The Politics of Otaku
(aka, “There’s nothing wrong with being an otaku!”)
By: Lawrence Eng (09/01/01)
This is a general commentary on the usage and meanings of “otaku” in Japan and internationally.
The word “otaku” became well known to American anime fans after the release of Otaku no Video (1992). I don’t know if there were many American fans calling themselves otaku prior to 1992, but certainly Japanese fans were calling each other otaku before then. Perhaps we should discuss the history of how and why…
The word itself
We should first note the etymology of “otaku” (courtesy of Volker Grassmuck in his seminal otaku-studies article “I’m alone, but not lonely”: Japanese Otaku-Kids colonize the Realm of Information and Media, A Tale of Sex and Crime from a faraway Place). Literally and originally, it means “your house”*, and more generally it is also a very polite (distancing and non-imposing as opposed to familiar) way of saying “you”. Perhaps the closest English equivalent would be my calling you “Ma’am”. In Otaku no Video, Animeigo uses “thou” instead of “you” to translate “otaku”, indicating the term’s archaic formality. In everyday mainstream Japanese conversation, calling a person you know “otaku” would be viewed as strange or possibly sarcastic. It would be like me calling my friends “Ma’am” or “Sir”.
Early usage amongst fans in Japan
The history behind how anime fans became associated with the word “otaku” is a little bit unclear. Apparently, it was an early 80s phenomenon–note that Otaku no Video is “historically” situated between 1982 and 1985.
Volker Grassmuck gives us the story as far as we know:
“…in the days of old (about ten years ago in real-time) some people started to use this expression of detachement for colleagues and friends. There is no consensus as to the exact date and place of this historic event. The most recent past seems to be the most uncertain, and it is handed down to us only in the form of rumors. It would take a historian of everyday life to unearth what happened yesterday. Some informants convey that it was in the advertising world, others say it was in the circles of animation-picture collectors: “please, show me your (otaku) collection.” The most trustworthy rumor has it that it first came up among people working in TV and video animation companies. From there it spread to the viewers of animes and the closely related worlds of manga (comic-books) and computer games.”
The basic idea is that the word is used to explicitly indicate detachedness from who you are speaking to. For example, a dedicated and experienced collector of cels will have a vast network of connections to aid in his or her search for rare cels. Many of these contacts will only be peripheral acquaintances (as opposed to members of one’s in-group). The relationships are business-like and not at all intimate. Although it’s still a bit strange, it makes a little more sense for someone in this type of social setting to call his or her acquaintances “otaku”. Idiosyncratically, perhaps, it also became common within the fandom community to call anyone who was a die hard fan/enthusiast/expert of something (not just anime, but anything) an otaku–not dissimilar to the popular American usage of the term.
Into the mainstream
In 1983, the first published report appeared on the usage of “otaku” amongst fans. Akio Nakamori wrote a series of articles called “Otaku no Kenkyu” (Studies of Otaku) in Manga Burikko. He called those hard core fans who called each other “otaku” the “otaku-zoku” (“zoku” meaning tribe). His was perhaps the first article stereotyping otaku as being anti-social, unkempt, and unpopular. I’ve heard that the column was short-lived, and it didn’t have a large impact on otaku culture (who pretty much ignored or was already used to such unfair stereotyping and discrimination).
The “otaku panic”, as described by Sharon Kinsella, didn’t really occur until after the infamous Tsutomu Miyazaki incident in 1989. Miyazaki (who was 26, and in no way to be confused with legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki) kidnapped and murdered 4 little girls. When he was arrested, the police found a huge collection of various anime and manga, some of it pornographic, in his apartment.
The media picked up on this and repeatedly referred to Miyazaki as an otaku, thereby exposing the term to the public at large. As such, “otaku” became associated with sociopaths like Miyazaki, and in the panic, many in the media tried to blame Miyazaki’s deviant behavior on anime and manga (which is not dissimilar to the American media blaming violent video games and movies for the tragedy at Columbine).
Not unlike American adult society, but perhaps taken to greater extremes, the Japanese adult society has long had anxieties about its youth culture becoming more individualistic and isolated and less interested in fulfilling mainstream social duty. The Miyazaki incident was both a cause for further anxiety and an outlet for the media to deal with preexisting anxiety via a scapegoat, perhaps, in the form of anime and manga subculture.
