004) — the coverage of Katō shows us a more personal side to the disappearance of middle class labor security and status attainment. Especially in the mainstream media, Katō was clearly coded as from a middle class family, and he seemed to have done all of the right things (at least in the beginning) to secure the perpetuation of that status. Yet, due to small lapses, he could not secure regular employment and financial security.9 The narrative is one of social descent, a fear of falling, which found voice in Katō's personal tale.

The second characteristic of the media discourse about Katō is even more visceral in its representation: masculinity. In Japan, as elsewhere, working-class identity is significantly linked to participation in certain areas of the labor market, but unlike many other industrialized societies, idealized masculinity is not primarily linked to manual labor. There is an emerging literature on men and masculinity in Japan (for a review, see McLelland and Dasgupta 2005), and if there is a single image considered iconic of the high-growth postwar economy, it is the middle class salaryman (see Dasgupta 2003 and Hidaka 2010). James Roberson and Nobue Suzuki call this image the "salaryman doxa," which functions as a dominant "self-image, model and representation of men and masculinity in Japan [that] indexes overlapping discourses of gender, sexuality, class and nation: the middle class, heterosexual, married salaryman considered as responsible for and representative of 'Japan'" (Roberson and Suzuki 2002, p. 1). While doxic in ways, it was also often the object of explicit and critical reflection. The constituent features of this image of masculinity have shifted over time, from imagined genealogies that link them to samurai forefathers to many negative and even pathetic features, such as the surrendering of autonomy to faceless companies (Dore 1958), overwork until death (Kumazawa 2010), sexual impotence (Allison 1994) and social ridicule (Matanle et al 2008).

As noted above, this popular ambivalence about the image during much of the postwar period has today been obscured, as if forgotten along with the promise of secure employment. Instead, salaryman imagery has become an index of Japanese-style management (nihon-shugi keiei) techniques that offered lifetime employment (shūshin koyō) and secure seniority promotion (nenkō joretsu). Despite that these very stabilities were the corporate foundation for what the left identified as a coercive "management society" (kanri shakai) (see Kumazawa 1996), they are now more often idealized as constituting a system that facilitated intimate personal connection on the micro scale and fate sharing as a lifelong orientation for those who made up postwar corporate Japan (see Gordon 1985). The more positive features that are often retained in the media nostalgia begin with a middle class male whose career trajectory, social identity and primary sociality were functions of the conditions of lifetime employment in a single company. Nakane Chie (1970) and Ezra Vogel (1963) both show ways in which Japan, Inc. was productive of a very particular masculinity structured around economic and social connections that required personal sacrifice to corporate goals and co-workers, and willingness to share collective responsibility. In today's media reports, and those about Katō in particular, we encounter these narratives once again, but mostly in their absence: they represent a closeness and connection that especially younger men cannot achieve, and an absence of anything to sacrifice to or for. If once young men searched desperately for some personal space (yōyū), a space to pull away from the corporate, today the dynamic is the opposite: there is nothing to pull them in, nothing for them to go toward.

In the last 15 years, there has been a steady stream of social science work aimed at debunking, or at least reconsidering, the salaryman image. Indeed, Roberson and Suzuki's initial identification of the "doxa" comes out of this project. This effort to show partial, multiple and even contradictory masculinities has been taken up by a wide range of scholars for whom the dominant mode of masculinity appears constructed and historically contingent, as well as limiting and even deforming. This trend is pre-dated by Itō Kimio (1993, 1996), who shows that despite the high social and personal costs that this dominant masculinity exacts from men, there have always been alternative masculinities, though they have not always been available to a wide range of men. More recently, the possibilities of alternative masculinities are captured by shifting ideals of aesthetic boundaries of appearance and fashion (Miller 2006) and the diffusion of a "feminine" aesthetic to men (Iida 2005). Rather than "feminization," it has been suggested that self-beautification is part of a neoliberal regime of self-investment, which is necessary for the "'masculine' pursuit of occupational success" (Takeyama 2010, p. 243). Further, Mark McLelland (2003) demonstrates how representations of gay men and their practices impact mainstream ideas of masculinity, and Wim Marinus Lunsing (1997) how the construction of "transgender" dislocates once imagined stable gender categories. Today, this identification of a broader range of masculinities is most obviously apparent in the popular media boom concerning "herbivorous men" (shōshoku danshi), or men who have cast off "carnivorous" masculinity, focused on dominating and possessing things and people (Morioka 2008).10 All of these are attempts to legitimate a range of non-salaryman masculinities, and attest to the fact that Japan, like all other societies, has always recognized a range of masculinities. Some might argue that a greater range of lifestyles is becoming available to men, albeit cross-sectored by class and occupation, generation and geography, as well as sexual orientation. Others might point out that many of these contemporary gender alternatives are more often driven by marketing campaigns and product endorsements, and represent little beyond niche marketing to bolster sales in light of a shrinking young consumer demographic.

While the existence of alternative masculinities, or at least new images of men, is well documented, the media representation of Katō points in a very different direction, one that receives far less attention: the persistence of middle class masculine ideals. As much as things have changed since the 1990s, Mark McLelland and Romit Dasgupta remind us that, "Heterosexual men, in particular, in comparison with other groups in Japanese society, seem to be less able to change their ideals to fit new social structures and exigencies" (McLelland and Dasgupta 2005, p. 6). It is not as if men do not want to change, but hegemonic expectations remain, despite decades of transformation in the realities of men and women (Itō 2005). Drawing on his fieldwork with young male company employees, Dasgupta points out that the hegemonic cultural ideal of the salaryman "is still firmly entrenched, and continues to exert a powerful influence on the lives of all men, regardless of whether or not they fit the category of husband, father, and provider" (Dasgupta 2005, p. 168). According to Dasgupta's interviews, even now men believe that to be an adult or "member of society" (shakaijin), one must have a full-time job; to be a "full member of society" (ichininmae no shakaijin), one must be married and have a child, if not also be the "central supporting pillar" (daikokubashira) of the family (see also Roberson and Suzuki 2002, p. 8). McLelland concedes that being an "adult" in Japan still means being productive at work and reproductive at home, and those outside the hegemonic norm, for example gay men, feel pressure to conform (McLelland 2005, p. 97). It follows, as Taga Futoshi writes, that today young men "in particular are experiencing difficulty in forming adult masculine identities" (Taga 2005, p. 161). That is to say that, for all the alternatives, they are having difficulty forming masculine identities that are outside the salaryman and still recognized as socially mature.

