On Christian Otaku Outreach

Subahibi has finally been announced for an August release (which isn’t July 20th, very disappointed). Considering its fame across the entire otaku community, I’ll be interested in seeing people’s reactions, even if I think it’s gotten a bit overrated over the years (also because Sakura no Uta ended up being even better). Even so, as a philosophical masterpiece that people have waited years for and with a translation project(s) that spawned numerous memes, this is one of those titles where I put on my elitist cap and wonder how you can call yourself an otaku if you’ve never even heard of this title before. I guess I should apologize in advance, but this post is going to be closer to a rant that a usual coherent post. This frustration I have with the otaku community – and mainly the Christian otaku community – also played a role in why I left Beneath the Tangles.

The more I interact with or listen to Christian otaku, the more I question how otaku they really are. This is a frustration that is admittedly in part elitism on my end, and I try to curb that as much as possible while phrasing my opinions in a more joking manner (i.e. bad anime is bad). But any elitism I may feel toward others’ interests and knowledge is often less about feeling superior and more about feeling disconnected. Because there is a big difference between “you don’t like what I like,” and “you have absolutely no idea what I like even is.” I’m sure this is a feeling that every anime fan can empathize with, so there is no reason to think that the same phenomenon cannot occur even within a fandom as large as this one is.

I should clarify I don’t intend to criticize Christian otaku who don’t have any interest in visual novels (the part of the fandom that personally relates to me, but there are numerous other fringe niches that exist and are ignored). You like what you like, and I like what I like. However, when it comes to the topic of ministry and outreach in this area which is very close to my heart, this disconnect brings about two related issues that I can’t ignore. The first is the general ignorance of what is out there and what it looks like. I remember reading about a Christian anime fan who was excited to attend Comiket because it’s a “Japanese anime convention.” Little did she know how much of the event was literally pornographic, and she was scarred, to say the least. Even people who are more aware about the culture than this will paint the industry with broad strokes without actually knowing any details about it.

Now, it’s basically a catch 22 to expect people who aren’t well informed about the industry to understand it. But I suppose what I want of people is awareness to some degree and to be more open about learning rather than trying to generalize something you know very little about. Especially when it comes to the former, it’s absurd to me how misinformed or ignorant self-proclaimed Christian otaku can be. Probably over 99% of them don’t even know what Subahibi is, even though it was one of the most praised titles in the community in the last several years (and this not limited to only VNs). I understand that this is caused by a mix of different interests, that the majority of anime fans talked about stuff like Madoka, SAO, and Shingeki instead, and most of all, that most fans are new fans who haven’t been engulfed in the fandom for decades, but again, that’s exactly why I’m trying to bring about awareness on the subject – and again, specifically when it comes to Christians. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to know about everything; the sub-communities are so large and expansive that it’s basically impossible. However, I wish there was some better awareness surrounding some of the biggest, most talked about things, and that these things exist and are loved by the fandom. If you are going to call yourself an otaku, then at least have the awareness to know there is some spectrum from 1-100 (to keep things simple) and you fall at the 20 or the 50 or maybe the 70, and that there are things beyond that into the 80s and 90s and 100. Honestly, I wouldn’t even put myself into the 80s on such a hypothetical scale.  I have my limits, but I’m well aware of what exists beyond that, and that’s what I’m asking of people who are attempting to do Christian outreach in this weird but attractive fandom.

Dies Irae is pretty good too

This leads into the second issue when Christian otaku actually start talking about and doing outreach work. If you are an anime fan reaching out to anime fans, then fine go do that; that’s great. But this means you are completely unequipped to deal with other people, who are further along the yes-overly-simplified-2D-spectrum I just mentioned. This in itself is again okay because that’s how things will always be in any field. However, while the first issue is fine in a vacuum, when you combine outreach with the previous issue of lack of awareness, it has the potential to go wrong in all kinds of ways. Especially in a part of the fandom that is almost inherently anti-Christian (i.e. porn games), for Christian otaku outreach to 1) not be able to relate to them, 2) not even be aware of some of the biggest titles, and 3) still imply you can understand them, that is going to exacerbate any disconnects that already exist. I mean, I feel that disconnect pretty strongly even as a Christian; how much worse will it be for people who are wary of Christian fans?  I don’t expect you to change your interests nor am I intending to set a bar of elitism that you must pass. However, I do wish that when someone mentions something as widely recognized as Subahibi, that you don’t give a blank stare of ignorance, or when someone starts talking about porn, that you at least know how to deal with the situation rather than being surprised that there are fans who glorify these things.

