In the prelude to Welcome to the NHK, a Japanese novel written by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, the protagonist Tatsuhiro Satou reflects on the nature of conspiracies. The 22-year-old Satou has been locking himself up in his apartment for four years. During one of the many moments in which his mind wanders, he derides people who believe in conspiracies. To him, people who fall for stories about secret plots simply seek to blame others for their own problems (Takimoto 2002). However, Satou has found a true conspiracy. The Japanese public broadcasting company NHK is keeping him addicted to the consumption of anime and other media. They are to blame for his unemployment, lack of social skills, and social withdrawal.
It is with this sense of irony that the Japanese author Tatsuhiko Takimoto portrays Satou’s life of social seclusion. Takimoto himself has admitted to living in social withdrawal at the time of writing Welcome to the NHK. He described himself as a hikikomori, someone who has confined himself to his apartment for at least six months (Takimoto, 2002; Heinze & Thomas, 2014). Lacking education, employment, or social skills, a hikikomori isolates himself from Japanese society, only remaining in contact with close family, partially because of financial dependence (Heinze & Thomas, 2014).
This similarity between Takimoto's and Satou's lifestyles raises questions about the fictional status of Welcome to the NHK. Takimoto has admitted that Satou is based on himself. Yet, it remains unsure which exact parts correlate with Takimoto’s life. The ambiguous relation between fiction and reality makes Welcome to the NHK an example of autofiction, a genre that blends aspects of the author’s life with fiction (Smith & Watson, 2010). The reality is represented by Takimoto’s admission of his similarity to Satou, yet the author uses his distance to Satou distance himself from several aspects of Satou’s personality, such as his impulsiveness, selfishness, and perversion.
Previous articles about Welcome to the NHK have discussed the novel’s adaptations. Marc Hairston has discussed manga and anime adaptations. (Hairston, 2010; Heinze & Thomas, 2014). In these articles, less attention has been given to the connection between Takimoto and Satou. Furthermore, there are significant differences between the original novel and its adaptations. The manga and anime remove elements such as Satou’s frequent drug and alcohol abuse that were present in the novel. By analyzing the original novel as a work of autofiction, I hope to add to the discussion surrounding Welcome to the NHK by analyzing the relationship between the author and the main character. As such, my research question is as follows: How does Tatsuhiko Takimoto use autofiction to be both similar, but also different from his main character, Tatuhiro Satou, in Welcome to the NHK?
Autobiography versus Autofiction
In order to discuss autofiction, it is important to first establish how it differs from its supposed counterpart: the autobiography. As Smith and Watson write, autobiography is often assumed to be a truthful account of events from the narrator’s life (Smith & Watson, 2010). The genre concerns an author writing about his own life and experiences, and thus the world, characters, and scenario in an autobiography correspond to the reality of the author and the reader. Philip Lejeune even writes that identification between the writer and the main character of the autobiography is necessary for the work to fit into the genre. For Lejeune, autobiographies are dependent on the ‘’autobiographical pact’’, a promise between the author and the reader that the content of the autobiography is true to the writer’s own lived experiences (ibid). With this, autobiography is defined as a work wherein a writer relays parts of his own life to the reader. Yet, this does not mean that the work has to be an account of some objective reality. As Lejeune points out, an autobiography does not contain an objective truth (Lejeune, 2009). Instead, it means it means that the author’s writing is accurate to the way he experienced it.
In summary, these theorists define autobiography as an account of a writer’s lived experiences, not as an objective report of events. The content of the autobiography has to correspond to the author’s life. As such, the author cannot afford to take liberties in writing about his experiences. Then again, the autobiographical pact does not dictate a clear set of rules. As literature scholar Lut Missine points out, the reader can ignore the pact (Mussine, 2009). The reader is not subject to the author’s wishes, but a person who has their own expectations of the media they consume. This means that they can scrutinize an author’s adherence to the autobiographical pact, or completely disregard the reality of an autobiographical work.
In contrast to this, the author of autofictional biography (from now on referred to as autofiction) is afforded more liberties. An autofictional work contains elements from the writer's life but blended with fiction (Smith & Watson, 2010). Autofiction is under no obligation to clearly make its narrative refer to our world. Instead, its authors can infuse their lived experiences with variable amounts of fantasy. This makes it unclear which parts of the narrative match the author’s lived experiences in our shared world, and which elements have no reference point in our reality. As Smith and Thompson write: ‘’The referential ‘real’’ assumed to be ‘outside’ a text cannot be written; the subject is inescapably an unstable fiction; but the autobiography-fiction boundary is marked’’ (Smith & Watson, 2010, p. 186). The lack of a clear differentiation between the real and fictional elements of an autofictional work means that autofiction is not beholden to Lejeune’s biographical pact. The writer can talk about his own experiences, while also adding fictional elements.