Katō's story serves as a cautionary tale of the violence that awaits men when they do not live up to the expectations of middle class masculinity, even if they subscribe to these ideals (Hosoya 2009). More than that, however, it points to the danger of even pursuing these ideals under the labor fragmentation that has come to characterize neoliberal capitalism. Katō's story is a bit of a throwback in that it locates masculinity, and indeed social identity more generally, not in the booming consumer market, but in the increasingly problematic realm of capital and social production, and the ways that this is articulated through class, or its crumbling remnants. In this respect, our analysis follows Tom Gill's (2002) work on day laborers and Roberson's (2002) analysis of blue-collar factory workers, both of which point out the important link between labor and masculinity, and how men's claims to legitimate alternatives are compromised when practiced outside of the corporate context.11 But our argument that links social class to masculinity through Katō is different, as it is less about compromise at the margins (those who almost never emerge into the popular media) than it is about the collapse of middle class masculinity. Our argument is that the fracturing of the labor market has compromised the claims to masculinity at the very center of the middle class. As regular work disappears, the definition of masculinity linked to work has become problematic for a whole generation. This is why the story of Katō registers as so important to so many people.

Irregular Worker, Irregular Man

I'm a temp worker
Forever a temp worker
Absent from work because of a cold
All they say is it's my fault – "personal-responsibility"
Never promoted to a regular worker
Sweet wine of exploitation called freedom
It's our blood and sweat
There is no end
I'm a temp worker

("Matahaken"; independent CD release, October 2008.)

In the media's putting together of Katō's biography, aligning the facts so as to "explain" the killings, his first misstep was taken at home. His feelings of estrangement prior to the attack were read back into fragile relationships with his family, especially his mother. Katō's relationship with his mother, often called an educational pushing mother (kyōiku mama), was offered as a cause for not only his occupational failures, but also as the key to his sexual failures. The son of a top manager at a financial institute, Katō was raised in a suburban, middle class home in Aomori Prefecture. Smart and well liked, in middle school he was the captain of the tennis club. However, his fortunes changed when he enrolled in an elite high school; he was reported as being a loner and unpopular. His grades faltered and he started acting violently at home, which strained relationships with family members. Though Katō criticized his parents and upbringing in a very general way — for example, telling the police "I did not get along well with my parents" (Asahi Shimbun, 12 June 2008) — his younger brother explicitly pointed the finger at their mother (Shūkan Gendai, 28 June 2008). In a series of sensational articles in the weekly magazine Shūkan Gendai, the younger brother recounts how his mother forced her sons to redo homework to impress teachers, and how she punished them for failure. He recalls how his mother made Katō, at age 13, eat off the floor while his father watched. As the younger brother sees it, when Katō entered high school and his grades suffered, he thought his mother would abandon him. He writes, "The culprit [my brother] quickly realized her affection had shifted to me and misunderstood himself to be useless" (Japan Probe, 16 June 2008). He claims that he saw Katō shouting at their mother: "You are dumping me!" This perceived abuse and abandonment by his mother was the beginning of the media narrative of dysfunctional masculinity.

The next false step was seen in Katō's failure to enter the prestigious national university in Hokkaidō, after which he enrolled at the Nakanihon Automotive College, a senmon gakkō in Sakahogi, Gifu Prefecture. Senmon gakkō are tertiary schools that teach vocational skills, and in the years since the bursting of the economic bubble, as fewer companies employ workers full-time or provide in-house training, have become increasingly important ways for young people to attain marketable skills and establish the credentials necessary to find employment. These vocational schools have contributed to an overall shift in middle class definitions of labor, from emphasizing personal character and commitment in "regular" companies with benefits and job security, to the accumulation of skills and credentials that are convertible primarily in short-term jobs (Borovoy 2009). Vocational schools stream young people into many places in the labor market that are not, and often do not lead to, positions of regular employment. Instead, they become part of a precarious temporary labor market, a reserve army out of which it is proving increasingly difficult to emerge (Tachibanaki 2009). During the postwar period, there was always a flexible supply of mobile labor, but it was mostly manual labor, often in the construction industry. Women have long experienced the instability of a status as irregular labor, but now many young people, both male and female, are freeter, contract labor or "temps" (haken), organized by dispatch companies or temporary agencies. At the top, there are jobs such as web design, but further down the skills ladder is random service and manual labor such as cleaning and routine office work.

While the economic precariousness of temporary workers is well known in Japan (although still under-reported), the media coverage of Katō lets us see the human costs of these shifts as it repeatedly focuses less on economic insecurity than social segregation. As such it points to the loss of the particular cultural forms and social organization of work in Japan, in this case, the loss of social affiliation and embeddedness. Being a temporary worker means that one is not actually part of the company — not in the "frame" of regular workers. These irregular workers are not just second-class citizens, in the way "office ladies" (OLs) might have been in an earlier period. Rather, they are not citizens in the company at all. Often, they have little or no interaction with regular workers, and are either spatially segregated or at times intentionally ostracized. Katō posted online about the isolation he felt at work, the lack of any contact at all: "There is no one to talk to, even in the office." In this often circulated quote, what gives this complaint its power to injure Katō and resonate (for these posts and reposts were far more common than complaints about less-than-living wages and insecurity) is the underlying assumption that work is a collective and moral project, a place where human bonds are formed and people develop as they are developed by the company. Katō was excluded from this contact. In a pattern of self-blame and even self-loathing, he could easily explain it: "But look at me. I look seedy, have no skills and am awkward and shy, poorly spoken." Katō was doing a form of work that did not encourage or even allow him to develop himself or engage others. He writes: "No one to talk to and no one to be with. If you do not smoke, what is there? Just sit and stare at your cellular phone, waiting for someone to call you." The absence of these social connections is repeatedly pointed to as the cause for a wide range of dysfunctions, both social and personal, not only in the media, but also by Katō himself.

While evidently Katō is talking about himself, and sometimes obsessively so, he and the media saw his feelings as a direct response to the situation that many young people around him share. Here, Katō posts about his disgust for coworkers: "That is the sort of low-level person who works as a temp." He shares the social assumption that irregular workers, like himself, are failures and worthless, and so refuses to associate with them: "The other irregular workers are the same as me. So I am not even thinking of talking to them." Pointing to the importance of work as a larger definer of social identity and experience, Katō often characterizes a whole generation, asking rhetorically: "For a temp, what do you do on vacation? Where do you eat?" The answer, it would seem, is stay in your room and swallow a bitter dose of loneliness. Self-loathing and antipathy towards others again is not presented as unique to Katō, but a shared social condition. The corporate shift to open up a new flexible labor market among middle class youth theoretically opens up the chance to move out from under the smothering embrace of the company, but it more often represents an isolating affliction that creates "losers" (makegumi) in Japan. They are not only isolated from the regular workers, but also from one another, and even themselves, a situation that only gets worse over time. As Katō summarizes the shared conditions: "Over the years, you become estranged from friends, from society, when you work as a temp." Alienated from family, a failure at school, unable to secure regular work, Katō was presented as a drifter, untethered to any social institution or group, lacking sociality, let along intimacy, a status recognized in repeated reports as the core source of his dissatisfaction and anxiety.