I think especially because there has been a recent growth in people trying to do Christian otaku outreach (no doubt related to the recent growth in anime fans), this is an important time when Christian otaku have kind of a blank slate to define themselves. Yes, there is a huge anti-anime voice in the Christian community, but there has never really been a large, strong voice of Christians not only supporting otaku but trying to claim we all share the same interests too. Moreover, VNs in particular are in a similar situation in the West, with localizations starting to flood the market on steam. Titles fans have only dreamed of getting localizations like Subahibi, Dies Irae, Clannad, etc. actually happened. There is not going to be a better time to start learning about VNs as a Christian and become a part of a community that is very different yet much related to anime, just as I wondered only a few years ago.

the crux of what I want to say is that this is about forming a collective social implication about what the term “Christian otaku” means and therefore how Christian outreach on both sides will be affected by this perception

Right now is the time when Christian fans are beginning to define what a “Christian otaku” even is, and whether or not that includes or excludes certain groups and fandoms. It could just be the biased VN fan in me, but I feel that the boundary of a Christian otaku will be defined within a few short years. I realize it may sound alarmist in some ways, but frankly, people vastly underestimate the speed of influence that internet culture has on our daily lives. If people don’t make efforts now (which is in part what I’m trying to do, but I’m just a lone fan), people on both sides will start to form more defined ideas of what a “Christian otaku” means, who that includes, and most importantly, who they are willing to reach out to. In other words, the crux of what I want to say is that this is about forming a collective social implication about what the term “Christian otaku” means and therefore how Christian outreach on both sides will be affected by this perception. As of now, people view it as a joke, but are simultaneously willing to listen and learn about it because “lol what in the world is this supposed to be?” That luxury of being a foreign existence will not exist for long. As such, I would really like to fully implore Christian otaku working in the field of outreach, be it Japan or the States, to really consider the scope of the otaku fandom and how to broaden outreach as far as possible before such boundaries are defined.

Coming back to Subahibi, I would really like to see every Christian otaku at least have an opinion on it. I mean, right now, most don’t even know what it is. But this is a title that’s been almost universally praised as a philosophical masterpiece. It has so much to say about happiness in a broken world, a topic that I believe is very relevant to Christians. It has some of the most infamous use of adult content in the industry. I don’t think the scenes can really be called pornographic, because they are most certainly not intended to instill sexual gratification but rather disgust. For example, the beastiality scene got removed from the R-18 release; it’s that bad. I’m not going to tell you to read the scenes (I pretty much just literally could not physically read them.  Not even the images, just the pure text was already too much for me), but I can still acknowledge how much meaning there is to them in the greater scope of the story. There’s also this one spoiler that I will probably write on later which was incredibly remindful of our relationship with God. When I consider just how knowledgeable Sca-ji is about Christianity (daily reminder that this guy understands Christian theology better than any other Japanese author in the industry and uses references in proper context), a part of me wonders if that was actually intentional. I guess I would call those the three major reasons Subahibi is a work that would make for very interesting discussion among the Christian otaku fandom, but sadly, almost no one even knows what it is. I’m not even asking people to read it, just be a bit more informed about it to form some kind of opinion for discussion with others. Because I guarantee you that while being ignorant about these things will generate disconnections, having some kind of informed opinion on a porn game can lead to quite some interesting discussions.

Why Every Japan Missionary Should Read Sakura no Uta

Is that title too sensational? Probably, but lately I have felt it to be true, so if you want to disagree, you’ll have to actually read the thing and tell me why I’m wrong. “Oh but it’s in Japanese.” Well, yeah, and I don’t really see an English translation doing justice to Sca-Ji’s genius prose, so you better read it in Japanese. If you can’t commit to learning the language, I’m not sure what you’re doing as a missionary in Japan. “Oh, but it has porn scenes.” Fine, then skip them. It’s not that hard, and it’s not like I’m telling you to read Subarashiki Hibi instead where the porn is actually important.  If a little porn is going to scare you away, then again, why are you in Japan of all countries? Walk into a conbini and you will see shelves of gravure every time. “Oh, but it’s so long.” Welcome to the world of visual novels. If you can’t invest a simple 50 hours into reading what is the most philosophically heavy story that has hit the otaku market in years, then I will take that to mean that you have zero interest or intention of ministering to the otaku subculture. And while that’s possibly true of a lot of missionaries on a surface level, you probably don’t realize how much that sub-population is growing in Japan. If you’re a missionary in Japan, chances are you’ve met some closet otaku. It’s too bad your impression of them is so wrong. Maybe if you actually read Sakura no Uta, you would have a better understanding of the people around you.

Okay, that’s enough patronizing for now. While I admit I intentionally used that tone to get a rise out of a certain audience, I will also say that the otaku side of me often gets very frustrated when Japan missionaries demonstrate an astonishingly low or even non-existent understanding of otaku. I mean, I guess it’s fine if you were a normal person living out a normal life, but if you’re intending to reach out to people and understand their culture and you still have the mindset that visual novel = eroge = porn game, then you’re going to have a hard time when you talk to otaku. Of course, even Japanese natives have this misconception, so as a fan, I can’t help but throw my hands up in the air and reiterate that you people have no idea what you’re talking about. But that’s okay, because Sakura no Uta exists.