Yet, the reader’s classification of a narrative as either autobiographic or autofictional can be influenced by external information about the work (Schmitt, 2022). A text could be read as autobiographic, if the reader has extratextual information about the author or the autofictional work in question. Missine also notes that the question about which parts of autofiction are autobiographical can lead to conflict between the author and the reader as both parties can see a work in different ways (Missine, 2009). However, Arnaud Schmitt writes that readers are quick to see autofiction as fiction as soon as they recognize the events, characters, and actions within a text that could not possibly have been there or have not happened in our reality (Schmitt, 2022). Furthermore, it takes sufficient foreknowledge to separate real elements from fictional ones. As such it is easier for the reader to simply regard autofiction as fiction, as: ‘’fiction is effortless, nonfiction is difficult’’ (Schmitt, 2022, p. 18). To call out the autobiographical elements in autofiction would require sufficient knowledge about the author. As such, the majority of readers will not be able to distinguish the author’s experiences from the fiction that it is mixed with.
Thus, the question of whether autofiction counts as fiction or nonfiction is hard to answer, as both the author and the reader can interpret a text in different ways. And even if both parties have the same amount of paratextual knowledge, the resulting discussion would be an eternal tug-of-war between these parties. For at the same, that autofiction is biography infused with fiction, it is also fiction infused with autobiography.
For the purpose of brevity, I would like to follow Schmitt's example of drawing attention away from the discussion about the ontological state of autofiction, towards what autofiction’s mixture of lived reality and fiction allows the author to do. For Schmitt, autofiction has a special relation to fiction, as the genre’s status between reality and fiction allows a writer to insert himself into fictional scenarios. This allows room for playful experimentation with scenarios that could actually happen (Schmitt, 2022). In autofiction, a writer can make the main character similar to himself or go through his own experiences. As such, a writer can pick and choose where these similarities lie (Schmitt, 2022). As long as there are similarities between the writer and the main character and the main character plays a large role in the text. Yet, because the author is not bound to a pact, he can take liberties with how he inserts himself into a text. This leads Schmitt to describe autofiction as an extravagant version of the autobiography, wherein the writer can play with reality and fiction:
‘’In a way, autofiction is a baroque version of the autobiographical novel and thrives on, actually exists only thanks to paroxysmal associations, and can only be defined by an extravagant presence of the author within her/his own fiction, a presence that follows the tradition of the autobiographical novel but also upends it, ridiculing its so-called subtle autobiographical signs by turning them into big, flashing signal lights’’ (Schmitt, 2022, p. 23).
With autofiction, a writer can play with reality and fiction by placing a character that is clearly based on himself, into what-if scenarios. This makes the main character of autofiction not an entirely fictional character, but an avatar of the writer (Schmitt, 2022). The main character is the writer projected into a fictional form. As such, he both resembles the writer and does not. Due to the already debatable nature of lived experience and fiction within the genre, autofiction allows the writer to insert his own experiences while leaving the exact reality of these experiences unclear.
Within this process, humor fulfills a special role. Schmitt and Alexandra Effe write that authors can use humor to distance themselves from their emotions and muddle the visibility of a clear link between the avatar’s experiences and the author’s (Effe & Schmitt 2022). By writing about painful thoughts and experiences in a humorous tone, writers can both describe their subjective thoughts and feelings, while also keeping a distance from these painful thoughts by presenting them in a comedic fashion.
In summary, autofiction allows authors to play with the reality or fictionality of the experiences that they describe. Authors insert their own experiences but blend them with fiction, making it hard to interpret the reality of what they describe. In so doing, autofiction writers create a smoke screen through which they can describe their experiences while leaving it unclear which experiences they share with their fictional other, the avatar. Furthermore, this possible distance between the writer and the avatar can be increased by hiding the painful nature of lived experiences and thoughts through humor. Yet, I would argue that the ambiguous relationship between the author and the main character can do another thing, it allows the author to write about negative experiences, without these experiences being directly traceable to him, for at the same time the writer is his main character, his main character is also a separate entity.