While often sympathetic to Katō's situation, and the situation shared by many youth, the mass media also recognized unstable young people as a threat to society. After the Akihabara Incident, the weekly Shūkan Asahi ran a feature titled, "Beware of Youth!" (wakamono ni kiwotsukero), which takes as its mission to introduce the reader to all the recent random acts of violence associated with young people (Shūkan Asahi, 27 June 2008). The follow-up article is billed as a "freeter and dispatch worker emergency council," and young people are asked to reflect on their own similarities to, and differences from, Katō (Yuasa 2008). Here, mainstream media used Katō as a lens through which not only society views this threat, but asks young people in similar situations to view themselves. The young people featured in the story vacillate from condemnation of Katō's actions to putting blame on a society that ultimately produces individuals such as Katō. Despite the ambivalence, virtually all could easily recognize the frustration and rage Katō displayed. The blogosphere was more vividly sympathetic. Just hours after his arrest, users on Japan's most popular online bulletin board, 2channel (nichanneru), had posted ASCII art of Katō; a thread appeared titled "Katō is one of us" (Katō wa oretachi no nakama); some even commented that Katō was "a god" who had taken on the burden of his generation (that is, he dies to offer the chance of salvation to others).12 While clearly a dangerous and disturbing celebration of criminal behavior, the display of empathy is unmistakable.

One blogger, "boiledema" (Tsujio Rei), given the rank "alpha" blogger on the popular site Hatena, posted a response to Katō that showed how closely linked are intimacies of personal pain and critiques of structural and economic adjustment. Boiledema states that his father works for the same company as Katō (who was contracted by the temp agency Nikken Sōgyō to work at an automobile factory of Kantō Auto Works under Toyota), but with full-time status. Using this inside perspective, he unleashes a scathing critique of the treatment of contract and temporary employees:

Well, what can I say? This is the way that Toyota does things. They are famous for their effective management policies — their 'Just-In-Time System.' Rather than stockpiling a large number of parts, they just place an order to subcontractors for the parts they need at the moment. What they have done here, though, is nothing other than to apply the Just-In-Time System to human beings. … A person who is not regarded as a human will not see others as human, either (boiledema 2008).

A staggering 1,366 blogs bookmarked the post, demonstrating broad agreement with boiledema's assessment. Global Voices in English translated the original blog post (the source of the above quote), expanding its impact online. In much the same way, Matahaken's independently produced song (quoted at the beginning of this section) about the hardships of life as a temporary worker (released not long after the Akihabara Incident), received mainstream broadcast and print news coverage, propelled, at least in part, by its popularity on video-sharing websites such as Nico Nico Dōga.13

In another article about the lead-up to the Akihabara Incident, coworkers say Katō learned (or at least thought) he would lose his job and stated in a violent outburst, "Why don't I have any connections to others? What is happening to this society!?" (Fujita and Ueda, 2008, p. 20). Here we can see the quick elision of personal with social failure in both Katō's mind and the mainstream media, a theme already developed in the blogosphere. Both represented the tragedy as one of personal failure, but just as often (and often at the same time) as a failure of society to provide the young with reasonable conditions of security and connection. This media convergence demonstrates the struggle of a society to come to grips with something lost in recessionary Japan: productive social connections that were long considered an integral part of social identity and personal subjectivity in middle class Japan.14

From Corporate Masculinity to Market Masculinity

We have seen in various other places the links between class status, work and masculinity, although these are usually centered on working-class gender identities (for example, Willis 1977 and McDowell 2003). Some have talked about a "crisis of masculinity" emerging from the global shifts in labor patterns, which force more men out of the high-status domains of white-collar power and/or physically demanding manual labor into the low-status domain of service labor (Hochschild 2003 and Taylor 2006). Often, this sort of "pink collar" work is represented as objectionable due to the nature of the laboring activity: serving, caring and routine clerical work are somehow "feminine" and thus compromise one's "masculine" status (Blackwelder 1997). We would, however, suggest that things are a bit different in Japan, and indeed in much of world.15 To the extent that the labor shift in Japan from regular to irregular status has most significantly effected masculinity, it is less that these jobs represent "feminine" work, somehow tied to the nature of laboring activity itself, and more that many of the sets of traits associated with valued work outlined above are unavailable. That is, these constructions are more about work as a social, collective pattern of interaction, very rarely related to the character traits of domination, aggression and physical strength that are usually associated with western constructions of masculinity (Cornwall and Lindisfarne 1994, pp. 12-17).16 Masculinity in Japan is not about exercising natural or animal potentials, but rather being willing and able to take part in, and contribute to, some collective project. This is what the men of Katō's generation lack, this opportunity, at least as one reads between the lines of crisis running through the Akihabara Incident.

Today, with the lack of regular access to these previous forms of corporate membership on which masculinity relies, different traits have emerged, and are being selected and combined in new ways. Some of these might lead to viable alternatives for men — for example, the self-commodified and entrepreneurial male subject that Takeyama Akiko identifies (Takeyama 2010, p. 232) — but that is another story, not Katō's.17 Indeed, quite distinct from men who invest in their looks and attempt to succeed in a speculative economy of attracting others and accruing interest, Katō was rather average looking, and saw himself as "ugly."18 His lack of sexual attractiveness was linked to his failure as a man, both by himself and the media. This invocation of sexual attractiveness as a criterion for masculinity is part of the shift outlined earlier where consumer masculinities have emerged as important alternatives. However, just as some might point to new possibilities for being a man, others point to new ways to fail as a man. A lack of physical attractiveness would have been an odd, even perplexing explanation for social failure in Japan, Inc., but this connection was often made in the Katō case. It was as if this young man, no longer able to claim core status traits linked to corporate membership, was forced to rely on other, once peripheral characteristics, to stake his claim as a man. This new criteria proved to be just as elusive to secure. Katō was not alone in his status as "himote," or someone unpopular with the opposite sex.19 The media often talks about the "love gap" (ren'ai kakusa), which roughly corresponds to the income gap, implying a large underclass of marginalized young people.

