Re-Thinking ‘Otaku’

Given the name of this blog, it seems only fitting that I make a post dealing with the word ‘otaku’ – its linguistic roots, the connotations it carries, and why many people today (myself included) feel okay labeling themselves as such, regardless of how the term may have been used in the past.

Getting the plain facts out of the way first, as many readers are probably already aware, the word ‘otaku’ is derived from the Japanese term meaning ‘your home’ or ‘your family’ – it’s was also once (relatively) commonly used as an honorific second-person pronoun. However, as more commonly understood by both Japanese and non-Japanese people today, the word now usually refers to someone with a hardcore or unhealthy (by mainstream societal standards) obsession with any given hobby or interest, be it anything from manga or anime to trains or photography. This particular use of the term was coined by Nakamori Akio in 1983, a humorist and essayist who published a series called ‘An Investigation of “Otaku”’ in the lolicon magazine Manga Burikko (presumably, 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 then, many non-Japanese audiences have been using the word for years as a simple replacement for ‘fanboy’/’fangirl’, and in particular, a fan of Japanese anime and manga. While much of Japanese society may still typically envision otaku as people who socially withdraw in order to indulge in their fantasies of, for example, marrying magical girls in tiny skirts, the major Western perception exists that otaku-hood is something to be proud of or aspire to. Along with the steady rise in popularity and widespread accessibility to anime outside of Japan, this may be attributed at least in part to William Gibson, who first popularized the word ‘otaku’ 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 toward otaku as people 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, 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 drinking the blood of one of them and eating part of her hand). A search of his home turned up a collection of manga and approximately 6,000 videotapes, many of which contained pornographic anime. This collection was later used as reasoning for his crimes, resulting in the media dubbing him The Otaku Murderer. While 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 in general.

Somewhat more recently was the case of Kobayashi Kaoru, who kidnapped and drowned a seven-year-old girl in late 2004. From Kobayashi’s room, police confiscated a video and a magazine containing child pornography, to which the media was quick to use to jump to conclusions regarding the nature of his crime. Indeed, even before Kobayashi’s arrest, journalist Otani Akihiro publicly 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 interested not in her living body, but rather in her corpse, as the lifeless body could then be described as a figurine. Given 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 as a direct result.

However, instances of these sorts have clearly not damaged the term otaku permanently. Plenty of Japanese celebrities, including filmmakers, producers, singers, voice actors, illustrators, and of course, anime and manga creators, have not been shy about using the term in a more positive light. For example, 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 former Japanese prime minister Aso Taro has likewise styled himself as otaku citing his love of manga – in fact, his candidacy for the position of Prime Minister in 2007 caused the share value of several manga publishing companies to rise. Arguing that the embrace of manga and Japanese pop culture as a whole was an important step in cultivating ties with other countries, Aso intentionally used otaku subculture as a means of promoting Japan in foreign affairs. Even Marie Kondo was quoted in a 2020 Forbes interview as saying: “I credit being an otaku … with helping me to focus deeply, which definitely contributed to my success.”

The rise of otaku subculture outside of Japan, while sometimes painted with the same broad brushstrokes 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 the enormous rise in fan- and officially subtitled anime, fan- and officially translated manga, and a variety of other pop-culture exports. This has in turn lead to the commercial success of anime and manga not only in Asia and the United States, but also in Europe and Latin America, among other locations.

Anime has also made a visible impact on 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.” Non-Japanese-produced works of animation that emulate or are heavily inspired by the visual style or common tropes of anime such as The Powerpuff Girls, Teen Titans, Samurai Jack, Avatar: The Last Airbender, RWBY, Steven Universe, and Castlevania (to name just a few) 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.

To be clear, I’m certainly not encouraging anyone to label those who don’t want to be labeled. However, despite its sometimes negative connotations, particularly still in its home country, it’s my firm belief that you could do far worse than ‘otaku’. Personally speaking, ‘anime fan’ doesn’t quite convey my level of enthusiasm for the medium, ‘J-fag’ or ‘Japanophile’ makes it sound as though I spend most of my time watching porn, and just about anything sounds better to me than ‘weeaboo’ – although, as with most slang terms and probably all self-labels, it all seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

Note: This article is an edited version of a post that was originally published on this blog in 2013, primarily as a way of revisiting and updating past work.