Welcome to the NHK
Welcome to the NHK is a novel written by Tatsuhiko Takimoto and released in 2002. The book tells the story of Tatsuhiro Satou, a 22-year-old college dropout who has spent two years in social isolation. Satou considers himself a hikikomori, a Japanese term that refers to a person who has lived indoors for the last six months or more. Suffering from low self-esteem and social anxiety, Satou spends his life isolated in his small, single-room apartment. While using soft drugs, he envisions that all his problems are caused by the Japanese public broadcasting station NHK, whose programming is part of a secret plot to keep young men confined in their apartments. By chance, Satou one day encounters Misaki Nakahara, a young girl who claims she can cure Satou. The two enter into a contract that states that Misaki will show Satou how to get rid of his hikikomori lifestyle. The novel revolves around Satou’s attempts to escape his isolated lifestyle, and his eventual relapses into social isolation. Throughout the story, Satou interacts with several characters who all have their own set of problems. His neighbor and high school acquaintance, Kaoru Yamazaki, fled from his destiny at his family’s dairy farm to become a game developer, yet spends most of his time watching erotic anime. Meanwhile, his old high school crush, Hitomi Kashiwa suffers from mental problems in her attempts to live up to society’s expectations.
Previous research by Ulrich Heinze and Penelope Thomas has placed the novel’s manga adaptation in the context of a wave of Japanese entertainment that discusses societal problems and alternate ways of living in 21st-century Japan (Heinze & Thomas, 2014). As Japan’s economic growth stagnates, younger generations struggled with the country’s emphasis on company life and self-reliance. Hikikomori were initially seen as outcasts that failed to fit in with society, but as time went on, the hikikomori phenomenon is increasingly being treated as a societal condition, with the Japanese government even funding programs to help young people leave their isolated lifestyles (Heinze & Thomas, 2014). As such, Heinrich and Thomas interpret media such as Welcome to the NHK as emblematic of a growing understanding and humanization of hikikomori. Marc Hairston places the novel’s animated adaptation in a similar context, describing the show as a story: ‘’which takes a darkly comic view of both the rise of the Japanese social phenomenon of hikikomori, young people rejecting their role in Japanese society and becoming reclusive shut-ins, and the current otaku culture in Japan’’ (Hairston, 2010, p. 311).
While I don’t disagree with the conclusions of these authors, they have paid little attention to the story’s link to its author. Takimoto’s life as a hikikomori is mentioned as a source of inspiration, but both articles mentioned above pay little attention to Welcome to the NHK as an autofictional work. By analyzing the novel as autofiction, I hope to shed some light on the relationship between Tastuhiko Takimoto and Tatsuhiro Satou. Takimoto has not only written a story about a hikikomori, but he has mixed his own experiences with fiction, a combination that muddles the distinction between lived experience and imagination. In order to analyze how Takimoto has done this, I will first discuss Welcome to the NHK as autofiction.
NHK as autofiction
Welcome to the NHK can be considered a case of autofiction, wherein the author creates a mixture of lived experiences and fictional scenarios. While Takimoto shares similarities with Satou, the author has admitted that the scenarios and the other characters in the novel are fictional, and the unverifiable correspondence between Takimoto and Satou’s experiences makes the book an example of autofiction.
When he was eighteen years old, Satou Tatsuhiro left his hometown to study in Tokyo. Then one day, while walking home, Satou felt like passers-by were laughing as he passed them. He decided to hole himself up in his apartment, and he remained there for four years. Satou is 22 years old when the novel starts. He sleeps for sixteen hours a day, uses a form of soft drugs, and regularly gets drunk. He goes outside once a week to do groceries but otherwise stays in his apartment. His mental state fluctuates between drug-inspired moments of motivation to change his life around, and self-loathing because of his reclusive lifestyle. The novel follows Satou as he tries to improve his lifestyle with the help of the previously-mentioned Misaki, gets drunk with his anime-obsessed and misogynistic neighbor Kaoru Yamazaki and goes on frequent drugs and alcohol binges wherein he attempts to unveil the reasons behind his misery. Takimoto has managed to encapsulate the mind of a young, impulsive 22-year-old man, who, lacking insight into Japan’s neoliberal society and dysfunctioning self-reflection, blames his failings on a broadcasting station.
In the first afterword of the novel, Takimoto admits that he was a hikikomori himself (Takimoto 2002). He describes the novel as his attempt to get rich quickly, a viewpoint that would soon change as he discovered that he was writing about some deeply personal experiences: ‘’I'll write a story about hikikomori and become famous! I'll become a best-selling author with my hikikomori story! I'll go to Hawaii using the royalties! I'll go to Waikiki! My dreams stretched out endlessly. However, once I actually started trying to write the story, I soon regretted it. It was painful.’’ (Takimoto, 2002, p. 236). Takimoto admits that there is a link between him and his main character. Both are (or were) young men, being 24 and 22 years old respectively, and both are from Hokkaido (the northernmost island of Japan) and were hikikomori at some point. This admission indicates that there is an autobiographical element at play in Welcome to the NHK. Yet, Takimoto admission of similarity to Satou is not enough to consider his book an autobiographical work. Takimoto has never clarified which aspects of Satou’s life are based on his own. Is it Satou’s drug use? His daily routine? His impulsiveness? Furthermore, Takimoto has stated that while Satou was based on himself, the other characters are fictional: ‘’Satou was based on me. The other characters: Misaki, Yamazaki and Senpai (Hitomi Kashiwa, red.) had no models’’ (Anime Lockdown, 2021).
