Digital Communication Jewelry: View of the Otaku Subculture. A Master Degree project by Xiangyin Shi

Published: 12.05.2020
Xiangyin Shi Xiangyin Shi
Xiangyin Shi
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Xiangyin Shi. Brooch: Hey! Listen! #1 #2 #3, 2019. Sterling silver, copper, brass, mini speaker, wood, found objects, acrylic paint, steel (pin).. 7 x 5 x 4 cm. Photo by: Xiangyin Shi. From series: Digital Communication Jewelry. Xiangyin Shi
Brooch: Hey! Listen! #1 #2 #3, 2019
Sterling silver, copper, brass, mini speaker, wood, found objects, acrylic paint, steel (pin).
7 x 5 x 4 cm
Photo by: Xiangyin Shi
From series: Digital Communication Jewelry
© By the author. Read Copyright.

This research aims to incorporate technology into jewelry form, making jewelry for digital communication. It introduces the Otaku subculture within the context of digital culture and technology and uses this point of view to define digital communication, investigate its changing modes, and explore people’s social relationships in a digital world. This research leads to a new concept: Digital Communication Jewelry, which triggers communication between people and devices, creating a more comfortable environment and a more friendly experience. The research introduces and examines the jewelry’s functions, forms, mythologies, and finally, the relationship between maker and users.
A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of the Jewelry Department in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts in Jewelry at Savannah College of Art and Design.

Key Words: Digital Communication, Jewelry, Otaku Subculture, Social Relationship, Digital Relations, Digital Identities, Digital Communities, Interactive Objects, Virtual Jewelry

>> Read the complete Master Thesis

Otaku Subculture
The concept of Otaku (おたく/オタク), meaning “another house” or “another family,” formed in Japan.[1] For contemporary usage, Japanese columnist Nakamori Akio first wrote about it in the manga magazine Manga Burikko in 1983,[2] describing people of the Otaku subculture as fanatics who are addicted to topics including anime, manga, games, novels, etc. Otaku subculture is a central theme of these topics and their related productions. In more than three decades’ development, the notion of the Otaku subculture has expanded to music, movies, drama, performance, photography, fashion, and other fields related to the anime industry. Using technology as a medium and the internet as a platform, the Otaku subculture has emerged as popular culture in Asia and spread worldwide. For western understanding, it is close to “geek” or “nerd” subcultures, with references to pop and cyber culture. More broadly, it could even be referred to as mass media and popular culture.[3]

Otaku subculture can be easily identified by its distinct practices and aesthetics. Cosplay(コスプレ) (Fig.1) is one of the most popular practices for Otakus. It is a kind of costume play where people dress and act as anime or manga characters. This way of touching intangibles brings the virtual characters closer to reality. Gal game(ギャルゲーム) (Fig.2), also known as the “dating game,” is also a style of game popular amongst Otakus. People make virtual relationships with virtual lovers in the games. It is a way to show their true selves and find perfect boyfriends or girlfriends who demonstrate fierce loyalty. There are many other approaches, such as Fujoshi(腐女子, “rotten girl”), in which a group of women read stories or watch videos which feature romantic stories between males; Wotagei(ヲタ芸) (Fig.3), which is a kind of dance by Otakus to support their idols; and Itasha(痛車, “painful car”) (Fig.4), which is a style of car decoration. These practices may be weird for those who do not understand the subculture, but they bridge Otaku’s fantasy and real lives. And while it seems fun and playful on the surface, the Otaku subculture is critical and serious in-depth. To gain a deeper understanding, this research studies the Otaku subculture from cultural, social, and technical aspects. 

Fig.1, Cosplay, “A Cosplay Girl’s Daily life”, 3DM Game

Fig.2, Gal game, Love and Producer, Production by Suzhou Diezhi Network Technology Co., Ltd.

In the twentieth century, the Otaku subculture came into being with the fast-growing economy and developed during the Japanese asset price bubble and economic depression after the late 1980s. To pursue a better world and heal themselves from the turbulence of the time, Japanese people needed spiritual consolation. The Otaku world, as a Utopia without worry over money, health, social class, power, peace, or typical things people strive for, strongly contrasts the chaos in the real world. It is a perfect world protected by superheroes, a pure land without darkness or sorrow.

In the twenty-first century, with the rapid development of technology, the Otaku subculture has become a unique part of digital culture. It expanded its notion to all related fields of anime and the digital industry, including music, movies, drama, performance, photography, fashion, etc. Now, this subculture has influenced a growing number of young adults in their lifestyles, attitudes, personalities, and behaviors. Although the Otaku subculture is a type of pejorative and negative term that is not accepted by mainstream culture yet, for its supporters, it is a self-mocking term to identify themselves and a community for their self-belonging.