For Katō and the media reporting on him, failure to achieve an adult social status was linked to failure as a man, at different times cause and result. In the Katō case, we see that a lack of sexual attractiveness was linked in media depictions to disrupting the smooth progression of life stages. Shūkan Asahi stated, "Age 25 is the time when friends are thinking to get married. When Katō faced that reality, perhaps he felt nothing but despair" (Shūkan Asahi, 27 June 2008, p. 27). As many have argued (for example, McLelland 2005 and Dasgupta 2005), becoming an adult in Japan is traditionally possible only once one has left school, entered a company and found a marriage partner (i.e., taken on responsibilities that are entailed in becoming a member of a larger social collective). In the previously mentioned Shūkan Asahi article, Katō is quoted as saying, "I don't have a girlfriend, and that is the root of all evil." In a world where work is no longer constitutive of social identity or personal fulfillment, where work no longer provides intimacy with coworkers or the social respectability that once allowed one to find a mate, young men must seek these things elsewhere. Katō illustrates this shift, even inversion: "If only I had a girlfriend, I wouldn't have quit work." Instead of the Japan, Inc. model of work providing the intimacy of corporate membership, in neoliberal Japan, individuals must be responsible for their own happiness and well-being, and support from romantic partners must sustain them through what is meaningless, or worse, debilitating work. Echoing the testimonials of other disempowered youth engaged in irregular work, Katō's compromised social situation was linked to compromised sexual appeal, and finally to the failure of masculinity itself (cannot be stable, support a family, etc). Once again, the media used Katō's life as a terrain on which to understand a generation of men.

Problematic Alternatives: Digital Youth, Digital Masculinity

Until this point, we have argued that the mainstream media frequently turned to the blogosphere to gather and legitimate their information about the Katō case. In this next section, we will show how Katō's media usage became a central part of his media story. There was wide media reportage of Katō's alleged turn to the virtual for affirmation and some sort of social identity. Of course, this is not unique to Japan; in societies all over the world, as those institutions that once served as the gateways into society and as a stabilizing force within society — family, school and work — begin to dissolve, young people are turning to other sites for a sense of community and self (see Cross 2008).20 The young are the most imaginative and productive in employing new technologies to reestablish social connections and create new, but often-unpredictable, patterns of subjectivity. While for many this digital age means greater mobility and opportunity, for others it can mean a mediated existence dependent on technology, where even what relationships do form are so flexible and fluid as to be of little enduring support. For some, participation in this digital world becomes implicated in larger patterns of social dysfunction and, as in Katō's case, in alienation and frustration that lead to deadly violence.21 His consumption of a type of subcultural media, often associated with deviant sexuality, supported links to deteriorating masculinity, and his incessant, and finally desperate, posting online from his cellular phone, failed attempts to make reestablish connections in an age of fractured social relations, were offered as the final and immediate explanation for the tragedy. Alternative media became both a cause and the thematic terrain on which the story of Katō came to its disastrous end.

Otaku Masculinity

One sort of alternative masculinity that the media used to understand Katō's actions was that of the otaku, a subculture increasingly associated with Akihabara (Galbraith 2010). Otaku are dedicated, even obsessive fans, most commonly of anime (Japanese animation), manga (comic books) and computer/console games. The term "geek" is sometimes used as an English translation, but lacks the gender-specific connotation of men who are socially awkward and sexually immature.22 Otaku are represented in Japan as weak and overly sensitive and indulgent, afraid of the world and hesitant and undisciplined in their interactions with others (Kinsella 1998). Moreover, there is also a suggestion of suspect sexuality, ranging from asexual oddness to perverse or predatory sexuality. This has to do with the media response to the arrest of Miyazaki Tsutomu in 1989, a young man who molested, murdered and mutilated four girls between the ages of four and seven. Police discovered 5,763 videotapes in his room, and the media took to calling him an "otaku." As Sharon Kinsella points out, the "Miyazaki Incident" was a classic example of a moral panic (Kinsella 1998, p. 312), tied to deep anxieties about the direction of media and consumerism in Japan (Treat 1993, p. 355). As Ōtsuka Eiji has argued, consumer culture has been largely associated with girls and women in Japan since the 1970s; in particular, the shōjo, or young girl, was an image recreated constantly in the media, a symbol of consumptive pleasure suspended from (re)productive functions (Ōtsuka 1989, pp. 18-20). Otaku were not only the young men who idolized images of shōjo, but also those oriented towards a consumer culture embodied by shōjo. In Japan, where hegemonic masculinity is so tied to socially reproductive roles and responsibilities, otaku may have seemed to be "feminine" (and also infantile).23 Indeed, Kinsella argues that the "otaku panic" that swept Japan in the 1990s was not just about Miyazaki Tsutomu's crimes, but also overlapped with concerns about middle class men consuming and playing outside the acceptable bounds of masculinity (Kinsella 1998, pp. 314-316). In the mass media, which has almost exclusively set the parameters for discussion, the otaku appear as the polarized opposite of the salaryman; unattached to any productive social institution, unable to take responsibility for themselves or others and not contributing to society.

It is not surprising, then, that among the first responses of the mass media was to align Katō with this negative stereotype. The newspaper Evening Fuji on 9 June called him a "lolicon," a contraction of "Lolita Complex," meaning someone who likes fictional young girls; the word was used to describe Miyazaki Tsutomu. The article quoted a co-worker who said of Katō: "When we went to karaoke, he only sang lolicon anime songs. He said, 'I'm only interested in the two-dimensional world,' like a typical lolicon otaku" (Yūkan Fuji, 9 June 2008).24 The media described Katō's room as empty except for dōjinshi (fan-produced comics, typically pornographic, also associated with Miyazaki Tsutomu) and a CD recording of a young girl's voice, identified as his imaginary "little sister" (Shūkan Posuto, 27 July 2008, p. 25). The assumed perversion inherent in desire for a two-dimensional girl resonated with long-standing stereotypes of otaku. In what seemed like a shift to normality, the same coworker continued in his description of Katō: "He said, 'I'd like to settle down with a three-dimensional girl soon, so please introduce me to someone." But when asked what sort of girl he was looking for, he said: "A girl with a small frame, an anime voice and who looks good in anime costumes." According to the coworker's statement, "When we went to the bookstore, he was looking for a photo album of beautiful girls about age 12 or 13" (Shūkan Posuto, 27 June 2008, p. 26). It was also widely reported that Katō had gone to a maid café in Akihabara, were girls dress as maids and serve customers, an image consistent with representations of repressed otaku sexuality (Galbraith 2011). Katō was described as an otaku and associated with the excesses and evils of Akihabara culture in national and international reports (for example, Hornyak 2008). At the same time, the blogosphere was active from early on in discrediting Katō as an otaku, and the meaning of the Akihabara Incident was much more contested than the Miyazaki Incident (Morikawa 2008).

