Re-Thinking ‘Otaku’

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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.

Nakagawa Shoko

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?

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13 thoughts on “Re-Thinking ‘Otaku’

  1. I try not to use “otaku,” although depending on who I’m speaking with, I might say “I’m a bit of a Japanophile,” though my interpretation is more emotional-based than most people would interpret it! It’s gotten to the point where I just say “I’m a fan” or “big fan” and let my conversation partner take it from there, both when I speak with Japanese and non-Japanese people. If they are prone to stereotypes about porn fandom, they probably won’t assume too much based on that or the topic will end there, whereas if they are like-minded, they will probably tease the bigger fan out of me with follow-up questions about which ones I like (to which my usual response is “so many its embarrassing, but my favorites are…”). So far, this catch-all phrase has worked pretty well.

    The only problem with that now is that I don’t watch the same ones as some of the elementary school girls who wants to fangirl with me, and they’ve never heard of the ones I like! At least it’s nice to be accepted. XD

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    • Fair enough. I agree, it often does depend so much on who you’re speaking to. Perhaps surpringly, many of the Japanese teachers I work with seem to fine with the word and joke about it sometimes, although I tend not to use ‘otaku’ with Japanese people unless they use it with me first. But then, I don’t advertise even the ‘big anime fan’ part unless, like you said, they tease it out of you with leading questions. So when the kids ask me what anime I like, I always go for the ones that pretty much everyone in Japan knows about like Fullmetal Alchemist, Evangelion, and Ghibli movies.

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  2. I’m totally an otaku! I started using it to self identify after Patton Oswalt’s “Wake Up Geek Culture! It’s Time to Die!” opinion piece for Wired magazine, in which he purports that all Americans are otaku about something. It’s really defined my thinking on it. I think the word “geek” is way too watered down for what I am. I’m an otaku, and that’s that.

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    • That’s a really interesting point about ‘geek’ becoming a watered-down word. I think most people in older generations – say age 40ish and over – tend to think of that word having a bad connotation akin to ‘nerd’ or even ‘loser’, while most other people I know of use the word very freely – so much that it’s now a throwaway word that often doesn’t carry much weight.

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  3. That was an excellent post and a history I was not entirely familiar with. Thanks!

    As for your question, I absolutely love the redefining of ‘otaku’ in English to be more broadly about serious and passionate devotion to a subject. However, I still find it to not be entirely divorced of its native connotations and has taken on some of its own negative associations in English, which in the past might have been more specific to generally being called a geek or nerd.

    As the internet age is in full force, being a geek or nerd isn’t really the same as it used to be and not nearly as negative. For me, otaku has a sort of otherness attached to it still that those words might have previously owned. It’s not as accepted as being a geek or nerd because it still has a negative association with an unhealthy level of obsession, typically associated with anime and Japanese things.

    In that regard, I have to be careful of how I use it because I can easily move from a positive sense of the word to a very negative sense of the word, and have my sentence’s meaning be entirely ambiguous. It’s just one of those weird words where I can’t be ignorant of its actual meaning and context, while also wanting to repurpose it into a more positive idea.

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    • I definitely agree that ‘otaku’ is a word that people need to think about before they use. Language can be a really loaded thing, and even though I for example am perfectly happy using the word as a self-identifier in my head, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll throw it around in public – not because I’m ashamed of my ‘otaku-ness’, but because I know that not everyone will perceive that word in the same way I do. Particularly now that I’m living and working in Japan, I feel that it never hurts to play things like this on the safe side.

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  4. I fancy myself as a “connoisseur of Japanese visual media”. The term has stuck ever since I tried to find a more fitting term to call myself while the Otaku Elimination Game was underway.

    Re: the machinations behind the word, I like how you point out the positive and negative connotations behind otakuism and then balance them in order to let readers know if they can label themselves as such or not. We already know that it goes beyond being a mere label for a rabid media-consuming demographic, but we define it, and in turn ourselves, as we see fit. Ultimately, it lets us know through introspection where we stand as part of the said demographic. You got that thought through in me well enough!

    Hoping to see more of this!

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    • I suppose that at the end of the day, language is and always will be a constantly evolving thing. People on the whole probably need to be mindful of what language they use because some words are extremely loaded with meaning – some, like ‘otaku’, are loaded with multiple meanings. That said, I believe that people should be able to call themselves whatever it is that they personally want to be called. One of my frustrations with the word otaku is that a lot of people automatically assume someone identifying as such must be an annoying tween who goes around inserting random Japanese into their sentences. I don’t think that’s any more true than me assuming that all self-labelled geeks are math and science nerds in the form of Big Bag Theory-style characters.
      Anyhow, really glad you enjoyed my post, and hopefully I’ll be writing plenty more articles like this in the future. 🙂

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  8. I’ve been living some years in Taiwan where my love for anime and manga have bloomed. I first came across the word ‘otaku’ in a manga I was reading and looked it up, coming across said article on ‘The Otaku Murderer’. The article was also in favor of the idea that although the culprit had a collection of manga and anime it didn’t put otaku in a general bad light.

    As you’ve mentioned, popular and public figures have used the term and its become far more acceptable than it might have been a few been decades ago.

    I’d never considered calling myself otaku until a discussion about some manga series came up with my students and I shared some of the titles I like with them to which they replied, “You’re quite the otaku, aren’t you?” I think otaku is a useful term to sum up my interests and I’m particularly fond of William Gibson’s description of otaku as ‘the passionate obsessive’.

    While people who identify with otaku often receive flak for being ‘shut-in’ (in Chinese otaku actually translates to ‘recluse’), it’s my belief that one can have interests that are considered otaku, whilst still being able to function fine socially. Excellent post! 😀

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    • I agree – otaku can be quite a useful term at times, and I’d like to think that it’s becoming less of a word that’s used to imply a lack of social grace and more a word that’s used to describe the level of someone’s passion about any given hobby. Of course, I doubt it’ll ever be completely divorced from its older negative connotations, but like you, I do think it’s gradually becoming a more acceptable term for many people. I’d never advocate planting the label (or any label for that matter) on someone else, but personally, I feel just fine about applying it to myself in certain situations.

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