What is ‘Otaku’?
Here’s a dictionary definition: ‘One with an obsessive interest in something, particularly anime or manga.’
Another of more concerning nature: ‘a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of [Japanese] popular culture to the detriment of their social skills.’
The word ‘otaku’ is used as a pejorative in Japan, heavily connoted with the misconceived ‘obsessive’ and ‘detrimental’ aspects of those definitions. One who is otaku is, in essence, considered to be an unproductive member of society who needs reforming.
I am discontent with this definition. To me, the term celebrates Japan’s many art forms. One who is otaku is one who is passionate about their hobbies and being an otaku is no different from being a sports fan or film buff. It’s an expression of oneself and everyone should be able to practice that proudly without the scorn of others. Anime and its communities support a diverse range of voices on a global scale. There are a plethora of stories told through Japanese animation that cater to many different audiences. The best otaku communities welcome with open arms those who may not find acceptance elsewhere and flourish through the diverse spaces they create. Otaku culture brings people from many walks of life together through their shared passions.
It’s also important to recognize why otakus have historically been frowned upon in Japanese culture. The term originated as a greeting between anime fans but was co-opted by the public to mock such people for (from their perspective) over-investing in their hobby of choice. The reason this negative connotation made sense in the public eye? The word translates literally to ‘your home,’ thus signifying that an otaku was one who lived in isolation and never engaged with the real world. Leading the charge on the term’s negative adoption by the public was columnist Nakamori Akio who would frequently deride otaku in the magazine Manga Burikko.
But the biggest blow to the public perception of otaku was a highly-publicized murder case perpetrated by Tsutomu Miyazaki, ‘The Otaku Murderer’, in 1989 that was seen to be tied to such communities/art forms. Much like how video games are erroneously scapegoated in the West as the cause of crimes, so too did these incidents lead much of Japanese society to believe that anime and manga turned people violent. The stigma was so intense that it caused lawmakers and enforcers to investigate otaku as perpetrators of sex crimes. To put it frankly, the degradation of otaku reached levels far beyond simple scorn. And of course, this doesn’t touch upon other aspects of otaku culture beyond the scope of this quick history overview such as the female-dominated fujoshi (a pejorative translated literally to ‘rotten girl’).
Time has helped heal these wounds. Identifying as otaku is becoming more prevalent in Japanese society across an array of demographics, much in the way that identifying as a geek or nerd is now in vogue in Western society (though as we’ve discussed, it’s still important to remember that the term ‘otaku’ carries much more baggage than its counterparts). These changing attitudes are precisely why we need to proactively redefine what ‘otaku’ means in a modern context.
While we tend to associate the term with anime and manga in the West, the Japanese usage of the term can stretch to fandoms from fashion and music to electronics. Despite these interests being vastly different from one another, there’s one throughline: the passion that the fans have for them. You can be a car otaku, a vinyl otaku, or even a military otaku. This alone is proof that the term associates more with the vigor these fans show when approaching their hobbies or even profession and less with wanting to stay at home to avoid the world. In fact, otaku are increasingly finding both new and magnified ways to communicate…
Something that differentiates the modern otaku to those of past decades is that the Internet enables them to seek out like-minded peers. Instead of becoming recluses, otaku now have readily available outlets to turn what could otherwise be an antisocial hobby into a social one. For example, when I first started my personal blog on WordPress, I figured I’d be writing about my interests for my own satisfaction, flexing writing muscles that were becoming stagnant. After other bloggers started interacting with my posts, I realized that there was an entire community producing similar work. I soon migrated to Twitter where I came into contact with a diverse array of people rallying around a love of anime, manga, Japanese culture, and beyond. I was exposed to new perspectives that have helped shape my outlook not only on anime but also the real world and modern society. My otaku experience was not about rejecting bonds but rather forming them through expression of mutual passion. I believe that to be what the term ‘otaku’ encapsulates in the 21st century.
It should also be noted that these online spaces give fans a platform to create and distribute derivative and entirely new works centered around their interests. This can range from fan art and AMVs to articles like this. For some like myself, this process of creation can even turn into a profession. Perhaps the most prominent example of otaku funneling their passion into creating is the Vocaloid scene wherein music producers use software like Hatsune Miku to create catchy tunes, and in some cases, go on to have fruitful careers in the music industry. This defies the stereotype of otaku as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), though in all fairness, it’s not easy to get paid for your passions and not everyone can ‘make it.’
Further, the want of fans to engage on a communal level proves that otaku-ism in the modern era is about a shared experience rather than secluded one. It’s human nature to want to connect with others and otaku are no different. They share a need to engage with others like them, to find their kin if you’d like, and this is again why the Internet continues to be a sea of change for the culture. Otaku creators are nothing without otaku consumers and that both exist is a testament to society that many have the wrong idea about who they are.
I propose that we redefine this once-maligned term to reflect its new meaning. Just like people who gather to watch sports every week, otaku culture is about joining together to demonstrate and celebrate fandom. The Internet has enabled a new generation of socially engaged anime fans whose existence stands in opposition to the label’s outdated stigmas. So let ‘otaku’ be a rallying cry rather than a put-down, and wear your passions boldly and proudly. You don’t need the validation of anyone who would sneer at you for your hobbies; they simply aren’t worth your time. Let’s show the world why being otaku is great.