Fig.3, Wotagei, “Wotagei,” Wikipedia

Fig.4, Itasha, “Painful Car,” Moegirl

Otaku subculture has a close relationship with society. The social changes, cultural movements, the economy, politics, history, technical developments, and other issues in a society influence the Otaku subculture and push it forward. It is an extension and reflection of the society but recreates its own structures, environments, rules, and principles in a more ideal way. Sometimes, it could push back the society. The relationship between the two is mutual: the society shapes the Otaku subculture, and the subculture sometimes reshapes society. For example, in the last few years, Sang(丧) (Fig.5) has emerged as a popular attitude in the Otaku subculture, in which people become depressed and lose their ambition towards life. Firstly, coming from Japanese novels and animations, it was rapidly accepted by its viewers then spread to the real society. Responding to societal pressures, more and more people changed their living style and life attitude into Sang, sleeping all day, not going out, or even not going to work. Sang is a negative way to escape reality but this subculture did influence many people in Asia, especially white-collar workers.

Fig.5, Sang, No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Production by Silver Link Studio, Published by Square Enix Co., Ltd.

Millennials are the main force of the Otaku subculture. One of its most common themes is social panic, which touches millennials’ everyday lives. For millennials, living in contemporary society is not easy: housing, education, high living expenses, joblessness, and other issues push them into a zone of discomfort. Society is full of anxiety, apathy, anger, fear, and desire, making it hard for people to breathe. Under such heavy pressure, millennials, in particular, are trying to find a way out. The Otaku world, as an escape, creates comfort zones for their therapy and self-preservation. Comparing life with this ideal world, there is a strong condemnation that leads to disappointment in the real world. As some critics point out, the Otaku subculture as a part of the digital culture can be understood as social recognitions, can function as recurrent social actions, and can teach social values and cultural power.[4]

Digital technologies are the cornerstone of the Otaku subculture and offer a means of access to it. This thesis considers technologies including software and hardware. The software exists digitally and offers access to the Otaku world. The internet, World Wide Web, social media, video games, APPs and other virtual platforms based on digital technologies can be considered as software. The hardware is the physical equipment that supports the software, such as personal computers, smart phones, digital cameras, virtual reality headsets, handheld game consoles, etc. Both software and hardware are the technical basis of the Otaku subculture. More importantly, technology has expanded the possibilities of communication and connections. Otaku subculture especially has strong affinities with social media and online networks,[5] which provides Otakus a more “participatory” platform involved with a wider range of audiences in communication, participation, and distribution.[6] Communication in this way enables “one-to-one,” “one-to-many” and “many-to-many” interactions. Technology not only provides Otakus an environment for online socializing but also provides them the potential for more relationships in society.[7]

Otaku subculture is complicated due to the cultural, social, and technical contexts. It might be negative for the majority, but this research frames it in a more positive way, which believes the Otaku world enables easier communication, better understanding, and freer expression.

[1] Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe and Izumi Tsuji, Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World (New Haven & London: Yale University Press,2012), xi.
[2] Morikawa Kaichiro, trans. by Dennis Washburn. “おたく/ Otaku / Geek,” Working Words: New Approaches to Japanese Studies, April 20, 2012, 1.
[3] Ito, Okabe and Tsuji, Fandom Unbound, 88.
[4] Carolyn R. Miller and Ashley R. Kelly, Emerging Genres in New Media Environments (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), vi.
[5] Ito, Okabe and Tsuji, Fandom Unbound, xxiii.
[6] Glen Creeber and Royston Martin, Digital Cultures: Understanding New Media (New York: Open University Press, 2009), 2.
[7] Xinyuan Wang, “Social Media and Social Relationships,” in Social Media in Industrial China, ed. Xinyuan Wang (London: UCL Press, 2016), 97.

>> Read the complete Master Thesis

  • Abstract 01
  • Otaku Subculture 02
  • Digital Communication 05
  • Digital Communication Jewelry 10
  • Conclusion 15
  • List of Images 16
  • Bibliography 21

About the author

Xiangyin Shi was born and raised in Hangzhou, China. She is a jeweler, a designer and an educator. She studied for a B.A. in accessories at Zhejiang Sic-tech University and an M.F.A. in jewelry at Savannah College of Art and Design. She not only makes jewelry, but also teaches classes in the portfolio, CAD and bench work in different art institutions in China. She has achieved several exhibitions in the USA, Europe and China. Her most recent award is the 2020 Premiul Athens Jewelry Week Award at Autor 2019.