The verifiable experiences that are so crucial to autobiography are missing from the novel (Smith & Watson, 2010). This means that despite some admitted similarities between Takimoto and Satou, Welcome to the NHK cannot be considered an autobiography. Takimoto does not adhere to the autobiographical pact as the truth of the experiences he describes is either unverifiable or entirely nonexistent. This lack of a clear correspondence between the novel’s events and the author's lived experience makes Welcome to the NHK autofiction. Autofiction allowed Takimoto to mix his own experiences of life as a hikikomori with a fictional universe. While parts of the novel are based on his own life, he has interspersed them with fictional characters and scenarios, creating a hybrid of experiences that reference our world, while including these experiences within a fictional universe (Smith & Watson, 2010).
Yet, autofiction also requires that the author takes autobiographical signs and turns them into ‘’big, glaring signal lights’’, making the autobiographical intent clear to the reader, (Schmitt, 2022, p. 23). However, Takimoto’s rather general relation to Satou, as in both men being hikikomori, can make it difficult to perceive the autobiographical hints, as Satou’s thoughts and actions do not clearly correspond to Takimoto’s. I agree with Schmitt that it would be easier to call the book fiction as ‘’nonfiction is difficult, fiction is effortless’’, but knowing the book has an autobiographical side, I think it is also necessary to take the author-main character relationship into account, despite the lack of specific references to our reality (Schmitt, 2022). My knowledge of the autobiographical element influences my reading of the text, but Takimoto has also ensured that things in the text can be specifically traced back to his own experiences.
In summary, Welcome to the NHK can be considered a work of autofiction. The author has written about his experiences in our world and placed them inside a fictional world alongside fictional characters. However, whereas other autofiction contains clear links to the author, Takimoto’s novel contains one prevalent autobiographical hint, the hikikomori lifestyle. This lack of overt autobiographical signs makes it hard to trace Satou’s thoughts and actions back to the author.
Ambivalent fiction, but fiction nonetheless
As stated earlier, readers are quick to regard novels as fiction as soon as they realize that the narrative could not possibly have happened in real life (Schmitt, 2022). Yet, Takimoto complicates this matter by not clarifying which parts of Satou are fictional. He only states that he based the character on himself and that he too was once a hikikomori (Takimoto, 2002; Anime Lockdown, 2021).
It would be easy to see the entirety of Welcome to the NHK as a fictional story based on real-life experiences. Perhaps this is the correct thing to do, as the lack of clearly referential aspects of our world makes the story fictional (Schmitt, 2022). Yet, Welcome to the NHK is not a conventional fictional narrative. As a reader who knows about Takimoto’s background, my knowledge of the author prevents me from classifying the novel as just a work of fiction. However, it also wouldn’t do to describe the novel as nonfiction, as I would have to disregard the existence of the other characters within the novel.
As Schmitt writes: ‘’Claiming that there is no fundamental difference between narrative and fiction is not only philosophically dubious, but it renders autofiction obsolete. Indeed, what is the point of a genre based on a fictional exploration of a reality-based identity and environment if there is no longer any difference between the latter and the former? Autofiction depends on the tension it creates by playing with the gap between a text’s premises and its fictional elaboration’’ (Schmitt 2022, p. 25).
True to the nature of autofiction, Welcome to the NHK is fiction, but fiction that holds an ambivalent relationship to this status. Takimoto has established an ambiguous connection between his lived experiences and Satou’s thoughts and actions. His non-explicit similarities to Satou allow him to explore parts of his personality through fictional scenarios. But, as I will discuss in the following section, autofiction’s fictional status, also allows Takimoto to reveal embarrassing aspects of his experiences, without the reader knowing which of these aspects refer to Takimoto.
Satou as an avatar
While there is only one clear link between Takimoto’s experiences and Satou’s thoughts and actions, the lack of clear references between these parties allowed Takimoto to distance himself from his main character. Satou is his avatar, a character that is both the author- and not the author. This means that Takimoto can use Satou as a veil to talk about his experiences, without exposing himself, using a great deal of humor in the process.