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7 thoughts

  1. I’ll second that, very well done! 🙂

    And just to add my two cents, there is an aspect of Japanese culture which strives to avoid all forms of embarrassment. We actually see scenarios of such played out in anime all the time, where the character is blackmailed into something because of something, large or small, from their past which would embarrass them now. There is a huge amount of pressure to conform to society and perform one’s duties absolutely, and Japanese people in real life will simply act as if something out of the ordinary, and therefore embarrassing to them, simply does not exist. Outside Japan, especially in the USA, we have far less pressure, and we tend to glorify instances where people basically give the middle finger to such pressure. As such, Western fans may not typically feel pushed to the extremes that Japanese otaku are rather infamous for, including secrecy to avoid social judgment.

    There are times where… oh, how to put this? …suffice to say that there are things I have seen in anime and manga format which have left me unsettled or even vomiting. But that can be said for many other forms of media, as well. I religiously avoid slasher films, for instance, if only because I do not want to see my lunch a second time. The thing is, Western animation and comics has long been regarded as a particularly mind-numbing medium meant strictly for kids (courtesy of the influence of Walt Disney), while Japanese anime and manga had no such restrictions. It was just another form of media for them, so pretty much anything could be depicted through it. The gap between Western and Japanese treatment of such has lessened significantly, but it still remains, to a degree. That means that there will be something out there which caters to some… well, some rather sick markets of fantasies. However, that is hardly the fault of the form of media, nor of the people who generally use it to create or access less disturbing material.

    Some creep abducts, rapes, and murders children, and violates their corpses? Yeah, I am not surprised that such a one owns pieces of media which depict sickening things. But to blame the form of that media is like blaming a lighter for fire, or blaming a spoon for someone getting fat.

    Anyway, that’s just my two cents. Loved reading yours, very well done!

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    1. Yes, there’s certainly a very big deal made in Japan about maintaining the status quo, not making any waves, remaining ‘in harmony’ with those around you, etc. etc. When I was living in Japan, I was always pretty careful not to label myself as an otaku for this reason, even though I would have happily used the phrase among my non-Japanese friends. It’s just not something you can say loud and proud without likely garnering some kind of surprised and/or negative reaction, so I always just said stuff like “I’m a fan of this” or “I enjoy watching that” instead (and then only naming anime that absolutely everyone knew, such as Ghibli movies).

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  2. I read Idoru when it came out, and then I pretty much forgot about it. I didn’t have any context back then; even the word “anime” was still fairly new. For a long time, they were just “Japanese Cartoons” for me. A few years back, I suddenly made the connection between “Idoru” and “Idol” in the proper context. Look Mr. Gibson, it’s either Aidoru or Idol; blending the two is confusing.

    Also, around here (Austria, so basically the German market), there are anime magazines and otaku magazines. Now I love anime and watch a lot of it, but if I were to call myself an otaku others might think I’m also into cosplay, J-pop, fashion, food… and I’m not. It’s not a pratical term for me, since I’ll either have to explain the term, or risk rowing back too much (depending on who I’m talking to). Basically, anime magazines are strictly about anime, manga and games. Otaku magazines are about… a life style, a subculture? I’m unsure. I’m buying them on occasion for longer train journeys, and then I usually leave them on the train (not so much now, during the pandemic) in case anyone’s bored.

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    1. That’s true, the word ‘otaku’ can be quite confusing in that to some people, it means to have a very narrow and specific focus (be it anime, manga, video games, figurines, cosplay whatever), whereas to others, it implies that someone is into most or all those things, which simply isn’t the case for many.

      Fyi, if I still took trains and the pandemic wasn’t a thing, I would totally pick up a stray anime magazine someone had left behind to read through on my journey. 🙂

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