Okaeri: Living with your favorite character

Curator's Note

“Okaeri” is a promotional video for an augmented reality technology produced by the Japanese company Gatebox.  The video markets a holographic anime character, Azuma Hikari (“East light”) who “lives” with and “cares” for you. The Japanese Gatebox product, like smart home technologies situated in the West (e.g. Nest, Alexa), is geared toward bourgeois consumers and raises questions about surveillance and digital labor.

Unlike the generic marketing of western “smart” technologies, however, Okaeri is explicitly embodied as female and marketed to upper class men in Japan as a “caring” presence in their daily life. In the promotional video here, as in a variety of short concept films produced by Gatebox (see e.g. Care, Beside, Wait), Azuma Hikari's caring includes waking the young man up, reminding him to attend to his material possessions, sending him encouraging texts throughout the day, and enthusiastically welcoming him home. ("Okaeri" translates to "welcome back.") All films end with Gatebox’s slogan, “living with your favorite character.”

Viewed through a queer, feminist lens, the marketing and consumption of Gatebox’s female “characters” as live-in partners both reproduces and queers heteronormativity. On the one hand, marketing an incessantly cheerful girl with no independent personal interests as a life partner (or “bride”) for young men replicates patriarchal power dynamics. On the other hand, the contemporary phenomena termed digisexuality is redefining traditional notions of sex and marriage.  

Critical reflection on westernized reactions to Japanese production and consumption of Gatebox’s augmented domestic reality also requires a decolonial lens. Under the western gaze, the depiction of young Japanese men as, perhaps, desirous of digital brides may too readily give rise to already latent western stereotypes of Japanese peoples as inhuman. In a fusion of old Orientalist stereotypes of the morally dangerous Asiatic “Other” and contemporary moral panic in the west engendered by Japan’s technological prowess, fear and repulsion projected on the consumption of Gatebox products reveal techno-orientalist tendencies.

In an era of rapidly accelerating technological change under late stage capitalism, it is necessary to critically reflect upon both the new social forms of care that technological regimes foster, and the Othering prejudices our encounters with them may reinforce.  


Great piece! I'm particularly fascinated by the technology's modes of blurring the private and public sphere. The fact that the character can ask for you to come home early to spend time with her is such a specific, and even romantic, choice that extends your digital products into your public life in the same role that a loved one or other family member might fill. I appreciate your observation about the way this tech maps heteronormativity onto a fundamentally queer relationship, which is no doubt designed to appeal to the high-wealth, early adopters they need to survive. 

Thanks Andrew!  I agree completely about the blurring of the private and public.  Cultural studies scholars are often concerned (with good reason) about the surveillance of our private lives as this boundary is technologically permeated.  But I am equally interested in the blurring that goes in the other direction, i.e. how technology reshapes the private by enabling it to seep into the public.  As you note, this product engages a particular kind of performative and heteronormative romance. In mapping that heteronormative romance onto what is, as you describe, "fundamentally queer," it reveals perhaps a newly emerging form of (digi)normativity.

Great analysis Shelley, Mumtaz! I'm afraid I've not the critical vocabulary to respond directly to the points your raised, through the lenses you propose. However I am reminded of Sarah Kember's incisive discussion of "Glass as a Fantasy Figure of Feminine and Feminized Labor" (to quote a chapter title) in the book iMedia: The Gendering of Objects, Environments and Smart Materials (2016). Prima facie, Okaeri is imprisoned; her very embodiment is what makes our perception of her as existing within the device (rather than as the device) possible at all. Upon closer inspection, however, perhaps it is the device's owner who volunteers for an imprisonment of sorts: Okaeri summons you home to your apartment and may make various other demands of you. As has been mentioned, the owner surely places themselves under someone's surveillance. In order for Okaeri to function at her fullest, you must furnish your apartment exclusively with other "smart" objects, many of which will involve subscription-based services. To again paraphrase Kember, the putatively democratizing potential of glass as both a construction material and a new media technology is thrown into stark relief by Okaeri's manufacturers' clear intention: To optimise the user as a marketable data object. The relatively subservient, hyper-efficient home assistant is perhaps gendered in part to throw us off the scent, as it were: Okaeri is not the one performing labour—you are, in using her.

