The Ethics of Affect – The Responsibility of Drawing and Maintaining Lines

We talked to the author of the book The Ethics of Affect: Lines and Life in a Tokyo Neighborhood, Patrick W. Galbraith, Associate Professor in the School of International Communication at Senshū University in Tokyo.

This monograph explores how and to what effect lines are drawn by producers, players and critics of “bishōjo games,” or adult computer games focusing on interactions and relations with “cute girl characters.”

The book is based on the results of fieldwork carried out in the Akihabara neighborhood of Tokyo. How did you become interested in following this particular group of individuals in the first place?

– In 2004, starting a fieldwork project in the Akihabara neighborhood of Tokyo, I was immediately struck by the density of stores dedicated to manga, anime, computer/console games and related media and material forms. I had never really seen anything on that scale before, which was my initial reason for settling into this field site.

As Akihabara became more politically significant as a symbolic site for “Cool Japan,” from say the mid-2000s, people there were simultaneously praised as cultural mavens and denounced as criminal outcasts. There was tension between promoting and policing images and bodies on the street. As time went on, Akihabara was again in the global spotlight.

Adult computer games, which focus on interactions and relations with manga/anime-style characters and often feature explicit sex acts, contributed to its historic transformation into an “otaku mecca” in the 1990s, were now being problematized.

How would you describe the ethical dilemma related to the practice of drawing clear lines between humans and fictional characters?

– In my initial research, I encountered the discourse of dimensionality, specifically the “two-dimensional,” which refers to manga/anime characters and worlds in contrast to our own human world, the “three-dimensional.” There are, of course, points where these “dimensions” come into contact, for example in maid cafés.

It matters, however, how these things are brought together. This becomes especially important in debates about the reality of manga/anime, or the relation of manga/anime-style images to human reality. From around 2014, there was increasing international pressure on Japan to categorize certain manga/anime-style images as child abuse material in order to ban its production, circulation and consumption.

In contrast to this trend, my fieldwork revealed people drawing lines between the two- and three-dimensional, or between manga/anime-style “cute girl” characters and human beings. This action and everyday practice of drawing lines, which occurs both individually and collectively, in both private and public, is what I came to understand as an ethics of affect, specifically the ethics of affective response to fictional characters.

This action and everyday practice of drawing lines, is what I came to understand as an ethics of affect.

There is, as media and legal scholar Harata Shinichirō puts it, a performative ambivalence to stating one’s relation and response to such a reality. It is precisely at such moments that lines are drawn and insisted on, which is the ethics of affective response to fictional character in action and practice. It may be uncertain, but it is also life.

On the other hand, it is dangerous to allow for a juridical resolution of meaning, or to allow the law to decide what is and is not real, and how. It seems to me that this is something worth trying to understand, which is also a challenge for us to consider how we draw our own lines.

“This is what we are talking about here, the responsibility of drawing and maintaining lines, which is also a responsibility to others in a more-than-human world.”

Many decades ago, the philosopher Donna Haraway highlighted the transgression of boundaries between human and animal, human-animal and machine and physical and non-physical, and advocated taking responsibility for the construction of boundaries. This is what we are talking about here, the responsibility of drawing and maintaining lines, which is also a responsibility to others in a more-than-human world.

Would you say that this type of interaction between different worlds is unique for this particular group, i.e. players of bishōjo games, or would it be possible to compare with fans of other types of games or cultures?

– In fact, there is a growing body of literature on these entanglements. Anthropology has been very adept at revealing all this, and has long shown that the study of the human almost always leads beyond the human, or opens the human up to a far more expansive discussion. Examining spiritual rituals, for example, anthropologist Ishii Miho speaks of the actualization of virtual, vital relations between persons and things that emerge through their contingent coactions.

In game studies, there is interesting research on players being deeply moved by their interactions with characters and forming relationships with them. Feelings of guilt in relation to the character, or jealousy, indicate a bleed effect where one enters the game and the game enters us. Supported by a network of other players, gatherings and social media, the reality of this relationship, at times experienced and expressed as love, comes to be recognized. This is precisely what happens among players of adult computer games in Japan, specifically those I observed being drawn together in and around the stores in Akihabara.

We can learn from the Japanese case how the density of manga/anime media and material forms, combined with a history of subcultural movement recognizing and supporting relationships with two-dimensional or manga/anime beings, changes commonsense or taken-for-granted “reality.”

“This is where we see practices such as character marriage, escorting body pillows to dances and hosting birthday parties, anniversaries and celebrations for manga/anime beings, which are both fictional and real.”

I should also stress that this is not limited to male players of games featuring cute girl characters. The anthropologist Agnès Giard has studied female players of otome games, which focus on interactions and relations with manga/anime-style male characters, and their practices of living with and loving these beings are remarkably similar to what I encountered in the field. For the most part, however, these women have not been subject to the same amount of scrutiny and surveillance as men involved with cute girl characters.

Again, while it might be easy, all too easy, to turn away in disgust from the adult computer games and players featured in The Ethics of Affect, the issues raised here are of far greater significance than whether or not one likes or dislikes some form of imagination or another.

Lastly, who would you think can benefit from reading your book and why should they read it?

– In addition to the wide range of researchers and educators pursuing connected and overlapping questions, I would like to see the book make its way into the hands of readers outside the academy. The issues surrounding legal and ethical responses to manga/anime characters are of broad public concern. This also goes for activists, policy makers and so on.

It is a problem, I think, when we have manga/anime images generally and adult computer games specifically being taken up for discussion at the highest levels, for example by groups associated with the United Nations, without much understanding of what is happening on the ground in Japan. We need to ask questions and seek answers beyond a reactionary response to imagined excesses and perversions. This is all the more crucial when that response might be codified into regulation that criminalizes certain forms of imagination.

I am worried about how easy it is to push away and point a finger at the imagined deviant and dangerous ‘other.'”

Playing adult computer games, much like fieldwork, is a practice of encountering the self in the other and other in oneself. It challenges us to consider our own relations and responses, or where we draw our own lines, and how. I am worried about how easy it is to push away and point a finger at the imagined deviant and dangerous “other.” This discussion of the ethics of affect is something from which we can all benefit.

Stockholm Studies in Media Arts Japan

The Ethics of Affect: Lines and Life in a Tokyo Neighborhood, is the first volume of the Editorial Board of the book series Stockholm Studies in Media Arts Japan, which is a peer-reviewed series of monographs and edited volumes published by Stockholm University Press.

How to access this book

At the Stockholm University Press website you can download The Ethics of Affect: Lines and Life in a Tokyo Neighborhood as an ePub or pdf-file that allows you to read the book online or access it on multiple devices. You may also order a print copy of the book through the website: DOI:

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