Given the name of this blog, it seems only fitting that my first post deals with the word ‘otaku’ – what its linguistic roots are, what connotations it carries today, and why some people today (myself included) feel okay about applying it to themselves despite all the fuss.
Simply put, ‘otaku’ is derived from a Japanese term meaning ‘your home’ or ‘your family’, although in the past it’s also been use as an honorific second-person pronoun. However, as commonly understood by both Japanese and non-Japanese people today, the word refers to someone with an unnatural obsession with any given hobby or interest. This particular use of the term was coined by Nakamori Akio in 1983, a humourist and essayist who published a series called ‘An Investigation of “Otaku”’ in the lolicon magazine Manga Burikko. Presumably, Nakamori was linking the linguistic term to the fact that anime and manga otaku were apparently too fixated with their hobby to leave the house.
Derogatory though it may have been, many non-Japanese audiences have been using the word for years as a replacement for fanboy/fangirl, and in particular a fan of Japanese anime and manga. While Japanese society typically envisions otaku as people who socially withdraw in order to indulge their fantasies of marrying magical girls with large breasts and tiny skirts, one major Western perception is that otaku-hood is something to be proud of or aspire to. This can in part be attributed to William Gibson, who first popularised the word in his 1996 novel Idoru. Gibson went on to write an article in London’s The Observer in 2001, in which he commented: “The otaku, the passionate obsessive, the information age’s embodiment of the connoisseur … I see it in the eyes of the Portobello dealers, and in the eyes of the Japanese collectors: a perfectly calm train-spotter frenzy, murderous and sublime. Understanding otaku-hood, I think, is one of the keys to understanding the culture of the web.”
The vague contempt towards otaku in Japan didn’t really morph into disgust and suspicion of sexual and social deviance until the later 1980s, when a small but very noticeable number of cases came to light of apparent otaku killing young women. Perhaps most famously was the mutilation and murder of four girls aged between four and eleven by Miyazaki Tsutomu between 1988 and 1989. Miyazaki also admitted to sexually molesting the corpses of his victims (as well as to drinking the blood of one of them and eating part of her hand). A search of Miyazaki’s home turned up a collection of manga and approximately 6000 videotapes, many of which contained pornographic anime. Said collection was later used as reasoning for his crimes, the result of which was the media dubbing him The Otaku Murderer. Although critics suspected that the information being released was playing up to public stereotypes and fears about otaku in order to help police secure a conviction, Miyazaki’s killings aided in fuelling a moral panic against anime and otaku culture.
More recently, on November 17, 2004, Kobayashi Kaoru kidnapped and drowned a seven-year old girl named Ariyama Kaede. From Kobayashi’s room police confiscated a video and a magazine containing child pornography. The media was fairly quick to jump to conclusions about the crime – even before Kobayashi‘s arrest, journalist Otani Akihiro suspected that the murder was committed by a member of the ‘figure moe zoku’ (literally ‘figure budding tribe’, or more colloquially ‘figurine-loving gang’), an otaku group who collected figurines. Otani claimed that this group was composed of potential criminals, his theory being that Kobayashi murdered the victim soon after the kidnapping because the killer was not interested in her living body, but rather in her corpse. The lifeless body could then be described as a figurine. Judging by the increased targeting of otaku by police as possible suspects for sex crimes following this case, as well as by calls from local government workers for stricter laws around the depiction of eroticism in otaku materials such as anime, manga, and video games, the degree of social hostility against otaku appeared to increase.
However, instances of these sorts have clearly not damaged the term otaku permanently. Well-known Japanese voice actress, singer, and illustrator Nakagawa Shoko has referred to herself as an otaku more than once in reference to her interests revolving around manga, cosplay, and Super Sentai shows, and her official blog often uses board slang from the likes of 2channel and features otaku-style entries. Former Japanese Prime Minister Asō Tarō has likewise styled himself as otaku citing his love of manga – his candidacy for the position of Prime Minister in 2007 actually caused the share value of several manga publishing companies to rise. In arguing that the embrace of manga and Japanese pop culture in general was an important step in cultivating ties with other countries, Aso intentionally used the otaku subculture in order to promote Japan in foreign affairs.
The rise of otaku subculture outside of Japan, while sometimes tainted with the same brush as in its country of origin, has also been responsible for its contribution to the wide array of knowledge relating to manga and anime that’s now available to anyone with an internet connection. Prior to the 1990s, anime had very limited exposure beyond Japan’s borders. The growth of the internet, combined with the passion and creativity of fans, has resulted in an enormous rise in fansubbed anime, which has in turn led to the commercial success of anime not only in Asia and the United States but also in Europe and Latin America.
Anime has made a visible impact upon Western-created pop culture. A thesis published in 2005 on the correlation between anime and Japanese culture points out that “At this point, [anime] is almost inextricably linked with interest in other forms of Japanese pop culture and interest in Japanese culture and language.” Anime-influenced animation – non-Japanese works of animation that emulates the visual style of anime such as The Powerpuff Girls, Teen Titans, and the critically acclaimed Avatar: The Last Airbender – continue to increase. Some producers of Western animation have even turned to Japanese animation companies for collaborative productions, as when Walt Disney Animation Studios contracted Madhouse to produce the Stitch! television series. And in terms of academia, one only needs to do a quick search on Amazon to see that ‘otaku’ has become an acceptable word for both Japanese and non-Japanese established authors.
I’m not encouraging anyone to label those who don’t want to be labeled, but despite its sometimes negative connotations, it’s my firm belief that you could do far worse than ‘otaku’. Personally speaking, ‘anime fan’ doesn’t quite convey my sheer enthusiasm for the medium, ‘J-fag’ or ‘Japanophile’ makes it sound as though I spend most of my time watching porn and fapping, and it’s a hell of a lot better than ‘weeaboo’.
Question of the post: Do you identify as ‘otaku’? And if you’re an anime fan but don’t like to use the word for yourself, is there another term you prefer?