Thanks for the reference to Kember's work, Dooley!  I agree with much that you (and Kember) say here. Perhaps we could think of the imprisonment as a triangulated and highly gendered phenomena.  What allows us to accept the imprisonment in the home (and within the glass in the home) of the character is the gendering of that character as female (as traditionally gendered homemaker). The acceptance of that imprisonment does the work, in turn, of luring the male worker (now doing double duty as office worker and as producer of data) into his own ever smaller and more enclosed world.  In other words, sexist and heteronormative iconography produces a particular kind of ideal worker under late capitalism--a worker that both produces and consumes gendered technologies as a (putative) practice of freedom. 

Really fascinating piece. I'm particularly struck by the loneliness and melancholic nature of these commericials; the male users are not only all shown to be living by themselves at home, but also seem to be distanced from and isolated amonst the crowds at work, while in transit, while walking on the street, etc. Okaeri would seem to provide a solution to this loneliness, a way to have a companion at home and to carve out a small space of intimacy across the cold, alienating everyday realities of a busy, aspirational work life. Indeed, I do think that we should take seriously the possibilties of finding care and companionship with things that are non-human, non-living - expanding, as you suggest, standard understandings and assumptions about affection, relationships, etc. Yet I can't help but be struck by the idea that Okaeri also encourages an expansion or intensification of that loneliness; in all the ads linked, the male users are constantly on their phones engaging with Okaeri, distracted from other people, work, even other screens. 

I'm not sure where to go with this, but I'm also interested in considering Okaeri's own loneliness - this "need" of the smart technology to always reach out to their user/owner (and this haunting image of Okaeri trapped and swaying gently in "her" vessel, awaiting their companion's return, offering us a space to have a serious conversation about the "bodies" and "lives" of the media technologies we craft in our own image).     

Thanks for these reflections, Alexander.  Your description here of the loneliness of the male users in these ads sounds quite similar to what Sherry Turkle (2011) argues has happened to all of us already who go through the world glued to our phones and social media. Like you, she paints a picture of a world that is somewhat bleak--in her words, a world in which we are "alone together."  I share her and your concerns and/but . . . as you also suggest, I want to hold open a space for trying to read this differently, as a space of possibility for something new (and not merely as a space of loss). 

I like the suggestion that we might take an interest in Azuma Hikari's (the character's) own loneliness as a "haunting" one.  To see her as lonely is to adopt a certain kind of feminist perspective (to shift our concern from the man as the 'real' concern to the female character.)  And to see that loneliness as 'haunting' is to look backwards toward a past with which we must come to terms in order to move on.  (Your use of the term 'melancholia' also suggests this to me.)  If we were to pursue this angle, then the primary issue surrounding the new realities (AR and VR) such as this might focus on the psychic damage caused by a failure to collectively grieve the loss of a particular kind of world (privileged as 'real').  

This is a really fascinating piece. On watching the vid, I am intrigued by the object Azuma is enclosed within -- very much straying away from the technological to some kind of organic vat-like enclosure -- to insinuate a kind of organic fleshlyness of the character that needs to be enclosed as opposed to a seemingly disorganic interface, for example? Almost like a retention device?! 

Lots of crossovers to be made in terms of the VR/AR/MR spectrum-- I'm constantly thinking about how VR apps that infer certain kinds of feminine 'care' depend heavily on the production of intimacy and tactility, lots of object entanglement and kind of queerings of the tactile. In this instance, its a kind of fetishisation of the untouchable which is really interesting in comparison...i wonder if there is lots of applications of queering heteronormative practices via technologies that seem to be branching out in multiple directions. Tbc!! :-)

Good point about the function of the containment, Vicki!  We originally looked at it as an extension of the sexism (girl literally entrapped). But you are quite right that it also functions to make her seem more "real," i.e. organic.  (I suspect the glass also has to do with engineering issues but don't know enough here.)

I'm also glad you raised the issues about care.  My larger project is on technologies of care and the ways in which technological mediations of care change our practices of intimacy while also extending care's familiar gendered (and racialized) histories. I like your observation about the "fetishization of the untouchable" here.  I'd be interersted to hear more about VR/AR/MR apps that rely on producing tactility.  What kind of examples do you have in mind?  

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.