Friday, March 20, 2009

Moe for the Watch Otaku

Japanese ideas continue to invade the Western world through pop culture and language. One Japanese word that has been adopted with enthusiasm by watch collecting enthusiasts is "wabi" -- a shortening of the Japanese philosophical term "wabi-sabi" (δΎ˜ε―‚). To American watch collectors, wabi has come to mean wear, damage, or other evidence of age that is considered desirable. However, this use of the term is an over-simplification of a complicated idea.

In Japan, wabi-sabi is the idea that life and the world are impermanent and that acceptance of this fact is essential to enlightenment. It can take a lifetime of study and meditation to truly understand wabi-sabi. As to the American use of the word, it would more accurate to say that a watch or other item with wear or signs of age remind us of wabi-sabi because they are beautiful in imperfection. Still, the word is extremely useful to describe the idea that an imperfect example of a collectible has a beauty that surpasses an overly restored example. This idea is widespread in the world of antique furniture (where original finishes are highly prized) and, recently, among car collectors. This aesthetic is widespread among vintage watch collectors (particularly with vintage Rolexes, where a "restored" example can lose more than half its value compared to one in original condition.)

Another recent Japanese import is the word "otaku." This word has great potential in describing watch collectors. The only current term that comes close to capturing the sometimes obsessive and pedantic nature of the watch hobbiest is "WIS." WIS was coined in the early days of the internet, when watch collectors began to discover each other in the wilderness of the Usenet newsgroups. It stands for "Watch Idiot Savant," an all-too-accurate description of many who may find themselves reading this blog (myself included.)

I prefer the term "watch otaku" instead of "WIS." This term has already been used sporadically among collectors. Unlike "WIS," "otaku" has a complicated and rich meaning that seems appropriate when describing the watch collecting fanatic. To many older Japanese, "otaku" is a derogatory term used to describe odd individuals who are obsessed with anime or manga, live alone, and are socially inept. In Japan, any non-conformist is considered a bit frightening. However, the term has quickly evolved in meaning in Japan, and is now widely used and no longer always an insult. Recently, those who might slightly qualify for the term have begun to refer to themselves as otaku with a certain outsider pride. In Japan, otaku has come to mean "geek" instead of "nerd." Those who used to be called otaku are now more likely to be called "kimomen," (short for "kimotiwarui," and "man") or "creepy man."

In the U.S., the term has little of the original stigma attached. In the U.S. and Japan, recent usage allows for it to be used in connection with any interest, such as music otaku, railroad otaku, etc. It has come to mean any somewhat obsessed collector who is driven to learn and share every bit of obscure knowledge about a hobby. Sound familiar?

The otaku, the passionate obsessive, the information age's embodiment of the connoisseur, more concerned with the accumulation of data than of objects, seems a natural crossover figure in today's interface of British and Japanese cultures. I see it in the eyes of the Portobello Road dealers, and in the eyes of the Japanese collectors: a perfectly calm Railfan frenzy, murderous and sublime. Understanding otaku-hood, I think, is one of the keys to understanding the culture of the web. There is something profoundly post-national about it, extra-geographic. We are all curators, in the Postmodernism world, whether we want to be or not.

— William Gibson, April 2001 edition of The Observer.

Now, if we accept that many of us watch collectors are indeed otaku, we can embrace another related, even more mysterious term: Moe (promounced Moh-eh). The kanji for moe (萌え) means literally "the budding of a flower." In he last five or six years, this term has been given a very different meaning in Japan. People under 30 understand the new meaning well. People over 30 are familiar with it, but don't really understand it. People over 40 would think you were talking about horticulture. Among otaku, moe means that ecstatic feeling you get from an item that is greatly desired but largely out of reach. It also is used to describe the attributes that give one the feeling of moe (i.e., only something with moe makes you feel moe.) As with "otaku," the meaning has evolved quickly over the past few years.

Originally, the word was the domain of the hard-core Japanese otaku community, the denziens of the Tokyo neighborhood of Akihabara (known as the Akiba-kei). It was used to describe the (non-sexual) attraction of an otaku to an ideal female anime or manga character. The full richness of the moe experience requires a deep knowledge and understanding of the backstory and context of the object of desire. Moe is the warm feeling of the connoisseur when in the presence of an ideal example within his area of expertise.

In Akiharbara, there are many places for the otaku to experience moe; anime conventions or cosplay events, for example. Especially popular are the many cafes catering to the cosplay otaku that feature costumed waiters and waitresses acting out various roles for a participatory theatical experience. These cafes cater to every kind of otaku from train enthusists to fans of various computer games. For the American tourist, these cafes are amusing and strange, just another wierd "Japanese thing." They feel no moe. Moe requires that the participant be an initiate. An appreciation of the context is what makes the experience moe. If a watch otaku were to visit the Omega Watch Museum in Bienne, it would be very moe. For the otaku's spouse, not moe.

Gradually, the word moe has been adopted in many contexts, including those well outside of the anime world. I think it is a useful word. How else to describe the otaku's love of the rare and wonderful? Why do collectors pay vast amounts of money for an early Rolex Submariner or a TR-900? How else to understand the blossoming of joy when opening the box when a newly purchased watch arrives in the mail? It is moe.

The concept of moe also lets us understand why some watches excite and other leave us cold. Not all watches have moe. It is a function of the depth of the experience that a certain watch allows. History, quality, quirkiness, rarity, exclusivity, sincerity of vision, branding, bragging rights, even the bling-factor all can create moe in a watch or brand. Why does the Hanhart single pusher chronograph made in 1943 make the collector's heart race, and the nearly identical re-issue provides only a passing interest? Why is the IWC Mark XI so much more exciting than the many recent "hommages?" Why is the UK military issue Rolex Submariner 5517 worth twenty times he virtually identical civilian model 5513? Moe. You might also say "soul."

Rolex, Omega, Seiko, UTS, Ken Sato's RXW, Sinn, Kobold, Bathys, Bali Ha'i -- moe. (I would note that I don't really like all these watches, but their moe is undeniable.)

Citizen, TAG Heuer, Ball or other modern watches who have appropriated a historical brand, or anything made in China (and quite a few more I could name) -- not moe.

What about Corvus? Moe-licious!


  1. What a nice blog - came to this via Delicious. Russell Davies was making a similar point on his blog about what you call wabi-sabi, but he calls patina:

    Lange & Sohne? Moe or Not?

  2. Bali Ha'i is, I believe, made in China but powered by a Swiss movement. Still moe IMO.

  3. Lange & Sohne, definately Moe!

    I also still agree about Bali Ha'i!