Throughout the narrative, Satou does many things that are looked down upon by both Japanese and Western societies. He uses drugs, sexualizes the women he encounters, steals food from his friends, and lies to his parents about his living conditions to get allowance checks. Yet, as stated earlier, it is unclear if Takimoto actually did similar things. The only thing that can be confirmed is that both men shared a lifestyle. Lacking clear references, it is safe to state that Satou is Takimoto’s avatar, a person that is similar to him, yet also different (Schmitt p. 2022). While there exists a similarity between the author and the main character, it is not possible to say that Satou and Takimoto are the same people. As Schmitt writes, autofiction thrives on this tension between fiction and reality: ‘’Autofiction depends on the tension it creates by playing with the gap between a text’s premises and its fictional elaboration’’ (ibid, 25). The usage of an avatar, allowed Takimoto to play with his experiences of being a hikikomori, include them in his narrative, alter these lived moments, or ignore them for entirely fictional scenarios. Takimoto himself has stated that a real hikikomori would be an uninteresting character to write about, as this character: ‘’sits in his room all day’’ (Anime Lockdown, 2021). As such, Satou as an avatar was vital to Takimoto’s writing process, as it allows him to break away from the monotony he would have depicted in an autobiographical novel.
Effe and Schmitt write that authors can use humor to separate themselves from painful autobiographic moments (Effe & Schmitt, 2022). While Welcome to the NHK has comedic moments, the reader is never completely sure if he is laughing at Takimoto making light of his life choices, or the actions his avatar undertakes. Satou’s erratic mind often draws the wrong conclusions. As stated in the introduction, Satou berates conspiracy theorists, yet thinks he has discovered a true conspiracy. Later on, he attempts to stop watching pornography by watching more of it, in an attempt to convince himself he should stop. In these moments, he depicts Satou quite negatively. Takimoto has described the shame he felt in writing the novel:
In truth, I still can't read this story objectively. Each time I reread it, I start to have light hallucinations. I break into a cold sweat. Each time I approach one of a few specific places in the plot, I start wanting to throw the computer out the window. At other particular points, I start wanting to run away from home to live deep in secrecy in the mountains of India. That was probably because the themes addressed in this story are not things of the past for me but currently active problems’’ (Takimoto, 2002, p. 236-237).
Yet, while the author might feel shame, it is hard for the reader to pin down what shameful moments and acts are Takimoto’s. While Takimoto might have used humor as a method to distance himself from embarrassment, it is hard to know which exact parts of the novel were embarrassing to the writer because it is unclear which experiences are Satou’s and which are the author’s. This allows Takimoto to freely discuss being a hikikomori by inserting both his own experiences and exploring potential scenarios that people with a similar lifestyle might find themselves in. Satou is based on Takimoto, but he also is not Takimoto.
Takimoto has established that the other characters are fictional, which renders Satou’s interactions with these characters fictional by nature. But what about the actions Satou undertakes by himself or the thoughts he has? It remains hard to tell where Takimoto indirectly describes his own experiences, embellishes them, or creates entirely new scenarios. Autofiction’s loose relationship with autobiography creates a smokescreen for Takimoto through which he can describe painful experiences, without the reader knowing which of these moments actually happened. Satou is impulsive, perverted, and inconsiderate of others, but his status as an avatar instead of an autobiographical figure allows for Takimoto to not be viewed in the same way. For the reader, Satou exists separately from the author he was based on, despite the similarities.
Takimoto or Satou
Within Welcome to the NHK, Tatsuhiko Takimoto uses autofiction’s ambiguous connection to reality to be both similar and distinct from his main character. While both Takimoto and Satou share the hikikomori lifestyle, the clear similarities seem to end there. This creates a lack of clear references between the author’s lived experiences and the character’s life which, when combined with the novel’s fictional world and characters makes the book autofiction. Takimoto then uses the loose relationship between reality and fiction to describe Satou’s life and several negative aspects of his personality, while the lack of clear references to the author ensures that he can discuss and explore life as a hikikomori. Autofiction allows him to both write about the life that he actually lived and the lives that he and others could have lived.
Effe, A., & Schmitt, A. (2022). Autofiction, emotions, and humour: a playfully serious affective mode. Life Writing, 19(1), 1–11.
Missine, Lut. (2009). De ontdekking van de ‘Autofiction’. De Parmentier (18), 19-25.
P. Lejeune. (2009). On Diary. University of Hawai’i Press.
Takimoto, T. (2002). Welcome to the NHK (L. Akashi, trans.) Los Angeles, USA: Tokyopop.
Smith, S., and Watson, J., (2010. Reading autobiography: A guide for interpreting life narratives. University of Minnesota Press.
Schmitt, A. (2022). Avatars as the raison d’être of autofiction. Life Writing, 19(1), 15–26.