Recently, otaku have had another media face that became intertwined with Katō's story. From late 2004, a story called Densha otoko, translated into English and published as Train Man (trans. Bonnie Elliot, 2007), became a media sensation in Japan. It is a story about a virginal otaku who saves a fashionable, middle-aged career woman from being molested by a drunken old man on the train. Flummoxed at the prospect of unanticipated contact with the woman, the protagonist, referred to as Train Man, is overwhelmed by his own shyness. In order to navigate the new social, romantic and sexual possibilities that follow the incident, Train Man asks for help from his fellow otaku online. He is advised by others on how to make himself presentable in society and to women.25 The story is one of redemption;26 an isolated young man, whose range of social contact is limited to the digital, comes out of his self-absorption through the help of, surprisingly, other similarly isolated men. He first interacts with the other users of the bulletin board, and then with the woman from the train. In doing so, he also redeems his masculinity, not through the production of social connection in any collective project of work (as we might imagine from the corporate masculinity model of Japan, Inc.), but rather through the commercial sexualization of himself in the open market of attraction and affection. The astounding reaction to Desha otoko suggests that this new awkward masculinity touched a nerve. The story was adapted into books, a film, a prime time TV series, four manga series and even an erotic video (Freedman 2009). The last episode of the TV series was seen by some 25.5 percent of the national audience, thrusting otaku and Akihabara into the popular imagination.

But while this might offer some alternatives to the hegemonic masculinity of Japan, Inc., neither Katō nor most otaku are "train men," at least not as depicted in the romantic narrative. In 2005, Honda Tōru published Dempa otoko, or "The Radiowave Man", a manifesto condemning Densha otoko for depicting otaku as immature individuals who must "grow up" and accept social roles and responsibilities. Honda criticized the story for failing to understand the true nature of otaku, showing little more than how to participate in commercialized "love capitalism" (ren'ai shihon-shugi) by dressing nicely, buying gifts and going on dates to trendy spots; that is, how to engage in proper acts of consumption. What the franchise misses, according to Honda, is that otaku do not need to be redeemed or rehabilitated by romance with the opposite sex — or even with living creatures. Honda advocates finding love with two-dimensional characters, which offers a chance to achieve, or resuscitate, a "pre-social" masculinity.27 This love does not end in childbirth, marriage, sex or even courtship; its distinctiveness in part lies in its unconsummated fantasy potential. In this way it offers a way out of the "real," or the "body politic centered by the reproductions of family" (Allison 2000, p. 173). Thus, for Honda, Densha otoko not only misses, but also jeopardizes one of the few truly counter-hegemonic masculinities available to young men in Japan today.

Honda's book sold 33,000 copies in three months, a small fraction of Densha otoko sales, but still quite substantial when considering its impact on the blogosphere, and its ability to organize and incite debate about masculinity in Japan. Despite the discourse about the "purity" of this love for fictional characters, it is difficult to call otaku masculinity non-commoditized, given the huge industry for manga, anime and character goods in Japan (Kitabayashi 2004), but it is interesting to note Honda's, as well as other otaku's, rejection of calls for re-integration of men back into the frames of respectable society, as well as their rejection of the market of mainstream consumption as a way to present a socially acceptable self and masculinity. Here we see an attempt to claim otaku as a truly alternative masculinity, rather than one that is respectable enough to be counted among the many lifestyle choices in contemporary Japan.

Still, it is a fact that one must buy into this, both in the sense of valuing fantasy as such and buying character media and merchandise to ground attachments. For his part, Honda is aware of these limitations. In a book published just two months after the Akihabara Incident, he speaks directly about Katō and his relationship to otaku:

Actually, when I look at the broadcasted personal history of Katō…it's basically the same as me up until I was about 25. When I published The Radiowave Man, people came to me and said, "I'm a similar kind of person, but I can't feel attraction for two-dimensional characters the way you do. What should I do?" I was really at a loss. … But, you know, I wish I had said, "Just take it easy for now!" … I think he [Katō] was extremely prideful, so he couldn't put up with it [everyday life]. Probably since he was a kid. That's also probably why he couldn't just take it easy. … Certainly when you turn 25, stuff like occupation and income, that's where the initial screening of people takes place. In The Radiowave Man, the idea was, "Love is an illusion anyway, so even if you aren't popular with women you can be fulfilled in your own mind." But if you don't have the stability of basic economic security, you can't even go otaku (Honda and Yanashita 2008, pp. 69, 72-73).

For Honda, the Akihabara Incident was a "nightmare of capitalism" (shihon-shugi no akumu), showing not only how one loses economic and social security, but how poverty and a lingering sense of masculine pride and middle class propriety had alienated a young man from even the option of protest through withdrawal. Not only was he stuck in "unskilled labor that destroys one's humanity" (ningensei wo hakai suru tanjunrōdō), but also "couldn't even participate in games" (gēmu ni sanka sura dekinai).28 In an unrelated media appearance, Azuma Hiroki also suggests that otaku are in general far more stable than other youth, because those who have no escape from reality in Japan today know "only despair" (Azuma 2008). In time, Katō could not longer pursue otaku masculinity.29

Rather than be a Radiowave Man, or someone who finds fulfillment in the fantasy world of anime and games, Katō actively sought out human contact, although he was far less successful than the Train Man. The media gave plenty of attention to Katō's own train episode (Nakajima 2008). A few days before his violent outburst, Katō noticed a woman deciding not to take the open seat next to him on a crowded train. Katō posted the following: "That's what you'd expect for someone as hated as I am. When this stuff happens, I just want to kill them." This is how he represented his train encounter, not an unexpected connection, but an expected rejection. His mounting alienation and frustration allowed readers to anticipate the disastrous end.

Digital Connections Failed

Probably the most often repeated aspect of the Katō story in the mainstream media was the some 3,000 unanswered posts he made online using his cellular phone. This was the lead-up to his tragic breakdown. Katō was asking questions and sharing ideas, including his plan to attack Akihabara, none of which received a reply. While certainly his posting verges on the obsessive, the story was represented by the mainstream media as one last frantic attempt at salvation through contact with others, a theme that runs through the whole of the media trajectory.

