Ikigai and Otaku: Self-Identity and Self-Motivation Research Path 2

About 20 years ago I began looking at change in Japanese society.  In the post-80’s in Japan there was a huge amount of discussion about the ‘collapse of Japanese values’, lack of work ethic in the young, widespread cynicism about the Japanese work ethic.  All of this was quite interesting given the hyper-coherent structure of Japanese society, where there is tremendous uniformity of attitudes and values.  So in contemporary Japanese society change is a very interesting topic to be looking at.

A term which frequently arose was that of ikigai, an internalized sense of self, reason for being or one’s reason for functioning every day—“what makes life worth living?”  Within the change discussion was both that younger generations had ‘lost’ their ikigai, but there was also the counter, that the younger generation actually had a stronger grasp of ikigai, but in forms that were foreign to their elders.

Mathew’s very good work (1996) on ikigai was key to making sense of this concept.  Frequently spun into this discussion was the role of otaku as examples of the changes.  Galbraith has done a number of works on this topic, Otaku Spaces (2012) being a good example.  Otaku is a term which is usually defined as someone who’s identity is based on a specific interest or hobby.  But a more sophisticated distinction is that otaku are individuals who are mainly engaged in the 2-dimensional (visual or digital) reality in contrast to the 3-dimensional (i.e., ‘normal’) reality.

When you combine the concept of self-identity along with this very flexible perception of 2-D/3-D reality, and all this discussion was taking place in the early 2000’s, it became clear that what was seen as a culture-specific (Japanese) phenomena actually had value for understanding behavior in much of the digital world.

This continuum of reality can be best illustrated in the Hatsune Miku phenomenon we saw at the beginning of the semester.  One of the top pop stars in Japan is a digital hologram stage entertainer, singing songs with a synthesized voice, built in large part by software; but in a real concert, on a real stage with a real live backup band, all in front of thousands of real fans [https://youtu.be/KNrdGx69pCo?t=3].  A perfect illustration of the complexity of defining reality in 2020–a continuum.

The second path is looking at how we place ourselves in our world view (part of ikigai) and how we engage with the various forms of digital reality.  For many today, it could be said that that they are otaku with social media; that our world revolves around the 2-D digital constructs that engage and motivate us.  This can be at the cost of fully engaging in the 3-D world.  This helps to explain the results of our study (the extremely high rates of depression in current 18-25 year olds) and also the responses that we get in our perceptual studies (which show high levels of concern about the controlling nature of social media).

A possible process by which to engage users to re-structure their relationship with both the 2-D and 3-D is to train people to more clearly define their sense of self (ikigai) in the context of a digital reality.  Sensitizing people to their relationship and dependency on digital reality, but at the same time helping them to structure a more balanced and robust sense of “what makes life worth living” is the goal of our second path of research.

This is the basis of much of the Learning Modules material that we had this semester; attempts we are making to sensitize and modify behaviors in students.  But notice how it also goes back to some of the discussion about residents in Second Life—their level of emotional and investment with a 2-D virtual world.  There appear to be a number of parallels with how we engage with the digital regardless of the platform or content.

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