There I am at J-World, the new mini-anime theme park at the Sunshine City building in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. I like anime and manga, I’m staying in Ikebukuro for a month, I’m a 3 minute walk away from Sunshine city, and I see a sign for it every time I walk towards the train station. So I buy a ticket for 1300 Yen which includes an exciting free drink pass.
I was thinking of reviewing J-World, that just opened in July 2013, but as I was walking around the empty floor with staff dressed as various anime characters, probably wondering when they will lose their 900 yen/hour jobs, I was extremely unimpressed. There were expensive ride-experiences (like shooting a fake kamehameha for 800 yen), photo pose spots, and lots and lots of merchandising. But overall, lackluster.
I like anime? Why was this all so boring? To take a moment to reflect, I used my free drink pass at the cafeteria which had some strange anime themed foods, and sat down to type a JALUP article (that’s what I do in public places). I overheard a conversation near me discussing Otaku. And I got stuck on a simple thought.
Are people who simply like anime and manga considered Otaku? Is there a single meaning of Otaku? What the hell is Otaku?
For those smart word-wizards out there, you probably want to add in that お宅 (spelled like this), originally was a polite way of referring to someone, their home, family, husband, or company. But that’s not what we are here for. We are here for the often misunderstood word.
The English-Use of Otaku
The word “Otaku” has now been used in the West for a number of years. As with all borrowed words, they sometimes take on a slightly different meaning when they move between languages.
English Wikipedia defines Otaku as:
“Someone who has a hobby that they spend more time, money, and effort on than normal people do. They know a lot about their hobby and things related to it; for example, an anime otaku might spend a lot of time watching anime, buy a lot of DVDs and other products, learn about the people who create anime (such as the people who draw it, or the people who make the voices of the characters), or create something (like music or drawings) about anime.”
It is often used to refer to fans specifically of anime and manga and is directly translated as nerd, geek, mania, obsession, fan, etc.
The Japanese-Use of the word Otaku
The Wiki article in Japanese covering the word is much more in depth at 5+ pages.
The term originated in the 1970s as a way of referring to a subculture fan (specifically anime and science fiction fans, which at the time were considered subculture). In the 1990s, some of it’s negative connotations disappeared, and it referred to someone who was very into a specific hobby. Now it covers fans of anything, and is often referred to someone who is very engaged in something, possibly to the level of obsession. It is often connected with Akihabara and “Moe” culture.
How about a Japanese dictionary:
Originally used in the mid-80s by friends with each other to refer to someone who was very informed about a specific subject. Eventually used as a light derogatory term to show someone who lacked common sense and social skills.
But really, there is no set standard for the word.
You can argue about the real meaning all you want, but there is no agreement, no consensus on what the word actually really is. It’s a subjective word. Depending on who says it to who, where, and in what context, the meaning changes. The feeling changes.
The word Otaku looks like it could easily be compared to “fan,” “expert,” “mania” or even “scholar.” What shows the distinction is what the person is specifically involved in. These words are used for what society considers more important and valuable hobbies, with the reasoning behind those hobbies understood.
Japanese Wiki provides examples of a stamp collector or scholar who is a dinosaur researcher as being socially acceptable, and thus a positive image attached. What comes to mind is Indy from Indiana Jones or Dr. Alan Grant from Jurassic Park.
For hobbies that are out of the norm, Otaku is used instead. So Doc Brown from Back to the future had an unhealthy obsession with time travel, so he wouldn’t be considered a scholar.
Does this make sense? I don’t agree with this, because social norms are constantly changing. When I was growing up, kids who played video games were looked down upon. Now they are not. What is a normal hobby? What is doing something more than a normal person does? Why is this bad? I mean, stamp collecting? Strange choice for a “normal” hobby in 2013.
Otaku can be considered a subculture of it’s own
Otaku is often thought of as being very engaged in a subculture. But at the same time it is also considered its own subculture. Which is why you can say someone looks like an Otaku or speaks like an Otaku.
Are you an Otaku?
Some people like being called an Otaku. Some people don’t. Some people don’t know why they are called an Otaku, or whether they should be. Some throw the word around lightly. Others avoid it.
Ask yourself this: do you like anime, manga, or video games?
Does this make you an Otaku?
Often, when Japanese hear that a foreigner likes any of these three, they think Otaku, and may even use the word jokingly to them (I believe without the negative implications).
How do you react if you were called an Otaku by someone Japanese?
I get confused when Japanese people joke around with the word Otaku when they find out I like anime/manga. If this were the prerequisite of being an Otaku, a large percentage of Japan would be Otaku.
Am I an anime/manga fan? Yes, I like watching anime and reading manga. But Otaku? To me the word has too much baggage and over broad nature. If you are using the same word to describe me (who likes watching anime) and Takeshi (who has hundreds of dvds, anime figurines, cosplay costumes, and often frequents maid cafes/conventions), there is a huge gap.
What do you all think of the word Otaku? Do you consider yourself to be an Otaku? Have you ever been called it? Have you used it on other people? How do you perceive it? Does it bother you?
Further reading on the subject:
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.