It might be odd to talk about communication mediated by technology as "direct," but when compared to the otaku desire for two-dimensional characters and fiction, at least there is the anticipation of people somewhere behind user-names. Communication and contact via computers and handheld devices in Japan, as in many other parts of the world today (Buckingham 2007), constitutes some of the most important, and sometimes most extended and durable, social contact available, especially for young people. This was also true of Katō. In some countries, access to Internet-ready cellular technology is reserved for the affluent few (Donner 2008, p. 145-146), but the reverse is true in Japan. Affordable and abundant, cellular phones are the most prevalent digital-communication devices (more so than personal computers), particularly popular among the young (Ito et al 2005). In 2008, over 96 percent of Japanese high school students had cellular phones. Being connected, every day, all the time, is a precondition of social participation, but also so economical that many have no "land-line" telephones at all. But as researchers have shown, cellular phones in Japan overwhelmingly function within already established boundaries, usually to connect family, school friends and coworkers already embedded into personal and institutional networks. Cellular phones are more a digital overlay that allows for the intensification of existing relationships, rather than a way to explore alternatives. Use of cellular phones to meet new people is rare outside the context of matchmaking services, which Katō did not make use of. Because of (partially self-imposed) isolation from family and coworkers (due to his suffering self-esteem), and subsequent inability to make new friends, his cellular phone served only to accentuate acute feelings of loneliness. Recall that he posted about spending his free time sitting around waiting for replies on his cell phone — replies that never came.

Katō used his cellular phone to post online seeking contact, communication and comfort. It may be useful to consider the most popular bulletin board in Japan, 2channel, to clarify the dynamics he encountered. Katō posted on 2channel, up to and including an announcement of his intension to attack Akihabara, and told the police the attack was motivated by people on the site ignoring him (Shibui 2008). The site boasts 2.7 million posts a day on 600 active boards, divided by topic; there are no reliable figures on user demographics, as registration is not required and posts are typically anonymous. There are portions of the site where himote (men who are unpopular with women) gather to talk about the woes of romantic love and the joys of their hobbies. The Densha otoko story is actually a collection of posts made to one such board. Clearly, this has the potential to offer a digital site of connection where members can share frustrations about their compromised status, and a site for men to develop and perform alternatives. Otomo Rio notes that many young people use self-depreciating terms (makegumi, NEET, himote and even otaku) as a way to laugh at themselves and "re-establish the relationship with others on equal terms" (Otomo 2006, p. 16). This seems to be very much in line with Honda's humorous discourse about escaping social expectations by rejecting society, or embracing life as a social reject, depending on one's perspective. In this way, perhaps Denpa otoko ("The Radiowave Man") is able to "take it easy" and laugh at himself, which in turn puts others at ease and allows for new relationships to be formed.30 The laughter explodes meanings, and allows for new ones to be generated in dialogue with others. However, Katō was closer to what Otomo describes as the "Underground Man," who, unable to laugh at himself,

…is on a self-saving mission to recover his power by talking endlessly about himself. His narrative is motivated by the will to convince the reader that he is worthy, by demonstrating how thoroughly he can read his own psyche. His project is unsuccessful, for his words are self-referential, and he cannot find the end of his narrative. … Self-referential language as such is structured in the sense that it presupposes its own meaning and precludes any possibility of shifting it (Otomo 2006, p. 16).

This is, as Otomo sees it, a "deadly circuit" that is uninterrupted by encounters with others. In Katō's case, this meant he spun around in circles repeating preconceived notions about middle class social status and masculinity and his own failure to achieve them, binding him to a narrative that eventually destroyed him.

Further, even if Katō had participated in discussions and laughed rather than posting depressing messages about himself, it is questionable to what extent he would have been able to make the connections he so desperately sought. Like many open bulletin boards, especially in Japan, 2channel can be a dangerous place. Instead of the possibility of a supportive virtual frame and sympathetic audience, 2channel more often provides something akin to an open marketplace of digital self-promotion, bravado and entrepreneurialism that can become competitive, confrontational and abusive. In her study of posts on the site, Nishimura Yukiko argues that one of the primary desires of 2channel users is to elicit responses and gain recognition (Nishimura 2008). This can be very self-satisfying, but may come at the expense of deeper and lasting communication/companionship, exacerbated by the anonymity of exchanges. And, amid all the noise and confusion, it is hard to find a safe space for self-exposure, and even harder to find people interested in listening. Not surprisingly, Katō's rather common problems, and his straightforward presentation of those problems, failed to capture the attention of other users; he could not effectively perform, or rather compete, to attract people and gain their interest. The result is summed up by a headline introducing a story about Katō in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper (21 June 2008): "Ignored in Reality and On the Net."31

In a culture where connection and belonging is the fundamental prerequisite for so much else, not the least of which being social and gender identity, the worst thing that can happen is to be cut off. Katō was frustrated and angry that the "people of the Net" had ignored him, and associated these people with Akihabara. He decided to get revenge. All the while, he never stopped reaching out. Katō posted 26 times on the day of the attack, the last one 20 minutes before the attack, but he received no responses. He fully informed those who were listening of his intentions. We say "listening" because these messages were often short observations punctuated by the discourse markers of "ne" or "yo" that serve as conversational tags characteristic of informal gambits to elicit agreement or confirm connection. That is, deictic markers used to keep the "conversation" going through the continued participation of interlocutors. The effect is as if these isolated and unreturned messages were embedded in a larger ongoing dialogue. It was only after the incident that anyone paid attention to the significance of these messages, lost in cyberspace while Katō was in Akihabara. Given this, it is perhaps not so surprising that after his arrest Katō said that the man interrogating him was the first person to ever listen to him. The crime was, perhaps, itself a way to communicate, a desperate plea from a young man for his existence and suffering to be acknowledged and alleviated.


On 23 January 2011, all eyes turned to Akihabara and the reopening of the Pedestrian Paradise, suspended since the Akihabara Incident.32 Around the same time, public prosecutors announced that the state is seeking the death penalty for Katō Tomohiro. In response, Shūkan Pureibōi ran a feature titled: "Can we let the Akihabara Incident end in the death penalty?" (Shūkan Pureibōi, 14 February 2011, p. 30). The magazine warns that youth in Japan are a "bomb," one that won't be diffused by executing one person;33 there are underlying issues that need to be addressed, and the chance might be lost with a clean ending to the Katō story. Questions of the effectiveness of such a media intervention aside,34 the fact that such a story ran so prominently in a popular magazine demonstrates many of the points that we have laid out in this paper. We have argued that the media coverage of the Akihabara Incident and its perpetrator generated a terrain on which a wider range of narratives could be traced. New media and the ways that they informed and interacted with traditional media to narrate this inverse moral panic provide a look into a society that is struggling with more than the economic effects of neoliberal capitalism. In Japan, where regular work has been so constitutive of middle class identity, sociality and masculinity, the shift into irregular work, affecting a whole generation (now almost two generations), has brought a wide range of anxieties more subtle and difficult to address than purely economic precariousness. While there were many ways to narrate the conditions and events to somehow "explain" why anyone might randomly and brutally kill seven people on a busy street in broad daylight, the media made the Akihabara Incident the ground on which to explore the collective futility of postwar narratives of self, society and masculinity in recessionary Japan. Despite being subject to the sorts of economic conditions that are familiar the world over, because the constructions of class and masculinity in Japan often hinge on rather different cultural forms, their dismantling has also revealed different shapes. And while there has always been a range of masculinities in Japan, Katō's story reveals the increasingly problematic and persistent ideals of middle class, corporate masculinity today. It might be that in time the dissolution of class and gender regimes will enable a wider range of non-corporate masculinities to claim a more legitimate place within Japan. For now, the media's taking up of Katō, and their narration of the violence of the Akihabara Incident, serves as a cautionary tale about the evident risks of making such claims.

