A recent tragedy illustrated one of the unexpected dangers of otakudom. A woman was found dead in her apartment in Shizuoka after a 6.5 magnitude earthquake, one of several serious quakes in mid-August. She was listed as a victim of the quake because, according to police, she was found under a large pile of books.
A friend of mine who collects manga and anime can relate to this. In fact, a decade ago she told me that was how she’d choose to go when the Next Big One, long-predicted successor to the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, hits. Sitting in her three-bedroom flat in a Tokyo suburb, so crammed with comics and collectibles that she and her cats could only get around through pathways left between the piles, she said that, given enough warning of a major quake, she would head for home because she’d rather die under her collection than survive without it. Having been privileged to browse some of her treasures – early fanzines by people who became big names, wonderfully original comics by others who didn’t, videotape of shows lost in time – I can understand that, in a way.
She has since moved out of town to get more space, but it won’t really help. According to Japan’s Earthquake Research Committee, there’s an 87 per cent chance that a magnitude 8 quake – earthquake experts are already calling it the Tokai earthquake – will hit Shizuoka Prefecture by 2040. Hopefully there’s still time for serious book collectors to donate their precious volumes to a major library and invest in an ebook reader.
Death and destruction brought about by human nature is just as senseless, and any differences of scale are usually down to luck rather than judgement. Early in August, according to the Kobe Daily News, 29-year-old factory worker Yoshifumi Takabe was arrested after burning down the house where he lived with his 55-year-old mother in Kasai City. (Nearby Kobe was devastated in 1995’s Hanshin Earthquake.) Takabe doused himself and his room in petrol, and set fire to the room. He claims it was a suicide attempt, though he escaped without injury. He was distraught because his mother had thrown away his valuable Gundam models. They both survived, but the part-wooden house was burned to the ground. Luckily the fire didn’t spread.
Takabe is not the only stay-at-home fan to take radical action against less than sympathetic parents. Some have even less provocation than he did. Last year, the Sankei Daily News reported on a 36-year-old unemployed woman who was so furious when her mother asked her to get rid of part of her collection of several thousand manga that she went online to put out a contract on both her parents. The thread on the 2channel forum, “The ‘I really want to kill someone’ gathering”, had (unsurprisingly) attracted considerable attention, and she was arrested.
Her mother wasn’t being unreasonable, though it appears she was a glutton for punishment. She managed a Tokyo bar. She and her husband supported their daughter, who funded her fan activity with an allowance from her grandmother. Three rooms of the family home were full of comics and videotapes. She wanted one room cleared so that her elder daughter, 40, could move back in. How much longer, I wonder, before she and her husband start sleeping behind the bar to give the kids more space?
Cases like these are becoming more and more common as adults continue to live with their parents, expecting life to go on as it did when they were fourteen. It’s perfectly reasonable, in my view, to fill your own space with toys and books, devote your life to amassing every Gundam kit ever produced, compile notebooks with the dates and times of train or aircraft sightings, collect football memorabilia – to do whatever gives you satisfaction and doesn’t break the law. All over the world there are people who come home at the end of the day, close their own front door and rest content in the world they have made for themselves. But they’re paying their own rent and doing their own cleaning.
For a while, it looked as if the traditional Japanese way of life, with multi-generational families living in one home, was being eroded as young people moved to the cities for work or college. Now, as in Britain and America, the pendulum is swinging the other way – but instead of a company income and a daughter-in-law to help with the housework and provide grandchildren, unmarried, unemployed children are bringing home their collections of plamodels or Gucci bags. The grandchildren would provide a perfect excuse for the collections, but most otaku don’t like to share their toys, especially not with sticky-fingered little destruction machines. Parents are even going to matchmaking parties, trying to find partners for their increasingly choosy children, who don’t want to move out unless their newlywed home will provide the same comforts as Mum and Dad’s place.
It’s not only happening in Japan, although our love of reports about those wacky Orientals may make it seem that way. Long before Japanese scholars were writing learned papers about hikikomori, the ‘shut-ins’ who rarely leave their rooms and live Internet-based lives courtesy of their families, the Americans were leading the way. In 1986, in an infamous spoof interview on the Saturday Night Live show, William Shatner of Star Trek fame urged fans to move out of their parents’ basements and “get a life”. Even before the Internet enabled solitary living, American fans were watching TV at home, ordering in pizza and interacting only with like-minded friends in a self-constructed universe that marginalised or excluded everything they found unpalatable. The stay-at-home geekdult has become a minor Hollywood trope.
Any day now I expect a new wave of reports to start, maybe slowly at first, then building, and spreading from Japan across the world. Respectable elderly people, driven to despair by the drones eating their retirement savings, will begin to realise that terminating Junior, selling his collection and escaping to Acapulco may be a better bet than supporting their child’s addiction to the ephemera of popular culture while their hopes of grandchildren recede. After Ring, after Deep Water, the next Asian horror franchise could be Retirement Plan – coming soon to a bedroom near you.
As for me – well, there aren’t many earthquakes in England, but I’ve run out of space for bookshelves and I’m looking at ads for e-book readers.