Otaku defined and redefined
Since the Miyazaki incident, the mainstream usage of “otaku” has been mostly derogatory with a strong hint of fear and loathing. I’ve always thought that this was unfair and something that needed fixing. Otaku-ism is not about being a slob with no friends any more than it’s about being a serial killer. Although some otaku might be slobs or even serial killers, that’s no justification for stereotyping all otaku as being like that. Very simply, they are not all like that. There are a lot of positive features that make up and define the otaku lifestyle, and those should be emphasized.
“What defines an otaku?” is a complicated question that resists quick and easy answers. Media sensationalism aside, “otaku” has gone from simply being what hardcore fans used to call each other to being a general concept of how individuals use information for their own ends. William Gibson calls otaku “passionate obsessive(s)”. Volker Grassmuck describes them as “information fetishists”. Personally, I prefer my own definition: “self-defined cyborgs”. In the most basic sense, an otaku is someone who is highly dedicated to something and uses information from anywhere and everywhere to further his or her understanding of that thing for fun and maybe even profit. In a world where deep intellectual curiosity is considered strange and usually unprofitable, the otaku lifestyle has a lot to offer that is different. To promote negative stereotypes of otaku (or any group) amounts to a subtle form of bigotry–so subtle, it might even be unintentional.
Considering how badly the term “otaku” has been co-opted by the media and the mainstream as a term of discrimination, one might think fans of anime and other media should give up the term altogether and use something else. It’s not so simple, unfortunately, since that won’t stop further stereotyping and discrimination against fans of anime and manga in the name of stopping those “scary otaku”.
Imagine how awful it would be to be a 25 year old fan of anime in Japan (which is not entirely considered normal) and being called “otaku” disdainfully and with the implication that you must be a sociopathtic freak just because you like anime. As long as the word “otaku” is negatively associated with anime fans, anime fans will be stigmatized by the public, so we have to show that “otaku” are not as bad as people have been lead to believe.
[Imagine if someone who was a "goth" committed a horrible crime. Wouldn't it be silly to consider all goths criminally inclined? An actual example of a term misused by the American media and made to have negative connotations when it didn't have any orginally: hacker]
Towards the Planet of the Otaku!
Luckily, otaku culture does have its champions, and not just in the United States (where fans are supposedly ignorant of what “otaku” means in Japan). One of the biggest proponents of otaku culture in Japan is Toshio Okada, affectionately known as the Otaking, who was the founder of Gainax. He left Gainax in the 90s to write books about otaku culture as well as lecture on the subject at Tokyo University (Japan’s number one school), thereby educating the next generation of Japan’s leaders on otaku-ism.
Gainax’s Otaku no Video, which came out several years after the Miyazaki incident, portrayed otaku (and therefore themselves) in a humourous and self-mocking way, but with a healthy dose of pride as well. Although the otaku portrayed might have been shown to be a little eccentric at times, they were also harmless–a far cry from the frightening image of the child-killing sociopath the Japanese media had presented just a few years before. Interestingly enough, Otaku no Video also apparently made it a point to show the diversity of those called “otaku”, demonstrating that otaku can’t be so easily stereotyped.
Due to such efforts to educate (and entertain) the public, the otaku lifestyle has achieved international fame, and perhaps more importantly, a little more acceptance domestically. I’ve heard reports from Japan that the term has become more neutral in its connotations. One article that makes me optimistic about the acceptance of otaku culture is one I recently saw on CNN Asia (Tokyo, Japan):
Otaku: Japan’s gadget geeks dictate tech future (http://asia.cnn.com/2001/BUSINESS/asia/07/12/tokyo.otaku/)
Otaku-ism may not be for everyone, but I think it has a lot of good to offer, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the bad reputation so commonly associated with it. Even if the word “otaku” is lost forever to those who would use it to denigrate others, the otaku spirit–a spirit of exploration, innovation, curiosity, dedication, and individualism–will live on.
*Due to this etymology, there has been largely unsupported speculation that “otaku” originally referred to people who never leave their home (ie. “homebodies”). As “otaku” is something fans used to address each other (especially prior to negative media coverage of otaku), the “homebody” usage amongst those early fans seems unlikely to me.