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[1] Also sometimes translated as the Akihabara Massacre.

[2] All the posts were collected and made available by Tōō Nippō Press in 2008. We have used this as a source for quotes that did not appear widely in the media. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are our own. The posts can be viewed freely online.

[3] Famously, live videos of the Akihabara Incident were uploaded by "Lyphard" and "kenan," two Ustream users.

[4] Amamiya Karin rallied to the story of Katō and used it to demonstrate the costs of exploitative labor and the compromised status of irregular workers (Amamiya 2008). She also regularly took the case up in her column in The Big Issue, a socially and politically motivated magazine distributed by the homeless, and spoke about the systemic reasons for Katō's actions at a live talk show held at Loft/Plus One in Shinjuku on 1 August 2008.

[5] R.W. Connell defines hegemonic masculinity as the dominant paradigm in a given society and time, or the form that is privileged among the plurality of masculinities (Connell 2000, p. 10). As an ideal, it has the greatest amount of cultural influence, and also exerts power over femininities and subordinated masculinities. As Connell notes, "the hegemonic form need not be the most common form of masculinity, let alone the most comfortable" (Connell 2000, p. 11). This is precisely the case with the salaryman, as we will discuss.

[6] This approaches what John Whittier Treat calls the "corrective imaginary" of the "nostalgic subject," who looks back as an opportunity to undo to present and open up possibilities for the future (Treat 1992, p. 385). Treat is building on Fredric Jameson, who writes of "a nostalgia conscious of itself, a lucid and remorseless dissatisfaction with the present on the grounds of some remembered plenitude" (Jameson 1972, p. 68).

[7] We are thinking of the degree of diffusion and patterns of dispersed and mobile media prevalent in Japan (social networking site Mixi claims 10 million registered users; the Japan Times reported on 22 April 2007 that Japanese is the most common language for blogging), as well as the relatively legitimate status within the mainstream media that blogs and webposting now claim. This is reflected in the mainstream media's attempts to reconstruct the events leading up to the killings and rush to capture the cultural significance and societal reaction to the killings through repeated reference to online media accounts. Reporters from newspapers and magazines were often openly quoting from "underground media" to provide mainstream audiences with information that was considered raw and somehow more authentic.

[8] Tied also to the discourse about competitiveness in the global market, which requires restructuring.

[9] While the anxiety of loss of class status has not been noted in the academic press, this is not the case with anecdotal illustrations in the popular press. The media narrative of class decent is common in two broad-based, youth-oriented moral panics of the post-bubble period: enjo kōsai (compensated dating) and freeter. In both cases, the tragic narrative is less of working-class youth doing working-class work or even prostitution, and more of middle class youth in circumstances that were once the primary reserve of the working class. What needs to be explained and becomes "newsworthy" is the decent of middle class youth. See Slater (2009) for a full discussion.

[10] Nakayama Osamu claims that the herbivorous man is somehow a throw back to a pre-capitalist time, even a return to a transhistorical and essential Japanese masculinity (Nakayama 2009).

[11] Roberson shows how working-class laborers, even as they constitute a "marginalized masculinity," are "complicit with the hegemony of the white-collar, middle class salaryman model of masculinity" (Roberson 2002, p. 126). Gill's examination of day laborers, many also classified as homeless, shows a struggle without symbolic, spatial and capital resources (Gill 2002). Established masculinity is linked to stability and embeddedness through work and home. See Dasgupta 2005 for a discussion of how men see it as "natural" and absolutely essential to have a job. Takeyama Akiko also shows how men, even those contracted to perform affective labor, still cling to a sort of masculinity associated with a "workplace" (shokuba) (Takeyama 2010, p. 242).

[12] This was picked up by Shūkan Shinchō in a 26 June 2008 article titled "The Akiba Slasher is Worshipped as a 'God' on the Net." This caused a great deal of backlash, both in the mainstream and alternative media, both online and offline. Many wanted to make it clear that they did not support Katō, though they empathized with his situation. For English translations of a variety of Japanese bloggers' complex responses to the incident, see here.

[13] As Nico Nico Dōga is only accessible to registered users, see the YouTube repost.

[14] If the lack of social connections was represented in the media as the cause of the tragedy, then it is not surprising that these same connections are the conditions of survival. Many of the young people quoted in articles about Katō sought to differentiate themselves from him by stressing that they held onto hope (kibō). Hope, as they narrate it and as it was reinforced in the media, is not a feeling or personal resource, not a strength of inner character, but rather something formed through social connections that helps keep individuals from acting out on their fear and isolation. Being affirmed by someone in some way was identified as the key to enduring the hardships and dehumanizing humiliation of social precariousness. The consensus was that Katō lacked hope.

[15] This distinction is of course important in Marx's understanding of work as a form of labor, an activity that transforms nature, and in doing so, transforms society and self. This is not the case in Japan and many other non-western countries.

[16] This is not to deny that this definition, especially when epitomized in the figure of the salaryman, functions as an exclusionary mechanism that reproduces gender and class, but the point is that because the forms of masculinity are different, the functioning is also different.

[17] Indeed, Takeyama concedes that there are very few alternatives in Japan for men with minimal education and job experience. For those that are not gifted with exceptional skills, intelligence or looks, this is even more the case. Further, even if one does make it into a job like hosting, the chances of upward social mobility are slim, as Takeyama points out. Rather, mythical winners like hosts "contribute to valorizing the precariousness of the new millennium capitalism. They also take part in Japan's labor restructuring that exploits surplus working-class populations under the cover of the 'invisible hand' of the free market" (Takeyama 2010, p. 240).

[18] Among the most widely disseminated of Katō's quotes was, "I don't have a single friend and I won't in the future. I'll be ignored because I'm ugly." Katō thought he was not worthy of friendship, and virtually disqualified from love.

[19] According to government surveys, around half of Japanese men are single / not dating (National Institute of Population and Social Security Research 2006).

[20] Gary Cross argues that the "culture of intensity" comes from men rejecting "adult" responsibilities and restraints because the power and privilege associated with them have been eroded by socioeconomic change; at the same time, consumer culture encourages us to extend childhood indefinitely (Cross 2008, p. 240).