There are two major reasons why I believe every Japan missionary should read this work. The first is because it’s, well, simply a masterpiece. In terms of story and writing, yes, but even more so in terms of themes and life lessons.  Sure, Rewrite, exists, and if you know me, you know I’m a huge fan of it because it was the most spiritually enriching piece of fiction I have ever read. I could praise it all day, but I will simultaneously admit it has its flaws. It’s no masterpiece. Sakura no Uta, well, okay, it has flaws, but they are so vastly overshadowed by everything else, I am still caling it a masterpiece. Every time I think about it, I am amazed that it can touch on so many ideas and yet have those all be encompassed together so perfectly as it poses the question “what does it mean to live out your life?” The story is heavy and painfully realistic at times; it pulls no punches in reminding you of how easily life can bring you down. Yet because of this, it brilliantly asks some very hard questions about how you as an individual choose to live out your life and what your decisions mean to others and to yourself.  I could get into more specifics, but I want to avoid spoilers as much as possible. Suffice to say; reading this novel ruined me for months as I was forced to completely re-evaluate everything about my perceptions of and choices in life. Personally, it was doubly powerful because I then had to reconcile those answers with my own Christian faith. Sakura no Uta demands introspection like nothing else, and so I cannot help but place it above every other story I’ve ever experienced. Therefore, it is my firm belief that giving an honest and unbiased reading of this story (that is, not going in with any intention to hate it) will be the best possible example of what visual novels and the otaku culture has to offer people. The medium of visual novels is not just “entertainment” or “sexual gratification,” (though both exist as real reasons) but there are also things on a far deeper and philosophical level than you would initially imagine. And if the story hits too close to home, you might find yourself re-evaluating things about your life that you never thought a “porn game” could make you do.

The second reason every Japan missionary should read this is because Sakura no Uta does something really, really ingenious. It starts off with incredibly clichéd romcom scenes with stereotypical characters that seemingly have very little depth to them. Sure, there’s the occasional suggestion of something on a deeper level. I mean, the opening itself has references to Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickinson, Kenji Miyazawa, and more. Sca-Ji loves his classical literature, and he is truly a scholar to the point that I am sure he knows the Bible better than many Christians. But I digress. The story takes this incredibly anime-esque setting and turns it completely on its head. It uses those very things as the foundation with which to spur the aforementioned questions about life. Those questions can then be turned back around and asked about those very clichés and stereotypes within the anime culture. And when you understand the context of those questions, you will understand the entire otaku culture on a completely different level. Granted, most people are kind of already aware of these things. High school is considered a prime time of one’s life; it is that springtime of youth where things like first love can lead to happiness. The cliches of anime seek only to reflect the most glorified time of people’s lives. I hear things like this about Japan a lot. I’m sure you have too.

But Sakura no Uta has some very powerful things to say about these ideas. In the same way it forces individuals to re-evaluate their lives, it forces a re-evaluation of the industry itself and the stereotypes of the anime culture. Because in the end, the entertainment used as escapism and the individuals who are drawn to it are intrinsically tied together.  As a result, this all triples back onto the main audience of visual novels and eroge, i.e. the otaku population. It forces introspection on the reader due to the struggles of the protagonist, then on the state of the otaku market that got turned on its head within the story itself, and finally back on the reader as one who consumes those very things. It seems ridiculous that a single story can have so many layers to the introspection it demands of its readers, but like I said, this is a masterpiece.

A Christian missionary with superficial understanding of the anime culture may only be forced into a third of that introspection. However, that is perhaps enough of a start to begin a re-evaluation of your own understanding of otaku and the subculture and how these interact with the greater Japanese culture at large. Again, I don’t want to spoil unnecessarily, but this introspection of life that I keep referring to includes the struggles, regrets, valuations, and dreams of individuals. Thus, Sakura no Uta is a story that can completely change your understanding of everything about the Japanese population and even more when it comes to the otaku population. Even if you somehow legitimately have a strong, empathetic understanding already, at the very least, a “porn game” will have reaffirmed some heavy truths about Japan that you know to be true. How’s that for some food for thought?

Still, I doubt many Christians will read this. The majority of you will give up due to various reasons like length, boredom, porn, or a lack of time; well, the majority won’t even bother to try. I don’t really mind that though because then I’ll be able to constantly respond to everything regarding Christian outreach in Japan with “well, if actually read Sakura no Uta…”  I mean, seriously, please try to prove me wrong or something because I probably won’t stop saying that. This is my challenge to anyone who is serious about Christian ministry in Japan. It is truly the greatest piece of fiction I’ve ever read and will be something I constantly refer back to in life not because it has answers but because it poses hard, necessary questions about what it means to live out life.