[21] In a way familiar to those who witnessed the news coverage connecting videogames to the tragic violence at Columbine High School in 1999, images of a character wielding a sword, which Katō drew in his junior high school yearbook, were widely disseminated in the media (for example, the 9 June 2008 broadcast of "Mineya," a popular news program).

[22] "Nerd" might capture this. Lori Kendall has argued that by having low social skills and little or no sexual interaction, men called "nerds" have compromised their connection to hegemonic masculinity (Kendall 1999, p. 357). They are easily identifiable by their use of Standard English, semi-formal dress and affinity for technology. However, translating otaku as nerd emphasizes intelligence rather than hobbies, and thus is not favored.

[23] Kam Thiam Huat states that otaku is a label applied to bad consumption and play: "Engagement in the liminal zone of play that undermines work is a threat to a social structure that emphasizes the central position of work. The desire for virtual women also signifies a permanent state of liminality and a refusal to take up roles and obligations as husbands and fathers prescribed by the social structure. 'Otaku' are the people who commit all these aberrations of reality/structure" (Kam 2008, p. 79).

[24] This was coupled with a TV report that made use of an interview with another coworker and dramatic music to paint a frightening picture of Katō. Much was made of his love for anime and possession of dōjinshi. Oddly, a great deal of emphasis was placed on a picture of him holding a pink cellular phone. See the video here.

[25] In ways that point to the intertwining of media forms, the story is assembled from Densha otoko's posts and replies to them on 2channel. See all the posts in English translation here.

[26] In her reading of the narrative, Alisa Freedman argues that Densha otoko is a recoding of the otaku male, who graduates from isolated and de-sexual status into broader acceptance, and could even provide a new model of masculinity, odd but functional to the extent that it promotes relationships to older working women and house-bound young men (Freedman 2009).

[27] Contrary to the stereotype that otaku are immature and confused about the boundaries of reality, psychoanalyst Saitō Tamaki states that otaku are extremely strict about observing the distinction between fiction and reality (Saitō 2007, p. 227). He argues that otaku have an affinity for "fictional contexts" (kyokō no kontekusuto); they realize that the object is fiction, and desire it precisely because it is fiction. Anime, manga and videogames provide them "an utterly imagined space with no correspondent in the everyday world, a space of perfect fictionality … deliberately separated from everyday life" (Saitō 2007, p. 245). This is the basis for radical exploration of virtual potential, and a distinctly otaku sexual orientation.

[28] In his dialogue with Honda, Yanashita Ki'ichirō, drawing on the articles written by Katō's younger brother for Shūkan Gendai suggests that their mother not letting them see any sexual content, even relatively mild animated images, contributed to frustration and impeded development (Honda and Yanashita 2008, p. 69). Here again the mother is blamed, but this time for not letting her son experiment with fantasy sexuality, an incredible reversal of the discourse on social/sexual dysfunction of otaku in the 1990s.

[29] At a talk event held at Loft/Plus One in Shinjuku on 24 June 2008, Okada Toshio, an otaku expert, commented that the reason Katō attacked Akihabara might have been because he realized that the place was commercialized, and he essentially was an outsider because he did not have the time or money to buy in and participate more fully. For a summary of Okada's comments, see here.

[30] In a personal interview conducted on 26 September 2009, Honda was surprisingly funny in relating his life story, which includes very difficult circumstances at home, school and work. Though he did attend university, and today is relatively economically stable, Honda's identification with Katō is not superficial.

[31] See an abbreviated online version of the article here.

[32] The reopening only occurred after 1) surveillance cameras were installed on the streets, 2) police started making regular patrols and 3) the area adopted new behavioral regulations.

[33] Significantly, Miyazaki Tsutomu was executed 17 June 2008, just over a week after the arrest of Katō. Many saw this as an attempt to close the book on negative images of otaku (for example), who were fast becoming part of "Cool Japan" cultural policy (Galbraith 2010). Similarly, the death penalty for Katō might be seen as an attempt to rescue the image of Akihabara, a major tourist destination and national showcase.

[34] Katō was convicted and sentenced to death on 24 March 2011.

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Shūkan Posuto. “Akiba satsujinki!: 'Dōkoku no hahaoya ni suterareta jinsei'" [Akiba Murderer: 'A Life Abandoned By a Wailing Mother']. Shūkan Posuto [Weekly Post], 27 July 2008: 24-26.

Shūkan Pureibōi. “Akiba jiken wo 'shikei' de owarasete ii no ka?" [Can We Let the Akihabara Incident End in the “Death Penalty?"], Shūkan Pureibōi [Weekly Playboy], 14 February 2011: 30-33.

Tachibanaki, Toshiaki. Shin nihon kanemochi kenkyū [Research on the Japanese New Rich]. Tokyo: Nihon Keizai Shimbun Press, 2009.

Tōō Nippō Press. Katō Tomohiro yōgisha no mono to mirareru keitai saito no kakikomi (genbun no mama) [Posts on Cellphone Sites Thought to be Made by the Accused, Katō Tomohiro (As They Originally Appeared)]. 15 June 2008. Last accessed 31 May 2011.

Yamada, Masahiro. Kibō kakusa shakai [A Hope-Divided Society]. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2004.

Yuasa, Makoto. “'Furītā' 'Hakenshain' no kinkyū zadankai: 'Watashitachi to hannin no onaji tokoro, chigau tokoro'" [Freeter and Dispatch Worker Emergency Council: 'What's the Same and What's Different Between the Criminal and Us']. Shūkan Asahi [Weekly Asahi], 27 June 2008: 28-30.

Yūkan Fuji. “Akiba otaku no kyōkō: Onkō, lolicon, supīdo-kyō" [The Madness of an Akiba Otaku: Quiet Guy, Pedophile, Speed Demon]. Yūkan Fuji [Evening Fuji], 9 June 2008: 1.

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About the Author

David H. Slater is an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Sophia University, Tokyo. Among related publications, he has recently co-edited with Ishida Hiroshi Social Class in Contemporary Japan, and edited a special collection of articles for Cultural Anthropology entitled "3.11 Politics in Disaster Japan: Fear and Anger, Possibility and Hope".

Patrick W. Galbraith is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies at the University of Tokyo. Publications include "Akihabara: Conditioning a Public 'Otaku' Image" (Mechademia 5), "Maid in Japan: An Ethnographic Account of Alternative Intimacy" (Intersections) and "Fujoshi: Fantasy Play and Transgressive Intimacy
among 'Rotten Girls' in Japan" (Signs).

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Copyright: David H. Slater and Patrick W. Galbraith.
This page was created on 30 September 2011.

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